Monday, January 9, 2017

Fellow-Travelers On the Road [Part Two]


[Continued]

Watten: "Adams was an ideal photographer to represent the university's view of itself. As a world-renowned Modernist . . . he brought together in his work modern technology and sublime grandeur . . . . As anchor of this sublimity, the Campanile takes a prominent place in his iconography. The symbolic order it represents is distributed everywhere in Adams's system of representation; the archive reveals his repeated efforts to foreground and frame it as a controlling icon. This . . . in turn, offers a paradigm for Adams's construction of relations of equivalence between the elements of the discourse of the university, beginning with the literal construction of the campus . . . ." 

In the first place, Adams could not by any stretch of logic be described as a "Modernist." His work began in the tradition of, and continued to embody, throughout his career, the pictorial landscape values of the 19th Century. He never questioned the analytical or aesthetic implications of that program. Indeed, his first portfolio--Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras--includes so-called "soft focus" images which had been popular at the turn of the century. In his eyes, natural wonders--symbolic signposts of a secular pantheistic tapestry, designating parks as jewels in the crown--became the means to project the preservationist's agenda into the popular realm. Adams never questioned the basic claim of photography as the means of the presentation of actual reality. He rejected any manipulation or alteration of the image which did not enhance the original conception as seen with the naked eye. Adams is wholly pre-Modernist in his sensibility and in his work.    

Secondly, Sather Tower (aka: the Campanile), which was constructed in 1914, as a part of campus architect John Galen Howard's Beaux Arts Master Plan, was specifically and deliberately designed to occupy the central visual key to the university, visible from everywhere. Based on European models--the Venice tower comes immediately to mind--it stands as a monument to the aesthetic mode of the time of its conception, and as an image of the optimism and progressive spirit of American liberal education. To suggest that Adams sought--either consciously, or unconsciously--to emphasize it as an over-mastering iconic symbol of repression and a decadent corruption of the administration, is sheer nonsense. What fool would think that deliberately excluding images of the tower would somehow have been a more politically correct choice? And for that matter, the tower's original purpose wasn't as an icon of power. Anyone choosing to view it that way, particularly in hindsight, is engaging in an egregiously cheap form of gratuitous bias. 

But why not?

Turning his attention to the faculty portraits--"in each of these rigid and codified poses, the inventor himself (always male) is an empty, nearly anonymous cipher, while the given invention . . . offers a promise of fulfillment. . . . The transformative potential of the most sublime orders known to man is disclosed--as with the Berkeley research that participated in the development of nuclear weapons at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory . . . as seen in Adams' images of the first diminutive cyclotron . . . This sublime potential . . . a threat of total annihilation in the name of science and rationality . . . by means of logics of equivalence . . . throughout the system." 

All this analytical presumption seems beside the point. In choosing to include the university's scientific facilities as a pertinent sphere of its research mission, Adams was certainly not attempting to portray the administration's underlying power structure, as Watten states. It would be just as false for Adams to have pretended that scientific research wasn't important, by not portraying it at all, as it would have been to show a photo, for instance, of an atomic detonation. Documentary photography can swing both ways, depending upon your point of view. In any case, it wasn't Adams' mission to present a philosophical criticism of the university on its centennial, as Watten seems to demand.

Watten goes on to include the usual suspects--" . . . not only is gender rigidly ordered . . . Other outsides of the system include minorities, as scarce as quark particles in the cloud chamber of Adams' oeuvre . . . Asian Americans . . African Americans . . . and Hispanics . . . [and] Native American[s] . . . ." Again, given the context of the historical moment, it's hard to imagine what Adams ought to have done, in retrospect, given the obvious mandate of his commission. If, for instance, he had been queued to the motions of "diversity" so prevalent in our own time, he might, instead of taking a photograph of Department of English Chairman James Hart, have chosen to photograph Josephine Miles, another professor in the same department, whose wheelchair condition could, signally killing two birds with one stone, have qualified for both gender and disability as the politically correct "coded" references of which Watten could, fifty years later, approve. But then, Adams wasn't a photographer in the mold of W. Eugene Smith (Minamata) or Paul Strand or Dorothea Lange; he wasn't hired to portray the university in a critical light, a fact which Watten seems unable to grasp. 

"As a visual endorsement of Enlightenment rationality, it is doubly remarkable that this document was created, after the Free Speech Movement . . . Adams is hard pressed to account for the historical moment . . . It occurred during the 1966 Charter Day ceremony . . . [in which] a well-organized student group provided the students with picket signs [against the war in Vietnam] . . . " which are clearly evident in Adams' photos of the crowd. Ironically, Watten sees hypocrisy in the photo, which Adams included, as if the decision to include it, involved a compromised failure, and was evidence of the ambiguity of the project. But if Adams had chosen not to include it, then we would not even have had it to consider in the first place. Indeed, if Adams had chosen to exclude it, might that not have been evidence of the very corruption Watten insists the photo signifies in the first place? Finally, though the archive itself is exhaustive, no attempt is made in Watten's criticism to distinguish between the vast archive file, and the images that were actually published in the book. 

Watten's attempt to associate his undergraduate self--and later his associates in the Language School activities in subsequent decades--with the era of student dissent at Berkeley in the 1960's--is an amusing maneuver. Watten himself was never an active protestor, and in fact was a science major during that period. In a discussion we had during the 1970's, he was adamant in insisting that participation in political demonstrations and activities was a futile and pointless choice. During the 1960's, I had had friends in the student radical movement. When I went to work for the U.S. Government, I discovered that the FBI had developed a fat file on my movements and activities during the 1960's. When I reported this to Watten, he was angered and frightened, worried that his association with me might have compromised his own non-participatory, officially a-political stance. His first concern was for his own reputation, and his image. "You keep my name out of that shit!"  

There is nothing in the writing of the Language School participants to suggest that its "poetics" should be seen as a politically correct program. From Watten's point of view, it makes sense for him to regard himself, in retrospect, as an early messenger of Left political points of view. It's a way of polishing his legacy reputation, and that of his associates, to accord with current politically correct attitudes. Their poems are relatively free of political referents, primarily because they eschew the kind of timely dialectics which require clear stands, that fade and date with time--names and places and events that determine real outcomes. 

Watten can put down Ansel Adams--that's just shooting fish in a barrel--because it provides an historically convenient symbolic document for his argument. Indeed, I myself have put Adams down for aesthetic reasons, which have little or anything to do with his politics, which Watten deliberately ignores in favor of easy, and clearly unjustified character assassination. Fiat Lux is, on the whole, a quotidian archive almost completely denatured of political content, primarily because Adams himself wasn't a critic of the university, but it's also worth pointing out the context of the commission itself, which had nothing whatever to do with the student protest movement, or with Watten's preferred point of view, fifty years later. 

If Watten's goal is to privilege "transparent rationality" in institutions of higher learning, he might begin by engaging with current politically correct activities and attitudes on present-day American campuses, where freedom of thought and expression seem as much in jeopardy today, as at any time in the last century. In the 1930's, "fellow traveler" was a derogatory term used to criticize those who shared political beliefs with identified radicals. Today, there's a whole generation of American academics--of whom Watten is one--who flirt with socialism (in its various guises) but who never risk anything that might jeopardize their tenures and pensions. It's a kind of dishonesty that sees harmless (fake) association as a convenient cheap badge of honor. It's just chicken-shit behavior. 

But why not? 






Fellow-Travelers On the Road [Part One]


Why not.

Barrett Watten's new book Questions of Poetics. Language Writing and Consequences has just appeared from University of Iowa Press [Iowa City: 2016]. Its overall intention, by my reading, is to reaffirm and consolidate the legacy of the soi-disant "Language Poetry School" and its members, in an ongoing campaign for its literary valorization. 

In the course of this long-winded account, Watten takes on Ansel Adams' Fiat Lux: The University of California portfolio [New York: McGraw-Hill Books, 1967]--  





--a commercial project the famous photographer undertook near the end of his career. The project, which was begun just months after the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, provides Watten with a proximal contextual marker, seeing Adams, and the Fiat Lux project, as a conscious instrument (and symptom) of the monolithic power structure of the post-war American UC system, against which the subsequent resistant student protests, and later aesthetic movements (i.e., the Language Poetry movement) are posed. 

Watten has strayed a little outside his comfortable area of expertise. But why not? Adams is an easy target. 

As a serious large format photographer, I know a good deal more about the contexts and meaning of Adams' life and work than Watten does, and I find his analysis wanting in several respects. 

Since his death, Adams has been an easy target of photography's critics, and for obvious reasons. Originally, he had wanted to be a professional classical pianist, but gave this up in favor of photography in his twenties. His early associations were with Yosemite Valley, where he lived and worked for several years, which led directly to his involvement in the landscape preservation movement (Sierra Club). His aesthetic inspirations are all to be found in his appreciation of wildness, of nature's grandeur and persuasive beauty, and his fame rests primarily on his nature images, which portray natural wonders in an heroic style, unencumbered with abstract theory or problematic distractions. Unlike Stieglitz, or Strand, or Edward Weston--who sought deeper levels of revelation in their work--Adams saw photography primarily as a craft. Indeed, his researches into the chemistry and technology of image-making, which include the Zone System of light measurement (which he pioneered), enabled him to focus on the precision and clarity of imaging (see F64). Though his reputation in retrospect came be be seen as primarily preservationist and naturist, he took commercial work of all kinds in his career. Adams's politics were centered around the preservationist aesthetic, both as a key figure in the Sierra Club, and as a promoter of (photographic) visions of the unspoiled American West. Indeed, if anything, Adams' stance against conservative figures such as President Reagan, specifically on environmental issues, would place him well left of center on the political spectrum. Later critics have seen in Adams' "superficial" celebration of landscape values a hypocrisy about the ultimate realities of modern industrial exploitation of the ecosphere, as if he ought to have understood that the real work lay in exposing pollution and the ugliness of chaotic human development, a task which has fallen to later generations of serious photographers.

Though it is true that his images do not embody the ironies and problems of modern urban and suburban developments, of factories and clear-cuts and cesspools and smokestacks, no one worked harder for preservation values than Adams.    

But why not? Who cares if we bring Adams down another notch or two on the aesthetic scale?

Adams would have seen the University of California Fiat Lux commission as an opportunity to celebrate the optimistic spirit of public education and scientific research, not as the expression of a repressive, capitalistic, militaristic power structure. Adams would see buildings and trees and plazas in the same way he would see mountains and lakes and landscapes. What would you expect him to have done--use the commission to pillory the university system as the evil monolith of Yankee Imperialism?  

The Fiat Lux commission is described by the UC System's permanent art collections: "Besides his personal work as a nature photographer--his art--Ansel Adams took commercial assignments in order to support himself. Among these was a commission from the University of California to produce a book celebrating its centennial in 1968. The subject was the nine campuses that then comprised the UC system--and the book's title was UC's motto, Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light)." The full archive of images can be viewed online here. "The project also enlarges our sense of Adams' career by showing us not only the talent he had for genres other than nature photography, such as portraiture, but also the ways in which he adapted his landscape aesthetic to the subject of the UC's campuses and agricultural stations."   

Watten: "These photographs provide a record of the university's image of itself as it was before the cultural changes begun by the FSM ['Free Speech Movement'] , and as such they stand as a record of what the student movement saw itself as opposing, even as it assumed many of its values. They give, as well, accurate evidence of the historical constructedness of purported universals: the sedimentary thickness of all claims to the transparency of knowledge represented by the university." As evidence for this "sedimentary thickness" Watten emphasizes Adams' foregrounding of the Campanile as the towering symbolic representation of the oppressive atmosphere of the university administration and the opaque "universal knowledge" it purports to represent. Hedging his bet ("even as it [the student movement(s)] assumed many of its [the University's] values"), there is a pertinent irony in the meaning of those very values. So why not? Can't we have it both ways?  

End Part I

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Correct Grammar Matters


RESOLVED IN 2017

Not to use any of the following conversational phrases or  constructions in speech:


. . . any time soon . . .

meaningless phrase that signifies no duration whatever

. . . in regards to . . .

wrong usage - should be regard  

That said . . . 

pointless overused transitional phrase which has virtually no meaning

. . . which I said that . . .

improper use of the relative pronoun 

. . . too big (of) a . . . 

unnecessary preposition

. . . be it . . . 

crude misuse of the participle  

I feel (like) . . . 

you don't feel like, you feel that

**********************************

Want to be stupid? Ungrammatical? 

No?

Then pay attention to what you say. Bad language is like a virus, which spreads as fast as the common cold, infecting each person who carelessly allows it to enter his/her speech. 

It takes some vigilance. You have to want to avoid bad habits. You have to believe in accuracy and clarity as goals of communication.

Good speech matters. 

You could look it up.  

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Trump's New Transparency - Politics in the Age of Trivial Spin






As a child of the 1950's (I was born in 1947, near the beginning of the baby boom), the predominant "social media" device was the telephone. People then would stay in touch by phoning, or writing letters, or perhaps sending telegrams (what an old conduit that now seems!) to each other. Early "walkie-talkies" or (later) CB radios enabled people to talk without land-line hookups, but those weren't things most people used, or had access to. In my generation, the telephone became a focus of interaction among teenagers, who weren't always allowed to meet or associate in person, so were relegated to connecting via the family 'phone. I was a somewhat atypical teenager, and didn't begin having phone conversations with friends until the last year of high school. Long, avid telephone conversations were something that girls mostly did, though they were the crucial conduit for boys who wanted to engage with, or seduce, specific members of the opposite sex. I was born without charm, and I had almost no appetite for small talk, so regarding the telephone as an essential, indispensable tool of my life never really occurred to me. When I finally did begin to communicate with other kids, it was usually to discuss ideas, not to compare notes about the social milieu. In that respect, as in other ways, I was a nonconformist, and I would then have rejected the idea that my curiosity, or my desire to be in contact with others of my own generation, was a priority. I rejected all notions of "teenage" behavior, because that would have been an admission that my significance as a person existed within a kind of limbo, neither excusable and "cute" as in childhood, nor burdened with the necessities and responsibilities of full adult-hood. Being dismissed as "teenaged" behavior meant that your actions, your ideas, your feelings, were somehow irrelevant--and that seemed entirely objectionable as a status. 

With the coming of the computer revolution, and the advent of the cell-phone era, we've entered successive plateaus of interactivity which have transformed our culture, especially the so-called "youth culture" (the old "teenage" culture). When I was an adolescent, boys and girls might be preoccupied with talking to each other on the phone, sometimes for hours at a time. This was regarded, at worst, as a kind of bad habit. How much trouble could you get into by talking on a telephone? It might be a waste of time, or an unjustified expense of a high(er) phone bill, but mostly it was a diversion from chores, homework, exercise, or just living in unconnected reality. 




 


Every generation regards technological progress with some degree of apprehension, even alarm. It's often a knee-jerk reaction to simple change, as if just preserving the status quo were an inherently desirable goal. When personal computers first hit the scene, I was dead-set against our buying one, since I suspected that our son would immediately become infected by the attraction of computer games--a fear that was eventually confirmed. In the end, though, I was the one who would in due course be most dependent upon the new gadget, while the younger generation were moving on from computers to hand-held and cell-phones. 

I was a late comer to blogging, coming in just at the tail end of "list-serve" and "chat-groups" period, but once I got a taste for it, I crashed the new party, posting and commenting with abandon. Clearly, kids talking on the phone the way they did in the 1950's isn't equivalent to people talking on their cell phones today. What is the difference, and what can we tell about that difference? 

Today, no matter where you go, or what you are doing, you are surrounded by people monkeying with their cell/hand-held computers. Whether it's business, or pleasure, or sheer bored diversion, people are constantly calling and receiving calls and browsing hyperspace.  

During the early days of blogging, much of the contact consisted of postings, brief essays, commentary, and e.mail. E.mail basically eliminated the need for most telephone exchanges, as well as snail-mail. Both cell phone use, and the new "social media" online sites, are both expansions of e.mail and telephonic exchange, as well as a new kind of group interactive forum. 

What I like about blogging is the freedom to write at length, to develop thought, to conduct real discussions with others. While blogging fed the desire for serious interaction, it may have seemed slow and lugubrious, especially to younger people. The makers of computer devices saw that the new horizon was portability and convenience, freeing people from their land-locked computer units, as well as the old land-line phones. They saw that exploiting the urge to conduct quick, low-density content messages could open up vistas of commerce--hence Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the now notorious online forums. 

This has had the effect of seducing people away from more demanding (and unlimited) media, namely blogging and e.mail, to progressively quicker and briefer levels of exchange. It's inconvenient to type more than a few words in a social media stream, especially since one can't address a keyboard with all your fingers in play. I've seen people who've mastered the "thumb" technique, and can type words almost as fast as I can on a traditional keyboard. Is touch typing a thing of the past? Will traditional QWERTY keyboards someday become obsolete? 

What's the next plateau of communication going to look like? We can now call people, send recorded messages, instant e.mails, and group posts on forums. Will the next generation begin to conduct communications with robots? 

My primary gripe against all this low content exchange is that it encourages people to think primarily in abbreviation, as if the only thoughts or opinions that mattered were those that could be summarized in 50 words or less. Our new President elect Donald Trump is a child of our age, who uses Twitter to make statements and comment on the affairs of the day. One senses a connection between the triviality of his grasp of current affairs, and the media limitations that have grown up around us. We've created a generation of people who think that all the world's problems and issues can be addressed peremptorily, with little research. Also, that understanding the meaning and significance of complex matters doesn't require careful, considered research and consideration; that we can form coherent thought and make progress solving involved disputes and difficult situations, simply by making momentary pronouncements. 

We're being told that the new President-elect is a new kind of politician, one who lunges and lurches from distraction to preoccupation, unpredictably and irrationally, blurting out sudden statements and "tweets" impulsively, without thinking before-hand what the consequences might be. 

We've come to think that social media--which allows people to cohere briefly around a certain point of view--has a political meaning and impact that far outweighs its actual meaningful content. Just because a high office-holder can issue a momentary verbal salvo into hyperspace, doesn't suggest that his views are any more informed or considered than anyone else's. 

It used to be that holders of high political office had superior access to information, that their offices were clearing-houses of data and exchange that enabled them to form policy and position the rest of us couldn't. In the case of Trump, it's as if he no longer thinks he needs to consider the background or history of a problem, that an impulsive reaction has as much legitimacy as decisions tempered by advice and research. It's not just that Trump seems unable to understand the world--he actually seems to think it doesn't matter, that action--even on the national and international level--can be conducted by amateurs, that power itself somehow legitimates bold, impulsive decision-making, uninformed by facts or information.  

This is an entirely new stage in the development of political life. It's as if democratic office-holders now feel they have the freedom once relegated to dictatorship--that of acting without ordinary curbs and checks, like a child moving little lead soldiers on a battlefield board-table. It's unsettling to think that our new President may feel he can decide to go to war one morning by simply announcing his decision on Twitter, leaving his beleaguered subordinates to "work out the details" by lunchtime. 

Most astonishing of all, it may be that people now accept that as a given means of action and communication, that American Presidents can conduct business in full view of the world, without prior restraints or inhibitions. A sort of wizard of tweet tinkering with the future of the planet as if it were a board game. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Bottoms Up - Classic of the Genre


Oh my, another cocktail blog. This is surely going to ruin my reputation as a serious blogger, since no one in his or her right mind would consider drinking alcoholic beverages a sophisticated endeavor. 

It wasn't always so. Once upon a time, cocktails--and the opportunity to indulge in them--were considered something mostly confined to people who afford them. Access to a well-stocked bar isn't an universal privilege. Booze has always been expensive, and concocting different combinations (or mixes) requires a variety of goods and ingredients.   

And then there was the imputation of naughtiness, which alcohol has always had. 

Recently, in my travels as a book scout, I came across a copy of one of the classic texts, Ted Saucier's Bottoms Up, With Illustrations by Twelve of America's Most Distinguished Artists, Decorations by Russell Patterson, Cover Design by Al Dorne [New York: Greystone Press, 1951]. Visually, it feels very much like Esquire Magazine's look and style, with a few "tasteful" distaff illustrations of ladies in "compromising" poses, which I suspect were included not just for atmosphere, but to sell more copies of the book. Back in those days, there were few "legit" places men could see pictures of nudes, and any excuse to acquire them added to the interest of the product. The idea that drinking might improve your romantic opportunities has always been an adman's short-hand, and since its author, Ted Saucier, was in the public relations/advertising business, the connection fits. 

Saucier was identified with the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, which still survives today, and puts out its own proprietary bar book. He knew how to eat and drink, and he collected recipes from all over the place--many of them associated with celebrities and bon vivants--which are named for or linked to them. To judge from the reach and range of the batch he gathers here, you'd think he must have spent half his life bar-hopping around the world sampling signature drinks.      



It contains, as one would expect, a good number of the usual suspects, famous and reliable, which every bartender is expected to know from memory. The more complex the mixture, the more different ways there are to vary it, so for those who like to experiment and discover, a typical gin martini is pretty vanilla.  



Cocktail mixing books will give you the rudiments of how recipes are created, but once you're familiar, they aren't really necessary. Any bartender worth his salt is going to experiment, and discover new combinations. That's what I do. I've probably tried over a thousand different combinations, guessing how one or another ingredient will taste when put with another.  


The best mixology books bring something else besides just recipes. They can give a different spin on the world their authors inhabit, or imagine. 


Thank goodness I don't live in a Muslim country, where drinking is officially forbidden!


Thank goodness for the sexual revolution, which freed my generation and those that followed, from some of the hang-ups that beset our elders. I can't quite figure out what's supposed to be happening in the illustration above. Is it an open-air circus performer in London? Up and down, back and forth, as those odd little figures in seats watch the traffic go by. Are they priests?

I tried one drink from the book, the "Bullfrog - Courtesy, Embassy Club, The Windsor, Montreal." 

Juice 1/2 lime
1 1/4 oz. Canadian rye
3/4 oz. apricot brandy

--shaken and served up with a cherry as garnish.

Very nice. 

The Windsor Hotel was quite an establishment in its day. Opening in 1878, it survived until 1981.  Pictures of the place in its heyday are below. I couldn't find any of the bar, but I'll bet it was elegant. The world it represented is long-gone, never to return. But we can still sample the drinks they enjoyed there.  




Monday, December 5, 2016

The Tale of Dan De Lion - Part the Second


[This is the second part of a blog about Tom Disch's poem The Tale of Dan De Lion.]




Is this propaganda? You bet your life it is. Is it "saved" from being propaganda, framed as "innocent" clever rhymes? Not at all. 



We don't really need to be reminded that juvenile literature contains as much violence, jeopardy, sadness, hatred and remorse as grown-up literature, do we? Most juvenile literature falls flat (and there's mountains and mountains of the stuff) because it fails to engage with and confront life's fiercest challenges and difficulties and contradictions. When it becomes an escape from reality--a "magic world" into which the self retreats--instead of returning us to the truths of actual life, it becomes ultimately irrelevant. 


The personification of good and evil, expressed in horticultural terms, becomes a short-hand for a larger point about nature versus civilization, environmental husbandry and ethics.  


Dan's descent into the symbolic underworld "where death gets all confused with birth," takes us into the philosophical arena, where important questions about mortality, rejuvenation, and endurance are worked out. 


In the poem's cosmology, earth becomes a source of refuge, renewal and life. 


Is Butterworth the evil witch she seems to be in this story? Should we regard her merely as a sophisticated hybrid of the kind who clubs up in ladies' and garden groups, striving to out-flower each other with superior specimens?


So if it's revolution you want, then cheer for the upstart weeds, whose determination and pluck have overcome attempts to wipe them out!


Even Thwaite, the slave to Belinda's selfish aims, deserts her. 


And so endeth the lesson. 

Copyright page

Tom Disch [older]

The Tale of Dan De Lion - Part the First


Tom Disch [1940-2008] was a gifted poet, critic and science fiction writer. In a fit of depression, he shot himself in the head. 68 isn't young, but you'd have to believe he could have gone on to write more novels and poems if he'd lived longer. For a complete account, visit his Wiki page here. He began as a poet, but his sci-fi novels were his his most popular work. Disch didn't write the kind of poetry that I find satisfying, but he was clever and could make delightful metaphors and narratives. 





Though I've never been a big fan of juvenile literature, occasionally I can be diverted by a book that seems to transcend the gulf we ordinarily associate with the separation between childhood and adulthood. Disch's book The Tale of Dan De Lion is one such.  

Typically, I'm not a big fan of "cute" when it comes to poetry, but I've read a fair amount of light verse in my time. Specialists--like Ogden Nash or Phyllis McGinley--manage to sound witty while they're being inventive. Light verse is one of the mainstays of juvenile literature--a fact that sometimes dismays me, since I believe that it prejudices young minds towards the frivolous aspect of poetry, and forever taints their understanding and appreciation of more serious work. (The other side of that coin is so-called religious poetry, a steady diet of which tends to inculcate readers with the idea that poetry is nothing more than a vehicle for devout thinking.)    

What's the excuse for light verse, aside from ease of apprehension, and the mild, negligent attitude towards existence it implies? Poems as jokes, poems as innocent fun--poems as a kind of parlor-game of rhyme and rhythm, no more edifying than square-dancing, cartoons, pantomime quizzes, or cross-word puzzles. 

But occasionally, someone comes up with a valid pretext for a nonchalant indulgence in silly verse. 

Traditionally, juvenile or light verse works well in tetrameter, or lines with a four-beat measure. Think of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"--


‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
   Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
   And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son 
   The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun 
   The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand; 
   Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree, 
   And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood, 
   The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, 
   And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through 
   The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head 
   He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? 
   Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” 
   He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
   Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves, 
   And the mome raths outgrabe. 

(Which is not to say, of course, that serious poems can't written in this measure.)





The Tale of Dan De Lion was published by Coffee House Press in 1986. Coffee House Press was started in Minneapolis, by my old (late) friend Allan Kornblum, after he closed down his letterpress operation Toothpaste Press outside of Iowa City. When I knew Allan, we both lived in Iowa City--during the early 1970's. Allan had a good eye for charming alternative literature, though I wouldn't have known it then. 



The Tale of Dan De Lion is the sort of contrary dystopian fable that appeals to smart children, and may be as attractive and intriguing to adults as well. 

I've reproduced the whole book here, rather than just refer to it obliquely. It's out of print now, so I doubt that anyone will be offended by my appropriation. 


Dan De Lion is a subversive little story about the competition between wild and domesticated plants--in this case between dandelions and domestic cultivated roses.  


The story imagines the garden as a scene of conflict, in which the natural flora, ignored and despised by sophisticated (and well-heeled) gardeners, compete for space and air and water and nutrients, with the pampered flowers of Miss Belinda Butterworth.   


Dan De Lion is a weed, a despised outlaw and invader of the tended bed, an enemy of Butterworth and her prized rose plants. 


The obvious political and social implications of this relationship feel not in the least obtrusive, presented in these terms, with clever stylish cartoon illustrations. 

___________________________