Thursday, October 20, 2016

The End of the World

John Martin [1789-1854] was an English Romantic painter. Very popular in his day, he specialized in apocalyptic scenes such as these (below), which showed an Old Testament feeling about mankind, God, the universe, and the vicissitudes of existence. 

Most of Martin's big turbulent canvases I've looked at feature a familiar theme--a great fiery cauldron into which earth and mankind are either being swallowed up or threatened with impending incineration. This is represented either as "God's wrath" or the work of a pitiless infernal influence, the inevitable consequence of humanity's sinfulness--visions of mass destruction and the end of the world. 

The 19th Century was dominated by what are now described as "Scriptural Geologists"--scientists or theorists who tried to reconcile the universal concepts of Christianity with the new science of geology. They hadn't yet begun to understand vulcanism and plate tectonics, so they were basically free to imagine that the devastating eruption from Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD was a phenomenon generated by a supreme deity. Pompeii was guilty of decadent and conspicuous indulgence, and ripe for punishment. 

Religion has often used fear and loathing to scare its adherents into obedience and conformity. And the Victorian Era trembled under the apprehension of an angry deity.       

In Martin's colorful vision The Great Day of His Wrath, we see humanity and cities and whole sections of the earth's crust blasted up and tilting into the crucible of melting matter. 

We now know that vulcanism is a clear expression of the instability of the planet, where molten elements periodically leak upward through the earth's crust, through cracks in the seams of the huge tectonic plates, which migrate slowly, in geologic time, round the unstable surface. We know these eruptions occur naturally, through the process of continuous formation and deformation of the hot matter beneath. But Victorians--who had no real understanding of larger geological forces, or of the vast spectrum of time involved-- were free to speculate about imaginary causes and meanings.

The popularity of Martin's holocaust-like pictures is a testament to the fascination people had with frightening nightmares of their own jeopardy. It was fun to look at pictures like this. Today, people still have intense curiosity about large, terrifying events, such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornados, though we no longer see them as manifestations of destiny or the will of the gods. There's no one to blame for these things, so we have to treat them for the periodic and inevitable occurrences they really are.       

John Martin The Great Day of His Wrath 1851-3
(To see these images better, drag them onto your desktop, and expand them onto the screen.)

The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum [1822]

John Martin [1839]

Today, however, we've come to the realization that our affect on the earth's weather has become nearly catastrophic. As global warming progresses, the seas rise, and drought covers vast areas of the land masses of continents and islands, we'll be faced with the consequences of our own mischief in offending the chemical balances of the atmosphere, resulting in catastrophic changes in weather, the seas, and the ice-caps. As if garden-variety pollution hadn't done enough damage, now we're looking at a compromised planet, much less hospitable to all life, than we had come to imagine it just a century or so ago.

In a very real sense, the moral imprecations of the 19th Century are being revisited upon humanity today, though we have only ourselves to blame, not an angry god. It isn't, after all, our profane indulgence in sex or crime or persecution which is the fault, but our presumptions and negligence about the natural world at large. The earth, which once seemed so large and unconquerable and inexhaustible in extent and largesse, we now know is vulnerable in its fragility and finite limit(s). We've offended Mother Nature, and she's unlikely to take the offense lightly. 

Written not long after the end of World War I, Archibald MacLeish's famous poem The End of the World presents a piquant, ironic and surreal take on the fatalistic crisis of consciousness familiar to poets and novelists of the time (1920's).      

           The End of the World

Quite unexpectedly, as Vasserot
The armless ambidextrian was lighting
A match between his great and second toe,
And Ralph the lion was engaged in biting
The neck of Madame Sossman while the drum
Pointed, and Teeny was about to cough
In waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb
Quite unexpectedly to top blew off:

And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all. 

Just in case you were wondering, Vasserot is probably a made-up name, though Ferdinand Vasserot was a French bicyclist who competed in the 1900 Summer Olympics. The poem seems to describe a circus, inside a big circus tent, in which various figures are performing feats and tricks. Vasserot the armless ambidextrian, Ralph the Lion, Madame Sossman, Teeny, Jocko are figures in a madcap troupe and the "thousands of white faces" are the audience. Quite unexpectedly, the top of the tent blows off--something that might actually happen--revealing the big dark night sky overhead. The "vast wings" might be less literal. The "sudden blackness" might be said to represent the "nothingness" of the universe, or the meaninglessness of existence, the larger context of infinite space, beyond mankind's imaginative powers. 

MacLeish responds to the new cynicism of the Lost Generation with a half-serious comic salvo. Though he is usually included with Eliot and Pound among the high modernists, his career took him away from aesthetic disengagement. He had a career in law, which he gave up to write. Returning to America,  he worked as a journalist for Fortune magazine. Later, he served as the first de-facto American poet laureate (called then the Head Librarian of Congress), and still later inside the precursor of the CIA during WWII. He also became a successful playwright. 

MacLeish presents the case of a figure torn between tendencies. Sympathetic to Communism during the 1930's, he worked as a propagandist during the Second WW to promote the cause of victory. Stylistically, he's now regarded as an imitator--particularly of Eliot--and his poetry has not stood the test of time. He may have thought of himself as an innovator, but that seems less and less so today. 

His poem is notable for its fragmented phrases, and the sense of coy surprise, but the repetitions seem more hackneyed ("there, there overhead, there, there" "blackness . . . the black pall" "nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all") than inspired. It's almost like nursery rhyme. It's a novelty, which perhaps suits the clever cunning of its method. Read for the first time, it leaves an indelible impression, which palls with each successive reading. This is a quality which he shares with E.E. Cummings, of a specious playful inventiveness that is short on conviction. It usually comes off as gesture. 

The poem is sufficient unto itself, and demands nothing more of us but mild amusement, though it purports to carry a much larger message. In the context of his whole work, it often happens that an inferior poem or composition comes to occupy a much larger place than it deserves, and overshadows more ambitious and laudable efforts. Novelty pieces like this can actually hurt a writer's reputation.           

Archibald MacLeish [1892-1982]

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Prow of the Viking

Who knows whether one of my distant ancestors, originating in Norway, ever sailed in one of these boats--to England, Greenland, Russia, or perhaps even the Northeast corner of the North American continent in the days before Columbus? Who knows whether they drank some kind of home-brew? Akvavit or aquavit has been produced there since the 15th Century, but I'd bet they were tossing back something equally strong long before that. One of the marks of civilization is the invention of alcoholic beverages, which are believed to have existed as early as six thousand years ago.  Various fermented mixes of grape, grain, herbs and honey have been consumed in various parts of the world for a very long time. 

This concoction, which features aquavit, reminds me a little of the North Sea, bracing with sea air and a slight chill, though this may just be my vagrant imagination at work. By itself, aquavit may have a slightly sour/nutty taste, which is moderated by the gin, in this case a specific kind, produced locally by the St. George firm--a bit dryer, and spicier than usual. Lime juice tightens it up further, and the odd combination of violet flower, peach and cherry may resemble the kind of flavor combination favored by some of the ancients. Since they couldn't have had a way of measuring the alcoholic content, except by judging its effects on their bodies, approximating its actual strength wouldn't have been possible. For my purposes, weighing and measuring the flavor factors is much easier than it would have been for them.  


2 parts St. George "Terroir" gin
2 part aquavit
1 part fresh lime juice
1/2 part peach liqueur
1/2 part creme de violette
1/2 part maraschino liqueur

This combination makes two cocktails, shaken and served up in frosted glasses. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Giants went 57-33 before the All Star break. They've gone 23-39 since. 

It's consternating to realize that if they'd only managed to play .500 ball, or 31-31 in the 62 games since the break, they'd be two games ahead of the Dodgers today, at 88-69. Instead, they're six games back at 80-72, with 10 games to play. They don't have a prayer of catching the Dodgers.

How did this happen? Were the injuries to Hunter Pence, Matt Duffy, Joe Panik, Sergio Romo, Matt Cain and Gregor Blanco the reason? Actually, no. Statistically, they played better without these key figures, than they have WITH them! 

Was it the pitching that fell apart? Or was it their anemic hitting? Can a team that hits fewer than 140 home runs, and drives in fewer than 675 runs, win a pennant? This year, the Cubs, who have run away with their division (they're currently 97-55), have 189 homers and 718 RBI's, and could finish with over 200 homers and 760 runs by the end of the year. 

The Giants' strategy of fielding good pitching and weak hitting offenses may have caught up with them this year. 

The team has shown problems in all key areas. Relief pitching, power hitting, situational defense, even managing. Bochy's notion of showing faith in players who are underperforming, or in long slumps, has backfired repeatedly. 

Trading Duffy for Moore was probably not a bad idea, though Moore is not a top-flight starter, despite his one near no-hitter in Los Angeles on August 26th, and he might end up elsewhere in 2017. 

Casilla's days as the closer here are almost certainly numbered. With nine blown saves--enough to sink any contending team's chances--he's thoroughly demoralized a team desperately in need of relief support in close games. 

For my money, the season's over. Even if the Giants were to qualify as a wild card, their chances of competing against the Cubs, or the Nationals, appear nil. 

It's been a wild ride this year. First half champions, second half dismal. Which is the real Giants? Has any single player reached his potential this year?

Maybe Johnny Cueto, who is 17-5, but may get only one more start this year. 

Otherwise, not a single player is having a "career year" or even close. The Giants don't have a single player this year who could qualify as a true star. Posey and Crawford and Cueto are having good, not great seasons.  

Imagine what this would have looked like had Posey and Belt and Panik and Crawford and Pagan and Span and Nunez and Samardjiza and Casilla had really good years. We would likely have run away with the prizes, even without decent power. 

For next season, some things will change. Pagan and Nunez are probably gone. Ditto with Cain, Peavy. Casilla too. Panik and Hunter Strickland don't look secure. 

We'll still have a solid starting rotation. But we need a reliable closer, someone who can come in and shut the door for one inning. Someone who can get 40 saves, with an ERA of 2.20 or less, who relishes the challenge.

Bye-bye 2016. The even-numbered year wasn't a charm this time around.

Wait until next year. 

You heard it here.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Still More Variations from the Stainless Steel Counter

In the constantly shifting round-robin of ingredients, inevitably there will be some duplication. How many permutations are possible today, given the number of different kinds of spirits, liqueuers, flavored additives, etc., which one can find on the market? 

Lately, there's been an explosion of taste enhancers, known traditionally as "bitters"--which is to say, a combination of alcoholic base, to which is added (mostly natural) flavor agents, such as various herbs and spices. Just a few years ago, about the only kinds of these products one could find were Angostura Bitters, Peychaud Bitters, and the occasional Orange Bitters. Today, there are dozens of different mixes and brands. Some of these flavors can be created using easily available spirits or "aperitifs" while others can be quite exotic. The bitters craze is partly a renewed interest in the past, when such additives were more common; but it also may be a harbinger of a new more baroque epoch in alcoholic beverages. Variety is the spice of . . . or variety is spice itself. Flavor variation. Subtlety of expression. Difference. Diversity!

Recreations of traditional recipes share billing with new concoctions by bartenders trying to generate curiosity and sales, or by retailers looking to expand their product base. This is all good, assuming you don't object to alcoholic beverages on principle. I didn't become interested in cocktails until I was well into my fifties, but I wouldn't want it thought that I was encouraging young guys in their twenties to start drinking hard early in life. Consumption of alcoholic beverages isn't an art, or a profession, but designing them can be a diverting pastime. I've never thought I wanted to be a bartender, but I respect those who take up the profession seriously, and do their best to provide decent product, unadulterated and genuine. 

In any case, here are three new concoctions from the stainless steel counter, not filched from any book or online source, invented out of my own wayward imagination. Cheers!  

Key Lime Liqueur is a specialty which I suspect few mixologists use, given its particular cream base, which tends to overshadow other ingredients. Nevertheless, I find it very cooperative in conjunction with allied flavors, such as the St. Germaine (with its elderflower base). 

4 parts gin
1 part Key Lime Liqueur
1 part fresh lime juice
3/4 part St. Germaine liqueur
(shaken with served up)

This one is a take on the aquavit-apple constellation of flavor, and it seems to work very well. The fernet branca (or amaro) is counter-intuitive, as flavors can sometimes be. 

3 parts aged aquavit
2 parts apple liqueur
1/3 part fernet branca
1/3 part simple syrup
1 part sweet lime
(shaken and served up)

Here too the kirsch and St. Germaine are not familiar companions in mixed drinks I've seen, but they seem happily conversant. 

2 parts terroir St. George gin
2 part Italian dry vermouth
1 part kirsch
1/2 part St. Germaine liqueur
maraschino cherry
(shaken and served up)

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Massey's Second Collection

William Carlos Williams famously declared "no ideas but in things"--by which he meant that poetry should be constructed out of references to actual objects, events, people. This was a reaction to the cloud of abstractions which poets often employed to make traditional verse. Williams believed that the material world constituted truth, a foundation upon which to make a literature of relevance to life as it is really lived. 

Of course, Williams didn't always follow his own dictum. Most of his poems--even those most "material" in their substance--are in fact a means to achieving a certain abstraction--a feeling, or a conviction, or a thought. Things as things is only a beginning, not an end in itself.

George Starbuck, who headed the University of Iowa's Poetry Workshop when I attended it in the early 1970's, sarcastically reframed the Williams motto as "no ideas but the in thing." Starbuck was officially a poet opposed to Williams's American Language program, free verse, humble themes and down home subject matter. But he acknowledged the value of material data, and incorporated it in his own highly structured poems. 

Williams wasn't alone in advocating a foundation of real things in literature. Leftist thought places emphasis upon the importance of acknowledging real conditions, the "material reality" of existence, "scientific" knowledge, empirical verifications, etc. The Objectivists, of whom Williams was a card-carrying member, believed, as Zukofsky summarized, in "sincerity and objectification" in poetry. Which is to say, that objectified reality, perceived honestly, portrayed accurately, employed with a commitment to truth (sincerity), was the goal. The Objectivist message was shoved aside by the Second World War, and the McCarthy Era's paranoia. But it resurfaced in the 1960's, and has had its share of adherents over the decades. 

One of its most avid followers is the young poet Joseph Massey, about whom I wrote previously here in Minimalism Part VII - Joseph Massey & the Collateral Tradition, on August 25th, 2010. The irony for me is that I endorse Zukofsky's dictum, and have tried to follow it myself in the poetry I've written over the last quarter century. I fully accept the notion that you begin with facts, and things, and aspire to achieve a synthesis of objective reality and higher purpose, instead of beginning with ideas and looking for evidence to support them. 

A poetry which relies on observation and description risks becoming mired in the physical detritus, in the same way a religious poet, say, becomes tangled up in the conundra of divinity. I've always preferred to read about the imaginative qualities of actual things, which confirm, to a lesser or greater degree, my own confidence and pleasure in appreciating the world of my senses. Any poetry which evokes the sights and sounds and tastes and scents and touch, effectively, will always seem more vivid and tactile and satisfying to me, than a poetry which doesn't. Which would suggest, on its face, that I would be drawn to the poetry of a poet, like Massey, whose poems live in that realm. 

Unfortunately, however, I'm put off by Massey's poems, for reasons that I'll try to make clear here, not because I bear Mr. Massey any enmity, but as an objective case to demonstrate what I think can go wrong with the Williams/Zukofsky injunction, when misapplied or misapprehended, or slavishly followed without care.  

Mr. Massey lives up on the Northwest Coast of California, south of Eureka. It's rainy, foggy country, the kind of place conducive to quiet meditation and morose moods. The first thing to note about him is that he spends a good deal of time, apparently, watching the weather, and idly studying piles of trash, beach detritus, weedy edges, birdshit, dogshit, garbage, litter, rubble, driftwood, rust, dirt, etc. Certainly, you can't complain about a poet's choice of subject matter, since the challenge in making art is in turning this kind of stuff into meaning. Cormac McCarthy wrote a whole novel, Suttree, about the intricate life of a river-bum, enmeshed in the squalor and degradation of every kind of filth imaginable. Suttree is a wonderful book, and by the end of it (if you make it that far), you know you've been in the hands of a master. So if a poet like Massey chooses to think about junk and garbage, that's his privilege as an artist. The first question to raise in that case is: Are we raised above the level of a curious five-year old who wanders through the waste, enchanted by the exotic items, the casual variety of cast-off materials? 

As a boy, I spent most of my time focused on the ground in front of me. I was fascinated by rocks, and all the things people and animals leave on the ground. Money, keys, small toys, keepsakes, rabbit feet, seeds, bits of glass and fibre and paper and metal. I probably was some kind of archeologist of the mundane as a child. But it wouldn't have occurred to me then, that a taxonomy or catalogue of my findings would ever constitute the stuff of artistic expression. Massey, for reasons that are not clear, seems to have determined to devote himself to the minute exploration of the deposits and rubble which he finds in his environment, and recording his thoughts and feelings through the registration. 

At the Point [Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2011; 91pp.] is Massey's second full collection of poems. It's fully consistent with his first [Areas of Fog, 2009], and confirms the preoccupations and tendencies of his debut volume. 


Cut grass, gasoline,
mound of rotted
weeds in a vacant lot

--the scent cast,
dense, with
each breeze--in

flustered shade.
What's in a day's
name: its slowly

summoned rhythms
looped through
the music-

less field--after-
noon's clamor:

cars, deflated
bass lines
at a red light,

an argument 
rattling the blue
aluminum trailer.   

This is typical of Massey's work. Narrow lines, brief stanzas. Line-breaks, dashes and hyphenations split the process of our reading up into segmented apprehensions, as if this were a method designed to delay and control the progression of discovery, as in an incremental revelation of content. I have trouble with poets who seem to believe that line-breaks and word-breaks are evidence of some kind of wit, or as if breaking up phrases and sentences somehow made more sense than simply writing it out as prose. And make no mistake, Massey is no syntactic experimenter; his poems use regular grammar and punctuation, there are no made-up words, and abstraction is held at bay with a determined focus on image and immediate object. These images and objects are linked, but usually with a verbal violence that is many times more intense than the occasion might demand. My assumption is that Massey thinks that this intensifies the effect of the emotion, and makes a stronger poem. Constructions--such as "flustered shade" or "huddled cars" or "rattled . . . trailer"--would suggest that the poet wants us to read more into inert matter than is there, and that his doing this increases our appreciation of his ingenious sensibility. 

The Process

outside sounds
double the day's

indoor confusion.
How to untwine
noise, to see.

There's the bay,
highway slashed
beneath; water

a weaker shade
of gray than this
momentary sky's

widening bruise.
The page turns
on the table, bare

despite all
I thought was
written there.

I have a number of problems with poetry like this. First, I have trouble reading it as plain sense. What does "cross-stitched outside sounds" actually mean, and how do these sounds "double the day's . . . confusion"? There's a straining after effect with the highway "slashed." A landscape might be "slashed" to make way for a road, or the sound of traffic on a freeway might sound like "flash" or "shushing"; but "slashed beneath" is not only literally inaccurate, it's a pretentious attempt at dramatic description, which doesn't convince. Or, the "sky's widening bruise" which I suspect is an attempt to describe an overcast color or occluding cloud front. But bruises are usually pink, or red, or brown, only occasionally grey or dull blue, which I suspect is the tint being evoked. The conclusion is a weak attempt at irony. If the speaker was actually writing this poem in a notebook, the words would be written on the page on the table. Why we should be either surprised or moved by their blankness is not explained. In the end, we are more apt to regard the poet's "confusion" in line four as the poem's essential, though unintended, message. The overall effect of a descriptive sequence such as this is that the writer is a watcher, recording detail and event, and attempting to draw philosophical or meditative conclusions. But the crudity and exaggeration and inexpressive means fail to accomplish this. 

The Lack Of


Sunset's requisite sparrows
clamor in the shrubbery.
How the room falls, falls

further into formlessness,
around itself,
and memory--

cast to the moon's
glassed transmissions. 

What are "requisite sparrows"? Is "clamor" the right verb to describe the sound birds make in a bush? In what sense is the room "falling" and where is it falling to? How is "memory cast" to the moon? What are "glassed transmissions"? Since Massey is such a stickler for material reality, exactly what kinds of impressions, or direct observations are these? My guess is that "requisite" is an attempt to inject a trite irony into the initial setting. "Clamor" wants to be more emphatic than another, more accurate descriptive for the bird flutter. The room "falling into formlessness" is an attempt to . . . what?. . . describe someone fainting, or nodding off? Isn't "glassed transmissions" just a naive way of saying the moon is seen through a window? What other poetic qualities are summoned by "glassed"?

The use of overkill language is rife in Massey's verse. The "highway" is "slashed"; "shadows carve the room"; words are "plunged into hunger"; "haze blots"; "light" is "gashed"; "nasturtiums lurch"; "leaves" are "lathed"; "hedges dredged"; "halved by haze";  "ocean's drone drones"; "things throb"; "clouds" are "warped"and so on. There are, too, a number of whoppers strewn about on the pile: "spring singes the sky's organized incisions." Ooh, that one stings! "Traffic's sustained sibilance grows louder later." "Through the bone of a stutter." "Gibbous moon splinters." "Wind pinched." "Where the jetty juts." "Moss-cleaved crags absorb." "Stone reflecting stone." "Knocks the walls into sleep." "This severed gestation." "Thorax throws off." "An echo gathering more and more silence." The more I read of Massey's work, the more convinced I become that he's futilely trying to reach for statements and effects that he seems unable to achieve. He mistakes hyperbole and oxymoron and malapropism for poetic successes, apparently believing that this makes his work vivid and immediate and pungent. A construction such as "hedges dredged" looks like a pathetic attempt at onomatopoeia, but the actual effect is a tinny clank. Hedges bear no useful relation to dredging, so though their shared sounds intersect, forcing them together is not a happy convergence. It's simply a mistake. 

Mr. Massey wants his poems to sound as if they have conviction, and this frequently leads him into dead-end structures. 

The hills

with clouds

with the 


The view of hills and clouds through a window does in no sense suggest that they, or the speaker, or the viewer (reader) are in any sense "levitating." What is supposed to be rising? The clouds? The window-sill? The poet? Or does the simple iteration of the "Return" bar signal the rising of the earlier stanzas?  

In the work of George Oppen, or John Taggart, or Ronald Johnson, say, description succeeds both because the means report or interpret reality validly--that is to say, accurately--and the thought is profound enough to give us pause. Joe Massey seems a nice enough fellow--though his character seems more obscured than revealed in his poetry--but he's neither profound nor sensitive enough to write interesting poems. There are references to excessive drinking here, which I suspect is no accident. The overall impression is one of bored silences, of aimless drifting along streets or seaside outlines. The poems show effort, but not the delight we feel in happy combinations of sense, sound and phenomena. Massey has a tinny ear. He thinks "a dream's drowsy disassembly" is a "poetic expression," a struggling towards articulation. But it's just a stupid alliteration that summons amusement, not confirmation. 

This book is dedicated "to Humboldt County" where Massey lives. California has been the dramatic inspiration for a number of good writers. Robinson Jeffers along the Big Sur Coast. Gary Snyder in the Sierra Mountains and along the seashore. John Steinbeck. Robert Hass. Yvor Winters. Our forests and mountains and plains and rivers and rocky coast-lines have inspired a lot of interesting writing. We are still creating a regional literature that will stand for generations to come. I wish I could say that Massey's work is likely to rise to that level,  but I can't. If he hasn't read his Thoreau and Emerson and Dickinson and Whitman, he needs to start. If he hasn't read Pound and Stevens and Williams and Zukofsky, he needs to do so, and soon. Because if he continues along the path he's chosen, he will end up like Cid Corman, conjuring pathetic flash-card haikus. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Downstream from Richard Brautigan

As a book trader, it's my experience to encounter tens of thousands of books all the time, sifting through them for sleepers, sorting and discriminating at will. As a dealer in "modern first editions" (that is, collectible books published since circa 1900), I routinely consider the works of Richard Brautigan, usually the popular trade editions of his later novels (The Hawklike Monster, Willard and His Bowling Trophies, Sombrero Fallout, The Tokyo-Montana Express, etc.), and just as routinely reject them as unsalable material.  Like most people, I first became aware of Brautigan during the late 1960's and early 1970's, when his notorious hip novel Trout Fishing in America appeared. Copies of the first true edition published by Donald Allen's Four Seasons Foundation have become almost unobtainable on the market. Early in his career, Brautigan himself published a number of slim little chapbooks of verse, some of which were given away--and all of which, today, are very valuable.  

Like most people, I suspect, my feelings reading Brautigan's work tended towards skepticism. His narratives are not really stories, but surrealistic snapshots of events and people which are not tied to reality, except tangentially. The point of his work seemed to be to make very hip metaphysical jokes or ironic equations about life. Their spirit was unlike Beat literature. They were much more fatalistic and peculiar. As a kid who'd been raised by a man who worshipped the sport of fly-fishing, I was disappointed to learn that the book had nothing really to do with fly-fishing as such. 

It seemed to me then that Brautigan the author was probably a very shrewd sort of hustler who'd managed to put one over on the literary world. That would seem to have been the official verdict at the time, that its author was a clever "naif"--an inventor of quips and wise-cracks designed to impress teenagers and hipsters. In short, Brautigan had enterprised the counterculture trends of the 1960's into a full-blown literary spoof, complete with photos of himself and his girlfriends on the book covers, made out to look like fringe vagabonds. 

Brautigan's life was a mess, from beginning to end. A difficult childhood was followed by a period of struggle, trying to scratch out an existence while writing. Trouble with the law, incarceration in a mental facility (including shock treatments), and a period spent cruising North Beach in San Francisco, sleeping around with lots of groupies, a number of failed relationships. With fame and success and money, his escapades became more bizarre. An alcoholic all his life, and a sufferer of depression (much of it related to his tormented childhood), he eventually committed suicide in an old house he owned in Bolinas. 

Since I had never been much interested in the world Brautigan lived in, or in his fiction (though his poetry I found intriguing), I didn't mourn his death. His reputation had declined, and his last published books looked like exploitation. 

Recently, I came across a nice copy of Keith Abbott's memoir Downstream from Trout Fishing in America [Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1989], published five years after Brautigan's suicide. Abbott's account is a rambling, though consistent, portrait of his friendship with the late writer, covering their early years in San Francisco during the Sixties, with a few snapshots in the years following, and a short critical take on his literary style. What I found fascinating was the revelation that Brautigan was so much like the figure he wanted to project in his work. In other words, he was every bit as enigmatic and confused as his peculiar sentences and metaphors and narratives suggested or implied. Ordinarily, I think of authors as being "smarter" than their work, which is to say they design or craft their writing like clay, to make an object that bears their intention, with greater or lesser success. Abbott emphasizes how meticulous Brautigan was about his work, slaving over it, revising it, worrying it. But for a man without a college education--in effect, a self-taught writer--whose experience was limited, his sense of his purpose or mission as a writer was very close to the sort of man he was. In that sense, his work is a version of roman à clef--in which real people or events appear barely concealed with invented names or dates or places. In the 1960's, French and German existentialism was very big, and you can read this quality in Brautigan's fiction. But he also was able to convey a sense of American free-spiritedness, which is more like the Beats. It's hard to imagine Trout Fishing in America without On the Road.  

Ken Kesey, almost his exact contemporary (both were born in 1935, and Kesey's novels were published in 1962 [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest] and 1964 [Sometimes a Great Notion]), shares with Brautigan the position of inventor and defender of an attitude towards life and conduct that we now recognize as familiar to a whole generation. The Flower Generation

Ken Kesey

As Abbott makes clear, Brautigan was probably clinically abnormal, and much of his behavior and thought was irrational. His literary skill was in transforming his troubled visions into form and content, which pleased his admirers and frustrated his detractors. He didn't grow as a writer, and seemed held by his demons in a permanent creative stasis. The underlying subtext of his work is of characters who suffer from a difficulty in enduring reality, and who invent imaginary strategies for fending it off. It may be that he lived his own life in much this way, fantasizing alternative versions of himself, which he projected in his fiction. Interestingly, Kesey's masterpiece, Cuckoo's Nest, posits just such a position for its protagonist, that of misunderstood outsider McMurphy. McMurphy could fit right into a Brautigan narrative. 

Today, Brautigan's reputation is tarnished, primarily in my view as a result of the second-rate work that he published after 1970, work which suggested he was rehashing the same material, or was unsuccessfully attempting to refashion himself into a straight novelist. His talent was a small one, but genuine and precious (in both senses). The pretense in his work is that you will and will not (simultaneously) take him seriously. The driver of his work may have been pain and frustration, but he turned those feelings into wit and irony. 

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.