Archive for December, 2016

Adieu to 2016 and All Hail to 2017

On the last day of this momentous year when the fragility of American democracy and the danger of not directing the existence and the problems of an underclass in a nation purported to be the richest and most equal in the world were displayed, I mark its end by posting the very same meditation I wrote at the close of 2015. Those ideas remain pertinent and uppermost in  my mind. I contemplate the issue of the reality of progress and philosophize over the possibility of peace. I lament the continuing violence at home and abroad and view with alarm the rise of a demagogue on our soil. Today these concerns and ominous clouds persist. Nevertheless, as the sonnet sequence in the concluding sections presents, hope also still endures. Saints, heroes, and courageous spokesmen for love, justice, and peace continue to speak out.

I wonder if the activism of my generation, the anti-war demonstrations of the sixties, and the civil rights movement made significant differences in our politics. My generation came to power with the elections of Bill Clinton and George Bush. The baby-boomer generation has its last hurrah to make a significant difference in the elevation of Donald Trump to the presidency. I have no doubt it will be significant, but I doubt it will be a beneficial one. Too late I admire the prescience of a Lyndon Baines Johnson, who recognized the cancer a permanently depressed poor class poses in a supposedly egalitarian society. Sadly, his vision to fulfill the American dream for all citizens has not been realized to this day. Yet it was a vision that Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, sons of wealth and privilege, first presented to the American people.

Fifteen to End the Year 2015

I
Another shooting, the innocent slain,
The slaughter mounts upon the screen
As it was in the past rings the refrain
So must it be that laws can’t vaccine
The insane from seizing a guiltless gun
And empty upon strangers rounds of rage;
So the rampage will recompose and re-run
Until minds imagine a better age
When gun ownership is restricted
And the surplus turned in and thrown
Upon the pyre, the metal conscripted
For purposes far from the killing zone.
So sing, we, in the silent, serene brain
Of America’s peaceful fields of grain.

II
Of America’s peaceful fields of grain
I dream, abiding still in Fantasia
For the very hour I sing the refrain
I falter, stricken by strange aphasia;
On December second, fourteen are dead
And twenty-one innocents are wounded.
I stagger to retrieve language that’s fled,
Its syntax ripped and torn, all sense shredded
While nabobs hold the right to a firearm
Untouchable, ensconced in sacred space.
If, as they say, guns keep us from harm,
The United States is the safest place.
Shall I go to Christmas-shop at the mall
Or stay today behind my bedroom wall?

III
Or stay today behind my bedroom wall
Because walls indeed protect (don’t they?)
As of late many say they do, from illegal
Aliens, refugees or Muslims who may
Conceal in backpacks bombs or bacillus
For who knows what other peril or plot
They could concoct as soon as sneeze at us;
Thus mind the mindless ranter’s godless rot.
But if a higher road than wall is sought,
Ascend the Mount where the vista is wide,
The one where the Master blessed and taught
The truth, the vulnerable at his side.
There hear the angels sing “Be not afraid;
For fear is the monger we must upbraid.”

IV
For fear is the monger we must upbraid
Like a dirty joke at a wedding feast
Although panderers of hate would trade
Every draft of love for the feckless beast
That fear unleashed wreaks upon the earth.
For fear is to be feared because it feeds
Upon itself, enlarging its reach and girth
While seas separate and brotherhood recedes.
Yet if the breach is to be sealed, then reach
To the elixir still sitting upon the shelf
In pure vials, undefiled, for each
To drink a toast for others and himself.
When mongers hawk fearsome wares of war,
Offer foreigners lovely shawls to wear.

V
Offer foreigners lovely shawls to wear
Though I worry if progress has been made
At all upwards on history’s tortured stair,
Questionable, when corpses are displayed.
Homo sapiens brain is the same since men
Of the steppe broke horses and rode to war
Ever now the ingenious devise the engine
To multiply a faceless gunner’s gore,
Even when they chorused “the end to horror”
After spitfires, trenches, mud and gases
Yet others aren’t loathed less or loved more
Than when captains killed with cutlasses;
Where have the sixties flower children gone?
The wind wails: gone to graveyards every one.

VI
The wind wails gone to graveyards every one
And three-pronged pitchforks mark the gate,
Upside down peace symbols the war hawks won,
All devil’s due for those who make hay of hate;
Yet gusts uproot as well as disperse seeds
That will weave fair flowers in children’s hair
Anew like happy hippies, decked in love beads,
Proposing love less exotic in the open air
Though peace is scarcer than yesterday when
The folk songs stopped and guitarists fell
Asleep the second the shot hit Lennon,
Whose music imagined better gospel.
The drones buzz on; dumb to loads they drop,
Regardless robots without minds to stop.

VII
Regardless robots without minds to stop
The garbage-mouthed mogul in obvious lies,
Who name-calls and insults his way to top
The polls even though his success relies
On utter absence of critical thought
In favor of ad hominem ad nauseam,
Heated harangue witless voters have bought
From dealer quite adept at trumping them
That dolts don’t detect the cards are marked
Against their winning a millionaire’s game;
Yet “Deal me in,” deluded dogs barked,
The pack that fear makes rabid—Il Duce’s aim.
The dens of madness and mayhem grow still
When mercy enters in hand with good will.

VIII
When mercy enters in hand with good will
The two tiptoe, at first they’re dimly seen
Then mankind is chiseled with keener skill
Like saints with huge heart, empty of spleen,
Like the seven sleepers roused from the cave
Into light angled to grasp peace and give it,
As Christ, defenseless, unjudging, forgave
The thieves, non-germane if they deserved it,
Awake to where love is, there is no fear
Or vengeance vying to meet blow for blow
Even though we reap what we sow is clear:
The law levying love on supposed foe.
Down through the ages, history has shown,
It signifies naught who threw the first stone.

IX
It signifies naught who threw the first stone;
What matters is who throws away the sling,
Opening arms to fling wide love alone,
For blessed are the peacemakers who bring
An end to blame, who forbid heads to roll
Emboldened by truth as old as it’s true
That eye for eye only blackens the soul,
While guilt demands penance jurists argue.
The sage rebuts with dictum there’s no crime
So foul to warrant the electric chair
Since error is mere blindness over time
To bonds of blood and brotherhood we share
Even though the injured choose to insist
Nothing requites quite like the iron fist.

X
Nothing requites quite like the iron fist
Conjures Pyrrhic victories dependent on
Memorized line that the delvers resist,
Those in radiant white robes who reason
They must halt the vicious wheel in its spin
Before no patch of earth is clean of gore
Where bands of brothers, singing, can march in,
The jubilee commenced to fight no more.
Is peace but read as romance, far-fetched dream,
Moonbeam and fairy dust pragmatists scorn
And all timid rowers against the stream,
Those hecklers of magic and unicorn?
In teen-aged century tattooed and proud
I ponder, bemused, our progress aloud.

XI
I ponder, bemused, our progress aloud
Because at times it seems minds are mired
In muck of sophists and bigots who becloud
Ideals the enlightened choir inspired;
But other times the sun pierces through
The murk when spokesmen arise who awake
Those better angels guiding us to do
Unto our brothers for salvation’s sake,
If not virtue, what the sane prove is right
Unless in circles, like the mad, we run
Endlessly in pursuit of the next fight
Then, the lunatic fringe indeed has won.
Of those today who awaken that hope,
The world agrees, is the Catholic Pope.

XII
The world agrees, is the Catholic Pope,
The Francis of benediction and of peace,
Whose correctness lifts the spirit to hope
The incessant fear-monger’s rant will cease
For milder speech is heard amid the din
Of kinder hands and gentler tones that mend
Divisions recognizing we are all kin,
Deceived by ego, saved when we extend
Empathy and compassion as he bids
In Congress, Liberty Hall and skid row,
Regardless, he picks up and kisses kids
Then turns and blesses the grotesque also.
Even amid violence, violets will bloom
With delicate pastel lips defying doom.

XIII
With delicate pastel lips defying doom,
Their gifts of spirit evaporate hate,
Their virtues set off lanterns in the gloom
Making way to declare war out-of-date
Because writers and artists still survive
Revealing emperors who wear no clothes
In nations where the free press is alive
So I strew roses on words they compose,
Their clear prose, unadulterated truth,
Their harmony and logic sound a note
Quieting cant of politics’ uncouth,
On wings of morning aloft from dovecote.
All praise and homage to thinkers like them
Globally, the chorus carols the hymn.

XIV
Globally, the chorus carols the hymn
And no pipe organ of dreams to conceive
Possible, if hearts filled to the brim
Overflow with compassion and receive
In turn the same measure of other’s store;
For let it be known here and now that I
Do not succumb to argument for more
Personal arsenals for those who cry
They’ll shoot the man who dares to take away
Their armaments—their divine right of guns.
Illogic of mass shootings serves to lay
In premature graves more daughters and sons.
The mind that devises deadlier slings
As well from chaos makes loftier things.

XV
As well from chaos makes loftier things
For intellect yet formulates the great
Society gilded with fellow feelings
And artists impelled by paint create
A venue for truth and beauty to meld
Even now when crazy rhetoric rules—
No small solace to view unparalleled
Creations, graphic and written jewels,
Genesis and genius of divine urge,
Superior imprint of man’s sterling coin
In which all finer impulses converge,
Trinity of faith, hope and love conjoin.
The art consoles after killings by Cain:
Another shooting, the innocent slain.

A healthy, prosperous, and hope-filled New Year to my “How Public Like a Frog” readers!

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Never the Same

never_the_same_cover_for_kindle

In my latest novel Never the Same, I sketch  the shift in societal norms from the generation born during the 1930’s to the beginning of the twenty-first century. I view the omnipresence of mass culture through the media of radio, television, and movies as fueling these changes. The entertainment industry and advertising inexorably shaped tastes and stimulated consumerism. Frugality gave way to conspicuous consumption; unwed motherhood eventually lost its stigma. None of these social changes are entirely detrimental as some doomsayers would claim, charging that  all society’s problems stem from the decline of the family and rampant materialism. The openness has also given space for diverse opinions and tolerance of differences.

I see the decade of the 1930’s as a turning point in American history. It marks the end of the insular farm and the beginning of the stark realization that the rugged individual determining his own fate by hard work is a myth. Economic depression taught us that other forces are at work that make or break a family, a community, and a nation–social, intellectual, economic, and geopolitical factors–beyond a single man’s control. The radio best symbolizes the penetration of the outside world into the consciousness of the average American. The music, the soap operas, the commercials, the variety shows, and news broadcasts all would coalesce as taste and opinion makers over the next decades whether we were conscious of its impact or not. Television advertising exploited subliminal messaging. Both the programs and the commercials gradually grew more sexually explicit and employed less wholesome language, making it difficult to decide if they reflected societal mores or were actually creating them.  In any event, the phenomenon seems to work as a reversible chemical reaction–in either direction the results are the same.

The novel is cultural history in that the ups and downs of Ellie Finnegan’s life reflect the changes that are occurring on a national and global scale. They penetrate her story at every turn, although she may be barely conscious of their impact as they happen. She is that Depression era girl who experiences a World War II childhood, comes of age in the 1950s, marries, lives her middle years in comfortable suburbia, develops a career later in life, and has to come to grips with her past. This is a story about America and its heartland. I have synthesized in this novel everything I have witnessed in the course of my own nearly seven decades.  I see my own mother in the Bachmann family–a mother who loved ballroom dancing, who could not miss her soap opera, who loved the stars of stage and screen of the 1930s. As her daughter, I am part of that legacy. The American idol dominates our popular culture–inescapably plastered on billboards and forever gossiped about on talk shows, photographed and written about in the tabloids. This is our reality, too, as 2017 dawns.

Pop Culture Wins in 2016

Pop culture wins in more than one area in 2016.

In October when the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, I questioned its appropriateness. Wasn’t the creation of a separate category more in order than pronouncing Dylan’s lyrics an accomplishment in world literature considering that songwriting spans the realms of music and literature? I recognize that poetry no longer has a general readership and that most Americans’ exposure  to poetry today comes solely through song lyrics. I have no elitist quarrel with this state of affairs, for clearly poetry has its roots in an oral tradition. Yet the gushing of some authors such as Salman Rusdie and Joyce Carol Oates over Dylan’s award struck me as excessive and unwarranted. The Academy justified the award because Dylan “had created new poetic expression within the great American song tradition”–a peculiar rationale, which seemed to justify a new category–songwriting–not a prize for outstanding accomplishment in literature.

I wondered if I was missing something. Did others see literary merit where I had only heard successful popular folk music that I had enjoyed while growing up? I wondered if the lyrics would impress me as great poetry when I read them on the printed page. I determined to read all of Dylan’s lyrics and to formulate my own judgment. With this purpose in mind, I ordered the 679-page volume of The Lyrics 1961-2012.

It has taken me two months to read the entire book. By page 100, I was bored. Granted, there are some clever lines scattered here and there; but I didn’t see enough meat on the bones to pronounce this great poetry. I struggled to finish the book, only able to read a few pages at a time. Much is monotonous, boring, silly, lame, and the usual mournful love laments. The lyrics are dependent on refrain and repetition and are often rather banal. Dylan is a genius in use of rhyme, but on the printed page they come across as too forced. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” of course, stands out as rising above the ordinary lyric and reads well as a poem. Much of what I read is pure doggerel, light verse à la limerick. Did the Academy members actually read all of the complete lyrics?  How did they stay awake for the duration?

About page eighty-five the language is becoming more political, and in “One Too Many Mornings,” Dylan creates one of his memorable refrains: For I’m one too many mornings/And a thousand miles behind. A good example of his word wizardry that everyone enjoys occurs in “All I Really Want to Do:” I don’t want to meet your kin/Make you spin or do you in/Or select you or dissect you/Or inspect you or reject you. Or these unforgettable lines in “My Black Pages:” Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now. Of the intermittent lyrics that I consider crossing the border into what may be termed literary in the canonical sense is “Chimes of Freedom” in which the one-line, end-of-stanza refrain is not overdone and the line Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales/for the disrobed faceless forms . . . possesses the fresh, vivid imagery, assonance and consonance my senses love in fine poetry.

But moments of verbal virtuosity are lost  in pages of verse that are flat and trite. There are too many to choose from, but I’ll settle on this from “I Shall Be Free No. 10:” Now they asked me to read a poem/At the sorority sisters’ home/I got knocked down and my head was swimmin’/I wound up with the Dean of Women/Yippee! I’m a poet, and I know it/Hope I don’t blow it. Ogden Nash could do better. Dylan’s gymnastics with rhyme augurs the rise of rap and hip hop at the end of the twentieth century.

Half-way through the book, I began to note poems that seemed to transcend the jingle-jangle of merely a song lyric. “Tin Angels,” “Golden Loom,” and “Romance in Durango” (a bilingual ballad) have glimmers of more substance, and “Too much of Nothing” has the clever line evocative of Dylan’s social commentary. Then I rejoice, hearing the sounds of my favorite song lyrics in “Forever Young,” and “Simple Twist of Fate.” Am I swayed by memories of listening to these songs, or are they also good, if not great poems? The Academy’s consensus apparently was that Dylan’s body of work rose above the trite and time-worn found in love ballads and folk songs. I am not so sure, especially, when I come to this final verse in “Where Teardrops Fall” toward the end of the volume: Roses are red, violets are blue/And time is beginning to crawl/I just might have to come see you/Where teardrops fall. Sometimes Dylan runs out of steam in playful language and his last lines bomb into vacuity. Is that his intention? Laughing at his own verbal play? Here’s another ending from “Dignity:” Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take/To find dignity. Here I hit the bottom of an empty well.

We have another figure of pop culture rising to prominent heights this year: Donald J. Trump, impresario of  the TV reality show “The Apprentice.” Pop culture has colored the nation’s judgment, taste, manners, and morals. So should I really wonder at the Swedish Academy’s wisdom in selecting Bob Dylan as recipient for the Nobel Prize in Literature?  Can the world at large discern quality in literature any better than the general electorate of the United States can distinguish character and fitness for office among political candidates? Pop culture has triumphed in all spheres of life. Pop culture is largely entertainment and is supposed to be fun. I don’t fault it for being that, but I do fault those who are unable to appreciate that dealing with important national and global issues is no laughing matter.