Poem of the Month – If by Rudyard Kipling

If is the poetic equivalent of “…Baby One More Time”: it’s naff, simplistic, brash and its politics don’t bear examination but Christ it’s catchy. I can’t remember when I first read or heard the poem, but fragments of it are buried in my brain like shrapnel.

Kipling was a jingoistic racist. If is patronising hooey. Still, the line “if you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run…” has gotten me up more hills than I can count. So there’s that.

Why memorise If? In part because I think it’ll come in handy over the next couple of months in Ibiza (“If you can keep your head when all about you/ are losing theirs…”) and partly to acknowledge the fact that bad poetry can be as useful, or meaningful, in the right context, as the most exquisite sonnet.

What’s your favourite bad poem? Share in the comments.
run

If

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Treed

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A poem in progress

TREED

Suspended in your limbs the
sky shatters to dancing fractals.
Height makes me dizzy.
Pressed by gravity to your
contours
corpuscles shriek.
My heart screeches
out of control.
Refusing to
fall
I
will
climb
(down).

Wood against flesh.
Taut, anxious;
mute and clumsy; bones
rattle against every
branch on the way. Till I

f
a
l
l

and tangle in your roots.

Bruises rise like
sap. Sunshine
sears the skin your fingers warmed.
Wind dips to kindly whisper:
Let go.

Lit Crit: Tom Wolfe and the Art of Mau-Mau

I wrote this in 2009. Tom Wolfe is still a twit. Hence the re-blog. Enjoy!

The Wolfe in his lair

The Wolfe in his lair

Tom Wolfe’s famous new journalism is nothing but an abdication of the traditional journalistic ideal of objectivity. What makes him so beloved of white, middle-class, status-quo lovers is that he presents the ‘freaks’ of society exactly as they wish to see them. Peering out from his WASP bubble he offers no insight; only his own prejudice, funkily punctuated. Far from being revolutionary he is reactionary.

His 1970 essay Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers is Wagnerian. He plays every finely tuned instrument of white middle-American fear and loathing with masterful aplomb. It starts with a statement: “the poverty programme encouraged you to go in for mau-mauing.” You don’t know yet what ‘mau-mauing’ is, only that it is encouraged by “the poverty programme” – a vague bureaucratic entity endowed with a definite article. This is a beautiful piece of disinformation. There is not now, nor at any point in American history has there been, anything that could be described, accurately, as the poverty programme. Governmental attempts to succour, redistribute, endow, benefit, aid, or otherwise un-disenfranchise its economic laggards are desultory, peculiar, and limited. Wolfe knows this because he isn’t quite brave enough to give “poverty programme” the initial capitals called for by that “the”.

Over the next few paragraphs a rough sketch of “mau-mauing” begins to emerge. His breathless sentences tap-tap into the brain. The ones doing the mau-mauing are: “hard-to-reach hard-to-hold-hard-core hardrock blackrage badass furious funky ghetto youth.” Not like you and I, whispers beneath the shout. Them. People who mess everything up with their hard-to-hold hard-core hardrock. Hammering chunks out of language itself. I’ll show you how they do it, he beckons.

“There was one man called Chaser. Chaser would get his boys together and he would give them a briefing like the U.S. Air Force wing commander gives his pilots in Thailand before they make the raid over North Vietnam.” This, people, is war. Those furious funky ghetto youth are an invading army, they are braced and coming at you, in your suburban homes and Lay-Z boy recliners and apple-pie-and-ice-cream Sundays. Beware.

Chaser “used to be in vaudeville. At least that was what everybody said.” Old journalism couldn’t get away with substituting “that’s what everybody said” (Who is ‘everybody?’ When and where did they say it?) for fact checking. Did or did not Chaser used to be in vaudeville? Why not ask Chaser? That would ruin the rhythm. What matters is not where Chaser learned his gift of the gab but the image caught up in that word vaudeville. Cheap light entertainment. Minstrel shows. Something tacky, tawdry, archaic. Like Chaser, who “always wore a dashiki, over some ordinary pants and a Ban-lon shirt. He had two of these Ban-lon shirts and he alternated them.” Wolfe pulverises Chaser’s credibility with every phrase. He wears a dashiki over ordinary pants (he’s inauthentic) and he only has two shirts (he’s poor). By the time Wolfe describes him as a “born leader” the words hum mockery. Born leader to dumb ghetto youths too high on their blackrage badass to know you don’t follow men who alternate their shirts and might have been in vaudeville.

The putative ex-vaudevillian wing commander exhorts his troops: “when you go downtown, y’all wear your ghetto rags…see… don’t go down there with your Italian silk jerseys on and your brown suede and green alligator shoes and your Harry Belafonte shirts… And don’t go down there with your hair all done up nice in your curly Afro… you go down with your hair stickin’ out… and sittin’ up… looking like a bunch of wild niggers.”

Wolfe’s phrasing lingers in sweet, heavy warning notes. Ghetto rags are a fiction perpetrated by slick-shod, Italian silk jersey-wearing, chocolate-coloured con artists trying to separate the God-fearing white taxpayer from his money by mau-mauing the poverty programme. Don’t even consider for a minute there might be real poverty down in that ghetto. Turn your back and they’ll all be in their Harry Belafonte shirts sporting nice curly Afros. Be wise to their jiveass. If they look poor it’s because they want to look poor. Don’t be a sucker.

It isn’t just the shifty slick-talking bloods leeching on: “before long everybody in the so-called Third World was into it.” The “so-called” (like “everybody said” before it) permits the double-barrelled phrase: Third World. These people aren’t even from here. You, dear reader, belong to the First World. They come from somewhere else, belong somewhere else. They aren’t your problem, the “Chinese, the Japanese, the Chicanos, the Indians” and especially not the Samoans who “were like the original unknown terrors… everything about them is gigantic…. They’ll have a skull the size of a watermelon, with a couple of little squinty eyes and a little mouth and a couple of nose holes stuck in, and no neck at all. From the ears down, the big yoyos are just one solid welded hulk, the size of an oil burner.” Hang on a second and listen while the nuances whisper out of those words: a skull the size of a watermelon; little squinty eyes – like pigs; not even a nose but nose holes like a fright mask; big yoyos; one solid welded hulk. They might be vegetable, animal, monster, mineral or machine but they definitely ain’t human. Not like you and I.

We know, now, who does the mau-mauing. Enter the flak catcher. This passage calls for subtlety. Tamp down the hard-hitting rhythm section, let the woodwinds carry the next segment through on their modulated breath. The “blacks, Chicanos, Filipinos, and about ten Samoans” confront (in all their oil-burner sized, “Day-Glo yellow and hot-green sweaters and lemon-coloured pants”-wearing glory) a single man who has that “sloppy Irish look like Ed McMahon on TV.” Read between them lines: you’ve never worn hot-green sweaters and lemon-coloured pants, but you sure as hell know what Ed McMahon on TV looks like. That’s someone you can recognise and root for. The levee holding back this colourful flood wears “wheatcolour Hush Puppies [and a] wash’n’dry semi-tab-collar shortsleeves white shirt.”

We know the bloods have “brown suede and green alligator” shoes at home; time to learn that “wheatcolour Hush Puppies… cost about $4.99, and the second time you move your toes, the seams split and the tops come away from the soles.” Don’t feel sorry for them. Don’t be a sucker. Look down again. The Samoans are wearing sandals and the straps “look like they were made from the reins on the Budweiser draft horses.” Dear god. Someone, or something, has to keep a check on these massive animals. Just as white America shifts anxiously on its sofa, half-hearing terrifying trampling feet Wolfe plays a silken note of assurance: “Nobody ever follows it up. You can get everything together once, for the demonstration… to see the people bury some gray cat’s nuts and make him crawl… but nobody ever follows it up.” They, the Third-Worlders. Huge. Threatening. Noisy. Ultimately harmless. Foiled not by the obfuscation of wheatcolour bureaucracy run by gray cats but by their own ineradicable indolence.

There is more to mau-mauing. Plenty more. A virtuoso teardown of sucker whites slices through the: “middle-class white intellectual women… with flat-heeled shoes and big Honest Calves” and their students who “would have on berets and hair down to the shoulders… and jeans, but not Levi’s… jeans of the people, the black Can’t Bust ‘Em brand, hod-carrier jeans that have an emblem on the back of a hairy gorilla” (Wolfe overlooks the subject-object confusion in his rush to hang the words black and hairy gorilla together).

He is wise to it, and he wants you to be wise too. Don’t get hoodwinked by those twinkling alligator shoes. “Boys don’t grow up looking up to the man who had a solid job… because there weren’t enough people who had such jobs.” Don’t think he’s gonna dwell on the whys and wherefores of there not being enough people who had such jobs, though. Your honour, the witness refuses to answer the question in the grounds that it may incriminate him. Slide fast to the details about “$150 Sly Stone-style vest and pants outfit from the haberdasheries on Polk and the $35 Lester Chambers-style four-inch-brim black beaver fedora” and the men wearing them who slid into neighbourhoods peopled by “the bums, the winos, the prostitutes with biscuits & gravy skin, the gay boys, the flaming lulus, the bike riders” and got “a grant of nearly $100,000”. That’s what happens when civilisation gets mau-maued by the Third-World; the ghetto youth get their grasping – “hanging limp at the wrist with the forefinger sticking out like some kind of curved beak” – hands on “a $937,000 grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity.”

Any do-gooder, white middle-class intellectual fool who thinks any of this makes a difference ought to think again. Give them jobs? What for? “The jobs themselves were nothing…. You got $1.35 an hour and ended up as a file clerk or stock-room boy in some federal office… all you learned was how to make work, fake work and malinger out by the Xerox machine.” Moreover, Wolfe can explain why “Nevertheless, there was some fierce mau-mauing that went on over summer jobs”. Not because the community needed those jobs or even wanted those jobs but because “the plain fact was that half the jobs were handed out organisation by organisation, according to how heavy your organisation was. If you could get twenty summer jobs… when the next only got five, then you were four times the aces they were… no lie.” Your taxpayer dollars at work: propping up the egos of pimp-swaggering furious funky ghetto youth.

There is one final movement, a violin-swelling, cymbal-clashing, curtain-call guaranteeing flight of earlicking fancy that makes the Ride of the Valkyries sound like a lullaby. There were so many groups mau-mauing, see, “you had to show some style, show some imagination.” Like Bill Jackson, who calls himself Jomo Yarumba and marches on City Hall with a “children’s army… sixty strong, sixty loud, sixty wild they come swinging into the great plush gold-and-marble lobby… with hot dogs, tacos, Whammies, Frostees, Fudgsicles, French fries, Eskimo Pies, Awful-Awfuls, Sugar-Daddies, Sugar-Mommies, Sugar-Babies, chocolate-covered frozen bananas, malted milks, Yoo-Hoos, berry pies, bubble gums, cotton candy, Space Food sticks, Frescas, Baskin-Robbins boysenberry-cheesecake ice-cream cones, Milky Ways, M&Ms, Tootsie Pops, Slurpees, Drumsticks, jelly doughnuts, taffy apples, buttered Karamel Korn, root-beer floats, Hi-C punches, large Cokes, 7-Ups, Three Musketeer bars, frozen Kool-Aids… a hurricane of little bodies… roaring about with their creamy wavy gravy food and drink held up in the air like the torches of freedom, pitching and rolling at the most perilous angles, a billow of root-beer float here… a Yoo-Hoo typhoon there.. a hurricane of malted milk, an orange blizzard of crushed ice from the Slurpees, with acid red horrors like the red from the taffy apples and the jelly from the jelly doughnuts… every gradation of solubility and liquidity known to syrup – filling the air, choking it, getting trapped gurgling and spluttering in every glottis – ”

The words scamper around like that hurricane of little bodies with their perilously angled food and drink. There is a racing pulse to the rhythm, ecstatic as a sugar high. You feel giddy just reading it. Every name snaps on your synapses like bubblegum popping. Without really knowing why you feel your throat filling with the solubility and liquidity of the syrup filling the air choking it getting trapped. You can feel the tide rising. Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood, only this time the savages are going to drown you in creamy wavy gravy Yoo-Hoo typhoon acid red horrors.

Thirty pages ago you didn’t know to be afraid. Didn’t know how the furious funky born leader pimp true artists of the mau-mau are just waiting to rise up out of the ghetto and wash over your hallowed gold-and-marbled halls in “purple sheets of root-beer” but now you do. Because you “didn’t know where to look…. Didn’t even know who to ask” until Tom Wolfe came rolling through your door in his white pimp-sharp suit with his fedora and silk handkerchief and (probably) Italian-style socks. The man is a “rare artist” of the mau-mau.

Wordsworth ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’

William Wordsworth’s sublime ode to London. Thanks Alice!

Westminster-Bridge

Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Share your favourite ‘place’ poem in the comments!

How the Art of Reasoning is Necessary

This is from the ‘Discourses’ of Epictetus — the best guide to life I’ve ever read (over and over and over).
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HOW THE ART OF REASONING IS NECESSARY

When one of his audience said, ‘Convince me that logic is useful,’ Epictetus said,

Would you have me demonstrate it?

‘Yes.’

Well, then, must I not use a demonstrative argument?

And, when the other agreed, he said, How then shall you know if I impose upon you? And when the man had no answer, he said, You see how you yourself admit that logic is necessary, if without it you are not even able to learn this much — whether it is necessary or not.

Right?

Running, Writing and Creativity

An excerpt from an essay I wrote on my relationship with running, writing, and creativity.

Read the full piece at The Nervous Breakdown

Run time

Run time

I now recognise the two things my soul needs: running and writing. Running, first, because it is obvious, though the less important of the two. Like good grammar, it is essential to my sense of order and well-being, but I only make a fuss in its absence. A nagging pain in my foot warns me to leave my trainers under the bed, unlaced. My brain knows better than to aggravate an injury but the rest of my body is twitchily uninformed. There is nothing wrong with me apart from a sense of abstraction and discontent. Without the discipline of running and long breaths of cold, cleansing air I am inefficient, fretful, soft in a bruised-fruit kind of way.

Without creative activity my brain fidgets and stews. As with running, the longer I go not writing the more I yearn to and, paradoxically, the more difficult it becomes. After a few days off I feel both dread and pleasure at the prospect of a run. Similarly, when I don’t write the idea of writing fills my head, swells to such vast importance that the process grows alien and terrifying. My fractious mind elides twenty-odd years of devotion and discipline and whispers “you can’t,” or “you can, but it won’t be any good.” Absence opens the door and Doubt saunters in carrying a funhouse mirror where past and future crush unbearably against the present. Anxiety ripples through me like a tiny earthquake, shimmying books off shelves and setting my internal crockery a-rattle. The Fear descends: my book will remain unwritten; questions scribbled in notebook margins will remain unexplored; I will tell no stories; never again will I craft a beautiful essay or forget time as I play a private game with my twenty-six favourite toys.


What co-creative activity gets your writing flowing? Share in the comments.

Poetry Challenge – East Coker by TS Eliot

Kat & I

Kat & I

Nobel Peace laureate and Burmese democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi spent over 20 years under house arrest. She says that one of the things that kept her together was memorising poetry. Once it’s in your head, she added, nobody can take it away from you. Thinking about that inspired me to set myself a poetry challenge: memorise one poem a month during 2015.

That will give me a stock of a dozen poems to carry with me everywhere, always.

For January I’ve chosen a portion of ‘East Coker’ from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. My dear friend Kat introduced me to this poem a few years ago and it has become deeply rooted in my psychic landscape, both for itself and because it reminds me of how blessed I am by her friendship. This is for you my love!


East Coker

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

Recommended – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

The first time I read ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ was last week. It is so incandescently brilliant I started buying copies for the right people. Then I worried that maybe I read it too quick, that it wasn’t as good as I thought. So I’m re-reading it and holy jesus, it is even better.
billy lynn
Quick summary: The novel chronicles one day in the life of 19-year-old soldier Billy Lynn, who’s on leave from Iraq. It’s Superbowl Sunday. He and his squad are completing a ‘Victory Tour’ as honored guests of the Dallas Cowboys.

America. Money. Grief. Sex. War. Love. Death. Booze. Cheerleaders. Religion. Football. Guns. Loss.
Billy has to navigate it all with nothing more than his instinctive dignity and the brute education of Army life.

I don’t know how Fountain does it but it’s done. The characters leap off the page. The plot is fast and tight. The writing is coruscating. It’s a novel Hunter S Thompson might have written if he kept his shit together (it does for the Superbowl what ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’ did for that legendary sporting event).

Here’s a sampling of Fountain’s astonishing prose:

“She was still capable of sad, skewed smiles from time to time, forcing the cheer like Christmas lights in the poor part of town.”

“The Look, his gaze so frank and open-ended that Billy can’t help but wonder, Why me? At first he feared it was the start of some hideous gay thing, gay thing being virtually his sole reference point for prolonged eye contact from a fellow male, but lately he doubts it, a conclusion which required no small broadening of his view of human nature.”

“Okay, so maybe they aren’t the greatest generation by anyone’s standards, but they are surely the best of the bottom third percentile of their own somewhat muddled and suspect generation.”

“‘I’ll say this for nina leven,’ a man confides to him, ‘it shut the feminists up.’
‘Ah.’ Billy consults his drink. The feminists?
‘You bet,’ the man says. ‘They aren’t so interested in being ‘liberated’ now that we’re under attack. There’s certain tings a man can do that woman just can’t. Combat, for one. A lot of life boils down to physical strength.'”

“The money vibe can be felt at once, a faint hum, a kind of menthol tingling of the lips.”

Kelly Writers House

A quick trip down memory lane to Kelly Writers House at UPenn. It is where I learned the ropes of non-fiction writing from inimitable, award-winning author, journalist and all-around good guy Paul Hendrickson.

On a campus full of aggressive high rises and smug colonial brickwork it is a delightful clapboard anachronism, complete with creaky stairs and overburdened bookshelves. It was my favourite place at Penn (Mad 4 Mex ran a close second) and I was lucky to be able to pay my respects when I passed through Philly last autumn. Here’s a few snapshots…

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The Clear Midnight – Happy New Year!

Walt Whitman, to start your 2015 right. Happy new year!
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The Clear Midnight

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the
lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the
themes though lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.