Friday, October 31, 2008


W. S. Merwin
New Orleans

Photo by Jack



by W. S. Merwin November 3, 2008

Climbing in the mist I came to a terrace wall

and saw above it a small field of broad beans in flower

their white fragrance was flowing through the first light

of morning there a little way up the mountain

where I had made my way through the olive groves

and under the blossoming boughs of the almonds

above the old hut of the charcoal burner

where suddenly the scent of the bean flowers found me

and as I took the next step I heard

the creak of the harness and the mule’s shod hooves

striking stones in the furrow and then the low voice

of the man talking softly praising the mule

as he walked behind through the cloud in his white shirt

along the row and between his own words

he was singing under his breath a few phrases

at a time of the same song singing it

to his mule it seemed as I listened

watching their breaths and not understanding a word

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Eloquent Appeal

October 30, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist

American Stories

Of the countless words Barack Obama has uttered since he opened his campaign for president on an icy Illinois morning in February 2007, a handful have kept reverberating in my mind:

“For as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”

Perhaps the words echo because I’m a naturalized American, and I came here, like many others, seeking relief from Britain’s subtle barriers of religion and class, and possibility broader than in Europe’s confines.

Perhaps they resonate because, having South African parents, I spent part of my childhood in the land of apartheid, and so absorbed as an infant the humiliation of racial segregation, the fear and anger that are the harvest of hurt — just as they are, in Obama’s words, “the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.”

Perhaps they speak to me because I live in New York and watch every day a miracle of civility emerge from the struggles and fatigue of people drawn from every corner of the globe to the glimmer of possibility at the tapering edge of the city’s ruler-straight canyons.

Perhaps they move me because the possibility of stories has animated my life; and no nation offers a blanker page on which to write than America.

Or perhaps it’s simply because those 22 words cleave the air with the sharp blade of truth.

Nowhere else could a 47-year-old man, born, as he has written, of a father “black as pitch” and a mother “white as milk,” a generation distant from the mud shacks of western Kenya, raised for a time as Barry Soetoro (his stepfather’s family name) in Muslim Indonesia, then entrusted to his grandparents in Hawaii — nowhere else could this Barack Hussein Obama rise so far and so fast.

It’s for this sense of possibility, and not for grim-faced dread, that people look to America, which is why the Obama campaign has stirred such global passions.

Americans are decent people. They’re not interested in where you came from. They’re interested in who you are. That has not changed.

But much has in the last eight years. This is a moment of anguish. The Bush presidency has engineered the unlikely double whammy of undermining free-market capitalism and essential freedoms, the nation’s twin badges.

American luster is gone. The American idea has, in Joyce Carol Oates’s words, become a “cruel joke.” Americans are worrying and hurting.

So it is important to step back, from the last machinations of this endless campaign, and think again about what America is.

It is renewal, the place where impossible stories get written.

It is the overcoming of history, the leaving behind of war and barriers, in the name of a future freed from the cruel gyre of memory.

It is reinvention, the absorption of one identity in something larger — the notion that “out of many, we are truly one.”

It is a place better than Bush’s land of shadows where a leader entrusted with the hopes of the earth cannot find within himself a solitary phrase to uplift the soul.

Multiple polls now show Obama with a clear lead. But nobody can know the outcome and nobody should underestimate the immense psychological leap that sending a black couple to the White House would represent.

What I am sure of is this: an ever more interconnected world, where financial chain reactions spread with the virulence of plagues, thirsts for American renewal and a form of American leadership sensitive to humanity’s tied fate.

I also know that this biracial politician, the Harvard graduate who gets whites because he was raised by them, the Kenyan’s son who gets blacks because it was among them that mixed race placed him, is an emblematic figure of the border-hopping 21st century. He is the providential mestizo whose name — O-Ba-Ma — has the three-syllable universality of some child’s lullaby.

And what has he done? What does his experience amount to? Does his record not demonstrate he’s a radical? The interrogation continues. It’s true that his experience is limited.

But Americans seem to be trusting what their eyes tell them: temperament trumps experience and every instinct of this man, whose very identity represents an act of reconciliation, hones toward building change from the center.

Earlier this year, at the end of a road of reddish earth in western Kenya, I found Obama’s half-sister Auma. “He can be trusted,” she said, “to be in dialogue with the world.”

Dialogue, between Americans and beyond America, has been a constant theme. Last year, I spoke to Obama, who told me: “Part of our capacity to lead is linked to our capacity to show restraint.”

Watching the way he has allowed his opponents’ weaknesses to reveal themselves, the way he has enticed them into self-defeating exhaustion pounding against the wall of his equanimity, I have come to understand better what he meant.

Stories require restraint, too. Restraint engages the imagination, which has always been stirred by the American idea, and can be once again.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Turn off the Lights

When I was a child, the park near my house was a place where I could see a glorious night sky filled with stars: from the the Milky Way to the constellations of the Zodiac. Now that same park is flooded with so much light that even the brightest planets are hardly visible. Children today have no idea what a starry night is. It is time to turn out the lights:

Light Pollution
A starry night sky

Our Vanishing Night

Most city skies have become virtually empty of stars.

By Verlyn Klinkenborg
Photograph by Jim Richardson

If humans were truly at home under the light of the moon and stars, we would go in darkness happily, the midnight world as visible to us as it is to the vast number of nocturnal species on this planet. Instead, we are diurnal creatures, with eyes adapted to living in the sun's light. This is a basic evolutionary fact, even though most of us don't think of ourselves as diurnal beings any more than we think of ourselves as primates or mammals or Earthlings. Yet it's the only way to explain what we've done to the night: We've engineered it to receive us by filling it with light.

This kind of engineering is no different than damming a river. Its benefits come with consequences—called light pollution—whose effects scientists are only now beginning to study. Light pollution is largely the result of bad lighting design, which allows artificial light to shine outward and upward into the sky, where it's not wanted, instead of focusing it downward, where it is. Ill-designed lighting washes out the darkness of night and radically alters the light levels—and light rhythms—to which many forms of life, including ourselves, have adapted. Wherever human light spills into the natural world, some aspect of life—migration, reproduction, feeding—is affected.

For most of human history, the phrase "light pollution" would have made no sense. Imagine walking toward London on a moonlit night around 1800, when it was Earth's most populous city. Nearly a million people lived there, making do, as they always had, with candles and rushlights and torches and lanterns. Only a few houses were lit by gas, and there would be no public gaslights in the streets or squares for another seven years. From a few miles away, you would have been as likely to smell London as to see its dim collective glow.

Now most of humanity lives under intersecting domes of reflected, refracted light, of scattering rays from overlit cities and suburbs, from light-flooded highways and factories. Nearly all of nighttime Europe is a nebula of light, as is most of the United States and all of Japan. In the south Atlantic the glow from a single fishing fleet—squid fishermen luring their prey with metal halide lamps—can be seen from space, burning brighter, in fact, than Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro.

In most cities the sky looks as though it has been emptied of stars, leaving behind a vacant haze that mirrors our fear of the dark and resembles the urban glow of dystopian science fiction. We've grown so used to this pervasive orange haze that the original glory of an unlit night—dark enough for the planet Venus to throw shadows on Earth—is wholly beyond our experience, beyond memory almost. And yet above the city's pale ceiling lies the rest of the universe, utterly undiminished by the light we waste—a bright shoal of stars and planets and galaxies, shining in seemingly infinite darkness.

We've lit up the night as if it were an unoccupied country, when nothing could be further from the truth. Among mammals alone, the number of nocturnal species is astonishing. Light is a powerful biological force, and on many species it acts as a magnet, a process being studied by researchers such as Travis Longcore and Catherine Rich, co-founders of the Los Angeles-based Urban Wildlands Group. The effect is so powerful that scientists speak of songbirds and seabirds being "captured" by searchlights on land or by the light from gas flares on marine oil platforms, circling and circling in the thousands until they drop. Migrating at night, birds are apt to collide with brightly lit tall buildings; immature birds on their first journey suffer disproportionately.

Insects, of course, cluster around streetlights, and feeding at those insect clusters is now ingrained in the lives of many bat species. In some Swiss valleys the European lesser horseshoe bat began to vanish after streetlights were installed, perhaps because those valleys were suddenly filled with light-feeding pipistrelle bats. Other nocturnal mammals—including desert rodents, fruit bats, opossums, and badgers—forage more cautiously under the permanent full moon of light pollution because they've become easier targets for predators.

Some birds—blackbirds and nightingales, among others—sing at unnatural hours in the presence of artificial light. Scientists have determined that long artificial days—and artificially short nights—induce early breeding in a wide range of birds. And because a longer day allows for longer feeding, it can also affect migration schedules. One population of Bewick's swans wintering in England put on fat more rapidly than usual, priming them to begin their Siberian migration early. The problem, of course, is that migration, like most other aspects of bird behavior, is a precisely timed biological behavior. Leaving early may mean arriving too soon for nesting conditions to be right.

Nesting sea turtles, which show a natural predisposition for dark beaches, find fewer and fewer of them to nest on. Their hatchlings, which gravitate toward the brighter, more reflective sea horizon, find themselves confused by artificial lighting behind the beach. In Florida alone, hatchling losses number in the hundreds of thousands every year. Frogs and toads living near brightly lit highways suffer nocturnal light levels that are as much as a million times brighter than normal, throwing nearly every aspect of their behavior out of joint, including their nighttime breeding choruses.

Of all the pollutions we face, light pollution is perhaps the most easily remedied. Simple changes in lighting design and installation yield immediate changes in the amount of light spilled into the atmosphere and, often, immediate energy savings.

It was once thought that light pollution only affected astronomers, who need to see the night sky in all its glorious clarity. And, in fact, some of the earliest civic efforts to control light pollution—in Flagstaff, Arizona, half a century ago—were made to protect the view from Lowell Observatory, which sits high above that city. Flagstaff has tightened its regulations since then, and in 2001 it was declared the first International Dark Sky City. By now the effort to control light pollution has spread around the globe. More and more cities and even entire countries, such as the Czech Republic, have committed themselves to reducing unwanted glare.

Unlike astronomers, most of us may not need an undiminished view of the night sky for our work, but like most other creatures we do need darkness. Darkness is as essential to our biological welfare, to our internal clockwork, as light itself. The regular oscillation of waking and sleep in our lives—one of our circadian rhythms—is nothing less than a biological expression of the regular oscillation of light on Earth. So fundamental are these rhythms to our being that altering them is like altering gravity.

For the past century or so, we've been performing an open-ended experiment on ourselves, extending the day, shortening the night, and short-circuiting the human body's sensitive response to light. The consequences of our bright new world are more readily perceptible in less adaptable creatures living in the peripheral glow of our prosperity. But for humans, too, light pollution may take a biological toll. At least one new study has suggested a direct correlation between higher rates of breast cancer in women and the nighttime brightness of their neighborhoods.

In the end, humans are no less trapped by light pollution than the frogs in a pond near a brightly lit highway. Living in a glare of our own making, we have cut ourselves off from our evolutionary and cultural patrimony—the light of the stars and the rhythms of day and night. In a very real sense, light pollution causes us to lose sight of our true place in the universe, to forget the scale of our being, which is best measured against the dimensions of a deep night with the Milky Way—the edge of our galaxy—arching overhead.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Naked Truth

Goya's Naked Maja

And Picasso's

A new show of Picasso's works inspired by the Masters that also includes the Masterworks themselves is taking place in Paris. Here is the Herald Tribune's take:

From across the centuries, a different view of Picasso

PARIS: Picasso, master of invention - or reinvention? A major exhibition being held simultaneously in three Paris museums attempts to answer this question by juxtaposing works by the great Spanish modernist against paintings by earlier masters, from Rembrandt, Velázquez and Delacroix to Manet and Cézanne.

The result is both an astonishing panorama of European art, with many of the world's most famous masterpieces brought together for the first time, and a thought-provoking exploration of the creative process as Picasso's talent for transforming and distorting is tracked from his days as an art student in Barcelona to his last years in southern France.

At the Grand Palais, where the main exhibition, "Picasso and the Masters," opened Wednesday, perhaps the most remarkable display is in the final room, where nudes painted by Picasso at various stages of his long career hang side by side with the most famous nudes of Western art: Goya's "Nude Maja" (circa 1797-1800); Manet's "Olympia" (1863); Titian's "Venus with Cupid and an Organist" (1548); Ingres's "Odalisque en Grisaille" (circa 1824-34), and Rembrandt's semi-clad "Woman Bathing in a Stream" (1654).

This approach prevails throughout the exhibition, which throws chronology out the window and proceeds by themes in order to demonstrate how Picasso absorbed and transmogrified the work of his predecessors to redefine our understanding of art in the 20th century. The nonlinear arrangement startlingly reveals the conscious or subconscious connections forged by Picasso, as though he had processed all of Western art history through an ingenious computer - his brain.

"This exhibition is a revolution in the way we look at art," said Anne Baldassari, director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, who curated the show at the Grand Palais. "It is a kind of miracle to assemble these works, which have never been shown before, and they have been brought together today thanks to Picasso. He is the one who connected the most important canvases. It is as though we are entering into the magic circle of painting."

The arresting juxtaposition of paintings from across the centuries strikes the visitor from the very first moment at the Grand Palais, where the exhibition opens with a self-portrait of Picasso wearing a wig that he painted in 1897, when he was just 16. Beside it are a series of self-portraits, including a Delacroix from 1837, that appear to be reflected in the young Picasso's. While it is nothing unusual for artists to draw inspiration from others, this exhibition displays the depth of Picasso's artistic erudition and powers of reinvention. In the same room a second self-portrait, "Yo, Picasso" (1901), is flanked by self-portraits of Rembrandt at his easel (1660) and Gauguin with his palette (1893-94); the connection is the magnetic gaze of each of the artists. A third wall features self-portraits by Goya (1783), Cézanne (1873-76), Nicolas Poussin (1650), and Picasso (1906), this time linked by the gravity of the countenance.

Some of the juxtapositions can appear far-fetched - El Greco's "Dream of Philip II (Adoration of the Name of Jesus)" of 1579 bears little obvious resemblance to Picasso's "Evocation, the Burial of Casagemas" (1901), which launched his Blue Period. But in a quote displayed on the wall, Picasso himself links the elongated figures of his Blue Period to El Greco.

Other times Picasso deliberately played with the work of a predecessor. At the Grand Palais, Poussin's "Rape of the Sabine Women" (1637-38) was the springboard for works of the same title that Picasso painted in 1962, some clearly echoing the original, others reinterpreting the theme in a way that Poussin could hardly have imagined.

A sister exhibition at the Louvre displays variations on Delacroix's "Women of Algiers in Their Apartment" (1834) that Picasso executed in 1954-55. The third exhibition, at the Musée d'Orsay, fascinatingly explores Picasso's obsession with Manet's "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe" which scandalized Paris in 1863, with its nude woman and her clothed male companions enjoying a picnic.

Nearly as fascinating is the way these three exhibitions progressed from inspiration to reality. Curators succeeded in assembling more than 200 works by the West's greatest artists - which, together with the Picassos, are valued at more than €2 billion, or $2.72 billion, according to Le Monde - via diplomacy, bargaining and outright barter. For example, Baldassari said, to obtain a dozen paintings from the National Gallery in London she loaned that museum 25 Picassos for an exhibition it is holding next year.

The French government and private sponsors poured money into the Grand Palais exhibition, which cost an estimated €4.3 million to organize, Le Monde reported, and is one of the most expensive art events ever held in France. To offset the cost, the Grand Palais has extended its opening hours to 10 p.m. five nights a week for the duration of the exhibition, which closes Feb. 2 and will not travel abroad.

Here, btw, is Picasso's Maja and many other of his versions of the Masters and their originals:

Monday, October 27, 2008

Eco 101: It's the economy, stupid...with more 11/5

As the world slips into recession, possibly a depression, as unemployment rises, and retirement accounts dwindle, we suddenly realize how inadequate our understanding of economics is.

As I see it, the major theories fall between two camps, those of the libertarian bent, who argue against government interference in economic affairs, leaving the markets to rise and fall on their own, and those who advocate government intervention, regulation, and even government ownership of production in order to secure equality of opportunity and wealth.

Virtually all economists support some form of "spreading the wealth," whether through taxation or through government regulation of wages, benefits, and labor laws. No serious thinker today argues against the redistribution of wealth for the good of society and for the health of the economy. Recent events clearly demonstrate the essentil need for government intervention when capitalism runs amok.

For a brief understanding of Economics, I recommend looking at the work of three giants: Smith, Keynes, and Marx. Milton Friedman is also a good source of the unfettered capitalism view, though he does a good job summing up the theories of those before him:

I like to start with Keynes, who is apropos today as governments try to come to the rescue of the markets. He is also interesting personally as an active member of Bloomsbury:

Painter Duncan Grant with Keynes

John Maynard Keynes

Added Nov. 5, 2008:

November 4, 2008

The hippy guide to Keynesian economics

Forget those Depression rescue plans and focus on his vision for a more fulfilling life

Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, may be basing his economic rescue plan on the idea that “a lot of what Keynes wrote still makes sense”, but he doesn't know the half of it.

John Maynard Keynes, the old maverick, plotted a revolutionary prescription for our era that makes Mr Darling's planned public spending splurge look sepia coloured and disastrously short-sighted.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Keynes imagined a completely different future for us, far removed from today's world of boom and bust. In a largely forgotten essay, Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, he predicted that in three generations' time (the era we are entering) the “economic problem” - the challenge of creating and allocating resources so that everyone would have enough to satisfy their needs and basic desires - would be solved. Once we had passed that historic point, he thought that we would be liberated to explore the greater potential of humankind.

For Keynes, economics was a dirty game, and the business of earning and spending was a sordid obligation that humanity should shrug off as soon as possible. In the 1930s he believed that until we had developed our economy and technology sufficiently to support our human material requirements “we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still.”

But once we had got ourselves “out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight”, he predicted: “I see us free to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue - that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour and the love of money is detestable...We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well.” He thought that we would flourish in the arts, in culture, and even perfect the ultimate refinements of beauty and friendship.

The man whose ideas helped to navigate Britain out of the mass unemployment of the 1930s after orthodox economics had failed, would look at the Western world today and declare: “Fiscal job done. Let's get on with the interesting stuff.” Remember, Keynes wasn't some dry old number-shuffler, but a member of the proto-hippy Bloomsbury circle who did his fair share of youthful sexual adventuring. In the 1940s he chaired the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts - the progenitor of the Arts Council.

Of course, Keynes has the advantage on us, in that he was writing with the benefit of imaginative foresight. It's a perspective that we don't enjoy, as we come full up against the consequences of unprecedented levels of material and technological abundance. In his optimism, Keynes rejected the possibility that once we had solved the economic problem we would shackle ourselves by constantly chasing ever more stuff - possessions, debt, celebrity, Brand'n'Woss-style infotainment, rather than learning to be satisfied with material contentment and evolving from there.

He predicted that only a sizeably ignorant minority would pursue constant, selfish consumption: “When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals,” Keynes wrote.

“Of course there will still be many people with intense, unsatisfied purposiveness who will blindly pursue wealth unless they can find some plausible substitute. But the rest of us will no longer be under any obligation to applaud and encourage them.” Indeed, Keynes imagined that instead of encouraging the likes of Posh'n'Becks through magazines such as Heat and Grazia, we would foster a virtuous cycle that would run something like this: if we create and consume less consumerist propaganda, and if we feel less hurried and worried, then we should feel that we have enough materially and therefore need to spend less, strive less and earn less. Then we will have time and energy to spend in more fulfilling and mutually productive ways.

The likes of Mr Darling have failed to read Keynes's revolutionary recommendations for our abundance-glutted times. Instead, our economic leaders are bent on applying his 1930s solution to a 21st-century problem. Simply jump-starting the creaking old Keynesian economic model will only guarantee us more boom, more bust, more misery and a future in which our needless overconsumption of finite global resources can only increase.

Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren was out of print for 20 years, but was revived last year in Revisiting Keynes (edited by Lorenzo Pecchi and Gustavo Piga, MIT Press). Mr Darling, and the rest of the world's economic leaders, would do well to visit the bookstores to learn what Keynes truly prescribed for this 21st-century crunch.

John Naish is author of Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More, published by Hodder & Stoughton

Any discussion of economics has to include the thought of Adam Smith:

Western Economists
Classical economics
(Modern economics)

Finally, Marxian economics, minus his political arguments for communism and a violent revolution, is still valid today. Democratic socialism, practiced globally, especially in Europe, is essential to any comprehension of Economics:

Marxian Economics

Also, do read:
Like, Socialism.

Spread the Wealth.


Friday, October 24, 2008

More Milk Please

Before the election-- in San Francisco-- and shortly thereafter for the rest of us, another collective mind-altering film will appear. It will be a look back at the life of a great man, and a look forward worthy of the achievement of our country's election of a liberal man of color as our new President.

Focus Features
Sean Penn as the openly gay politician Harvey Milk in the Gus Van Sant film "Milk."

A weighty, gay-theme film makes an early Oscar run

LOS ANGELES: One morning in 1978 a disgruntled San Francisco politician, Dan White, climbed through a City Hall window, assassinated Mayor George Moscone, then shot and killed an openly gay adversary on the city's Board of Supervisors named Harvey Milk.

It was a fractured moment in a troubled time and place. Memories of it soon will be roiling the Oscar race.

On Oct. 28 Focus Features expects to introduce its film "Milk," directed by Gus Van Sant with Sean Penn in the title role, at a gala in San Francisco hosted by local luminaries, at least one of whom - Senator Dianne Feinstein, then the president of the board of supervisors - was just steps away when Milk and Moscone were shot. The movie will begin playing in some theaters on Nov. 26, just ahead of the 30th anniversary of the killings on Nov. 27, then gain wider release worldwide as the awards season gets under way.

Already the film is drawing attention as an early contender in the coming Oscar race. Following early screenings, for instance, Hollywood insiders and others have been startled by Penn's picture-perfect rendering of Milk, a politician who was at once gawky, ambitious and unforgettable to those whose lives he touched. "Sean's portrayal of Harvey is so beautifully right," Cleve Jones, a Milk friend who is played in the film by Emile Hirsch, said in a phone interview.

Yet the movie presents no small challenge for Focus, the specialty division owned by NBC Universal that two years ago pushed its gay-theme "Brokeback Mountain" to the cusp of Oscar glory with eight nominations, only to see "Crash" win best picture.

This time around, studio marketers are wrestling with an inherently political film at a time when audiences have been wary of them. Earlier this month the star power of Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe was not enough to save an issues-oriented thriller, "Body of Lies," which opened poorly for Warner Brothers in the United States.

Focus and Van Sant will have to connect millions of filmgoers with a world that could seem weirdly disconnected, even back then. Only nine days before the murders, for example, the Reverend Jim Jones, whose People's Temple had become influential in San Francisco politics, had orchestrated the death of more than 900 followers and others at Jonestown in Guyana.

The publishing heiress Patricia Hearst, meanwhile, was tucked in a Bay Area prison, the consequence of her engaging in a bank robbery for the Symbionese Liberation Army, which had kidnapped her.

"You're giving me an acid flashback to all the chatter before 'Brokeback,"' said James Schamus, chief executive of Focus, responding to a question about the universal message in Milk's struggles. Those could turn on matters as weighty as gay rights, or as slight as an ordinance requiring dog owners to clean up after their pets.

"Harvey said, 'This is a quest for everybody's rights,"' Schamus said. "That was his genius."

If the ranch hands of "Brokeback" were subdued, nothing about Milk was. He loudly insisted that gay people should be out of the closet, at a time when public homosexuality was largely confined to San Francisco and a few like-minded enclaves.

Milk's grandest political battle was his successful fight against a California initiative that would have banned gay teachers from the state's public schools. His roughest was the backroom scrap in which he helped to block White's reappointment to a supervisor's post from which he had resigned two weeks earlier. Moscone was planning to discuss that decision publicly on the day of the murders.

According to the film's producers and others, some of the political intricacies were whittled from Dustin Lance Black's script. Though the People's Temple had supported Milk, for instance, Jones was largely cut. "It would take so much time to explain to people who Jim Jones was," said Dan Jinks, who with his business partner Bruce Cohen are among the movie's producers.

What remained, according to Jinks, was the story of a "regular guy" - before politics, Milk was best known as co-owner of a camera store in the Castro district of San Francisco - who decided to make a difference.

Van Sant's film came together suddenly last year after he and other filmmakers, Bryan Singer and Oliver Stone among them, had struggled for two decades with various attempts to find a feature film in Milk's life.

Black, himself a director, bypassed those earlier efforts, many of them based on Randy Shilts's book "The Mayor of Castro Street," and began researching an original script with the help of those who knew Milk. In early 2007 one of those friends, Jones, showed the script to Van Sant, whom he had known for years.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

On the High Seas

Magellan (click)

Just 488 years ago, Ferdinand Magellan arrived at Tierra Del Fuego (click) and traversed the straights that now bear his name. When he passed Argentina and Chile, he entered the Pacific Ocean and thus began Globalization. From Sugar and Spice and everything nice, we now get a Pandora's box of goods spanning the globe.

Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe (P.S.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Looking for one thing and finding another

While searching for a photo of Rimbaud, I came across one of Frank O'Hara instead, along with a poem I include here, proving the connectedness of seemingly separate loves of mine. The link to the source is unique and I end with that...

a love poem for Valentine’s.
by Frank O’Hara

When I am feeling depressed and anxious sullen
all you have to do is take off your clothes
and all is wiped away revealing life’s tenderness
that we are flesh and breathe and are near us
as you are really as you are I become as I
really am alive and knowing vaguely what is
and what is important to me above the intrusions
of incident and accidental relationships
which have nothing to do with my life

when I am in your presence I feel life is strong
and will defeat all its enemies and all of mine
and all of yours and yours in you and mine in me
sick logic and feeble reasoning are cured
by the perfect symmetry of your arms and legs
spread out making an eternal circle together
creating a golden pillar beside the Atlantic
the faint line of hair dividing your torso
gives my mind rest and emotions their release
into the infinite air where since once we are
together we always will be in this life come what may


Monday, October 20, 2008

White on Rimbaud

A Review of Edmund White's new bio of Arthur Rimbaud:

I Is Another

Skip to next paragraph


The Double Life of a Rebel

By Edmund White

192 pp. Atlas & Company. $24

More aspects of Rimbaud are known than can be assimilated: his vastly various, influential and innovative poetry itself; his expressive letters; his scornful and unhesitating permanent abandonment of poetry at the age of 20; the anecdotes of his contemporaries showing him as a drunken, filthy, amoral homosexualteenager who becomes a reserved, hard-working, responsible and respectable (if misanthropic and disgust-ridden) adult merchant and explorer. One would have to be a genius oneself to grasp the full significance of Arthur Rimbaud, or at least have the ability to hold many opposed ideas in one’s mind at the same time and still function fully. Numerous writers have sought to demonstrate their qualifications along these lines by publishing studies of him.

This biography by Edmund White is the digest version. If you’re casually curious about the fuss made over Rimbaud and want the lowdown from someone literate, it will satisfy you, without badly misleading. This approach seems to be the plan behind the series of short lives, each written by a distinguished author (often a novelist or scholar, not usually a professional biographer) and edited by James Atlas, first for Penguin, now for Atlas & Company, of which “Rimbaud” is the latest entry. Seems like a worthy idea; there are a lot of famous artists and thinkers one wouldn’t mind getting a convenient little handle on.

Still, this book irritates a bit with some of its complacent assertions, such as that Rimbaud’s famous declaration (in a letter written at age 16), “Je est un autre” (“I is someone else”), “meant that in the act of introspection we objectify the self, we experience our self as if it belongs to another person,” which takes banality to the point of distortion. It’s self-evident that examining oneself predicates a pair. But “I is another” is exhilarating, a revelation, which, at the very least, acknowledges one’s undifferentiated human substance or collectivity, as for a child . . .

On a blue summer evening I shall go

down the path

And, brushed by wheat, walk on the

fine grass.

Dreaming along, I’ll feel the coolness

under my feet

And bathe my bare head in the poetic


I won’t speak, I will not even think,

But infinite love will geyser up in my


And I’ll go far, far away, like a Gypsy

Into the wilds — as happy as if I were

with a woman.

. . . who is present at his own invention as an actor in life (in more ways than two: the above is Rimbaud’s second known post-schoolwork poem, written at the age of 15, and it foresees his life — if in an innocent, far more lush and joyous light than it would actually be played out), like “the wood that becomes a violin” and “tough luck” to it for that fate (a letter at 16), or as when “the brass awakes as horn” (ditto) and, as Rimbaud adds, “I am present at the explosion of my thought. I watch and I listen to it. I wave the baton; the symphony murmurs from its depths or comes leaping onto the stage” (ditto as well). One witnesses one’s invention by life, while one plays oneself like a symphonic conductor, in the meantime dreaming a million dreams. . . . The statement of it is thrilling, is uncanny, and it’s words. This is what Rimbaud gives us. There is no limit to his reach, and it doesn’t exceed his grasp.

The best full-scale English-language biography of Rimbaud is Graham Robb’s (published in 2000), as White agrees in his book, incorporating such Robb insights and researches as the tally of time the vagabond rebel-boy spent at home with his mother (actually almost five of the approximately nine years between his first escape from her farm at 15 and his eventual departure from Europe in 1880), and that, contrary to legend, Rimbaud ultimately did quite well as a merchant and weapons salesman, accumulating a small fortune (the equivalent of well over $100,000, according to Robb) in the course of his approximately 11 years in Africa.

White uses his own translations to demonstrate Rimbaud’s poetry. They will do in context, but, for the interested, I’d recommend Wyatt Mason’s two-­volume Modern Library edition of Rimbaud’s complete writings (works and letters). Any translation requires special focus from a reader. Of the large-scale Rimbaud efforts, the Mason is the most alive.

Because that’s what distinguishes Rimbaud: of all poets, his writing is the most alive, even now and here, in another language more than a hundred years later. He learned very much from Baudelaire, and in many ways Baudelaire remains his master, but Baudelaire was a poet of ennui (and dreams), while Rimbaud reels with the most robust — if often contemptuous — vitality (and dreams). This is a function of his peasant, punkish ultra-confidence in the value of his pure (unegotistic) honesty, as an adolescent seeing through the adult hypocrisy and convention veiling the sensual, unsane world; a boy to whom language was understood as inextricable (to the seer) from reality, and who knew how to wield those words, existence itself. He didn’t have to try to translate his perceptions into language; he understood that he must see in language, and he saw with the supreme, paradoxically unformed, fluid ego of an adolescent. His honesty and insight never waned — he just grew up and lost interest in the unrewarding expression of the visions.

Richard Hell is writing an autobiography.

See also:

a painting of Rimbaud gazing at Verlaine, his lover.

Edmund White Does Rimbaud - And Other Things

Ah, Love.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Remembering John Ross

Central to the Tennessee River trip we took last week is the history of Cherokee Chief John Ross. Here's a hint of the wealth of accomplishment of this American hero:


Chief John Ross of the Cherokee Nation

John Ross, first Chief of the Cherokee Nation

Born on October 3, 1790 at Turkeytown, Alabama

John Ross was the son of Daniel Ross, a Scotsman who had gone to live among the Cherokee during the American Revolution. His mother was also ¾ Scottish and ¼ Cherokee.

John’s father, Daniel, established a store at Chattanooga Creek near the foot of Lookout Mountain, which operated until about 1816. Determined that his children would receive a quality education, Daniel built a small school and hired a teacher. It was here that John Ross received his early education before attending another school in Kingston, Tennessee and later the Maryville, Tennessee Academy.

Ross' Landing in Chatanooga, Tennessee

Ross' Landing, painting by Larry Dodson, courtesy

Larry Dodson Arts

Though only 1/8th Cherokee, Ross was of Indian heritage through and through. Early in his life, he witnessed much brutality on the American frontier as both Indians and settlers alike were constantly raiding the Cherokee villages.

Also an astute businessman, Ross was involved with a number of business ventures, owned a 200 acre farm, and owned a number of slaves.

Over the next ten years, Ross fought the white settlers who were attempting to displace the Cherokee from their lands. Fighting not with weapons, but with words, he turned to the press and the courts to support the Cherokee cause.

When gold was discovered in White County, Georgia in 1828, the state began to push even harder for removal of the Indians. The Georgia legislature soon outlawed the Cherokee government and confiscated tribal lands. When the Cherokee appealed for federal protection, they were rejected by President.

Though winning several court rulings, it would make no difference as Ross’ former comrade, President Andrew Jackson authorized the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

The Jackson Administration began to put pressure on the Cherokees and other tribes to sign treaties of removal but the Cherokees rejected any proposals. However, when Jackson was reelected in 1832, some of the Cherokees believed that removal was inevitable. A Treaty Party, led by Major John Ridge, believed that it was in the best interest of the Cherokee Nation to get the best possible terms from the U.S. government. Cautiously, Ridge began unauthorized talks with the Jackson administration.

However, Chief John Ross and the majority of the Cherokee people remained adamantly opposed to removal. In 1832, Ross cancelled the tribal elections and the Council impeached Ridge, and a member of the Ridge Party was murdered. The "Treaty Party" responded by forming their own council, which represented only a small minority of the Cherokee people. Both the Ross government and the Ridge Party sent independent delegations to Washington.

In the end, 500 of the Cherokees (out of thousands) supported a treaty to cede the Cherokee lands in exchange for $5,700,000 and new lands in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma.) Though the actions was repudiated by more than nine-tenths of the tribe and was not signed by a single elected tribal official, Congress ratified the treaty on May 23, 1836.

Chief Ross and the Cherokee National Council maintained that the document was a fraud and presented a petition with more than 15,000 Cherokee signatures to congress in the spring of 1838. Other white settlers also were outraged by the questionable legality of the treaty. On April 23, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson appealed to Jackson's successor, President Martin Van Buren, urging him not to inflict "so vast an outrage upon the Cherokee Nation. But it was not to be.

Soon, the Cherokees were forced to move to Indian Territory on what would become known as the Trail of Tears. Along the 2,200 mile journey, road conditions, illness, cold, and exhaustion took thousands of lives, including Chief John Ross' wife Quatie. Though the federal government officially stated some 424 deaths, an American doctor traveling with one the party estimated that 2,000 people died in the camps and another 2,000 along the trail. Other estimates have been stated that conclude that almost 8,000 of the Cherokee died during the Indian Removal.

Once the tribe was relocated to a site near present day Tahlequah, Oklahoma, John Ross was reelected Principal Chief. Major Ridge was killed the same day for violating the law forbidding unauthorized sale of property. Soon, land was set aside for schools, a newspaper, and a new Cherokee capital.

During the Civil War, the Cherokee aligned themselves with the Confederacy, a declaration that repudiated any treaties that had been formerly signed with the Federal Government.

In September, 1865, Ross attended the Grand Council of Southern Indians at Fort Smith, Arkansas where new treaties between Cherokee and the Federal government were prepared. In July, 1866, though in failing health, he accompanied a delegation to Washington where new the treaties were signed on July 19, 1866. Soon after the treaties were signed, Ross took to his bed at the Medes Hotel in Washington D.C. where he died on August 1, 1866. His body was returned to Indian Territory where he is buried at Ross Cemetery in Park Hill, Oklahoma.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March, 2008

Chief John Ross

Chief John Ross, courtesy the Smithsonian Institution

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Krugman Rocks

As an admirer of Paul Krugman's column in the New York Times, I was thrilled to see that he won the Nobel Prize in Economics. We have cited him repeatedly in this blog: Krugman Zone.

Here is a good overview from the Herald Tribune:

International Herald Tribune
Bush critic wins 2008 Nobel for economics
Monday, October 13, 2008

By Anna Ringstrom, Sven Nordenstam and Jon Hurdle

U.S. economist Paul Krugman, a fierce critic of the Bush administration for policies that he argues led to the current financial crisis, won the 2008 Nobel prize for economics on Monday.

The Nobel committee said the award was for Krugman's work that helps explain why some countries dominate international trade, starting with research published nearly 30 years ago.

While the research for which he won the prize was not obviously partisan, Krugman is best known as the author of columns and a blog called "The Conscience of a Liberal" for the New York Times. He has long been tipped as a likely winner.

A professor at Princeton University, the 55-year-old Krugman argues that President George W. Bush's zeal for deregulation and loose fiscal policies helped spark the current banking meltdown.

He said news of the prize took him by surprise. "I took the call stark naked as I was about to step into the shower," he told a news conference at Princeton on Monday afternoon.

Speaking by telephone to a news conference earlier, Krugman offered a snap analysis on the turbulent times.

"We are now witnessing a crisis that is as severe as the crisis that hit Asia in the 90s. This crisis bears some resemblance to the Great Depression."

Praising world leaders' efforts to staunch the financial bleeding, particularly in Europe, he added: "I'm slightly less terrified today than I was on Friday."

World policy makers met at the weekend, after a black week on financial markets, to agree on radical measures to rescue banks, revive liquidity and avert a global recession.

It was the second year in a row that a major Nobel prize was awarded to an American known for his strong criticism of Bush -- last year's peace prize went to former U.S. Vice President Al Gore for his work on climate change.

Asked at the Princeton news conference if he saw a trend of Nobels going to people who were anti-Bush, Krugman said "A lot of intellectuals are anti-Bush."

The prize committee dismissed any suggestion its choice was influenced by the current crisis or political considerations.

"I don't think the committee has ever taken a political stance," committee secretary Peter Englund told Reuters. "The real, dramatic crisis is an event of the last month or so, which is in practice after the committee took its decision."


Krugman's latest column in the New York Times, published on Monday, praised Britain for thinking clearly and acting quickly to address the crisis, unlike the United States. He mused: Did Prime Minister Gordon Brown just save world markets?

Britain unveiled a plan last week to bolster ailing banks, and on Monday it waded in with 37 billion pounds ($64 billion) of capital, a move that could make the state the banks' main owner.

Readers of Krugman's blog posted hundreds of comments congratulating him as an accessible voice of common sense.

"Sometimes it feels as though you are the only sane person in America," said a writer who identified himself as Martin Gruner Larsen.

Krugman said he was encouraged by recent steps to address the crisis and said it was vital there should be a combination of capital injection and guarantees for banks.

Commenting on policy proposals from the two U.S. presidential candidates, he said: "It would be kind of nice if we did have a sophisticated government, but that may change."

Asked about accountability for the crisis, Krugman said the financial system had outgrown the regulatory system.

"There is a lot of grotesque greed under this crisis but greed isn't illegal," he said.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the prestigious 10 million crown ($1.4 million) award recognized Krugman's formulation of a new theory that addresses what drives worldwide urbanization.

"He has thereby integrated the previously disparate research fields of international trade and economic geography," the committee said. "Krugman's approach is based on the premise that many goods and services can be produced more cheaply in a long series, a concept generally known as economies of scale."

Krugman's theory clarifies why trade is dominated by countries that not only have similar conditions but also trade in similar products.

(Writing by Anna Ringstrom; Editing by Charles Dick and Philip Barbara)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tennessee Weekend

Forget Columbus.
We followed the trail of such frontiersmen as Davy Crockett to the Cumberland Plateau.

Tennessee River Gorge, Autumn

We started the weekend at Leas's, on the North Shore, dining on home-made Viet Namese cuisine, wine and champagne, and toasting Sissy's birthday with home-made Manhattans.

Dr. Rick ( of and Starr made it six for spring rolls.

On Monday, we took the catamaran upriver for a perfect afternoon.

River Gorge videoRGE video

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Explorer commercial.
Learn more about the special
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the River Gorge Explorer.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Waiting For...

Waiting For...

As the hour for debating arrives,
As I sit at home on the gray sofa,
I want poetry, as I read Frank
O'Hara. And think about the emptiness
Of so much that occupies life. The
Emptiness of quarreling, of money, of growing old.
The emptiness of death on the beach,
On Fire Island, at night, O'Hara at forty
Killed by a jeep. The plunge
Of the financial world, vast beyond
Understanding. Until the notice comes and
We are all laid off. Depression. Emptiness.
As the debate comes, I think,
I want to be The Obama Poet.
I want to celebrate the Half-black Barack:
President of America. Then, I recall his birthplace,
Recall how joyous spring was there,
So much so, I nearly drowned in its plenitude,
There beneath the fall.

Jack Jameson

Monday, October 06, 2008

Garrison Keillor on the Bailout

They're Stealing from You and Me -- Where's the Outrage?

By Garrison Keillor, International Herald Tribune

Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace: It wasn't their money Wall Street was playing with. It was ours.

By Garrison Keillor, International Herald Tribune
Posted on October 6, 2008, Printed on October 6, 2008

Where were the cops?

It's just human nature that some calamities register in the brain and others don't. The train engineer texting at the throttle ("HOW R U? C U L8R") and missing the red light and 25 people die in the crash -- oh God, that is way too real -- everyone has had a moment of supreme stupidity that came close to killing somebody. Even atheists say a little prayer now and then: Dear God, I am an idiot, thank you for protecting my children.

On the other hand, the America's federal bailout of the financial market (yawn) is a calamity that people accept as if it were just one more hurricane. An air of crisis, the secretary of the Treasury striding down a hall at the Capitol with minions in his wake, solemn-faced congressmen at the microphones. Something must be done, harrumph harrumph.

The Current Occupant pops out of the cuckoo clock and reads a few lines off a piece of paper, pronouncing all the words correctly. And the newscaster looks into the camera and says, "Etaoin shrdlu qwertyuiop."

Where is the outrage?

Poor Senator Larry Craig got a truckload of moral condemnation for tapping his wingtips in the men's john, but his party proposes to spend 5 percent of the GDP to buy up bad loans made by men who walk away with their fortunes intact while retirees see their 401(k) go pffffffff like a defunct air mattress, and it's business as usual.

John McCain is a lifelong deregulator and believer in letting brokers and bankers do as they please -- remember Lincoln Savings and Loan and his intervention with federal regulators in behalf of his friend Charles Keating, who then went to prison? Remember Neil Bush, the brother of the C.O., who, as a director of Silverado S&L, bestowed enormous loans on his friends without telling fellow directors that the friends were friends and who, when the loans failed, paid a small fine and went skipping off to other things?

McCain now decries greed on Wall Street and suggests a commission be formed to look into the problem. This is like Casanova coming out for chastity.

Confident men took leave of common sense and bet on the idea of perpetual profit in the real estate market and crashed. But it wasn't their money. It was your money they were messing with. And that's why we need government regulators. Gimlet-eyed men with steel-rim glasses and crepe-soled shoes who check the numbers and have the power to say, "This is a scam and a hustle and either you cease and desist or you spend a few years in a minimum-security federal facility playing backgammon."

The Republican Party used to specialize in gimlet-eyed, steel-rim, crepe-soled common sense and then it was taken over by crooked preachers who demand Americans trust them because they're packing a Bible and God sent them on a mission to enact lower taxes, less government. Except when things crash, and then government has to pick up the pieces.

Some say the tab might come to a trillion dollars. Nobody knows. And McCain has not one moment of doubt or regret. He switches from First Deregulation Church to Our Lady of Strict Vigilance like you might go from decaf to latte. Where is the straight talk? Does the man have no conscience?

It wasn't their money they were playing with. It was yours. Where were the cops?

What we are seeing is the stuff of a novel, the public corruption of an American war hero. It is painful.

First, there was McCain's exploitation of a symbolic woman, an eager zealot who is so far out of her depth that it isn't funny anymore. Anyone with a heart has to hurt for how McCain has made a fool of her. Never mind the persistent cheesiness of his attack ads. And now this chasm of debt and loss and the gentleman pretends to be shocked. He was there. He turned out the lights. He sent the regulators home.

McCain seems willing to say anything, do anything, to get to the White House so he can go to war with Iran. If he needs to recline naked in a department store window, he would do that, or eat live chickens, or claim to be a reformer. Obviously you can fool a lot of people for a while and maybe he can stretch it out until mid-November. But the truth is marching on. A few true conservatives led the charge against the bailout. Good for them. But how about admitting that their cowboy economic philosophy was at fault here?

Garrison Keillor is the author of a new Lake Wobegon novel, "Liberty."

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sunday: A Day for Poetry

Listen: Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)

NYRB took me to Frank O'Hara, today. How could I have gone so long without knowing his voice? Now his is a life I could fancy, the art, the friends, the writing, even the love. Just not being run over on a beach. Death at 40 at dawn by the sea. Alas.

Here is the poem for today:


Perhaps it is to avoid some great sadness,
as in a Restoration tragedy the hero cries "Sleep!
O for a long sound sleep and so forget it!"
that one flies, soaring above the shoreless city,
veering upward from the pavement as a pigeon
does when a car honks or a door slams, the door
of dreams, life perpetuated in parti-colored loves
and beautiful lies all in different languages.

Fear drops away too, like the cement, and you
are over the Atlantic. Where is Spain? where is
who? The Civil War was fought to free the slaves,
was it? A sudden down-draught reminds you of gravity
and your position in respect to human love. But
here is where the gods are, speculating, bemused.
Once you are helpless, you are free, can you believe
that? Never to waken to the sad struggle of a face?
to travel always over some impersonal vastness,
to be out of, forever, neither in nor for!

The eyes roll asleep as if turned by the wind
and the lids flutter open slightly like a wing.
The world is an iceberg, so much is invisible!
and was and is, and yet the form, it may be sleeping
too. Those features etched in the ice of someone
loved who died, you are a sculptor dreaming of space
and speed, your hand alone could have done this.
Curiosity, the passionate hand of desire. Dead,
or sleeping? Is there speed enough? And, swooping,
you relinquish all that you have made your own,
the kingdom of your self sailing, for you must awake
and breathe your warmth in this beloved image
whether it's dead or merely disappearing,
as space is disappearing and your singularity.

By Frank O'Hara

From NYRB:

Volume 55, Number 14 · September 25, 2008

'What We Love, Not Are'

By Edward Mendelson
Frank O'Hara: Selected Poems
by Frank O'hara

'What We Love, Not Are"
A Review by Edward Mendelson

Frank O'Hara was the most sociable of poets, always happy to read aloud at parties, always praising friends or lovers or anyone else who got his attention, almost always portraying his inner life as if it existed only so that it could savor his outer one. O'Hara loved writers, artists, poems, paintings, bars, cafés, food, sex, film stars, buildings, and much else, and he seemed to toss them all into the mixed salads of his poetry with the same indifference to form and logic, the same domesticated surrealism, that characterized much of the American avant-garde of the period. Almost everyone who remembers O'Hara from his heady days in bohemian New York in the 1950s and 1960s remembers him as the liveliest guest at any party in Greenwich Village or the Hamptons where the artistic and literary avant-garde gathered to celebrate itself.

But O'Hara was trying to find something different from what most of the other party guests were looking for, something far more sober, lonely, and serious. The best of the hundreds of poems that he wrote from around the age of twenty-three, in 1949, until his death at forty, in 1966, after a Jeep accident on a Fire Island beach, were private conversations with individual readers, too quiet to be heard in a crowded room. O'Hara wrote a seriously joking prose piece, "Personism: A Manifesto," that pretended to treat his poetic manner as an exciting avant-garde movement "which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents." Thanks to this new movement, "the poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages." For a while, O'Hara also enjoyed writing showy, extravagant party pieces -- long poems filled with miscellaneous names, places, and events -- but his career began and ended with his shorter, deeper, more finely crafted lyrics, and the word "love" occurs more often in his shorter poems than in his longer ones.

Few who enjoyed O'Hara's presence in the avant-garde scene seem to have noticed that his jokes, gossip, and wild associative leaps tended to culminate in sermons about the ultimate value of one-to-one relations. "The only truth is face to face," he wrote in "Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets," a poem partly about the prejudicial falsehoods that blur individual faces. The closing couplet reads:

the only truth is face to face, the poem whose words become your mouth
and dying in black and white we fight for what we love, not are

For O'Hara a poem was truthful when it was personal, not in the self-regarding "confessional" style of Robert Lowell's poems, which O'Hara called "just plain bad," but in the way in which one person attends to another. What was worth fighting for was "what we love," not identity, essence, principles, blackness, whiteness, or anything else we might think we are.

O'Hara made his living as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art and as a reviewer for art magazines. The artworks he most admired were pictures of individual persons painted with the uniquely personal brushstrokes of painters such as Willem de Kooning and Larry Rivers. He disliked the flat, impersonal, mechanical images silkscreened by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. But he was too generous-minded to persist in his distaste for Warhol, and eventually wrote of one of his portraits that it was "not sarcastic," as he had expected, but "moving and beautiful."


O'Hara rushed into print with reviews and essays about the painters he admired, but he resisted most opportunities to publish his poems. Aside from a few pamphlets printed by art galleries in tiny editions, he allowed only two collections to appear in his lifetime,Meditations in an Emergency(1957) and Lunch Poems(1964). Both had to be dragged out of him by their publishers; the second required six years of persuasion by Lawrence Ferlinghetti before O'Hara supplied the contents.

All posthumous editions of O'Hara's work, including Mark Ford's sensitively chosen and intelligently introduced Selected Poems, are compiled mostly from poems that O'Hara never hoped to publish. Donald Allen, the ener getic anthologist of the avant-garde who had helped get Lunch Poemsinto print, put everything he could find into the thick Collected Poemsthat appeared in 1971, five years after O'Hara's death; a revised edition appeared in 1995. Allen also published a few further volumes of poems that had eluded him in 1971, and edited aSelected Poemsin 1974.

Mark Ford's selection presents a different O'Hara from the one portrayed by Donald Allen's 1974 volume. The differences begin on the front covers. The older book displays Larry Rivers's nude portrait of O'Hara, with the genitals in brighter light and sharper focus than the face. The newer book displays a friend's photograph of O'Hara's face in profile, its expression contemplative and alert. Ford's selection makes it possible to see more clearly how inward O'Hara's poetry was at its best, and his version of O'Hara is more celebratory than Allen's, less eager to shock. Among O'Hara's longer poems, both Allen and Ford include the later "Ode to Michael Goldberg ('s Birth and Other Births)" and "Biotherm (for Bill Berkson)," which have much to say about hope, liberty, wine, and dessert. But Allen includes, and Ford omits, the early long poems "Hatred" and "Easter," which have much to say about excrement and pain.

The best books about O'Hara are Marjorie Perloff's critical study, Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters(1977, revised 1998), and Brad Gooch's biography, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara(1993). Both have titles that locate O'Hara in a group or a scene -- in much the same way that the nude portrait on the old Selected Poemslocates him in a sexual category -- although both books are sensitive to the privacy and inwardness of O'Hara's best work. Gooch repeatedly observes that O'Hara wrote most fluently when he was alone, and that the densely populated world of his most public poems was his defense against an emptiness that both tempted and terrified him.

O'Hara is explicit about this temptation, and about the failure of his usual defenses against it, in a poem called "Anxiety":

I'm having a real day of it.
There was
something I had to do. But what?
There are no alternatives, just
the one something.
I have a drink,
it doesn't help -- far from it!

A few lines later he wishes he could become "really dark, richly dark, like/being drunk," but even that would be second-best to the suicidal relief that a total dissolution into emptiness could bring:

the impossible
pure light, to be as if above a vast
prairie, rushing and pausing over
the tiny golden heads in deep grass.

Among O'Hara's contemporaries, few poets seem less like him than the repressed, unsociable, provincial English librarian Philip Larkin. But O'Hara's "Anxiety" has the same tone, mood, and plot of Larkin's "High Windows," in which all comforts seem impossible, and Larkin's anxiety issues finally in

the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

When O'Hara compared himself with writers and artists among his friends, he insisted that he was attempting less than they did, and tried to suppress his sense that he was achieving more. In one typically self-denigrating letter he wrote: "Where Kenneth [Koch] and Jimmy [James Schuyler] produce art, for instance, I often feel I just produce the by-product of exhibitionism." In the same letter, however, he pointed toward a deeper motive than exhibitionism: "Sometimes I think that writing a poem is such a moral crisis I get completely sick of the whole situation." O'Hara was too modest to admit that he believed his friends' desire to "produce art" -- to confront an aesthetic crisis instead of a moral one -- was their limitation.

Even his most comic and arbitrary-sounding poems tend to be essays on moral crises. The point of the comedy was not to dismiss the issues, but to disclaim any importance for himself in comparison with the issues. O'Hara's characteristic tone in his love poetry was that of unrequited passion, as in an early poem, "Poetry," where his desire to be forever with his art is indistinguishable from his desire to be forever with a person:

All this I desire. To
deepen you by my quickness
and delight as if you
were logical and proven,
but still be quiet as if
I were used to you; as if
you would never leave me
and were the inexorable
product of my own time.

And in one of his last poems, "Cantata," the closing lines about his orange cat are equally about someone human:

...he looks like my best friend my constant lover
hopelessly loyal tawny and apt and whom I hopelessly love

W.H. Auden famously warned O'Hara against the arbitrary, surrealistic shifts of tone and subject in the poems that he and his friend John Ashbery were writing in the 1950s:

I think you (and John, too, for that matter) must watch what is always the great danger with any "surrealistic" style, namely of confusing authentic non-logical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue.

Auden had not detected the almost opposite motivations behind the "non-logical relations" in O'Hara's and Ashbery's poetry. Ashbery's work, O'Hara said, "is full of dreams and a kind of moral excellence and kind sentiments," while his own "is full of objects for their own sake" that he treats with "ironically intimate observation." But Ashbery's dreamlike sentiments link together whatever happens to be in his mind while he is writing a poem, while O'Hara's "objects for their own sake" are linked together by his sense that, as in Dante's Paradise, everything that has profound value in itself is obscurely but profoundly connected to everything that has similar value.

In fact, in O'Hara's best poems, the relations that Auden called non-logical had a logic of their own. O'Hara was a lapsed Roman Catholic who detached himself cleanly and almost guiltlessly from his religious past. He lost all interest in Catholic theology and morals, but retained an aesthetic sensibility in which saints, shrines, relics, and rituals from wildly different centuries and cultures exist in a single harmonious texture of mutual adoration and love. The abrupt leaps from one object or person to another may look like the arbitrary leaps in Ashbery's poetry, but they have a logic founded in a Catholic sensibility that persisted after O'Hara discarded Catholicism.

When O'Hara links together a film star, a ballerina, a poet, and a half-dozen friends, he is being less surrealistic than Dantesque. In Canto II of the Inferno, when Virgil tells Dante they will voyage together through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, Dante asks why someone as unheroic as he should be chosen. But heroism is irrelevant; what matters is that others care about Dante. Virgil explains that Mary (from first-century Nazareth) asked Lucia (from third-century Syracuse) to ask Beatrice (from thirteenth-century Florence) to ask Virgil (from first-century BC Rome) to come to his aid. They all exist for each other and for Dante, in more or less the same way that the friends, singers, and actors in O'Hara's poems exist for him and for each other.

O'Hara's most memorable poems are his elegies -- "To My Dead Father," "To an Actor Who Died," "Thinking of James Dean," "The Day Lady Died" -- and memorial poems such as "Ode on Causality," titled in an early draft "Ode at the Grave of Jackson Pollock." Modern elegies tend to be unconvincing because the poet so clearly disbelieves in the immortality that an elegy traditionally claims for its subject. But O'Hara's elegies succeed because long after he discarded any religious belief in immortality, he retained the aesthetic sensibility that took it seriously. His best-known poem, "Lana Turner Has Collapsed!" (the tabloid headline that prompted the poem), is no less an elegy because its subject remained alive. The snowstorm in its opening lines is the sign of nature's grief. And its closing line offers the same collective praise -- "Who would not sing for Lycidas?" -- and evokes the same resurrection and ascent -- "So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high" -- that marks the climax of all great elegies:

oh Lana Turner we love you get up

O'Hara's friends were dismayed by the camp sentimentality of his lesser elegies for James Dean, but these too recalled the fellowship of saints that presided over his childhood:

This is
James Dean, Carole Lombard. I hope
you will be good to him up there.

In "Biotherm (for Bill Berkson)," O'Hara honored the "poète américain/ lyrique et profond, Wallace Stevens," the source of Ashbery's aesthetic, the great poet who made connections among things because they were all present in his own imagination. But O'Hara wanted more than Stevens could give him. "I don't get any love from Wallace Stevens no I don't," he continued in the same poem, and then imagined Stevens isolated even in a crowd as he

strolled on
an ordinary evening alone
with a lot of people

Politics, for most of O'Hara's avant-garde friends, was at best a target for dismissive satire, but O'Hara took politics seriously as a means to achieve social justice. Amiri Baraka recalled that he "had a real feeling for the human element in politics." As Brad Gooch reports in his biography, O'Hara got his news from the Daily Workerwhen he was young, and later puzzled his New York friends by taking the trouble to campaign for liberal candidates. (He also puzzled his fellow guests at artistic house parties in the Hamptons by spending hours on the beach playing with his hosts' children, whom everyone else ignored.)


O'Hara was born in 1926 to observant Roman Catholic parents from small-town Massachusetts who never told him he had been conceived three months before they married. He hated his Catholic schools but brought away from them his special sensitivity to rhetoric and language. "To the Film Industry in Crisis" is a hagiography of film stars written in vaguely hexameter verse that opens, like Horace'sCarminaI.7, by listing the things he is not going to sing about:

Not you, lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals
with your studious incursions toward the pomposity of ants,
nor you, experimental theatre in which Emotive Fruition
is wedding Poetic Insight perpetually, nor you,
promenading Grand Opera, obvious as an ear (though you
are close to my heart), but you, Motion Picture Industry,
it's you I love!

Marjorie Perloff and others have catalogued O'Hara's debts to the avant-garde of early-twentieth-century Europe, but O'Hara's avant-garde credentials tend to obscure his uniqueness. Everyone in the midcentury American avant-garde knew how to copy Parisian experiments made forty years earlier, and the results were usually trivial and derivative. What made O'Hara's avant-garde-sounding poems different, and almost always rescued them from triviality and pretentiousness, was the classical and formal sensibility with which he held together all his avant-garde effects. In the same way, O'Hara was happy to imitate William Carlos Williams's long lines broken into three or four steps extending across the page, or Charles Olson's phrases scattered on an open "field," but his tone and language remained unmistakably his own.

After three years in the Pacific as a sonar operator for the navy during World War II, O'Hara went to Harvard on the GI Bill, found his personal voice as a poet, and discovered the excitement of working among an avant-garde coterie of poets, playwrights, and musicians. Until his Harvard years he expected to have a career as a concert pianist, and much of his verse has the kind of metrical dexterity found only among poets with a strong musical sense. "October" is an early display of the subtle variations he could make on a trimeter line:

If I turn down my sheets
children start screaming through
the windows. My glasses
are broken on the coffee table.
And at night a truce
with Iran or Korea seems certain
while I am beaten to death
by a thug in a back bedroom.

"Cohasset" (not in Ford's selection) is a later instance of his control over meter, as in the spondees that end the lines about stasis, followed by the trochee and dactyl in the closing lines about change:

the huge rocks
are like twin beds
and the cove tide
is a rug slipping
out from under us

Even when he is most intent on saying something about personal relations, his verse seems motivated partly by his love of language and form. "Aus einem April" is a variation on Rilke's poem with the same title. The shape of O'Hara's poem on the page is an exact match for the irregular shape of Rilke's poem, and O'Hara's opening line, "We dust the walls," is a joke rendering of Rilke's opening line, "Wieder duftet der Wald[the forest is fragrant again]," as it might look to an English-speaker who knew no German. But the overall argument of O'Hara's poem seems to be that Rilke was interested only in the aesthetic sensations he got from a budding tree while O'Hara sees it as a sign of sympathy and feeling:

Haven't you ever fallen down at
and didn't it move everyone
who saw you?
isn't that what the tree
means? the pure pleasure
of making weep those whom you cannot move by your flights!

O'Hara tended to write two kinds of poem: short poems of about twenty to forty lines, with beginnings, middles, and ends, and longer poems that continued until he stopped. The shorter poems tend to be reticent, psychologically acute love poems about the shifting inequalities of love:

out and out meanness, too, lets love breathe
you don't have to fight off getting in too deep
you can always get out if you're not too scared
an ounce of prevention's
enough to poison the heart
don't think of others
until you have thought of yourself, are true

all of these things, if you feel them
will be graced by a certain reluctance
and turn into gold

if felt by me, will be smilingly deflected
by your mysterious concern

("Poem: Hate is only one of many responses")

The longer poems tend to be performance pieces, in which O'Hara writes as a poetic one-man band, shifting rapidly among his roles as party-goer, art critic, movie fan, amateur chef, balletomane, raconteur, sexual adventurer, European traveler, always rushing someplace else, quick to shed his past, "capitalizing on a few memories/from childhood by forgetting them." O'Hara's most frequent and most ostentatiously avant-garde effects occur in these longer poems:

whither Lumumba whither oh whither Gauguin
I have often tried to say goodbye to strange fantoms I
read about in the newspapers and have always succeeded
though the ones at "home" are dependent on Dependable
Laboratory and Sales Company on Pulaski Street strange
("For the Chinese New Year & for Bill Berkson")

In a talk he gave to a gathering of artists, O'Hara justified this style of poetry as a liberation of language:

Poetry which liberates certain forces in language, permits them to emerge upon the void of silence, not poetry which seeks merely to express most effectively or most beautifully or most musically some preconceived idea or perception.

For O'Hara this was an untypically conventional burst of avant-garde apologetics. He generally cared more about the liberation of human beings than of artistic media, and he knew perfectly well that no poetry worth reading "seeks merely" to express a preconceived idea. What O'Hara did in his longer poems under the banner of language liberation extended the techniques of earlier poets such as Milton and Blake, who were equally willful in using names and images with resonant meanings for the poets themselves, meanings at which a reader could marvel without fully comprehending them:

Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said;
But that two-handed engine at the door
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.

(Milton, "Lycidas")

For Golgonooza cannot be seen till having pass'd the Polypus
It is viewed on all sides round by a Four-fold Vision.

(Blake, "Milton")

O'Hara's obvious pleasure in writing these longer poems is mixed with a sense of strain at keeping the kaleidoscopic spectacle moving over hundreds of lines of verse. Public performance, no matter how much of his time he spent doing it, was not his natural medium -- as he seems to have suggested in Meditations in an Emergency:

It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so.

One crucial difference between O'Hara and his great predecessors was that they wrote their most willfully arbitrary verse in response to their own private visions, while O'Hara seems to have written the willfully arbitrary verse of his longer poems partly to entertain his avant-garde circle of friends. Verse written to entertain a public -- Byron's Don Juan, for example -- can be very great poetry, but it succeeds only when its inner logic is shared by the poet and the audience.

A comic motif in Brad Gooch's biography of O'Hara is the eagerness with which members of the New York avant-garde endured the pretentious tedium of so many performances, readings, and exhibitions, so that they could feel (as one participant remembered) "proud to have been part of what we all thought was a deeply avant-garde production." When O'Hara wrote to entertain his avant-garde circle, he was not so much sharing with them an inner artistic logic as giving them the means to congratulate themselves for being avant-garde.

He joked in public about their conviction that anything avant-garde was inherently praiseworthy. When two of his friends decided to get married, he wrote a poem that praised them for doing something excellent -- which must surely be avant-garde because whatever is avant-garde is also excellent:

It's so
original, hydrogenic, anthropomorphic, fiscal, post-anti-esthetic, bland, unpicturesque and WilliamCarlosWilliamsian!
it's definitely not 19th Century, it's not even Partisan Review, it's new, it must be vanguard!

("Poem Read at Joan Mitchell's")

Avant-gardes claim to create the art of the future. But the "art of the future" generally proves wrong about the real future of art in the same way that the "city of the future" on display at a world's fair proves wrong about the future of cities. O'Hara's praise of some experimental poems by John Ashbery has a sharp double edge: "I might have known as I sink into the mush of love you would be foraging ahead into the 21st century."

Baudelaire dismissed the avant-garde as a "military metaphor"; until the mid-nineteenth century the word meant only the front ranks of an army. The avant-garde idea was suitable only to those "who can only think collectively" ("qui ne peuvent penser qu'en société"), not to those for whom, like O'Hara at his best, the only truth is face to face. An avant-garde coterie always prefers a revolution in language and technique to a revelation of thought and feeling. O'Hara recognized this preference as a sign of insecurity, a failure of nerve:

it is the great period of Italian art when everyone imitates Picasso
afraid to mean anything

Membership in a coterie, school, or group produces different effects on major and minor writers. For minor writers, a group provides a repertory of styles and themes and gives them confidence to work at the height of their powers. They return the favor by compiling group anthologies and writing manifestos, but when the group disintegrates, they may have nothing more to say. For major writers, a group tends to provide themes and publicity in the first few years of their career, when they are already looking elsewhere, and their mature work has nothing in common with the later work of the rest of the group. The members left behind, now famous mostly because they had once been associated with the major writer, mutter resentfully that he betrayed them.

O'Hara was a major writer who tried to convince himself he was a minor one. His best work either ignored or teased the coterie he partied with, but as he grew older he found it easier to fight off loneliness by immersing himself in an always-welcoming group than by opening himself to the risks of any intimacy that might relieve it.

In the last years of his life, his closest friends found it difficult to break through the wall of young acolytes that closed around him at bars and parties, deepening his unhappiness. Their youth and beauty promised him long-awaited satisfactions, while their emotional and intellectual inequality made satisfaction impossible. Liquor masked the resulting frustration and pain. The more time O'Hara spent barhopping with his coterie, the fewer poems he wrote, and the more convinced he became that he had nothing more to say.

The last poem he wrote, four months before he died, proves that he was mistaken. "Little Elegy for Antonio Machado" -- the twentieth-century Spanish poet whose early avant-garde affinities and later political and moral passions were not unlike O'Hara's -- is not little at all, but compressed, dark, and magnificent, with a depth and directness that fulfill the promise of O'Hara's earlier lyrics. He devised for it a regular form that looks like a Horatian stanza that someone broke and put together again without quite restoring the original. The poem is another of O'Hara's elegies in which both mourner and mourned are glorified by their recognition of the darknesses they share and the light they aspire to:

your water air and earth
insist on our joining you
in recognition of colder prides and less negotiable ambitions

As the elegy ends, he imagines Machado reviving, like the heroes of other elegies, but also "improving" O'Hara and ourselves in the physically direct way that salt improves a meal:

improving your soul's expansion
in the night and developing our own in salt-like praise

By chance or by luck, the last word of O'Hara's last poem names the action that drove his whole career.

Edward Mendelson is the literary executor of the Estate of W.H. Auden and professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is the author of Early Auden, Later Auden, and many essays on (and editions of) nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers, including George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, and Thomas Pynchon.