Friday, December 29, 2006



If I was an editor for Variety, that might be the headline.

Elements of the story could have had an emotional impact, if it had been written and directed better. DiNiro flops in this one, both as director and supporting actor.

The biggest disappointment is: there’s a story in there somewhere that might have moved an audience—and enlightened it, especially about the damage done to so many people and nations, including our own, by the CIA.

The period covered—pre-WWII to 1961—is not only historically rich with examples of how evil the actions of this unconstitutional secret organization were, but actions that created the conditions that led to some of the worst recent history, i.e. in the Middle East and Africa.

What an opportunity to reach people who may have no idea the damage the ever-burgeoning secret organizations in our government have caused! Blown, along with any drama worth caring about.

There are some good performances—Billy Crudup’s upper-class Englishman is another example of how underrated this terrific actor often is. He’s outstanding, as is Alec Baldwin, once again shining brightly in a small but significant supporting role.

But Matt Damon, often so good, is either miscast or so poorly directed, that he becomes not only unbelievable as the character, especially as he ages, looking nearly the same age as his grown son in later scenes, but played in such a way that we don’t care about him or anything that happens to him.

Both miscast and poorly directed is another, often fine actor, Angelina Jolie, as Matt Damon’s character’s WASP wife. We’re supposed to believe Damon’s character isn’t attracted to her, and that she somehow represents the epitome of WASPy stiff-upper-lip acceptance of her fate as an ignored spouse. Sure.

The script is so full of holes and muddled exposition that it’s not only difficult to tell what’s actually going on but to even care. And about what really matters! Especially now, when secrecy has been so deeply a part of the current administration, and so much responsible for what is wrong in our country and the parts of the world that we have interfered in so drastically.

Just the simple reality that the CIA, and other secret agencies in our government, have so often provided faulty information that led to fiascos, of which the invasion of Iraq is only the latest most blatant example, might have been conveyed in the script in a way that the audience could not only understand but become emotionally invovled in. But no.

It’s interesting that the clearest indictment of hypocrisy in a government that claims to stand for truth and justice and then lies and is blatantly unjust—and in this time of a deep need for Hollywood to engage an audience in a national dialogue about the importance of addressing this issue—comes from Clint Eastwood, who once represented everything liberals and lefties were against back in the 1960s and ‘70s.

While Scorcese and DiNiro—who seemed to embody the courage it took to expose the lies and hypocrisy and injustice enacted and supported by what we used to call “the establishment”—have made movies so muddled—THE GOOD SHEPERD being much worse than THE DEPARTED, but both still nowhere near the kind of bombshells of reality these two men were throwing into the national arena back then—seem to be conveying a message that seems completely cynical—everything sucks so why bother.

It made me appreciate even more not only FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, but two other movies of 2006 that make up my three favorites of all I’ve seen so far—AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (have you read the recent news that one of the major ice shelfs in the Artic has broken away as a result of climate change?) and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (talk about good direction, there isn’t a bad performance in the film).

I highly recommend all three, if you haven't seen them yet. But stay away from THE bad GOOD SHEPERD.

Thursday, December 28, 2006


"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and the crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body...." —Walt Whitman, from the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass

Friday, December 22, 2006


I got a lot of response, mostly in e-mails, to an early post about how, when I can’t sleep, I make lists in my head, sometimes alphabet lists—like the illustration I gave of works of art I love, limited to single word titles.

The other night I did a two-word one, just titles, here’s the annotated version:

A BLESSING—one of my favorite poems, by James Wright
BLACK ORPHEUS—beautiful 1959 Brazilian film, and soundtrack
COOL WORLD—the early ‘60s film by Shirley Clark, based on Warren Miller’s novel
DESOLATION ANGELS—one of my favorite Kerouac books
ENTRE NOUS—great book of poems by Tim Dlugos
FAT CITY—the depressing boxing flick, but with some amazing performances
GIANT STEPS—the John Coltrane album, his sweetest
HOWARDS END—the movie, every performance in it perfect
I REMEMBER—Joe Brainard’s classic, original-serial-prose-poem-memoir
JAILHOUSE ROCK—not as good, but second best Elvis movie to
LONG LIFE—an Eva Hesse “sculpture”—one of my favorite artists
MAGPIE RISING—by Merrill Gilfillan, one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books
NAKED WALL—terrific poem by Terence Winch, partly about Ted Berrigan, both great Irish-American poets
OPEN CITY—the Roberto Rossellini movie with Anna Magnani
PEACE PIECE—Bill Evans’ finest composition and recording, for my taste
QUO VADIS?—the 1951 film, memorable to me as my first date movie, at 8-years-old, it cost twenty-five cents each for me and my second-grade classmate, Lois (a lifelong memory confirmed by a copy of a letter my mother sent to one of my brothers in the service, letting him know she tried to discourage me by saying I had to get the money myself, but I did, doing chores for my grandmother, my mother emphasized in her letter that I was “big for eight”!)
ROB ROY—Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, and Tim Roth kick acting ass in this fine flick, with one of the most mature and realistic romances of any film
ST. ROACH—a terrific poem by Muriel Rukeyser, check it out, you’ll be glad you did
TRISTAM SHANDY—the 1760 proto-“postmodern” novel by Laurence Sterne
UP FRONT—Great collection of cartoons and prose by Bill Mauldin, the creator of “Joe and Willie” two war-weary GIs during WWII. These cartoons and Mauldin’s unpretentious prose, all done while the war was still raging, is better than any other book or movie as far as that war goes. I remembered the cartoons from when I was a toddler and little boy, during and just after that war, but it was poet Ted Greenwald who turned me on to the out-of-print book, back in the 1970s, now one of the most precious volumes in my personal library.
VIVA ZAPATA!—Not Brando’s best, but a sincere effort to make this legend more real than anyone else before had attempted. Anthony Quinn is great in it too (and the script was written by John Steinbeck!).
WHITE MULE—the first volume of William Carlos Williams’ fine novel trilogy about his wife
XX—Ezra Pound’s 20th Canto, I know it’s a bit of a cheat, but “X” always forces me to bend the rules slightly (as in the last alphabetical list), at least it’s an easily identifiable Canto, especially for students, relatively short and clear, yet containing most of the innovations and typical stylistic flourishes of Pound’s particular genius
YOUNG POETS—a short poem, or “anti-poem,” by Nicanor Parra, I took to heart when I was a “young poet”
ZIGFIELD FOLLIES—kind of an anthology movie, of WWII Hollywood stars, with some great ones, like Astaire and Kelly

Thursday, December 21, 2006


“NEW YORK - John Mack's record for the biggest bonus on Wall Street didn't last even a week. It was smashed by the $53.4 million that Goldman Sachs gave its chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein.

The bonanza for Blankfein included a cash bonus of $27.3 million, with the rest paid in stock and options...The record payday, disclosed by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Tuesday, breaks the one set just last Thursday when Morgan Stanley disclosed that it paid CEO Mack $40 million in stock and options. Mack, who is 62, rejoined Morgan Stanley 18 months ago…”

Where are the marching, protesting, screaming masses?

Where the student activists taking up the cause of the dispossessed and working poor in the face of such utterly disgusting inequities of which the above is emblematic?

Where are the politicians and political activists willing and able to organize the ready-to-burst-from-the-financial-pressures middle class in the face of such blatant excess and financial villainy?

Where oh where is the music, the art, the movies and plays and novels and poems, the editorials and manifestos, the uprisings and revolts?

Have the rightwing Republicans so cowed the liberal left into fearing being labeled proponents of “class warfare” that they can’t see THAT'S WHAT WE'RE IN THE MIDST OF?

Like the “civil war” in Iraq, when will someone in authority, on TV or in the press, call it what it is? CLASS WARFARE waged against US by THEM!

What school district, hospital, or a million other institutions meant to serve the public couldn’t use even a miniscule amount of what ONE MAN got paid, or received as a HOLIDAY BONUS???!!!

We may have been a little too glib in the 1960s, those of us out there protesting and actively fighting racial and economic injustice, as well as unjust wars, but at least we put up a fight.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


For my taste, this movie is more worthwhile an effort, and achievement, than Scorcese’s THE DEPARTED.

Back when they started directing, I was much more into Scorcese, and still had lingering political objections to Eastwood. But now I feel like Eastwood is our Kurasawa.

Unlike Scorcese lately, Eastwood doesn’t seem to be trying to prove anything—and doesn’t have to. Scorcese seems to be out to prove to Hollywood that he can make a commercially successful movie, in Hollywood’s terms, instead of the less commercial but unique films of his earlier career.

I understand that. He could get probably any move made back in the late 1970s, but these days, he has to have a commercially acceptable star and commercially acceptable story to even get financial backing.

Eastwood already proved he can make the big bucks and satisfy the business end of Hollywood’s demands, without sacrificing too much in the way of his usual concise artistry. Though FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS attempts a little more than his usual fare.

Maybe because I was a baby and toddler during WWII, and my two oldest brothers— teenagers at the time—were in the service toward the end of it, one of them stationed on Okinawa while there was still fighting there, that makes me more susceptible to the story told in FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS.

Or maybe I was set up for my own teary-eyed response by my oldest brother, a Franciscan friar ever since his return from his stateside service in that war. He told me he wept when he saw it. Not only for lost youth, all the young men who died in that conflict, but especially for Ira Hayes, one of the flag raisers on Iwo Jima who, despite his sacrifices in the war, was still treated like a mascot or pet or just plain “dirty injun.”

If you see it, make sure you stay for the credits, not only to see how well Eastwood cast the film—most of the actors look so much like the historical figures they play it’s sometimes difficult to tell you’re looking at a photo of the real guy—but real shots of the original spots and battles and actions depicted in the film.

No film made in the present can ever completely accurately capture an historic period, no matter how well researched or how much attention is paid to the details. As in most historical films, you can spot the era when it was made almost as quickly, or quicker, than the period the story is set in. But of all the movies made about WWII in recent decades, this, for today, is my favorite.

There’s lapses. The banter is sometimes a little forced, a little too expository, a little too contemporary, and the leads aren’t all perfectly cast, beyond appearances, or perfectly acted. But the intent of the film and its achievement still seems to me to be beyond what others have attempted.

I can’t wait to see the companion film Eastwood made to this one, from the Japanese soldiers’ perspective—LETTERS FROM IOWA JIMA. Already chosen as best film of 2006 by several critics and critics’ associations, it has overshadowed FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS with most critics. The latter hasn’t been a great financial success so far either.

But for my money, it’s one of the two or three most worthwhile serious films of the year to see.

I’d love to see Scorcese make a movie about that war, or any war for that matter. The old Scorcese would have made something only he could on that subject, something revelatory and thought provoking and artistically unique. Like Eastwood has.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


"Suppose you scrub your ethical skin until it shines,
but inside there is no music,
then what?"

—translated by Robert Bly from the poetry of Kabir

Monday, December 18, 2006


I was listening to this New York radio station this morning, just turning the little dial on my eight-dollar clock radio, looking for anything that would come in without static.

I stopped when I heard mention of Sylvester Stallone’s new movie, ROCKY BALBOA. The show sounded Nuyorican—the main personality a woman, with background sound effects and several men chiming in ala all those other morning radio shows.

She was interviewing the light heavyweight boxer, Antonio Tarver, who appears in the movie as the guy Rocky fights at middle-age (Stallone says he’s 60 but “Rocky” may be a few years younger).

She was talking like she admired Tarver, but wasn’t showing him a whole lot of respect, asking if he was scared in his recent loss to Bernard Hopkins, and when he said no, he had been in this game a long time and it wasn’t that, she responded by asking if he’d looked at the fight film because he sure looked scared to her.

When the boxer explained that the mistake he’d made was going from his defeat of Roy Jones Jr. to making the film to fighting Hopkins, and that he should have had a “tune-up” fight after the film—sounding like a thoughtful, practical, responsible businessman about it all—she cut him off to put down the movie, a film she HASN’T EVEN SEEN!

I’ve been guilty of that kind of pre-judgement myself, too many times. In fact when I made a reservation a few weeks ago for a screening of the film for this past Saturday evening, I wasn’t expecting to like it, I just wanted to bring my nine-year-old boy to see Stallone in person, because he’s impressed right now with “celebrities” and I wanted him to see they’re just people like the rest of us.

But I caught a trailer for ROCKY BALBOA when my grown son and I went to see CASINO ROYALE the Saturday before—where once again my pre-judging proved to be incorrect, as I actually liked the new Bond who I had thought wasn’t right for the role, was won over by his acting chops and screen presence, though I thought the shot of him emerging from the sea in a bathing suit that I’d read raves about in numerous reviews, made him look like an ape, with a way overdeveloped chest and shoulders, but maybe that’s just a skinny guy’s perspective—anyway, the ROCKY BALBOA preview looked promising.

When Tarver tried to say something about the movie, the woman on the radio with the Rosy Perez Nuyorican accent went into a rant about how she didn’t care about no Rocky movie, she was interviewing Antonio because of who he was not the movie, because according to her “Rocky” should have just sat his ass down and retired after the first one, and so on.

Her male lackies threw out their own disparaging remarks about “Rocky” and Stallone when Tarver tried to answer a question about giving Stallone a few black eyes, really hitting him during the filming. You could hardly hear Tarver’s comments about how Stallone had hit him hard too in their attempt to make the fight look real, he was shouted down by catcalls and put downs of Stallone as some kind of sicko into being beaten or whatever.

Does the whole Rocky franchise deserve put downs? Absolutely. But not the new one.

At the Directors Guild screening I took my little boy to, only members of that guild, the producers guild and the screen writers guild were allowed in. That’s a pretty tough crowd for a movie.

First of all, they’re usually envious of all the attention movie stars get, the fame and adulation. Plus they’ve been screwed enough by stars and studio executives that they have a jaundiced view of the whole business, but especially of movie stars who think they can direct and write, or want credit for it when their co-writers or co-directors or other helpers really deserve it. And Stallone wrote and directed this film, not just starred in it.

So to win over this audience was not an easy task.

My little boy had no idea who Stallone or “Rocky” was, so I rented the original ROCKY a few nights earlier and watched it with him. He was a little antsy during the slow parts, which there were more of than I remembered.

But I was still impressed with the original, despite it’s being as cartoony and manipulative as I remembered it being, with gaps in the story and character development that in a more subtle film would have mattered. And my underlying sense that there was always something racist, intentional or not, in the white “Rocky” standing up to, and eventually defeating, a series of black boxers. But it was still inspiring.

It was a good thing we watched the original, because ROCKY BALBOA is the real sequel to that first one. It refers back to it constantly, in old footage, music, plot points and relationships—even some of the characters from the original ROCKY reappear. So my son got all those references, which connected him to the new movie more completely, and me as well.

And along with this tough audience of cynical movie insiders, we were totally won over. Just as in the Manhattan theater where I saw the originally ROCKY in 1976, people were crying and cheering throughout the film, and gave it a standing ovation at the end.

I was taken completely by surprise by that standing ovation. I was the only one still sitting, and not because I wasn’t taken with the film, but because I hate knee jerk group reactions. But even I got up when Stallone walked out and took his seat to be interviewed.

He seemed not only bright and articulate, but nothing like the star I encountered a few times, back in his heyday. Because the main quality that came across this time was humility. He truly seemed to have been chastened by aging, by having become in many ways like Rocky Balboa in the new film, a has been.

He said the new flick was a valentine to the fans of the original ROCKY. He felt he had let them down with the other sequels, hadn’t been true to the spirit of the original and the reasons people had loved it so much, and he wanted to make up for that. He has.

It’s got the same old weaknesses that somehow Stallone turns into strengths, the cartoon aspects of the film, the missing plot points, the not so subtle racial problems of once again a white hope taking on a black champion, and in this case a much maligned one. The story addresses the latter straight on and in a pretty sophisticated way by the ending, but may be too overwhelmed by the build-up of the support-for-the-underdog crescendo at the end for audiences to really get the black champion’s equally inspiring transformation.

And it’s way sentimental. But so am I. As I suspect most people are, especially the older we get.

At one point in the film, “Rocky” is reconciled with his son, and my little nine-year-old, sitting on my lap so he could see better, grabbed my hand during that scene and kissed it, then held it tight, getting the sentiment, moved by it, connecting it to his own life and relationship with his own aging father. Man, talk about sentiment. Don’t get me started.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


The New Jersey town I live in had a huge evergreen in the town square. For some reason I’m not aware of it was cut down and replaced with a smaller one. Now there’s a giant electric menorah next to it, put up at the same time the tree was decorated with colored lights.

I get that the idea is equal time for conflicting holidays, but as in the recent Seattle Airport debacle, where a rabbi sued to have menorahs erected next to Xmas trees, the reasoning is fucked, because XMAS TREES ARE NOT RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS!

It would make sense, if it was one of those stable scenes with the manger and all, which are obviously about the birth of Jesus, which the Christmas holiday was mostly about at one time or another.

But the tree? It’s a Germanic tribal thing, originally for the pagan celebration of Yule, and when reintroduced during the 16th Century as a Christmas-holiday-add-on, was preached against as a pagan tradition having nothing to do with Christ’s birth.

The menorah is obviously a religious symbol. The tree isn’t. It doesn’t shout “JESUS” or even “CHRISTIANITY”.

It shouts gifts and lights and childhood memories and family gatherings and all kinds of commercialism and the song “White Christmas” written as many have pointed out by a Jewish songwriter, Irving Berlin.

Would "I’m dreaming of white Honnakuh" have been more successful or relevant or meaningful? No, because Hannakuh is not associated with sleigh bells and snow and all the rest of that stuff that Christmas is, which STILL HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RELIGION!

Does Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL have anything to do with religion, or Jesus’s birth? Nope. Or IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE? Or A CHIRSTMAS STORY? Or any of the other classic Christmas movies—MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, SCROOGED, ELF, etc.?

Nope to that too. Almost anything you can think of associated with Christmas in this country in these times has nothing to do with anything having anything to do with religion, let alone the birth of Christianity.

A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS is about the only thing that even indirectly refers to the original event the whole thing is supposed to be based on.

So, if you don’t celebrate Christmas because you don’t believe in Jesus, or what his followers supposedly believe in, then you’re missing the point of the holiday, because it has almost nothing to do with that now.

And even if it did, XMAS TREES DON’T!

Unless you want to concede that the “spirit of Christmas”—kindness and sharing and gift giving and “peace on earth, good will to men” and all that—is somehow only a product of Christianity or the teachings of Jesus.

Christmas, as it’s celebrated in this country at least, has very little to do with Christianity, despite the name of the holiday. It’s about a million other things before it’s about that, if at all.

Hannukah isn’t. It’s a commemoration of an event in Jewish history, remembered every year in Jewish religious rituals, and little else (although my little boy and all his friends, whether Jewish or not, know the “dreidel deidel” song, which he learned in school and to my knowldgede no one has ever objected to in this community, though there continues to be objections to Christmas carols that have any reference to the word "Christmas," let alone any birth).

Christmas, though remembered in church services as the celebration of the birth of Jesus, outside of those churches is about, like I said, a lot of other things, none having anything to do with any specific religion.

Maybe that wasn’t always the case. But it is now and has been for awhile. So demanding towns and cities and airports and other private and public spaces incorporate the symbols of various religions everywhere there’s a Christmas tree, is a phony issue, and a distraction from the real grievances of plenty of "races," ethnicities, religions, and classes of people yet to be resolved.

Although a little “Christmas spirit” might help.

(Oh, and PS: I'm not against menorahs in public places, or anywhere else for that matter, nor am I against the celebration of Honnakuh, I've celebrated it many times with Jewish friends, or against any other religious holiday for that matter. I'm just against making a big issue about Xmas trees as some sort of religious symbol that demands reciprocity for every other religious symbol. That's all. Happy Hannakuh.)

(PPS: Check out the Speaking of Faith site I added to my recommended list, and their program/article on the documentary Counterpoint, for some real religious reconciliation efforts.)

Friday, December 15, 2006


I was trying to upload an ad that appeared in Poets & Writers for the new edition of my last book, March 18, 2003, but couldn't do it. All I could get was the text, below. So I uploaded an image of the front cover of the first edition of the book. At any rate, if you still have gifts to get, this isn't a bad one.

"...a powerful pouring forth of militant outrage against America's new policy of pre-emptive strike." —Jim Feast, Evergreen Review

Lally is riffing at the psychological anti-center of contemporary American consciousness..." —Larry Sawyer, Rain Taxi

" iconoclastic participant in the cultural fabric of North American society for almost five decades. His breadth of experience endows his writing with a rare practical wisdom..." —Hirsh Sawhney, The Brooklyn Rail

A co-publication by Libellum and Charta
Drawings by Alex Katz Preface by Vincent Katz

Available through the D.A.P. Catalog @

MARCH 18, 2003
a poem for peace


The third of the three women I’ve been identifying with so much in recent years might seem the least likely.

Jean Rhys is best known for her novel THE WIDE SARGASSO SEA, written late in life as a reinterpretation of Jane Eyre, from an islander’s perspective (Rhys was born and grew up in “the Windward Islands”).

It was a big hit with the academics and literary critics, who claimed it was her “masterpiece”. I think it’s the weakest work of everything she wrote.

But her short stories (THE COLLECTED STORIES) and her earlier novels (VOYAGE IN THE DARK; QUARTET; AFTER LEAVING MR. MACKENZIE; GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT) knocked me out from the first time I read them back in the 1960s, despite what some people take as her gloomy outlook, her series of depressed, female “failures” at life and relationships and any kind of financial security.

Based on some of the realities of her own early life, the women were often from the islands, transported to London while still in their teens, dependent upon men who use them and then discard them, sometimes making an inadequate living as actresses or models or kept by “gentlemen”—all of which Rhys experienced.

But they were often survivors, as Rhys was. She found a way to turn her depressing experiences as a young woman on her own among men who usually only wanted one thing from her, and women who looked down on her, into great literature. Even if her first four novels, published in the 1920s and ‘30s, went mostly unnoticed, until THE WIDE SARGASSO SEA was published in 1966 and made her briefly famous.

One of her early mentors and lovers was the much more successful novelist Ford Madox Ford. He may have helped her get published at first, but whatever his influence, as with Gellhorn and Hemingway, or Lee Miller and Man Ray, Rhys took what she learned from Ford and transformed it into something uniquely her own. No one has the voice her work has.

Yes it is sometimes depressing that her female protagonists find themselves in such dire straits, (if you can even call them that, since they are often so incredibly passive and unable to stir themselves out of their inability to better their circumstances). But in the end, her ability to create, through words, the worlds of these un-heroines is so forcefully clear, you end up, or at least I do, completely sympathizing with them, and more importantly, understanding why they do what they do, or more often don’t do.

She too lived well into her eighties, alone, a widow for years, never as widely acclaimed as the men she’d known, like Ford and others, in early 20th Century London and Paris. But as a stylist, she has no equal in my book.

But again it’s her commitment to the truth, to getting down as honestly as she could what she knew from her own experience and doing it despite the losses, the lack of recognition for so long, the bad relationships and failed marriages and price of being an independent woman a century ago, that impresses me so.

And doing it clearly, precisely, with no frills, or as she herself put it in a letter “I didn’t want to use any stunts and haven’t…”

The older I get and the more I’ve been through, the more enamored I am with these three female creative forces. What they have that I love so much and identify so much with is a capacity to keep going, to endure, to accept the blows fate delivers, the unfairness of so much of life, the mistakes made, the bad decisions, the missed opportunities, the suffering and pain of so many more unfortunate, and their own suffering and pain, and the ability to rise above all that, to transcend it through the creative act, whether anyone notices or cares or responds or supports it or ever even acknowledges it.

You know you’ve done your best, and you go on doing that, smiling or not, aching or not, confident that you gave it your best shot and bore witness to your times and your experience and those less capable or able to express their similar experiences, their disappointments and achievements, no matter how trivial they may seem to others.

Just knowing they were there—Martha Gellhorn, Lee Miller, and Jean Rhys—that they did what they did, and being able to connect with them and their lives and perspectives through their work, gives me solace.

So, I wanted to publicly acknowledge that, and them. Maybe you have writers or others that have done the same for you.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Lee Miller is the second of the three women I’ve been identifying with in recent years. I discovered her in the 1960s, when she was mostly known (and still is to some) as Man Ray’s muse and model.

A fashion model for Paris Vogue when she encountered Ray, her image—in one of those helmet-like hats of the flappers—on the cover of American Vogue, made her the face of the Jazz Age for many. But she was a photographer in her own right.

She grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, where her father, an amateur photographer, used her as a model, often naked, and continued to after she moved to New York and became a successful fashion model, who broke the hearts of Broadway producers and young pilots. One dropped roses on the deck of the liner that took Lee to Europe, only to return to the airport and crash and die! She lost her first boyfriend at fifteen when he drowned, while out on a lake in a rowboat with her.

In Paris, she discovered Ray’s early work and decided to be his muse, replacing Kiki, the famous French model and muse. While printing some of his photographs, Miller accidentally discovered the technique that became associated with Ray, what he and she called “solarization”—for which she never received credit, and didn’t seem to care.

One of the things I love about her most, she never seemed to care what people thought about her, or whether her work got credit or critical acclaim or any kind of worldly “success.” She lived life in the moment, and never seemed to worry about tomorrow.

She was painted by Picasso, among others, and used in avant garde films, like Cocteau’s The Blood of the Poet, and her breasts, made famous by Ray’s photographs, were used as the template for the shape of a new French champagne glass.

She had affairs with many men and women, and seemed to have no regrets, until her affair with the Egyptian ambassador to France. When his wife found out,—one of the five most beautiful women in the world according to a French fashion magazine—she locked herself in a room in a Paris hotel and drank herself to death.

Lee returned to New York and opened one of the first fine art photography galleries. The Egyptian followed her, pressing her to marry him, which she eventually did, ending up in Egypt among its high society for several years, where she threw legendary parties, made sand skiing treks into the dessert with guests from Europe, and had several more affairs.

She ended up in England with one of her lovers after traveling through Europe as the Nazis were taking over, documenting what she saw as the continent changed forever.

All along she took photographs, in France (some early ones misattributed to Man Ray), in New York, in Egypt, and in Europe as it went to war, with very few people even realizing she was a photographer. Until she went to work for English Vogue as a photographer and journalist. On one assigment, she took a photo of Martha Gellhorn with her back to the camera, looking at it through her reflection in the mirror (recently used for the cover of Gellhorn’s SELECTED LETTERS).

A GI photographer, an admirer of the surrealists and Miller’s, made a pilgrimage to visit her, and her lover, the English surrealist, Roland Penrose. The G.I. encouraged her to get British Vogue to send her to photograph the invasion. She had already talked them into letting her do war-related articles, starting with the bombing of Britain and the women who manned some of the anti-aircraft guns. Her photos of bomb damage were collected and published as a book in the U.S. that became a bestseller and helped convince America to enter the war.

She did talk Vogue into letting her join the invasion, to cover nurses in the field hospitals that followed the troops. But after doing that, she made her way to the front lines, where an officer put her under arrest when she was caught taking photos of a battle for a French town the Nazis still controlled.

She sweet talked a pilot into flying her story and photos back to England, where Vogue published them and the positive publicity for the war effort got her credentialed as the first female photographer to cover a war (Gellhorn was the first female war journalist I believe), after which she was present at not only many historic battles but for the capturing of Hitler’s famous Eagle’s Nest mountain hideaway, where another photographer shot a famous photo of her taking a bath in Hitler’s tub.

She was one of the first to document the concentration camps, not only photographing the skeletal victims of Nazi brutality, but also the bodies of German guards beaten to death by the liberated inmates. She always photographed reality as she found it, never making anything more or less pleasant or unpleasant than it was. Even her more surreal photographs, set up to show jarring juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated objects, have the look of news photographs, real and present and uncontrived despite their obvious staging. One of the things I admire most about her work is the way she could make even surreality seem real.

She did the same with her life. She lived it, not making excuses for any of it. She was restless, and often searching for more, but she always seemed able to make the most of whatever circumstances she found herself in. Even as an elderly woman in the English countryside, married to a now knighted Penrose, so she was Lady Penrose, dedicated to gardening and cooking, she won several contests at country fairs with her desserts, among people who had no idea of the adventurous life she had led.

When I was a screenwriter in Hollywood, and even since then, I tried to interest people in making a movie of her life, but couldn’t convince anyone there would be an audience for it. I should have bought the rights to books about Miller when they eventually came out, long after I’d been writing and talking about her, but someone else did (I heard Nicole Kidman, but Sharon Stone seems so much more appropriate to play Miller).

I used to think anything I thought or felt or dug was shared by everyone else, and either they were repressing expressing it, or in denial about it, or unaware, but nonetheless shared what was going on inside me. Now I know better. But still, no audience for the life of Lee Miller? Come on. (A good biography of her by Carolyn Burke came out last year by the way.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I’m not sure why, maybe it’s that thing about how when men get older they get more like women, and vice versa. Or so it was said, and observed, when I was a boy, and sometimes still. Not that we all aren’t equal and should have the same opportunities etc.

Whatever the reason, the persons I’ve identified most closely with, in terms of how I lived (and live) my life, the values I adhere to and the perspective I have on this part of it (which is all we ever have) most recently have been women. And women some people would not necessarily think of as happy, or satisfied, or as successful as the men in their fields, including their husbands and lovers.

Nonetheless, I’d rather have the chance to sit down and talk to any of these ladies, if they were still alive, than any man I can think of who they happened to be seen by the world, or the critics, or those who keep score of levels of fame and power (and impact), as competing with. Like Martha Gellhorn, who I mentioned in earlier posts.

She’s the latest of, as almost always with me a list of three, in this case women creative artists—a lousy label but it would be impossible to summarize their achievements as I see them by simply the art form they were most noted for, or not—whose lives and work I identify more with than anyone else I can think of today (outside of some friends and contemporaries).

I stumbled on a Second World War novel of hers, THE WINE OF ASTONISHMENT, a few years ago, near the top of a trash pile on the curb in front of the house of an old woman who passed away on a street I was living on then. I spied the 1940s style dust jacket from the opposite sidewalk even with my bad eyes, and honed in on it, noticing the author’s name and remembering it as the same as one of Hemingway’s wives. I took it home and added it to the usual pile of ten or fifteen books beside my bed and began reading it that night. It impressed me enough to want to check out more of her work.

First of all it seemed honest in a way the usual WWII novels never did to me, like Mailer’s THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, or earlier war novels, like Hemingway’s own A FAREWELL TO ARMS or FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. I had read long ago that Gellhorn was a “journalist” but hadn’t taken it that seriously. Now I did.

Unfortunately, almost all of her books are out of print. But fortunately, The Gotham Book Mart had a paperback collection of her war reportage called THE FACE OF WAR and I began with that. If it was the only book of hers I ever read, I’d be in love with her. But then I read a collection of her travel reporting, which included a lot of war writing as well since she was usually traveling to cover a war.

It was called TRAVELS WITH MYSELF AND ANOTHER, the other being mostly Hemingway, who she hated being constantly associated with, especially as one of his wives. I don’t blame her. She was much more interesting than that, than him actually.

She left her home in St. Louis when she was barely out of her teens to trek through Europe on her own, in shorts and sneakers, and find her way eventually into the conflagration that was the Spanish Civil War. (Interestingly, not long after I got into her, a biography was published—GELLHORN, A TWENTIETH CENTURY LIFE—despite the fact almost all of her books are long out of print.)

Right from the start, her accounts of what she saw and experienced were different than what most reporters, all men, were writing. Her take was on the devastation to “civilians”—the “collateral damage” that has become the most modern outcome of wars. Which makes her the most clearheaded and honest of reporters, or one of them. Men, like Hemingway, were still treating wars as if they were fought by honorable men, at least on one side, brave and courageous, which may have been true, but they were missing that the ones who suffered the most, not indirectly as in wars throughout history, but directly—as in the ones who died and were wounded the most—were “noncombatants”.

She got it. And she never gave up. She sympathized with the Republican side of that war, against the Fascists, and now that her SELECTED LETTERS are out, it’s clear she was totally prescient about how that war was a rehearsal for WWII, etc., all we now know she predicted as a young woman barely out of her teens from a relatively privileged if progressive background (her mother was an early model of an independent woman, a suffragette, etc.).

She had several lovers and husbands, one adopted son, lived all over the world in various houses and apartments, and covered every war she could, well into her eighties! She was probably one of the only, if not the only, reporters who covered and actually experienced the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s as well as the Viet Nam War and even Reagan’s Contra/Sandinista war—talk about more civilians dying than combatants!

She had her prejudices and her preferences, but she was fiercely independent, and though in many ways made cynical by the failure of the Republican cause in Spain, and of the Western democracies to come to the defense of it, she felt obligated, with a true sense of duty, to bear witness to the devastation all war brings, especially in wars ever since the Spanish Civil War where more “civilians” now die than “soldiers”.

It’s not just her honesty that I admire so much and identify with—not that I think I don’t struggle with the “truth” like most of us do—it’s her commitment to living her life the way she felt was best for her, or the only way she could, standing up for her beliefs and convictions by living them, and doing this as a young woman and later a very old one, in times when that was difficult enough for a man, let alone a woman. Her fierce opinions and championing of causes in the world of politics and unfolding history, were equaled by her fierce commitment to her own personal truths and the ways she saw fit to manifest them in her life.

What can I say, I fell in love with her, through her writing. I doubt I could have lived with her, or she could with anybody for very long herself—despite the years of trying—but that doesn’t diminish the ways in which I feel a bond of like-minded stubborn adherence to bearing witness to it all as honestly as one can, while at the same time following your heart and never, or rarely, settling for the safe utterance when only honesty will do, or the safe “life choice” when only the spectacularly true-to-your-own-heart’s-desire will do.

Monday, December 11, 2006


I watched some old silent movies this weekend that the youngest of my two older sisters had transferred to DVD. They were from the mid-1960s. One was of a party before her wedding. It was eerie. Because they’re silent, they seemed more like photographs in which ghosts miraculously move and gesture and smile and even talk, though we can’t hear them.

There was our mother, still alive, smiling almost bashfully, as though self-conscious as the camera passed over the crowded little room in my other sister’s home. And there was that sister too, moving, gesturing, and look our cousin Jackie, who I wrote about not long ago in my long anti-war poem, the Korean War vet who set me right about battlefield bravery. And Lee, avoiding the camera, the mother of my two oldest children, before they were born.

Within weeks my mother would be dead, from heart failure after an operation that found her full of cancer. Our aunt, who passed only last year in her nineties, was there too, along with others long gone, including our father. That aunt later told us that our mother would go next door to her house and cry on her shoulder about the pain she was in, and then come home and put on that bashful grin and cook dinner and never mention how much she was hurting.

Jack would be dead shortly too. My other sister, whose house the wedding reception was at (captured in one of those silent movies on the dvd) a month after our mom died, would hold out for almost twenty more years, before she too was gone, around the same time Lee passed, after six years in a coma. But it was seeing my mother, who was gone only weeks after this film was made, that broke my heart open all over again.

“Glum” is the way it made me feel. Sad. “Despair” is not a word I’d use, except in reference to a comic book R. Crumb put out in the 1960s, if I remember correctly, called “DESPAIR”—about suburban angst, white people’s worries, mocking them while at the same time enshrining them in an art that seemed to me even at the time to be timeless.

Did you ever see that documentary on Crumb? One of the most compelling films ever made, and disturbing. For him to have transcended the circumstances he was born into, not only explains his art and personality, but as a lot of great art of any kind does, explains a lot about all of us.

So, I was walking down Eighth Avenue today, feeling a little glum about the inevitable— missing my mom who I hadn’t seen move, like I did in that silent film the other night, for over forty years—when I saw coming toward me, walking up the avenue, a young African-American couple, maybe late teens early twenties, him tall, her short with glasses, both attractive, wearing Santa Claus outfits and holding hands.

On their way to or from a holiday job, unaware of their surroundings, so into each other. As I passed I said “I guess you’re gonna have elves”—a pretty lame attempt at humor which he obviously didn’t get just saying “Yes” to me as if I’d asked if he was really wearing a Santa outfit, but she laughed and said, “Yeah, we are” and made me feel like she got that all I was trying to do was comment on the joy they were sharing, the joy of the season, the joy of young love, the joy of youth when it’s being youthful, the joy of being fucking alive and on a street in New York City on a December winter day that is way too warm and where there are way too many people missing, but where that couple and I found ourselves this morning, grateful to be.


"...a man who is truly humble cannot despair, because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self-pity. —Thomas Merton, from New Seeds of Contemplation.


"Only a soul full of despair can ever attain serenity and, to be in despair, you must have loved a good deal and still love the world." —Blaise Cendrars, as quoted in Henry Miller's The Books in My Life

Saturday, December 9, 2006


Just a quick one before I hit the sack. I went to a John Lennon tribute tonight (technically last night by now) in the Jersey town where I grew up. And it was like one of those events I wrote about a few posts back in the half-a-rant about how talent doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, let alone the rewards.

It was put on by a guy in his forties named Matt Matthews, an Irish-American like me, grew up in a later era but under similar circumstances. A whole club full of his sisters were there, dancing and waving and bobbing to the music like they were teenagers seeing the Beatles for the first time.

Matt’s partner for this event—and in the studio over an Indian restaurant they built in a space they rent with some other guys, where they held it—is a guy named Clarence that I’m too tired to remember his last name, but will add it when I get back to this after the weekend. [Burke, that's it.] He was in the group that sang the hit “Oooooh child, things are gonna get easier”—but tonight he was singing John Lennon songs, and kicking their ass, as was Matt.

It was one of those experiences you only have once, with maybe sixty, seventy people sitting at tables drinking coffee and soda and eating cupcakes and apple pie and sometimes getting up and dancing spontaneously, or just jumping up and shouting or waving their hands or clapping or whistling or screaming as if, like I said, it was Shea Stadium back in the mid-60s and the mop tops were on stage.

I kept thinking about how Lennon was my age—and of the years since he was shot down, that I got to live and he didn’t, and hopefully the ones I get to live yet, that he won’t. It brought tears to my eyes, because if I ever had a hero, despite the stuff I’ve read about his treatment of his ex-wife and Julian, and the other human failures he may have been guilty of, he’s it.

He was so fucking honest, something I felt I staked my life on and caused me some grief and loss and a few of the world’s rewards. He just said it straight out, and he was smart, listen to some of those lyrics, the early ones as well as the later ones.

The guys played songs I had forgotten, “and my bird can’t sing” or whatever it’s called ["and your bird can sing" thanks Miles], some I can’t even name, and I thought I remembered them all, but as soon as they hit those first chords I did. Some songs were a perfect tribute to Lennon and/or The Beatles and the band was so tight it was as if they were them, they had every lick down and Matt seemed to almost be channeling John’s musicality.

Some tunes they made their own, sounded contemporary, even new, and yet so familiar, like Danger Mouse’s The Gray Album or parts of what George Martin and his son have recently done for Cirque Soliel, or however you spell it.

“I’m so tired” was their last tune, and Matt’s teenage son, a singer in a punk band did a duo with Clarence that will never be heard again, certainly not like that, and I was there to experience it, as we all are sometimes, when we listen.

P.S. When I was a kid, first hanging out in Manhattan and falling in love with jazz and the jazz life style, there was graffiti all over the city saying “Bird Lives”—he had died not long before. And it was like he really did, because his music was alive and his spirit in the hearts of people who dug his music and everything he was and represented. I feel the same way now about Lennon, thus the title of this post.

Friday, December 8, 2006


One of the best books you could give anyone for Xmas or Honakkuh or Kwanza or Winter Solstice or whatever you might, or might not, celebrate, I left off my earlier list:


It’s a selection of Robert Zuckerman’s photographs of people he encounters in his travels as one of the best movie still photographers in that business.

But unlike the shots he takes of movie stars in action, often used for the films' posters, these candid photographs of nurses/taxi drivers/homeless people/hospital patients/holocaust survivors/store clerks/etc. are not only raw and fresh and everday beautiful, but the accompanying mini-essays about the person or Robert’s encounter with them are as unique as the photos and make them even more poignant and/or joyous and/or thought provoking and/or a reason to celebrate life and the human spirit.

I don’t want to sound sappy, but this book read from cover to cover, was a spiritual experience for me. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, December 7, 2006


“Fatuma Hussein…described the shock that she felt on arriving in America. Having escaped the horrors of the civil war [in Somalia] and spent years in a refugee camp in Kenya, she was suburban Atlanta, where she was sent to an all-white high school. ‘And I tell you,’ she said, ‘American high school is the cruelest place I’ve been.’” —from “New in Town” by William Finnegan in The New Yorker Dec. 11, 2006.

* A lot of adult environments have been compared to high school, like Hollywood, academia, the publishing biz, the art scene, “corporate America”, etc.

And the poetry world, where different cliques rule at different times or on different turfs, ala my previous “language poetry” comments

My last word (hopefully) on that is number one: I’m one of the only people (or poets for that matter) I know who has actually read from cover to cover every book written by almost every one of the first generation of “language” poets.

Others admit they can only dip into these tomes for a few pages before all the nonlinear juxtapositions that evoke too many possibilities causes brain fatigue. I’m sure some read these books all the way through as I do, but I would suspect it’s very few who really do, and they take a long time to do it.

With me, it’s a compulsion. Any print matter I pick up, once I read the first page (and I really mean the first page with print on it) I have to read every following page until the last, including the endpapers and dust jacket, etc.

Only lately have I been able to NOT read everything on every page in newspapers and magazines. For instance The New Yorker. I still read everything but the ads, but skipping the ads was a big breakthrough.

So, when I raise the question of the actual popularity of “language” poetry versus the perceived popularity and the attention it gets—in the academy, from critics, and those who run reading venues and poetry publications (for awhile there a few years ago even the prose in The Saint Marks Poetry Project Newsletter was so “language”-y I couldn’t figure out what anyone was trying to say), etc.—I’m speaking as one of the most comprehensive readers of the stuff, because I appreciate the breakthroughs in poetic technique and strategy “language poetry” has generated.

And number two: It’s all “language” poetry.

As a young man playing jazz, many jazz musicians I knew dismissed that term. They either said: “It’s all music,” or “it’s all jazz,” meaning, in the latter case, that it’s all improvised before it’s written down. Well, in poetry, it’s all “language.”

PS Best movie about high school in recent years: Tina Fey’s Mean Girls.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006


"Don't cut what you can untie." —Joseph Joubert
from The Notebooks of... (translated by Paul Auster)

Sunday, December 3, 2006


So, now that I know how it works, here's another shot of my "Captain Bubb" character on the DEADWOOD set with Coyote's "General Crook" and one with me and the creator of DEADWOOD, David Milch.
I meant what I said about that show being as close to Shakespeare as TV has gotten, and I will miss watching it, a lot. One of the few TV shows I followed.
I dug some of the writing and acting on THE SOPRANOS, but it was much more uneven to my taste. And also, growing up in that area and knowing some guys from those kinds of families, some of the stuff seemed a little too Hollywood and not enough Jersey. But don't get me wrong, some kick ass acting and writing overall.
But DEADWOOD I thought beat everything for character and plot and language, despite the objections to the foulness of the latter. It was historically accurate to a large extent (though with some modern ringers in there too) and what I was accused of doing in my early writing too but was just an expression of what I grew up around (not in my family except for one uncle but definitely in the neighborhood).
The only real objection I had to DEADWOOD was its treatment of the Irish. The actress who played Trixie, a complex and compelling character, is actually from Ireland, but uses an American accent. The only characters in the show to use Irish accents appeared early on and were typical old stereotypes, drunken idiots who shit their pants etc.
I couldn't figure out if the theater guy was supposed to be Irish. The actor is, but the historical figure wasn't I'm pretty sure.
One of Hearst's men didn't have an Irish accent but boasted of being part of the Irish fighting 69th in "the war" but he turns out to be cowardly.
You couldn't get away with that, I don't think, with any other ethnic group. The only openly Jewish character, Bulluck's partner Starr, (am I getting the names right?) is also the only character on the show who never displays any bad traits.
The Black characters sometimes do, but most often are noble or expressions of other positive qualities. Though I wondered when the historically real Black "Deadwood Dick" was going to make his entrance.
Oh well, can't have everything. I'm honored to have had a small part in what I see as one of TV's greatest shows.


Okay, here's me trying to test how to put a photo on this blog. If it came out right it should be me on the right next to Peter Coyote playing General Crook on DEADWOOD. It's a fake moustache and make-up to hopefully make me look like an old coot who's been through "The Indian Wars".
It was a one-of-a-kind experience for me. Although you might only have noticed my character "Captian Bubb" in the scene where I interrupt a dinner/meeting Crook is having with news of the soldiers running amok and he decides it's time to split, I actually worked on the set for three weeks and am in the background or just off screen in about twenty or so scenes.
None of which matters, except to say what "a gasser" it was, as Selby would say, to be part of project that I believe is the closest TV has ever gotten to Shakespeare, thanks to David Milch's brilliance (and the writers he hired to help him).
It also was a thrill because I got to ride a horse for the first and only time. When asked if I rode, I said "The last time I was on a horse was when I was a kid". They thought I meant I rode horses when I was young, so said, "No sweat, it's like riding a bike, you never forget how." But in fact what I meant was when I was very very little I was put on a pony down the Jersey shore and someone held the reins and walked the pony and me around in a circle.
But the old wrangler who picked a horse for me, made sure it was an easy one. He told me it's like driving a car! and showed me the basic left right backward and forward and faster moves and let me try them out for a few minutes before I had to ride on camera!
I loved being in the saddle, the actual historical cavalry saddles from the period we were supposed to be in. I was told they're terribly uncomfortable, but either because my skinny ass is so bony or as one of my grandmothers used to say, "No sense, no feeling", I never felt uncomfortable. I could have stayed on that horse all day, and a few times did.
I felt so proud at not only being able to ride the horse, but ride fast in one scene we did over and over again of Coyote (on a huge mule, bigger than any of the horses, like the real Crook rode) and me and the other two guys in the shot (actual horse stunt men) tore into town and jumped off our horses, without looking ridiculous. In fact, I thought I looked pretty cool.
But that shot was never used, and neither was the other one I was most proud of, shot at night, I had to ride out of town through rowdy reeling drunks, some holding flaming torches, between rutholes, and all. And as throughout the show, without my bifocals which it was decided looked too hip for the period.
So, half blind, in the dark, never having ridden a horse before, I had to make mine back up, turn right, weave between stunt men and extras and actors surging all around, some with flaming torches in their hands, and all with one hand as I held the company flag in the other! Just making it through the scene seemed like a triumph, but actually pulling it off as I thought my character would made me feel so gratified.
That scene never made it in either, but man, was it a beautiful experience. There were many takes, and I remember feeling on one of them like I had really been transported back to the frontier days. The set was historically accurate and built chornologically as the real Deadwood was. And even though some of the buildings were simple facades, riding through the rutted muddy dirt street in the dark with everyone in period costume and character, and the camera way behind us and high up and unseen by us, it felt like the real deal.
Every childhood cowboy fantasy was fulfilled in that moment. Man, am I one lucky cat or what? I used to be bugged by what I thought was the unfairness of my not getting the lead in things like that, but now know that I have been blessed way beyond most people's fantasies.
But then as Selby taught me, it's all a blessing, you just gotta say thank you.

Saturday, December 2, 2006


you get the best light
from a burning bridge.)"
—Geoffrey Young from THE DUMP

*I haven't figured out
how to use the tab button to indent
lines, so picture Geoff's lines above
as a descending staircase with
each line one more tab indent in.

Friday, December 1, 2006



On James A. Baker III and Robert Gates (head of committee for solutions in Iraq or “how to save W’s ass” and W’s next Secretary of Defense):

“These are the same men who, fifteen years ago, abandoned Afghanistan to civil war and Al Queda, allowed Saddam to massacre his own people, and concluded that genocide in the Balkans was none of America’s business. They are not the guardians of all wisdom.” —George Packer, The New Yorker, November 27, 2006

That issue also has a good article by Seymour M. Hersh on a possible attack on Iran by the U. S. or Israel. Hersh is our greatest war correspondent, and has been for a long time. His articles on our war in Afghanistan, before we even attacked Iraq, were the source of my prescient perspective on that blunder in a long poem I wrote for a reading that turned out to have been coincidentally scheduled for the night before we invaded.

As a result, the poem, which had no title, became MARCH 18, 2003 and was thought by many in the first audiences to hear it, to be over the top in its seeming predictions of American soldiers, including sadistic women, torturing prisoners who hadn’t even been convicted of anything yet. But I got it from the articles Hersh wrote about what we were already doing in Afghanistan.

The poem was published by Vincent Katz in a new press he started the next year called Libellum, and in its latest incarnation, with drawings by Alex Katz, is out in a third edition published jointly by Libellum and an Italian art book publisher Charta.

Not for myself—at this point I’m pretty much over the need for any kind of public validation—but for the people who run Charta and take a chance on “political” books as well as art books, may I add that book to my recommendations for your gift giving list this season, or any gift-giving reason for that matter.

And add another from Charta—the best reportage on war I’ve read along with Hersh and Martha Gellhorn’s THE FACE OF WAR (out of print but available through the internet)—this newer collection of war reporting is called GREEN PARROTS (after the small anti-personnel bombs that appear to be toys to children and therefore are most lethal to them, and were used in Israel’s recent attacks on Lebanon, and by almost every other modern war machine as well, including us, even if only by proxy).

It’s subtitled “A War Surgeon’s Diary”, because the author, Gino Strada, is an Italian surgeon who started EMERGENCY, an organization to bring medical services to war torn areas that even “Doctors without Borders” often fear to go, or can’t, and is the most compelling book I’ve read in years.

Partly because it is so plain spoken and personal, and partly because, as with Gellhorn’s writing on almost every 20th Century war (she should have won a Nobel in my book), it is about the personal experience of war of noncombatants caught in the turmoil. This is more important than ever, and something Gellhorn tuned into long before most other writers, including Hemingway (the husband she was briefly married to, which is unfortunately what she has become most famous for).

Because before the late 20th century, most wars mostly killed soldiers and other combatants (the figure I heard was over ninety-five per cent of casualties) but in recent decades that figure has been pretty much reversed, and now in every conflict around the world, like Iraq, the “civilian” casualties, or “collateral damage” as the U. S. calls it, are over seventy-five per cent of casualties and growing.


In that same issue of The New Yorker there’s a financial article by James Surowieki about the dire consequences to our energy policy from the protection of our ”sugar industry”. The reason is that ethanol can be distilled from sugar cane much more efficiently than from corn, but our politicians protect the domestic “sugar industry” from any competition from elsewhere and in the process the corn conglomerates that are responsible for most of the sweetening we eat now, in the form of high fructose corn syrup, though Suroweiki doesn’t get into that.

His point is that it would save enormous amounts of energy and money to distill ethanol from sugar cane as Brazil does, a huge country that is now free of dependence on oil from outside its borders thanks to their ethanol policy—making it from sugar cane. But because our politicians, Democrats as well as Republicans, have created a monster in the corn conglomerates that feeds the political maw, we not only end up paying more for real sugar in the U. S. (and we consume more than any other nation in the world) and hurt other countries’ economies, especially in the so-called “third world”, but because ethanol is mostly derived from corn as opposed to sugar cane, “the amount of energy it yields in proportion to how much energy goes into its production” is a lot lower. Sugar cane is not only cheaper, or would be without the tariffs and other added expenses our politicians have created, but it also yields “eight times more” “energy per unit” than corn!

The article is about ethanol saving us from dependence on “foreign oil”—Suroweiki doesn’t even mention high fructose corn syrup or get into the incredible damage that ingredient, in almost everything we eat now, has and is causing. As Bill Maher, a comic whose politics I generally agree with but whose personality and jokes often leave me cold, is always ranting about, the long term affects of the enormous intake of high fructose corn syrup that most citizens of the U. S. experience with every meal and snack are unknown, but the short term affects are apparent in the exactly parallel rises on the most elementary graphs charting the use of it and the increase in obesity in the U. S.

We’re not talking about family farmers raising corn here, we’re talking about giant agricultural conglomerates protecting their right to make historic and unconscionable profits with the help of taxpayer money, and tariffs on anyone else selling us cheaper and more natural “sugar” from outside. The same conglomerates that brought us genetically altered food, cows that eat their own and other animals’ shit instead of grass and hay like they used to, rivers of pig shit fouling our streams and water tables, etc.

They’re like the mob taking over an industry, only instead of with actual “muscle” with the muscle of money. Let’s find out who is willing to stand up and fight this in the new Congress and support them with as much information and publicity as we can generate. Whoa, I’m starting to sound like an ‘activist” again. See what a little “real” sugar can do in the morning (in my case from bananas and “naturally sweetened” twigs-and-branches health-food cereal).


Just a quick addendum to my cream-doesn’t-always-rise-to-the-top posts that generated some comments, mostly in e mails to me rather than in the comments section of this blog, which I’ve been told is sometimes a pain in the ass to access, though I’ve tried to make it open to anyone with no restrictions.

Anyway, I wasn’t saying that those who achieve success in mainly the arts I was concentrating on, or anything else, don’t deserve it. I acknowledge anyone’s “making it” because even if I don’t appreciate their talent, I appreciate their figuring out or lucking into success.

And I never meant to imply that talented people don’t often make it to the top in their fields.

Nor did I mean to denigrate any one approach to various arts, especially the “language” approach to poetry. I edited an anthology in the 1970s called NONE OF THE ABOVE that included some of the early practitioners of “language” poetry, including Bruce Andrews and Ron Silliman, because obviously I dig their work! I was trying to make a point about how difficult many not-in-the-poetry-world people find that particular approach to poetry and therefore I am mystified by the attention it gets in the otherwise almost exclusively mainstream reviews in Publishers Weekly, for example.

I didn’t even mean to sound like I was disparaging Paul Muldoon, just the claims of his champions that his work is so original or great that he deserves all the prizes and kudos and comparisons to historic giants as they give him.

My whole point is a lament that so much great work never makes it to the wider audience that critical acclaim and lucky breaks can generate.

Just one example: Karen Allen, who made such an impact as the heroine of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, appeared in the play MONDAY AFTER THE MIRACLE back in the early 1980s, as I remember it. I first saw her in the play when it was in workshop form at the Actors Studio in New York. I went because we’re friends and I wanted to support her in what I knew was an enormous challenge, the role of Helen Keller, the blind and deaf real life heroine of her own drama, first portrayed as a child in THE MIRACLE WORKER decades before by the child actor Patty Duke, which became the basis for her successful acting career.

The other characters in Keller’s life were played by Ellen Burstyn and John Heard, better known and highly regarded actors. But Karen shone so brightly, just as the character she was playing always did, despite the fact she could only talk in sounds that were almost indecipherable and could not hear or see, she blew them off the stage.

They were replaced for the first run of the play at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC before it moved to Broadway. The DC theater was ten times or more the size of the space where I first saw the play performed, a big theater. Karen had to project what her character was thinking and feeling without the use of normal speech or movement to this large audience filling up this vast space. I was there and can swear that even if you were sitting in the last row you could feel the power of this character’s passion for life and love and moving humanity forward in whatever way she could contribute to. An unbelievable performance.

The play was a success out of town, but the producers weren’t experienced or smart or lucky enough to know what they were doing, so by the time it got to Broadway there wasn’t enough money for the kind of advertising campaign that a serious play desperately needed. They weren’t even smart enough to promote the play on the basis of Karen’s appeal to fans of RAIDERS, or of her performance in ANIMAL HOUSE or other popular films. In fact, they ran out of money.

The play ran for less than a month, if I remember correctly. It was eventually chosen for the year-end lists of a lot of critics. TIME magazine, for example, named it one of the best plays of that year. But too late, it had already folded. The producers were long gone, and it had gotten the attention necessary to make Hollywood producers fly to New York to check it out only after it closed. So Karen never got the full benefit of what to me will always be one of the greatest stage performances I have ever seen.

Yes, she had success in the movies, more so than many actors, but very few got to know how big her talent is and what she might have achieved if given the kinds of roles that went to other award-winning actresses.

A couple of years ago at The Tribeca Film festival, I saw her do what may be her best work in a film, playing the role of an alcoholic, aging, Southern-belle, ex-beauty-queen-trophy-wife to a U. S. Senator whose son is “gay” but has to stay closeted so as not to embarrass the senator. The film still hasn’t found distribution, so few will ever see that achievement either. But the audience I watched it with couldn't keep themselves from appluading her scenes, as the movie was still playing, she was so fucking good!

And this is the case of someone who made it to the top in her profession in other ways. My point is, what about the many who never even got that far, who created miracles in their own performances or writing or artwork or music that never got beyond the local coffee house or gallery or community theater or bar. I know, that’s life, which unfortunately is still “unfair”, I’m not denying that, just lamenting all the great work that just disappears without a trace, while often much more mediocre work gets recognized as more than it is and becomes a fixture in the firmament of popular or high art culture, even if only for awhile.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Part of what happens is a kind of mass hypnosis I think. You know, the power of suggestion. I was at a presentation the other night called something like “Science Theatre” where two British scientists showed slides and film clips to disprove non-scientific beliefs and demonstrate how easily the mind can be manipulated. One of their demonstrations was about backward lyrics to songs, using a clip from “Stairway to Heaven” if I remember right. They played the backwards clip and it was obvious that what we were meant to hear, and most of us did, was the word “Satan” a few times. It was a very distorted version of the word, but nonetheless pretty apparent to most of us.

But that was all we could hear. The rest was gibberish and obviously just random sounds. UNTIL they put up a new lyric on the screen and highlighted the words as they played the backwards clip again, words that made a kind of sense having to do with “Satan” and the singer. Everyone in the audience heard those words where they had previously heard only gibberish. It demonstrated incredibly well the power of suggestion.

I think something similar happens with evaluating the work of artists. Some authority figure, like a professor or critic or leading practitioner of the art or even publicity department affirms in print or on TV or film or in a lecture that so-and-so represents the cutting edge or the next big thing or already is the next big thing, ala the article on Muldoon (see part I), and presto, it’s now conventional wisdom, as they say.

This even happens in Hollywood, the center of hype. In my early years there, Jack Nicholson had a stake in a club called “Helena’s” in east L. A. that was run by a Greek woman who had been a notorious belly-dancer before she played the role of the dyke in the backseat of the car in FIVE EASY PIECES. She was a friend of Nicholson’s and the way I heard it he set her up with this club. She and I were friends for awhile too, but when her club first opened I didn’t know her and the doorman wouldn’t let me in because I wasn’t a star, or a friend.

Then there came a time when I was let in, I forget why, maybe it was who I was with, and I started going there regularly because despite the doorman, it seemed like my kind of crowd. But I found it difficult to make friends there, as I’m not much with small talk and I missed the camaraderie I felt in New York where I’d been living before this.

Then one night I dropped by the club and everyone was saying hi to me. I told the friend I was with, “I guess it just takes a little time out here for people to get to know you, now it feels more like New York” or words to that effect and he replied, “Schmuck, don’t you read the trades?” which is what they call The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, the papers that cover “the business” as people in show business chauvinistically call it. I didn’t read them. He said there was an article in one of them about how I was writing three different screenplays for three different studios, and that’s why people were being friendly, they thought I “had some heat” as a writer, usually a job that has little power in the movie business as it’s run in Hollywood, but does at certain times, like before a script actually begins to be produced but has already garnered interest, or the times I’ve been called in to “doctor” a script already shot (like the one in which a sexy European actress was starring—she ended up calling me in my one-room little pad on the border of Venice late one night and purring to me over the phone as she asked about the narration I was adding and new scenes to be shot, wanting to make sure whatever it was I was contributing was to her advantage).

What I came to learn about Hollywood was that you could hire a publicist who everyone knew and she could get you publicity that everyone knew she got you, and was paid for, and the studio heads and other big guns would read it or hear about it, and their minds would shift and they would see you as more of a player, as if the hype you paid for was true! Even though they knew it was hype! I guess they were impressed that you got the right publicist or the right publicity or whatever. (I never did it, though I thought about doing it a lot. Maybe if I had I'd be financially secure now, maybe not.)

Meanwhile they would talk all this baloney about how talent would out, like the scenes in SINGING IN THE RAIN where Donald O’Conner’s and Gene Kelly’s characters talk with the studio head as if Debbie Reynolds’ character’s talent had to be rewarded and the goldmine movie star she’s talking and singing for needs to be taught a lesson. They actually have lines that state that of course the young up-and-comer’s talent is what’s important and must be rewarded with screen credit and her own movie to star in. And the female star she’s making look good has to trick the studio head into not exposing the truth! As if!

As everyone making that film knew, and we all know now, there were all kinds of talented singers and dancers and body doubles and so on who made stars look or sound good and never got screen credit, let alone a chance at their own stardom. There’s tons of talent in Hollywood that’s exploited just for the purpose of making some “star” look better and that talent is rarely rewarded in any way even close to the ways the “star” is. Not that there aren’t stars who deserve some of what they get because they get people into theaters and make unbelievable amounts of money for the people who back their movies. But there’s very few of them.

And not that there aren’t talented actors, whose movies don’t make the huge bucks, but still deserve to be stars because their artistry moves so many. A lot of people feel that way about Nicholson and didn’t appreciate my take on him in THE DEPARTED. I dig a lot of Nicholson’s work and accept how talented he is. But I also accept that sometimes some other talent, maybe an even as yet undiscovered one or overlooked one could do what he’s supposed to be doing with a character, even more originally and interestingly and movingly. Only they won’t get the chance, because the powers that be are afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they take a chance on a relative “unknown” should the project fail, or because they just can’t judge talent unless it’s hyped or gets attention in some other way out in the world.

Okay we all know that. But explain the art world to me, and the vagaries of that “market” especially for new talent, but even for established ones. I just saw where a piece by an L. A. artist I still think of as young sold at an auction for over two million dollars. I’m happy for him. I dig his work and I dug him when I got to know him when I first lived in L. A. and he wasn’t getting enough for his art, to make his rent. More power to him. But how did his work go that high while some other artist, equally innovative or interesting or committed or talented or even more so, gets overlooked, even shunned.

It’s kind of like what the Republicans were so good at for the past several years until their incompetence in most other areas started to get in the way. They would issue talking points and a daily message and, as John Stewart’s Daily Show would often demonstrate, every talking head coming from their side on TV or radio that day would use the same words, to make the same talking points, to deliver the same message. And for several years there, it worked. Much to the chagrin of a lot of us. How could people be so stupid?

But it wasn’t any more stupid than the idea that undernourished, frighteningly skinny teenagers represent the heights of female allure. Or that people driving very fast around and around on a circular track while wrapped in advertisements is really exciting to watch on TV. Or that being attacked by a band of men, a majority of whom are from Saudi Arabia, demands a retaliation against two other countries, the first of which had some connection to the men, the second none whatsoever. Etc.


I used to believe the above quote when I was a kid. But life has taught me otherwise. Some of the greatest artistic achievements I’ve witnessed, whether on stage or TV or film or recordings or in galleries or someone’s loft or apartment or the street—have never been rewarded with any kind of major public recognition or appreciation beyond the limited audiences they’ve been able to attract.

And I know it’s all a matter of taste. But whose? How did all the so-called “language poets” get so much academic and critical acclaim and attention? Some of my best friends are identified as “language poets” and I too have been numbered among them, at least when the term was first being thrown around and the magazines that published and promoted their point of view vis-à-vis poetry (like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) were first appearing.

That point-of-view being as simply as I can summarize it, that words have other qualities besides their most literal meanings—i.e. shape, size, weight, or relationships to other words or history or capitalist exploitation etc. The “language” poets’ work would emphasize all that over and above (and yes—beyond) meaning. Or, as poet Bruce Andrews explained it to me when we first became friends back in the early 1970s: “connotation over denotation”.

Hey, I recommend a “language poet” in my Xmas list blog, my old friend Ray DiPalma’s latest book. (Though he may not want to be described that way, and if so sorry Ray.) Some might see Geoff Young’s work that way too, another poet I highly recommend on that list. I’ve got nothing against any language poet personally, but how did that particular approach to poetry—that except in rare cases, to the general reader and almost anyone I ever talk to, often appears way too dense and meaningless to sustain much interest unless performed in a captivating way at a reading or explained by a particularly brilliant teacher—become so overwhelmingly recommended and commended by reviewers in Publishers Weekly etc. and among those-in-the-know who run a lot of the alternative poetry venues, from readings to magazines?

It’s a mystery to me.

Again, I know, it’s a matter of taste, even if the academics seem to think, or want us to, that it’s a matter of intellect and expertise. In fact, like some kinds of “free jazz” that came into vogue at about the time I was getting out of jazz—jams where anyone could blow anything regardless of chord changes or melodies or time signatures and other structural considerations that were always the basis of even the most progressive forms of that music as I had learned it and played it and dug it—“language-centered poetry” as it’s sometimes called, is very easy to fake. And there’s a lot more room for the results to be pretty tedious, and few who subscribe to its principles or lack of them ever say the emperor has no clothes.

There are other categories of poetry that are even more full of mediocrity that gets highly praised. To continue with the music analogy, there’s a category I’d call “pop” poetry, like Billy Collins, who I think if I remember an article I read on him has become the best-selling poet of all time. A poet I admire and love cajoled me into attending a reading of his back when he was the Poet Laureate of the USA and all I could say afterward was, why did you drag me to this?

Yes, a few of the poems he read were humorous enough to raise a chuckle, and a few were sweet and maybe even touching if you love cats or share his taste in other pets, etc. And he seemed like a nice guy whose poems are pretty good. But do they deserve top honors? Nah. An audience, why not? If he can get the readers and they dig his work, more power to him. When I was young there was a guy I can’t remember his name now who wrote reams of poetry and recorded it as well, Rod McKuen that’s it, and he sold more poetry books than anyone in history until then, and I dug some of his recordings, as obviously a ton of others did too. But he didn’t win any literary prizes. He just got rich, which he deserved, because his books and records were enormously popular.

Is Billy Collins better than him? In that academic, writing-workshop kind of way, he is. But in terms of depth of feeling and insight and impact on an audience, I’d say they’re about equal. McKuen may even be a little more experimental, dare I say original?

A disclosure here, my poetry has been compared to McKuen’s now that I think of it, as well as Bukowski’s, another enormously popular poet who never got any of the literary rewards or awards but nonetheless has had, I would guess, a bigger emotional influence on his audience than Collins, even more of a life changing influence I’d guess.

I wrote a big article/review on Bukowski and another less well-known but better poet, in my estimation, Larry Eigner, back in the early 1980s for The Village Voice. Eigner was confined to a wheelchair all his life and yet his poetry is more expansive, more free, more full of unexpected dance-like moves and use of space than any of the above. He was picked up by the “language poets” as a predecessor to their approach, though he stood, or rather sat, way outside it as far as I can see, on a whole other plane.

Sometimes the whole academic-and-critical-attention-and-awards thing can be explained by simple personalities. Some people know how to work the system better than others. Some people just know how to schmooze and hustle better than others. Some people really do know how to use the casting couch better than others. Some people just have better luck than others. Just like in the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, the poetry of plenty of poets I’ve read or heard, surpasses anything written or read by a lot of recent prize winners and critically-acclaimed, academically-championed lesser talents. Yet they will never get the opportunities to make a living from their work, to gain a place in literary history, to have their books published by major presses or important smaller ones or taught in college classes and continually in print, like many lesser lights do and will. It’s actually pretty weird when you think about it.


Well, maybe sometimes. But shit, does it piss you off as much as it does me to see so much mediocrity or just un-interesting crap being canonized? Last week’s New York Times Magazine had an article on the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, about how he’s the next Seamus Heaney (The Irish Nobel-winning poet), and in passing commented on his rock band Racket and compared his lyrics to Van Morrison’s as well as “Gershwin or Cole Porter” (I assume the writer meant Ira G.) and then quoted some that fell so short of that mark, they were like lines from a junior high show off self-consciously proving how clever he can be:

“You may buckle your sword and sandals
To fight off the Goths and Vandals
Now they’ve dented your chrome
Just don’t sit around to count the cost
Of every shiny thing you’ve lost
Back in the catacombs
Do what you must when you’re in Rome
Just don’t try this at home.”

Has this guy listened to Van Morrison’s or Ira Gershwin’s or Cole Porter’s lyrics?

I respect Muldoon’s achievements in the poetry world, where there’s very few rewards that amount to much more than a college teaching gig. He’s managed to get some of the better ones. And I appreciate his growing up Catholic in Northern Ireland and all that must have meant. And I don’t have anything against him or his success, just against those who champion his poetry as more than it is. I read poems of his that appear in THE NEW YORKER and wonder how he ever got this great reputation. But then I wonder that about a lot of people who have garnered whatever the big rewards are in their various arts and professions.

I know it’s all a matter of taste. I’ve left plenty of poetry readings where people I’m with, especially other poets, had exactly the opposite take on what we just heard. And I’m just as guilty of bad writing and bad acting and whatever other things I’ve attempted and put out into the world. But my lines don’t get quoted in The New York Times. Actually the only lines of mine that ever got widespread attention, in Time and other major publications, were some I wrote, or rewrote for the narration of the film DRUGSTORE COWBOY, but they were attributed either to the director of that film, one of my favorites, even if I hadn’t had anything to do with it, or his co-screenwriter, or the guy who wrote the unpublished jailhouse novel the film is based on—or to Matt Dillon.

And it’s pretty much the same everywhere isn’t it? You may ask. Like in the corporate world? Guys who fuck up a corporation’s profits and operations and all that and get rewarded with a several-million-dollar severance pay and a top gig at some other corporation? But I’m mostly concerned with the arts, where I’ve always, or mostly, made my living and achieved whatever modicum of “success’ in the world’s terms that I have. Success in my terms is moving someone, touching them somehow so that for a moment they don’t feel so alone or are able to transcend whatever pain or confusion or disappointment or frustration or whatever they’re trying to get through and find some relief or distraction—or enlightenment if I’m really lucky.

But this isn’t about me, but about the people who compare a writer like Muldoon to those he’s not even in the same league with as far as I can see. Though he may be a wonderful guy, I never met him, his poetry seems no better than tons of workshop students around the world who are equally often un-interesting, but much less likely to ever be compared to a Nobel winner favorably, or have claimed for her or him what one of the critics quoted in this article says about Muldoon—that he has “reconceived the whole way in which modern poetry can be written”—or given some top gig at Princeton or somewhere similar, and what seems like a sweet life of making a very nice living off your creative endeavors—and even your amateur rock band gets a gig at The Knitting Factory.

The article quotes several lines from a Muldoon poem:

“a grave lit by acetylene
in which, though she proceeded him
by a good ten years, my mother’s skeleton
has managed to worm
its way back on top of the old man’s,
and she once again has him under her thumb.”

I don’t know about anyone else who might teach poetry workshops, but in mine, I would be encouraging some changes in those lines. I have nothing against clichés, if they work or are used originally or in a context that makes them shine in new ways or resonate in ways they haven’t until then, but even if you have absolutely no knowledge of poetry whatsoever do those lines in any way say to you that this is a writer who has “reconceived the whole way in which modern poetry can be written” or has half the wit of Porter, the ingenuity of Ira Gershwin, or the passion and depth of even the most simple lyrics of Van Morrison?

Maybe it’s just me.

Friday, November 24, 2006


Today I learned that Anita O’Day died, at 87. I just mentioned her yesterday, after not having thought of her for years. Does that happen to you? It seems to happen to me all the time. Coincidence, I guess, but it doesn’t feel like it. I was talking about another “white” female jazz singer who was performing and recording when I was a kid, Irene Kral, no relation as far as I know to the contemporary singer, Diana Krall, (I think that’s how you spell her name, you know who I mean, Elvis Costello’s mate and a darling of the critics).

Irene Kral was the least known white female jazz singer of the 1950s and early 1960s, when I played jazz in bars in New Jersey and New York—and after I joined the service in 1962 in various other cities—either with small combos, or solo as my version of “the piano man”. But she was one of my favorites, and still is.

The most well known white female jazz singer then was probably Peggy Lee, though I suppose today she’d be considered “pop”. The most appreciated white female singer in jazz-musician circles, in my experience of those times, was Anita O’Day. Others had their moment of popularity as well, like Annie Ross, mostly as one-third of the trio Lambert Hendricks & Ross, or Chris Connors or even Keely Smith, though Smith too would be probably considered “pop” now. I wonder who I’m forgetting, as I often wonder about memory and history. How does an Irene Kral become forgotten, or anyone who had an impact on the culture or politics or even sometimes science of a particular time.

Or the gossip that often passes as “history” now. At the time, Anita O’Day and Annie Ross were rumored to be heroin addicts, Chris Connors a lesbian, and Keely Smith a battered wife (of Louis Prima). Some of these rumors I heard from people quite close to these singers, but nonetheless I had no personal knowledge of. That didn’t stop me from passing on the gossip, some of which has popped up in biographies and histories of that time, and I wonder how rumors like that, about such private behaviors, could ever be truly proven, and regret having contributed to them in however minor a way.

Having lived through some history now myself, I have personal experience of how it gets written and rewritten. Whenever I do some research on a memory of mine, I often discover aspects of the event or person I’m researching that I had forgotten or never knew. Or more often, people and events that have been left out that at the time seemed so much more crucial to me then, than what is now included.

I’ve noticed this lately with various histories of the “downtown” scene of New York in the 1960s and/or seventies and even eighties. All of which I experienced personally, even in the years in those decades when I was living elsewhere (I was around, working and or living in lower Manhattan from the late 1950s to '62, for most of 1966, and from 1975 to 1982. And I worked various gigs there, including playing music or reading my poetry or later acting on stage or in films or TV, during all the years in between and since. And yet, when I read recent histories of the scenes I was most familiar with, I notice all kinds of people who were important to those scenes have been left out, and others who had nothing to do with it, included!

The most obvious reason for this that I can see is—those included now who weren’t even a part of it or so incidental no one would have noticed if they were, have since attained either some fame or power or both in today’s world, and those excluded or simply forgotten have lost what fame and/or power they had then.

In some ways it’s disheartening to experience this, as it is to experience the eclipse of anyone’s reputation or popularity whose work or persona you dig and want to see others have the opportunity to. Hell, it’s happened to me. I’ve read autobiographies or memoirs or articles or books about how someone came to create the work they become famous for, and at the time they created that work, or maybe were just starting out, they couldn’t stop telling me how much my work or life had influenced them, or how much my support or friendship or mentorship had made it all possible. And then seemed to have forgotten that, or changed their minds about it, when they came to tell their story.

I can’t fault them, though I used to, because now I’m old enough to know that everyone has the right to rewrite their own story, and everyone has the right to change or forget or decide to leave out any part of it they like. I’ve certainly done just that. But when outsiders, those who weren’t there and didn’t actually experience the times and events and people they’re writing about, pretend to be recording history and get things all mixed up, leaving out crucial parts and including things that weren’t a part of the time or scene they’re writing of, it feeds my love of the forgotten, the obscure, the footnoted, the incidental and the so-called “minor” figures and works of cultural, political and even scientific "history".

Sometimes someone can go from enormous presence in a period to being left out entirely. My favorite writer as a young man, and still one of my favorites, is William Saroyan. He was so famous in the 1930s, the term “Saroyanesque” became part of the language. He had the kind of fame Elvis or Ali has had in my lifetime. His books and plays influenced a lot of what became signature about the 1930s and early '40s, including the sentimental but usually comic focus on eccentric characters from the ethnic lower classes (often expressed in movies and on Broadway through a more white bread or at least not as ethnic filter, ala the play and movie YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU).

Because of Saroyan’s stubborn resistance to any kind of authority, or uniformity, or violence, he was not as blindly supportive of the patriotic perspective of WWII as most of his generation was. When he wrote THE ADVENTURES OF WESLEY JACKSON, a novel based on his experiences in England as a draftee in the Army, extrapolating from that experience and his strong feelings against any kind of nationalism (despite his sentimentalism about Armenia, the homeland of his parents and ancestors) he had his main character captured by the Germans and kept in a P.O.W. camp under circumstances much more pleasant than anything being portrayed at the time, or since, and unrealistic in terms of what history has recorded. He made the Germans seem not unlike the English and Americans, or at least just as human, which seemed to be the point he was trying to make, in the midst of a war everyone else saw, and often rightfully so, as truly a battle between “good and evil”, but he saw as just more of the same old human tendency to dehumanize the enemy.

Although his popularity with the fans among his readers continued for decades after that, including me after I discovered his first big collection of short stories when I was still a teenager in the 1950s—THE DARING YOUNG MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE—his reputation with critics never recovered from the attacks that occurred after the publication of THE ADVENTURES OF WESLEY JACKSON. Because the attacks often came from Jewish critics, who found an indirect form of anti-Semitism in Saroyan’s humanizing of German soldiers and P. O. W. camps, it probably contributed to what became the rumor that turned into history, Saroyan’s supposed anti-Semitic reaction to the discovery after they were married of his first and second and only wife’s Jewish ancestry.

Who knows what he really felt, but as a fan who has over three big bookcase shelves filled with books by or about Saroyan, as well as having seen or possess copies of unpublished manuscripts and letters, it’s pretty clear that Saroyan dated many women who happened to be Jewish, and had many friends who were, including “the Jewish genius” Artie Shaw, and wrote of Jewish characters in a much more sympathetic and even realistic way than many of the now more renowned writers of that time (Hemingway et. al.). But I don’t know what was really in his heart any more than anyone else does. I just know the writing and see no signs of anti-Semitism there, especially considering what can be found in the writing of so many of his contemporaries.

When I finally met him, toward the end of his life, he was like a lot of famous people I met after they were famous, often long after, he seemed to be some kind of caricature of what he wanted people to see or thought they wanted to see. What others might call a “blowhard” or so egocentric or Narcissistic there seemed to be no interest in anyone but himself. But it didn’t change my love of his work or my disappointment that it, and his reputation, have fallen so low since those times he had such a large impact on.

Anyway, not to get carried away, but what is a blog for otherwise, this guy’s writing saved my life, made me feel like there was someone out there who understood the way I thought and felt, who saw things often the way I did, who, like me, was accused of being too “sentimental” or “romantic” in our writing or stance in relation to the world, and yet based that writing on the realities we had personally experienced and witnessed that others who put us down for our perspective never came close to.

There are plenty of other examples of those who end up on “the rubbish heap of history” or in the vicinity of it, who deserve better in my opinion. You probably have a list of your own. I’ve written too much already to spend any more time making my own list right now, but I will in the future. And it will start with Irene Kral.