Saturday, May 31, 2008

Baseball Loves Poetry

One of America's best poets of the 20th Century, Marianne Moore, throws out the first pitch at Opening Day, Yankee Stadium, 1968.

Who says poets don't got game . . .

Thursday, May 29, 2008

It's About Run: A Baseball Poem

THOUGH IT'S HARD TO acknowledge baseball while there is still so much good basketball out in the world, I thought it might be nice to augment the basketball poems with a fine baseball one. Written by May Swenson, the poem is as much about poetry as it is about baseball. The poems sounds mimic not simply the rhythmic sounds of baseball but also the rhythm of other poems. What's more, the poem's form (how it looks on the page or on this screen) is long and cylindrical, like a baseball bat or a foul pole.

Best of all, the poem, like baseball and poetry, is just fun.


It's about
the ball,
the bat,
and the mitt.
Ball hits
bat, or it
hits mitt.
Bat doesn't
hit ball, bat
meets it.
Ball bounces
off bat, flies
air, or thuds
ground (dud)
or it
fits mitt.
Bat waits
for ball
to mate.
Ball hates
to take bat's
bait. Ball
flirts, bat's
late, don't
keep the date.
Ball goes in
(thwack) to mitt,
and goes out
(thwack) back
to mitt.
Ball fits
mitt, but
not all
the time.
ball gets hit
(pow) when bat
meets it,
and sails
to a place
where mitt
has to quit
in disgrace.
That's about
the bases
about 40,000
fans exploded.
It's about
the ball,
the bat,
the mitt,
the bases
and the fans.
It's done
on a diamond,
and for fun.
It's about
home, and it's
about run.

Thanks to the Writer's Almanac who sent the poem and who reminds us that yesterday, May 28, was May Swenson's birthday.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Why Men (but not those at The Weekly Rader) Cheat:

EVERY MAN WANTS TO sleep with as many different people as possible.

Or, so claims Phillip Weiss in his bold and bewildering essay "The Affairs of Men," that appeared in last week's New York Magazine. According to Weiss, men of all ages are driven by a desire for sexual variety; in fact, Weiss comes clean, so to speak, and confesses that he is a luster--so much of one it "jolted [his] marriage." The agonizing longing for different partners has been his cross to bear all these years, and now, at age 52, he's ready to be strung up on that cross.

His thesis is that men's overwhelming desire to sleep around is taboo to talk about and even more taboo to write about: "When I decided to write about it, the novelist Frederic Tuten offered a warning about the sanctity in which Americans hold monogamy in marriage. 'You can go against it in life, but don’t speak against it. It makes you a monster. Who speaks against it? And this creates a dichotomy, between what we live and what we profess.'"

That's great rhetoric, but maybe both Tuten and Weiss have different experiences of literary and cinematic history than I do, because when I think about it, most great literature, beginning with trifles like The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer's Odyssey have explored, even celebrated the man-dabble. More recently, many of the best (8 1/2, The Apartment, Crimes and Misdemeanors) and most popular (Fatal Attraction, 40 Days and 40 Nights, American Gigolo, Wedding Crashers) movies either chart or poke harmless fun at infidelity. Friends character Joey Tribiani is a walking monument to the charming and rarely-judged Lothario. In short, men's interest in sexual forays are not closeted. They are so well known, they are now parody.

Nor, does speaking against monogamy make one a monster. Take Wilt Chamberlain, for example, now famous for bedding more than 20,000 women. His need for "strange," (to quote both Weiss and Kris Kristofferson) actually boosted his reputation. So much so that most people under 35 probably know him more for his scoring in the bedroom than on the court.

By no means is TWR advocating infidelity, we are simply correcting Weiss's rhetorical assumption that to speak in favor of the sexual buffet (as Ben Franklin did) is new and transgressive.

More interesting than this claim is his assertion that women don't share the male interest in sex and that they really don't have a fascination for a diversity of sexual partners. Visual culture often gets things wrong. Popular culture overdoes just about everything. Most mainstream news isn't really news. And, most memoirs and confessions are in general, enhanced. But, even in these flawed genres, it is common to see women who want a diversity of experiences, a range of emotions, and a portfolio of sexual experimentation. Sex in the City, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, even The Golden Girls.

What Weiss pays too little attention to is the underlying emotional infrastructure that mediates and moderates fidelity, marriage, and what we might call the monogamous unit. Weiss says throughout that men in America are not allowed multiple partners. That's simply not so. Married men are, typically not allowed multiple partners. Most married men in America have taken an oath to do a number of things, one of which is essentially not to sleep with other people. And, chances are that topic of conversation has come up now and again after unwise party flirting or some other harmless offense, so even that oath wasn't taken before bridesmaids, preachers, and a bouquet, it was probably done via casual conversation in a bed after too much sangria.

For a number of reasons, both medical and emotional, most of us are not wired for a long-term, adult, emotionally committed relationship in which our partners get free passes to do other people. We are, however, wired for attraction, and we are wired for curiosity, and we are wired for fantasy. What is interesting to me is why Weiss makes the assumption that to want is to have.

There is something fundamentally American about Weiss' article--a crankiness, like that of a boy in Toys R Us--that he can't have what he wants. He feels cheated. Indeed, there is an undercurrent of ownership, of conquering, of possession that runs through his article, which makes me think that his desire for adultery may be less about men needing to sleep around than it is about him needing to consume.

Friday, May 23, 2008

On American Idol

A COUPLE OF PEOPLE have inquired as to why The Weekly Rader has shied away from reality TV, citing American Idol as an example of the intersection of media, pop culture, and the arts. True enough. Idol is like no other show on television--or better or worse--and it is an odd melange of commerce, criticism, and camp. I've not written about it in part because I don't keep up with it as religiously as one might if he, say, wanted to come off as an expert, but I have been following this year's competition, mostly because of David Cook.

Though David Archuleta seems like one of the sweetest closeted boys ever to come from Utah (and that's saying something), he really brought very little to his songs except his big voice. In general, his renderings of those songs were pleasing, but vanilla. He has no bite, no gravitas. On the other hand, Cook not only seems to know music and music history, he also clearly understands the art of arrangement. Every song he sang, he made his own. He, too, was a bit too earnest at times, but I liked how he tried to expand the range of what American Idol talent might be and perhaps even upgrade the musical palette of the loyal Idol viewer.

What I don't like about American Idol is how narrowly the show defines what "American popular music" is. Most of the singers are young, not particularly interesting, and almost entirely without edge. Nearly every performance, and the subsequent judges' comments, reward bombast over nuance, power over precision. What turns me off the show is the now ubiquitous closed-eyed, fist raised and clenched, I'm-so-overcome-with-the-power-of-my-voice trumpet blast of a singing. Who ever said such drama, such over-the-topness, is or should be American music? Belting out power chords may be American, but that doesn't make it good.

A critic at Entertainment Weekly recently said that one of the problems with Idol is what he calls its "forced spontaneity." That's less of an issue for me. What I object to is linking a powerful singing voice with being an idol.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

TWR Gives the People What They Want: Basketball Poems

AS INTERESTING AS BASKETBALL and basketball players may be in the present, in retrospect, they can take on entirely new nuances. Below are two poems by established writers (Edward Hirsch and John Updike) each of which focuses less on basketball and more on basketball players. Hirsch's wonderful poem, written in energetic couplets, mimics the pace of a fast break. In fact, it's one single sentence pushed to the end.

Updike's now classic poem examines the gap between the glory of the basketball player and the reality of the ex-basketball player.

Both poems merge the excitement of the game's present-ness with the humanness of those who play the game.

Several readers liked the Sherman Alexie basketball poem I featured in a recent post. Follow this link to one of his best poems--and of the great basketball poems, "Defending Walt Whitman" that appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal.

Now, to Hirsch and Updike . . .

Edward Hirsch

In Memory of Dennis Turner, 1946-1984

A hook shot kisses the rim and
hangs there, helplessly, but doesn't drop,

and for once our gangly starting center
boxes out his man and times his jump

perfectly, gathering the orange leather
from the air like a cherished possession

and spinning around to throw a strike
to the outlet who is already shoveling

an underhand pass toward the other guard
scissoring past a flat-footed defender

who looks stunned and nailed to the floor
in the wrong direction, trying to catch sight

of a high, gliding dribble and a man
letting the play develop in front of him

in slow motion, almost exactly
like a coach's drawing on the blackboard,

both forwards racing down the court
the way that forwards should, fanning out

and filling the lanes in tandem, moving
together as brothers passing the ball

between them without a dribble, without
a single bounce hitting the hardwood

until the guard finally lunges out
and commits to the wrong man

while the power-forward explodes past them
in a fury, taking the ball into the air

by himself now and laying it gently
against the glass for a lay-up,

but losing his balance in the process,
inexplicably falling, hitting the floor

with a wild, headlong motion
for the game he loved like a country

and swiveling back to see an orange blur
floating perfectly though the net.

John Updike

Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s Garage
Is on the corner facing west, and there,
Most days, you'll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.

Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all—more of a football type.

Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.

He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.

Off work, he hangs around Mae’s Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Top Ten Reasons The Weekly Rader is Losing The Best of Blogs Contest

FOR BETTER OR WORSE, The Weekly Rader is a finalist for "Best Book/Literature" blog in the annual Best of Blogs competition. At this point, it appears to be for worse, as TWR is pulling a Kucinich in this particular election.

So, in honor of the current elections, here is:


10. Most of TWR'S readers are anxiously awaiting "The Worst of Blogs" Awards.
9. Scandalous problems with electronic voting in Ohio.
8. Bad weather.
7. Impossible to think about voting for TWR while also trying to decide between David Cook and David Archuleta.
6. West Virginians hate the Obama posts.
5. Readers are waiting for TWR to appear on Dancing with the Stars.
4. Majority of Americans maintain "poetry blows."
3. White blue-collar voters are bitter at TWR for the no-guns-on-campus post.
2. TWR failed to get Chuck Norris to appear at campaign rallies.
1. Best of Blog votes are tabulated by Katherine Harris.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg: The Most Poetic of Painters

WHEN ARTIST ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG died last week, America lost one of its most inventive visionaries. While Rauschenberg was not as overtly literary as someone like Robert Motherwell, Rauschenberg's work was notably poetic. Like no other painter, he fused collage and lyricism, visual culture and high culture, pastiche and poetry.

Rauschenberg's work was important not simply because of its artistry, but also because one could see the artist grappling with the increasingly prevalent and provocative pull of popular visual culture like television, advertising, and film. In this sense, he resembles some of the New York poets like John Ashbery and in particular, Frank O'Hara, who were also interested in the iconography of contemporary American culture. In a piece like Retroactive I (1964), the artist juxtaposes symbolic imagery of JFK and the Apollo space mission while also manipulating their color, detail, and meaning. Ashbery does something quite similar in his classic poem "Farm Implements and Rutabaga in a Landscape," when, in a very painterly manner, he plays with the ubiquity and popularity of the characters of the Popeye cartoon within the framework of a classic still life painting. Just as Rauschenberg juxtaposes seemingly unrelated images in Retroactive I and Untitled (1955) (to the left), so, too, does Ashbery. Playing with icons, taking them out of context and re-presenting them forces us to think about language (both visual and verbal) in new ways. Similarly, in "Ave Maria" and "Poem (Lana Turner Has Collapsed)," O'Hara goes Rauschenberg, funking up icons, undermining expectations, and de-poeticizing poetry.

Rauschenberg's poetic leanings don't stop there, though. Like a poet, Rauschenberg pays close attention to grammar. In fact, in many ways, his work turned on linguistic structures. Graham Coulter-Smith argues that Rauschenberg utilizes "linguistic abstraction" rather than visual abstraction. Indeed, like many of the poets from the 1950s and 60s who moved away from abstract poetry in favor of writing about real people, celebrities, and social issues, Rauschenberg 's images tell a story rather than simply express.

Persimmon (1964), is arguably his most famous piece. Riffing on the iconic painting, Venus at Her Toilet, by Peter Paul Rubens (not Pee-Wee Herman), Rauschenberg participates in an early form of sampling, mixing in the old with the new. T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and others made this practice the most important part of their poetry, and Rauschenberg imports that tendency into his own work. Here, he plays with high vs. low culture, a lot like Eliot in The Wasteland, when he mixes in folk songs, German, and slang.

Along with Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg put post-Abstract Expressionist American Art on the map and gave us a new kind of abstraction that helped bridge the always precarious gap between high culture and popular culture. His passing is a loss, but, perhaps it will now refocus a new generation on his revolutionary work.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Reading Paulville

"The goal of it to establish gated communities containing 100% Ron Paul supporters and or people that live by the ideals of freedom and liberty."

THUS BEGINS THE FIRST paragraph of, the official Website of a planned community in West Texas, devoted to the ideals and values of beleaguered congressman Ron Paul. From its bizarre vision to its contradictory mission statement to its typo five lines in ("it" as opposed to "is"), Paulville's site remains of the most bizarre projects around.

Though there are many aspects of the planned community that deserve attention, the most glaring is the tension between the idea of a "gated community" and "the ideals of freedom and liberty." Described by many as a Libertarian, Paul is a man who has made his career a devotion to the rhetoric of removing obstacles, limiting restrictions, and opening the playing field. He opposes gun control, the Patriot Act, the so-called "war on drugs," even the notion of the federal reserve. At their core, Libertarians avow the importance of freedom, and yet, in one of the most expansive, boundless areas of the country (West Texas), this group of freedom-seeking, wall-crashing, border-bashing Paulines want to erect a gated community--perhaps the most salient symbol of community exclusion, segregation, protection, and circumspection.

Planned communities are nothing new, but niche gated housing developments founded on conservative principles never really carry the zip of the more liberal Utopian communes. Take, for example, Hiddenbrooke, a wacky golf course community outside of San Francisco, where all of the houses resemble those found in paintings by the right-wing artist Thomas Kinkaide. Kinkaide, who has likened himself to Walt Disney, didn't design any of the houses, but both he and the developers of this housing project have admitted a desire to recreate the sterilized fairytale aura invoked by the paintings.

Both The Village at Hiddenbrooke and Paulville reveal a desperation to live in this kind of fairytale community--one secluded from the realities and complexities of contemporary life. This need, based more on nostalgia and invention than reality, is part of a larger right-wing belief that integration, progression, evolution, and interaction weaken communities and dilute daily life. Such projects suggest not a move forward but a move back, a retreat from the problems and possibilities of the present and future.

On a more positive note, I wonder what planned communities might be like if based on the ideals of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, and Dennis Kucinich. Send your ideas on these communities to The Weekly Rader, and we'll run the best in a future post.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Basketball Poem

BASKETBALL'S DREAMY MARRIAGE WITH literature returns as a theme to The Weekly Rader. Last time, it was the Tournament of Books with its Final Four-March-Madness-Head- to-Head seeding of books and writers.

Today, though, in honor of the NBA playoffs, we're going simple. Just a regular poem by a regular guy, Sherman Alexie, who sent ESPN's Henry Abbot a poem Alexie wrote about playing pickup basketball with former NBA forward James Bailey.

Let me sing an honor song for James Bailey,
A pro hoopster who is mostly forgotten,
But for me will always be contemporary.
Nearly seven feet tall, clad in white cotton

And new hightops, he once rose and blocked my shot
Off the court and down the pavement walkway,
Bouncing, bouncing, bouncing, and rolling on a hot
August day until it splashed into Green Lake,

Maybe seventy-five yards away from the court.
That spectacular play shut down the game.
After that humiliation, who can keep score?
One guy asked me, "What's your name? What's your name?"

Because he wanted to get all the details
"Correct." Two other brothers just ran away
And never returned. I supposed I failed
In some basketball sense, by thinking my lame

Spin move running jumper could ever succeed
Against a player like Bailey. But I had game
In those days. Skinny and mean, I could compete
On any court. Or so I thought. How strange

To know, now that I'm old and broken, how young
And foolish I used to be. James Bailey
Was only a decent pro, but I was a runt
In his presence. I'm still a serf, puny

And contrite: "Mr. Bailey, I'm so sorry
I tried to sneak that garbage into your house.
But, damn, that block of yours was so pretty,
Epic, and canonized by the adoring crowd,

That my embarrassment felt like a blessing,
Like a parable teaching me this lesson:
When we hoopsters look into our interiors,
We learn we can be gorgeous and inferior."

Not enough people write about the poetry of basketball, especially the blue-collar workaday poetry of pickup basketball in which so much of what happens is, like a poem, a kind of groping for elegance and beauty. Most who write are, like Bailey in the NBA, competent, decent. What I like about Alexie's poem is his ability to find beauty in that which is not-stellar.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Can't Decide Who to Vote For? It's all about the Inaugural Poem

AT PRESENT, THE MOST ubiquitous conversation in America is about the next Democratic presidential nominee. Almost every story on TV, in the news, and in the blogosphere advances a compelling reason to support either Senator Clinton or Obama. But, amidst all of the rationalization and speculation, even the most seasoned pundits dance around what everyone knows is the real determining factor for who the next president should be--whose candidacy would yield the best inaugural poem?

The most convincing evidence that George W. Bush was going to be a bad president was his decision to discontinue the use of the inaugural poem. When John F. Kennedy invited Robert Frost to write a poem for his inaugural celebration, Frost gave him "The Gift Outright." Granted, the poem is a bit of a chauvinistic paean to the tenets of Manifest Destiny, but it has its moments. Beyond the poem itself, though, is the symbolism. It made a statement. Linking poetry to the ceremony of the most important job in the world sends the message that poetry (and poets) are important. When Bush passed on this tradition, he sent the unintentional message that imagination and verbal proficiency were of little importance to him, lo and behold, how accurate that was.

The best indicator of Bill Clinton's promise as a leader was when he announced he would resuscitate the inaugural poem. Even better, his choice was Maya Angelou, an African American woman who in almost every way, was the antithesis of Frost. Her contribution, the much heralded, "On the Pulse of Morning," was more inclusive, more celebratory than Frost's. It remains one of American Poetry's best moments.

And so it is that pundits from Tim Russert to Rush Limbaugh to Keith Olberman to Katie Couric to Markos Moulitsas have been secretly discussing who each candidate will select to read the next inaugural poem. Las Vegas oddsmakers refuse to release their betting lines. Rumors have it that Li-Young Li, Adrienne Rich, and W. S. Merwin are near the top of the list, but no one will confirm.

My own hunch is that both candidates have already selected their respective poets. I heard the names had been leaked to The Drudge Report, but even he knows not to go public with such explosive information. Until something final happens, The Weekly Rader is your best outlet for this story.

So, the question is, who will the candidates select? Hillary Clinton, a candidate who respects traditions and institutions, will likely go with a prominent, storied, and vetted poet. Rich and Merwin are both strong possibilities but perhaps too left leaning. A more conservative choice would be John Ashbery, the most distinguished living American poet, and the only one I know of to write a poem about Popeye and rutabagas. Clearly, it would be hard to go wrong there. Alice Notley would be a great choice, but she now lives in Paris, so that won’t do. If Clinton is set on selecting a woman, her best option would be either Jorie Graham or fellow New Yorker Sharon Olds, but I don’t see that happening. She will want a man to put people at ease, and she’ll want to interject some levity into her ceremony. She’ll also pick a New York poet. That means . . .

Beloved by writers, academics, and cultural critics, Obama is under far more pressure to pick a cool, visionary poet for his inauguration. If Clinton is under the gun to tap a woman for this honor, then Obama is certainly feeling the heat to return an African American poet to the dais. But Obama is often all about defying expectations, changing traditions, and charting his own course, so for him, it is harder to speculate who he’ll pick. Nikki Giovanni, who survived the shootings at Virginia Tech, comes to mind right away as does Yusef Komunyakaa, one of America’s best poets. However, the Senator’s advisors will likely talk him out of picking anyone whose name has even the most remote trace of sounding Muslim. Terrance Hayes would be a surprising but smart choice. He is a fantastically talented poet, and he would appeal to the younger generations. It is possible Obama will pick an Anglo poet to downplay race. If so, his smartest option would be the beloved Robert Pinsky. There is no doubt Pinksy would write a memorable poem. But I predict that Senator Obama will want to honor the cultural contribution of African Americans and appease women at the same time by selecting an incredibly talented former Poet Laureate.

The Weekly Rader invites readers to leave their comments, suggestions, predictions, and nominees in the comments option below. Or, simply complete the poll in the right-hand column. I'll post the results here and on The Daily Kos.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Reading the U.S. As a Text: A Dispatch from Copenhagen

DATELINE--COPENHAGEN, DENMARK. Viewing the United States through the lens of another country's culture is always an enlightening project. A sign of a good reader is the reader's ability not to read a text on the author's terms. And, to be sure, America has done a fabulous job for many years getting people--especially Americans--to see America and its culture on its own terms. This has been particularly true for American popular culture, most notably American movies, who have never been particularly good at realism or critical inquiry. "American cinema," writes Alfred Bazin, "has been able, in an extraordinarily competent way, to show American society just as it wanted to see itself.” Indeed, American cultural production has always been good at dictating the terms by which America gets read and interpreted.

At present, The Weekly Rader is on the road in Denmark, where the Democratic primaries continue to be a topic of international conversation and interest. The campaign--its scandals, and the mainstream media's obsession with making (as opposed to covering) news-- takes on an odd but compelling texture when viewed from the Danish perspective. Known for its progressive social programs, the contentedness of its people (Danes are supposed to be the happiest people on the planet), and its high taxes, Denmark seems an odd place for the world's least cranky populace. And yet, what an interesting context in which to revisit America's unfolding text that is the presidential campaign.

How do our candidates sound in Denmark, the home of worlds happiest people, at a time when Americans are at their unhappiest? Can the U.S. become more line Denmark? Do Senators Obama or Clinton have it in them to transform the American psyche?

Most social scientists cite the lack of an income gap as the main reason for happiness among the Danes. An artist, banker, and garbage collector all earn about the same salary, which creates a sense of equality. When there is a level cultural and financial playing field, there tends to be a lack of unmet expectations. This particular campaign finds the United States experiencing one of the worst income gaps in recent memory. The rich continue to get rich, and the poor continue to go to Wal-Mart.

So much of America's national narrative is about the lacuna between what we think we deserve and what we actually have. So, when news comes out as it did last week, underscorring what Americans already feel--that consumer confidence is at an all-time low--our inability to buy, spend, and acquire can affect how we see ourselves within the American conversation. Listening to Senators Obama and Clinton from Denmark reminds how frequently American identity is tied to economics and how individual happiness seems part and parcel of met expectations.

There are fair criticisms from home and abroad that our two-party system is flawed; that at their core, the Republicans and Democrats are really not all that different, but one difference that being in Denmark throws into relief is how Republicans tend to look for solutions within the American conversation, within American values, while the two Democratic candidates are (in this campaign at least) trying to change the terms of that conversation.

From this perspective, that sounds hopeful.