Category Archives: Poetry

Tiger’s Twisted Tale a Simple Story

Now that a dozen women have publicly announced their Me too’s, what appears to be a story about big numbers and high complexity may not be complex at all. Shorn of the billion-dollar net worth, the prancing porn stars, the Vegas angle, the pancake waitress, what it all may amount to is not something off the charts but utterly average.

Truth be told, for all its sadness, Tiger’s tale is common and banal. It only looks exotic, and why wouldn’t it? All that money, fame and pulchritude. All our surprise, curiosity and amusement.

All that flash blinds us to the real story, stripped of the strippers. It’s the tale of another unhappily married man who was looking for love in all the wrong places. Apparently having been unacquainted with Aristotle’s extremely practical distinction between pleasure and happiness, Tiger opted for the former at the expense of the latter.

Few hells are more hellish than a bad marriage, as half the U.S. population can attest. (That’s right — me, too.)

Perusing the rapidly mounting Tiger Mistress files, I was struck by the plaintiff and confused (others would say whiney and pathetic) tone of his declarations of need, if not love, for at least one of the mistresses. And while the unambiguous beauty of some of those women suggest that the tiger eye was trained on certain body parts, our prurience makes us miss the point again. Shakespeare’s king cries out, A kingdom for a horse!  Tiger was willing to sell his kingdom for an ear — a sympathetic one, and a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, and yes — cynical reader! — a heart.

No, no, no! I am not exculpating him for being just another cheating heart, himself. As for his own body, we all know that he did his thinking with the wrong part — hardly a novel failing among men and, if much research on infidelity indicates, women, too.

Tiger is lost in the woods, and he won’t be out of them for quite a long purgatorial stretch.Think: The Divine Comedy. In the middle of his unhappily married life, Tiger found himself in a dark wood and confused and miserable, he descended into hell. Only unlike Dante’s journeyman, Tiger had no Beatrice – no Divine Reason — to guide him down through the increasingly piteous circles of hell. And if memory serves, lust itself was one of the least offensive sins, and lustful lovers were housed in one of hell’s upper circles as they were buffeted with the winds of lust and forever chasing each other around with no hope of capture or embrace — as opposed to the likes of the political and religious betrayers who were way down in the 9th circle.

In Dante’s Comedy, all does end well. Having descended to the depths of hell, Dante is guided upward into purgatory — where he does the Oprah and Letterman shows and cries on “Barbara Walters.”  But having paid his debt and witnessed the worst, Dante — guided by Divine Reason — ascends into heaven in the “Paradise.”

I have Tiger beginning the descent, with quite a long way to drop before he begins what I suspect — even hope– will be that blessed turnaround that begins the sweetest of gifts to the sinner.

It’s called redemption.

My advice to Mr. Woods: Dump those caddies and go looking for Beatrice. You’re going to need reason — the more divine the better.

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REVENGE POETRY

For me, there's more poetry in the sung (not just read)
lyrics of some 
seemingly conventional back-country mountain ballads
than there is in so much apparently "artistic" poetry. 

'Utah Phillips' songs are well known to fans of folk, country
and bluegrass music. The songwriters and performers Buddy
and his wife Julie Miller sing this great ballad on one of their
albums. 

Where the first few stanzas and choruses may seem a conventional 
anguished cry of a jilted lover, the final two stanzas burst 
into real poetry when you hear it sun--a chilling, devastating, 
wrongful but paradoxically beautifully articulated 
fantasy of homicidal revenge.

ROCK SALT AND NAILS

By Bruce ("Utah") Phillips

On the banks of the river
Where the willows hang down
Where the wild birds all warble
With a low moaning sound
NowI lie on my bed
And  I see your sweet face
The past I  remember
Time can't erase

The letter you wrote me
It was written in shame
And I know that your conscience
Still echoes my name

Now the nights are so long
My sorrow runs deep
Nothing is worse 
Than a night without sleep
I walk out  alone
I look at the sky
Too empty to sing
Too lonesome to cry

Now if the ladies were blackbirds
And the ladies were thrushes
I'd lie there for hours
In the chilly cold marshes

If  the ladies were squirrels
With them high bushy tails
I'd fill up my shotgun
With rock salt and nails.

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Baseball: A Love Story

ON THE MOUND

never could resist a screwball

the guy before me gets it
when it’s my turn I pray
just let me touch it once Dear God
I’ll be good for the rest of my life

I never saw the pitch
one leg high above the left shoulder turning
thrusting a foot full of blades shining sunstreaks across my glasses
strike three
sit down

the worst part when the next five guys get on just like that
but I’ll be up next inning
been playing this game long enough to know
how those young pitchers tire eventually

— Robert E. Brown
The Altadena Review
Summer 1978

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Crisis Communication in Colombia

If you’re thinking correctly, you learn more than you teach. I’d like to think that’s what I did at the university Externado, in Bogota, Colombia, this past week. I taught a three-day, 12-hour seminar on crisis management and communication to 90 graduate students, including l0 MBAs.

I did some un-learning, too, including un-learning the dire, hysterically negative images of Bogota — the product of a US State Department Travel Warning and many other well-meaning or not-so-well-meaning worry warts. The Bogota I saw — central and north sections of the city — is a thriving, madcap, digitized metropolis not unlike my native New York City. The streets are clogged with taxis, buses and cars no further from each other’s bumpers than Formula 1 race cars and seemingly not much slower.

Bogota sits on a high plain, 8,600 feet above sea level, and at the foot of moutaints an additional couple of thousand feet above the city. Having lived in Los Angeles, with plenty of side trips to San Francisco, I looked up and around and felt, somehow, that I was familiar with the setting, the sight lines, the hills, the twisty road above the center of the city and through the mountains — not unlike speeding along Mulholland Drive from the Hollywood Hills to the Pacific.
This is geographic sense-making — how we reduce the unfamiliarity of a place by running it through our geographic DNA database.

For someone who’s never been south of Key West and whose Spanish does not extend much beyond Lo siento!, teaching a graduate seminar in the capitol city of Colombia promised nothing if not novelty. And while it was new enough, the fabulous anxieties surrounding that newness began to subside within a day or two, and those feelings began to be replaced by a mixture of exhilaration and nerves. I remember a passage in a notebook of Camus when he describes being suddenly so overwhelmed with feelings of strangeness that he bolts from a restaurant, out the door and back to his room. Was he in Prague? Or a village in Austria? I don’t remember. What I do remember was his sense of being almost nauseated — overcome, flooded by sensation. This is both the curse and the paradoxical joy of being a stranger in a strange land (with apologies to sci fi master Robert Heinlein, who died recently, after having written the famous novel among scores of others).

Com theorist and public relations scholar Tim Coombs created a complex theory for the analysis and management of organizational crises. One key factor to consider in the diagnosis of an organizational crisis, he says, is what he calls “crisis history”. When I retailed that idea to the graduate students, they reminded me of Bogota’s intensely operatic crisis history — indeed, the nation’s. And close to home some of it was. In l985, rebel forces stormed the Palace of Justice — the Supreme Court — a five-minute ride from the university, in Bolivar Plaza, the capitol seat. When government forces attempted to re-take the building, there were a dozen or more casualties, including a half dozen or so who were graduates of Externado’s prestigious law school.

There it was again — the branding of Bogota as a violent place. But I kept reminding myself and telling my gracious hosts that as a boy growing up in New York City, I was very aware of the potential for violence, although it wasn’t until I was a grownup living in Boston that I was actually a victim of violence — a mugging in a subway tunnel that cost me 12 stitches and a tooth. In New York City, you didn’t wander into Central Park after dark, unless you were going with a friend to see a Joe Papp performance of Shakespeare in the Park.  You didn’t hang out on 84th street between Columbus and Amsterday — that is, before that whole neighborhood got trendy in the 80s. You didn’t go to Bed Stuy or the South Bronx (Sister Teresa remarked that the South Bronx was more tragic even than the slums of Calcutta) or the Bowery. You didn’t even go to Times Square when you were a kid — in the 50s — which was long before Times Square was swallowed up by the corporate architecture of Viacom. All those places ranged from raffish to dangerous, not to mention the subway at night.

I grew up an city kid, with a city kid’s street smarts. I made it a point not to bike on Riverside Drive after dark or even alone on certain kinds of days in the afternoon when there was this sense of something wrong that you couldn’t help but feel.

What of the horrendously poor, broken, violent face of Bogota South, the face I didn’t see? No more did I see the face of the burnt out South Bronx or the mean streets of Bed Stuy. These nightmarish hopeless districts are quite alive in my imagination, and have served to dominate the imagination and paralyze the wills of innumerable actual and mental travelers. It is not to deny their existence that I dare not venture into those despairing places. Rather, it is to refuse to choose to go there, to catastrophize, to stoke and colorize my tabloid fanatasies — and for what? To acquire frightful images for the memory and narration?

No reason to go there. Rather,  as I ventured out of my charming hotel into the calles and carreras of Bogota, walking briskly toward one of the city’s centers, another feeling took me by pleasant surprise — I was seeing with smiling avid accepting enthralled heart of Walt Whitman on of his his perambulations through the city he called Manhatta, in the poem by that name:

“Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender/strong light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies”.

That’s it. Whitman would have embraced Bogota, and to the fortunate extent that I carry Whitmanin me, I, too, embraced you, Bogota!

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From Crisis to Poetry

Lead piece in this week’s New York Review of Books — crisis in the financial markets. a review of  a book called A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of ’08 and the Descent into Depression.

Failure: the father of crisis. The failed state of Somalia launches the crisis of twenty-first century piracy.

The familiar crises of our time are the children of failed states, failed negotiations, failed systems, failed corporations, failed policies, failed leaders.

The anti-immigrationist right wing is blaming the breakout of swine flu (school children sickened in Texas and New York City) on the failure to wall out Mexicans from the porous borders of the U.S.

Has the world come down with a bad case of the vapors?  So it would appear.

Writing about the financial meltdown, Robert Solow blames the crisis, in part, on “the inevitability of market imperfections.”  Crisis is built into the capitalist market system. Crisis is pre-determined, like death and taxes. We should have learned to expect the next sucker punch.

Yet we are restive. Unprepared.  The world seems out of joint, foreclosing all around us, taking our homes, our jobs, our retirement funds, our sleep.

The age of crisis is at once the age of uncertainty, failure and the expectation of failure.

It has been often observed that there is no tragedy in America. We don’t have a taste for it. We prefer musical comedy, technology millionaires, American Idol and the Super Bowl.  This is an optimistic culture — the culture of Emerson’s self-reliance, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick and FDR’s outing of fear, in the end, as nothing to fear. We like scary movies because they’re movies.

The lack of a tragedy makes us a statistical outlier in the history of civilization. Rome had the entertaining brutality of the circus maximus, the gladiators eviserated by lions. Ancient Christianity had the crucifixion. Modern Christianity has Mel Gibson’s movies.

Joyce Carol Oates exaggerates in a useful way in saying that America’s only tragedy — in the sense of literary, dramatic nobility — is boxing. Real fear, real pain, real blood splattered on the fans in the expensive seats. Hemingway had to stoke his taste for tragedy elsewhere — in the European theater of World War I, the Spanish Civil War and the bull ring. Melville found his far from the New Bedford whaling industry, many miles out at sea in the hunt for the white whale.

Compared with the tragedies of literature and the countless horrors of modernity, mere failure seems rather bland. We are easily upset. We are what Freud says we are: the neurotic animal. We repeat mistakes with tragic and sometimes comic results. Comic, like the clownish characters in Beckett plays.

I know. None of this is new. But what feels different, if not exactly new, is the nonstop series of crises. As for apocalyptic thinking, that’s hardly new. Waiting for the eschatological denouement in the desert was trendy in the first century after Jesus, and in the years immediately preceding the end of the  first and the second millennia.  We await the curtain call, even as we engage in the denial of death, as Ernest Becker theorized as he himself waited out his own death.

All this prattle about death can be tedious.  Fortunately, these desert stretches of gloom are dotted with oases. I read again about one of those green and fertile places this morning in — of all places — the Wall Street Journal.  The subject was one of the finest poems by William Butler Yeats: “Among School Children.”  (” O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?”)

What I learned from reading Yeats and in conversations about poetry and poets, and in seminars,  and in the act of writing a doctoral dissertation, and in the slow descent into emotional paralysis and the slow ascent into the light again, was said movingly by another poet, William Carlos Willams:

				It is difficult
to get the news from poems
		yet men die miserably every day
				for lack
of what is found there.

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B+ for Obama, A for Lincoln

In the Saturday, January 9, Weekend Wall Street Journal, novelist Jonathan Raban rates the writerly gifts of US presidents. And while Obama gets high marks for the literary excellence of Dream of My Father, Raban says Obama’s no Lincoln.  The Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural — these are classics that stand equally with Moby Dick and the best poems in Leaves of Grass.

Here’s a sample of Raban’s take:

He’s a good — even exceptionally good — writer, but his best sentences still pale beside those of the president he echoes and alludes to in almost every speech. It’s not, I think, an exaggeration to say that Obama is the most able writer to win the presidency since Lincoln. But so far Lincoln’s grasp of homely metaphor, the scathing clarity of his logic, his capacity to make the gravest subject yield material for comedy, leave Obama in the dust. It’s not just the great prose-poems of the Gettysburg Address and the two inaugurals; it’s the wonderfully lucid — and funny — prose of Lincoln on the stump that stops the reader in his tracks, as no president has done before or since. Here he is, in New Haven, Conn., on March 6, 1860, speaking on the bitterly contentious subject of the introduction of slavery to Western states yet to be admitted to the Union, like Kansas and Nebraska (transcript from the New Haven Daily Palladium):

If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. [Laughter.] I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. [Applause.] Much more, if I found it in bed with my neighbor’s children, and I had bound myself by a solemn compact not to meddle with his children under any circumstances, it would become me to let that particular mode of getting rid of the gentleman alone. [Great laughter.] But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide! [Prolonged applause and cheers.]

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