Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Shine, Perishing Republic

I.

I knew I had come to the wrong place when the instructor intoned that "in the old days a sonnet meant fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, usually with three quatrains and a couplet, but now any fourteen-line poem is a sonnet." This was not uttered in the same tone with which I often note that nowadays, anything, it seems, can be a poem.

For those of you who care about such matters (and I fervently hope that you do), we are witnessing a great reactionary crisis in the world of poetry. Formal, metrical, rhyming, and otherwise traditional verse has, as Pop Kipling might have said, "passed to the further side". A glance at the poetic currents being loosed at my alma mater would certainly corroborate this suspicion - the last formal poem I heard read in a Stanford auditorium managed to sneak past the gatekeepers of high culture only because it was a paean to the leather men of San Francisco in the early 1980's. Formal poetry has acquired a stigma that only a few years ago was reserved for imperialism or eugenics, having fallen from the sad dustbin of quaintness (insulting enough) to eminently less touchable depths. Formalism is now, it seems, a vote for neoconservatism. Indeed, clinging to its rare pleasures has likely made among its protectors stranger bedfellows than, for instance, the New Criterion and your humble narrator. (Although its politics are sometimes hard for me to stomach, you should really do yourself the favor of examining this challenging but often courageous and incisive magazine).

The New Criterion has notably advanced, in recent issues, the criticism of Adam Kirsch, of whom The Nation's John Palattella complains, "As prolific as Kirsch is, he is not expansive in his taste. His tirades...against the enduring influence of the experimental strains of poetic Modernism on contemporary American poetry marks him as the intellectual offspring of the New Formalists, a small group of poets and critics--among them Brad Leithauser, Timothy Steele and Dana Gioia (Bush's head of the National Endowment for the Arts)- whose essays and poems in defense of traditional formal conventions were championed by The New Criterion during the 1980s." The implication is not hard to grasp - formalism is as superannuated and backwards an approach as any being made in the current political arena. What if, however, the old, dead white men were not entirely wrong about something for once?

I could wax on and off about the merits of structure, the sublime pleasures of uniform syllabic count, the kinship present-day formalists share with the great geniuses of ancient Greece and Rome, but I won't. Instead, let me share with you the wisdom of noted non-critic Beau Michael Baer of Carmel Valley, who argues for the superiority of formal poetry thusly: "Well, let's say there are two girls, OK? And they both have great personalities. Except one of them is gorgeous, and the other one is, um, not. Which one do you prefer? See, that's why I prefer poems that rhyme." For this, Beau, who has long shrugged off the mantle of cultural authority with his famous false modesty and aw-shucks folk wisdom, earns the prize for Best Analogy Ever.

II.

The crippling prejudice against metrical verse in today's universities is, in a strange way, about entitlement. No one wants to work hard at anything anymore, and poetry is a perfect example of this. My own mentor, the remarkable John Ridland, permitted his students to do a free choice poem once a week, but only after demonstrating competence in that week's assigned form. Elsewhere, the wayward children of the workshop are not blessed with such fatherly discipline. It is taken for granted, perversely, that the old were wrong and the young are right. The result is, more often than not, a sort of poetic terrorism, in which the only beauty to be gleaned is the beauty of destruction of the sacred institutions of others. One's own puerile and violent inclinations are the only justification needed, and the twisted rhetoric of modern "poetics" helps to obscure this ugly truth.

If this sounds eerilie familiar, it should. We are living in a world where the headlines are being made by spoiled children - as The New Criterion's Stefan Beck aptly noted in a recent entry (7/14) in the magazine's weblog, Arma Virumque. Without resorting to finger-pointing hysteria, I wish to purport that the syndrome manifested annoyingly by the anti-formal revolution in American poetry shares a pathogenic lineage with the recent explosion of terrorists nurtured not in the crucibles of Afghanistan but in the halls of often English-speaking privilege. As David Pryce-Jones, quoted by Beck, writes in The New Republic,

"[s]even British Muslims have been captured in Afghanistan and detained in Guantánamo. Several British Muslims have attempted suicide-bombing missions in Israel, at least one successfully, and others have been reportedly killed fighting with Abu Musab Zarqawi in Iraq. Omar Sheik, responsible for beheading Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, was born and educated in Britain, a student of the London School of Economics, no less. Those recruited to Islamism are not the poor and disinherited, but, on the contrary, those whose intelligence and social advancement allow them to submit to the luxury of an identity crisis."

Even more obviously, one thinks of John Walker Lindh, the Marin County youth whose search for meaning led him to joining the Taliban, and, of course Osama bin Laden, the screwup son of a billionaire who bought credibility with the disaffected by being photographed with the mujahideen and whose apocalyptic worldview was given shape and polish by a wealthy doctor, Ayman al-Zawahri, who has spent more time blaming the West for his decaying culture than practicing anything so prosaic as medicine.

This is where free verse and terrorism cross paths: they offer a ready-made scapegoat (U.S. imperialism/Zionism/Jews; tyrannical and outmoded literary techniques) for lazy and childish minds, who would rather destroy than create, and have found a reactionary ideology ready-made to their hands. The anti-formalist (and, it should be noted, this does not include all composers of free verse, but rather those who trumpet it as a political revolution) and the terrorist are, according to their proclivities, born with an entitled sense of grievance against the dual imprisonment of Western civilization and traditional poetics. What the now-ignored poetic genius E. A. Robinson might have termed "the question that has held us heretofore without an answer" ("The Valley of the Shadow") must be "Where do we go from here?" In thus inquiring, we find revealed the true nihilism of both movements. Terrorism is not about achieving political goals, it is about settling for self-immolation because dignity and purpose were too hard to come by. On a milder level, the same can be said of the anti-formalists - rabidly vocal about what they are not, but painfully unsure of just what - and who- they really are.

Now, let us return for the moment to Pryce-Jones' statement, "Those recruited to Islamism are not the poor and disinherited, but, on the contrary, those whose intelligence and social advancement allow them to submit to the luxury of an identity crisis." Interestingly, if you take away the clause "Those recruited to Islam", you are left with a fairly accurate portrayal of the modern-day intelligentsia, who have, it should be noted, ingeniously packaged their version of anarchy as a populist response to centuries of metrical tyranny. Bob Mezey lamented in his excellent introduction to the Selected Poetry of E.A. Robinson that a recent American laureate claimed, "Accentual-syllabics were the principal means by which the educated classes of Europe mystified their utterances, and called them poetry" - as though there could be a more democratic means of disseminating poetry than rhyme and meter, the essential tools of the oral tradition by which songs make their way into the popular consciousness. Indeed, Dana Gioia himself notes, ""Poetry is not a branch of analytical philosophy. It is a primal, holistic kind of human communication."

So what of communication, then? What is most noxious is that the mendicant philosophy of a privileged few has attracted an army of dupes swayed by the easy answers of a teaching that demands no achievement, only rage. In other words, it's ok, honey. Go blow something up. I need scarcely cite any one example to demonstrate the effect this is having in the Middle East; I argue that those who by all accounts should know better are leading the few remaining students of American poetry down similarly specious paths. At how many other universities, I wonder, are impressionable youths being taught that a sonnet no longer must obey the least little rule? In both cases, unsurprisingly, such malfeasance is touted as an act of intellectual liberation.

The modern French Revolution being waged against formalism has not merely resulted in a poverty of style, however, but one of content as well. In accordance with its destructive qualities, recent poetic anarchy has also allowed us to witness the triumph of the confessional, banal, and absurdly esoteric. For, after all, the "scholars" promulgating both free verse and terrorism most often have, underneath their raging beards, nothing constructive to say. It is no accident that it is chiefly democracy that produces human progress. It is likewise no accident that it is primarily formalists such as Gioia who are advocating a return to the truly instructive power of narrative, for which form must be, to borrow a favorite metaphor, both queen and servant. The self-indulgence of a fatted few must give way to real, tangible substance - as Gioia puts it, "The recent return to narrative... represents perhaps the surest evidence that Modernism is now an irretrievably dead period style, despite the cosmetic expertise of the embalmers of academe who naively believe in an eternal avant- garde" - whether or not that eternity includes seventy-two virgins.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Fallout

Well, folks, that certainly got a big weight off my chest - not to mention an intriguing mini-barrage of hate mail (this circulated within a Harry Potter group, so they tend to address me in the third person). At the risk of being wildly narcissistic, I include below some of the choicer comments. Names have been omitted, because some of these folks, as I learned later, are genuinely nice people, who, like everyone, have their own forgivable faults.

* * * * * * * * * * *

EL..... I FEEL SORRY FOR THE HARRY POTTER HATER, HE MUST HAVE HAD A HORRIBLE
CHILDHOOD WHO CARES WHAT THE NEWSPAPERS ARE SAYING ABOUT THE BOOK THAT IS
NOT THE POINT AND COMPARING IT TO A HAPPY MEAL HAS THIS POOR LAD HAD A
CHANCE TO BE HAPPY I DON'T THINK SO WE SHOULD BUY HIM ALL THE HARRY POTTER
BOOKS FOR HIS NEXT B-DAY OR X-MAS WHAT EVER COMES FIRST.HE NEED TO LEARN THE
IMPORTANCE OF USING ONES IMAGINATION.

And the email that started it all (thanks to Robby Wellington for alerting the Law Offices of Lawrence E. Biegel to my piddling little blog - as though productivity and morale weren't low enough already. Yes, Larry, I still love you):

Um....I have to say Gabe Rosen is a FOOL!!!!! I am sending this out
immediately to all my Harry Potter book friends and be prepared for some
HORRIBLE things to be said about your dear old buddy Gabe! Although... he
did entertain me with his burning insults of a book series I so dearly love.
Honestly, I make fun of all the media of it, and I was anti Harry Potter
until I picked up the first book and couldn't put it down. They really are
VERY good books...I just finished the fifth one last night (a week behind
schedule) and cried and cried (shocking I know) through the last two
chapters. For people with exceptional intelligence such as you and Gabe
Rosen...they might not be too challenging...but me with my public school
education...f-ing LOVE it! Tell Gabe to F off!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Wow. Instant controversy. Who do I attack next? Well, hopefully no one real. Anyway, it's been a great day. May it all continue.

In other news, some thoughts:

1. Today, while receiving Iraqi PM-elect Ibrahim Al-Jafaari, Iranian Ayatollah Khameini, "Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution", applauded Iraqi progress towards a post-Baathist (read; Shiite) state and declared that "Zionists are probably involved in planning" the recent rash of suicide bombings in Iraq. First of all, the Islamic Revolution was 26 years ago. What kind of self-respecting "revolution" turns into a fuddy-duddy establishment? I mean, this isn't even the same nutcase Ayatollah Khameini as before - excuse me, Khomeini. As for the Zionist conspiracy claim, anyone with this much imagination is clearly miscast as a radical cleric. I think he should be heeding his true calling - writing the fantasy novel that will challenge Harry Potter once and for all.

2. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak is, on the other hand, plenty insane enough for Ayatollah-hood. After drafting the fat, lazy 17 year old Andrew Bynum with the 10th overall pick, he's gone and dealt Chucky Atkins and Caron Butler (both coming off career years) for Kwame Brown, the biggest bust since they nailed Al Capone for tax evasion. Could someone please stop this deranged lunatic before he deals Lamar Odom for Darko Milicic? Or did that already happen?

3. I really like grilled trout, with a sprig of rosemary and several lemons stuffed down its middle. Serve with a Bernardus sauvignon blanc, and you are indeed grillin'.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Summer Of Our Discontent

Dammit, folks, it's my least favorite time of the year again. Why, you ask? Isn't Papa Rosen one of the world's principle avatars of watermelons, crawfish hunting, long nights on the porch with a fine cigar, reading voluminous and thought-provoking literature, drinking delightful, fruit-laden wines, and chasing after recent high-school graduates? Well, yes, after a fashion. When I say "least favorite time of the year", I'm not referring to a specific season. Rather, I'm referring to whenever a new Harry Potter book comes out.

It's Day 3 of the latest installment of mass hysteria, and there are no signs of a letup. Yesterday, the cover story on my local "newspaper", the Monterey Herald's, Living section proclaimed Harry Potter to be "the new generation's Bob Dylan." This is wrong on so many levels I don't even know where to begin, but, as I wrote to the Herald's editor within seconds of reading it, "to call him 'the muse of the new generation, its Bob Dylan" is like saying Britney Spears is the new Eleanor Roosevelt." Of course, the Herald merely reprinted this gem, as it usually does - this time from the Washington Post.

Today's Living section featured, in stark contrast...more Harry Potter. I am not electing to italicize the name, because it is really not a book, but an industry similar to McDonald's Happy Meal toys. The only problem is, unlike children's meals, you don't have to be below a certain age to purchase one. This brings me to my first gripe about this phenomenon: why is it that half the people buying these "books" are forty-five or older? And why aren't they embarrassed about it? Nowhere is the infantilization of our culture exemplified better than by the legions of "children at heart" reading this potboiler (or should I say cauldron?) for eight-year-olds.

And why does the media feel obligated to give these books so much free promotion? That's really what it amounts to - viewed from a distance, the lavish color illustrations invariably accompanying the countless tired articles on this "phenomenon" are indistinguishable from advertising. Maybe the success of the first book or two was based on some type of innovation and spread organically. But since the late 90's, the press has given Harry Potter more free advertising than any book in history, creating a reputation faster than any book could realistically do on its own merits. At this point, J.K. Rowling's publishers need not set aside any promotional budget, because the so-called "news" media has taken care of that for them.

Also disturbing is the lack of any critical insight whatsoever to temper the atmosphere of unabashed celebration. Nowhere in this equation does the ominous concept of literary merit enter in. Even "reviews" of the book are written as though the reader were automatically a die-hard fan, and the writing is judged only in relation to its predecessors in the series, as opposed to any meaningful contradistinction opposite a truly gifted "fantasy" writer such as Philip Pullman - who, sadly, is now being marketed as a sort of sidebar to Harry.

People often defend this menace by pointing out that at least it's getting kids to read. Well, no one bought that argument when I was caught distributing paperback porno novels to my fellow seventh-graders at All Saints' Episcopal Day School, and I don't buy it now. This line of reasoning may be correct, so far as it goes, but it does not tell all - namely, that Harry Potter books are getting kids to read...more Harry Potter books. One girl gleefully reported how she has read "each book at least fifteen times" - as though this were something to be proud of! What if she had read it once or twice, and had fourteen wonderful and different books left over for the other times? Of course, kids are known to have one-track minds, and little perspective on the cruel brevity of life. What is even less excusable is that for many adults, Harry Potter is their only foray into literature.

I'm not going to say more, except to mention that at times like these, I am even more than usually grateful for Rudyard Kipling, who taught that English boyhood is essentially grim and solitary, and that any magic that can be derived from it must originate in violent and cruel pranks against one's contemporaries.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Summer BBQ Series, Part II

Folks, as I write this, I am sitting in Justin Kuczynski's living room in Boulder, Colorado, awaiting the rising of the other kids. A dip in temperature last night allowed us to dine al fresco and enjoy some fine barbecued chicken, brats, and summer squash, eggplant, and (gasp!) tofu. And I have to hand it to Vince - the tofu was acceptable, although I doubt I will be made a convert anytime soon. Anyway, I promised barbecue recipes for my constituents a while back, and, after the initial success of Chicken Legs Zevon (sure to be appearing soon at a barbecue near you), I offer for your dining pleasure the secrets of my Carne Asada.

This dish is distinguished by the use of skirt steak, which is, in my opinion, the perfect cut of beef: chewy without being difficult, richly flavorful, not too fatty, and really easy to cut. In addition, perhaps because of the structure of its fibers, it absorbs marinades really well. My marinade gives you a really tangy piece of meat, and also softens it a bit as it soaks.

Ingredients:

2 skirt steaks (up to 4 lbs total - Costco sells them in convenient packages).
1 dozen fat, juicy limes
1 bottle tequila (Cuervo will work for the marinade, though I won't be drinking it again anytime soon)
Crushed garlic to taste (at least 2 tablespoons)
1 red onion, diced finely
Red pepper flakes
1 bottle Corona or similar beer
Salt & pepper to taste
1 splash tropical fruit juice (I like Kern's Guava Nectar)
Finely chopped cilantro
Dash of hot sauce (habanero salsas work well)

Squeeze every last drop out of the limes, into a quart-sized bowl. Add tequila - I usually do about 3:2 juice:tequila, but some folks might prefer 2:1, or even 1:1. Stir the crushed garlic throughout. Dice the onion as fine as possible, and stir into the liquid. (If you have a juicer, just run the onion through it and add the resulting juice to the mix). Add a few pinches of red pepper flakes, depending on taste. Open a Corona, and toss a few splashes into the mix as well. Add a similar splash of tropical fruit juice. Then, a dash of hot sauce, by way of contrast. Salt and pepper the meat directly, to taste, then rub on the chopped cilantro. Place meat in double Ziploc bags with the marinade, and turn every hour to ensure even soaking. For best results soak 6+ hours, but even a couple hours in the mix will do wonders for your skirt steak.

Grill the steaks on medium heat for about 6 minute a side (you'll have to adjust this depending on your grill - mine runs rather hot). Carne Asada is great anywhere from rare to medium, but please don't overcook it - nothing is less satisfying than dry Carne Asada, like they serve at that crap Mexican place near Noah Barron's house.

Slice meat however large you like it, and serve with soft corn tortillas and fresh guacamole. I find nothing complements this meal like an ice-cold Coke, but be sure you also have beer on hand. Actually, that goes for just about any barbecue. Enjoy!

Friday, July 08, 2005

Carry On, Jeeves

Regarding the cowardly, though unsurprising, atrocities committed against our British friends, Andrew Sullivan reflects thusly:

"Here's one cultural difference between Brits and Americans. Brits regard the best response to outrage to carry on as if nothing has happened. Yes, they will fight back. But first, they will just carry on as normal. Right now, a million kettles are boiling. "Is that the best you can do?" will be a typical response. Stoicism is not an American virtue. Apart from a sense of humor, it is the ultimate British one."

There is a lot of value in this concept. At the risk of sounding jejune, I want to direct you to one of many lessons afforded by a brief perusal of Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas: "He couldn't stop Christmas from coming. It came." This is all the more apropos in light of the fact that if it were up to al Qaeda, Christmas would indeed stop coming - as would Chanukah, New Year's, and, for that matter, the 22nd century - not to mention the remainder of the 21st.

I've always been a proponent of getting even rather than getting mad. Granted, I've never had to personally brook such contingencies as terror attacks, but, as I frequently remark, I don't get headaches - I give them. In that vein, I think we would do well to examine our own American response to terrorist attacks. I think we'd find that stoicism was not the first quality that leapt to mind. And, in one sense, that is a good thing up to a point. On September 11, the U.S. wept, and much of the world wept with us. And, obviously, things like air travel had to be halted. Such was the inevitable cost of such a blow to our infrastructure.

But fast forward a few months and you'll notice that we squandered the world's sympathy by refusing to move on contructively - not that we should place sympathy at such a premium either, mind you. Regardless of other people's opinions, however, and more importantly, I think it was ironically quite damaging to our own morale when we trotted out that WTC flag during the Winter Olympics - you know, the one where the US never does so hot. Or at my alma mater Carmel High School's graduation, when one valedictorian used the phrase "in light of September 11th" no less than nine times in his address. Or at Stanford Class Day 2004, when Prof. Terry Karl told my graduating class that our time in college was defined by two things, one of them being 9/11 (the other, absurdly, being the Abu Ghraib prison abuses!). This made me angry. If my college experience was defined by something I merely observed, it was Nick Robinson hitting a running 35-footer to beat Arizona at the buzzer. But I digress.

So how would I have dealt with 9/11? I don't claim to have all the answers but here are a few pointers: Round up al Qaeda suspects without fanfare (see "(Don't) Flaunt It If You've Got It" from a few weeks ago) and tickle them until they cough up some information. Revamp airline security. Give every undocumented foreign national with no discernible reason to be in this country til the count of ten to vacate the premises. Finish cleaning up Afghanistan - the country that actually attacked us most directly (granted, a very difficult undertaking - but who knows what could have been accomplished had we remained focused?). Then, turn our attention on the country that financed it all - our bosom friends in Saudi Arabia.

Above all, though, I would have mandated business as usual except where business as usual constituted a security lapse. Take a tip from the Britons - stiff upper lip and all that. Brace for more attacks. They are coming. But there are not - as of this writing - enough Islamic militants to destroy our way of life if we resolutely maintain it. And, if I am proved wrong, may we fight the menace of Islamist fascism with every last rock every last one of us can hurl - and every dollar we can withhold.

That is the final part of my argument, and the final amendment to "business as usual". Let's stop doing business with Saudi Arabia and other supporters of terror, and see how they like it. We must sap them of our biggest vulnerability - our money. In short, consider, as Kipling so wisely put it, "If we have parley with the foe, the load our sons must bear."

Friday, July 01, 2005

Piñata

There isn't really a theme to this post, because I don't feel that strongly about anything at the moment, so I will instead characterize it as a piñata of sorts: I hit myself in the head, and this is the grab bag that came out.

1. Recent findings in literature: I am a big advocate of books on tape, especially for those of you who, like me, drive a lot. A spectacularly entertaining, as well as absolutely chilling find was George Crile's Charlie Wilson's War, the story of the rogueish (and rogue) Texan congressman who, through a series of ingenious maneuvers and brazen violations of the law, was more responsible than any other American for the CIA's funding of the Afghan Mujahideen in their war against the Soviets. Throughout this real-life Bond movie, it is easy to overlook, as Wilson did, that these guys were about the last people Americans should like to arm long-term. The book accomplishes a great moderation of hindsight, however, only mentioning Osama bin Laden in the final pages.

Another valuable book, also nonfiction, is Keith Ferrazzi's Never Eat Alone. Ferrazzi breaks down traditional notions of the sterile "professional relationship", instead arguing for a uniform technique whereby professional colleagues may be approached in the same manner as friends - not by sacrificing professionalism, but through generosity, expressed interest, empathy, and, yes, even the sharing of vulnerabilities. I am usually extremely skeptical of books geared towards changing your life, but this one is for real, and the testimonials you'll find are often entertaining as well as inspiring. Check out Ferrazzi's blog as well.

2. Want a juicy, delicious dessert that is kind of like peach pie with no added fat or sugar? Take a peach and cut it in halves. Sprinkle each half with cinnamon, and bake, skin side down, at 400 degrees until the skin blisters and the juice starts to bubble out of the cavity. Let it cool a bit and eat, savoring the globules of hot juice as they run down your cheeks.

3. Email a beloved old teacher of yours, or call, or write the old fashioned way, to let him or her know how much you stil value the education you received. Especially if you're post-grad, and have some perspective on such matters that wasn't always there.

4. I will be heading toward Boulder, Colorado on July 5th, and staying with the redoubtable Justin Kuczynski until the 11th or so. Accompanying me will be Laura Ward and Vince Dorie. This reflects a long-cherished dream of finally journeying to the land immortalized by John Denver, one of my true musical heroes. Not to mention a week of 100% Justin.

5. This Sunday is the birthday of Nik Baer, one of my oldest and closest friends. He had hoped to celebrate in Carmel Valley, but it looks as though he will still be at the Stanford clinic then. Knowing Nik, he probably does not want any attention focused on him other than the usual "Happy Birthday". However, I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge, if only for my own peace of mind, that he is one of the most remarkable, unselfish, and inspiring people you could hope to know, and, for those of you who have not yet met him, you are in for a very rare treat when the time comes.

6. By popular decree, I pledge to make gumbo soon, possibly even the week after I return from Colorado. Those of you in the Valley, take note; those of you not in the Valley, do what you can to amend that situation by the time I whip out the Uncle Ben's and start ladling out the greatest dish of my spiritual homeland.

7. A new poem - something I will not often post in the besotted bordello of cyberspace, but which, for whatever reason, I am moved to include below.

"Brevity"

He went without a second thought
But, of a first, left evidence:
He tied it with a sailor's knot,
The paper thick, the ribbon dense;
He chose a safe and secret spot,
Told someone, and he got him hence,
And left it "for an epitaph".
A photograph? A photograph.