Saturday, April 27, 2013

Strip For Murder by Richard S. Prather

So there comes a day when you’re at a flea market or you wander into some antique shop. You feel comfortable because everything you look at is older than you. To make it better, the men are all out of shape, even the younger ones, and you know they’re not contenders. You browse for awhile and thumb through some old Marvel comics, maybe some Gil Kane Green Lanterns. You hesitate when you see the vinyl record collections for sale, and you remember the scratchy sound in the grooves and how quickly we had all mastered the act of flipping it over after the A side finished. Keep the party going, flip the album, make some noise. But that was all a long time ago; that was before computers and the endless parade of imbeciles posting snarky comments on the Internet; before the digital newsroom jumped at every chance to promote some disaster; before the bombs and the genocides captured by cell phones, pocket cameras and the Big Brother surveillance lens. It was neither the best of times nor the worst of times, to paraphrase Dickens, but it was our time, and a lot of it is worth remembering. Then those paperbacks catch your eye. You remember the spinning wire racks in Drug Stores and Convenience Stores; the rack squeaking as you eyed the colorful covers. Pulp paperbacks. Ace, Signet, Daw, Gold Medal, Fawcett Crest, Popular Library, Pocket Books. All ranging from under a buck to a buck seventy-five. You remember this stuff with fondness. Stuff like Strip For Murder by Richard S. Prather. Seven printings by 1964. It was all tongue in cheek, implausible, but truly entertaining. You flip it over and read the blurb on the back cover. “The gorgeous tomato met me at the gate, and every time she breathed I nearly went mad. She was really stripped for action....The gorgeous tomato led me up a path that opened onto a big grassy lawn – and then my teeth began to rattle. Migawd, there were hundreds of them, capering joyfully around on the green. I’d been hired to find a killer in a nudist colony, and I was going to look pretty damned silly wearing nothing but my gun!” When you thumb the pages you smell the pulp and dust and the lingering scent of some long forgotten reader’s life. For a moment you feel like a character from The Twilight Zone who had turned a corner to find himself at some point in the past. Detective Shell Scott was long gone, but here he was again. Six feet two inches tall and weighing in at 205 lbs., his short white hair bristled like an albino porcupine. The nick in his left ear a souvenir from a dead hood. His creator, Richard Prather, was a contemporary and friend of Mack Bolan creator Don Pendleton. Those were the days. This edition of Strip For Murder is in better shape than the other copy in your collection. The sign says ten books for a dollar. You fill a paper bag with books, and when you leave you smile to yourself. This has been a good day. You’re rich in pulp.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Charles Bukowski

Celebrating National Poetry Month
Charles Bukowski became famous very late in his life and the mainstream academic critics have always been horrified by him. They are still horrified by him, especially those in New York. He defied all conventions and did his own thing. He drank like a fish and lived on skid row. He’s lucky he lived as long as he did. He wrote free-verse poetry prolifically and several pulp-style novels. He didn’t mince words. He said what he felt. Now that he’s been dead a few years the wags in the academic community are coming around and writing thesis papers about him. Leeches. The first of his books that I read was Love is a Dog From Hell. That’s still the best title for a poetry collection I’ve ever seen. And the poems are brilliant. Cynical, funny, blunt, hip and direct, Bukowski’s poems made him an underground favorite long before the mainstream publishers caught on to his genius. One of the poems in Love is a Dog From Hell is called a stethoscope case (no capital letters) where he writes about talking with his doctors standing at the urinal in the mensroom. They talk about a woman and when they are finished the doctor washes his hands but Bukowski doesn’t because “I’m far beyond all that.” And he was. Bukowski was a writer that never seemed to mind having dirty hands. He let all of his blemishes and insecurities show on the page; but so too did he demonstrate an acute understanding and appreciation for people. Thinking of his poems today, and thumbing through books like You Get So Alone at Times That it Just Makes Sense, I think of him as the literary equivalent of a career boxer. He’s beaten half to death, exhausted and plagued by melancholia, his knuckles arthritic and his belly sloping over his belt, but he’s still got a right cross that can take off your friggin head. Bukowski was courted by the New York publishing industry during the last thirty years of his life, and he benefited from this exposure to the point where he became a celebrity. I think most of his books are still in print. I think Harper Collins has him now. It used to be Black Sparrow Press out of Santa Barbara. Bukowski was born in Germany in 1920 and died in San Pedro, California in 1994. He published over sixty books. There are numerous websites devoted to his work.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Carl Sandburg

Celebrating National poetry Month
Now it’s time to consider Carl Sandburg. This is not a task that should be taken lightly. It is not currently fashionable to read Carl Sandburg. The academic community dismisses him too easily and certain factions of the cynical public have failed to grasp both the depth of his talent and his relevance. I sing the praises of Carl Sandburg and in so doing I have marked myself. So be it.

Let us begin with his newly discovered poem, A Revolver, which made headlines in January of this year. The poem was discovered in the manuscript collection housed at the University of Illinois by retired professor Ernie Gullerud who had volunteered to help index the material in the Sandburg collection. A Revolver is a short (16 line) poem typed on onionskin paper. This is the full text of the poem:

Here is a revolver.
It has an amazing language all its own.
It delivers unmistakable ultimatums.
It is the last word.
A simple, little human forefinger can tell a terrible story with it.
Hunger, fear, revenge, robbery, hide behind it.
It is the claw of the jungle made quick and powerful.
It is the club of the savage turned to magnificent precision.
It is more rapid than any judge or court of law.
It is less subtle and treacherous than any one lawyer or ten.
When it has spoken, the case can not be appealed to the supreme
            court, nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of
            execution come in and interfere with the original purpose.
And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the
            old belief that god is always on the side of those who have the
            most revolvers.

The media reports regarding the discovery of Sandburg’s poem coincided with another of America’s mass shootings; a horrible event where dozens of children were murdered by yet another deranged man the psychiatry community had failed to help. Most of the Internet reportage was brief and often misleading. One writer stated that Sandburg is best known for his six volume study of Abraham Lincoln and that A Revolver was “more polemic than poem.” Those are false statements. Sandburg is know today for Chicago Poems (1916) which remains in print. His subsequent poetry is coveted by the literati and garnered him higher acclaim than his many works related to Lincoln. This is not to slight the Lincoln canon, but Sandburg’s poetry is a force to be reckoned with.

As for A Revolver, little is known about it. The poem is undated so everything we say is speculation. I think it most likely fits into the “War Poems” sequence he wrote between 1914-1915. Others have speculated that it relates to his study of Lincoln’s assassination. Polemic relates to disputation and while there is a hint of that I still view it as an exercise in understanding. Sandburg is stating the obvious, putting it out there as a statement of observation. It is not a great poem but it has a few great lines. If indeed he wrote it for his “War Poems” sequence then we know he declined to include it, and I agree with that decision. A Revolver doesn’t quite work as well as those poems he finally chose to publish. All of this, again, is speculation. Speculation is fun and can lead us into some energized discussions over a pint of Guinness.

The son of Swedish immigrants, Sandburg was born (1878) and raised in Galesburg, Illinois. He wrote editorials and reviews for the Chicago Daily News from 1918 to 1933. When Chicago Poems was published in 1916 he was forever linked with Chicago’s literary community along with Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ernest Hemingway and James T. Farrell. He wrote about many topics until his death in 1967. Sandburg wrote about life as he encountered it. The topics of his poems ranged from a description of a red-headed waitress in a diner, harbor fog, birds on a telephone wire, skyscrapers, sunsets, hoodlums, cornfields and so many “Starlights of cool memories on storm paths.” (from Haze) Sandburg was often lyrical and his images breathtaking. He painted with words and the pages he created are alive with the people and places of the American experience. Here are but a few examples:

I was born on the prairie and the milk of its wheat, the red of its clover, the eyes of its women, gave me a song and a slogan,
- from The Prairie

Who can ever forget listening to the wind go by counting its money and throwing it away?
- from Wind Song

The stone goes straight. A lean swimmer dives into night sky, into half-moon mist.
- from Washington Monument By Night

In the evening there is a sunset sonata comes to the cities.
- from Good Morning, America

I speak of new cities and new people
I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes.
I tell you yesterday is a wind gone down,
            a sun dropped in the west.
I tell you there is nothing in the world
            only an ocean of tomorrows.
            a sky of tomorrows.
I am a brother of the cornhuskers who say
            at sundown:
                        Tomorrow is a day,
- from Cornhuskers

Sandburg’s birthplace in Galesburg is also his final resting place. His ashes lie beneath a rock in the garden, aptly named “Remembrance Rock” after his novel of the same name. His home on Hermitage Avenue in Chicago where he wrote Chicago Poems is a State landmark. His many books, recordings and filmed interviews are all available through various historical groups or commercial publishers.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Celebrating National Poetry Month
For over fifty years Lawrence Ferlinghetti has produced a remarkable canon of poetry and prose. He is considered by many to be the last of the old literary lions. I can’t argue with that. He is certainly among the last of the Beat Generation (along with Gary Snyder), and the one that offered the highest quality. He was always far more interesting than the overrated Allen Ginsberg (a poet I once met and despised immediately). The first book I read by Ferlinghetti was A Coney Island of the Mind. That was about forty years ago. I still own my first copy, now dog-eared and yellowed from years of reading and re-reading. A Coney Island of the Mind has never lost its magic for me. Taking its title from Henry Miller’s Into the Night Life (a selection from Miller’s Black Spring, another favorite book), That unforgettable first line resonates still: “In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see...” and we’re off into a world rarely found in modern poetry. Ferlinghetti is political, passionate, imagistic, compassionate, angry, joyous and two dozen additional superlatives that don’t come close to doing this marvelous book justice. This was a book that I read straight through the first time and every few years, when I pick it up again, I read it from cover to cover without interruption. There are some writers where I can read sections incrementally and pick it up again a few days later, but not Ferlinghetti. I read all of his books in one sitting. The depth of his insight and the breadth of his talent demand my attention. I am glad for that. Another of his books that had an influence on me was Open Eye, Open Heart published in 1973. This book had prose sections without paragraphs; just blocks of text. That changed my way of thinking when it came to filling a page with words. Many poems and books followed and made there way into my den: Northwest Ecolog, Who Are We Now?, The Secret Meaning of Things, Landscapes of Living and Dying, How to Paint Sunlight and more. I have a framed and signed broadsheet of his poem Are There Not Still Fireflies hanging in my den not five feet from me as I type this inadequate tribute: “...Is not beauty still beauty/And truth still truth/Are there still not poets/Are there still not lovers/Are there still not mothers/sisters and brothers/Is there not still a full moon/once a month/Are there still not fireflies/Are there still not still stars at night/can we not still see them/in a bowl of night/signalling to us/our manifest destinies?” Ferlinghetti’s poems have been an important part of my intellectual and spiritual life, hand in hand, and I have benefited from this relationship. Among his recent work found in How to Paint Sunlight are rants and elegies and musings of all manner. Ferlinghetti is a true bard, a radical, and a great American Man of Letters.