01 October 2015

Louis Untermeyer Is 130 Today

 see that the first of October is Louis Untermeyer’s birthday, and by coincidence I happen to be (in a sense) reacquainting myself with this character. The occasion is a parody anthology I’ve been putting together (off and on) for several years—not for publication or anything like that, but just for my own amusement. I mean, Dwight Macdonald’s 1960 collection was great, but new practitioners of the art have come along, and I have my own notions of what should go in it. For one thing, I don’t really give a damn whether the subject of the parody is still current; Swinburne’s takeoff on Owen Meredith is funny as hell, even if nobody still reads the old plagiarist and mishandler of the Indian famine of 1876 today—for one example. Or Jonathan Swift on Robert Boyle. Or Max Beerbohm on John Davidson. And, for another thing, some pretty decent parodies have come along since then—Sean Kelly on Gerard Manley Hopkins, for one. Randall Garrett on Isaac Asimov.
So what does this have to do with Louis Untermeyer (I hear you ask)? Well, the thing is, Louis Untermeyer was a parodist. Not a great parodist, I hasten to add, but still there somewhere in the ranks. Here, as an example, is his take on Robert Frost:

There, where it was, we never noticed how,
   Flirting its tail among the smoothed-off rocks,
The brook would spray the old, worm-eaten bough,
  That squeaked and scratched like puppies in a box.

Whether the black, half-rotted branch leaned down,
  Or seemed to lean, for love, or weariness
Of life too long lived out, or hoped to drown
  Its litter of last year’s leaves, we could not guess.

Perhaps the bough relaxed as though it meant
  To give its leaves their one taste of depravity;
Or, being near the grave itself, it bent
  Because of nothing more than gravity.

And here is a passage from a James Branch Cabell takeoff:
   There was a thin sobbing as a purple mouse perched on the back of a salamander ran in and out of the jewel-weeds. Twice the salamander shed his skin into the waters and twice a faint mist rose from the ripples. Then cried Ortnitz:
   “Now for the end of that final glory I wait and bend a complaisant back, here, where a livid aurora borealis makes all demoniac. Spurning the threat of the headless swallow, I neither doubt, nor deny nor defend; for I am Ortnitz and I—”
   These sonorous strophes were broken by a rumble of voices that issued from his retinue. And Ortnitz, comprehending that the spell was broken beyond promise of repair, retraced his steps ruefully. It may be that he felt betrayed by those who should have understood him best; it is indisputable that his high mood was bedwarfed and, impatient at such belittlement, he turned on his companions.
   “Do you tell me now without dubiety or odd byends of metaphor, what may this turgescible clatter portend?”
But—parodist or no—it’s not his original writing that makes his name familiar to me. No … when I was a kid, and I read everything from almanacs to zoological papers, the name Louis Untermeyer on the cover of a book could always get my attention. While even with the aid of Wikipedia I can’t recall the titles of any of them, I remember him as putting together some of the goddamn best anthologies of poetry I ever read. I spent many a happy hour in school libraries with one of his collections tucked underneath the desk covertly reading Browning or Benet when I was supposed to be coloring maps or comparing and contrasting Pizarro and Cortés.
So, yeah, I owe Louis Untermeyer for that, and on this, his one hundred thirtieth birthday, I fondly remember him. Thanks (I might say) for introducing me to so many great (and some not-so-great) poets and poems. And thanks also for making the horrors of school a bit more bearable. You may be gone—but you are far from forgotten.

08 September 2015

Quotation of the Day

ex is a framework, not a fact—a means of interpreting biology, but not a part of it. Of course menstruation, chromosomes and so on aren’t social constructs, but the argument isn’t over their existence, it’s over what they mean. That’s not about empirical reality. Vaginas are as real as Pluto is; defining them as female is like defining Pluto as a planet, a question of inscription not description.—Alex Gabriel
[“Unsex me here! Gender, Julie Bindel and Gia Milinovich,” Godlessness in Theory, 19 February 2014]

26 August 2015

Have You Ever Watched a Bunch of Unitarians Paint a Building?

rom a letter, 1 December 1960, found in a box. The occasion is the renovation of an old building to serve as the new meeting-place for the Unitarian fellowship in Vancouver:
I get such a kick out of them whenever they undertake anything en masse. Have you ever watched a bunch of Unitarians paint a building? There they are, the doctor and the doctor’s wife, the lawyer-State representative and his artist wife, the woman dean of a local junior college, a registered nurse, a television engineer and his wife who Attends Meetings, a high school teacher of languages, some sort of forester, a fireman-filling-station-attendant, a public school teacher, a piano instructor, and innumerable Mothers with Interesting Theories on Child-Rearing. And all their varied and diverse children. Each in his own version of Old Clothes. It’s true they have only one color of paint, but that is because they appointed a committee to see to it, and they appointed one person to buy the paint, and so of course he bought the color he thought most suitable, durable, or whatever. Nobody likes the color, least of all the person who selected it, but they mix it up in somebody’s mop-bucket (mine, as it turned out, although I didn’t recognize it at the time with all that chocolate paint in it) and pour it into coffee cans and other cans and set to work with brushes of all possible sizes and states of wear, with rollers, with spray-guns. The children paint, too; it is good for them to participate. Everyone agrees on that, at least, although some people agree more strenuously than others. What charms me is the way they agree so thoroughly about every phase of the thing, and go right on doing it the way they have already decided. One lady was resolutely scraping off old paint—“all this old flaky stuff is going to have to come off,” she says, “or it’ll take the new paint right off with it.”
“You’re right,”—“Yes, that’s so,”—“That’s true, you’re doing a great job,” say the others, and courteously move around the corner of the building to continue painting over the old paint. Some thought the entry should be painted, and some thought it shouldn’t because it’s going to be dismantled and rebuilt in another location, and some thought it should be painted anyway, because it looked terrible out there on the front of the building that way, and so it was partly painted. And no one was distressed about any part of  it, regarding the whole business as a great holiday—not even the children quarreled—we ended the day with ice-cream all round and the pleasant agreement that this sort of thing was what Unitarianism, or at any rate fellowships, was/were really about.
I don’t know. It’s like a fantasy. Somebody ought to do it in ballet.
All of these people are so accustomed to being leaders, you see—oh, you know how that is—there’s not one follower in the bunch—not one. It makes the institution terribly strong, and in a state of imminent collapse at one and the same time. Like the democratic ideal, I guess.

23 August 2015

And Fifty-Five Years Ago This Summer

rom an undated (summer 1960) teletype dispatch found in a box:

(RACE—SUBS PVS) A Negro couple won a victory today in their fight to move into an all-white suburban area northeast of Portland. Federal District Judge William East issued an injunction stopping the Richland Water District from condemning the property where Mr. and Mrs. Rowen M. Wiley want to build a house.
The Water District contended the construction had to be stopped to prevent contamination of a nearby well. The Wileys said racial discrimination was behind the move.
Judge East upheld the Wileys, saying he found no evidence the water district even tried to find out how sewage was to be handled on the property.
The testimony included statements from a white resident, Raymond W. Hewitt, who said he circulated a petition against the Wileys. Hewitt added: “We do not like to have colored people live in the neighborhood.”
The Wileys also had won in an earlier test of the state’s new anti-discrimination law. They complained property handlers were keeping them from buying a house solely because of their race. The property handlers denied that, but last Saturday were ordered to make certain property available for sale to the Wileys.
In the meanwhile the Wileys had purchased the property in the Richland District, planning to build there.
Still pending is a damage suit brought by the Wileys against the Water District.

(GOLDEN) A civic club in Greenville, South Carolina, has canceled a talk by best-selling author Harry Golden. He had planned to discuss a subject entitled, “The Moral Issues of Integration.” Officials of the Greenville Kiwanis Club said the club was deluged by protesting phone calls.
(In Charlotte, North Carolina, Golden said people are frightened all over. He said he told them, in Greenville, that it’s silly for South Carolina—a state which produced a great general like Francis Marion, the swamp fox, to be worried about a little fat guy making a speech.)

(FEATURE) And in Washington, Shirley Temple, the one-time child movie star, has told Vice-President Nixon that Soviet Premier Khrushchev is no softie. She said that during the Soviet premier’s visit to this country last year he grabbed her hands and put them on his stomach as a friendly gesture. Shirley reported she found the round Russian’s stomach was firm, not soft as she had expected.

08 August 2015

Quotation of the Day

ou see, when people say that Trump is great because he isn’t “politically correct,” they’re only proving the point that not being “politically correct” just means saying stupid, dishonest and bigoted things. Because that’s what Trump has been doing on a daily basis since he launched his campaign.—Ed Brayton
[In “Rios: Trump Will Save Us From Political Correctness,” Dispatches from the Culture Wars, 8 August 2015]

07 August 2015

Murders Resume in Bangladesh

amadan is over, and the random murder of unbelievers by (presumably) Islamic thugs continues in the ex-Pakistani ex-Indian “nation” of Bangladesh. The latest victim is Niloy Neel, a blogger who had relatively recently received his Masters of Philosophy from Dhaka University and was involved with the Science and Rationalist Association in Bangladesh. The killers entered his apartment building by pretending to be tenants and attacked the author with machetes, hacking him to death and mutilating his body beyond recognition. It was midday, 7 August 2015.
Due credit must be given to the authorities for standing idly by and doing absolutely nothing while citizens are being murdered by random gangs of roving thugs. Niloy Neel is the fourth victim so far this year.

02 August 2015


any years ago, when FM was freeform and radio announcers still sometimes made their own choices of what to play I heard a song on an album-oriented rock station that stood out for me. For one thing, it was obviously not rock. For another, it was at least mildly amusing. The singer regrets speaking to a reporter when he reads the result: “Doggone it I said it, and now that I read it sounds so funny to me, so dumb and so foolish, so just out of schoolish, and it came so naturally … Doggone it I said it and now I regret it and I read it in Rolling Stone.”
Now, this was part of a set and the announcer never did give the name of the track, let alone the artist, leaving me wondering. I didn’t hear it again on the radio, so I asked people I knew about it, people who knew records, people who had played them on the air. I even asked the ignoramuses who sold records in stores.
And that’s when I ran into a rather puzzling phenomenon. Everybody had an answer. It was a wrong answer, and always the same wrong answer. As an ex-dj friend of mine put it, it’s a Shel Silverstein song done by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show called “Cover of Rolling Stone.” And I would reply in effect, no, it’s not—I know “Cover of Rolling Stone” and this was something else.
At some point I just gave up on it. I wasn’t that interested and it seemed to make people angry when I insisted that I had heard a song that was not “Cover of Rolling Stone” that nonetheless mentioned the magazine. I would have liked to hear it again, but it was a rather country-sounding thing that wasn’t really my kind of music—whatever exactly that was. And so I let the matter drop for four decades or so.
One of the nice things about the advent of the internet is that old mysteries sometimes can be solved with no more than a quick question to Google, or Wikipedia, or some other internet genii. Sometimes a scrap of misremembered lyrics is all it takes. And on the other hand sometimes even fairly complete information leads nowhere. (I still have failed to identify the exact version of “No Moon at All” I used to listen to on a tape my father made, or whose performance of “I Enjoy Being a Girl” was being played in the summer of 1968, though I can hear both quite clearly in my mind.)
So today, when that old Rolling Stone related song popped into my mind briefly again, I thought I’d try my luck with the web oracles—and it proved to be relatively simple. A few minutes of searching using the fragments of the song I do remember produced the information that the song’s title was “I Read It in Rolling Stone” and that the singer-songwriter in this case was a fellow named James Wesley Voight (stage name Chip Taylor) whose songs included “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” and “Wild Thing” which I had heard before in versions done (respectively) by Janis Joplin and Senator Bobby. I even found the song on YouTube, and it was unmistakably the piece I remembered, at least as far as the bits I did remember went. Not bad for a song I heard exactly once some forty years ago.
So thanks internet for clearing up that minor mystery for me. Now, if only you can tell me from what misbegotten piece this floating line comes from: “Highest praise a lover can bring, thou art groovy.” I know I heard it somewhere but (perhaps mercifully) I have forgotten where.
Copyright © 2005-2015