31 October 2015

Poem Page

n October of 1962 there appeared in the Halloween issue of The Star a short poem in honor of the season. It read (more or less):
     A Halloween Poem. Copyright 1961
You’re looking at a post
When suddenly a ghost
Jumps out and gives a very frightful BOO!
A witch goes riding by
Away up in the sky
And suddenly a black cat howls at you.
The goblins have begun
To have a lot of fun
And then you think “Good grief! It’s Halloween!”
The Star was a short-lived periodical put out by a couple of grade-school kids (me and a friend, actually) from late 1961 to mid-1963 with a brief revival in early 1965. There were perhaps a dozen issues, with no more than fifteen or twenty copies made of each. We sold them to friends, family, and classmates. Only a handful of scattered copies survive.
The poem was mine (I say with reservations), and I wrote it in fifth grade—for what purpose I’m not sure. I wrote stuff like this constantly, often takeoffs and imitations. (I burlesqued Sara Coleridge’s “The Months” for one, by featuring the drawbacks of each month; and I transformed Jane Taylor’s “The Star” into a celebration of artificial satellites.) Most of it had no purpose except to entertain my friends and family, and to some extent to relieve the frustrations of school.
Fifth grade was particularly irritating, what with having a teacher who began the day with prayer and fire-and-brimstone preaching, before launching into a program of rote learning and copying paragraphs off the blackboard or out of books to be handed in and never seen again. (Mrs. Allen didn’t believe in creative writing or returning papers.) Definitions had to be memorized exactly; deviate from the text as handed down by Mrs. Allen by as much as a single word and that answer was wrong. None of this new-fangled nonsense about the idea being the important thing for her; no, memorization was the key whether you understood it or not.
It was in Mrs. Allen’s class that I wrote a poem about Halloween, a poem that my friends at least found amusing enough to hear, recite—and in at least one case, remember. It was not quite the poem as given above, however. You may have noticed something off about the second verse—it is half as long as the first, and is missing a rhyme for the word “Halloween.” As originally written it was a full verse, and there was a rhyme-word—but I have no copy of it from that time, and have to rely on my aging memory. The missing first three lines should have read:
From somewhere up the street
You hear a “trick or treat,”
And a yellow jack o’ lantern can be seen.
In spite of the lapse of time I’m actually quite certain of these lines, although I suppose it could have been down the street rather than up it. At least when I turned this paper up a few years back the other lines were all as I’d remembered them. But even with that the story is a little more complicated.
As I said, I don’t know why I wrote this—but I must have intended it for something, because I gave it to my mother to edit, which I normally did only for something I was submitting to somebody somewhere—a teacher, an editor, whatever. It wouldn’t have been for my teacher; Mrs. Allen had no tolerance for creative efforts by children. (Her light reading, she told us repeatedly, consisted of the Bible and Emerson’s essays.) We didn’t have any sort of literary magazine at the school, as far as I can recall. I might have planned to submit it to a contest or something—but if so that detail now escapes me.
It might have been intended for the first issue of The Star. I was definitely working on it in late October 1961, and I might have planned on including it. I probably didn’t, since the issue actually came out in early November (the last item I added, which I had to make room for, was the death of James Thurber on the 2nd), but that might have been my plan. As far as I know no copy of that issue survives; there were only three of them (since I did it with typewriter and carbonless paper) and I sold them all. But anyway, if I was planning on including it that might explain why I submitted it to my mother.
And that’s where I ran into a problem. You see, the final three lines originally noted that what with things looking as peculiar as they do, you exclaim Good God—maybe it’s Halloween. My mother said that the piece was fine as it stood except for one thing—the expression “Good God” had to go. She suggested “Good grief” as a replacement.
That was all very well and good, but as originally written God was my rhyme-word at the end of the fifth line, probably rhyming with odd at the end of the fourth. (I remember the sense of the thing, but not the exact wording.) Changing God to grief necessitated rewriting the fourth line as well. And, although the original lines had come easily to me, now I couldn’t think of anything that worked.
Abruptly a couplet—the one about goblins given above—popped into my mind and I threw it out at my mother. That’s fine, she said, but how are you going to finish it now? Well, it was easy enough. I didn’t like it, but I truncated the original line about it maybe being Halloween to a sudden realization in half a line, and the verse was done. And my friends seemed to like it as well as the original, so I just let it lie. And a year went by.
During that time my best friend took over as publisher and general manager of The Star (so the surviving issues say) while I held the position of editor. Other friends and relatives are listed as artists, reporters, and so on. We were now using a hectograph (or rather two hectographs) as our printing press. And I seem to have been losing interest in the thing. The Halloween issue of 1962 appears to be almost entirely my friend’s work. Page 3, the poem page, begins with the piece as noted, defective second verse and all.
You see, my friend had memorized the poem—but had forgotten part of it. (Years later he reprinted it in the same defective form for a school paper—also from memory.) It was flattering, I suppose, but I would have been a lot happier if he had managed to remember the whole damn thing—or better yet given me a chance to fix it.
Well, sic transit I guess. Time has passed on, and so has the publisher of The Star, and its chief reporter as well. But I survive, and even if I don’t give a damn now, I feel as if I owe something to the kid I once was. So here, as an act of belated justice to the ten-year-old who would have liked to see his poem published the way he wrote it, I will give it as best I can, allowing for the limitations of my sources and my memory:
You’re looking at a post
When suddenly a ghost
    Jumps out and gives a very frightful BOO!
A witch goes riding by
Away up in the sky
    And suddenly a black cat howls at you.
From somewhere up the street
You hear a “Trick or treat”
    And a yellow jack o’ lantern can be seen.
Since things are looking odd,
You stop and say, “Good God!
    I think perhaps it might be Halloween!”

27 October 2015

The Best of All Possible Worlds

f Men are so wicked as we now see them with Religion what would they be if without it?” Benjamin Franklin asked some unknown person in 1757. As if to illustrate this point a man named Abu Ishaq al-Hijazi went into a house of worship in Najran wrapped with explosives and detonated them, causing many casualties. He was a very religious man, according to his friends. He differed theologically with the worshippers, calling them “rejectionist Ismaili polytheists” and so murdered them along with himself in an orgy of violence.
Wicked is clearly the right word for this guy, though I could think of some others I’d prefer. And he did have religion. How much worse could he be if he didn’t? I have to wonder, anyway. It doesn’t seem like religion did much to moderate his particular brand of evil—quite the contrary, actually.
The notion that religion is a moderating force for good—whatever that is—has always seemed a bit far-fetched to me. I mean, I get the concept—if people fear supernatural sanctions for bad behavior they will be motivated to do better. But self-love and self-preservation are much tougher than such tinsel phantasms. “I will swear and forswear myself,” Robert Poley famously observed, “rather than I will accuse myself to do me any harm.” Exactly. The cobwebby fear of invisible justice means nothing against the visible reality of personal harm.
Ah, but Abu Ishaq al-Hijazi turned to self-slaughter, the ultimate in personal harm. Is this not a refutation of some kind? He was, apparently, willing to die for his religion, at least if he could take believers of another stripe along with him.
Well, maybe he was. But if he suffered from the delusion of his own immortality his action might reflect the hope of reward rather than the fear of dissolution. And that hope of reward, let us remember, is indeed a figment of religious conviction. Which shows, I suppose, that religious belief can influence behavior. Would the Aztecs have practiced human sacrifice on such a large scale without the sanction of the divine? Would the Muslims and the Christians and the Jews have fought so bitterly for so many years over a relatively worthless chunk of terrestrial real estate were it not at the behest of dueling deities?
By any rational standard these are not good things. And yet—and yet we are assured that whatever bad things are caused by religion, life without it would be worse. “Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell” John Adams wrote to Jefferson. But there’s one hell of a good argument for his first thought in that same letter: “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!”

25 October 2015

Great Moments in Legislation

he meeting was stunned into silence when Dr. Lillian M. Lang, Portland osteopathic physician, waved a surgeon's scalpel over her head and urged the best way to treat sex offenders, particularly those guilty of sodomy, was to “cut out their illness.” She gave the scalpel to Committee Chairman Rep. Norman Howard, D-Portland, and said she had also sent one to Gov. Mark O. Hatfield, advising how to use it to cure sex offenders.—“Bill Asks Sex Crime Data Swap,” Portland Oregonian, 21 February 1963, p. 1

13 October 2015

Old Mother Westwind Revisited

t was morning in the brown wasteland, and jolly round red Mr. Sun was doing his best to shine through the gray pall, as he did every morning. Old Mother Westwind hurried out from her home behind the Distant Ruins, to set her merry little Breezes loose in the Black Forest, and in the Brown Wasteland.
All the little folks of the Wasteland hurried about their business. Peter Rabbit cautiously poked his head out of his hole and sniffed the air. Little Oscar Chipmink ran to and fro in the tree-tops, cursing the absence of his favorite mutant acorns, which had been carried off by Sammy Jay the day before.
But there was one animal who was not awake. Grandfather Frog was sleeping. Yes sir, old Grandfather Frog was asleep, with his eyes closed and his hands folded over his yellow waistcoat. One of the Merry Little Breezes blew a foolish green fly right past his nose, and he didn’t so much as stir. Little Oscar Chipmink threw a walnut at the old tire he was sitting on, but not even that was enough to make him open his eyes. Old Grandfather Frog was asleep, and dreaming of the days when the world was young, and there were other frogs in the world.—After Thornton W. Burgess

12 October 2015

A Columbus Day Recollection

he Columbus Day Storm took place fifty-three years ago. I meant to write something about it back in 2012, on the fiftieth anniversary, but things have been chaotic for me for the past several years. Here I just want to put down a few memories of what happened, mainly written in 1993, just for the record.
I can remember coming home from school that day. I was in sixth grade at John Rogers school in Vancouver, Washington, and my brothers were in fifth and second. At 2:30 the first and second graders got to go home, but the end of the day came for the rest of us at 3:15. My brother and I went home along 18th Street with some friends. The wind was coming in strange fitful gusts, as it sometimes does in the autumn, and there seemed to be an extra energy to the day, though that may have been because it was a Friday, and we had the weekend coming.
My brother and I would have gone up Todd Road to Fourth Plain where our house stood, a vacant lot with several Douglas firs on it to its west, and a gravel pit to its east. A dirt road ran along the edge of our property between it and the gravel pit; we used to race our bicycles there. There was a place where a fir grew on the gravel pit side and an old apple tree on ours; an imaginary line between them served as the finish line for our races. The remains of an old outbuilding of some kind stood there, one wall relatively intact but fallen to one side, berries growing around it. My brother and I, after we got home from school, must have gone out back to play.
At least the next scene I actually remember comes from that afternoon, not long before sunset. I was outside, playing some game with my brothers and a neighbor. The wind was blowing strongly, more than usual, and it made me feel zippy. It comes to me now; I remember jumping with the wind to feel it give me a boost; I don’t know if it really did, but it sure seemed as if it did. Suddenly the sky took on the strangest color; I remember it as a sickly green to the west. As others who saw it described it as an orange light to the east, I suspect the west may only have looked green by contrast, but I write here what I remember, even when I have doubts of its strict accuracy. It wasn’t long after that that my mother called us in for supper; it wasn’t ready yet, but we couldn’t stay out till it was. She told our friend that he needed to go home. Now. Something about a big wind coming.
I know I didn’t take it that seriously; I thought my mother was being over-cautious. I remember that as a feeling, not as a concrete thought. I suppose I was having too good a time outside on a windy Friday to want to give it up, really.
I don’t remember dinner. I think we had it before the storm hit, but I really don’t remember. I do remember sitting in the living-room, listening to the Nutcracker and doing some math homework, when the power started going fitfully out. (I can’t help but wonder now about that math homework; I never did homework on a Friday. But that’s how I recall it.) By about the third time the Sugar Plum Fairy (or was it the Reed Pipes?) came grinding to a halt I took the needle off the record, but didn’t put the record away, expecting to resume playing as soon as the power came back on. But the next time it went off, it went off for good. We didn’t get it back for nearly two weeks.
Things got pretty wild outside before we lost the twilight altogether. We all grouped up in the living-room and watched and listened as various improbable object blew about, hitting the windows and banging the roof. Pieces of shingle and twigs from trees seemed to be most of it, though there were other things, too. Our two cats, March and Jamie, were safe inside, but not happy about the situation. They went wandering around the house wailing like banshees, though I think Jamie gave that up fairly quickly in favor of hiding somewhere. March wouldn’t settle down; she seemed to feel that somebody should be doing something.
Then darkness closed in, and we could only hear what was happening, not see it. We heard trees go down, some frighteningly close, but fortunately none of them fell on us. At one point my father went out into the fury to help somebody out; I don’t know why. I looked out through the glass on the living-room door; a flash of light showed one of our apple-trees in the process of going over, its roots torn out of the ground.
Apparently the storm was declining by 8:00, though I could have sworn it must have lasted until about midnight. The winds went on blowing through the night; I know that; I remember quite distinctly the sound the fir limb made as it scraped the roof over my head in my bedroom that night, something it had never done before, but continued to do from then on. But it surely must have been after the worst had blown by when my father brought in an ancient battery radio with a glowing eye, to see if we could get some news. There were no local stations on; the best we could do was KSL in Salt Lake City, and it only mentioned us in the most general of terms, saying that there was a storm going on in the Northwest. I think we finally did get some news that the storm had passed, because I think that was when my mother sent us up to bed. I was very reluctant; it was dark and scary up there, but I went. It took me a long time to get to sleep, though.
The next day we went out and surveyed the damage. Some of the Douglas firs on the vacant lot next door had gone down and at least one of them was partially blocking Fourth Plain Road. The leaning wall of the old outbuilding in the back yard now lay flat to the opposite side; the wind had flipped it over. The fir tree by the gravel-pit road had come down across our apple tree and both were inextricably entangled nearby. The entire yard was covered in debris.
We started cleaning up, though the process took weeks. One of the oddities of the storm was that our phone never went out, and at some point I talked to my best friend, whom I had last seen just before the storm when we walked home from school. He told me that his father (who worked for the phone company) had been out all night repairing damage to the lines. He’d called before the storm hit to say that a hurricane was coming. I asked what they’d done, and he told me that his mother had called all the family together, and then gone out and closed the garage door.
School started again on Tuesday, after power had been fully restored throughout Vancouver, according to news outlets. Apparently our neighborhood didn’t count; houses along our section of Fourth Plain and the adjacent streets were electricity free until Tuesday a week later, by which time we were getting fairly well used to candles, Coleman lanterns, and portable gas stoves. During that week somebody working for the gravel pit people considerately removed the fallen trees from our back yard, apparently under the impression that our back yard was part of the gravel pit. With all the debris about it was probably hard to tell the difference. Less considerately, some car skidded off the road and took out our phone, finally—though, as it was an easy repair, it was back in service a couple of days later.
My cat, March, had made her presence felt throughout the storm and its aftermath, but my brother’s cat, Jamie, had disappeared, and was gone long enough to worry us a bit. I don’t know what corner of the house he had hidden out in, but he didn’t emerge from it until the storm was safely passed and we were sifting through the debris. Abruptly he was once again among us, nonchalant and wondering about the feeding arrangements in this new post-storm order. I don’t think he approved of the storm, exactly, but he didn’t seem traumatized by it either. I suppose that went for all of us, come to think of it.

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.
Copyright © 2005-2022