Chimera Song Mosaic
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
I just watched Cinderella Man, and I am re-obsessing over Depression-era boxing. Back when I was an undergrad at Texas A & M, I had this cool prof who made us write a paper (one of the two papers I had to write to get my BA) about a sporting event in American history that reflected the social concerns of the time. I drew a major blank, but my sister suggested the Joe Louis / Max Schmeling bout of 1936. Natch! Not only did I write a paper, but I researched so hardcore that I read several Louis biographies and even read some Depression / WWII boxing books. I don't really like boxing at all, but I found the boxers' lives fascinating. For example, I am really sad about the end of Joe Louis' life being so difficult for him. I think he was a very nice person who had a talent for a violent profession but who worked hard, was kind, and happened to inspire millions. For a while, I was one of those people who really wanted to be on Jeopardy and have the final questions about boxing but it would be like no one in the audience would ever think I would know anything about boxing but of course I really did. Now I have forgotten most of it. I could still get some Trivial Pursuit questions about Floyd Patterson, though, I bet.
I never really was all that interested in Jim Braddock's story, however. But watching Cinderella Man changed all that. I've heard that a lot of people criticized the film's portrayal of Max Bear, but I think he seemed very likeable in the film (probably this was helped by the fact that he was portrayed by a very hot actor). I also liked reading about Max Bear, and I liked him in the film, so much that I did a bunch of research online after watching the film. I had forgotten that Bear's son, Max Bear, Jr., played Jethro in The Beverley Hillbillies. What a fun fact! And I didn't remember that he was Jewish, although he (the actor) wore boxing shorts with a Star of David on them in the film. This is true about Baer; he wore them during a fight with Max Schmeling (in 1933) and every fight afterward. I was wondering why the media didn't make a bigger deal of him fighting Schmeling, Baer being Jewish, but I think it was because anti-German sentiment hadn't reached such a peak as it had in 1936, when Louis fought (and beat) Schmeling. Baer beat Schmeling first, but the Louis-Schmeling fight remains more historically significant, ushering in, so it is said, increased awareness of Nazi racism and the more locally immediate plight of black Americans.
Interestingly, Baer was raised Catholic (his mom's religion); his dad was Jewish. Shades of J.D. Salinger! See how cool Max Baer is!
Also, I can't help but feel for Max Schmeling, who fought all of his very long existence (he lived to be almost 100) to get away from the stink of Nazism. Much was made of his post-bout friendship with Louis, but maybe people don't know that he smuggled two Jewish teens out of Nazi Germany. I'd love to do more research and write a screenplay about their relationship and the media vortex that engulfed them and influenced their personal choices, but apparently that's already been done (Joe and Max, 2001). Remix? Of course, Baer, Braddock, and maybe Carnera would factor in.
Perhaps Cinderella Man could have mentioned that Baer's accidental killing of another fighter in the ring affected him greatly, and he didn't fight for another year after it happened. Also, he paid for the fighter's (Frankie Campbell) kids to go to college. But I don't think the film portrayed Baer as bloodthirsty--more like confident, boastful, maybe arrogant, which aren't such bad characteristics.
Okay, enough about boxing and cinema. On to poetry, where the real antagonism happens:
I'm getting very frustrated with my manuscript. It's not so much the manuscript that upsets me (maybe it's the blackhole workload that it represents), but the packaging of it for consumption (read: contest viability). More and more, I am getting feedback and finding calls that favor the manuscript as medium, that is to say, the book as primary product, not the individual poem.
Where the freak am I going to come up with something like that? I'd like to write a poetry BOOK, rather than a collection of poems, but I haven’t been writing all that long (only 20 or so years), and I am still not fluent with the product.
These presses claim to stress innovation and experimentation over everything, but it is really experimental if that poet has been handed a preexisting construct?
I realize that the POEM as the unit is hardly original. However, I have seen it done once or twice in some very surprising ways. I'm sure you will agree (read: sarcasm).
My point is that the POEM (read: TITLE) is hardly exhausted as medium.
Having seen many an anthology (unfortunately having had the job of teaching many a section of sophomore lit), it is truly annoying for a poem to not have a title. Sure, Emily D. gets away with it. So does William S. Ditto for Walt W. But for the most part, a long, sprawling thing is hardly anthologized; it is hardly reproduce in journals; it is hardly read.
And which is more important: readability and access to audience, or fashion?
I see this trend as fashion. Nothing but.
(Okay, possibly a new and exciting vehicle for Poetry. Possibly in the future more forms of access and reproduction, reducing the need for titles and reference and whatnot. Yes, there could be a future, and yes, I could acknowledge it.)
But right now usually I see an excerpt from a long poem by a new author in some new anthology, and I think to myself, why am I reading this obvious snippet? Shouldn't I just read the whole thing? Couldn't they just find a poem by this author to place in?
There is a reason the POEM is the unit:
1. Attention span: the average attention span is like 3 minutes, for old world bard-hoppers and generation y alike. This is the reason the average length of a popular song cut on the radio is just under 3 minutes. This is how long humans want to listen to one THING. The POEM is the "unit of attention."
2. Past abuse of the ear: bloated divas (circa 1770s) and metal guitarists (circa 1970s) of the past most self-importantly and self-indulgently masturbated on their instruments because of a. contract requirements, or b. pushing the vocal/aural/mechanical envelope. They wanted to see how far they could go. On this note,
why should the BOOK be the unit of Poetry? Why not the seven volume set? Why not the books on tape? Why not the encyclopedia? Why not the Bastille?
3. It works: recitability and memorization is fun!
There is such a thing as pushing someone too early out of their comfort zone. Maybe some of us are Luddites (I suspect I am), traditionalists, whatever, or maybe some of us are geared toward experimentation in other ways, such as language, or the ear, or the eye.
I am not totally adverse to the BOOK as the unit of poetic composition. I have read some startling and wholesome examples of this (I am thinking of My Life; I am thinking of A Summer Evening). However, I do not think we can simply ascribe it to the "new poetry," any more than prose poems can be the shining and exclusive example of this.
Of course, the easy answer to this is, don't submit to presses requesting such or admitting this favoritism. But many presses I admire appear to be seduced by this fashion, and to ignore them is to regulate my writing to more traditional camps, which I think it is ultimately unsuited for.
Some more thoughts on this:
- doesn't requesting experimentation kill the impetus of it?
- arbitrary distinction! it stinks of weeding out for the sake of reducing workload (read: reading)
- a poet who does not have the current impetus for this is encouraged to think about packaging as (before, or rather than) product
- submission to fashion is for suckers!
Maybe my problem is that I cannot quite figure out how to package my product. For example, the thought occurred to me that I should heavily footnote my stuff, as if it were anthologized in Norton. I mean so many footnotes that one hardly has to think for one's self.
But I resist this because, primarily, I am lazy, but quite importantly because the urge to explain is a nasty habit best left to editors. Not that I couldn't be an editor; I would like nothing more that to go to bed with a text and get ink all over the sheets for some years. But any attempts that I have made to write about my writing have seemed jargony and trite; there is a whole desperate I-wish-I-knew-what-you -were-looking-for, job application currency to it. Also, it reduces the work of a writer or artist to some kind of general commonality, like we are all really looking for the same thing, the intersection of beauty and biology, or the body and its relationship to its products, like children or religion or feces or poetry.
I think it’s probably worse for visual artists; at least our product is writing. When they are told that they have to write about their art, they probably vomit in their own mouths for a while first.