Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Friday, August 1, 2014

High School

This year my high school class is holding its fiftieth reunion. I have always had decidedly mixed feelings about my high school experience. Many people have experienced ambivalence reflecting on this period, conflicted feelings compounded of joys of discovery and exuberant youthful energies balanced by social insecurity, sexual frustration, and doubts about the future. I cannot know if my case was any more intense than that of other young lads. In fact, it is probably in the nature of adolescent emotion that each agonized subjectivity considers its own falling upon the thorns of life an ordeal dramatic and extraordinary. I was sufficiently eager to leave my own high school that I took off a year early, hoping at college to find kindred minds and to escape what seemed a stifling social scene and the isolation of what I took for suburban unreality. Without realizing that every culture tends to seem invisible to those born into it, I thought that the rural farming towns, the immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago, indeed every foreign place on earth had its own culture. Where I lived struck me as no less barren than it was comfortable. I would take the el to 63rd Street on the South Side and walk for miles, just looking and listening. Once graduated, I fled to university, to the West Coast, the East Coast, abroad, far, at any rate, from where I had grown up, and I did not revisit the scenes of my suburban childhood.

I was myself surprised at my receptivity when one day I received a call about the reunion from a man whom I had known even in elementary school. In one of the typical readjustments these occasions elicit, once I had caught his name, I was slightly surprised me at his mature assuredness. Though I hadn’t thought of him once in the half century past, my impression had been that he was something of a nebbish. (Lord knows what he thought of me, if he did at all. On the phone he didn’t seem to remember me.)

I would be little surprised if any of my fellow students who did give me a thought considered me somewhat odd; my own self-image was probably more extreme. Many of the elements out of which the high school memories of others are constructed were lacking in my case. No prom or big game; in fact, I never dated or attended a sports event. Unlike some high school students, I could rationalize my social unease as a sign of sensitivity and my lack of a generalized popularity as an inevitable concomitant of intellectuality. Further, I regarded myself as counter-cultural even in the early sixties and thought estrangement from the school social order evidence of integrity. I got off rather easily from my fellow-students, though my copy of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945-1960 still carries the traces of chewing gum some wag inserted while I was away from my desk. Confident in my taste (if in little else), I pushed back and began ostentatiously carrying a huge scholarly edition of Spenser’s Faerie Queen. I was the first person to check it out from the school library, but I am afraid I actually read precious little of it until several years later.

Self-righteously, I felt I had broader reasons than literary interests for disaffection with the Glen Ellyn high school social scene. Glenbard West was a picturesque school, built atop Honeysuckle Hill overlooking Lake Ellyn in 1920 in the style of a fanciful castle with turrets and leaded glass windows, but to me it represented some rather ugly values. I utterly rejected (consciously, at any rate) the prejudices of the haute bourgeois suburban community which in those days excluded non-whites and Jews and celebrated wealth as the definitive measure of worth and achievement. The superintendent of schools (once the high school’s principal) was Fred L. Biester, a decidedly old-style bigoted reactionary. Difficult as it is to believe in the twenty-first century, this man addressed my junior high school graduation by informing us that needed to study hard and do well in college since, though we might not yet realize it, the white race was in the minority and needed to work to maintain control. In this era and environment the John Birch Society and the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade flourished, while I and others of my generation in similar settings across the country decided we were socialists.

The reactionary attitudes of the community seemed to me to translate on the high school level into a social order in which the most prestigious were the children of the members of the more expensive country club whom I saw as programmed to follow their parents as business executives. (This did not, of course, always prove to be the case. ) I regarded the student organizations as little more than training grounds for the board rooms of the future.

Yet there were compensations arising out of the same package of factors. I was acutely conscious of the area’s privilege (though I was surprised recently to see DuPage County identified as the wealthiest county in the Midwest). Glenbard West (East had just opened when I attended) was certain in its annual quota of Merit Finalists and Westinghouse Science winners and secure in its place on the Newsweek list of best public high schools.

I did make close friends in school. In our circle it was ordinary to cultivate serious academic interests, either scientific, artistic, or intellectual. Virtually all pursued research or creative work and became professors. A cohort like mine could hardly have existed in most schools and the honors class system guaranteed that we would all follow much the same schedule year after year. I fully believe that we could have learned very nearly as well without teachers as we did with their help. The only one whom I recall with affection was a young male English teacher just passing through for a few years, who gave a decent modern poetry unit, but whose most impressive quality was his style. Dressed elegantly in a three-piece suit, his hair swept back in a dramatic wave, he would wax enthusiastic about the ballet, the opera, the Chicago Symphony. “I,” he would say, “am an Italophile. Everyone say I-tal-o-phile.” Confident he would appreciate the gesture, we posted a sign above his classroom door quoting Dante: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.” Today I have not the slightest doubt he was gay, but I don’t think the possibility ever occurred to any of us back then.

For all our engagement in learning we conceived of ourselves, not as nerds (I’m not even sure of an early sixties equivalent term) but as romantic rebels. We socialized deep into the night, playing poker (some of us were good indeed, as later games would show) and watching old movies like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and The Shape of Things to Come. We preferred Mozart and Muddy Waters to the pop rock’n’roll that was marketed to teens. I recall my brother ordering tunes like Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “Ain’t Got No Home” in our little local record store.

Unlike the good students of earlier years, we did not all line up to be patted on the head by the school administration and the presumptive similar approval of university admissions offices and future personnel departments with similar taste. Junior cynics who liked to color themselves with a hedonistic air, we declared ourselves honest adherents of “the cult of self-interest,” claiming that everyone else was in fact a member of the same faction but that others simply wouldn’t admit it. Later we elaborated this, putting on supercilious airs. After an arch remark, we would ask on what level of irony the speaker was operating, imagining increasing gradations infinitely outward and tending to increase in coolness and wit as they gained in artifice. I’m afraid we were often dreadful smart-alecks, expressing ourselves through pranks and hoaxes, satirizing our teachers, athletics, student government, and the like.

Larry Shue who was to achieve professional success as an actor and lasting celebrity as the author of such community theater favorites as The Nerd and The Foreigner before his early death invented a poet named T. L. Cosgrove. (He did a marvelous Bottom during school in Midsummer Night’s Dream.) Cosgrove’s name and his nebulous, quasi-profound style owed a good deal to T. S. Eliot. A group of conspirators began mentioned Cosgrove off-handedly in English class, snaring teachers who did want it to appear that their students were more up on contemporary poetry than they. Eventually Cosgrove himself contacted the school, offering to do a reading which was duly scheduled and announced, though, unfortunately the celebrated poet was stricken ill the night before he was to appear.
At the time of some sort of “presidential” fitness push, our physical education class was told that we would be timed in a cross-country run. Our gym teacher stressed the seriousness of the competition, repeatedly warning that our times would be written into our “permanent record” (though I doubt they could be found now). Hence the boys of my gym class, including most of the students in honors programs organized a pool, each contributing a quarter, to go to the one who came in last. Our instructor was at a loss. He had, perhaps never encountered such a perverse bunch. As I recall, there were no repercussions. Perhaps the teacher preferred not to make our obdurate behavior known to the administration. He may have turned in respectable times for us all.

In the spring of my last year at Glenbard a group of students, performance artists in embryo, organized the Consecutive Shirt Athletic Association. This all-male group held a competition to see who could wear the same shirt for the longest time without ever washing it. We were obliged, of course, to rely on each other’s honor, knowing that a good guy would not secretly launder his shirt. In spite of the fact that during this era, my suburban family bathed only weekly, I marvel now at mothers allowing their errant sons to participate. I wore a plastic badge noting the day “CSAA day 14,” for instance. Two or three of us lasted until the end of the school year, a matter of several months. The yearbook advisor was a sport enough that in the school’s yearbook the Consecutive Shirt Athletic Association is duly listed and photographed among organizations like the National Honor Society and the Smoking Council. (This latter was a group of students who were somehow persuaded to cruise the campus at lunchtime looking for smokers on whom to inform.)

My last year the odds-on favorite for president of student council was a candidate who allowed his friends to convince him to declare at the assembly at which such junior leaders were to articulate a platform that, if elected, he would dissolve student council since it had no real power, being always subject to the administration’s authority. We proceeded to mount an unconventional campaign for which my contribution was a very large poster at the main entrance to the school, covered with bits of poetry in a dozen different languages. In the tiniest writing, in the extreme lower right of the poster were the words, “Vote for C-------.” Another friend made a sign saying “Vote for C------- for he is good,” but with the o’s in good pushed together so that it appeared to say our man was god. Such were our notions of wit.

My primary memory of high school years is not of school at all, but of reading while lying in my WWII surplus bunk. I had posted a sign by my head reading “Ne reveiller pas l’élève qui dort,” my trope on “Il ne faut pas reveiller le chat [le lion] qui dort.” Next to it another posting read en oino aletheia [in Greek characters I don't know how to bring to the blog] which struck me as more satisfyingly abstruse than in vino veritas. I had a picture of Lenin haranguing a crowd which I regarded as heroic, but I felt my motives were ironic in also displaying a soft-focus idealized portrait of a grandfatherly Khrushchev. The levels of irony, I suppose, were not always entirely clear to observers. Next to the bed was always a stack of books – I was doing my best, as I have ever since, to make myself at home in the ocean of words.

A few years back, I read Baboon Metaphysics (the title alone makes it worth mentioning) which argued that the primary purpose of the monkeys’ utterances was not to warn of predators or to communicate about food sources, but rather to express differences in social status. The zoologists reported that they had once been visited by a member of the British royal family who had been gratified to be given evidence that hierarchical stratification is simply biology. While I would like to believe that we can surpass the primate organizational system in government, I admit that, in the context of high school, and indeed, in society in general, we may remain baboons. In a few months, when I venture into the tangle of conflicted attitudes suggested by the lines above, I shall see what impact fifty years has had, beyond making all of us from the class of ‘64 feel vulnerable in a way far different from the way we did back then.

Annual Report

The following is a routine composed for a Council of (Poetic) Experimentation event marking the centenary year of the birth of William Burroughs and scheduled close to the seventeenth anniversary of his death. CO(P)E has proven the most productive venue of cutting-edge performance in this region, staging new as well as older avant-garde work thanks to the work of Steve Roe, Dan Andreana, Al Margolis, Kevin Geraghty, and Detta Andreana.

I am pleased to address the members of the board of directors, our corporate executives, and even you small fry shareholders and hangers-on, and to announce to you another banner year for the Amalgamated Consolidated Holding Company, the ever-swelling big daddy of the NYSE, compared to which yesterday’s multinationals are mere pikers. Our prodigious growth has been continuous since we decided to cut out the middle term in merchandising. Why sell people a product promising pleasure when we might instead market pleasure itself? We realized that the Christers had been making millions for millennia with a simple verbal promise of eternal bliss marketed with just enough mumbo-jumbo to hook the chumps. What would the profit be for the provider that could actually deliver bliss metered and invoiced? Advertisers had used hit-and-miss psychology crap – we went straight to the far more dependable biology.
A bit of history may be useful for new employees. We proceeded from the historic experiments of Olds and Milner which established the territory of the pleasure center in the hitherto untracked regions of the nucleus accumbens. Inspired by the image of their rats frantically pressing the neural reward bar Delgado, Heath and others then extended that work to human subjects. Using prisoners at first, they moved fearlessly into new frontiers, the ventral pallidum and the orbitofrontal cortex, leading to the culminating stage of science, the very jewel of civilization and crown of creation: the hugely profit-making corporation. Our patented process implants neural electrodes into customers adjudged Class B material by our underwriters who have discovered either approved credit lines or exploitable productive capacity and then who then provide first-rate medical supervision for our clients’ twilight years.
Many Class Bs, of course, proved weak-minded, “auto-culls” we call them. Having thought they could joy-pop along for a spell, just taking a week-end zap or two and maybe an extra when feeling low, but before long they were stretched out in one of our hostels, paying hotel rates for a shelf in a room with thousands of their fellows, catheterized, with IVs and bags of various organic fluids, both intake and outgo, hanging all over the place. The minimum wage workers we hire, those, that is, from Class D, without sufficient economic resources to be our customers become our agents in what is popularly called The House of the Lame-os, but unfortunately they can’t possibly cope. The more enterprising, dubbing themselves “forty-niners,” specialize in digging out gold dental work, for they know we can’t be bothered about such petty pilferage. Eventually they wheel the corpses to the back wall where the stench never stops. But we need to keep a heart-beat going until the assets and credit are maxed out.
We have overcome the looming problem of a labor shortage for the production of our own commodities. After years of research by our own Dr. Ungeheuer we developed the precise balance of positive and negative stimulation needed to maintain a functioning production worker. This proprietary algorithm for managing Class C individuals is presently our most valuable intellectual asset. A stream of stimuli, mixing shocks of pain with waves of bliss will keep the subject functioning for a sixteen-hour workday. At a stroke we have eliminated much of the unnecessary cost of labor. Our industrial employees need no clothing or home. Seated on a chamber pot, they are nourished by a wholesome vegan diet administered with computer-controlled technology purchased from the foie gras folks.
We do face challenges in the coming fiscal year. They are pesky bands of hooligans throwing monkey wrenches in sectors 19 and 24, pestilence has swept sectors 9 through 12 to the extent that their territory must be quarantined from all decent society, and the vicious and godless Chinese conglomerate is expected next to turn against us, having already transformed the U.K. into an island of their own drones following the karmically inevitable second Opium War in which daily doses of the drug were forced into every Briton until they capitulated begging for more. We shall rise to meet these difficulties as we have done in the past, using any means necessary to accomplish our mission, for we are the defenders of civilization. You may rest assured that, were Jesus, the real Jesus, not a turn-your-cheek namby-pamby, alive today, he would be a shareholder, a major shareholder, I have no doubt.
And now, I see the hors d’oeuvres are coming – I invite you all to enjoy your dinners, in the confident knowledge that these luxurious dishes are an alchemical transmutation, compounded of the blood, sweat, and tears of our natural inferiors according to God’s holy plan. Our success is the proof that Providence stands with us in the tireless pursuit of profit.

Notes on Recent Reading 21 [Fussell, Mahfouz, Watts]

The Norton Book of Travel [edited by Paul Fussell]
Unfortunately Mr. Fussell has mistaken descriptive literary passages for travel writing. Little harm is done by including odd verses such as Blake’s “Ah, Sunflower,” Hardy’s “Midnight on the Great Western,” or Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” but passages from Dodsworth or Farewell to Arms do not belong in this anthology. Travel writing is a genre itself; fiction and lyric are likely to privilege other priorities.
His claim that travel in the modern sense is a very recent amusement is of a piece with his citation of Freud “A great part of the pleasure of travel lies in the fulfillment of . . . early wishes to escape the father and especially the family.” Psychologists may now see how many of Freud’s insights, while profound, are bound by time and culture. Still, one is glad for his discussing the theory of travel at all and for ferreting out the quotation (and the next, from Levi-Strauss, and Aristotle and then Flaubert a few lines later). In the middle of this pleasant miscellany of opinion, one does encounter a few sound truisms, such as travel being broadening and sharpening the senses, and he concludes with a sound observation on the double narrative (observer and observed) implied by every travel story.
In the end the variety of ideas set forth resembles the variety of texts. There is plenty to enjoy. He does include the marvelous Robert Byron, and I did encounter the Romantic German vagabond in England Karl Philip Moritz here for the first time.

The Thief and the Dogs [Mahfouz]
Naguib Mahfouz’ novel would make an excellent film noir screenplay. The main character’s consciousness is consistently desperate and anxious; the reader sympathizes with antihero Said, a petty thief driven by his sense of honor to violence. The action is swift and unrelenting as he drives toward his own wretched fate. He is stoic, only rarely allowing a glimmer of hope to intrude on his self-righteous victimhood. Though a criminal, he has the sense of the long-exploited that he is merely setting things straight in a small way when he takes the belongings of the rich. His affection for his daughter is real, but he was not cut out to be a father. His relations with women are defined by his wounded pride at Nabawiyya and the favors he accepts from Nur. The violence that results seems to arise more from profound anguish than from the political context – the collapse of the hope of intellectuals in Nasser-style socialism -- that is regarded by many as a significant theme. The Sufi Sheikh Ali al-Junaydi provides mystical commentary for those who prefer Sufism to Existentialism.

Myth and Ritual in Christianity [Watts]
From adolescence I have been fascinated with mysticism. I devoured Evelyn Underhill’s books, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, and (pseudo-)Dionysius the Areopagite and tried to imagine myself in ineffable transport. I proved to be the worst of meditators in spite of the fact that in those days I could pull myself into a full lotus. My contemplative peak was the ability to undergo Friends meeting for worship with satisfaction if not divine “openings.” One impediment I experienced was difficulty in interpreting the mythic system with which I was most familiar, that of Christianity. Even when I went through confirmation as a Protestant, I had lost whatever faith I had had as a young child. Even after years in the realms of Daoist, Buddhist, and Hindu thought, I never felt I had a sympathetic grasp Christ’s story or of the Christian reading of the Hebrew scriptures until I read this book.
Now, I am well aware that Watts had a good bit of the charlatan about him (as do many native shamans). He had undertaken Zen training before becoming a priest and then a media figure (though at first only on KPFA, the Pacifica station in Berkeley). He gained a considerable reputation as a bon vivant with an eye for the women and a relish for alcohol and other drugs. Christians will recoil from his heterodoxy just as his Buddhism was criticized by D. T. Suzuki himself. Still, he taught me important things that have opened up to me way of understanding a great many Christian texts. After fifty years I reread this book without disappointment.