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Archive for April 2009

Two Essays

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– Via Kausfiles (really?): an essay on Nabokov’s Pale Fire, written in 1962 by the late, estimable Mary McCarthy, is available at The New Republic‘s Website.  It’s a bit more scrupulous, and lengthy, than your average major journal literary review, but then McCarthy was not your average critic and Pale Fire is not your average novel.  Reading McCarthy’s explanation of the book (“explanation” really is a better word than “criticism” in this case), I experienced a thrill almost as great as the one I got first reading Nabokov’s weird puzzle a few years ago.  Pale Fire is the rare novel that doesn’t sound bland in description: at the center is a 999-line poem written by a famous (fictional) follower of Pope, complete with footnotes and bookended with a preface and afterword- all written by the delusional pedophile expatriat who lived next door to the poet.  McCarthy’s task in her review is to exhume and explain the various layers of meaning in Pale Fire, for as one reads the novel it quickly becomes clear the book is not really about the poem at all, but is rather the story of a mentall ill man’s strained relationship with reality, which take’s place on the periphery of the “primary text,” the marginal space typically reserved for the innocuous  editor.  If you don’t get a chance to read the book, McCarthy’s essay is the next best thing.

-The other one is also a bit old -2000- and comes from Sports Illustrated.  It’s by Tom Verducci and it’s called The Power of Pedro (Martinez).  The year it was written is significant, because between ’98 and ’03 (his time with the Red Sox, roughly) Pedro was truly Godlike.  In fact, Pedro’s ’99 season may have cemented him as (now hear me out) the greatest pitcher to ever play major league ball, a point Verducci is not shy to argue:

Until last year Curt Schilling and Sandy Koufax had been the only pitchers in history to whiff 300 batters in a season while striking out more than five times as many batters as they walked. Schilling’s strikeout-to-walk ratio was 5.5:1 in ’97; Koufax’s was 5.38:1 in 1965 and 5.28:1 in ’63. In 1999 Martinez went where no man had ever gone before—8.46:1. His totals of 313 strikeouts and 37 walks seem implausible by any manner of achievement other than by joystick.

For example.  The essay is a hell of a read- Verducci is great, if a little bit corny, and Pedro is and always will be a fascinating, contradictory, flamboyant personality.  A must read for baseball fans and/or Red Sox zombies.

Written by Peter Kelly

April 29, 2009 at 9:23 pm

The Eisner Awards

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The 2009 Eisner Award nominees were announced last week.  For those who don’t spend their earnings on Spider-Man and American Splendor each week, The Eisners, named after trailblazing comic creator Will Eisner, are kind of the Oscars of comics.  Yes, The Oscars parallel sounds right; The Eisners are the unquestioned award of prestige for their medium, but their empirical relevance is the subject of endless debate.  The real fun of nominees being announced is armchairing the awards, deciding who you think should win, who you think will win, who you think was robbed, etc.  With the Oscars, the critical refrain remains pretty much the same year to year: “Some surprisingly good picks, mostly garbage- its just too political.”

Coming up with a similar tagline for The Eisners is not so simple.  Winners have ranged from the prominent mainstream (Batman, JLA, etc.) to the oddly obscure (the 1988 Best Single Issue/Single Story winner was Gumby Summer Fun Special #1, By Bob Burden and Art Adams), and so predicting nominations is difficult.  Timothy Callahan points out that the unpredictable nature of the awards can at least partly be ascribed to the rotating cast of judges- panel members are changed every year, making it impossible to say what the awards “favor.”  But plenty of annual honors (All Tomorrow’s Parties festival comes to mind) transfer curatory responsibilities each year and still retain a certain definite identity.  The problem with The Eisners, the reason why it’s nominations can lead to such head scratching, is that the awards seem unsure about what they are.

Roger Ebert wrote a great column about what it means to be a real critic, and in doing so cited a great speech from the movie Ratatouille:

But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends… Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

This is one approach to being a critic- fighting for the cause of underrepresented great art.  The Eisners have done that before, but don’t really do it as a rule.  Another approach is to celebrate the absolute best of the form, regardless of notoriety or the lack thereof.  But if this is the point of The Eisners, the awards have somehow managed to contradict themselves, as seen in the omission of Matt Fraction for best writer placed next to his multiple nominations for writing in other categories.  It is as if each category is put together independently, in a sealed off room, by a group that is barred all contact from any other judges.  And this is perfectly fine, except that it makes the “point” of the Eisner’s obscure, or perhaps non-existent.  People may decry The Oscars for being predictable, but this is precisely where its power comes from; People know what the Academy looks for, and cater to it.  Being the most prominent award in a medium puts one in the unique position of actually being able to shape the face of that medium.  Why squander that power by sending mixed signals?  The Oscars long ago realized their power; they have unfortunately decided to use it for evil.  But The Eisners could be a positive force in comics, using their influence to direct eyes to new, bold talent, but it would take a certain unity of extolling.

Written by Peter Kelly

April 19, 2009 at 7:03 pm

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Why I Like Arielle Greenberg; Or, I Hope The Reason I Like Arielle Greenberg Doesn’t Make Me a Sexist

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First of all, here’s a poem, copied directly from here:

Maybe two people went walking and maybe it was quiet. Maybe there were birds quitting morning work. Maybe there was a pond. Certainly there was a pond. Maybe there were ducks, frogs, lilies. Certainly there was a trail leading out of the woods and into an archetype. Certainly there was a villain. Maybe it was cold. Certainly it was Halloween and certainly that means something about the dead who have come before. Maybe it was a good day for dying. Certainly someone was to die. Certainly around the world many people died. Anyway. Maybe the doctor and his wife were taking a longer walk, because there was a plan. Maybe the doctor and his wife were taking a shorter walk, because it was cold and her back ached. Certainly the doctor and his wife took a walk. Maybe the wife walking a path already had that trouble in mind trouble in mind. Maybe the wrongness was already creeping in the minute they left their car with the dog to walk the path they so often walked it was known to them both. Maybe before a person dies they know it in their head like a strange cough or a song. Anyway. Certainly the doctor and his wife took a walk. Maybe the wife said no, no, you walk on with the dog to the doctor when her back ached and he left her side. Maybe at a certain point the doctor left his wife’s side. Maybe they agreed to meet in a bit by the road. Maybe he made an excuse to her. Maybe he slipped back around another trail. Maybe he never left her side. Maybe he left her side and did not see her again until she lay still upon the ground. Certainly she lay still upon the ground.

I very much like this poem.  It gets an A.  It’s by a poet called Arielle Greenberg who, according to her website, was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1972 and got her MFA in poetry from Syracuse University.  Sometime last year I read  her book Given, and became particularly smitten with a poem that began, “Lets make out in a new and interesting way tonight” (title, book currently unavailable to me (I never bought it)).  That line embodies much of what I like about Greenberg’s poetry.  In one sense it’s what I like about poetry in general (the clever turning of common phrase into unique and poignant statement), but there’s also something particularly “Greenbergian” to it.  It’s ebullient, and a little flirty.  It’s very precious.

Now, to be honest, it concerns me a bit to recognize that I am drawn to Greenberg’s poetry because of the preciousness of its cleverness.  To call someone’s cleverness “precious” itself sounds a tad condescending, and I also worry what it says about me that I sincerely believe Greenberg’s poetry to be inherently “feminine.”  What does that even mean, feminine poetry?  While I can’t say how I’d react to Greenberg’s poetry if she were a man, I can say I have read many women poets and not considered their poetry feminine in any pronounced way.

On the other hand, there are a number of male poets I would accuse of leaning toward the feminine side.  e.e. cummings comes to mind, and of course Walt Whitman (whose Leaves of Grass should have been cited when, I think it was de Beauvoir, claimed that womenness was “flying, encompassing, lending”).  Personally, I would describe feminine writing as coming from a worldview in which the universe is known through its reflection on the self, where life ultimately trumps death (“Certainly around the world many people died.  Anyway.”)

So having displayed my prejudice and ignorance for all to criticise, what can I say in my defense?  I suppose my only complaint against being labeled a sexist, or a misogynist, or worst, an anti-feminist, would be that…I think the feminine worldview I’ve described very often appears in my own writing.  We’ve reached a point (call it the post-political correctness world) wherein the terms “woman” and “man” are still incredibly difficult to dissect (perhaps moreso than ever), but terms like “masculine” and “feminine” can be used as descriptive tools rather than ultimate labels.  That’s a boon to writers and readers alike.  Even if I all the girl poetry I dig is precious.

The best place to find quality Greenberg poety is right on her website, ArielleGreenberg.com

UPDATE: Greenberg has chastised me (rightfully) for not mentioning her more recent book, My Kafka Century, which perhaps I will soon read and write about.

Written by Peter Kelly

April 9, 2009 at 3:48 pm

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One of the Best Sports Profiles I Have Ever Read

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Written by Peter Kelly

April 1, 2009 at 3:10 pm

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