A Talk Story

We recently purchased a used copy of the 2001 Modern Library Paperback Edition of “The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town,” edited and with a preface by Lillian Ross, who wrote for The New Yorker for some 70 years. Her “Portrait of Hemingway” appeared in the 13 May 1950 issue, and is still read today as a classic first example of literary journalism.

The earliest “Talk Stories,” in the 1920s, didn’t have bylines (the group of stories were signed “The New Yorkers” at the bottom of the “Notes and Comment” section) and their style was intended to entertain while educating with facts. Harold Ross, the first New Yorker editor, no relation to Lillian, “didn’t like bylines,” she tells us in her editor’s preface to “The Fun of It.”

“He wanted the stories in The Talk of the Town to sound as though they’d been written by a single person, and he wanted that person to have what he called ‘the male point of view.’ ‘We’ was always supposed to be male.” In spite of those constrictions, Lillian Ross went on to write “hundreds of Talk stories,” with “the singular challenge of creating these stories pure fun for all of us who do them.”

Harold Ross himself contributed Talk Stories, also anonymously, so it’s possible he was responsible for the August 12, 1927 Talk piece titled “Fence Buster,” about the new New York Yankees baseball player Lou Gehrig. The piece includes the staples of the Talk Story: “By the late twenties,” Lillian Ross says, “the department usually featured a ‘fact’ piece plus a ‘personality’ piece plus a ‘visit’ piece; the mix became traditional.”

Thus we learn, in about the required length of around 1,000 words, that the young Gehrig’s father was a “janitor and grass-cutter” at Columbia University, and that Lou looked up to Babe Ruth, though unlike the Babe, he did “not drink, smoke, or gamble.” Lou enjoyed fishing for eels, which his mother pickled. And in 1927, at the age of twenty-four, he made “about $10,000 a year.”

$10,000 a year is double what I made in my first teaching job around 50 years later. Of course, I had the summer off, while Lou Gehrig had to work. I suppose we could say now that I taught for the fun of it.

El Porto at Night

Out of ocean back to sun
slow purple tide drifts down
darkness like a tidal wave
floods and a dark fog falls.

Strand partygoers barefoot
swimsuit prance in sandals
streets car-lined seldom trees
dwellings cliche toe crammed.

Sleep cans built on sand hills
swept of seawrack the breeze
the moon in her habit prays
and down rains grace gently.

Each drop 15% ABV the lifeguard
says and turns on your nightlight
what a concept and flies away
into south Santa Monica Bay.

In the distance the bass bob bloom
of close-in closed out hollow waves
like artillery shells down the line
hear water mewling through shingle.

In the morning late for the school
bus stops for you up on Highland
you forget now why all those tears
on a lovely morning such as this.

For a New Year

Happy new year
one at a time
Happy new ears
ones that can hear.

Happy new shears
to cut the old hair
Happy new crown
for the frown clown.

Weary old year
falls into compost
Happy the earthworms
bring a new day.

Now in the rains
the ground soaked
the basement wet
the table settled.

Blessed the unsung
who hear buoy bells
Blessed the obscure
quilting deep poems.

In the New Year
may clear water
be your cheer
light your walk.

May you talk happily
quietly so hear poetry
may your words work
magic in the new year.

Closed

The sign on the door read closed
simply and clearly defied to be
misunderstood though cryptically
short did not attempt explanation
explication or anything of the sort
as an action word as still as ice
and as a modifier most unhelpful.

The door was obviously closed
yet several skeptical browsers
rattled the handle the better
to check and be sure the door
was not only closed but locked.

A few others cupped their eyes
peering through the windows
research for more information
the shelves are full they said
well lit by well placed lights.

A few loitered outside the shop
it looked warm inside friendly
somehow a coffee pot sat
at the end of a clean counter
a colorful display with creative
text menu wide aisles sparkling
linoleum floors booths of fat
Naugahyde benches a place
to dwell and tell and repeat
stories but Closed it read.

Garage Sale

The garage sale of my mind was well advertised
signs on telephone poles and online postings
but no one thought to see what they might find.

The mind is a dump full of toxic stuff
tossed flowers blues and greens faded to drab
food scraps bald birds pick at and hot rats scatter
as trash trucks dump squandered load after load
junk heaps smoldering bent metal smashed glass
furniture akimbo wood and styrofoam blocks
book pages torn dogeared magazines ripped
warped vinyl toasted surfboards jelled banners
all absurd plans unrolled blueprint messes
colossal architectural collapse
reductio ad absurdum that’s what
all effort reduced to brood swat and tricks
flood the roads in and out the ear brain zaps
of a blog heap pile to pile one subscribes
lost in here with no purpose no safe pass
age strength twisted steel shafts up and down
leaning precipitously toward the trash
piles of concrete slush crushed and composted
the worms finished their work years ago
today the skies clear ceiling drawn up
don’t let it drag us under these words
will all grow back come spring in new jangles
bright new jungles of fresh piles of junk.

Solstice

We decline down the stairs
amid icy stares underground
stay warm huddled with others.

We refuse the cold’s summit
but around noon note a bit of
the bump and we stand still.

We see ourselves as heavenly
in the arc of the sun and crouch
of a close moon and our bodies

rotate out of hibernal touch
not to create a paradox
but the point is opposite

apogee if that makes you feel
any warmer the closer you get
the freeze-dry blue eyes.

Back in August when we slept
in the basement to keep cool
you worried about spiders.

All fragments yet perfectly
balanced along hot and cold
lines our lukewarm garbage

sustains us through this
our winter solstice
when even time stops.

Notes on the poem “Summer and Winter”

Yesterday’s poem, titled “Summer and Winter,” might have reminded readers of a couple of famous poems: Gerard Manly Hopkins, “Spring and Fall” (written in 1880 but not published until 1918), and William Carlos Williams, “Spring and All” (the title of a book of poems published in 1923).

The first poem in “Spring and All” (the poems are numbered, not titled) begins: “By the road to the contagious hospital.” Williams was a doctor (Hopkins was a Jesuit priest). Williams’s poem seems so much more modern than the Hopkins. Note how he has copied his title from Hopkins but has dropped the F – Fall becomes All. For Williams, the fall of man is countered, or balanced, by his ability to visit the sick, while for Hopkins, fall is “the blight man was born for.” Hopkins, of course, concerned with spiritual fall, and Williams with physical fall.

Williams maintains the serious theme, but somehow manages to forge a more positive, if not hopeful outlook. On the contrary, “Sorrow’s springs are the same,” Hopkins says. That we can’t hold to a present (Hopkins wrote his poem “to a young child”) – it hides a seed of despair even as the happy feeling of spring stirs us to song. We can’t seem to completely enjoy something we know isn’t going to last. One reason the Williams poem might seem so modern is its reminder today of how contagious contagions remain. The Williams poem came from his experience doctoring those sick with the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920.

Weather is an outcome of the season (to put it in business plan terms). And we are today reminded of the weather and the season absurdly often, via weather apps, news breaks and warnings, prolific pics of the most recent storm catastrophe. It’s hard to take it easy, roll with the breezes, feel the cold as it feels good to remember just three or four months ago we were crazily cranking the AC units to high modes and the fans in the house sounded like jet airplane engines.

And the extreme weather conditions are often today attributed to the global warming crisis, about which some say we are now too late to do anything about reversing the trends. No wonder, like Hopkins, we feel the fall so hard and desperate, and, like Williams, we feel infected by the weather, sickened by it, rather than feeling invigorated or simply challenged to meet it head on:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thun-der,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!

Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” Act 3, Scene 2.

Wouldn’t it be something to hear your nightly television news weather person to wax similarly throughout the forecast.

What we might often feel, whatever the season, happily warm or shaking cold, is the impermanence of it all. That feeling creates impatience, anxiety and worry, and even depression. Though to stop, to hold still, can mean only one thing. It’s the constant motion we might enjoy, knowing otherwise can only mean to be becalmed, rendered motionless, on the open sea – now that would be cause to feel misery.

And we do find resilience, hardiness, in every season, and within ourselves, the coping thermostat self-modulates. But we need to recognize the symptoms. Then we know how to dress, how to handle, the cold, the heat, the blowing winds. All around the world we see evidence of our ability to withstand, to make it through, to celebrate the season. The signs of depression, like the signs of impending doom of a gloomy weather forecast, can be met with Lear’s mad outcry – it’s ironic, isn’t it? In any event, if we can sense and identify, we can control and change the temperature of our close environment.

Summer and Winter

the freezing leaves and all this grieving
since we left and lost the sea the blues
so far from home why we did roam
the roses frozen now the pipes broken

the hats and coats gloves and galoshes
umbrellas tire chains space heaters
and as our hearts grow colder winter
comes a tidal wave of muddy gloop

wanwood and wormwood show the lies
we strive to live by never mind spring
who lives through the endless summer
cares not when the sun comes or goes

the sun rises not for us nor sets just
past our roof where the real mingles
with mindful reveries of delirious
waves of unknown origin washing

we danced across sand dunes
drifted past coastal goldenbush
sea dahlias and evening primrose
and slept in beds of sober poppy

not to worry not when now my love
we will come again to this summer
this cold for now allows us a deep
sleep a slow dive for full seashells

so we hear in winter the blue sounds
of the sea green vibrations upshore
we grow old and leave behind us
only one place to have summer fun

Wonder of the On-Line Literary World

This month, Berfrois, the small literary magazine, has closed its virtual doors. For the last 14 years, Berfrois, under intrepid editor Russell Bennetts, an economist out of England, has published daily writing, forming over time an eclectic list of contributors and an audience of intercultural competence. The end of active writing appearing in Berfrois comes 100 years after the closing of the modernist journals period, which ran, according to the Modernist Journals Project, from the 1890’s to the 1920’s, ending in 1922:

We end at 1922 for two reasons: first, that year has until recently been the public domain cutoff in the United States; second, most scholars consider modernism to be fully fledged in 1922 with the publication of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. We believe the materials in the MJP will show how essential magazines were to the rise and maturation of modernism.

Modernist Journals Project, About page, retrieved 15 Dec 2022.

They were mostly referred to, and still are, as small literary magazines, little magazines. Most did not last long. Blast ran just two issues, 1914 and 1915. They were of course hard copy, printed magazines, small publication runs, small format. The most famous now might be The Egoist (1914-1919) and Little Review (1914-1922), which ran installments of Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Harriet Monroe’s original Poetry ran from 1912 to 1922 (still alive today as a kind of First Wonder of the Corporate Literary World).

Is today’s on-line literary world, in 2022, now “fully fledged”? It might be, given the disastrous turn of events surrounding the social media platforms that create, sustain, and destroy – in situ. What can it possibly mean to be on Twitter, for example, with a million followers? Even 100 followers would be impossible to keep up with, even if managing your Twitter feed was all you did. Yet most tweets are never read by anyone. At most, they have the life span of a mosquito, and can be just as viral and vile. We shall be glad to see our current winter of discontent freeze them all in their tracks. For the tracks of tweets carry no real cargo.

Most poems are never read either, but that’s a different story. And I digress. Some of my own writing appeared in Berfrois. Mostly prose, discursive writing. Berfrois published the academic, the non-academic, and the anti-academic. Its editorial voice appeared often to be one of casual interest. In a sense, Berfrois was a general interest magazine, and sought to publish the best it could find of both the best and the worst – for what is often considered today’s worst of writing ends up being tomorrow’s best.

One of the most attractive features of Berfrois was the lack of advertising. It sought to be reader funded before its time. It might have found a good home at today’s Substack, where we find everybody that’s anybody cashing in their lotto tickets. “Thousands of paid subscribers.” Sounds lucrative, but a poor warrant to join a new fray.

A bit of money but a lot of time it takes to run these endeavors. And we run out of both, lose steam, wonder what all the fuss is about, what it might be like to go for a walk down Broadway unnoticed or dismissed, or to wander to and fro with no desire whatsoever to be followed. In the meantime, a heartfelt thanks to Russell Bennetts for his contributions via Berfrois to the life of modern journals.

Site Has a Thousand Smiles

Just what the on-line world needs, another Joe Linker site. But while The Coming of the Toads blogs onward, I continue to doodle, and the results often suggest cartoons. A perfect cartoon is one that needs no words. Thus my new site, titled “Cartoons at Joe’s,” promises: “The less said the better, but there will be captions.” Interested readers, anyone looking for a smile, can find “Cartoons at Joe’s” by clicking here. It’s over at Substack.

The set up for “Cartoons at Joe’s” is minimalist, the writing sparse. And the readers few – so far 3 subscribers. Subscriptions are free, but at the cost of yet another email in your inbox. But the reward of a smile hopefully defrays that cost. But you can also check out “Cartoons at Joe’s” anytime you want with a Google bar search, or by saving the link, or a thousand other ways well paid programmers have come up with. I’ll be sitting at the bar, where there’s no wait.

You might have seen a few of the cartoons before, elsewhere, here, in fact, maybe. That’s ok. Watching reruns of classics is a perfectly acceptable use of your time. And I’ll always be doodling for new cartoons.

Taking Off and Landing

Taking off and landing are functions of style. Once aloft we don’t stop until we reach our destination. If you think writing is all about following rules on how to stop and go, you’re not flying.

The old open cockpit planes were good for your health. Today’s jets are claustrophobic and the air that circulates within the cabin is not fresh. Recent studies suggest old drafty houses are also better for one’s health than the hermetically sealed structures whose designs aim at uniform temperature and locked-in air flow. We should get as much outside air flowing through our inside environments as possible.

Driving a car isn’t about stop signs. Likewise, air fresheners pollute. That’s why Henry Miller titled his book, “The Air Conditioned Nightmare,” even though his 1932 Buick sedan was not airtight, and his destination was the open road across the US.

When we wake up we take off, but our destination is not back to bed, sleep again. When we go to sleep, we land. All day long we are airborne. We wake up, take off – which doesn’t require a destination. But our first thoughts might be for love and sharing, for avoiding conflicts. Slip into our shoes as selfless as the crab out of its shell. Our first act upon awakening ought to be to go outside, or at least to open a window. To awake is to breathe again new air. So too when we write, we don’t want to sing the same old songs in the same old way, following the rules of yesterday.

There’s a mentality constantly on the lookout for conspiracy, as if to uncover the duplicitous explains everything, and then we must punish those who have broken the rules, the comma splicers and the run-ons looking to get away like California stops. Always smug, that mentality, always looking for what’s really going on, behind the scenes, and self-vindication is their reward, though nobody else gives a poop about the guy on the corner who has lied on his handwritten cardboard sign that he’s a sick vet and can’t work. His enterprise is capitalistic, same as most corporations and non-profits, for that matter. Your money is going to go somewhere; why not to him? Always in fear of being taken advantage of, of paying too much for something, of being lied to. The birds of the air and the fish of the sea live more freely, though they too are part of a food chain.

When I worked at the Ross Island Center of Portland Community College, in the late 70’s, early 80’s, the building echoed freshly, three stories with humongous basement and boiler – H shaped, its corridors, with spacious rooms with large double-hung windows that opened without screens to the city. The rooms were hot in the summer, cold in the winter. But the air was always fresh. Then I made a career change and found myself locked into a modern air-conditioned (and heated) nightmare. In my new building, one could not just walk over and open a window – there were ample windows, and lovely views, but the windows did not open. In a sense, they were virtual windows only, like the windows of a jet airplane. The old PCC building is still there, at the west end of the Ross Island Bridge, repurposed now as part of the National College of Natural Medicine, but still bears its original name, the Joshua Failing School, built in 1912. And the corporate building I spent time in, built in 1982, also three stories, but no basement, was repurposed around twenty years ago for use by a state agency.

May your day be filled with windows open, doors freely swinging, and writing, writing that awakes and flies through open windows and unlocked doors and breathes fresh air, though having said all that, the stale air of the evening pub, table sticky from spilled beer, sawdust floor that soaks up the spit, also still attracts the writer, but not necessarily the reader – and there’s the real rub, the real conspiracy, the wake-up call, the epiphany that equalizes.