Platinum Poetry

I read Voices Of Brooklyn, an anthology edited by Sol Yurick and published by the American Library Association in 1973. I read a hardback copy that had been withdrawn from Nevada State Library in Carson City, Nevada. According to the lending ticket still in the inside cover, the last time the volume was loaned out it was expected back on JAN 02 2000, which might well have been its only trip outside the library, as there is no evidence of any earlier ones, consistent with the very good condition it is still in.

I got the book because I liked some of Yurick’s own work. He was mainly known for the novel The Warriors that was the basis for the 1979 film in which a gang travelling across NYC at night were likened to Greek warriors returning home. I assume we are supposed to take it as a comedy since the “fighting” lapses into slapstick and these tough boys never do any crime more serious than shoplifting chocolate bars; one of the other “gangs” encountered look like the New York Dolls on rollerskates wielding baseball bats.

Far more interesting is Yurick’s 1966 novel Fertig, which could be described as “anti-Camus”. Harry Fertig is a calm, respectable accountant, married to Sara who is a teacher. They have a boy, Stevie, who gets feverish one night. Panic-stricken they rush him to the Mercy Hospital, where none of the staff are very interested and they tell the couple to take the boy home. He dies in the taxi. A year later, Fertig goes out on a pre-planned spree and shoots 7 people associated with the hospital, including Rabbi Gordon, who is regarded by all respectable people as a fine pillar of New York civic life and a tireless fundraiser. 6 weeks later the cops drop by to question Fertig about a different case, and he tells all. After that he’s inside the system, sent to psychiatric evaluations and sequestered on a “secure” ward, where it turns out the patients can get all the fixes and favours they want from the guards. Meanwhile his old boss secretly pays the fancy young Ivy League lawyer Roy Bleakie to handle the defence.  

The world of Fertig is one where the successful are those who can spot and respond to millions of minute behavioural cues whereby weaknesses are revealed, hints are dropped, opportunities sensed. Bleakie really is a master at the game, regardless of his social advantages, so he wants to play for the big victory of getting Fertig set free. Everyone has an angle or a hustle in this city, apart from the sad sacks who just don’t know why they get beat all the time, or have given up caring. Dear old Rabbi Gordon wasn’t so blameless, and it turns out that the exciting new hospital development scheme he was boosting may be offering its sponsors some personal profits they won’t be disclosing, as Fertig realised during his wild year stalking the men of power and influence. That’s why nobody wants him to stand in court and let loose, it would be much more convenient if Doctor Heisenberg’s amoral psychological speculations were taken as proving insanity. Meanwhile the media around the world are going wild for the case, film producers are queuing up for the rights, every hack columnist has a line about what Fertig proves about Modern Man.    

“…Who understands? A few moralists? Some French philosophers. Are you an existentialist hero, Fertig? You don’t even know what an existentialist is, do you? They make a fuss about you in the French cafes and talk about you like you were Mike Hammer, the Resistance, and Alyosha Karamazov rolled into one, but here, in this country, you’re a doomed nut unless Roy Bleakie says so.”    

Several times the killer is likened to “Oswald”, the archetypal lone-nut – this was 1966, so scepticism about the official story of Dealey Plaza hadn’t set in yet. Protest is still a fairly polite business organised by liberal journalists like Max Grinzing (“Windy Max, the flatulent liberal”), who want a “responsible” action committee (“no beatniks”). Yurick definitely didn’t think much of that kind of social action, and within a few years he was busy making trouble against the Vietnam War.

Such was the guy brought on board to edit Voices Of Brooklyn. The project is “sponsored by Brooklyn Public Library”. The Preface is by Dorothy Nyren.

Communication with its community has been a major goal of the Brooklyn Public Library during the past few years. Much of what we have been trying to do in this direction was described in Community Service: Innovations In Outreach at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Another step towards neighbourhood involvement was taken in 1969 when we received a grant from he National Endowment for the Humanities to undertake the Voices Of Brooklyn project, a two-year program… The purposes of Voices Of Brooklyn were to acquaint the diverse peoples of Brooklyn with the variety of humanistic traditions that exist in the borough, to demonstrate the library’s interest in and desire to assist all the peoples of the city, and to act as a channel of communication from Brooklyn to beyond Brooklyn.

Nyren describes the program of public events that went on in “public presentation phase”, before we enter the new “anthology phase”. Of the presentation events, there were 2 series.

The first series consisted of contrasts and interrelationships among Jewish, Irish, Scandinavian, Italian and old New York cultures. The second series investigated African, Spanish-American, Haitian, American Negro cultures. The typical format of each program was the presentation of an appropriate aspect of each of the cultures under consideration tied together by interpretive comment.

The 21st century reader will of course notice the labelling of “old New York cultures”, and the shift to “investigating” the second series. But I suppose that was how they talked back then. She also notes that “Brooklyn College’s television department made a documentary tape” but no one seems to have uploaded it to the internet, if a copy still exists.

Next comes Sol Yurick’s introduction, which he starts by describing how hard it was to get a break as a new young writer with unsold manuscripts piling up slowly.

I agreed to do [the anthology] on one stipulation: that only people who hadn’t been published would be eligible… There may be some published writers here who slipped by, but no one who writes for a living.

I think I have identified 2 of those: “Maude I.Parker” is quite likely to be the Maude Parker who had her poetry already published in 1962 but probably didn’t earn a living from it. Also I am quite sure that “Marshall F.Dubin” was the Marshall Dubin who was also published in 1962, but his early work was quite obscure and I’m sure Yurick would have let him pass if he knew about it, his phrasing may imply that he did.

That stipulation grew partly out of my own experience. I spent years trying to get published; wrote poetry, three and a half novels, a play or two, and finally succeeded in getting my first story published mostly because I knew Aaron Asher who was then an editor of The Noble Savage. I thought that would open the gates. But then followed years when I tried to get my first novel published (actually the four-and-a-half-th).

Frustration in some sense educated (and embittered) me… I began to study the publishing industry, to mount a sociology of publishing to show myself that something was wrong with them, not me. I was sure that there are talented and who, for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with talent, aren’t going to get a chance… In short, there’s a sociology of literary taste (not God-given) which leads to trying to write for a mind-narrowing market: and that applies to “high” literature as well as the low.

There are a lot of things working against the new, the obscure writer: the decline of fiction, the rise of what we call fact, but which is mostly fiction anyway. The rise of new technology with its easy McLuhanoid attitudes which tell us that the printed word is dead and exhort us to groove on the electronic media, media which are simply not going to be creatively available to the multitude. The investments are too high. Rising prices and the competition of different forms for attention, and the unit cost of the production and marketing of an image work against the writer. The cost of educating (training) a literate (which is to say non-passive) person is much higher than the cost of training a TV media consumer (which is to say a person acted-upon). In spite of all this, why do people still want to write? Well, the word and the voice are the only things that are left to them and the only way in which some things can be said.

Although Yurick is concerned about the nurturing of writers, he has no doubt at all that some of their products are better than others. There is already the disdain for TV culture (to be fair to Sol, The Sopranos hadn’t been broadcast in 1973) and we also get an angry aside at Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, whilst James Joyce is of course his example of a talent that finally got recognised after years of struggle.

There are some who announce proudly that they write for themselves. I say that’s a lie. Talent grows on feedback, even if you have to round up a small mutual assistance group and persuade them (which is what I mean by politics) of your genius….

And so the anthology:

The project had more than five hundred submissions. Maybe five thousand pages in all; I wish I could print them all. Not that everything was great; some entries are, as far as I’m concerned, very bad: but set in a context, in an overall view, there are a lot of good voices, voices that can mature into greatness if given a chance.

I’m not sure Yurick is here admitting that he included work that he thought was “very bad” or just that he had received some and not used it. None of the submissions used are technically bad, although a few of briefer ones have a rather trite and simple message. Perhaps he is admitting that some of the rougher, streetwise material involving drugs and cops doesn’t appeal to him because he’s already a generation removed from it. He did cite “hipness and fads” as one of the factors working against the fair selection of talent in the literary lottery.

Now we are all hooked on the notion of the solitary and splendid individual in America…. People have peculiar notions of what a writer is and how he works – notions that writers and poets have assisted in perpetuating for profit – that he is heroic and singular and has a never-to-be-duplicated vision, a unique creativity, alone, romantic, tortured, of and against a hostile and philistine universe… The fact of the matter is that most writers work in groups and enclaves and cliques and not only share tastes but exchange material, criticize one another, try things out on one another, defer to one another, draw back timidly from a daring imaginative flight when the criticism grows too hot.

The first story we get is “The Cardboard Drum: A Study In Brooklyn Sound And Silence”, a description of an ineffectual protest march at Christmas time, which is also captured in the jacket illustration by Thomas P.Mckee.

After this, the selections are divided into 8 groups: “Reminiscences”, “Family”, “Personal Relations”, “Transitions”, “Violence”, “Blackness”, “Power” and “Drugs”. The groups contain both poems and short stories.

Here are the facts, assisted with the electronics of Google and computing:

There are 40 different poets included. Some works are barely more than a few lines, others go on for several dense pages. Only a few poets get multiple examples of their work included. Terence Malley has 3 poems in; he was also a college professor who published a study of Richard Brautigan. Francesca De Masi has 2 poems and there seems to be a living Italian poet of that name who has published collections, so they may be the same. Lawrence Garvey has 2 poems but cannot be identified as a later published author. Michele Cusumano has 2 poems and later had at least 1 collection published. Barbara Krasnoff has 2 poems and was later published. All other poets have only 1 work included. The other writers who can be identified as later-published are Stanley Taikeff, I.Arguelles, Alan Rosenberg (tentative identification), Richard Lann, Mikhail Horowitz, Anne Marie Brumm, Richard A.Warren, Robert Shatkin, Louise Jaffe, Tony Alicea, along with the already-published Maude I.Parker and Marshall F.Dubin. Oddest possible identification could be Robert Nash – is he the Robert Nash whose work was only found and published posthumously? The sex breakdown determined by name and references is: 22 male, 13 female, and 4 undeterminable.

Of the 27 short story writers, none of them have more than 1 entry. Some of them are no more than a few pages, but others go on quite long, and one is billed as “Selection From An Unpublished Novel” which sadly seems to have never been published (Sol Offsey, although he did have a collection of short stories). The sex breakdown determined by name is: 14 male, 11 female, and 1 male/female pair. Some of the authors have names that are shared with later writers who definitely did not get first published in Voices Of Brooklyn. The ones I can be reasonably sure of identifying as later-published are: Pamela Wardwell, Henry Korn, John Marino, Harriet Sirof, Sheila Ascher & Dennis Straus, Vincent Campo, Thomas Hubschman, Terry Berkson, Jeanette Erlbaum, Thomas Glynn, Ben Wilensky, Sol Offsey, and Steve Magagnini. The last of these spent most of his life working as a journalist covering Diversity issues far away from Brooklyn, but he does fit the bill as an English student in the early 70s who quite likely could have submitted a few pages about a pair of dudes getting high and listening to a Janis Joplin album.

Not all of the stories are located in Brooklyn or the present day. We have a quick historical ride with Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba; we see GIs fighting with Germans in the American Occupation Zone; there is a long southern childhood that includes a lynching scene; an odyssey out in to the North-East.

Stories in “Reminiscences” are all full of awareness of change. In “Union Street Changing” we see the rise of gentrification and the transformation of old neighbourhoods.

Our block lies halfway up the hill that rises from the factories and housing projects of the Gowanus Canal to Prospect Park. Recently the late Victorian brownstone and limestone row houses near the park have been “discovered” and renovated by young, enthusiastic, middle-class families who love the city and are determined to stay in it. The real estate prices have soared, salvable rooming houses are eagerly sought, and at every meeting and party there’s an underlying refrain, “The neighbourhood’s changing, the neighbourhood’s changing.”

In “Plum Beach” Richard Levy sadly remembers the desperate tricks of young guys in the late 50s trying to get some action with girls. Even back then they knew how pathetic they were, and what they got up wasn’t acceptable anymore by the early 70s.

In the “Family” section we see pictures family life usually complicated by the disadvantages against minorities, and the attempts of the younger generation to get away from home and move on. “The Visit” has a young Irish guy having to give his unemployed dad ten dollar loans he’ll never get back. “Little Violin” is the short life of a boy whose dad dies and his mum gets a new man who isn’t any good for her. There is no happy ending, just bleak blankness and a journey to nowhere. A thread in all these stories is that parents can’t fix everything and they can’t even prevent their children realising their failure. “She’s only a child and children get over things easily.” – nobody believed it when they were saying it.

“Personal Relations” includes a variety of relationships, not simply married couples. In “Oscar” a brownstone dweller in Brooklyn develops empathy for the Puerto Rican kids new to the neighbourhood, by remembering her own family’s immigrant origins. In “…Thicker Than Water” a helpful neighbour feels less charitable when her good nature is clearly taken for granted too often. In “A Woman Of Thirty” a young mother goes to her brother’s wedding by herself, gets drunk, some lousy guy makes a pass and she feels guilty at her “unmotherly behavior”.

“Transitions” includes the only simply whimsical story in the anthology: “Sam The Sorry Zebra”. Several poems and stories here view school as a moulding into limited life chances rather than an opening to opportunity, with Barbara Krasnoff’s “Education” lists grammatical rules and official history to be learned on the way to secretarial roles.

“Violence” includes the rather strange “Apocalypse” by Jeanette Erlbaum, concerning a paranoid white woman convinced that black nationalist revolution is about to overtake the US. Her fevered consciousness is described in a deadpan style. Before the reader has time to decide whether this has aged well, or was a good idea to start with, the narrative swerves off into fantastical delusions, and no satirical intent appears to be involved. Some poems refer to the destruction of the Vietnam War, although that topic was passing away already. “On The Spike” is the quick and ugly story of a Nice & Nasty pair of cops shaking up a junkie who’s going cold turkey when they turn up and drag him off to the station.

“Blackness” includes the long “Selection From An Unpublished Novel” by Sol Offney, and all the other selections in this section are poetry.

“Power” is an oddly-titled section, containing only poetry. The theme seems to be pushing against ultimate limits, and apprehending the infinite and glimpsing the divine. “And Now, a Milestone In The History Of Man” describes the Moon landing in parallel with a parent trying to get a young child to sleep. “We drown in a sea of stifling proximity. / They have landed at the Sea Of Tranquillity; / They have approached the unknown; / They have expanded human horizons. / It is hot, little one. / Tomorrow there is wash to do.”

“Drugs” is what you expect: “Spike Dreams” being a Lou Reed song across ten pages and telling as much about the mechanics and economics of the trade as could be managed. The final poem “Down…” has a pair of pill-takers lounging in the park, waiting “patiently for the slow transformation to violent tranquillity to assume control” and shifting nervously under the gaze of passersby.

The stories that stand out in this book:

“Even after a Machine Is Dismantled, It Continues to Operate, with or without Purpose” by Sheila Ascher and Dennis Straus, has a highly unusual structure, including typographical playfulness that was used in some experimental fiction of the period. It includes extracts from magazines and local newspapers, and a long analysis of the prurient style of a reporter describing a murder committed by a crazed Marine veteran. But these are distractions in a central story of two couples in a state of bored detachment where even the possibility of swapping fails to raise any excitement. It is like David Foster Wallace, and the 2 authors wrote some books together.

“Luz” by Thomas Glynn is a very unpleasant story about a woman who starts to bleed shortly after having an abortion, and has to sit down in the street to try to deal with her problems and also think about everyone who let her down, and the indifferent world still going on around her. The author had some novels published and had an obituary in Paris Review in 2014.

“The Defeat of the Nez Perce” by Alan M.Berg mixes multiple perspectives and time shifts with an extract of a play describing the breakdown of discipline at a high school and the failure of the Harvard-educated young teacher. The story of the conquest of “the Wild West” and the suppression of the Native American tribes, and the broken treaties signed with them, are the backdrop for a hidden climax of men stepping out in to the wilderness again for a spree of violence and kidnapping.

“The Stigmata of the Rainy-Day Sun” by Robert E.Hayes is in the “Drugs” section, but drugs are only a small part of the end of a story mostly about a young boy working at a laundromat while afflicted by annual bouts of stigmata and bleeding palms. Hippies are living in the vicinity, and they are as ultimately useless as the local Catholic priest who can’t certify any miracle occurring.

So those were the Voices Of Brooklyn. Sol Yurick wrote some more fiction and also had a think about technology and culture some more, in Behold Metatron: The Recording Angel which was ahead of its time with its inclusion of copy-editing errors.

“Platinum Poetry” is from the “Address to Fifth Avenue” by I.Arguelles:

I address you in this manifesto of salt

I address you with the chains of artificial language

you of the easy platinum poetry

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