Dec. 13, 2010

The Jewish Kid

by Robert Cooperman

My old professor never tires
of hearing of the time Leo Durocher—
the great manager of the Giants—
was asked about the best pitcher
he ever saw.

Without hesitation, he replied,
"The Jewish Kid," meaning
Sandy Koufax: a leftie
with a fastball like a falcon
snatching a dove from the sky;

a curve so wicked, sluggers
cringed to barely glimpse
it screaming at their heads,
before it dropped away,
at the last, perilous instant.

For Hyman, Koufax was proof
there's life for Jews beyond
the one his mother chose for him,
had he only defied her desperation
for a college-educated, book-smart son,
though she never read anything
beyond tabloids and the racing form.

"Oh to have been Koufax!"
Hyman laments now: blind,
in poor health, but still he dreams
of an invincible fastball, a curve sharper
than the crack of a coachman's whip.

"The Jewish Kid" by Robert Cooperman, from My Shtetl. © Logan House, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of poet Kenneth Patchen, (books by this author) born in Niles, Ohio (1911). He came from a working-class family — coal mining on his mother's side, farming on his father's, and while he was growing up his father was a steel worker in Youngstown. His Scottish grandfather loved to read aloud Robert Burns poems. And Patchen said that in Burns' poems and his grandpa's stories, "there was what you would call magic." He started keeping a diary when he was 12 years old, wrote poems throughout high school, went to a handful of colleges, and traveled around the country working as a migrant laborer.

Then he went to a friend's Christmas party and met Miriam Oikemus, a college student at Smith and an anti-war activist. The daughter of Finnish socialist immigrants, she had joined the Communist Party at the age of seven. Kenneth and Miriam fell in love and exchanged letters for a while — Patchen wrote her love poems. They got married in 1934. A few years later, when Patchen was just 26 years old, he suffered a terrible spinal injury while he was helping a friend separate two collided cars. He spent the rest of his life in severe pain, and went through three surgeries. The first two surgeries were helpful, and increased his mobility, so he was able to tour the country and give poetry readings. He partnered with Charles Mingus and the Chamber Jazz Sextet, and he set his poetry to jazz music, for performances and recordings.

But during the last surgery, something went wrong and Patchen fell off the operating table and permanently ruined his back. He was bedridden for the rest of his life, but he continued to write and paint in bed. He said: "It happens that very often my writing with pen is interrupted by my writing with brush, but I think of both as writing. In other words, I don't consider myself a painter. I think of myself as someone who has used the medium of painting in an attempt to extend."

During his career, Patchen wrote more than 40 books of poetry and prose, much of it illustrated, including The Journal of Albion Moonlight (1941), The Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer (1945), The Love Poems of Kenneth Patchen (1960), and But Even So: Picture Poems (1968). He dedicated every book to Miriam.

In 1945, two journalists published an article called "The Most Mysterious People in the Village," about the life of Kenneth and Miriam Patchen. Miriam told the journalists that her husband was "absolutely impossible until he's had a whole pot of coffee in the morning." They wrote about visiting Kenneth Patchen's bedroom: "The bed was massive and so was the man. He wore a faded gray sweatshirt with washed-out blue cuffs and pocket. The shirt was tucked into the waistband of black woolen trousers that were frayed at the cuffs. Patchen wore blue, maroon and tan Argyle socks, but no shoes. His body seemed muscular and powerful; his face delicate and sensitive. His skin was white and his eyes were a deep blue-gray."

Years later, Miriam described their daily routine: "I'd be up earliest, go for the paper, read it. He'd awaken later, having finally gotten to sleep, have breakfast and look at the news, then get to work. 'Get to work' meant writing in bed, lying down. The upright sitting position was painful for him, then. I'd read, wash clothes, house clean, take coffee to him frequently. When we had almost no money life was the same as when we had a little. At 12th Street we always had the rent and money for utilities. With an advance from Mr. Padell we bought a couple windsor-style chairs, one easy chair and a table. What elegance those pieces gave to the doll house."

Kenneth Patchen died in 1972, at the age of 60. Miriam Patchen remained a champion of leftist causes as well as her late husband's poetry, and collaborated on his biography Kenneth Patchen: Rebel Poet in America (2000), by Larry R. Smith. Miriam Patchen died in 2000 at the age of 85, sitting up in a chair, reading.

Kenneth Patchen said, "It's always because we love that we are rebellious; it takes a great deal of love to give a damn one way or another what happens from now on: I still do."

It's the birthday of the poet James Wright, (books by this author) born in Martin's Ferry, Ohio (1927). His father worked in a glass factory, and James was drafted into the Army during World War II. He read a lot of poetry in his down time, and after he was out of the Army, he went to Kenyon College on the G.I. Bill. While he was in graduate school, W.H. Auden chose Wright's manuscript The Green Wall (1957) for the Yale Younger Poets Series. After that, Wright poured his heart and soul into his second book, Saint Judas (1959). After he finished it, he thought that he had written as well as he would ever write and he became depressed, unable to write or do anything.

Then he picked up a copy of Robert Bly's magazine, The Fifties. Bly had included a translation by one of his favorite German poets, and Wright was so excited that he wrote Bly a 16-page, single-spaced letter to tell him so. Bly responded with a one-sentence letter that said: "Come on out to the farm." So Wright made his way out to Bly's farm in western Minnesota and started working with him on translations. Robert and Carol Bly made Wright do farm chores, and he loved to hang out with the animals, sometimes sitting with his favorite horse for hours. And he did manage to write again, seven more books, including Shall We Gather at the River (1969), Moments of the Italian Summer (1976), and Collected Poems (1971), which won the Pulitzer Prize. He said, "The person whom I would like to be my master is Horace — Horace, who was able to write humorously and kindly in flawless verse. I've achieved that maybe twice in my life, but that is what I would like to be."

Wright taught at Hunter's College, Macalester College, and the University of Minnesota, and he loved being a teacher. He said: "I've written books of verse, but I'm a professor. And to me personally, teaching is the art that gives me the more pleasure. I'm not trying to put myself down as a poet, but I mean what I say. That is, the contact with my students, and my reading of books and trying to share my thoughts and feelings with my students, gives me more pleasure, and I honor this as a high art. Remember that the teachers include Jesus, Socrates, Siddhartha, Meister Eckhart." But he liked teaching literature, not creative writing — he said, "I tried it once and failed at it completely because all I could do was sit and talk to the class. And someone would ask me a question, how I worked on something, and all I could do was grunt."


It's the birthday of music journalist Lester Bangs, (books by this author) born in Escondido, California (1948). His mother was a zealous Jehovah's Witness, his father an alcoholic who died in a house fire before Lester was nine years old. He retreated into music. He said, "My most memorable childhood fantasy was to have a mansion with catacombs underneath containing, alphabetized in endless winding dimly-lit rows, every album ever released."

He saw a blurb in Rolling Stone asking for contributions from readers. So he sent them four reviews, praising albums by the Velvet Underground and Nico, and trashing the Grateful Dead and Steve Miller. None of the reviews got published. Then he read a gushing article in Rolling Stone about the band MC5, so he went out and bought their album, and he thought it was just awful. He wrote a review of it, saying just that, and he sent it to Rolling Stone ... along with a profanity-filled note claiming that he could write just as well as anyone on their staff and that if they were going to reject his review again they better tell him why. Instead, they printed it.

Bangs wrote for Rolling Stone for years, frequently publishing sarcastic or mocking reviews, and finally he was too much for the editor, who fired him. He moved to Creem magazine, where they let him do whatever he wanted. Sometimes he just made up albums and wrote long pieces praising them. He lived in a house with other Creem writers in Michigan, then moved to New York City to work for the Village Voice. But he died of a drug overdose in 1982, when he was just 33 years old.

When the director and screenwriter Cameron Crowe was 13 years old, he was inspired by Lester Bangs, who had started out writing for the same underground paper in San Diego that Crowe was writing for. So he wrote him a letter, and they started writing back and forth, with Bangs giving him advice about writing and music. In 2000, Crowe wrote and directed the film Almost Famous, based on his own teenage years writing rock reviews, and Lester Bangs was one of the characters — he was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Lester Bangs said, "The first mistake of art is to assume that it's serious."

From the archives:

It was on this day in 1577 that Sir Francis Drake set out on a three-year journey around the world. He was working for Queen Elizabeth on a top-secret mission to explore the areas along the west coast of South America that had recently been claimed by Spain. He did exactly that, acting more or less like a pirate —surprising the Spanish along the way, capturing ports and ships, plundering gold and silver, Spanish coins, precious stones and pearls. He sailed as far north as Vancouver hoping to find the Northwest Passage, and then turned west and crossed the Pacific, returning to England in 1580. He was the first Englishman to sail around the world.

Drake became an almost mythical villain in Spain. Rumors circulated that he had supernatural powers and that he might be a henchman of the devil. But the Spanish sailors who had actually been captured and plundered by Drake later said that he was the nicest pirate they'd ever met, generous to his prisoners, and always in good humor.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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