When it comes to baseball, the mind is unreliable and selective in what it remembers. Games and seasons blend into to one another and most second basemen or relief pitchers fade from view forever soon after they leave the diamond for good. Old teams and players live on only as lines of statistics in massive baseball encyclopedias or deep historical databases. Lost, too, are the millions of moments that make up every game. But Roger Angell has been quite good, over the years, at capturing those moments and preserving them as though in amber. And so, in reading his collection of baseball pieces that span more than forty years, one feels a bit like the lucky archeologist who has stumbled upon magnificent specimens so exquisitely preserved as to seem positively lifelike. Angell writes with almost scientific precision: “With the strange insect gaze of his shining eyeglasses, with his ominous Boche-like helmet pulled low… Reggie Jackson makes a frightening figure at bat.” Angell is not just an observer; he is also the ultimate fan, rooting for childhood favorites or for a team whose story has caught his fancy that particular year. Game Time is laid out like the baseball year, with pieces about the languor and anticipation of spring training in the beginning and closing with multi-faceted recollections of several past World Series. The many pieces taken together are like one long summer spanning forty years, a summer when you went to the ballpark frequently but listened to most of the games on the radio on the back porch at dusk.
As a volume in the cultural history of American poetry, there’s no doubt that Elizabeth Hun Schmidt‘s The Poets Laureate Anthology is a valuable text. For starters, it’s the only book of its kind: The collection offers substantial (but not overwhelming) selections from the 47 poets who have served and continue to serve in the only official position for an artist in United States. Perhaps with a mind to easing readers into our official poetic past, Schmidt has organized the anthology in reverse chronological order: She begins with W.S. Merwin, our current laureate, appointed in 2010, and works backwards to the now little-remembered Joseph Auslander, the first American laureate, then called the “Consultant in Poetry,” who was served from 1937 to 1941 (some call him dusty, but “Severus to Tiberius Greatly Ennuyé” is as fine a poem as you are likely to read). The work of every laureate is deftly introduced by a short, succinct biographical essay that describes his or her intellectual and aesthetic temperament.
Whether the collection’s aesthetic value matches its cultural and historical value is another question altogether, and a question worth considering in the midst of this, our National Poetry Month. If you’re an avid reader of poetry, you might feel the glaring absence of some of the most important names in American poetry of the last (almost) 100 years: Allen Ginsburg, Langston Hughes, Frank O’Hara, Countee Cullen, Ogden Nash, Robert Bly, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Ezra Pound, Derek Walcott, Jorie Graham, Anne Carson, e.e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Robert Creeley, Maya Angelou, and John Berryman. You’ll find none of these among the laureates, though any sense of American poetry formed without them would be impoverished.
Of course, you do get Robert Frost, Robert Hass, Robert Hayden, Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins, Joseph Brodsky, Mark Strand, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, and William Carlos Williams. This is an accomplished crowd, certainly, if by and large, a rather safe, rather white, rather male crowd. Of course, the institution of the national laureate has a long history of not always picking one for the ages. A classic example of this from across the pond: Colley Cibber. Cibber became the poet laureate of England during the reign of George II. Have you ever heard of Colley Cibber? Read his poems? I thought not. They’re dreadful and should be avoided. Yet Cibber reigned as laureate instead of Alexander Pope (at the height of his poetic career when Cibber was crowned), largely because Cibber wrote some thumpingly patriotic/jingoistic plays that the not-very-artistically-inclined king managed to remember. Which is to say that you may find a Cibber or two of your own among the members of this anthology.
So, another question that Schmidt’s anthology raises is, what does it mean to be a state-sponsored poet and what does it take to become one? Sure, it means a $35,000 stipend (I’d always thought more), a few readings and a beautiful office in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, but what does it mean to be “the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans,” as the Library of Congress describes the role of the laureate its librarian selects? Sounds rather grand and magical—but also, perhaps, a little ridiculous or impossible too.
Schmidt’s answer to this is her introduction, which offers a short history of the fraught relationship between poetry and the state, beginning with Plato‘s banishing of poets from his ideal Republic, and ending with Robert Penn Warren‘s declaration that he would not be writing “odes on the death of the President’s Cat,” when the official title of his position was charged from “consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress” to “poet laureate consultant in poetry” in 1986. And, indeed, American laureates have never been required to write odes or hymns on state occasions (as British laureates still are)—though some have chosen to put their poetic shoulders to the wheel of state: our first laureate Joseph Auslander, for example, voluntarily used his poetry to raise money for war bonds during World War II.
Schmidt’s take on American poetry and the office of laureate is that Thomas Jefferson‘s Declaration of Independence gave Americans an exceptional relationship to the poet’s voice—to one man’s voice speaking out in beautiful language: “Our very sense of state emerged from the deft and memorable use of language and the compelling sound of one man’s voice on the page.” What Schmidt implies is that poetry is an imperative, a foundational aspect of our national character, and a private means of declaring independence: “…a poet’s very vocation, whether she or he winds up laureled or not, can be seen as a declaration of independence.” From this perspective, the office of laureate is a figurehead for the American character: its self-assertion, strength of voice and conviction, multiplicity (though Schmidt also acknowledges that the ranks of the bay wearers are still very white and male), its commitment to individuality.
As for the poetry, there are a lot of old favorites here: Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and “Fire and Ice” (recently given a cameo in Twilight: Eclipse—and they say poetry is dead!), and Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Schmidt has also inclined toward the inclusion of explicitly political poems (usually poems of warning or critique, though not always). These include Mona Van Duyn‘s “For William Clinton, President Elect,” Joseph Brodsky‘s “To the President-elect” and “Once More by the Potomac,” William Meredith‘s “A Mild-Spoken Citizen Finally Writes to the White House,” Robert Hass‘ “Bush’s War,” Hayden’s “Middle Passage,” and Frost’s “The Gift Outright.” In this aspect, the anthology also contains within itself a sub-anthology of American political poetry (again, of course, some of our great political poetry isn’t by laureates, Ginsburg’s “Howl” and “America,” for example, but there more to political poetry than the Beats, as is sometimes forgotten). These poems prompt the old question of whether and when and how politics and poetry should intersect (and the nice thing about an anthology is that you get to decide for yourself).
One of Schmidt’s other pronounced editorial taste is for ars poetica type poems, poems about the making and reading of poetry: Billy Collins‘ “Introduction to Poetry,” Meredith’s “A Major Work,” Josephine Jacobsen‘s “Gentle Reader,” Stephen Spender‘s “Word,” and Mark Strand‘s “Eating Poetry.” In an anthology of public poets–poets who are in some way connected to the citizenry or charged with their poetic enlightenment–this is a particularly deft editorial choice. These poems give the anthology an approachable aspect: They are teaching poems, poems that are simultaneously poems and instructions on how to read poetry–and how not to: Collins describes ill-advised readers of poetry tying the poem to a chair to “torture a confession out of it,” and “beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means.” This isn’t the way: As Collins and Josephine Jacobsen both explain, you have to let the poem have its way with you (not the other way around). For Jacobsen in “Gentle Reader,” an encounter with a good poem seems hardly distinguishable from a night with Casanova: “O God, it peels me, juices me like a press;/this poetry drinks me, eats me, gut and marrow.” And for Mark Strand, in “Eating Poetry,” the poetic immersion leads to something like a werewolf’s metamorphosis. After a day’s reading and writing in the library, he’s “a new man,” half-feral; and even as he terrifies the librarian, he delights himself: “I snarl at her and bark,/I romp with joy in the bookish dark.”
If you thought poetry was tame, the stuff of effete university men or Victorian ladies, be forewarned: Not among the American laureates (at least, not all of them—a few have not aged well). Many of the included poets and poems go a long way toward proving Hun’s provocative and interesting claim that among American poets, poetry inevitably offers a personal means of making a declaration of independence.
This is a thoughtful, important collection and whether you’re a patriot or a poet or a reader of poetry (or some combination of these), this anthology deserves a place in your library.
All quotations from The Poets Laureate Anthology, published by W.W. Norton in association with the Library of Congress. “Introduction to Poetry” copyright Billy Collins. “Gentle Reader” copyright Josephine Jacobsen. “Eating Poetry” copyright Mark Strand.
Men in power have always tried to insulate themselves from criticism and punishment. Doree Shafrir’s Startup is a sharp-witted debut novel that peels back the layers of those structures, revealing those in power who grasp to maintain their privilege at all costs. The title signals an ordinariness that acts as a preview of what’s to come, a wink and a nod from a friend who asks if we see this, too. At its core, it’s a book about average men doing bad things and the women who take control of the narrative from them.
Startup’s prose channels the youthful energy of a new tech company from the start. We quickly meet Mack McAllister, founder of the fictional startup TakeOff. McAllister serves as an all-purpose stand-in for startup culture’s best and worst elements, and he’s on the verge of securing millions in funding for his business. The book doesn’t hold many surprises, and it’s clear from the onset that his hubris will bring him down. Mack — who compares himself to Steve Jobs because he made a piece of mildly successful software — creates his own problems; like many men in power, he can’t wait to cast those problems as someone else’s fault, so he directs his anger toward Isabel, his subordinate and office attraction.
Still, in a moment when Mack looks around the office, proud of the jobs he’s created with his company, it’s easy to see why people chase the next big idea. It’s intoxicating, and the book doesn’t shy away from this. Likely as a result of her work as a journalist for BuzzFeed, Rolling Stone, and Gawker, Shafrir communicates a lived-in knowledge of these moments, deftly taking the reader to school and back in a few sentences. On the relationships between startups and venture capitalists, she writes:
…VC firms were built to understand and profit from this new world. They knew that it took money to make money. In fact, it was considered a bad sign if your company was profitable too soon; you had to spend the money you were earning to build your business or else your investors would wonder if you were thinking big enough and taking enough risks. That was Startup 101.
Meanwhile, tech blogger Katya Pasternack stumbles upon what might be the story of a lifetime, a scoop that her editor would love to publish to “expose the hypocrisy of the tech world once and for all.” But she hesitates, for the first time questioning whether she has a responsibility as a woman to tell a particular story, or if the search for page views is worth questionable tactics.
Katya’s chase for facts brings her up against her own boss’s wife, Sabrina Choe Blum, one of TakeOff’s older employees, a mom of two in her mid-30s with a secret shopping habit.
Startup may have read as satire a decade ago but feels like historical record today. Shafrir’s precise eye for detail takes stock of the tech industry’s favorite answers for tough questions. “Now it seemed like these guys had all gone to the same school of ‘call women crazy whenever they do something that makes you uncomfortable.’” Mack, the tech-bro CEO, seeks retribution against an employee for his own misdeeds with the veneer that “this is a startup, things are always going to be changing and evolving and iterating.”
The startup world has long been averse to criticism. Those who prod at the edges through journalism risk losing access to information, money, and power. A declarative crescendo comes from Mack’s chief operating officer when he compares sexual harassment allegations to war.
We saw this in real life with Peter Thiel’s quest to destroy Gawker. He delineated his version of truth and pursued it with his incredible wealth. Thiel spent years secretly funding lawsuits against Gawker, telling The New York Times he considered destroying the media company, an employer of hundreds of people, an act of philanthropy. With his support of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, some started calling him an aspiring “villain.”
In his book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Thiel asks, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” By posing that question, is he challenging readers to understand our own values? Or is he encouraging followers to go against the grain, redefining what qualifies as legitimate, like his offer to pay teenagers to skip college? And at what point does a counterargument become a distorted worldview?
A major element of this distorted worldview is a belief in meritocracy, a concept originating from a satirical essay about a dystopian future by Michael Young. Meritocracy has become a favorite slogan of startups challenged by a lack of diversity, and Thiel stands as both a creator of this system and one of its ultimate beneficiaries. Shafrir’s novel takes aim at this virtual reality, “They thought everyone, including themselves, were where they were entirely because of hard work and innate creativity, and if you weren’t successful, that was because you hadn’t tried hard enough. They didn’t understand people who weren’t just like them.” So it comes as no surprise when Mack attempts to define his own narrative after a series of inappropriate text messages unravel his professional life.
Startup is about more than business. It navigates the rocky foundation of relationships, journalism’s importance, sexual harassment, and digital careerism. It’s about how all those things blend together, particularly as women come into power and the world around them reacts.
“The stakes were just higher for her,” Shafrir writes of Katya. “People like Mack — they could afford to make mistakes. They were forgiven. Young women with immigrant parents who went to college on scholarship and were one paycheck away from not being able to pay rent — they couldn’t.”
Ironically, Isabel, the story’s real catalyst, gets the fewest pages.
The plotlines move with momentum, perhaps because backstory is scarce. While we get to know the main characters by observing their daily lives, we rarely get a glimpse of how they got there. The novel is most relatable when it touches on the inner turmoil of its characters — the fraying edges of Sabrina’s marriage; Katya stumbling through her 20s; Isabel and Mack struggling to reconcile a situation that never should’ve been. At one point, Sabrina recounts an old romance that turns out to be one of the most electrifying moments in the book. Through this we observe people in and around startup culture in a way we don’t often see: flawed, scared, honest.
Shafrir knows that technology can’t fix human nature, and she argues that spending so much time personifying our tech causes us to lose sight of the human beings on the other end. Technology enables messy lives, allowing us to be in a coworker’s pocket or a stranger’s living room. In a world ruled by technology, the lines aren’t simply blurred, Shafrir points out — they’re erased.
As a sports-crazed child of 1980s New Jersey, I had relatively few options to extend my mania beyond the games themselves. My parents weren’t cable subscribers, so there was no ESPN, no groaning Chris Berman puns. The Internet, with its microblogs and highlight gifs, was still a full decade away. What I had were sports segments on the six o’clock news (I was partial to CBS’s Warner Wolf, whose exclamations of “swish!” during basketball recaps passed for genuine excitement) and sportstalk radio, a still-nascent medium with a decidedly blue-collar feel.
I also had newspapers. My father was a William S. Burroughs-level crossword-puzzle junkie, each morning heading to the newsstand to return with his daily fix: The Times, the Post, The Star-Ledger, and the New York Daily News. As he cast each aside following its puzzle’s completion — he never bothered to read anything beyond the crossword clues — I would scurry forth, raccoon-like, to retrieve their precious sports sections. I would then spread them out on the dining-room table with my cereal and juice to look at the pictures, scan the scores, and be debriefed on possible trades. I would read about games that I had watched just 10 or 12 hours before, amazed by the fact that someone had written a story about it, often a dramatic one, and that the account now sat before me. It was a little bit of proof that what I had seen was real.
Twenty-five years later, only scraps of that era have survived. Wolf, nearing 80, is still in broadcasting, but nightly recaps such as his have slid into obsolescence. One could say the same thing about those newspapers. Six years ago, my parents sold their house — dining-room table and all — and my father died of a heart attack two years after that. Up until the end, he still worked the daily puzzles, but he’d stopped buying newspapers, choosing instead to go online each morning and dutifully print them out.
One constant, however, was my favorite newspaper writer: the Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica. He started there in 1977, and aside from two brief jumps to rival publications, he’s been there ever since. Like anything that seems to last forever — Tom Wolfe, Bob Dylan, The Simpsons — Lupica’s longevity is comforting, even though I don’t pay as much attention to him as I once did. Technologies may disrupt, houses may change hands, death may suddenly hit, but Lupica is eternal.
Even though I had never heard him speak, when I read him as a kid, I could hear him talk to me. He was impassioned and skeptical, and he wrote in a conversational, inclusive way that made me feel welcome despite my age. I had generally experienced sports as serious adult pursuits — grim and epic battles with John Facenda narration and the occasional leavening “swish” — but there was a sort of youthful, buoyant joy to Lupica’s style. When good things happened to a New York team, his pieces took on an appealing sepia tint, as if you were already reading history. Here’s a passage from his column the day after the Yankees’ win over the Atlanta Braves in the 1996 World Series — the team’s first championship in almost 20 years:
Whether the next great New York team comes from basketball or football or hockey, we will compare that team to the Yankees of 1996. We will measure things against this October for a while…“The hardest game to win in sports is one more,” Pat Corrales, a Braves coach and an old baseball warrior, said before Game 6 last night.
The Yankees won one more game last night, one more World Series. One more game to remember, from a baseball month no one around here will soon forget. One of those forever teams.
When things went poorly in New York, he was relentless in his criticism, a self-appointed athletic ombudsman. His hit pieces — in which he railed against various team owners, steroid cheats, and sundry other villains — had a mounting, three-beers-deep quality that I later tried, unsuccessfully, to mimic as a sports columnist for my high school newspaper. Here’s a bit of a typical Lupica screed against the Knicks’ perpetual mismanagement:
The coaches come and go. The general managers come and go. They still trade off the distant past, and make us appreciate a less distant basketball past at Madison Square Garden. It took things being this bad for this long to make us appreciate just how good we had it. World’s most famous arena. Famous for what now?
Or this, amid a 2005 piece on the Yankees’ high-priced futility:
[$1] billion spent over five years. No World Series won. Two hundred million and change on the ’05 Yankees. Out in the first round. Four million in attendance, at least $50 million in the hole. There has always been the economy for the rest of baseball, and the Yankee economy. Yankee money and everybody else’s. Maybe that is finally about to change. Steinbrenner still has the deepest pockets. But guess what? He doesn’t just want that new stadium because he loves his fans. It doesn’t matter which pocket it’s coming out of, nobody wants to lose money like this.
Lupica not only made me want to become a writer; he made me want to be a persuasive and convincing one. He taught me the value of having a viewpoint and seeing it through.
I still occasionally buy the Sunday Daily News, in no small part to read Lupica’s “Shooting From the Lip” column. As has become the case with newspapers in general, this is more out of habit than need — but as habits go, sipping coffee over a Lupica article is a fairly pleasant one. His attitude and cadence haven’t changed in the past 30 years, and his columns allow me to feel, for a couple of minutes, that I’m still at my parents’ table — that my dad is back there in his easy chair, frowning at a crossword puzzle.
The illusion couldn’t last forever. During a lull in a recent Mets broadcast, the announcers mentioned “layoffs at the Daily News” in a tone usually reserved for jumbo-jet tragedies. It was well-known that the paper was in dire straits, losing roughly $20 million a year, and trying, with an unsurprising lack of success, to find a buyer for itself. As all modern newspapers must, it had been cutting staff for years. But when I went to my phone to see who the latest casualties were, I couldn’t believe my eyes: Mike Lupica would not have his contract renewed when it expired at year’s end. Others who I’d also read for years — Bill Madden and Filip Bondy among them — were being shown the door. “The News always used to be read back to front — like the Torah,” the Post quoted an observer as saying. “It looks like they gave up the franchise.”
It’s too dramatic to say that I felt gutted by the news, but it was in that territory. The Daily News without Lupica was, to me, the Lakers without Magic Johnson, the Stones without Mick Jagger. He was unquestionably its biggest star at a time when newspapers didn’t really have “stars.” He was Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success: a writer of wide influence, equally loathed and beloved. He was a holdover from an earlier era, a time when a columnist could claim celebrity — and his contract’s non-renewal represented a severing of the present from two distinct and parallel pasts: newspapers’ and my own.
And with a jarring lack of ceremony, that was apparently that. After nearly 40 years in the pages of the News, Lupica seems to be done. He hasn’t said much about his situation — a few terse and cryptic comments to the press — and the paper, on its way to bleeding out completely, has offered even less. His columns still appear, and will continue to, one assumes, until his contract does run out. All in all, a disappointing and feeble end.
It’s tempting to say that there won’t be any more like him — columnists whose opinions and craft make young readers want to become writers themselves. But that’s obviously untrue; if anything, there are more Lupicas now than ever. ESPN’s Grantland has a stable of them; so do Deadspin, SB Nation, and dozens, if not hundreds, of others. Lupica himself will likely wind up on one of these sites, carping about Eli Manning and the Knicks in his death-by-a-thousand-cuts way. But what’s also likely is that I won’t be reading him when he makes the jump. Not because I wouldn’t enjoy it or because I’ve outgrown him, but because I won’t bother to seek him out. Excised from the paper, he’ll just be one more voice rushing past in the Web’s endlessly flowing river. Rather than hurrying alongside to catch his words, I’ll let him careen on past. I’ll allow the Mike Lupica whom I read in the Daily News — like my parents’ house, my father, and probably, very soon, the News itself — to live on as its own sepia-toned memory.
Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes.