Marie Howe

Marie Howe was the find of the summer for me. Just when I think I know most contemporary American poets I come across a new one, new to me, whose voice speaks to me.

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In this case my wife gave me Howe’s 1997 book What the Living Do. It has lots of poems about surviving the death of a loved one, but also tons of poems about growing up an American girl that warrant re-reading many times.

Many are deceptively simple in that they read like a story. She describes what happened straightforwardly, with an odd eye for detail, and you wonder, “Is this a poem or not?” By the ned you realize the economy of words was part of her poetic method, and you’ve just been treated to a spare collection of images that describe a happening, and hint at something universal, in the space of a minute.

Take “The Copper Beech.” As a writer who often says too much and needs an aggressive editor, I’d give my right hand to be able to write a poem so simple with my left.

The Copper Beech

          By Marie Howe
Immense, entirely itself,
it wore that yard like a dress,
with limbs low enough for me to enter it
and climb the crooked ladder to where
I could lean against the trunk and practice being alone.
One day, I heard the sound before I saw it, rain fell
darkening the sidewalk.
Sitting close to the center, not very high in the branches,
I heard it hitting the high leaves, and I was happy,
watching it happen without it happening to me.

Story-Telling and Mad Men

Like a lot of people, I’m a little sad about the final season of Mad Men winding down – Is tonight really the third to last episode? – though it feels a bit like a terminal patient is dying a slow death, or maybe the NBA playoffs: You’ve got anticipation fatigue, and now you want it to be over.

Don Draper and Peggy Olson.

Don Draper and Peggy Olson.

I’ve never had this kind of relationship with a TV show before. Sure, I’ve binge-watched True Detective and a few others, but I’ve never tuned into Season 1 and stuck around and watched the final episodes the nights they air.

Don Draper’s a textbook example of a character being likeable because he’s good at something. Every time Sterling Cooper faces an impossible task with its clients, Don comes up with the plan. On the final episode of Season 1, “The Wheel,” Don re-christens the Kodak slide projection apparatus a carousel instead of a wheel. Just when his family’s falling apart, he uses his own family photos to tell a revolving story of family life. This may have been the exact moment I was hooked.

Mad Men always benefitted from the symbiosis of some of our contemporary fads. Artisanal cocktails is an obvious one. Also, the omnipresence of marketing-think in the age of social media means everyone thinks of him- or herself as an ad agency of one, so what a treat to watch the alpha advertisers. In the early seasons, there was the Obama-JFK connection: the brash (and not universally loved) Harvard-educated presidents as symbols of their generations.

In recent episodes, Mad Men has tuned into story-telling as a means of achieving a deep connection across media. In the episode before last, “The Forecast,” Don’s apartment is for sale, and his ex-mother-in-law has plundered his furniture, so he’s using the patio furniture in his empty pad. His realtor complains that the place reeks of a sad, failed life, and Don immediately does two things:

1. Asks who the potential buyers are. (An upwardly mobile  family from New Jersey.)

2. Composes an off-the-cuff story that would appeal to those people: Someone lived there and made a fortune, and moved to Texas, or to a castle.

He identifies the audience, and then tells a story that would dazzle them in particular. A castle! Never mind the wine stain on the bedroom carpet.

Meanwhile, Don gets asked to compose a speech that highlights the achievements of the agency, even as it struggles to keep its identity after being bought by a bigger firm. So he starts asking everyone around him what they hope for in the future. The present moment, as he’s getting poised to describe it, is the climax of a long ascent for Sterling Cooper Draper Price.

Don’s good at this Gettysburg address stuff, Roger tells him, and he is. But when he approaches his dufus of a rival, Ted, for his input, Ted says, “You’re so much better at painting a picture [than I am].” That’s why Ted will never be Don Draper. Don doesn’t paint pictures, he tells stories.

Story-telling has become such a buzzword that the 2016 Hillary Clinton juggernaut is on board. John Stewart even complained that during her last appearance on his show he felt like she was trying out a campaign theme by talking about America needing to be better at telling its story. No surprise that her anything-but-surprising announcement positioned her running for president among all kinds of more workaday aspirations that average people have. Like her or not, it’s nice work.

At the end of Season 1 – of Mad Men, not The Clintons: the Miniseries – I predicted that Mad Men would be about Madison Avenue’s co-optation of the counterculture. I guess that’s just my axe to grind, but I imagined a finale with prim, Catholic outer borough Peggy Olson having full-on mudbath sex at Woodstock, or Don and Roger laughing to the bank after yoking the “Let’s Boogie” image to the service of a soft drink. Don always had the double life, with one foot in the door of the counterculture.

Mad Men is folding up shop just when advertising is getting good, the co-optation of the counterculture complete.

Mad Men is folding up shop just when advertising is getting good, the co-optation of the counterculture complete.

Attention to that co-optation has been present, but I guess the show was always after bigger fish than that. To its credit, I don’t know what’s going to happen. One writer at Vox recently complained that the show has lost its focus on the ad business, which was always one of the fun things about it, and I have to agree.

“You have a foul mouth,” Don recently told a junior executive, and last week’s episode, “Time and Life,” ends with the partners making a major announcement, and the staff’s chaotic response ranges from indifference to hostility. One theme the show is sewing up in its final episodes is the coarsening of culture as it underwent its democratic spasm in the 60s. It’s a BFD announcement, and the Sterling Cooper employees of 1961 would have at least listened attentively.

The Guardian‘s Mad Men blog pointed out after the last episode that, in light of Don’s most recent mega-pitch, California has always been the land of promise for him, and we may see a move out there. If the show goes for this, I just hope it doesn’t try sewing up the story of Don’s secret identity. I always found this the least satisfying element in the series, a square Dickensian peg in the round hole of the American 20th century.

We’ve also lost the focus on what I felt was the most dynamic and subtle relationship, Don and Peggy. They’re both working class people who are in the biz much higher than they ever imagined, and they know each other’s secrets. And the fact that Peggy’s a bit of a plain Jane and “one of the boys” means Don has never sexualized her, so there’s a sweetness between them that was a constant in the early seasons, but nearly gone now. Much as I love Roger, and of course, Joan, I can think of no better ending than Don and Peggy flying West together.

A Sad Good-Bye to Eliot Spitzer

Like most political New Yorkers I tuned in to the news last night to see the likely winners of yesterday’s primary election, then got up to read the results in more depth this morning, not just to see what they say politically, but to try parsing out things I didn’t know about the vast city. The Chinese-American mayoral candidate John Liu, for example, took only 7% of the vote, but I see by the mayoral map that he won a swath of districts around Jackson Heights, making me wonder if there’s a fourth Chinatown in the city that I didn’t know about.

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I won’t bore the readers from outside the area with a (probably fruitless) attempt to explain city politics, but lost in the suspense about the future mayor was another close, citywide race for comptroller, between two decent center-left candidates, Scott Stringer and Eliot Spitzer. Stringer was the front-runner by a mile, until Spitzer joined the race in April.

Spitzer, of course had to resign as governor when he got busted hiring a prostitute. I voted for him this week, along with 47% of Democratic primary voters, not quite enough, and his career in public office seems done.

“Dude, you’re a feminist. How can you vote for Spitzer?” asked a friend of mine, and it’s a fair question.

First, part of my reasoning was straight-up realpolitik. The comptroller’s office is only as meaningful as the political muscle behind it. Scott Stringer has been the Manhattan borough president, no pushover as politicians go, but Spitzer’s widespread name recognition and ability to get headlines meant he would have brought public shame into play as a political tool whenever he announced any investigation into city financing.

Secondly, a paranoid part of me has always sympathized with Spitzer, since his demise back in 2008 had the stink of a political hit about it. When Spitzer hired a prostitute to meet him at his hotel in Washington, he was there to testify about the effects of the coming financial crisis on the municipal bond insurance market.

I’m politically tuned in and not afraid of a page of text, and I can’t get my head around this crap to save my life, but Spitzer said, “If we do not take action, this could be a financial tsunami that causes substantial damage. The Bush Administration has looked the other way as this crisis moved from the financial markets into the entire American economy. This will affect the cost of college loans. It will affect museum budgets. It will affect state and local taxes. A collapse of bond insurers will adversely affect municipalities, investors and, if unchecked, many average Americans.”

Then he went to the famous Mayflower Hotel, just one flight up from the room where FDR wrote, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” He registered his room, without telling him, to a wealthy old friend of his named George Fox – a detail I’ve always found heartbreaking: why not ask Fox to make it happen for you? – bought a classical music CD in the gift shop, and had sex with a $4,000 hooker.

In other words, Spitzer was among the first to ring the alarm about the Wall Street crisis, which everyone knew was coming and wasn’t saying, and its effect on government budgets, which is still a leading cause of the economic stupor we’re in. Wall Street was going to keep gambling till the creditors came to shut the lights out, but governments, Spitzer was saying, needed to start planning for the collapse. Of all the specious wire transfers paying for prostitutes that day, that’s the one that federal agents were monitoring. Which might be a coincidence.

Most importantly, Spitzer’s 2013 campaign seemed to me like a blueprint for political comebacks. We are so hard-wired to understand people via their stories as opposed to their ideas, that we constantly ask “What is his/her story?” In politics we respond to a biography more than a platform. Nationally, Obama, Bush, and Clinton have been 18 straight years of small majorities (or in 2000, a large minority) voting for a compelling one sentence narrative. A poor boy from Arkansas works hard and makes good; a prodigal son finds Jesus and joins the ranks of his well-regarded father; etc. So, what does happen to the sinners banished to the political wilderness?

Spitzer attempted to show a way forward by taking a demotion. Six years ago he was the governor of the second largest state. This year he was willing to take a job as New York City Comptroller. A six year political exile, followed by a severe demotion, seems reasonable to me. He was unfortunately sharing front pages with Anthony Weiner, whose shorter exile he was trying to follow with a promotion.

Stringer’s victory might say something good about New York primary voters: to a degree unheard of in national politics we respond to long-term commitments more than headline-grabbing sensations, but I still feel the blues for Spitzer today. It’s telling that I publish this only after the election. I guess I didn’t have it in me to go out and actually campaign for the hypocrite. It sure would have been nice if he won, though.