Friday, January 18, 2008

The Life and Death of Bobby Fischer

A couple weeks ago I had read on the internet that Bobby Fischer’s health was very bad, so it wasn’t a total shock to learn that he died today. Since 1975, when Fischer was stripped of his World Chess Championship title for refusing to defend against Anatoly Karpov, the news about Bobby was almost always bad. The only highlights that I can think of from 1975 to 2008 was his rematch victory over Boris Spassky in 1992, and his advocacy of FischerRandom chess, which may well be his most lasting legacy.

I first heard of Fischer when I was a little kid. In 1972, he played a match against Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland and defeated him to become the new champion. They printed the scores of all the games in my local newspaper. He was now a hero to me and thousands of other chessplayers in the US, and the “Fischer Boom” years began. Later, when I went to high school, I was the captain of our chess team. I entered several chess tournaments and eventually achieved the title of National Master.

An entire generation of players appeared who were inspired by Fischer. I doubt hardly any of these famous names would have become chessplayers if it weren’t for Fischer. His book, My 60 Memorable Games, is one of the most beloved in chess literature.

But after Fischer won the world title, something inside his mind shifted. A switch was flipped and his chess career was over. He had finally achieved the goal he had sought since he was a child. And once he arrived at that summit, he completely lost the desire to play chess competitively. It didn’t matter anymore. He had proven to himself what he had needed and that was it. After 1972, Fischer essentially vanished from the world stage. It’s as if his life ended the moment he became world champion. And in some way, somewhere inside himself, Bobby, at the moment of his greatest triumph, died in 1972.

At the time most of us first became aware of him and our lives were significantly influenced by him, he was already leaving the stage, with the rest of his life spent like an unprogrammed robot with no idea how to live or what to do. Almost everything he did after 1972 was of no consequence. Apparently that’s what he wanted, and a person can’t be blamed for living his life according to his own internal compass, rebuffing the wishes of others.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Book Review: Poems from Guantanamo

The current state of poetry can be deduced from the fact that one of the most talked-about collections in recent times was borne of a marriage between terrorists and lawyers. “Poems from Guantanamo” is a slight book containing 22 “poems” authored by detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The majority of the pages, however, comprise the accompanying introductory materials, biographies, and an afterward, which were written by others in an attempt to supply an aura of gravitas to the whole affair and to indicate the reason these poems were published at all, and the specific agenda of those responsible for it.

The Acknowledgements page is telling. This collection of poetry, we are told, would not exist were it not for the efforts of “hundreds of volunteer lawyers.” The bulk of the page is a recitation of the names of many of those counselors. As an afterthought, a short list of translators is provided at the end.

The Introduction by Marc Falkoff, a lawyer representing a number of the detainees, portrays them in devout religious terms, never once uttering the word “terrorist.” But these people didn’t find their way to Gitmo because they spent all their time in mosques praying for the welfare of people of all faiths. He outrageously compares the Gitmo detainees with the prisoners in Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag.

Most of the verses composed at Gitmo have not been released by the Pentagon, apparently for fear that they might contain secret messages. Falkoff admits the translators are not experts and that the translations “cannot do justice to the subtlety and cadence of the originals,” he writes, but when we look at the wretched poems themselves, Falkoff’s suggestion that they possess a superior quality in the original becomes ludicrous. It’s an absurdity only an advocate for terrorists would think to spout. He paints the Pentagon as an evil entity censoring many of the poems which still remain classified, but even so, “Representative voices of the detainees may now be heard.”

But before we see the literary output of the terrorists, we are confronted with another introductory piece, a Preface by Flagg Miller, who is described as a “linguist and cultural anthropologist.” Miller constructs a history of Muslims who responded to oppression with poetry, and places the detainees in that long tradition, but the Gitmo detainees are not oppressed without cause; they are terrorists and deserve incarceration. Many who were released subsequently resumed their terrorist activities. This alone guarantees a risk that any future detainees who are released would do the same. Few countries will accept any of the detainees: who wants terrorists in their midst? And since there is no legal smoking gun for some of them, affording them legal due process risks acquittals and setting free the likes of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (no poetry of his in this volume—perhaps the Pentagon has it).

One is left to wonder what poetry the victims of 9/11 would have written, if they had had the time, as they jumped from the Twin Towers, or as they smashed into the Pentagon. The Gitmo poets surely approved of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Perhaps they wrote a few lauding the 9/11 terrorists. Only the Pentagon censors know for sure.

As for the poems, they all have a banal sameness about them, leading me to conclude that we can speak of a Gitmo School of Poetry. The distinguishing features of which are: a profession of innocence, their captors are the criminals, anger at infidels, belief in Islam, Allah will one day destroy their oppressors, threats of revenge, no mention of 9/11 or Al Qaeda, absence of remorse or any sort of mea culpa, and a total lack of any poetic talent whatsoever. There is nothing unique here and little in the way of personalities. Any sad person or any inmate at any prison could have written some of the poems. The entire collection can rightly be dismissed as worthless. This book wasn’t published because someone thought the poetry possesses any intrinsic value. Perhaps we will see a future college course on the Gitmo School of Poetry coming soon to the University of Iowa English Literature studies department, as well as many other like-minded colleges? It’s doubtful we will see the University of Iowa Press publish a volume called “Poems from the Pentagon.”

Reading through the poems, one feels like a beggar rummaging through a garbage can looking for a diamond but finding nothing but rotten tomatoes. The entire enterprise—from the words carved in cups or written on paper, to the translation, to the editing, to the publication—is a complete fraud. This book was published to serve as a political tool as part of an ongoing effort by anti-war activists to shut down the Gitmo prison. Falkoff and the others believe the detainees are innocent of any crime—or that there isn’t enough evidence to convict them in a US court of law. So this book portrays them as the opposite of what they are: innocent poets who were somehow in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sympathy for terrorists and terrorist-wannabes is the order of the day. They’re poets! Political prisoners! Let’s turn reality on its head and see who gets dizzy.

It would be a nice touch if one of the Gitmo Poets wins the Nobel Prize for Literature based on the “strength” of his poems in this volume. The Nobel committee is in the habit of handing out its awards based on politics, and this book fits their bill. Falkoff and his cohorts have apparently won the propaganda battle, as the US government and military, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seek to close Gitmo due to its unsavory reputation, as detailed in the world news media. We’re a long way from poetry but so is this book.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Live Search Books Delivers As Promised

The interface at Microsoft's Live Search Books has improved significantly. Previously, whenever I searched for books, it limited me to viewing no more than the first 250 results, even if the total results were 500, or 1,000, etc. But now, I see that it is delivering what it promises. I searched the phrase "Edmund Wilson" and it found 572 results. I was able to scroll through and see all 572 books--it doesn't stop at 250 any more, as I had written about previously.

Microsoft personnel had told me they were working on this problem but I wasn't sure whether to believe it or not, so I have to give credit where it's due. However, the interface is still too spartan and need an advanced search feature.

Sadly, Google Book Search still doesn't deliver what it promises. I searched the same phrase "Edmund Wilson" and Google Books claimed to find 2,442 results. However, when I tried to scroll through all those books, it stopped at 233! That's only about 1/10 of what was promised. Funny how Google always promises far more than it delivers....

Advantage Microsoft.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Review of Yevtushenko's Bratsk Station

My review of Yevtushenko's Bratsk Station on Amazon:

Yevtushenko is one of the most well-known of modern Russian poets in the West. He became famous as a supposedly "dissident" poet by speaking out against the Stalin regime. But Bratsk Station suggests the quality of his poetry doesn't match his fame.

The structure of the poem presents us with an absurdity: the casting of an Egyptian pyramid, one of the ancient 7 wonders of the world, and one of the most enduring and fascinating symbols ever created, as the "bad guy" and a hydroelectric power station as the "good guy"! Bratsk Station is composed of a number of short individual poems. The distinguishing trait of all of them is the absence of any depth of thought or emotion that is the hallmark of great poetry. It is all on the surface, as if Yevtushenko is either incapable of diving deep or he fears he will lose his audience if he does. The point of it all is to promote Soviet socialism. Lenin, demonstrably one of the 20th century's most evil men, is glorified as some kind of demigod. Here are a couple examples of what this poem attempts to achieve:

From the poem "Party Card"

If the bullet is to reach the heart
It must go through the Party card.

The Party card is a second heart,
Indeed, the heart is a second Party card.

From the poem "Nushka"

I am Nushka Burtova, I mix concrete.
I produce twice my daily quota.

From the poem "In a Moment of Weakness"

I believe,
as in redemption,
that all suffering mankind
will unite
in Lenin.

With the lines quoted above in mind, I often felt as if I were reading comedy rather than an attempt at serious epic poetry. This sledgehammer communist propaganda was written by a man viewed as some sort of dissident, but the only dissent in Bratsk Station is the kind that the Soviet authorities wanted to read, and Yevtushenko delivered.

We might try to give Yevtushenko the benefit of the doubt by suggesting that perhaps something is lost in the translation and that the original Russian is on a much higher level, but it just can't be. His themes are so superficial and so deliberately ingratiating to his communist government, that these lines must be viewed as those of either a hopeless mediocrity or a poetic slave avoiding the threatened whips of his masters. Yevtushenko built his poem around the idea that slaves were forced to create the pyramid while the Russians who built the Bratsk Station are masters of their fate, although to any disinterested party reading the poem nowadays, the Russian people were the slaves and their Soviet masters were the equivalent of the ancient Egyptian overseers with their whips. It is not easy to find a difference between the slaves of ancient Egypt and those of the Soviet Union.

Even Rosh Ireland, in the Introduction, gently apologizes for the impression these poems leave in the reader that Yevtushenko is "servant to the publicist," by suggesting his other writings are more complex, although that is debatable.

Bratsk Station is bad poetry created by an unfortunate poet determined to satisfy the expectations of a totalitarian Soviet regime. But Yevtushenko's enthusiasm for "the revolution" seems a bit more intense than necessary to "encourage the applause."