25 December, 2006

San Francisco: a photo essay

Do any of my readers live in San Francisco? What a wonderful city you have! A couple of days ago I took my first trip down there, from up here in the Berkeley hills, where we're staying. Berkeley itself is a heaven of chi-chi bohemianism, a mobbed cheeseshop with playing-cards for queue-tickets, a guy playing piano next door, the sort of broken jazz you might hear in a Woody Allen movie, and it was raining outside, and slim beauties with rosy cheeks and vague traces of ethnicity, wrapped up in wools and fashionably-distressed denim.

But San Francisco, well, that's something else. I took the BART down to Embarcadero, where I pottered about towards the Ferry Building smelling money wherever I walked. I took pictures of buildings, that's easy, but what I really wanted was to snap people, and throughout the day I saw dozens of people I wanted to snap—a black gentleman with a peacock feather in his hat getting his brown shoes shined, a Chinese waiter with his collar up adjusting his bow-tie for a shift, an old guy in a tux sweeping the butts off the street outside Hustler's, a Patrick Bateman with a comb dancing in his fingertips, the most beautiful six year-old I've ever seen playing with her daddy in Pioneer Park, gaggles of dirty intellectuals up in North Beach—but I couldn't muster the courage to ask, and hey, I wasn't about to just snap them without asking either.


After admiring the lavish takeaways of the Ferry Building I headed up Montgomery and turned on Columbus at the Pyramid and the Transamerica Scientology building, which did not have these pretty windows:

Past all the hunan restaurants I stopped for an hour at City Lights. The bookstore used to be twinned with Compendium Books in Camden Town, round the corner from where I once lived, but then Compendium closed five years ago. So I came to see what all the fuss was about, here where it all started. In fact before I came I'd been reading some classic San Franciscan poetry, you know, the 60s stuff. I was using the famous anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960. God, this shit stinks! It reads like a bunch of hippies brought up on Whitman and high modernism and having precious little of anything to say for itself, other than Screw the establishment and Gee, isn't nature, like, amazing? Rule no. 1 for poets: never use the words 'poem', 'poet' or especially 'poetry'. Rule no. 2: we've all read Joyce and Eliot, some of us like them, you don't need to allude to them. Look, recycling of Finnegans Wake from Robert Duncan's 'The Dance':
I'll slip away before they're up
and see the dew shining
And some original but incompetent Joyceifying from his 'A poem beginning with a line by Pindar':
damerging a nuve. A nerb.
The present dented of the U
nighted stayd. States.
And look, recycling of The Waste Land from Jack Spicer's 'Imaginary Elegy II':
Tarot cards
Make love to other Tarot cards. Here agony
Is just imagination's sister bitch.
This is where the sun tormented castle which
Reflects the sun. Da dada da.
The castle sings.
Da. I don't remember what I lost. Dada.
The song. Da. The hippogriffs were singing.
Da dada. The boy. His horns
Were wet with song. Dada.
I don't remember. Da. Forgotten.
Da. Dada. Hell. Old butterface
Who always eats her lovers.
This is cringeworthy! But it's not just direct quotation, the whole idea of poetry made up of a bunch of banal images and little else is taken straight from the haiku crap being peddled in the 1910s. Duncan's 'The Question':
Have you a gold cup
dedicated to thought
that is like clear water
held in a flower?

or sheen of the gold
burnishd on wood
to furnish fire-glow,
a burning in sight only?
(Sorry, man—Shakespeare already did 'burnish' and 'burn'.) But you noticed that 'burnishd', right? That's no accident. Here's an academic to decode this strange typo for us: 'Dropping a silent e can signify action against authority; but at times distorted orthography signifies moral dysfunction.' That's Bob Perelman's article 'Write the Power' from the 1994 American Literary History. Write the power, huh? Look, he's one of them, all over that wordplay game. So here's some more of Spicer's stupid Elegy, which unfortunately for us is far from imaginary, this time channeling that insufferable faux-naivety of Gertrude Stein:
God must have a big eye to see everything
That we have lost or forgotten. Men used to say
That all lost objects stay upon the moon
Untouched by any other eye but God's.
The moon is God's big yellow eye remembering
What we have lost or never thought.
Then there is a tasteless balladesque scribble by Helen Adam called 'I Love my Love', full of gold and purple and hair and embraces and that sort of girl stuff. But like it or not all this electric drivel was bouncing round in my head as I walked up Columbus, and not only that, but also the library books I'd picked up by Alan Watts, the Bay Area's most famous philosopher. Tim Leary gives some good bibliobole for Watts' Joyous Cosmology, calling it 'a brilliant arrangement of words describing experiences for which are language has no vocabulary'. That's irony, I'd recognise it anyday. Watts is into Hesse, of course. Hesse is a godsend for me. Whenever I'm depressed at how goddamn serious and brilliant those Germans were, I think of Hesse, who singlehandedly proved they could be as dumb and blunt as us anglophones. I'm not sure which is the worst of his books, maybe Steppenwolf. It's generally a bad sign, I think, when there's a rock band named after your book. Anyway, Watts is absolutely thrilled with the schtick Hesse was peddling in the Glass Bead Game or Magister Ludi or whatever you want to call it, and describes the set-up—
From such elements as the design of a Chinese house, a Scarlatti sonata, a topological formula, and a verse from the Upanishads, the players will elucidate a common theme and develop its application in numerous directions. No two games are the same, for not only do the elements differ, but also there is no thought of attempting to force a static and uniform order upon the world. The universal language facilitates the perception of relationships but does not fix them, and is founded upon a "musical" conception of the world in which order is as dynamic and changing as the patterns of sound in a fugue.
This is the Leibniz fantasy, that all manifestations of human art and culture have something in common, and probably something mathematical like a topological formula. The arts all speak a 'universal language', that dream of the 17th century. Prescriptive aesthetics is banished as an authoritarian political force, a 'static and uniform order'. And in true German fashion the highest artform is music, which is probably the same as math, and the archetype here is naturally the Bach fugue, which math types of the Hofstadter variety are well known to love. I don't know, all this gump makes me want to play an Irving Babbitt role, damn the romantics. Here's some more Watts, from the 1974 Essence of Alan Watts:
Only there's an arrangement to pretend that you ought to be somewhere else, so the place where you are is the place where you are always pretending you ought to be somewhere else—
Wow, that's jazz, ain't it!
—This is the nature of life, this is the pulse. I ought to be somewhere else. If you discover that that's the trick you're playing on yourself, you become serene and you don't entirely give up the game because you've seen through it. You say, "Hmm, it really might be fun to go on playing."
Cool, man. In the margin some guy's written 'prosaic, commonplace, dull'. So anyways, City Lights has a mini-wall in the entranceway full of Atlas Press and other surrealist books, which I liked. I got sidetracked downstairs flicking through Slavoj Žižek and other postmodern ruffians, but this quickly bored me so I went upstairs to ask what I could get there and nowhere else. The girl pointed me to a wall at the back stuffed with countercultural fanzines and other local productions, so I spent a while leafing through these rants, psychedelic comix and dharma-bum verses of the Duncan variety. I had to buy something of course, but it was small, a copy of the latest Mineshaft Magazine, which OK isn't local, but a California and City Lights type of affair at any rate. There are some amusing R. Crumb drawings in it at least. I mean, what's the point of going to City Lights and buying a book by Slavoj Žižek?


I was caught by the white façade of Peter and Paul gleaming real bright in the Bay sun. That was in Washington Square Park. They've done a good job with the medieval look, don't you think?

Around the front is an inscription, it says LA GLORIA DI COLUI CHE TUTTO MUOVE PER L'UNIVERSO PENETRA E RISPLENDE, that's from the Paradiso. (Hey, it says so right there.) I had lunch in a little Italian on the corner, it was a fat cheeseburger with fried onions and chipped potatoes, delicious. What's Going On? was playing on the stereo, and the sun was burning down on me, so I had to take off my gloves and hat and jacket. The waitress winked at me, like Italians are supposed to. I felt a perfect contentment at that moment, the kind of thing that can never last. I saw Coit Tower to the east, though I didn't know what it was yet, and resolved to explore it later. After lunch I walked down one of those profound hills towards the docks. The docks were full of tourist crap, with the worst waxwork museum I've ever seen, and a pier for California sealions that sit and laze about fatly for visitors to snap. I don't want to disappoint you.

A guy was playing bongos badly on the waterfront, when I came back he was gone and there were four japanese kids banging various drums and gongs mostly in time, that was more fun. There were human statues, mostly blacks, just the sort I'm familiar with from Covent Garden. I caught these beautiful birds outside the fryhouses:

The best thing there was a museum of automata, mostly old musicboxes and arcade games from the centuries gone. There was this mechanical horse too:

Dusk was wafting in. The tourists were still bustling about the docks in their droves, I was missing my wife, who'd declined the steep hillwalking involved in any trip to the city, but I wasn't quite ready to go home yet. So I climbed back up the hill towards Pioneer Park and Coit Tower—cars were crawling up the slopes but on foot I quickly mounted—young families were playing in the eventide, and the peachy glow came down all over the bay. I didn't feel like paying five bucks for the elevator to the top, so I just admired the murals and headed back down Kearney towards Union Square.

There was an old celestial gentleman stopped on the stairs cut into the roadside, it reminded me of Saint Michael's Hill in Bristol, gazing out into the city. I sat behind him and caught my breath. There were white statues of women on the top of a nearby building, and next to it the Zoetrope with its elegant verdigris and where 'so many movie ideas were hatched' according to the sign outside.

You feel lofty up there, San Francisco makes you feel lofty. The old gentleman just sat there, minding his business. I wanted to snap him, but as I said before I couldn't. So I went on down the hill into the thick of things. Down there you feel good and dirty, and there are bluehouses and stripjoints next to the eateries, just like a real American city. Normally putting pictures in b/w is sort of an artsy pretence but in this case I had to do it, because it reminded me too much of a book I've got at home, from the 60s, beautiful silvery photographs of Philadelphia teeming with life. So the b/w here reminds me of the rough 60s feel of the place.

I wound up in Union Square, watching a Jewish family with woolly hats and thick gloves and scarves talking about Hanukkah, the little girl had golden blonde hair and was hopping up and down with excitement for the big tree and all the coloured lights and her dad was telling her earnestly not to walk off the sidewalk because only grown-ups can do that, it's dangerous. It was a very romantic place, even with the guy next to me on the bench working on his laptop, with a copy of The Language Instinct next to him. I wish Mrs. Roth could have been there with me, but it wasn't to be. San Francisco is a place full of such rapid ambiences, you can be in the glass canyons one minute and out in a small seaside town the next, with every shade in between. If there are any San Franciscans reading this I'd love to hear from you, such is the season for open arms and a sense of wellbeing, I'm all the more glad to walk arm in arm with my fellow man. Merry Christmas!


John Cowan said...

Well, um, y'know, Joyce always claimed that Eliot recycled Ulysses to make The Waste Land; that's what FW 4.21 means by "Helveticus committed deuteronomy".

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, the classic quotation for this is "and with tag for ildiot repeated in his secondmouth language as many of the bigtimer's verbaten words which he could balbly call to memory", p. 37.

For what it's worth, I don't much like Eliot.

Uke Xensen said...


I'm in the Bay Area. I have some photos in the travel section of my rightreading.com site, and I'm in the early stages of building a site devoted more particularly to the SF Bay Area. Glad you're enjoying being here.

On your earlier subject of the horrors of Christmas, have you heard the Eric Idle classic. I have a link to it at blog.rightreading.com.

Sustained reading not possible right now. Later ...

Conrad H. Roth said...

Chris: anyone who uses a repeated 'Da' syllable in his poetry is either consciously rehashing the end of the Waste Land, or is a fool. As for burnish/burn, no, nobody can use it now, except in humorous reference to Shakespeare (even Eliot changed the 'burned' to 'glowed' in WL 2)--nobody, that is, except me.

Tom, I look forward to checking out your SF stuff when I have a bit more time.

Anonymous said...

I live in SF, and I'm glad you enjoyed your journey in The City! I liked your comment about "blueshouses and stripjoints next to the eateries, just like a real American city." That's the way I feel about SF - I run into many who visit here and are disappointed by seeing a single homeless person, or a worn-looking bus, or a dirty street.

I'm proud to live in a dense city, keeping a small eco-footprint, and to live in a real city, not a cleaned-up Disney version of one. We have prides and eyesores just like other cities, and I like to think of SF in both the glowing, epic wonderland of Herb Caen's writings and the gritty parts as shown in 'Pursuit of Happyness' and all the Zodiac killer films... LOL.

My starter SF photo blog currently has too many pics of the cat that is living with me for only 5 months, but you may enjoy some of the building shots:

Conrad H. Roth said...

Cara: thanks, and as a devout Londoner of course I'd have to agree with your tastes. No city without a bit of rough. There are, furthermore, some handsome pictures on your own site.

Chris: As a 'random singing syllable' it reminds me of Dream a Little Dream of Me, which also uses 'da'. As for the history of such syllables, well--perhaps that's one to write, eh?

stearns003 said...

I enjoyed your posts on SF and Berkeley. I'm far from home these days, and it was nice to see some pics and someones fresh perspective on the places that are normally my backyard.

John Emerson said...

The New American Poetry is pre-hippy / late-beatnik. I like Denise Levertov, Ginsberg, and sometimes Corso, but the rest was a disappointment.

No one hates The German Seriousness more than I do, but Hesse was Swiss. we must make the proper distinctions and take care to malign only scrupulously.

Kenneth Rexroth described Switzerland as "Kansas stacked vertically". As I understand, their the stodgiest of the stodgy. NTTAWWT.

Anonymous said...

Was Rousseau stodgy?

John Emerson said...

"They're". I only make these errors on the internet.

Hesse isn't stodgy either. The comment about the Swiss was pretty much a parenthetical. It's what I say whenever the Swiss are mentioned.

The generic Scandinavian is pretty stodgy, but Hamsun, H.C. Anderson, Dineson, Kierkegaard, and Strindberg were weird. Some kind of reactive bipolar dynamic. Ibsen was stodgy, though, I say.


THe Hesse quotation describes the Glass BEad Game itself, but not the views of Hesse. The central character goes beyond mastery of the game and any Leibnizian ontology.