Sunday, August 14, 2022

"Be secret and exalt"

     "Now all the truth is out," William Butler Yeats writes. "Be secret and take defeat/From any brazen throat."
      The beginning of an odd little 1916 poem with a breathtaking title: "To a Friend Whose Work has Come to Nothing." 
     Easy for Yeats to say, who straddled the world in his own lifetime, and would linger longer than most. Whose lines are used as movie titles: "That is no country for old men..."
      In the poem, he seems to brace his unnamed friend, "Bred to a harder thing than triumph," presenting his own success as somehow unfair. 
Being honor bred, with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbor's eyes?
     It might seem odd that Yeats might cast himself as a liar, but it's a theme he would return to, such as in an even shorter 1916 poem, "The Coming of Wisdom with Time." This is the whole poem:
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.
For how can you compete 
Though leave are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth.
      It's unclear whether it's himself or the days of youth that are lying; my bet is both. Either way, withering into the truth sounds painful. Though not without advantages. The life work of most people either comes to nothing or very close, on the grand scale, and whatever impact anybody manages merely holds back obscurity for the briefest time. 
     This is a long way of saying, I had mixed feelings when my colleague Eric Zorn returned to the John Kass well for a definitive drink, "The truth about John Kass’ dispute with the Tribune and the Tribune Guild." He begins well, promising he will "summarize the controversy," though I don't believe any piece of writing nearing 5,000 words can be considered a summary unless it's addressing the history of the world. 
      While I'm confident that Eric has certainly stylishly and thoroughly retired the topic, I hope, if not buried it in a lead-lined coffin, I was still tempted to pick up the theme he began, like one jazz musician riffing on another's melody, and expand upon it, as we did to so much fun and effect earlier last month. 
     That post got 20 times the average readership, so obviously people, for whatever reasons, are primed to laugh at John Kass. Unlike Yeats's friend, splashing around in the kiddie pool of untruth does not shame Kass in his own eyes, apparently, though it does him in a negative light with certain others.
     But my heart isn't in it. Nobody is entirely bad. I have a colleague who tells a story about Kass. She was in the City Hall Press Room when some disturbed person, upset over something she wrote, burst in, shouting, and made to attack her. But Kass leapt across a desk and tackled the man. He saved her.  
"To a friend..." first appeared in the
May, 1914 issue of Poetry Magazine.
    Does a moment's physical courage counterbalance years of caustic fuckery?  Hard to say. Remember, the people he writes for are already debased, soul-dead Trumpies, lost, looking for their daily fix of fear and self-victimization. If Kass didn't sell it to them, someone else would. It isn't as if, were he unavailable, they'd start reading David Hume instead.
     Bigotry is the collision of ignorance and fear. As much as the hostility and damage caused by haters tempts the clear-eyed to simply hate them back, we have to consider the keyhole view of life they limit themselves to, all they miss, the essential tragedy of their condition. They can't listen and they can't learn and so they wander, dazed survivors after an accident, in the sunlit center of a glorious world, eyes squinched shut, lashing blindly out at their imagined enemies. They're hurt and hopeless and you can't scorn them, for long. Or shouldn't, anyway.
     So as much as I enjoy heartily ridicule, I tend to eventually come out the other side, shaking contempt off like a dog after a bath. I grew to genuinely pity Jay Mariotti, and wish I had been nicer to him, wondering whether he might not be genuinely ... well, he's a litigious cuss, so I'd better not say. Afflicted with problems more severe than just being an asshole. 
     Even Bob Greene. I don't regret a bit of BobWatch. Fun, and well-deserved, at the time. But should he pitch forward today into the sand at Sunset Bay, metal detector pinging plaintively beside him, unheard, I don't think I'd use the opportunity to revisit his shameful exit or the deeply weird nostalgic rathole he plunged down.  He did hang with Michael Jordan — I certainly didn't hang with Michael Jordan — and had a column in Esquire, and a regular gig on "Nightline," and rang the journalism bell far more loudly than I ever will. That he could vanish so completely is a reminder of just how completely we all vanish, good bad and indifferent. That's the lesson. The warning.
     "Be secret and exult" Yeats ends his poem. "Because of all things known/That is most difficult."
     Or so imagines Yeats, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. As so often happens with those simply guessing at life, based on themselves, he's quite wrong. It's not difficult at all. In fact, it's easy. Almost mandatory. What other choice is there? "Soul clap its hands and sing," as Yeats himself instructs in "Sailing to Byzantium." Now there's a plan.




  1. Much to think about. Thank you. A welcome break from the BBC news. The theme of being silent rather than clamoring for attention has come up a lot this week. The lies that Yeats refers to, for me, are the lies we tell ourselves and others when the ego flares up. Everyone does it. I know I do. It begs the same question I try not to walk around asking myself constantly: what's the purpose of my life? I still don't quite know, but at least I am more comfortable in the not knowing, and I am learning not to clamor as much, unless it's truly fun. Like the one time I joined the marching band Clamor & Lace this summer at Sundays on State. Harder than it looks, but it did give me weeks of purpose until I gave up.

  2. If I never hear about Kass again, my life will be wonderful! Especially his asinine moutzas!

  3. I found this to be one of your more thought provoking columns. From "Why are we here?" to your excellent definition of bigotry; to maybe even the worst people aren't all bad to maybe there are some of those who really are. I go with the latter.
    Regardless, when I start thinking like this I default to the Firesign Theatre's, "I think we're all bozos on this bus."
    The fact is, great writers do leave their mark and they don't have to be Nobel or Pulitzer winners.

  4. I've already commented a few times about my firsthand knowledge of Bob Greene's doofusnessness in the late Seventies, and how I hated the baby Richard saga. I'm well-versed on his downfall...and I admit to having smirked when I learned about the aftermath, and what it turned him into...that long piece in Esquire. It's been two decades since he crashed and burned and crawled out of the flaming wreckage and slunk away to lick his wounds like a jackal in a cave. Time that has gone by so fast. Too damn fast.

    What's Bob been up to for the last twenty years, other than a couple of books that were mostly ignored? The last one I read (from 2009) was about his early newspaper experiences in Columbus, when he was still a kid. Or maybe it was the one from 2006, about his lifelong buddy, who died young. I'm ashamed to admit it, but what the hell. Once upon a time, I actually liked what he wrote, and I even enjoyed quite a few of his books. Go figure, huh?

    Is Bob living in seclusion and anonymity down in Florida? Walking in the sand and obsessively counting and recounting all his nickels and dimes, like Minnie the Moocher in the old song, and praying that he won't outlive his money?

    Hell, he's actually 75 now, just like I will become this week. Hard to believe. Still looking for the bumper sticker I once saw, the one that reads: "Golden years, my ass..."

  5. You touch upon the essence of the Greene offense, Grizz. Bob isn't going to tell us what he's up to, because he never did. It was always a pose, an act, a sliver of his reality, bronze plated, decorated with cut flowers, sprayed with cologne and served up as real. Happy early birthday. I miss the boys, but otherwise, can't say 62 is any worse than 42, and in some ways it's much better. Maybe that's the secret to a happy old age, is a roiling, chaotic and dissipate youth.

    1. Well, I had one, Mr. S--sort of. From geeky dork in high school and the first two years of college to "student radical" and hippie just a few short years later. The three R's..., rockin'...rollin' (as in joints) ...and riotin'...including Chicago in '68. Thumbed and drove through 43 states...and lived in six of them.

      Spent my thirties living back on the North Side, but too much time in the bleachers, and the bars of Wrigleyville, finally ended my first marriage.
      Reconnected with my college sweetheart, after 27 years. We are still married. Thirty years in Cleveland. It kind of feels like home. Got a million stories about my chaotic younger days, but those are best saved for later, and dealt out one at a time.

      Geezerhood ain't all that bad, especially in these chaotic times. We're finally off the treadmill of job-finding and job-keeping. Even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat. And there's none of the agitation over rising rents or finding a house. Been there, done that. We can finally afford to travel a bit and have a little more fun. But now we're in these creaky 75-year-old body shells, which is a whole lot like trying to keep a pair of 1947 cars alive. One damn thing after another. That, Mr. S, is the catch.

    2. Oh, and thanks for the birthday salutation, Mr. S. It's a milestone event...

  6. Hi, Neil—In the Yeats poem you reference, Yeats isn’t “presenting his own success as somehow unfair.” According to Yeats himself, this poem was addressed to Lady Gregory (a longtime friend), and her dishonourable antagonist (unnamed in the poem) is William Martin Murphy. It was a political contest that Lady Gregory lost to the scoundrel Murphy, if my English-major-memory from 40 years ago still serves me.

    That being said, every opinion you have ever expressed (and will ever continue to express in the future) about both John Kass and Bob Greene is absolutely correct.

    Thank you.

    1. Thanks for the correction. Yeah, I was kinda interpreting on the fly, which is a dicy proposition at best.

  7. Thanks for the link and for the Bob Greene image that will stay with me always.


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