Saturday, April 27, 2013

Fallon McPhael: Biographical Notes and The Previously Unpublished Condom Poems!

Hot news, people!  An independent scholar living in Whiting, Indiana, has assembled biographical notes on the life of Fallon McPhael, whose wake we are to observe one week from today (7:00 pm at The Charnel House in Chicago, 3421 West Fullerton) with tributes from Chicago poets & writers, music, drink, and—as specified in McPhael's final will and testament—burlesque.  Not only has our scholar put together a biographical sketch, he has managed to bring before us previously unpublished poetic works from the great man's final years.  Behold, and be enlightened:

Some Notes on the Life and Times of Fallon McPhael     

Fallon McPhael (Fáelán Máel Ó Secnaill) was born 1919, 1920 or 1922 (his own reportss differ) in Inniskeen, County Monaghan, Ireland.  There is very little reliable information about McPhael’s parentage or his childhood circumstances.  By one of his accounts, he was fathered by George William Russell, the Irish poet, artist and mystic known as AE, during a walking tour of Monaghan in 1919.  In another McPhael story his father was an Ulster Catholic his mother found hiding in a hay rick. McPhael briefly attended Kednaminsha National School, and his name is on the 1935 student registry of the O’Connell School in Dublin.  By his own account, though no one else’s, he studied at University College Dublin, where he is said to have said that he was a member of the Literary and Historical Society and editor of Comhthrom Féinne (Fair Play), the College literary journal.  The name, Fallon McPhael, never appears in the journal, though there are several instances of a Gaelic pen name that bears some similarity to his own, Fáolán, the Wolf, and the reviews published with that by-line show early signs of the bitter, reproachful tone of McPhael’s later literary journalism.

We have only McPhael’s often contradictory stories to account for his life in Dublin after the time he claims he left University College.  He was, by his own lights, a motorman, professional sparring partner, gun runner, publican, procurer, counter-tenor and bookie.  The novelist, Flann O’Brien, writes in a 1949 letter that he had come across McPhael working in the Brown and Nolan Bookstore in Dublin.  “There was McPhael, the caustic scribbler, behind the counter at B & N, a fictional writer employed in an invented establishment. “  We do know that for a time McPhael lived with the poet, Eugene Watters (Eoglian Ó Tuairisc), and his wife near Cork.  The arrangement apparently ended in a domestic dispute during which Watters shot McPhael in the foot.  “Now,” McPhael said of the ensuing limp, “I’m Oedipus without a complex.” In later years McPhael spoke with nostalgia of Watters and his wife.  “Eoglian treated me well, don’t you know, as Dermott in his poem, “Dermott and Grace.”

McPhael came to the United States sometime between 1950 and 1953.  Apparently, he lived in New York for a year or so before going to Boston, where he was arrested in 1955 for public drunkenness and lewd behavior.  During his arraignment he convinced the magistrate that he was the illegitimate child of Joseph P. Kennedy, and the charges were dropped.  About the episode, Kennedy is said to have said, “These fools will believe anything pronounced in a deep enough brogue,” though he was obviously concerned enough to give McPhael “a princely sum” and send him to Chicago, where he was given a job as a ghost night watchman at the Merchandise Mart. 

McPhael’s literary life in Chicago is well documented—his frequent quarrels with Algren (“as Irish as a Jewish Swede can be,” he wrote), the drinking bout with Mike Royko and his time as the stand-in accordionist at Riccardo’s.  There is no evidence at all that he ever fought Norman Mailer, in the ring or out.  The one fight he is credited, or rather discredited, with was against the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, in 1964.  Kavanagh was in Chicago for an appearance at Northwestern, and somebody named Fink decided it would be a good idea to bring the two great Irish writers together.  After a considerable amount of drink, Harp (McPhael’s ale of choice) followed by Jameson’s, the two began reciting poetry in Gaelic. Their argument was either over grammar or cadence; no one could tell which.  Challenges were made, and a fight was arranged.  Someone pointed out to McPhael that Kavanagh had only one lung.  McPhael replied, “And don’t I know that,” pushing a pencil stub into one nostril, “fair’s fair.”  Descriptions of the fight vary wildly, though Studs Terkel, who was there, said that there was more wheezing than punching.  It ended with both Irishman vomiting on the shoes and pant legs of the crowd around them and a boisterous verse or two of “Arrayed for Bridal.” McPhael’s literary reputation in Chicago seems to have been based, almost entirely, on his ethnicity, ceaseless bad behavior and energetic litigiousness.  “As far as I can tell, “Don Rose once wrote, “all of McPhael’s published books were the result of out-of-court settlements of his endless law suits.” 

In the mid 1960s McPhael had a position as Advisor to the Irish Collections at the Southern Illinois University Library in Carbondale, a job he got through the Irish barrister and genealogist, Eoin O’Mahony, who was a Visiting Professor in Irish Studies there.  O’Mahony was fascinated by McPhael’s undetermined lineage and had, based on sentiment alone, filed a number of law suits on McPhael’s behalf.   Shortly after O’Mahony returned to Ireland to mount an unsuccessful campaign for Prime Minister, McPhael was fired from the University.  The official cause for dismissal was that in his time in the library he never recommended a single book he had not himself written, though stories persist that having taken over O’Mahony’s class in Gaelic, he taught the students that Gaelic could only be pronounced when half clothed and through a pallet tempered by Jameson’s.

There is no evidence that McPhael ever married, though he “kept company” for at least twenty years with the Irish-Australian playwright and actress, Kathleen O’Houghlihan, “the Countess Kathleen,” as he called her.  She is the editor of his last, and as yet unpublished, collection of poems, In Excited Reverie. According to O’Houghlihan these poems were written in rhyming tetrameter on condoms she brought to him in St. Bridget’s Home, where he spent his last years.  “He wrote them out with a red felt pen on the stretched out condoms, then rolled them up again and put them back in their wrappers.  ‘It’s how poems ought to be written,’ he told me, ‘in excited reverie.’” His plan was to have Kathleen put the condoms back on the drug store shelves, so that they would be discovered and read, as he put it, “in extremis.”  “I couldn’t bring myself to put them back, you know, and lose the poems forever.  And then, he claimed that he wore them for the writing, so it didn’t seem right.”   The verses are varied in quality and sentiment.  Here, with Ms. O’Houghlihan’s kind permission, are a few of the more decorous examples;

‘Twas Yeats’ ghost took Paddy’s lung
For every plowman’s song he’d sung
And Joyce that made poor Flann a drunk,
The curate pouring for the monk.

* * *

On the Armagh Road I met a lass

And by St. Agnes’ pinched her ass.

 * * *

A. Norman’s gone from Leeds, a prince,
With poems to make all Hades wince.

 * * *

A laureate, then, this Heaney or Hiney,
A man of parts, Eeney, Meeny and Miney,
 Ulster man, more green than orange,
As tuneful as a rusted doorhinge.

 * * *

Irish poets learn your trade;
A rhyme can often catch a maid
And if there are no maids about,
A carp’s as tasty as a trout,
Which is to say, you drop your line
And judge whoever takes it, fine.

 * * *

Billy, the Golden Dawn entreats
From wet and chilling yellow sheets
And the Celtic Twilight glows
From pustules on my numbing toes.

 * * *
Notes to the poems:

Yeats’ ghost:  Eoin O’Mahony (see above) said that the ghost William Butler Yeats’, Irish poet (1865-1939), was “about in the world” and had for various slights and misdeeds killed several people, among them Thomas Hone’s son and AE’s secretary. Kavanagh’s poems ennobling farm labor could be seen as offending Yeats’ view of Romantic Ireland.

Paddy:  Patrick Kavanagh, Irish poet (1904-1967), lost a lung to cancer in 1954. (see above)
Flann:  Flann O’Brien (Brien O’Nolan), Irish novelist and follower of James Joyce, called Joyce “The Curate.” 

The monk:   One of O’Brien’s many pseudonyms was Brother Barnabus.

Armagh Road:  In Dublin the Armagh Road ends at the Church of St. Agnes.  The couplet was probably meant to recall Patrick Kavanagh’s romantic poem, “On Raglan Road.”

A.Norman: A. Norman Jeffares, Irish scholar (1920-2005) was Chair of English at Leeds University.

With poems:  Jeffares edited a volume of Irish Love Poetry.

Heaney:  Seamus Heaney, Irish poet and Nobel Laureate (1939--).

Hiney:  One of the many variants of the Anglo-Irish surname, Heaney.

Eeney, Meeny and Miney:  This counting rhyme may suggest Heaney’s family’s history as cattle traders, though it may refer as well to the channel islands and Druidic sacrifices on the Isle of Mona.

An Ulster man:  Heaney was born in Northern Ireland to a Catholic family, hence “more green than orange.”

Rusted doorhinge:  May well allude to the “rusted gate” passage in Yeats’, The Celtic Twilight, or to the unused door through which in Celtic mythology  Cuchulain threw the stone that killed the Hound of Ulster ( see Yeats’ play, On Baile’s Strand (1904).

“Irish poets learn your trade”: from Yeats’ poem, “Under Ben Bulben.”

Billy:  William Butler Yeats.

Golden Dawn”:  A Hermetic mystical order in England in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Both Yeats and Maude Gonne were active members of the Order.

The Celtic Twilight:  An 1891 book of essays by W.B. Yeats.  The ‘twilight,” Yeats thought, would give rise to a Celtic revival, led by poetry and the arts.

toes:  A reference to the Celtic fairies,  about whom Yeats’ says in The Celtic Twilight, “their feet never tired.”

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Mysterious Life & Fabulous Wake of Fallon McPhael, Greatest Writer in the History of Chicago

Who, you ask, was Fallon McPhael?  What murky details have emerged about his scandal-riddern life in literature?  Is it true what they say about his fight with Norman Mailer, or his numerous affairs?  What of his alleged public indecency on the site of Chicago's famous Picasso sculpture?

Details about the life of mythical (that is to say, fictitious) writer whose wake will take place at The Charnel House in Chicago on May 4th at 7:00 pm are hard to come by, and, indeed, unverifiable by any respectable standard.  Nevertheless, researchers have made available the index to Raskolnikov P. Firefly's unpublished and unauthorized biography of McPhael.  Reading between the lines, one begins to sense the shape of the life of the author of many of the most important nonexistent literary works of our time.  Here, for your delectation, is the document in its present, incomplete state.  Any further information regarding McPhael that you may be privy to would be much appreciated by McPhael's executors, whom I represent.

Index to the Unauthorized Biography of Fallon McPhael

            To Australians (claimed)      366
            Peanut                                                110, 114, 298, 301, 333
            M.S.G.                                      298, 377-8

Anania, Michael                                 191

Ammons, A.R.                                     115, 118, 120-122, 403
            Negative review of                121

Barbarella, cameo in                          191

Bernstein, Charles                             406-11
            Physical altercation with      407

Berrigan, Ted                                     110-112

Bohemianism                                     10

Boxing                                                            9-12, 33-34, 177, 407

Breton, Andre                                    34-39, 46, 60-64
            And founding of Villanesque Quarterly

Canadian citizenship (rumored)     101, 130-6, 400

Chicago Sun-Times                             121, 180, 200, 299-301, 333

Coast Guard                                       13-18, 22, 66, 291, 400

Creeley, Robert                                  89, 98, 103-106

Curling                                               101, 130-6, 400

Democratic National Convention, 1968

Dick Cavett Show                              220-221

Dune buggies                                                44, 47, 55, 59-60, 88, 101-2, 187-188
           Lack of skill in driving                     88, 101

Ethnopoetics                                      250-255, 278, 310-312
            Tragic misunderstanding regarding           310-311

Farrell, James T.                                 220-221

Gems Spa                                           see Berrigan, Ted

Ghosts, belief in                                 11, 29, 88, 101, 104, 362
            Of Frank O’Hara                    88, 101, 362
            Of Rasputin                            31
            Of Yeats                                  360-363

Ginsberg, Allen                                  139, 407-8

Greektown (neighborhood) 151, 154-159

Green Integer (publisher)               166, 213
            Lawsuit against                     170-193 passim, 281, 316, 429

Green Mill Tavern                             59-61, 173, 230

Harper & Row (publisher)               66, 131
             Lawsuit against                              131

Hemingway, Ernest                           34, 37, 348-50

Hospitalizations                                 202-203, 221, 407-8

Fonda, Jane                                        190-194, 233, 237, 252, 408

Iowa Writers Workshop                   80-84, 89, 104, 221, 230, 232-5, 301-2
            Lawsuit against                      233-5

Kenyon Review, conspiracy against  112-113, 410

Lake Forest Literary Festival            398-9
          Lawsuit against                           398

Laroux, Leslie                                     101

Levertov, Denise                                166

Loyola University (Chicago)             45-59, 60, 322

Lycanthropy                                      103, 355, 357

MacArthur Genius Grant                  3, 6, 199-201
            Refusal of                               200-1

McSweeney, Joyelle
            Alleged paternity of             334
            Plagiarism from works by  367

Mailer, Norman                                 177, 219-220

Mexico                                                60-63, 99-100, 366
            Piñata incident                      103                
            Prison in                                 104

Motorcycles                                        60-3, 187-188, 202-203

New Directions (publisher)             235-237, 440
            Lawsuit against                     239

Nickname                                           11, 44, 67-69, 145, 406-407
            Alleged origin of                    68
            Altercation regarding           407

O’Brien, Edna                                    47, 88
            Drink thrown at                    47
            Revenge sought by                88

O’Hara, Frank                                                44, 47, 88, 101

Papacy, opinions on                          103, 355, 357-359

Pentagon, levitation of                      139

Paris                                                   60-72, 167, 406-408

Perloff, Marjorie                                407

Phobias                                              44, 104 190, 199, 235, 277-80, 345, 347, 399

Picasso, Pablo                                                66, 131, 156, 209

Poetry Magazine                              68, 120-3, 390
            Editorship (refusal of) (claimed) 122
            Lawsuit against                   123

Postmodernism, flirtation with        340-1
            Regrets                                   366-7, 370

Psilocybin                                           99-100, 156, 209

Public sculpture                                66, 131, 156, 209

Public nudity (charged)                   66, 131

Public urination (charged)              66, 131, 156, 209, 235-237

Ragdale Artist’s Colony                     98-101, 234-5
            Fire at                                     99-100

Rosset, Barney                                   200-240 passim
            And I am Curious, Yellow      213-217

Snyder, Gary                                      30, 33, 39, 99-100

Stephens, M.G.                                   17-23

Suitcases (collection)                        10, 30-3, 100, 223-9, 300, 348-50

Star Wars                                           77, 79, 213-230 passim, 409

Steinbeck, John                                  21-24, 33, 50, 55, 61, 420

Steinbrenner, George                       371-372

Suppressed works                            415-417

Terkel, Studs                                      56, 97-100
            Admiration of                                    97
            Actively disliked by               98

“Tupelo Honey” (song)                    145, 361-366, 422, 424, 426

University of Chicago Press             1, 411
            Lawsuit against                     81-89, 409

University of Notre Dame                290-291, 365, 370
            First Sophomore literary festival

Van Morrison collaboration             422, 424, 426

Vendler, Helen                                   232-235, 300, 303, 306
            Alleged affair with                300
            Negatively reviewed by        303, 306, 309, 312, 340, 345, 347, 390

Villanesque Quarterly, editorship      40-55, 307, 400;
            Founding                                40
            in France                                60-72
            Rejection of                            400

Vitkauskas, Lina Ramona
            Alleged paternity of              323

Wayne State University                    7, 277

Whistles, tin                                       88, 104, 145, 407-8, 422, 44, 426

Yaddo residency                               300, 303

Yeats, W.B.                                          90-94, 100, 145-50, 170, 201, 234, 260-5

Zyzzyva (journal)
            Lawsuit against                     399

Selected Works of Fallon McPhael

            Come Here and Say That: Essays and Reviews

            The Wheel and the Barrow
            South Shore Lines
            Three Words and Nine Sketches of Lemons
            The Droids You’re Looking For
            Gorilla Warfare
            My Only Regret

            In the Ring with Mailer

            The Last Bar in Bridgeport
            The Existing Disorder


We do hope you'll join the mourners, the writers, and the burlesque dancers at the Wake of Fallon McPhael — details below:

Thursday, April 25, 2013

In Chicago, One Night Only! The Wake of Fallon McPhael!

Come one, come all, to the wake of Fallon McPhael, Chicago's most important non-existent writer!  On May 4th, at 7:00 pm in The Charnel House (3421 W Fullerton Ave) mourners will gather for the reading of works by the late Fallon McPhael, as well as tributes to him by Chicago's poets and writers.  Secrets will be revealed!  Allegations will be made!  Burlesque dancers from Vaudezilla will, as specified in McPhael's last will and testament, strut their stuff!  Be there, or forever feel regret!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Who is a Contemporary Poet?: Giorgio Agamben and the Meaning of the Present

What does it mean to be a contemporary poet?  I used to take a plodding, commonsensical view of the question — which led me to a little contretemps with Kenneth Goldsmith.  Now, thanks to Giorgio Agamben, I think we were both wrong, and I've written about it for B O D Y, a great journal out of Prague.  The essay is called "Who is a Contemporary Poet?"

Here's a passage:

So a true contemporary is out of joint with the times, and this alienation gives a perspective from which he sees the time in ways the time does not see itself. He sees, in particular, the persistence of the past in the present, and wishes to change or modify the present in ways that also reconfigure how we feel about the past. It’s a tall order, and contemporaries are rare. I’ve mentioned Freud. Marx seems like another figure who lived his times as a true contemporary—discontented, seeing forces at play in the world that others could not see, seeing the persistence of the past in the social order and wishing it away, and providing us with a way of seeing that re-scripted all of history from a tale of battles and kings to a tale of economic forces, and all of this not chosen as an academic project but coming about as a result of social injustices he could not abide.
But what about the question we started with? What about the contemporary poet?

The whole essay is available here.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The (Old) Medium is the Message: Interpreting the Boston Bombing Spectacle

When I turned on my television today, Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying “the medium is the message” hit me with the full force of a newspaper hurled directly into my face by the last old-school bicycling paperboy in America.  Here’s the image I saw:

It’s a pretty typical bit cable news imagery: a pair of feeds, one from our hosts, one from an expert, and down below the ubiquitous network identification graphics and tickertape-style news crawl.  Nothing unusual at all in the format, and certainly nothing as attention-drawing as the content under discussion: the manhunt for a recently-identified bombing suspect, currently on the lam from the combined forces of local, state, and federal law enforcement.  To steal a pair of terms from art history, the figure here, the thing meant to be noticed and focused on, is the search for the suspect; while the ground, the material meant to serve as a presentation platform for the figure, and not to be noticed for itself, is the graphics/news crawl/split screen array.  But there’s actually much more going on with the ground than with the figure.

Consider the relatively static nature of the figure: while coverage has been nonstop for several hours, developments in the story during the 20 minutes or so I watched the news broadcast were nonexistent: a suspect had been identified and was being sought by law enforcement.  No information beyond that came to light.  But the presentation is all about the up-to-the second nature of the live broadcast, and the presumption built into the idea of a live analysis coupled with a text-based newsfeed is that there is an enormous amount of information to be processed, more than could be encompassed by a single information channel (like the hosts alone, or the crawl by itself).

The distance between the assumption of the format (massive information overload) and the actuality of the situation (little information, and nothing new coming in) shows itself most starkly when we consider the tremendous redundancy of the information being conveyed.  What, after all, do we actually get here?  Even when we leave out the oral information provided by the hosts and their guests, we see a huge redundancy in the visual information in the screen shot above.  For example, we can read not once, not twice, but three times that there is a manhunt in effect.  Moreover, we are told that this is “Breaking news,” that it is “live,” and that the news comes from “@CNN-BRK” — with the “BRK” signaling the live or breaking status of the story.  We’re reminded twice that this is coming from CNN (or three times, if you count the “NewsRoom” logo as a brand identifier).  If there’s information about the actual story to be conveyed, we’re getting it many more times than we need it in this particular moment. 

Of course the main thing that’s being conveyed in all of this redundant messaging pertains to something other than developments in the story of the Boston bombing suspect.  As the grand old man of communications theory, Marshall McLuhan, would put it, the medium is the message.

One of the things McLuhan argues in his study Understanding Media is that new kinds of communications media give us a “change of scale or pace or pattern” in how things are represented, and they communicate the nature of this change.  When 24 hour cable news came along, it created a change in the pace of news: things were continuous, now, and instead of getting a daily download of information during the evening news hour or while reading the newspaper over one’s morning coffee, one could, or perhaps should, be ready for coverage of news developments as they happen.  This was a big deal back in the 1990s, when the Gulf War became the first notable round-the-clock media spectacle.  But now, a couple of decades later, all cable news is an old medium, and has to be seen in the context of the rising medium of internet-based news.  Just as the rise of television changed the nature of radio (when was the last time you tuned in for a radio drama?), the rise of internet news has changed the nature of cable news.  We can, after all, use the internet to check in on any story at any moment.  If we want breaking developments, we can get them when we want them, minute by minute or at any convenient moment—we don’t have to stayed glued to a cable news screen, fearing we might miss something.  What had been cable news’ great strength—its up to dateness —is no longer its exclusive property.

So what happens?  Cable news seeks, in its very ground of presentation, to give a sense of its own continued value by stressing the excitement of itself as a medium.  The barrage of information via graphics, news crawl, and split screen commentary exists to imply that there is a lot going on, too much for mere text or images or talk alone to contain — the implicit idea being that cable television news is both current and exciting, and capable of capturing rapidly evolving stories more fully than any other medium.  The fact that stories tend not to develop all that rapidly, and the fact that all the information one could possibly desire will be available on demand on one’s tablet, laptop, or phone doesn’t matter—or, rather it does.  It is the fact that the jazzed-up multichannel television news broadcast is responding to, by amping up the idea that we need a full-on multi-level, multi-genre television feed to really stay on top of things.  What we’re looking at, when we look at a cluttered news screen like the one above, is something like the wrinkled skin and age spots of a once-young medium.  What we’re witnessing isn’t just a news story: it’s a news medium entering middle age.