Monthly Archives: October 2017

which came first …?


“… in much commentary, there is a tendency to look at every work in a given form, such as sonata form, as just one more example of that form, perhaps with a few quirks. From a composer’s perspective, that is a backward view of the matter. For a composer of Beethoven’s era, the idea of a work comes first, and then it is mapped into a familiar form that has to be cut and measured to fit the idea. The ‘quirks’ in a given piece are clues to the distinctive nature of that piece. Sometimes for the composer the fundamental idea is such that a new, ad hoc form has to be invented.”

— Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph; A Biography



This is a brilliant comment. It applies to all the arts (including, say, writing and poetry).


— Roger W. Smith

    October 2017

Edward Hirsch on walking


“I love the leisurely amplitude, the spaciousness, of taking a walk, of heading somewhere, anywhere, on foot. I love the sheer adventure of it, of setting out and taking off. You cross a threshold and you’re on your way. Time is suspended. …the rhythm and pace of a walk — the physical activity — can get you going and keep you grounded. It’s a kind of light meditation. … walking seems to bring a different sort of alertness, an associative kind of thinking, a drifting state of mind.

“A walk is a way of entering the body, and also of leaving it. I am both here and there, betwixt and between, strolling along, observing things, thinking of something else. I move in a liminal space. … walking often quickens my thoughts, inducing a flow of ideas.”

— from Edward Hirsch, “ ‘My Pace Provokes My Thoughts’: Poetry and Walking,” The American Poetry Review, March/April 2011



These are precisely my own sentiments. I could have not put it better.


— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017



Edward Hirsch, a poet and author, is president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

The words “my pace provokes my thoughts” are from the French poet and essayist Paul Valéry.



See also my posts

“on walking (and exercise)”


“Manhattan Island from Bottom to Top; Walking as Exercise”

Manhattan Island from Bottom to Top; Walking as Exercise

highfalutin hogwash; pseudo intellectual inanity; pernicious pomposity, perverse pontificating (take a hike, Spiro Agnew! you too, Bill Safire!)


Two things are pertinent to this post — form a background to it, so to speak.

First, this past March, I wrote a blog post:

Racism Rears Its Ugly Head

about objections to a painting by the artist Dana Schutz based upon photographs of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the black teenager who was murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955, which was featured in the 2017 Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. Protests had arisen over the work. I am in principle opposed to the destruction of art for reasons of political correctness.

Secondly, I am working on a post of my own about the craft of writing. I want to be able to illustrate it with examples of both good and bad writing.



With these things in the back of my mind, I read an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times which stopped me cold, that was so bad it was unbelievable. I thought to myself, how did it get published? I posted an angry comment on the Times site, but the comment did not get posted. No doubt, the Times editors found it inappropriate. Strange, because often comments posted in response to Times opinion pieces are not well written or articulate; and, in fact, many are obtuse and display ignorance and lack of acumen.



The piece that has astounded me with its badness and inanity is

“The Art of Destroying an Artwork”

by David Xu Borgonjon

New York Times

October 25, 2017

The Times article merely indicates that “David Xu Borgonjon is a curator and writer.” Googling him at

I found out that “[David Xu Borgonjon] is a curatorial fellow at Wave Hill and is the co-founder of Screen, a bilingual Chinese and English platform for media art commentary. Currently he is preparing a series of “Strategy Sessions” for Summer 2015, a professional development workshops for artists using board games as metaphor. David has coordinated the Gallery of the Women’s Center at Brown University (where he graduated in 2014 in English with honors in a Dual Degree program with the Rhode Island School of Design).”

And so forth. The information on the site may be slightly dated. Wave Hill is a 28-acre estate in the Hudson Hill section of Riverdale, Bronx, in New York City which consists of public horticultural gardens and a cultural center which includes an art gallery.



One has to read Mr. Borgonjon’s piece in full to get a feel for its awfulness. It is a textbook example of flawed writing built upon cockeyed premises. A key problem, which I intend to use by way of illustration in my planned blog on writing, is that the piece is too abstract, is not tethered to fact. One might ask, what’s wrong with a conceptual piece of writing, with exposition for the sake of exposition? Is there such a thing as too abstract? Yes, there is, and Mr. Borgonjon’s horribly written piece shows how this can occur.

It’s very hard to even figure out what he is talking about. One has to wade through the piece, which is tortuous reading, a ways to get some idea of what he is talking about. This, right away, indicates a problem. There are some would be intellectuals/thinkers and writers who seem to think that nebulous writing is a sign of great thoughts percolating in a genius’s mind, thoughts which he or she can’t waste time trying to explain to us. That it is our duty, should we wish, to come up to their level. This is hogwash.



The following are some excerpts from the op-ed du jour, followed by my comments (in boldface). Good luck in figuring out what the writer’s fulminations mean.


“But there’s a problem with this binary formulation, which opposes the sacrosanct art object to the interests and demands of the public. Curators need to think about more creative ways to withdraw art from public display. Rather than thinking of calls to remove art as either right or wrong, institutions should think of them as creative opportunities to reimagine who their public is.”

This is pure nonsense. Highfalutin language signifying nothing. Jargon laden mumbo jumbo. The underlying premises are flawed and the views imbedded in them are toxic and pernicious. Idiotic premises lead to idiotic conclusions.


“What we should be asking, instead, is how it should ‘go.’ A work of art could be destroyed (burned, buried, shredded), edited, documented, mourned or even substituted. It could be supplemented with performances, talks, protests. It could be turned into minimalist furniture for the museum cafe, or sold on eBay, with the proceeds going to charity.”

This is pure NONSENSE. How can the Times publish it? “It could be turned into minimalist furniture for the museum cafe, or sold on eBay, with the proceeds going to charity.” Is he serious? If he is, it’s sad. No, deplorable.


“Contemporary art theory has long held that the artwork takes place not in the moment of creation or exhibition, but rather in the ways that it circulates in the world. That’s why withdrawal isn’t just a negative act. The museum is actively putting the withdrawal into the world, which will then circulate beside and on top of the artwork, as a rumor, a footnote, a filter. I am arguing for a creative acceptance of the pressure to withdraw an artwork, rather than either outright rejection or reluctant acquiescence.”

Here we have an example of what might be called “over abstraction,” supposedly weighty observations, disguised as such, which amount to pseudo profundity. There is a pretense of deep thought, and nothing more. Everything is made perfectly UNclear. It shows an incapacity for thoughtful or meaningful analysis.


“Social media has changed how we communicate, and social inequity continues to differentiate how we feel. These dynamics are changing the way we curate. For one thing, the work of exhibition-making no longer ends when the show opens. Instead, it continues as a process of listening, a public performance that goes on for months.

“In some way, as curator Hera Chan points out, the dynamics of the platform economy threaten to make curatorial expertise obsolete. Who needs us when institutions can figure out, thanks to social media, crowdsourcing and machine learning, audience preferences quickly and accurately? The difficult question of who ‘we’ are, when we are faced with a controversial artwork, is the curator’s only remaining raison d’être. Consider that exhibitions don’t have a standard rating system, like movies or music — at some level, we must believe that every show should be accessible to all of us. Like churches or public television in a different age, museums are now our civic institutions, where we go to argue about who counts as ‘us.’

“The ‘should it stay or should it go’ approach fumbles the opportunity to broaden and enrich what that “us” is. It’s a difficult question, and we will not agree, but even asking it together creates a kind of community. It falls to curators to facilitate this conversation. Institutions, following the lead of artists, should respond creatively to the call for censorship. Perhaps the withdrawal of the artwork can make room for something else to come into view: a new public.”

Claptrap. Nonsense. And, like the nonsense genre, almost impossible to decipher.

“Fumbles the opportunity”? An infelicitous phrase if there ever was one! This writer clearly knows something about fumbling, from experience, displays verbal ineptitude that is plain to see.



I am almost inclined to say that this piece should be censored. It’s that bad, both as a specimen of writing and as an attack on art by someone who deems himself a curator. Of course, I’m against censorship. But beware of such writing by persons who pat themselves on the back for being in the intellectual vanguard. It’s just plain awful. And, as I’ve already said, it’s pernicious in its “know nothing” views worthy of a troglodyte and highly objectionable in a so called curator, presumably devoted (ha!) to preserving and promoting art. How about destroying? Anyone game?


— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

heritage, and intimacy


Roger’s Newsday articles (religion)


“A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” [Elvis] Presley told Jet magazine in 1957. “But rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.”

— “Fats Domino, Early Rock ’n’ Roller With a Boogie-Woogie Piano, Is Dead at 89,” by Jon Pareles and William Grimes, The New York Times, October 25, 2017



This quote got me thinking about a couple of things. (I grew up liking Fats Domino’s songs in the 1950’s. Everyone knew them.)

I always admired Elvis Presley’s basic decency and humility (as it appeared to me), after he became a success, in crediting others and seemingly remaining a polite Southern boy who never disrespected his parents or his roots. It is a fact that almost none of Presley’s music was original.

But, more to the point, I was thinking about Presley’s remark about “colored people.” Undoubtedly, he ripped off their music. But, it seems to me that, while I don’t know that much about his personal life, that he was always comfortable with blacks and respected them.

I got to thinking about the South and how the Jim Crow South is looked upon historically, in hindsight. One thing is evident: Whites and blacks lived in close proximity — one might say, cheek by jowl — in a degree of intimacy, whether one would call it “positive intimacy” or “negative intimacy.”

I am not really qualified to comment. I didn’t grow up in the South, and I am not a historian. I did grow up during the Civil Rights era which I viewed from a Northern perspective. What do I know beyond that? Very little.

But, I couldn’t help thinking about an analogy.



I grew up in Greater Boston. For a long time, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture predominated. My mother told me about it. Prejudice towards immigrant Catholics (e.g., Irish) was a fact of everyday life.

Slowly, over time, the Catholic immigrant groups — notably Irish and Italians — began, somewhat like what is the case with African Americans today, to make headway, gain acceptance, and procure political power. In my boyhood, many of the leading local politicians were Irish. The subways and other municipal agencies seemed to be predominantly staffed by Irish men.

Practically all the kids in my neighborhood — almost all of them Irish or Italian — were Roman Catholic. Being a WASP, I was in a minority, percentage wise. But, I was part of a privileged group.

My friends and I argued about religion all the time. I thought they were bigoted and narrow minded. They were more of less convinced that my liberal Protestant views (modeled almost completely on those of my parents) would lead me to Hell.

My intimate acquaintance with Catholics did me a lot of good.

The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (Vatican II) in the early 1960’s under the pontificate of the beloved Pope John XXIII changed things fundamentally. The ecumenical movement removed official discord between us Protestants and our Catholic “adversaries.” We no longer looked down upon or distrusted them, nor they us.



I married a Catholic woman from a devout, observant family who took religion seriously, although they were not fanatical about it. I always felt I completely understood her and her family when it came to the religious aspect of their characters. Catholicism had been imbued in me since boyhood, as noted above. We were married in her church. Our two sons were raised as Catholics.

I wrote a couple of newspaper stories as a journalism school intern about a beautiful Catholic church in Brooklyn that was being renovated and one about a Catholic school educator who was a member of a religious order. (See PDF file aove.) The priest and I had immediate rapport. I told him that I was not formally religious, but that when my wife said she would pray for me at times of duress (for me), it almost always seemed to be a good thing. He got the point of my remark and liked it. (I also wrote a news story about a Lutheran minister and his church which the minister praised highly.)



It seems to me to be a truism that intimate acquaintance with people who seem to be the opposite from oneself — Southern whites and blacks, a New England WASP and devout Roman Catholics — is always beneficial. There is a kind of understanding that goes deeper than ethnicity, heritage, or ideology.


— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

incarceration, death



“How Rikers Island and the failing justice system killed this public defender’s young, opioid-addicted client”

by Anisha Gupta

New York Daily News

October 21, 2017



a letter to the editor:

This op-ed is heartbreaking; its implications are devastating.

To think that, at least two days after his death, the Department of Correction “has refused to provide [Selmin Feratovic’s] lawyers or his family with his cause of death.”

But, what is worse is what he was charged with: entering an apartment laundry room and trying to pry open the coin machine. For which he was, as Ms. Gupta notes, overcharged and incarcerated before trial for no justifiable reason. His bail was egregious. What he needed was treatment for addiction, which resulted from his being prescribed oxycodone for an injury in a motorcycle accident.

Is anyone listening?

Roger W. Smith

October 22, 2017


Note: Anisha Gupta, an attorney with The Bronx Defenders, is a public defender who was representing Mr. Feratovic.

words on the chopping block


Why do people in emails and so forth nowadays close with BEST?

Best what?

Are they embarrassed or do they think it’s too formal to say BEST REGARDS? Or, as an alternative, BEST WISHES? Which one is it?

And, by the way, in emails, what’s wrong, if you don’t know the person well, with saying — in other words, writing — “Dear” and “Sincerely” for what we learned in elementary school (but I am sure is no longer taught) are called the salutation and the complimentary close?

Who came up with “best,” and why has it been ordained? Since when do we have to use shorthand when supposedly being polite?


— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

“You saw Tuna, of course?”


Robert Benchley, ‘Throwing Back the European Offensive’


The American humorist Robert Benchley (1889-1945) has been one of my favorite humorists since way back — since my high school days, as a matter of fact. His sort of humor appeals to me. I have never been a fan of satire, particularly bitter satire.

Benchley’s gentle irony appeals to me. It is rarely mean, and he is always poking fun at himself as well as the targets of his pieces (usually, idiocies or foolishness, not actual people). He has a taste for the absurd at times, but it is never wacky over the top humor of the S. J. Perelman or MAD Magazine variety.

Posted here (above) as a PDF file is a characteristic Benchley piece that is one of my favorites.

The stratagem Benchley recommends for ending boring conversations — asking questions feigning ignorance of what one’s interlocutor just said — rings true. I often think of this piece when I experience it being done to me, unintentionally. (It happens all  the time.)

The worst offender seems to be my wife! I will be droning on and on, and she tunes out. I will tell her something earnestly and she will reply after a while with a question which shows that she hasn’t been listening. For example, I might be telling her about the trials and tribulations of my day in Manhattan, someplace in Midtown, say. At some point, she will ask, “did you get to Midtown?” Upon which, I will ask her, “have you seen Tuna?”


–Roger W. Smith

  October 2017

the phantom double play




Willard Mullin cartoon 1

Willard Mullin cartoon 2



A double play is one of the most beautiful things to watch being executed in baseball.

The cartoon is a powerful weapon in the hands of a master cartoonist. I realize this despite my poor aptitude for art appreciation. Political cartoons have been around practically forever.

Posted here is a cartoon about the “phantom double play” by Willard Mullin of the New York World-Telegram and Sun. It was originally published in Sport magazine and was republished in The Fireside Book of Baseball, edited by Charles Einstein (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956). I have owned this book since boyhood.

The cartoon is self-explanatory. A caption reads: “The double play is one of the most exciting plays in the game … let’s not cheapen it with the phantom phonies.”

The cartoon appeared in the published book as a two-page spread. Here, I had to post it as published, so that the left and right hand panels are separated, unfortunately.


— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

an island … a city surrounded by WATER


photographs by Roger W. Smith



The photographs posted here above were all taken by me within the past few months in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, NYC.

I love skylines, love dense clouds. New York City has wonderful skylines. You can’t really see them from Manhattan, but you can from the waterside and from the outer boroughs, which have lower buildings.

It is wonderful that Manhattan is an island bounded by water: the ocean (New York Harbor), the East River, the Hudson River, the Harlem River.

One thing this does is prevent urban sprawl and the development of a megalopolis ending nowhere.

It also gives the city an almost enchanted quality or aspect.

As Herman Melville put it in Moby-Dick (Chapter 1, ‘Loomings”):

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand—miles of them—leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither? … There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water. … Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.


— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

Beethoven, Mass in C major, opus 86



I am partial to Beethoven’s Mass in C major, opus 86. It is not as well known as Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

The rendition here is from an old LP of mine.

The Gloria is sublime. It occurs at a point about five minutes from beginning of the first track. Especially moving to me is the part of the text of the Gloria, rendered into music, consisting of the following words:

Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam

Domine Deus, Rex coelestis, Deus Pater omnipotens. Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe. Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris.

Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram.

Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.




Thanks we give to thee

because of thy great glory. Lord God, King of heaven,

God the Father almighty. Lord only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.

Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father.

Who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Who takest away the sins of  the world, receive our supplication.

Who sittest at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us.


— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017