Posts tagged ‘Poetry’

On His Way to Being the Very Best Writer I Have Ever Known

C.M. Kornbluth

C.M. Kornbluth

I think Cyril Kornbluth knew he wanted to be a writer at about the same age as most of the rest of us, which was generally early to middle teens. What he didn’t know was what kind of writer he wanted to be. His goal wasn’t, at first, science fiction. Cyril was a fan, like all of us, but what writing he did at first was mostly poetry, some of it plaintively sexual, like the scant few lines I remember of one of his early ones: “How long, my love, shall I behold this wall / Between our gardens, yours the rose, and mine / The shrinking lily.”

He possessed a manual of poetry, a book purporting to describe every poetic form ever invented and written, I think, by one of his high-school teachers. He and I tried writing as many different forms as we could, including a pair of matched sonnets, both Shakespearean and Petrarchan, but we gave up after an over-ambitious attempt at a chant royal. At that time, I think, Cyril was maybe 14, and I three or four years older. Then he began creating tiny storiettes, like “The Rocket of 1955.”

When I, closely followed by Don Wollheim, and Bob Lowndes, became a professional sf editor, most of the Futurian writing neos began concentrating on trying to write at least marginally publishable sf stories for these unexpectedly friendly new markets. Cyril went with the flow. Most of his work for the next few years was science fiction, some of it in collaboration with me. The stories were all pretty mediocre, or worse, but they mostly did see print in one or another of our friendly prozines. None of the actual stories get more than a C-minus, though some of Cyril’s 250-worders survive.

But that situation didn’t last long. The Second World War revised everyone’s plans, especially for Cyril, who had a woefully low draft number. He was nabbed early by the Army, but he caught a break. He had worked briefly in a machine shop, and thus had experience of operating metal-working machinery. This was just what the artillery were combing the inductees for, men who would repair the big guns, in a place far enough from the front lines that the enemy couldn’t swoop down and carry off those precious machines. They snapped Cyril right up. It was the kind of no-risk and cushy job that several million GIs would have given their left testicle for, but in 1944 what looked like a better deal came along..

Higher-ups in the Army command circles were calculating that the war was likely to last for years yet. If so there might be a serious shortage of college-educated candidates to be trained as commissioned officers. They didn’t want to run short on this valuable resource, so they quickly created what they called ASTP, the Army Specialized Training Program. Under it, GIs lucky enough to be accepted would be relieved of all duties except going to college.

This sounded like a dream of Heaven to most GIs, not least because the system’s unrelenting drafts of young males had left most colleges’ student bodies heavily weighted with an excess of young single women. Cyril applied, was quickly accepted and went happily back to school, this time in uniform — until some person higher still in command circles noticed that both the Germans and the Japanese were losing most of their recent battles, and the war might end sooner than they had calculated. So ASTP was peremptorily abolished and all its students, including Cyril, transferred into the Infantry.

For this branch of service the Army had great and unanticipated need, since Hitler had just managed to launch a totally unexpected full-fledged attack on the troops in the Ardennes forest. And that’s where Cyril landed.

See Part 3, “Cyril Begins to Blossom,” real soon now.

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This isn’t exactly political, it’s more about morality. Well, political morality, specifically our policies on immigration.

What I would like to add to the discussion is a poem, or anyway part of a poem, by a woman named Emma Lazarus. It was written for a dedication ceremony to the Statue of Liberty, and a copy of it is engraved on a plaque at the Statue’s base. Its title is “The New Colossus” and the part of it that I think relevant goes like this:

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

If that isn’t our policy, what sort of hypocrites are we?

Snow in Chicagoland, Feb. 2, 2011. (Photo by Dick Smith.)


Mike Darwin’s response to my piece on the loss of that very good man, Bob Ettinger, caught me completely unaware. I am grateful to you for repeating the offer of a free freeze, Mike, just as I am grateful to the people who sometimes tell me that they’re going to pray for me. Even though I can’t accept your offer, it’s a kind thought.

Let me quote from a poem that was written long ago by John Dryden, in an attempt to sum up the teachings on this subject of the even longer ago Roman philosopher Lucretius. The last six lines say it all, but I’ll give you the whole thing. It goes like this:

So, when our mortal forms shall be disjoin’d.
The lifeless lump uncoupled from the mind,
From sense of grief and pain we shall be free,
We shall not feel, because we shall not be.

Though earth in seas, and seas in heaven were lost
We should not move, we should only be toss’d.
Nay, e’en suppose when we have suffer’d fate
The soul should feel in her divided state,
What’s that to us? For we are only we
While souls and bodies in one frame agree.

Nay, though our atoms should revolve by chance,
And matter leap into the former dance,
Though time our life and motion should restore.
And make our bodies what they were before,
What gain to us would all this bustle bring?
The new-made man would be another thing.

But I do appreciate the offer.

I was not employed by Popular Publications for five or six months, during which time I didn’t look for another job. I decided to go for full-time writing instead, but when that period was over — when I got a telegram from Al Norton, asking me to come back as his assistant, at close to twice what I’d been earning as editor of my own two magazines — I said sure.

Everything I wrote in that period sold, some of it at a word rate twice as high as my highest before then, for a total income per week of work that was actually a tad higher than I had been getting from editorial salary plus my spare-time writing. Not everything sold immediately, though, and all in all that experience validated what I had long been saying for a long time: freelancing paid pretty well, but the checks came when they came, and not a minute before. It was nothing you could finance a marriage on.

And, as it happened, my girlfriend, Doris, was getting pretty tired of being a girlfriend around that time. She much preferred the honorific “wife.” But we’ll come to that a little later.

Although I had been out of the office only a few months, there had been some big changes already and more were coming. Frank A. Munsey’s magazine empire, consisting mostly of the weekly Argosy and a few other odds and ends, had been up for sale for some time, and when the price declined enough to be a bargain, Harry Steeger and Harold S. Goldsmith bought Munsey’s stable.

The one magazine that they continued pretty much unchanged was Famous Fantastic Mysteries, along with its editor, Mary Gnaedinger, a friendly and able woman a little older than I, who had settled in in what had once been my office. Steeger had big plans for Argosy. He was considering making it a men’s magazine, perhaps a little like Esquire, but he was taking his time making it happen.

My biggest surprise was that Jane Littel was gone, and a middle-aged man, salvaged from Munsey’s payroll, was editing the love pulps. I never met him but he created a minor annoyance for me. He found a poem of mine in the inventory, and not having been told that it was meant to be used under a pseudonym, went ahead and published it as by Frederik Pohl.

I do not claim that my published verse would make Frost or Eliot envious, but I didn’t want to be remembered for my sappier 25¢-a-line effusions. It turned out not to matter, since apparently none of the readers of the love pulps had ever heard of me anyway.

Rog Terrill’s monkey cage of male young editors had been depleted by the draft, and Al Norton’s helpers were gone as well, every one. I never knew any of Rog’s replacements well enough to remember their names.. Al, after losing all of his, had begun to replace them with two young women. One was named Olga Mae Quadland, friendly, able and good at the obligatory skills of spelling, grammar and punctuation. The other was a very pretty recent divorcee from San Diego, in New York for the first time of her life, and, actually, the one who turned out to be my second wife.

But that’s another story, and one that we haven’t come to yet.

To be continued. . . .

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Jane Littell edited Popular Publications’ line of romance pulps.

Jane Littell edited Popular Publications’ romance pulps.

The thing to remember about those pulp magazines of the 1920s and ’30s is that, with a few exceptions, the stories behind the lurid covers didn’t have to be any good. Not in any literary sense, at least — the average story in a pulp magazine was about as mindless as daytime television, if not more so. (Daytime TV at least provides weather reports and stock quotations.)

Curiously, however, in terms of spelling, punctuation and grammar, pulp editors were supposed to be almost as irreproachable as the New York Times, and actually came fairly close. Better than the average American college graduate, anyway. Even the writers, on average, were reasonably good at such matters., though the actual stories they framed in these grammatical and well spelled terms came about as close to mindless as any literature ever can.

You will remember, though, that I mentioned honorable exceptions to the rule of pure trash, and there were some. One was the crime pulp Black Mask, edited by Ken White from the cubicle next to my own.

Well, let’s slow down a moment here so I can paint you a word picture. The entire suite of Popular Publications’ offices on the top, or 20th, floor of the structure called the Bartholomew Building was in the approximate shape of a capital letter T, which someone had pushed over so it was lying on its side. The down stroke of the T, which now ran east and west, was shortened, leaving on one side just room for three small offices and on the other side the wall that kept visitors penned in the waiting room until our receptionist-switchboard girl, Ethel Klock, said they could go on in. The cross-stroke of the T, now running north and south and thus paralleling the nearby East River, housed all the rest of Popular’s employees except for the two on the (former) downstroke, which is to say Ken White, with his Black Mask, and me. (I believe a deceased pulp called Railroad Stories had once been edited from the now-vacant third of those downstroke offices.)

Although Ken White was my nearest neighbor, we seldom spoke. He was rarely in his office, apparently doing most of his work at home. He was, I believe, the magazine’s third working editor, and he was charged with keeping the magazine as outstanding for quality and innovation as it had been made by his predecessors. That was no light responsibility. Black Mask had been started by the team of H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan as publishers, and they had turned it over to “Cap” Joseph Shaw to edit. Shaw had done wonders, recruiting writers like Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler to reinvent the crime story for him. Unfortunately for Ken White, those two were no longer pounding the typewriter keys to fill the pulps, so it was a tough assignment.

White and I had the only offices in use on that abbreviated leg of the lazy-T. Everything else was on the T’s crossbar. Backtracking to where the crossbar of the T sat on the stumpy vertical, there was the office of Jane Littell, who edited Popular’s love pulps.

Janie had a background she didn’t much care to talk about, including a stint — before she began to put on the pounds — as a circus performer. She would never get explicit about it but I formed the opinion that she had been an equestrienne, one of those fearless young women who circled the ring standing on the back of a galloping horse.

Continue reading ‘Popular Publications, Part 3:
The People Who Made the Pulps’ »

Eugenie Clark

   Eugenie Clark

It’s hard to list the Ipsy’s guests in any sensible order, perhaps because they were not an orderly bunch. It does make sense for me to divide the guests into two classes. To begin with, there was the New York science-fiction crowd, all of whom I had known for some time.

In that group were most of the science-fiction people I have already written more or less extensively about in these pages. Among the ones most frequently present were Lester and Evelyn del Rey, Bob and Essie Bolster, George and Dona Smith, Cyril Kornbluth (first as a house guest of mine, then as a nearby resident on his own). Assorted other house guests of mine included Fritz Leiber from Chicago and Jack and Blanche Williamson from New Mexico.

Ted Sturgeon was definitely a regular in an unusual sense. For a couple of months one summer he never went home at all, since at the time, his finances being anemic, he didn’t have a home to go to.

The Pratts had no objection to Ted’s staying in the house when everyone else was gone. However, they didn’t offer to feed him. That was not a problem for Ted, who enjoyed a good dish of eel. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that by the time he finally moved out of the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute, he had fished out the entire family of eels who lived by the boat dock. They never returned.

Any number of other New York-area sf people visited the Ipsy. Isaac Asimov, for instance, was there I think only once, but it was a significant visit, since Fletcher and Inga had plans for Isaac. They spent a lot of that weekend telling him what a wonderful place the Bread Loaf Writers’ Colony was for anyone with the desire, and the ability, to be a serious writer … and, I’m pretty sure, spent an equivalent period of time with the Breadloaf people telling them what a wonderful prospect Isaac was. The effort paid off. Isaac did give Bread Loaf a try; he loved the place, the Breadloaf people loved him and he became a Bread Loaf stalwart.

The other fraction of frequent guests at the Ipsy basically comprised the non-sf friends of the Pratts, many of them with ties to The Saturday Review of Literature. Some of those were actual celebrities of one kind or another, as for example Eugenie Clark, known worldwide as the “Lady with a Spear,” after her bestselling book with that name. Eugenie, as a child, had been fascinated by the works of William BeebeHalf Mile Down, the story of his adventures hanging at the end of almost 3,000 feet of steel cable in his “bathysphere,” a steel sphere about the size of a pup tent, or Beneath Tropic Seas, about his less spine-chilling but even more beautiful experiences walking through warm-water corals with only a mask for breathing.

I could understand her fascination. I had been turned on by the same books at about the same age. The difference between Eugenie Clark and me, though, was that she then grew up to become an actual ichthyologist, and I only to become a writer.

Continue reading ‘Fletcher Pratt, Part 4: The Friends of Fletcher’ »