Saturday, August 16, 2014

ROBIN WILLIAMS

Robin Williams was a room full of radios blaring at full volume, each tuned midway between stations, the air crackling with static gristle, country music, traffic reports, names against Dad, religious shills rattling their tin cans, frayed choruses intoning the Big 90 from Sandusky, bad weather, more static, crazy laughter from the side of the road where old factories hide behind the tree line, the end of the dial veered into infinity and deep into the wilds of wicked, vengeful chatter, every voice cursed with an accent stumbling and bruising its verbal knees on the nonsense sounds that make English the playground of sex without joy, Robin Williams was the Kirby Crackle of each machine in the house coming on with a lurching jerk after the power has been off for a week and the city experiences that hardship of vines creeping under the door jambs and attaching itself to windshields and store front windows, his was a telephone ringing two floors up, three doors over, all night, under the bed, scaring the dog and making the cat's hair stand up like hair cuts that remind that liberty is a code word for fuck off and die, the left end of the dial grows louder in the static, all the music, news, weather, sports, Baptist preaching and miracle cures for a preferred assortment of cooties are sucked in, the room we speak up with the radios and such now pulses and puckers, it is the rant of something being slurped, liquid and quick, the room is empty and is dry as old bone marrow, quiet as cars without gasoline, there is only sun from the window, a breeze, night time coming.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and the gag reflex

Despite critical praise and massive box office success, "Guardians of the Galaxy" was thunder and lightning, rattle and a choking grind and stammer for its two hour running time. Concerning a rag tag group of intergalactic misfits who band together in common cause to retrieve the most powerful element in the cosmos from evil doers who would use it to destroy planets, solar systems, and worse,the character interaction is slightly better than what you'd get from a Fox situation comedy, Those misfits are a mixed bag of dysfunction, being a white guy with mother issues, a raccoon with culture issues, a tree with facial expressions and syllables shorter than an accountant's pencil, a green lady with daddy issues, and a brute who is out to avenge the murder of his family.Suffice to say this troupe is collective of untapped potential who've only to go through their coming trials to discover their as yet undiscovered virtues and better inclinations.

All these heroes achieve a Hollywood inspired resolution and acceptance of those things that they cannot change and rise above the excuses they've provided for themselves and come to believe in something greater than themselves, a cause worth dying for. It turns out, not unexpectedly, that the greater good is friendship , true and blue. The Guardians are essentially a troupe of lonely guys who have found their posse. These are not heroes with intransigent issues and deep seated psychological traumas that do not heel, such as those that plague and motivate Batman and his Marvel Comics knockoff, Dare Devil. This being a universe where morality is no more complex than a slogan and the most credible emotion displayed throughout is from a computer generated tree, these denizens are malcontents whose traumas could be clarified and cured by a guest shots on the Doctor Phil Show.
Most bothersome is that the combination of the two dimensional humanity they attempt to bestow on the characters and the relentless barrage of prattle, eighties song hits and pop culture references and action sequences that are compressed and rushed and introduced whenever the plot begins to choke on its contradictions , the movie is not unlike being in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a drunk who thinks he's Quentin Tarantino.

This has the effect of being trapped in a video arcade with a unctuous preteens, jacked on sugar and energy drinks and a limitless supply of quarters and/ or tokens playing the noisiest games in the joint. There are explosions, cliff hangers, close calls, landscapes and city terrains getting devastated with vaguely described quantities of glowing, pulsating cosmic energy that seem required, in all cases, to be massively destructive to all material and living things, all living things, of course, save the a fore mentioned white guy, green woman, talking raccoon , monosyllabic tree and avenging brute. They appear to caught in an unannounced aura of transcendence, protecting them from explosions an flying projectiles. The profusion of near escapes strains credulity, even in a movie designed to be resolutely unbelievable Our willing suspension of disbelief snaps finally, and find ourselves in the icy realm of tedium; worst, noisy tedium with visual clutter.  

Guardians of the Universe has editing style that is hardly better than the music videos that were the scourge of MTV in the grim, grey day of cable TV, back when it was reruns, televangelists and infomercials . The movie plays like it was designed for viewers with short attention spans . Scale has much to do with what makes characters believable in fantastic contexts, and I'd say that the contrivance of this film's set up overwhelms the possibility of empathetic response to them. It's much less that this film goes against the comic movie norm than that it plays out what have been Marvel's strength--good humor and an instinct to take the story JUST SERIOUSLY ENOUGH to make it dramatically compelling. For the characrters in GOTG, they do not really seem to fighting for a good cause against insurmountable odds. They are more like the Keystone Kops with a budget, a budget that was blown on production at the expense of story. In truth, the only thing you're doing with this movie is not waiting for the resolution to the conflicts that are brought before us but rather waiting for the spring on a stressed wind-up toy to snap and fly to pieces.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

6 short essays on John Ashbery

It comes down to whether you appreciate the conflations Ashbery artfully manages as he penetrates the psychic membrane between Steven's Supreme Fiction, that perfect of Ideal Types and their arrangements, with the material sphere that won't follow expectation, nor take direction. I happen to think that much of the interstices he investigates are results of artful wandering; Ashbery is a flaneur of his own musings, and the Proustian inspection provides their idiosyncratic, insular joys. Had I thought Ashbery over rated and a bore, I'd have turned my back on critical praise of him and left him cold; I have a habit of keeping my own consul regarding reading preferences, as I'm sure all of us do. But continue to read him I do, over several decades.  

Not a rebel, not a polemicist, hardly a rabble -rouser who makes speeches and writes incendiary essays against injustice, Ashbery is an aesthete, a contemplator, an intelligence of infinite patience exploring the spaces between what consciousness sees, the language it develops to register and comprehend experience, and the restlessness of memory stirred and released into streaming associations. Ashbery's are hard to "get" in the sense that one understands a note to get milk at the store or a cop's command to keep one's hand above their head, in plain site. Ashbery's poems have everything the eye can put a shape to in plain site, clouded, however, by thoughts, the cloud bank of memory. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Aristotle's metaphysics, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, a guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgment, and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.One might think that the mtvU audience might be more attracted to arch romantic and decidedly urban poet Frank O'Hara, whose emphatic musings and extrapolations had equal parts rage and incontestable joy which gave a smile or a snarl to his frequent spells of didactic erudition. He was in love with popular culture, with advertising, movies, the movies, he had an appreciation of modern art, he loved jazz and ballads, and he loved being a City Poet. 
 
He was more the walker than Ashbery, I suppose, or at least he wrote more about the going to and coming from of his strolls. unlike Ashbery, O'Hara loved being an obvious tourist in his own environment, and didn't want for a minute for his poetry to leave the streets, cafes and galleries where he treads. Ashbery is more the stroller who gets lost in his associations triggered by what he beheld. Ever more the aesthete than his fellow New York Poets, he was interested in things a little more metaphysical, that being that the reality that exists in the inter-relations being the act of perception and the thoughts that are linked to it, which branch off from the perception and link again with another set of ideas, themselves connected to material things observed and remembered. O'Hara was immediate, like the city he loved, while Ashbery allowed his senses the authority to enlarge his perception, to explore the simultaneity of sight and introspection. In a strange way, Ashbery is the more sensual of the two, willing to examine that even the sacrifice of immediate coherence. I’m not a fan of difficulty for the sake of being difficult, but I do think it unreasonable to expect poets to be always unambiguous or easily grasped. Not every dense piece of writing is worthy by default, of course, and the burden falls on the individual talent. Ashbery's writing, for me, has sufficient allure, resonance and tangible bits of the recognizable world he sees to make the effort to maneuver through his diffuse stanzas worth the work. Poetry is the written form where ambiguity of meaning and multiplicity of possible readings thrives more than others, and the tradition is not a parsimonious use of language, but rather a deliberate expansion of what words pieced can do, what meanings they can evoke, and what sensations they can create. Prose is the form that is, by default, is required to have the discourse it carries be clear and has precise as possible. Poetry and poets are interesting because they are not addressing their experiences or their ideas as linear matters subject to the usual linguistic cause and effect; poetry is interesting because it's a form that gives the inclined writer to interrogate their perceptions in unexpected ways. The poetic styles and approaches and aesthetics one may use vary widely in relative degrees of clarity, difficulty, and tone, but the unifying element is that poetry isn't prose, and serves a purpose other than the mere message delivering that is, at heart, the basic function of competent prose composition.


Asbhery settles in for the long haul

Whether It Exists
 by John Ashbery
All through the fifties and sixties the land tilted
Toward the bowl of life. Now life
Has moved in that direction.We taste the conviction Minus the rind, the pulp and the seeds.
It Goes down smoothly.
And the field became a shed in ways I no longer remember. Familiarly, but without tenderness, the sunset pours its Dance music on the (again) slanting barrens.The problems we were speaking of move up toward them.

This may be the closet thing to straight-talk your likely to come across from a John Ashbery poem, a brief meditation on how emotional attachment to otherwise vivid memories wanes as you age. Yet even in it's brief two stanzas and spare outline, this poem manages to bring two signature Ashbery traits to its center, elusive but not aloof.It suggests that just as the planet is formed by forces of weather and natural occurrence, forces that exist precisely because the earth exists at all with innumerable ecosystems shaping its profile over a great many eons, we also come to be formed by the cumulative logic of our choices over time.

Where once youthful ego and naive philosophy gave us the surety that we were the captains of our own fate and were superbly equipped to navigate by invisible stars, we find ourselves with the slipping of years in cities, occupations and with hobbies formed by the life we thought we created from whole cloth. Man makes his tools, and then the tools make man. In Ashbery's poem, our enthusiasms have ceased to be passions, an animating force of character, and are now, wizened with years, tested by experiences great, tragic and mundane, a cluster of traits, inconsistent habits of mind that haven't a coherent center but rather a shambling direction; inclinations rather than agendas. The glory of planting one's flag on a patch of earth with it mind to transform that acre and the acres around into a kingdom that will bear your name on signs and in memory becomes a hallowed shape.

Not that we are required to remain hard wired in stubborn habits and soured romanticism in our old age; Ashbery is a poet who cannot help but remain engaged with the world that has usurped his youthful mandate. Even as days , weeks and months go by faster in old age, the poet views what was the soil which was his metaphor for self creation and brings something from decades of life; what was formerly merely raw material waiting to be formed by an aesthete is now filled with nuanced shades, tones, subtle rhythms in the closely details   of trees and their leaves, tall grass. The world again provides you with something to consider and absorb whenever you're finished tending the wounds of the ego that is recovering from a protracted disappointment.

At a later date I added color  And the field became a shed in ways I no longer remember. Familiarly, but without tenderness, the sunset pours its Dance music on the (again) slanting barrens. The problems we were speaking of move up toward them.  


Ashbery's mojo

It comes down to whether you appreciate the conflations Ashbery artfully manages as he penetrates the membrane between Steven's Supreme Fiction, that perfect of Ideal Types and their arrangements, with the material sphere that won't follow expectation, nor take direction. I happen to think that much of the interstices he investigates are results of artful wandering; Ashbery is a flaneur of his own musings, and the Proustian inspection provides their idiosyncratic, insular joys. Had I thought Ashbery over rated and a bore, I'd have turned my back on critical praise of him and left him cold; I have a habit of keeping my own consul regarding reading preferences, as I'm sure all of us do. But continue to read him I do, over several decades.

Not a rebel, not a polemicist, hardly a rabble -rouser who makes speeches and writes incendiary essays against injustice, Ashbery is an aesthete, a contemplator, an intelligence of infinite patience exploring the spaces between what consciousness sees, the language it develops to register and comprehend experience, and the restlessness of memory stirred and released into streaming associations. Ashbery's are hard to "get" in the sense that one understands a note to get milk at the store or a cop's command to keep one's hand above their head, in plain site. Ashbery's poems have everything the eye can put a shape to in plain site, clouded, however, by thoughts, the cloud bank of memory. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Aristotle's metaphysics, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, a guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgment, and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.


One might think that the mtvU audience might be more attracted to arch romantic and decidedly urban poet Frank O'Hara, whose emphatic musings and extrapolations had equal parts rage and incontestable joy which gave a smile or a snarl to his frequent spells of didactic erudition. He was in love with popular culture, with advertising, movies, the movies, he had an appreciation of modern art, he loved jazz and ballads, and he loved being a City Poet. He was more the walker than Ashbery, I suppose, or at least he wrote more about the going to and coming from of his strolls. unlike Ashbery, O'Hara loved being an obvious tourist in his own environment, and didn't want for a minute for his poetry to leave the streets, cafes and galleries where he treads. Ashbery is more the stroller who gets lost in his associations triggered by what he beheld. Ever more the aesthete than his fellow New York Poets, he was interested in things a little more metaphysical, that being that the reality that exists in the inter-relations being the act of perception and the thoughts that are linked to it, which branch off from the perception and link again with another set of ideas, themselves connected to material things observed and remembered. O'Hara was immediate, like the city he loved, while Ashbery allowed his senses the authority to enlarge his perception, to explore the simultaneity of sight and introspection.

In a strange way, Ashbery is the more sensual of the two, willing to examine that even the sacrifice of immediate coherence. I’m not a fan of difficulty for the sake of being difficult, but I do think it unreasonable to expect poets to be always unambiguous or easily grasped. Not every dense piece of writing is worthy by default, of course, and the burden falls on the individual talent. Ashbery's writing, for me, has sufficient allure, resonance and tangible bits of the recognizable world he sees to make the effort to maneuver through his diffuse stanzas worth the work.

Poetry is the written form where ambiguity of meaning and multiplicity of possible readings thrives more than others, and the tradition is not a parsimonious use of language, but rather a deliberate expansion of what words pieced can do, what meanings they can evoke, and what sensations they can create. Prose is the form that is, by default, is required to have the discourse it carries be clear and has precise as possible. Poetry and poets are interesting because they are not addressing their experiences or their ideas as linear matters subject to the usual linguistic cause and effect; poetry is interesting because it's a form that gives the inclined writer to interrogate their perceptions in unexpected ways. The poetic styles and approaches and aesthetics one may use vary widely in relative degrees of clarity, difficulty, and tone, but the unifying element is that poetry isn't prose, and serves a purpose other than the mere message delivering that is, at heart, the basic function of competent prose composition.

Emphatic Mumbling:John Ashbery's Glorious Diffusion



I've thought for years that the best way to read John Ashbery's poetry is to first throw the instruction manual away and then go for a fishing trip in his various lakes of opaque meanings. Literally, imagine yourself in a boat in the center of a large body of water and cast a line into the water, and then reel in what pulls and makes the line go taut. Whatever comes up is always a surprise, unexpected, perhaps a tangle of things that wouldn't be bound together or linked in any conceivable but in the dreamy but sleepless realm of Ashbery's actively processing mind and attendant imagination.

This might be the closet an American writer has ever come to transcribing the language of their thought process; for all the conventional wisdom about Ashbery's associations with painters, French surrealists and the rush of popular culture, he very closely resembles the method of Virginia Woolf and the still engaging , if topically staid process of stream-of-conscious.

Ashbery's poems are filled with much of the material world, both natural and that which is manufactured, fashioned, contrived and constructed by human agency. In both Woolf and Ashbery, the central voice, the observer,distanced or not, renders an image, makes it solid and substances, gives it attributes and distinguishing nuance, allows the thing to be played with as the mind associates, puns, constructs parallel universes and contradictory time lines; sections of books, a cold cup of coffee on magazine, a painting under a cloth, shorelines seen from Italian villas, comic book heroes and the breathing of a grudgingly referred to "you" who is voiceless, without input.

I was aware that Ashbery was an adherent of Wallace Stevens and his notion of the Supreme Fiction, a reconfiguration of the tension between Idea and it's physical expression to the senses. But where Stevens constructed a grand rhetoric to address the generic formulations of the everyday--his poems often times sound like critiques of a reality that is inferior to a divine Idea that makes their formation possible--Ashbery makes more informal, casual, and brings the distanced bewilderment to street level. There are glimmers, glimpses, observations and sightings of the physical detail that assures you that you and Ashbery are living on the same planet, and yet at precisely the moment you come to a reassurance, these details blur and merge with the spill over of many other chats and conversations the poet seems to be having. The poems are not monologues, and one cannot call them a "medley of voices", as Richard Poirier had referred to Norman Mailer's Why Are We In Viet Nam?. "Medley" implies an orchestration of unlike parts made to harmonize, to make sense in ways that give pleasure. Ashbery's voice is singular, his own, and what comes from his typewriter are whatever arguments, debates, interrogations are rumbling through his consciousness at that given moment. While Ashbery is capable of the well turned sentence and even sweet music on occasion, his aim isn't to give pleasure, but rather to make the ordinary and nettlesome extraordinarily weird.It's not that his poems are any more accessible than Stevens--his less daunting syntax actually seem to make his poetry more demanding than Stevens'-- but with patience we can comprehend a language we might actually use , a voice that could plausibly be one we would have in those moments of lost thought, daydreaming, vague yet intense yearning when there is so much we want to bring together for a moment of clarity but are frustrated to find that our senses keep changing along with the world they behold.

Ashbery is the central poet for many critics whose projects intend to layout the raise of urban Modernism in American verse. Marjorie Perloff is someone else worth mentioning as much of who she deals with are city poets, worldly, college educated, unashamedly bookish, and unafraid to employ a more vulgar popular culture, IE comic books, movies, advertising, along with the more swank and sophisticated allusions to high culture, whether literature, opera, theatre, painting.

A connecting thread through much of the poets emerging after WW2 was their ambivalence to the plenitude of culture and media--Dwight McDonald's derided mass culture--and began, in their individual endeavors, to fashion particular styles to sift through the cultural dumping ground each of them were witnessing.

Elizabeth Bishop is exquisitely hermetic in her verse, and is much closer to the qualities Stevens praised for poetic surfaces calling their own form into question, and James Merrill , who was something of a virtuoso in sustained, whispering elusiveness.
One sees why some of the poets of the New York School receive more attention from readers and critics, especially the work of Ashbery and Frank O'Hara (and to a lesser degree, the wonderfully digressive poems of Ron Padgett); meanings and intents about the growling contradictory messages of physical reality are dealt with as unresolvable conditions of existence in the work, but the point is how the poet is engaged with their world. It might be said that Ashbery's work makes no sense, and conveys a sense of witness to an ever blooming enlargement of perception.The poetry of the New York School was , in essence, about talking about the world as it unfolded , an attempt to give a cadence and rhythm to the kind of personality which bears witness to the confluence of sight, sound and smells .This is a fitting rite for a city that is in your face, traffic lights, pedestrian density and raw-lettered advertising, the moment you step out the door of your apartment building; everything is seemingly noticed, nothing is trivial, everything is a part of the story. Sheer meaning, hard and fast, is not be found here, but feeling, resonance, introspection are, and it is this several layered ambiguity that keeps a reader up at night, staring out of the window, testing the keyboard as ideas about what we haven't thought about comes in phrases even God himself couldn't explain.O'Hara is not so oblique or confusing--he is popular precisely because he has the lyric capacity to merge his far flung loves of high and low culture and still carry on a rant that achieves a jazzy spontaneity--he is the poet from whom Billy Collins has taken from and tamed for polite company.

Ashbery is the stroller, the walker in the city, the flaneur, the sidewalk engineer examining the city in it's constant self-construction, composing a poetry of association that accompanies a terrain of things with inexplicable uses.

What seems like a mighty muddle in his writing becomes full engagement of a personality in love with what the senses bring him; at his best the intelligence of the poems is transcendent and there is , in the main, a tangible joy in how he phrases his reactions, responses and retorts to a world that always seems to baffle him in some wondrous way.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

"Lunch Poems": Frank O'Hara's masterpiece is 50 years old

Frank O’Hara published a poem he wrote in 1964 about where he was and what he was doing when he heard that fabled jazz and blues singer Billie Holiday passed away. There is temptation to scratch your head after you read and offer a dumbfounded groan, wondering what the hell this babbling prattle might be. I had the same response, but repeat readings of the poem gave me a blue, as second and third readings of verse that reveal themselves like opened Christmas gifts often do. The poem isn’t about Holiday, it does sing her praises or moon over the soul and genius that is no longer hours to witness live and suffering for our entertainment. What had been remarked about her was already said, what she had done was well known fact and the stuff of legend; her music was the kind that seeped into the soul and played the over tuned strings of your heart, as was the case with O’Hara. The city poet was going about his business scurrying New York City getting things done, crowding his hours with chats, errands, music, a drink, more chatter, a day like another, indistinguishable until the the latest of worst possible things that could happen , happens:

The Day Lady Died
BY FRANK O'HARAIt is 12:20 in New York a Fridaythree days after Bastille day, yesit is 1959 and I go get a shoeshinebecause I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton   at 7:15 and then go straight to dinnerand I don’t know the people who will feed me I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun   and have a hamburger and a malted and buyan ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets   in Ghana are doing these days                                                        I go on to the bankand Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)   doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life   and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine   for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do   think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or   Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègresof Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaineafter practically going to sleep with quandariness and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANELiquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and   then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue   and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and   casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a cartonof Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking ofleaning on the john door in the 5 SPOTwhile she whispered a song along the keyboardto Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing. 


A perfect monologue of someone's hurried, distracted trek through a bustling city scape , attempting to get things done and then prepare themselves for later pleasure or duties performed , an accounting of inane events, a list of stupid rituals and stop overs that merge suddenly with news of incredible sadness, a deep sharp wound that is made that brings  on the ironic counter effect, a recollection of joy. Frank O'Hara's tribute to Lady Day makes sense and it is one of the very few that people remember from poetry because, I think, you have a sense that he is a friend who was standing next to you when first heard of the tragic passing of someone close to your heart. It's a poem that you re-read, over and over, through the decades. Frank O'Hara wrote more than a few poems like that.

It's been fifty years since the publication of Frank O'Hara's seminal book "Lunch Poems":, which means that I was twelve when it first appeared. It was a small book, part of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Pocket Poets series on his City Lights imprint, and it was one of those books you saw everywhere you went as a young person in search of experience, ideas, and kicks of a sort; it was on bookshelves and stuffed in back pockets all over the map, especially the city map. Reading Frank O'Hara was one of those authors you had to read in order to feel current with the alternative culture.


 Despite the book's ubiquity when I was a teen and a young poet/musician/critic looking to make a mark, I didn't read the volume until I was in my late twenties, after a couple of other poets I'd made friends with strongly suggested that my own work resembled O'Hara's. Curious, of course, I dug up the copy of "Lunch Poems" I bought a couple of years earlier, along with a stack of other assorted texts and which I had also left in said stack. How much my work resembles O'Hara is something for others to suss out, but I will say that I had made a new friend ; the poet's ebullient breeziness, his disdain for the formal conception of profundity, his ability to write a poem that seems wonderfully to capture the sense of an alert mind noticing the city and its citizens and the work and play they do simultaneously is, I think, one of the miracles of modern poetry. With its abrupt beginnings, swooning affection for the tacky, the tarnished and frayed, with its emotions obviously and playfully at the surface of all things engaged, O'Hara transformed the lyric poem; he brought the lone voice back from its time in the wilderness of  the deepest part of downtown and gave it the swing and brackish grit of fast, rapid played  bebop.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Sleigh and WC Williams

Tom Sleigh's poem "Block and Bag", the featured verse on Robert Pinskys' poetry discussion forum, is a superb evocation of the writer's imagination set itself the task of anthropomorphising the obvious. Bored , hung over, or tired from long  road trips and a succession of hotels that are generic and without evidence that decent people would have anything to do with them, the narrator, likely Sleigh himself, stares out his room window and details the touch and do between a styrofoam box and a loose  bag being pushed around by a strong enough wind. It is wonderfully cartoonish, and it is a comic wonder to witness a poem's narrator musing  what the nature of the attraction/repulsion between the   block and bag might be. The poem under discussion:



BLOCK AND BAG
(Tom Sleigh)
Pursuit, delay, anxious moments of dallying,
then leaps, bounds, hilarious cartwheels turning
manic with rage or fear performed in a concrete
courtyard bare but for hotel windows replicating
everywhere these mad, senseless, random chases,
a little styrofoam block fiery as Achilles
racing after a plastic bag kiting and billowing
round and round this blah arena, this angle/plane world
stripped to extremes of sun scraping concrete
bare, or blasted dark, obliviated by clouds,
the light neutered to the spirit’s dullest grays while Block
and Bag now seem hunter/prey, john/whore,
then inexplicably bound and flutter to a halt,
exhausted, Block’s corners pitted, rounded
by bumps and skids and somersaults,
Bag blowzy and worn, bedraggled by all this
unexpected passion, this afflatus of breath swelling
it full then sucked out so it collapses in ruin,
abject, pleading, overdoing it maybe, knowing more
than it lets on, only playing dead for Block’s titillation,
You did it, you conquered, I’m nothing, nothing …
until the whirlwind hits and drives them on
obsessed without purpose in their abandon
that could be joy, terror, elation of love, despair’s
deflation, desire’s movements like armies
maneuvering across no man’s land, the spirit
coquetting after the unreachable
as Block now bounds to within an inch of Bag
fluttering off at an eccentric angle,
the light winking off it like an eye winking,
you know I know you know someone’s watching—
now Bag crumples in a corner, seemingly blacked out,
Block hovering near as if debating to strike
and demolish Bag, put an end to this pursuit—
no angle of approach, no middle ground,
no terms of ransom, no truce—
just this squarish, brick-faced concrete
among endless displacements rippling out
across this nowhere courtyard where Block and Bag
are at it again, running amok, racing round and round,
giving no quarter and desiring none
the way heroes of old lavish on each other
ferocious attentions no lover can rival,
oh most worthy and wedded of combatants:
berserk Block; shrewd tactician Bag.




This is a splendid companion to Tom Sleigh’s “Block and Bag”. Certainly, both poems are set in a material world where what is seen isn’t linked to an unseen metaphysical chain of certainty that even the best poets can only guess at. Indeed, the closest thing that the items in the lines are connected too are the writer’s imaginations which are free to link to associate and characterize the incidents and their particulars as they choose, drawing from their respective wealths of experience, temperament, sensibility.Sleigh, though, distinguishes himself in the way he selects particular qualifiers, similes, choice phrases to his parking lot terrain and the doings of the Styrofoam and bag; his language , connected to emotional association and the texture of moods sculpted from a range of experience, is the animating force behind the narrative his gives the block and bag in their dual tumult; the fluidity and near seamlessness of how phrases emerge from the action as though responding to circumstances the way gardens, in longer time spans, respond to sunlight and good weather, gives everything an accelerated feeling. Sleigh effectively collapses the events into something cinematic, whether a cartoon or a Three Stooges two reeler. Williams, in contrast, pares everything back to a skeletal exactness, presents an outline of events, a sequence of cause and effect that is so simply stated and astounding in clarity that it achieves a unique complexity ; there is a narrative complexity that has everything to do with the language he didn’t use.
As the cat
________
As the cat
climbed over
the top of
the jamcloset
first the right
forefoot
carefully
then the hind
stepped down
into the pit of
the empty
flowerpot
I could on for paragraphs about the photographic quality of this fine gem of a verse, but it suffices to say here that what William Carlos Williams has done is distill the movement of the cat trying to navigate over an obstacle course of household items with the effect of a well chosen slide show, uncaptioned, where image and the sequence of images presented tell a story that is profound because it is something that incidental, banal in itself, but meaningful because it is seen. The cat poem makes me think of the motion studies of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, incidently. Good and great poets notice things and create new frameworks for understanding their contexts, and both Sleigh and WCW have done that, with different sorts of language and rhythmic emphasis.







Saturday, August 2, 2014

Cream Rises or Goes Flat and Dry


Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker , forever known as the stellar power trio Cream from that drear and diffuse decade we term "The Sixties", staged a short reunion tour in 2005 . I was a Cream partisan, a newly minted blues fan, someone who debated with other mid-teen zealots as to who was the better guitarist, Clapton or America's own, if transplanted Jimi Hendrix.  In any event,  the live recordings were what brought me to them, especially the track "Spoonful", a bloated, elongated, loud and gloriously  bombastic reading of the Howlin'Wolf/Willie Dixon classic . 

Composed of two chords and lots of groin-twisting obnoxiousness, the Cream rendition was a plodding, wandering, snarling crawl of an extended improvisation, with Baker on drums and Bruce on bass seeming to wander about and otherwise stray in their function as a rhythm section. Baker liked poly rhythms and jazzy offbeats  , playing ahead and behind where the pivotal bass note landed and Bruce, not so much a time keeper or a tempo technician as was a  musical nervous system all his own, dueled with Clapton's guitar phrases furiously. Where other rock bassists, whatever their skill level, maintained their task of keeping things moving and marrying the melody to the beat, Bruce was a jazz man at heart; even with blues tunes and pop songs that rarely had more than a few chords and blessed with complicated melodies, the two of them reverted to their jazz backgrounds and deconstructed the material until it was a snarling, snarky bit of ker thump and cement-splitting thump. Clapton had no jazz back ground and was, technically, the least versatile of the three of them, but he had soul, style, a true grasp of the blues and was one of the very first white guys who became notable for developing his own distinct voice in a the twelve and sixteen bar tradition. 

But Clapton, the alleged "Slow Hand" of repute, was game to try his hand at extended jamming and brought his limited but stylish expertise to a strange mix that gave us some exciting results; tone, texture, short, biting riffs, much of what Clapton as the ostensible lead instrumentalist was repetitious. But there was energy, and in the best moments they actually got a groove going, a call and response of simple yet compelling ideas that rivaled the best intensities I've heard from John Coltrane. Just as often, the band's preference to extend their songs with improvisations quickly exhausted itself and you  could sense the  boredom behind the notes Clapton bent and the off beats Baker tossed out , all while Bruce seemed to be playing bass as though he were jacked to the tits on strong coffee and black beauties. 

Then it seemed like a date with someone you didn't like and it was a long ride home and you were thinking all the while that too soon the car would stop and somehow you'd have to decide to go through with your bad faith and hate yourself in the morning, or just end the night abruptly, coldly, either driving off without a kiss or a promise to call, or a slammed door on the passenger side, a fast walk to the front door and through and locking it behind you, turning off the porch light as the final message of "go away".

Friday, August 1, 2014

TOM SLEIGH'S FANDANGO

 "Block and Bag", a poem  by Tom Sleigh, highlighted this month on Robert Pinsky occasional poetry discussion forum,  is an elegant and rowdy verse where animation is everything. The set up is a hotel guest freshly checked into his room, tired and perhaps bored with the traveling from city to city, seeing nothing but one bland motel after another in quick  succession. His mind is racing with an urge to create something that is not pre-mixed, popped from a mold, or other wise leeched of all spontaneity . He stares out the window and sees the courtyard of a typical motel, a "blah arena." True to his function as a writer, he creates his own fun. 
 
The writer's mind is a restless thing indeed, with its antennae always positioned to scan and notice and interpret the other wise un-narrated events of the world, the small happenstances that follow other related incidents of otherwise no particular consequence to the quality of the scribe’s day. I well imagine Sleigh and others like him staring out a tourist grade window in a generic hotel staring at the fabricated Americana in front of him, the comfortable swimming pool, the parking spaces numbered and marked with oil stains, the sequentially planted flora and shrubbery and the landscaping which is either obsessively maintained like a forty dollar manicure, or showing lack of care around the edges as brown spots on the lawn and dead leaves on the bushes reveal the brutalities of weather and bad staffing. 

The poet peers into this bland arena and desires to make something happen, to find details and commotions that stray from the scripted norm and which appear to bringers of chaos, the usurpers of authority,the life force that cannot be contained by check out times or planter boxes from Pottery Barn, So there is a block and bag in a chase and a duel and a gavot and high step that brush against the otherwise stationary world of a hotel public area, a bit of unruly behavior that could not be predicted; the narration begins, the struggles of being a alive come to mind and find themselves diagnosed and outlined in Sleigh’s telling what he sees and thinks. 

It is a fresh examination of things that rarely get scrutiny save for safety inspections and minor repairs; what I enjoy about this poem is the conceit that there is a secret life to things that have no nervous system, no brain, that do not breath nor procreate. It is a cartoon rendering, coyote vs road runner to an extent.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Stop being stopped up


Grey and grousing poetry readers, by whom I mean writers of poetry without book contracts or publications of note who happen to be in the early stages of seniordom, say, 60-63 years old, like to stick to a talking point that poetry is dead. We've all had this conversation to the point where we can mount the arguments on either side of the proposition, yay or nay. There is too much bad poetry out there the self-selected judges would say, there are too many writers who have gleaned the wrong lessons from poetic tradition and give us, the readers, eager of eye  but shy of purse, a third or fourth rate renditions   of ideas of past , more brilliant generations. Do you roll your eyes when these complaints meet your ears?

 Do you wish the live complainer in front of you were a web page you could close with a left or right click of the mouse? I wouldn't be surprised if you've had similar encounters and reactions and share a distrust , distaste for and have allergic reactions to blanket statements , regardless of subject, whether it be art, politics, food, or music, or the kind of person you are attracted to.

The cure for the negativity, if there is any, is to push ahead and stay keen on the search for new poems, new movies, new books, indeed,new friends who can brighten your life and make you a smarter , better person by benefit of having conversations with them; that would be a stream that flows in two directions , and that is the miracle of that happenstance. Whitney Balliet,  jazz critic for the New Yorker from 1951 until  2007 (a very long time to be the one commenting on what musicians are creating in the moment and never to be heard quite the same way again) collected a book of his essays called "The Sound of Surprise", a title that beautifully summarizes the art of jazz improvisations and which , at least for me, crystalizes a particular philosophy I am trying to cultivate as I edge into the aforementioned  zone of elderhood, the capacity to be surprised.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

 Now, it is fine to create entertainment, but the highest form of communication is undoubtedly that which can express the broadest concept (or the most concepts) as effectively as possible.The height of literature is, therefore, the same. This isn't meant to imply that  entertainment is neither Art nor valuable, but that is inherently a weaker or more limited form of literature. Simply  stated, merely entertaining people is not the end of literary aspiration by a long shot. I am trying to define and defend the most complete and efficient literature: that which can express the most most effectively or complexly. This means that there are, buried within the uncertainties, objective principles of literary art. Aesthetics, briefly, can, rather than an inquiry, be a artistic doctrine or principle. There were, in fact, several aesthetic movements. And finally, I should argue that hedonism is very much a part of the Western culture: that the freedom of doing one's own thing, or the illusion of it, is the general propensity of this society, yours and mine. It has been a long time since Emerson wrote of his ideal man, a man slave to his impulses, but that ideology has buried itself deeply in our culture.  We think that we've woken up from the retrograde slumber, but  we notice, in some sense of   collective twitching, that our dreams are filled with the likes of us facing open windows overlooking drive in theatre movie screens that emit the sound of thunder and the rattle of buildings being battered  by high winds, and yet no images appear on the flat surface of the white leviathans.

Harmonica playing can be dangerous

I worked in the carnival during the seventies, one of those guys in an orange shirt in a line up game covered in checkered and striped tarp and festooned with dusty stuffed animals who badgered you to play and win your girl friend "the big one". What a tale that is. After work one night in Costa Mesa, a bunch of us gathered at the "carnie entrance" to drink beer, bullshit and do whatever drugs were on hand. I usually played my harmonica, someone with a guitar would usually show up and a jam would ensue, which the other carnies, lumpen proletariat all, enjoyed quite a bit.

One night, though, I was playing  as usual, after work, kicking a slew of Butterfield and John Sebastian riffs, when I saw this large, beefy ride jock (the guys who operated the carnival rides) saying something to me. I leaned closer and asked him to repeat, and he repeated, but I still didn't understand him because I went back to riffing on the harp. I leaned closer still, turning my good ear toward him. He staggered a little , gave me a stare that would make fish float to the top of the lake, and croaked "how'd you like that thing crammed up your ass?" I set my beer down and pocketed the harmonica and then left through the carnie gate back toward the motel room.

WHAT I'VE BEEN READING

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Ted's bookshelf: read

The Tortilla CurtainU.S.!: A NovelSlaves to Do These ThingsCrackpots: A NovelThe Incentive of the MaggotFrantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir

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Ted's  book recommendations, reviews, favorite quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists