Saturday, June 24, 2017

Does "Okay Computer" give good Radiohead?

Ok Computer-Radiohead
After several years of  young fans and assorted bright acolytes telling me that I must have a listen to Radiohead's "Okay Computer" to experience one of the most important rock (or post-rock) albums ever committed to the ways of digital distribution, I finally did so, a close listen (or at least an earnest one), and found their enterprise wanting. Begging for attention seems more the appropriate response;through out the awkward angularity of the guitar bashings and inchoate mewlings  of  singer-songwriter Thom York's seeming parodies of a gruesomely awful poetry that needed to be placed under arrest in order to make the mendicant mediocrity cease, all I get is the callow ambition of some aging hipsters operating under the assumption that reframing, sort of, old modernistic gestures and blurring their glaring amateurism , we might come across Art, finally, and perhaps a relevant statement or two.  Far less the game changer claimed by defenders, it never distinguished itself from the other skeins of slow-coursing sludge that one finds at the extra musical margins. 

It's Super Mope, the mostly unassembled tunes framed by accidental associations of chord, tempo, tuning. I've absolutely no doubt that Radiohead worked diligently, night and day, for hours and hours until there were no more hours, to make sure "Ok Computer" was as close to their ideal before they released it into the wild. That, sadly, does not make this an enjoyable or  anything less than irritating. Few things in music listening are trying to some make sense of some feeble ideas that sound labored over. And yes, there are lyrics, and awful ones, to match the dopey dissonance Radiohead favors. 

Writing from the center of a depression one cannot shake is an honored tradition, at least in 20th Century American and British poetry, with the works of John Berryman, Plath, Lowell and too many others to mention attest. And certainly, manic lows are the source of a good many lyric writers who sought to write their way out of a bad head space. Their collective goal was, if one can use such a presumptuous term, was to leave something after them that would remain as art, instances of inspired writing, even if they failed to alleviate a malaise. Radiohead's rhymes, half rhymes and no    rhymes seem more symptoms than wit, more fidgeting with a notebook and pen than a focused attempt to get at a fleeting set of moods or insights that won't quite lend themselves to common speech. 

It's a generational thing, I'm sure, and I reveal my age without having to tell you, but it actually is a matter of having seen this before, heard this before, having had this discussion before. The last five decade are crowded with thousands of nameless creatures at the margins of popular culture, convinced of their genius but unsure what that self-diagnosed brilliance consists of. The difference is that Radiohead caught a break. Well, good for them on that score.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The 10 Best John Ashbery Poems

The 10 Best John Ashbery Poems:

John Ashbery is one of those poets who,being keen on creating an alluring style while at the same time denying a topical center in his poems with which you may create your interpretation and fashion a handy analysis of how the poet operates as an artist, that I've found myself arguing with for forty plus years since I first encountered him. Exasperating, revealing, dense,at times effervescent and transcendent, maddeningly private in references , sometimes just plain incoherent,other times transcendent and brimming with unreal clarity, Ashbery writes as if in a continual state of just arising from a deep and murky sleep. I'd hate to reduce describing him to "stream of consciousness"--that would be too easy for a reading population that , mostly, hasn't read Woolfe, Joyce, Faulkner or Stein--but his work does deal with the idea of the mind perceiving the material plain, concentrating on the objects being beheld, assigning associations from a memory that instinctively attempts to make connections between dissociated sensations, and then returning to the material world, and back yet again to the mind. It's a back and forth dynamic where in any thing that comes to mind comes also into play, attached to an image, made mysterious , poetic, glaring and anonymous at once. At his best, Ashbery has that effect, and that is where his greatness, hard to describe as it is, lies in plenty. And, of course, he has done more than a few pages of things that remain on the the page, untrammeled sentences that ought to have been trammeled. Here is a thoughtful selection of what one could consider his 10 best poems, with clear and concise comments from Ashbery's biographer Karin Roffman, author of the new biography The Things We Know Best: John Ashbery's Early Life.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

"Mummies to Burn": the future consumes history

Charles Harper Webb's poem "Mummies to Burn" reminded me, perversely, of a cheesy 1973 science fiction movie , Soylent Green,,starring Charlton Heston, where we witnessed the tale of a resource strapped, overpopulated civilization feeding the hungry masses with a mysterious synthetic food stuff called, soylent green. The movie goes through it's dirt cheap production clumsily, as I recall, until it comes to the pay off, when the protagonist sees how the sausage is made. His last helpless cry to a hungry, unyielding mass, was that "SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!!!" It's gallows humor, I guess, worthy of William Burroughs or Philip K.Dick, where the State handles the overpopulation and food scarcity with a single, sinister, brilliant move; arrest an over enlarging group of an underclass no one would miss if they vanished without a trace, and feed the momentarily privileged with the compressed and processed energy bars made from the departed homeless. It was an ecology themed science fiction film, made at a time when activist demanded a strong government hand in matters of overpopulation and hunger.

It was suggested to me that Webb seemed to be on a creaky anti-West riff, using the anecdote as reason enough to rehash a favorite harangue. There was a further suggestion that since the poem is a critique of Western technology strip-mining a culture for the sake of economic expansion, Webb wouldn't be inclined to criticize Egyptian history. Their record, it was asserted, wasn't Edenic and absent of cruel events. Had I came across the sentence that he had, I too would have been struck, surely, but the irony of the fact--white people converting human corpses into fossil fuel--and would have been motivated to write my own mediation on the severely negative side of Imperialism. His concern wasn't whether Egyptian history was noble or ignoble, but that European exploration into the area was intended not to learn but to discover exploitable resources. What he gets at, his intent and success, I think,is that the mentality is a pervasive attitude in the invading culture, and that the psychology extends to a narrowly set pragmatism; short of coal and timber, need to save money. 

Blimey, burn these bandaged cadavers, there not doing any good just laying around as they are. The fault with Cameron's visually magnificent Avatar , is that it relies on tropes that are too obvious, especially on the Pocahontas / John Smith tale. Webb, on the other hand, is riffing on an historical fact, and provides a provocative argument that it's not an isolated instance. I don't think he's anymore anti-West than , say, Jonathan Swift or , say, H.L.Mencken, two writers we praise for their critical eye and caustic wit, as well as their willingness to speak an unruly version of Truth to whatever gathered assemblage of thugs happen, at the moment, to constitute Power. You could say that Webb is a satirist in someway, a wiseacre, but whatever he is in spirit, he still notices how things that are said clash with things that are done, and that, like George Carlin, he has a willingness to push codified interpretations to the point where they become absurd. He is a poet, I think, who is keen on exposing contradictions and revealing the lies and embedded evasions we use to ease ourselves through the daily dose of cognitive dissonance.

The film had a paranoid take on government intervention in any social problems, and here posits, by way of Heston's flinty visage, a scenario where the State committed itself completely, with genocide and cannibalism being sane and logical methods to use in problems that have to solution. A nice , if sick joke, on the whole idea of recycling. Webb's poem proceeds from the same metaphor, extending to the idea that a capitalized idea of progress has to not just break with the past in order to extend a civilization's reach, but must be willing to consume it by any means. The present is only a waiting period for that thing that really matters, the future; everything else is a merely a means of getting there.

The companies didn't think of kas whimpering, "Woe,"
when the bodies where they'd meant to spend eternity
dispersed into the desert wind. Nor did the companies care

how many children weren't conceived because workmen
pictured their wives among the desecrated dead—
how many woke, shuddering, at night, imagining

the gaping mouth; the yellow, glaring teeth;
the mummy stench.

Nothing else matters , indeed, and there is a lack of love, concern, interest in what has come before, the deeds and lives of generations who created families, communities, a sane commerce, a culture. Nor is there an interest in appreciating the time one is actually in; appreciating what one has , in the moment, in the time of one's time, is merely to stand still and fall part. We gets the language of this mindless drive toward an unreachable future perfectly, deftly, highlighting the early modernist fascination with the power and drive of machines that will shape the time not yet arrived like were a malleable material, an easily pliable clay.
Nor did the companies care

how many children weren't conceived because workmen
pictured their wives among the desecrated dead—
how many woke, shuddering, at night, imagining

the gaping mouth; the yellow, glaring teeth;
the mummy stench. Those were not days (except
in print) for tender sensibilities. Mobs howled

for hangings. Corpses cluttered the streets
in that time of White Man's Burden—of Drag
the Wogs to Western Ways, and Make Them Pay.

So to the flames the mummies went. Earth
spewed them forth, plentiful as passenger pigeons,
common as the cod that clogged Atlantic seas.

No fear the supply would ever end. No need
to save for tomorrow mummies abundant as air,
mummies good for turning water into steam

to drive the great iron trains that dragged
behind them, in an endless chain of black, shrieking cars,
the Modern Age.

Aptly, this describes a sort of gluttony where there is no hunger except for a need to feel that one is powerful and headed toward a destiny who's rightness will become clear at some undisclosed date.It's insanity, though, a rage to plough through, smash, grind, conquer, burn, smash, and otherwise both nature and the archive of human endeavor to the irrational sense of destiny that there is a greater world coming, a final stage of perfection that requires the severe, violent divorce from what's come before. Webb draws a fine string of images from this one historical tidbit, and makes an argument without the shrieking harangue of a less talented writer. His aim , I suppose, is to have us laugh, shudder, straighten our shoulders, and to be aware of the avarice toward nature and life that gave us our diminishing margins of comfort. From there, I think, some of his readers might decide to do something about it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

a short note after watching "The Matrix" again, years later

Image result for the matrix
An important sci fi action movie, yes, as with the original viewing back in 1999, it is without heart or soul.What it does have is spectacle and momentum--the special effects, ground breaking back then, remain impressive, and the pure action scenes are sure winners all around. I found myself sticking around on yet another viewing , even through the flavorless philosophizing of Morpheus as he attempts to instruct the neophyte Neo of his true calling in the "desert of the real". Admittedly, listening to Laurence Fishburn's crooning low tones invoke this ersatz mixture of post modernism and Zen is guilty pleasure, but for all the technical wonder the film makers bring us, there isn't , at any point, where I felt anything like empathy for any of these characters. The characters,the actors, seem only in service to the Wachowski Machine, which controlled screenplay and direction; it's an irony worth pondering for a minute or two. What is for certain is that this the only Wachowski film that entertained me; everything else was but more spectacle, momentum, and reams of speculative exposition that seeks to make you to understand the fictional worlds they create. That's the problem with their work: the Wachowski siblings wanted us to understand their ideas more than make us care about the story they were allegedly trying to tell.

The Mummy is a very bad movie

Image result for the mummy
A minor secret, not dirty at all, is that I've enjoyed Tom Cruise's late career situation as a wind-up action hero making flashy, well crafted smash and dash melodramas for the popcorn and blow job crowd. His participation in onerous spiritual platforms aside, he's a Hollywood Star, a man, in his mid fifties, who retains his boyish charm and good looks and  who demonstrates, from appearances, a remarkable athleticism for a man close to entering the last quarter of his years. Knight and Day, War of the Words, Edge of Tomorrow and, of course, the last couple of Mission Impossible installments,  show this man to be a aware of himself as a man   with attributes that won't remain there all that much longer and who is, understandably, eager to make as many solid actioneers as possible before flesh and spirit wane more than wax gloriously. 

That apology made, let me assure that the Mummy, his new film intended to kick start Universal's "Dark Universe" film  brand in which they make use of legacy monsters they have claim to and make films that highlight them terrorizing the world in a connected fictional globe, is in indeed as awful as the critics have reported. Nothing emerges above the noise and cluttered commotion this film puts forward; the story is a muddled execution of what might have been an intriguing variation on this movie's otherwise other tried premise of an ancient mummy returning to life, sort of, to convert the present world into idealized sphere where the traditions and spiritual /political ways of a fantastically fictionalized ancient Egypt become the way of all things. We may, to be sure, gag in response to how this new project continues and perpetuates the racist and xenophobic premises of this horror franchise in all its iterations, but that is another discussion, albeit a more important one than the testy protest I'm lodging here.

My point is about how abjectly irresolute this intended franchise kickstarter was; Cruise himself goes through his brash-boy mannerisms, schticks he normally deploys with an effective, if calculated charm in other films, but here seems distracted, distanced, seeming as unconvinced as he his unconvincing. Russell Crowe is a  variation of Dr.Henry Jekyll here, a scientist heading a secret organization with a nebulous mission to contain and control the hidden monstrosities that threaten the civilized world, and there is not much to recommend his performance other than come away with the impression that he realized how listless the script was and opted to enlarge his mannerisms to levels more suitable for old cartoons blaring away in a cold basement. Note that this film has five stated writing credits, seldom a good sign. That may explain why the movie does not give us the slightest reason to stop resisting the fantasy it offers, as there seems to have been no attempt to smooth over and blend one writer's ideas with that   of the others. 

The scenes change tone and intent with jarring effect, comedy in one instance, gruesome horror the next,  hammy emotionalism inserted through out. Bad films are normally things I disregard quickly after I leave the theatre, out of mind , into the dustbin. The Mummy is one where it's hard not to talk obsessively with how incompetent a film it turned out to be.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

stray notes: Mumbling small talk at the wall

Charles Bukowski is some whom very little of his work goes a very long way. I admire the absence of all unneeded images, and do place somewhere in the Hemingway league as a writer who can be spare without being chintzy. That said, his minimalism gets monotonous after awhile, and his lonely-old-drunk persona, declaring over again and again to speak for the dispossessed and the marginal, becomes its own sort of sentimentality: the fact that Bukowski became aware, early on, that his constituency expected certain types of poems from him forced him, I think, to stylize himself into a corner he never managed to get out of. Not availing himself of different kinds of writing made him, finally, a bore. The truth of his loneliness, of his drunkenness, made him into a patsy for an audience that was too young, by and large, to have enough life to write their own stories. Bukowski became a one trick pony: his best material is his earliest, like Henry Miller, and like Miller as well, became a self parody without knowing it.

Ezra Pound is out of fashion these days, but I enjoy his adaptations (translations is too generous a word) of different oriental writers. In fact, I think that before Pound's adaptations, oriental poets and poetic forms were largely unknown in the West. I know it's an anthology warhorse, but I love "The River Merchant's Wife." I just find the way her feelings change towards her husband throughout the poem so touching--first they're childhood playmates, then she's a frightened, ignorant bride, then she falls so deeply in love with him that she longs for her dust to be mingled with his forever. 

I also get a kick out of the line "The monkeys make sorrowful music overhead." The line is almost comic to us, but obviously monkeys had very different connotations for the Chinese at that time. An interesting example of cultural differences.
Ezra is someone who has given me eyestrain and headaches in college, something I can't forgive him for. He didn't give me anything that was remotely connected to the idiomatic language he idealized, the truly modern voice that was to be of its own time, a period sans history. It's a totalitarian impulse to try to live outside history, or to lay claim to its reducible meaning, both matters Pound thought he adequately limned, but the problem was that his verse is leaden, dressed up in frankly prissy notions of what The Ancients had been up to aesthetically. The effect was perhaps a million dollars of rhetoric lavished on ten cents of inspiration. I didn't like him, I'm afraid. 

Unlike Frank O'Hara, dead too young, but with such a large and full body of brilliant--yes, brilliant--lyric poetry left in his wake. O'Hara, influenced by some ideas of modernists, got what Pound tried to do exactly right: he mixed the dictions of High and Low culture in the same stanzas with an ease that seemed seamless, he juggled references of Art, TV, movies, jazz , theater along with the zanily euphemized gossip of his love life, and was able to render complex responses to irresolvable pains of the heart--and heartbreak is always a close kin to his rapture--in lines that were swimming in irony, melancholy, crazy humor. This is poet as eroticized intelligence.

If Pound's poems work for reasons other than how he wanted them work, fine that can be explicated interestingly enough with entirely new criteria extraneous to the author's aesthetic/political agenda, but it begs the question, really. It confirms my belief that Pound was talking through his hat most of the time. In this case, based admittedly on my learned dislike of his poetry, I think he gussied up his theories in order to usurp the critical commentary he knew would follow his work: no matter what, all critics had to deal with Pound's flummoxing prose before they could render an assessment, a trick he garnered from Poe, and one deployed by Mailer, a somewhat more successful artist/philosopher/critic (though failed poet). 

Eliot had better luck combining the two virtues: The Sacred Wood and some of his other critical assessments have merit as purely critical exercises, self-contained arguments that don't require Eliot's work to illustrate the point. Eliot's poems, as well, stand up well enough without his criticism to contextualize them for a reader who might otherwise resist their surface allure. The language in both genres is clear and vivid to their respective purposes. 

Pound, again, to my maybe tin-ear, really sounded, in his verse, like he was trying to live up to the bright-ideas his theories contained: The Cantos sound desperate in his desire tobe a genius.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

stray notes: The perishability of the Great American Novel

Debates about literary worth often become perfectly ridiculous, a blurry food fight at best, playground taunts of a lower grade. On the subject of the greatest 100 novels written in English this century, I was momentarily smug when I realized that I'd read 75 of the bunch, but appreciated the misgivings of reader factions who felt that their groups, their "voices" had been ignored, shunted to the side, 'marginalized" , with the editors making inadequate efforts to broaden the Canon. But the real use of such list, I think, is to start a controversy, to get a debate going about what makes a good novel, and, I suppose, to have at least part of the public sphere be about something other than whether a sitting president did the wild thing with an intern in a broom closet just off the White House pantry. Not least of all, I've had more conversations, well-mannered debates (!) as to what constitutes a great novel, and most of these chats have gone a step further and dealt with, oddly, why literature is important to a society and culture such as ours. The talks have been stimulating, and, since I work in a bookstore, sales of novels have been brisk, and this due to a high-flying list that pleased no one. Let's have more, and let's rescue literature from the academics, who've abandoned any certainty in their analysis. 

For the greatest novel in America, I vote for "Underworld" by Don DeLillo. Really, no one writes better prose than he does, and the scope of this novel, comprising a hidden history of America in the second half of the century, races past Pynchon and Gaddis and Mailer and Oates, all writers deserving of Nobel Prizes. DeLillo's efforts to show America as a multi-platformed myth, is grand and achieves a sustained poetics. DeLillo's plotlines mirror a sense of America itself, being less a collection of lines that meet to some pre-determined point where greatness is conferred at the completion of heroic tasks, but rather than as mass of intersections that criss-cross one another, each with a version of the story told in a personalized language that stems from a world that is complete unto itself, a race of voices and noise that is a churning vat whose parts won't meld. DeLillo's work, it seems, will survive the withering dismissals of affected yokels, and "great American novels" continue to be produced yearly, quite despite our obsession to narrowing the field to only a handful of worthies who fulfill criteria no can state for sure. But DeLillo stands poised for world-greatness because he brings Americans into the larger world, where qualities of being American, imagined by our civics teachers as being divinely granted, has no bearings in a world that seems incoherent and supremely foreign. DeLillo's work, in "The Names", "Mao II", "Players", have Americans of a sort--professionals, artists, intellectuals, poets, usually white, privileged--losing themselves amid the shifting and renegotiated narratives, collective and personal, that are repeated, ala mantras, to give the world as sense of reason and purpose beyond the hurly-burly of the phenomenal world. This is a sphere where the sense of the world, our strategies and accounts to deal with it, are fed to media and then sold back to us with conditions attached. I imagine a work that is equal parts Henry James, for the aspect of Americans confronting the non-American world, and Orwell's "Animal Farm", where we have the pigs, in the dead of night, with ladder and paint brush, changing the wording on the social contract painted on the side of the barn. 

DeLillo, as well, deals with Americans in America, thankfully, and masterstrokes like "White Noise", "Great Jones Street" (an amazing rock and roll novel whos"Underworld e hero could be Dylan, Bowie, or Cobain), and ultimately " sift through the loss ourselves in our own country. Our stories are modified and changed; our Gods change their minds about ultimate truths as technology forces more secrets and incompressibility upon us. "Underworld" is a tour where history is not just forgotten, is not just pushed to the margins in favor or a Grand Narrative, but is in fact disposed of, thrown away when the metaphysical argument no longer suits the immediate need. The search for the baseball is analogous to a journey back to some Eden that never
existed. DeLillo, to my perhaps exclusionist sensibilities, has all these elements. But topicality is not what DeLillo is about; the currency of his plots is believable starting points for his investigations into the nature of our language, of how we address ourselves. His books, I think, have enough for generations of readers and critics to study and discuss for decades to come. He writes broadly enough, and well enough, to side step victimhood as a consideration and force readers, and critics for that matter, to study the performance of literature, the literary act itself. There is no "last analysis" to be had just yet, and for DeLillo's sake, I hope he writes a few more novels before we start issuing forth career-ending appraisals of his body of work. I am an obvious DeLillo partisan, but I don't think everything he's done is fully rendered, satisfying every idiosyncratic standard a "serious" reader might contrive, but the fact is that DeLillo is not a novel-a-year contestant with Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, or recently, Mailer, all of whom seem in a rush to consolidate reputations and make themselves nice and shiny for Nobel consideration. DeLillo has published a mere 11 novels since 1969, hardly an overload for almost thirty years as a professional writer. 

That he has themes that re-emerge from work to work is to be expected from a writer, and for DeLillo, his investigations into what we too- easily refer to as post-modernism (yes, I am guilty as charged) and its accompanying paranoia have produced major fiction, which is about, in too-broad a summary of his work, the difficulty of living in a world that has been stripped of any resonance of meaning, any suggestion of Truth, capital "t". This is a kind man-made environment that stems from the make-it-new innovations of High Modernism, and entering the next century with a sense that we have not learned anything despite high-speed technologies that shoot raw and indigestible mounds of data from one place to another. 

It's not a matter of us finding our "Moby Dick" for this century, because that places a false premise from which we expect writers to operate from. Yes, there is the anxiety of influence and the desperate writing younger scribes do to escape from under the long, inky shadow of the geniuses of the recent and less recent past, but I think each period is unique, and that great work is produced in some concentration of creative frenzy that dissolves the anxiety.

Readers looking for another "Moby Dick" for this century are better served to consider their period unique and regard the tradition as a lineage that is not a straight, paved highway that vanishes into a classically defined set of particulars every would be master adheres to, but is rather a broken, dotted line that threads and weaves through a loose cluster of tendencies in the culture, filled with writers who redefine themselves and their art each time out. Melville himself had to break with his own habits, transcending his discipline as a clever crafter of sea stories, a venerable genre he arrived at, to write the masterpiece called "Moby Dick". The best writers today do no different, living up to the nothing else other than the authenticity of their process. 
Faulkner and Joyce have comparable greatness, I feel, but I cannot escape the feeling that Joyce was the brainier of the two. Joyce’s' infinite layering of literature, history, theology and myth in to the molecular structures of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake demonstrates someone with a sensibility that subtly wishes to have Art supplant the Church as the institution men may comprehend a Higher Truth( whatever it turns out to be). 

His own dialectic method, perhaps. I tend to agree with the remark of Faulkner being much blunter, though he is scarcely a brute: the sensationalism Faulkner could give into was also linked to a patch of swamp that released his language, and allowed him to master the interior monologue. This gave us novels like "Light In August" and "Absalom, Absalom" that had with diverse psychological density.” The human heart at war with itself.  “Bullshit
has its place, and in fiction, it can be the sole redemptive element of any other questionable writing enterprise. Depends on the bullshit being slung, I guess, which again reaches back to how well one can sling a yarn. 

What Joyce slung certainly vanished over the horizon and broke some windows in transit.