Thursday, July 31, 2008

Wayne Shorter's Ensemble Straight Jacket


Alegria
Wayne Shorter (Verve Records)

Fronting a superb brass and woodwind ensemble, saxophonist Wayne Shorter goes to expand his considerable palette with this 2003 set of compositions intended, I suppose, to highlight his talent as a master of texture, tone color and someone who can lead a large ensemble through theme and variation. This is not Ellington, this is not Julius Hemphill, this is not even Gunther Schuller. What is, though, is monotony on a virtuoso level.Technically there is much to admire, but there is little to enjoy, since the project is obsessed with making Alegria match other large-group efforts at the sacrifice of the punch and flurry a richly showcased set of improvisations would provide. Oh, if they had reached a little less and jammed a little more.Davis didn't forget to swing amid the expanded contexts of Kind of Blue, and neither Mingus nor Monk forgot the blues wail or the gospel shout in the textures and subtler angles of their respective concert works. There are moments here, of course where Shorter's tenor and soprano saxophone sorties emerge from the arty murk and redundant changes of the ensemble to lighten up the proceedings, but even here it feels rootless, divorced from the melodies they should be making statements upon; one senses Shorter trying to make something happen. Nothing does as a result.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kay Ryan, Poet Laureate


I'd be pleased if a poet preferring small matters to large themes became our Poet Laureate, but in the matter of Kay Ryan, I find her work malnourished, under muscled, simply lifeless and still as a rusty coin in a cushion crack. She is part of what is termed The School of Quietude, a dismissive term coined by Ron Silliman to describe the poets of the larger market place who concentrate on approaches to poetry that will not attempt to tackle more than one idea at a time. I have less animus toward poets who desire to do one thing well before moving on the next matter at hand, and have taken more than a bit of joy reading Billy Collins, Robert Haas.
Collins, though, is someone whom you "get" in short order , amused , shall we say, but his stylish effects but with no compelling reason to revisit the poem. Dickinson, certainly not a Quietuder (although she has been mentioned in conjunction with Ryan's name) , shows all of us that compact does not mean straight forward; whole philosophies and shades of far reaching intellection exist between those dashes. We read her because she's not easy to reach; with each re-reading, the reader tends to bring more to their experience of her work. Collins gets paraphrased, like a joke one half-recalls. The impression he leaves is soon smooths out into a general nothingness like the white noise that makes up radio static.

The compressed diction, the ruthlessly scoured syntax and sparse, clean rhythms (or rhythmless, at times) is breath taking when it works in the world of single-subject
poets, analogous to rare moments when a perception, an odd and unplanned arrangement of things, surprises you when your eyes come to rest on them. It's the sight of surprise, the aha!, and the short formers, the Quietuders likely excavate against excess rhetoric and come upon the one thing they are writing about. It's not an easy thing to do well. But more often it is mere shtick, a form of slick appitude for evading the harder edges a poet would be expected to walk on. One idea, maybe too, a fine turn of phrase, a quick exit. Ryan, though, isn't even this interesting.

My problem with Ryan is that too often she seems to be getting started on an idea , about to unravel some mystery of a material thing and connect it with an ongoing argument each poet has against Platonic idealism, but she leaves, she darts away, she is elsewhere after her aggravations are generated.

Bad Day


Not every day
is a good day
for the elfin tailor.
Some days
the stolen cloth
reveals what it
was made for:
a handsome weskit
or the jerkin
of an elfin sailor.
Other days
the tailor
sees a jacket
in his mind
and sets about
to find the fabric.
But some days
neither the idea
nor the material
presents itself;
and these are
the hard days
for the tailor elf.


From Say Uncle, 2000



One admires skeletal purity and an aesthetic that won't be overstated or festooned with gamy rhetoric, but there are some things Ryan might have taken from the more formal approaches she turned her back on, central among them the need to finish a thought. As with the above, the ganging up of internal rhymes makes this poem cute as a button, but not effective as a poem. It would serve, I suppose, as a set up for a longer set of complications with the size of the clothes one is supposed to wear, but the theme is rather banal, that one grows out of their clothes as they age and gain weight, and complications don't seem to interest Ryan anyway. Incompleteness can indeed be appealing in a poet who provides a strong sense of the absent details they address elliptically--strong points for Dickinson and the fascinating Rae Armentrout--but Ryan's is not that kind of poet.Her poems make you lean in so you can hear this soft voice suss through contradictions and the follies of fanciful thinking, but it ends in a mumble.

One should consider the work of a lesser known but though brilliantly clear eyed poet named Kate Watson, a writer I know and was was featured with in a 1996 anthology Small Rain: Eight Poets from San Diego (D.G.Wills Books). Her tone is modulated, her sentences balance tactile adjectives and purring verbs with an uncanny equilibrium, and her quiet moments transcends the perceived banalities of the School of Quietude and actually enters into perceptions that sweetly unique, clear, aesthetically riveting. Something is arrived at. The rare thing about my friend Kate is that her version of considering the thing-in-and-of-itself is without the faux profundity so many other poets would evoke inspite of their best efforts to rein in their egos; poets by nature have a hard time stepping from being the Arnoldian seer/priest. Kate Watson's is a poetry that is in large part free of those posturing suppositions.


Smudge

Pussycat,
pink eared, squints
in the sunshine,
sniffing flowers.

Button-eyed, she
purrs and
furlicks my legs
in the kitchen.

Four years ago, four
kittens born
in a drawer, smelled
of a barnyard.

Mature, she sleeps
in a circle,
the slope of her head suggests--young doe.


Trinity


She meets I
in the body
which is one
with my mother

I can see
where sits by the blue fire
flame-quick knitting
Is she sighing
shall I sing
she is I
am a long way away
when the wind blows

white wall coal black
light grey hair

my mother winks
from the middle of the flame
and I rise up
and leave her
alone
In the fire a reflection

coming home?

(C) 2008 Kate Watson


This is just a way of saying that the Library of Congress could have made a better choice. Saying that they could have done worse than Ryan doesn't say much for for
the office nor for what good graces are to be found in her conceit-laden lines.

A windy defense of the "Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara"

Selected Poems
Frank O'Hara
Edited by Mark Ford (Alfred A. Knopf).

Famously dour poetry critic William Logan smooths a few of the wrinkles from his creased visage and assess editor Mark Ford's new Selected Poems by Frank O'Hara with a surprisingly even hand. That is, he found some nice things to say about a poet you wouldn't have thought he'd consider to have any saving graces .The upshot is that he has a peeve against massive "Collected Poems" from dead writers where the good work is buried among limitless juvenilia and failed experiments. The poems of O'Hara, he writes, needed a good weeding.

"O’Hara’s wonderful poems are all too easily drowned out by the vivifying mediocrity of the rest. At times the banalities pile up and overwhelm the poems — but then they were the poems. Rarely has an American poet so influential (two generations of urban poets have come out of O’Hara’s shopping bag) written so many poems dull to anyone except his genial fanatics — his very notion of the aesthetic courted failure as a method.... When O’Hara was lucky, he was very lucky, because his method could not help but fail most of the time."


One does have to admire this congenial sourpuss's ability with a phrase.I happen to love my massive , Donald Allen edited Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara , and think that Logan is being obtuse for the sake of not diminishing his reputation for taking iconic writers to task, but all the same, enjoy the review. What is significant and wonderfully successful about O'Hara's poem is , as Ron Silliman upon, he was the first American poet since William Carlos Williams to shy from, lampoon or ignore altogether the dominant conventions of formal, high style then current in American poetry and to instead settle on a unique idea of the patois of American cities. There is something wonderfully askew in the poet's work, and a good amount of the poems in the Complete Poems succeed because of what I suspect was a canny knack O'Hara developed and honed as he wrote over the years; a speech that was endearingly familiar, with an elegance that didn't announce its beauty with trumpets summoning the reader to a poem's epiphany, but rather something that caught you in wildly conflating stream of language.

Not unlike the live-wire architectural cubism in Stuart Davis paintings, with their jazz inflected angles , bright,bursting colors and idiomatic use of advertising iconography (but avoiding the entombing tendencies that doomed Pop Art), O'Hara's writes the poetry equivalent of a man supremely stimulated by what the boundless blocks and tall buildings of New York could bring him; his was the rhythm of someone wanting to talk to you about a dozen items at once, and there in is his genius; with so many things to relate, to remark upon, to marvel at and express the accelerated rush of emotional response, the poet allows matters to drift, topics to drop, creating an impressive verse that is at once of it's time and yet timeless in the sense that a reader to this day recognizes the exhilaration and sadness of O'Hara's valedictorian missives, both compact and expanded, generalized and specific to friends, lovers, situations.

There is something wonderfully askew in the poet's work, and a good amount of the poems in the Complete Poems succeed because of what I suspect was a canny knack O'Hara developed and honed as he wrote over the years; a speech that was endearingly familiar, with an elegance that didn't announce its beauty with trumpets summoning the reader to a poem's epiphany, but rather something that caught you in wildly conflating stream of language. As others would learn from him, O'Hara was the master of not getting to the point. The point , if any, was that he was alive in a life that was simply too incredible for words to contain.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

GOP parody a flat tire


Daniel Nasaw writes the deadline:USA news blog for the Guardian , and ran an item regarding an ad produced by the Republican National Committee intended as a parody of Obama's recent speech in Berlin. The point, one would guess, is what would an Obama election ad look like if he were running in Germany rather than in the United States. We are meant to shiver with the slight yet obvious Nazi implications and indulge our Europhobia yet again. The fear card is a hand these guys cannot stop playing. The ad here.

A weak parody that lands far afield any target the would-be propagandists might have had in mind. One wonders how the fact that Obama is liked by Germans should bedistrubing to American voters. The opposite is more likely.Disgust with the war policies and subsequent disasters of the Bush Administration would cause a good many voters to be heartened with the prospect that there's a major Presidential candidate Europeans actually like,respect and are eager to cooperate with. Those of us in the States are sick of going it alone and being the bane of Civilization's existence; we're more than aware that the cowboy antics of our current group of election-hijacking thugs have made matters domestic and international a miserable mess. What's clear is that the RNC is desperate to undermine the success of the Obama trip; McCain and his surrogates dared him to go to Irag and Afghanistan with the expectation that Barack Obama's alleged naivete and inexperience would cause to make mistakes, commit gaffs and otherwise look unprepared and ill suited for the job he's running for. Nothing of the sort happened, of course, and the Republican Noise Machine is reduced to seeming like a nitpicking, complaining, embarrassed and whiny bunch of playground bullies who are trying to recover from a humiliating and deserved public spanking.

This would be a suitable footnote for a dictionary of famous phrases, specifically "hoist by one's petard", IE,

"To be caught in one’s own trap: “The swindler cheated himself out of most of his money, and his victims were satisfied to see him hoist by his own petard.” A “petard” was an explosive device used in medieval warfare. To be hoisted, or lifted, by a petard literally means to be blown up"

---(from Bartleby.com).

In a less literary vein, this is the equivalent of an inept robber getting shot with his own gun. That's gotta hurt.

Monday, July 28, 2008

poem: This page & a pair of pants

No romance for dental ovine modular cordless
Coltrane sheets for loud wall paper, habitue
lounge jazz frisky changes bandstand waltz time
allegro tropic corridor rhyme scheme , harmony boned up
like homework under iteration sans antidote to anecdotal
grave-cleaning, take the pennies off a dead man's eyes,
Yes to negative figuration as Madonna herself
gypsy queen of the Kick Stand Church of Low Heeled
gas line, stretch pants show the gender and the money
she and he carry as they travel between drainage ditches,
in my mind there are always factories gone behind forests
quiet as the commas gracing this page & a pair of pants
zipped up, sans legs, arms, a useful torso.
No time in half acre barn dance
means quarter notes and bandstand antics
grappling with third moon erasing
cruel ripples trails never clear
in diacritical manager's special,
the choice leaves on the absent pages
crack with what's made of history
but there are no bannisters to slide
down in Oakland
where you house exists
on a lake cured of flat fish and mud sharks,
after tonight everything is in the present tense,
But what you said even then,
as the strawmen fell out of their jeans
and shirts and their hats floated across
the stained planks of the gymnasium floor,
that our lives are less
now that bull whip politics
has an attitude
about spiral notebooks that
come undone and get stuck
to the notebook it lays atop,
all the notes are written at an angle,

What was said about masters and slaves
crawls over the slippery finger tips
of land lease, yeah, he said
I pull the trigger until it goes “click”.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Deconstructing the Deconstructed



Architecture is an art form, but of course, but the crucial distinction between this art and other mediums is what the consumer, the perceived, the witness to the art work can do when confronted with works that are, say, unsatisfying. One can walk out of a movie they dislike, they can walk past ugly paintings without relinquishing much linear feet of space, they can not buy books by authors or poets they find not worth the time, and even massive sculptures, as in Richard Serra's obese steel curtains, can be removed from the public space they bother. But architecture? Great and ugly buildings are both things that are more or less forever once they are constructed; in either case one hasn't the option to ignore them. A structure can either be the greatest gift to a community or the vilest curse on it's horizon. Thom Mayne's new U.S.Federal Building in San Franscisco is the case in point; Architecture critic and historian Witold Rybczynski offers an even handed critique in his current Slate column/slide show, and I do wish I had his sage-like repose. My recent view of it provoked something less generous.It would've be interesting if someone who actually had to work in the proposed building five days a week were involved in this building's planning. Assuming that each of Mayne's notions and details would be explained to a potential group of structure inhabitants, the architect might have received the sort of feedback , practical, technical, aesthetic, that would have prevented the Federal Building from being another whiz-kid vanity project constructed with public money.

But alas, there are the lingering traces of Howard Roark's fictional fingerprints all over the self-image of many a star architect; even with the requirements that the project meet budget deadlines, structural codes, and conservation requirements, the structure will all the same sacrifice the petty concerns of practicality and beauty for whimsical design innovation that , although reputation making, age badly, look tawdry and contrived over time, and are more imposition than benefit to the community they are built in.
I've recently walked along side this structure this past week and the experience is , say, less gratifying than walking past a boarded up store front. I had the sensation of being crowded off the sidewalk, or worse, of feeling compelled to try and outrun an avalanche. From street level it is a grey , densely packed leviathan that promises a hard road ahead, a bleak and desolate future for the civic population that dares to remain in cities; from afar it resembles nothing so much as a collection of remote control devices that had been taken apart, bashed with a hammer, and reassembled with two bottles of Super Glue.

One reads continually in interviews and in scholarly critiques that the capital "A" architect desires and is compelled by unreasonable muses to challenge the citizen and force them into various dialogues, inquiries, inquests and critical examinations of their relationships with shapes and forms, the purpose , I suppose, to coerce the mere resident and worker to confess that any expectation of graceful and efficient buildings in crowded centers are a bourgeoisie indulgence . The agenda buried here isn't just the glorification of the builder who sees himself as social engineer, but to diminish the stature of the citizen from whom all power flows from; symbolically the building informs us rather plainly that the electorate's consent be damned. Albert Speer would nod and give a knowing chuckle if he observed the grandstanding disarray constructed on the San Francisco site.I couldn't help but think that Thom Mayne's realized this too and was somewhat giddy thinking that he was getting paid by the same public his new building would vex.

The Dark Knight



I was wondering if DC Comics would ever deliver a counter punch to the glut of comic book movies arch rival Marvel Comics has so far managed to bring to the screen, and now, on the eve attending the San Diego Comic Con, I have my answer, The Dark Knight, directed by Chris Nolan. It's earned over a $158 million dollars on it' first weekend, blowing away the previous champ, Spiderman 3 , and may well become the biggest earner of the year. What did I think? Well...I rather liked the movie over all, but my basic complaint is the one that plagues nearly all Hollywood films these days; The Dark Knight is simply too long. One has to admit that there is little slack time here and that all the materials coming at you are part of an intricate and dense weave, but the attempt to compensate for length by having a brisk pace results , if not torpor, then monotony. Would if director Nolan had paused and let Batman, the Joker and the lot perform their drama agains the glorious architecture and neighborhoods that are Chicago; racing through them makes one feel cheated visually, giving you the effect of trying to see a city while driving through the city after dark on the freeway leading out of town. The additional padding comes with the character of crusading DA Harvey Dent, who's commitment to clean up Gotham City has Batman more or less grooming him to assume the mantel of being the town's symbol of law and order. The tension between he and Bruce Wayne/Batman for the affection of the same woman would've been compelling enough, but having Dent morphed into Two Face and become an an aggrieved avenging angel, replete with gimmicky suit, is bloat.Aaron Eckhart’s performance as the pre-disillusioned Dent is so effective to the narrative drive that I wouldn't have had the character disfigured and made over into an insane villain in the same movie, saving the Two Face saga for another movie. The final was flat, pat, predictable. Plot management seems to be a challenge for director Chris Nolan, and one wishes there had been someone around advising him to condense when he should have, to slow down when he could have.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Birthdays


Time was in the seventies and eighties when I had an exceedingly high opinion of my opinions about poetry,literature, movies and music, and it followed that during the period I would share my opinions with you as to the aesthetic merits and sins of what cultural agents were trying to sell us. Rather, it was more like I was telling you how the world work or why it didn't work; I wasn't a philosopher, a politician, or priest. None of that. I was something better, a critic. My reviews were in the Reader, The Door, The UCSD Guardian, Kicks,The Triton Times, The Paper, tabloid pages were my means to have a say on lyrics, fumbled organ solos, botched metaphors, I was in love with my own voice as it said sour things about a whole lot of people places and things.

Not that I've come any more modest with time, but I've calmed down some since taking the pledge; being a drunk for twenty years with the arrogance I held onto is looping mindset that kept me drunk. Not to wander into a drunkalog here, but let us say that my phone stopped ringing, my prose was incoherent,my poetry naught but an angry page of typos. Getting older and sobering up, I'll say, are the best decisions I could have made under my reeking circumstances. It's a miracle that I was able to make the decision at all.



Well, here we are again, another pair of special occasions come and gone, and still the novelty of turning 56 on my birthday and the celebrating a 21st sober anniversary hasn't worn off. When I was younger, in my thirties, this arrangement of back-to-back touchstone dates were my primary bragging rights, something I would share, no , declare to each stranger, work mate, attempted girl friend and luckless traveller. It became a standardized rap, a memorized monologue about miracles, phoenixes arising from stirred ashes, cruelties , indignations and various cheats against daily ethical limits, and the sure deliverance a horrible biography needed.

Sure enough I was impressed with the results I'd experienced as a result of laying aside the bottle, but I was word drunk all the same, and often times a bore. With every success in work, love, career, with each disaster or middle state of the same, sobriety was my boiler plate, spirituality was the punch line, and the signature phrase was my length of sobriety was the number of years I was beyond my life expectancy. The miracle sounded canned, in other words, and I could hear myself going through my paces as if I were the person I was talking at (as opposed to speaking with).

Even I couldn't deny the staleness of the best phrases, how slack the cadences and rhythms had become. It was something I couldn't spice up, juice up, liven up no matter my efforts; the only thing left to make it interesting to dwell on such matters aloud would be to make things up, that is, to lie, but that was contrary to the point of staying sober in a fellowship constituted on a spiritual cure for my hopeless situation as someone who couldn't stop drinking by his own power. So I a sat in the back of the rooms where folks like me gather night to night, listening hard, making it a point to ask how other people were doing , letting them finish their answers ; the hardest part of this project to take a genuine interest in others was refraining from offering up my own version of the anecdote they might have shared, and to avoid giving intense forms of unsolicited advice on what they ought to be doing with their problems. Surely, it was a humbling experience realizing that those around me weren't problems to be solved or ills to be cured, but rather people with live no less difficult and no less blessed than my own. At 56 and 21 respectively, I think I might be getting the hang of that simple notion.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

USED BOOKS: The Poems of Norman Mailer


Modest Gifts:Poems and Drawings
Norman Mailer (Random House Trade)

Some of us think Norman Mailer ought to win the Nobel Prize for literature because of the sure and quarrelsome genius of his books and the ideas they contained; like him or consider him an abberation in the culture, a number of the styles he took, particularly the novel, the essay and journalism, gave you a personality that was hard to ignore. Many who thought him a lout , a grind, an egomaniac had to admit, after reading him to counter his many assertions about many things, that Mailer was, after, a Great Writer. Joyce Carol Oates, an astute critic of Mailer, offered that Mailer's ideas were dangerous because he wrote so well.This, though, isn't one of those books," Modest Gifts" being, at best, a gussied up reissue of a lone book of verse he produced in the early Sixties,"Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Diasters)".
Now, as then, the pieces are slight, skeletal, un-propelled by anything resembling a notion that the reader cares about. For a writer who's composed some of the richest prose and lyric flights this side of Faulkner and DeLillo, these efforts are so minimal that even a verbal skinflint like Hemingway would call these gifts not modest ,but cheap. The poems were written in the early sixties when the author had several professional , legal and marital crisis hanging over him, a situation that had given him writer's block and which, as a professional writer, placed an additional burden on him. Brief, truncated in content, artless in the lack of interest of achieving the sort of ambiguity that is poetry's to apply to the senses, the poems are more like pained gasps of someone airing their gripes, bitches, and congested rage in a sequence of angular phrases. These are the kinds of things you might hear in an operating room when the patient's ether and pain killers wear off. The splintered style, rough and absent color, rhythm or graceful metaphor, is what Mailer wanted to present the public, though, and thought it in his best interest to write about his troubles in a language that lacked the elegant buttressing his essays and journalism could achieve. Of interest to scholars, perhaps, who can examine these puny bits in context with the larger body of work--many of his life long obsessions are to be found here--the reader desiring Mailer's talent for metaphor, adjective and metaphysical fancy had best look elsewhere for some of the brilliance some of us claim for him; this volume is an embarrasemtne in the late author's career. Mailer explains interestingly that these were put together at a bad time in his life when he could not compose--stabbing your wife will tend to dampen your willingness to wax--and that he found something therapeutic in their existence, but there never has been a compelling reason for these things to be put between covers and sold. Unlike some, I think that a great writer's less great work, the unformed work, the jottings, the juvenilia,the notebooks, the scraps and orts, need to remain in the drawer, and not committed to the judgment of history. This poetry is so minimal that it can't even raise a stink.

Monday, July 14, 2008

USED BOOKS: Novels by Richard Powers and Mark Costello


1. The Time of Our Singing
a novel by Richard Powers
The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers is an amazing novel, an ambitious generational tale of an American family with a mixed heritage of African-American and German Jew, and covers the travails, triumphs and tragedies of this family. There are three children, one with a beautiful singing voice who opts for a classical music career, a daughter who becomes involved with the civil rights struggle,and a second brother who, though gifted as well, buries his ambition to bridge the gap between his siblings. Not a perfect novel--sometimes Powers' superb style turns into a list of historical events as a means to convey the sweep of time-- but the central issues of race, identity, culture are handled well within the story. He grasps inexlicable contradictions--there are scenes when one believes that prim and closested bigots are about to have their hearts changed forever as they listen to the heaven sent, transcendent voice of the young man, only to resort to their unshakeable racism once the music has finished--and offers up the idea that what prevents justice and good will from prevailing more often is because of the collective and individual fear that no one wants to admit their world view is limited, wrong, and harmful to life on the planet. The writing is generous and frequently beautiful, especially at the moments when the description turns to the music. Powers, as well as any one, describes how notes played the right way can make one believe in heaven and the angels who live there.


The Big If
a novel by Mark Costello

First, this author isn't to be confused with another fiction writer named Mark Costello, who is the author of two brilliant collections of short stories called The Murphy Stories and Middle Murphy.Those books, a series of related tales involving the title character, is a sort of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for a generation growing up in Illinois, and it is one of the most beautifully written sagas of dysfunction, alcoholism and despair I've ever come across. This Costello does things with the language that take up where prime period John Cheever or John Updike left off and offer up a virtuoso prose only a handful of lyric writers achieve; it is the brilliance and beauty of the writing that makes the unrelieved depressive atmosphere of the two books transcend their own grimness. The prose in these two books demonstrate the slopper pretender Rick Moody cannot help but seem. Buy these books and experience a devastating joy.

The otherMark Costello, a younger writer, has equal genius but a different approach to the world, and his novel Big If is quite good, and what makes it work is that Costello accomplishes the dual difficulty of handing us a small town/suburban comedy the likes of John Cheever would have admired, and the other is with the rich detailing of the other secret service agents who work with Vi Asplund. There is something of a domestic comedy seamlessly interwoven with a skewed Washington thriller, with the elements of each spilling over and coloring the underlying foundations of both. In the first part of the novel, we have an atheist Republican insurance investigator who has a habit of crossing out the "God" in the "In God We Trust" inscription on all his paper money, replacing the offending word with "us". Vi, years later, winds up in a job where "in us we trust" is the operating rational, as she and her fellow agents strive to protect their protected from the happenstance of crowds, acting out on intricate theories and assumptions that can only be tested in the field.

Costello is wonderful at the heightened awareness in the ways he presents his details , his comic touches, A beautiful agent who still receives alimony checks from her smitten ex husband carries on a correspondence with him via the memo line of the checks, where he continually writes "come back to me". She writes "No, never" each time, deposits the check, knowing that her ex will see the reply when he receives the canceled checks. The book is full of these fine touches. We have a sense that it's the small things, the small frustrations as much as the larger disasters that conspire against our happiness. A fine book.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

USED BOOKS:Satan, His Pyschotherapy and Cure by The Unfortunate Dr.Kassler, J.S.P.S

Satan, His Pyschotherapy and Cure by The Unfortunate Dr.Kassler, J.S.P.S
By Jeremy Leven (AuthorHouse)


No one has ever done a subtler or a more devastating send up of the psychiatric/psychology industry, nor have many been able to insinuate sly philosophical digressions into a frothing satiric text with such grace and pacing. This satan, faceless, locking himself inside a computer in a public gallery, has the charm to coax a snake out of new skin. The complications are wonderfully wild and orchestrated, and Kassler's travails as a single dad trying to rekindle a relationship with his children are heart breaking as they are potently hilarious.
I'm among those who've loaned out various copies of this book and have had to replace it with replace editions, not an easy task considering that the book is out of print. This novel needs to come back into print from a major publisher at a reasonable price, as the current edition from vanity press AuthorHouse is an arm and both legs at $27.95. The cost stops more people from discovering one of the best bits of black humor since the glory days of Naked Lunch; no one has better gotten the sheer hysterical intensity of the moment when one is facing impossible evil and finding something to laugh at dispite the oncoming despair and horror. Dispite the onslaught of misfortune that comes down upon the haplass doctor, the book also is about shouldering one's share of the common burden and dedicating themselve to the good work that must be done no matter the personal grief that distracts and irritates. Satan is indeed cured in this novel, and one needs to read it to get the kind of genius that's been missing in American satiric writing for too long, far too long. Author Leven has given us one of the best structured, best written American comic novels, and its a disservice to the reading public to keep it out of print

Friday, July 11, 2008

Robert Kelly on science


I have this poem "Science" by Robert Kelly posted over my desk at work, and what I like about is that it gets the feeling of someone talking to himself, under their breath, but speaking nearly full sentences, referring to an unspecified other to whom the comments are intended. The element of eaves dropping comes into play , the effect you get when you only hear one side of a phone conversation or what's being said in the next booth in a noisy Denny's; the poem has another dimension, a countervailing polemic that is conspicuous by being unstated, unheard. As readers , we demand that things we bother to glance over make sense, and so we speculate, interpret, fill in the gaps to have the portions presented make at least theoretical sense.


Science explains nothing
but holds all together as
many things as it can count
science is a basket

not a religion he said
a cat as big as a cat
the moon the size of the moon
science is the same as poetry
only it uses the wrong words.


The leaps, gaps and goofy intrusions of odd comparisons may distract and annoy some readers, but I happen to like the disjunctions; broken syntax, interruptions, the overlaying of point, counterpoint and further contradiction gives this poem the verbal ambiguity that would make you pause a little, consider the implication of an accidental connection.

You wonder how science comes to be compared to a basket, or why the subject the moon and its size have to do with anything the speaker and his unknown friend were talking about, but they do fit neatly into the introductory notion of whether the methodology can indeed explain the world to us, or does it merely record what researchers observe, without an idea of the crucial "why" behind the function these processes have. Hence, science is compared to a basket, something which contains loose ends gathered from hither and yon, connected only by the method in which they're gathered. Hence, science is compared to poetry, which describes the world and the experience in it with a language that is barely accurate enough. But whatever one comes to refer to science as, all that it attempts to dissect and explore and extract meaning purpose from remains a unknown, it remains a mystery.
Kelly, a bit of the mystic for whom poetry connects one to instinctual knowledge rather than the measured, indexed and delineated, tells us that science is just like poetry, but that it uses the wrong words. The words he wants give us bearings in the flux and sway of a life's accumulating events and yet retain the sensation, the anger, the joy of being alive to what is arriving, while science is all subject to materialist verification. In a rational world, I would side with the scientists and , but I'm not always rational. There are times when precision will kill the soul faster than the surest poison.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Playgrounds and Catechism

I was one of the those lucky enough to attend Catholic School for grade school, junior high and early high school, and it was, to be sure, an odd place to go through the awkward teenage blues; one's obsessions with comic books, monster movies and an bewildering and growing fascination with girls mixed in delicious confusion with the discipline and moral instruction given us by nuns as to the purpose of the Church and the mission being given to it's young members. It made for radical shifts in focus when the bell rang indicating the end of recess, when all the rude jokes, dirty talk, leering and horsing around stopped abruptly and some institutional rigor entered one's spine, and surreal attentiveness to what nuns and lait teachers were saying came over otherwise expressive faces. Charles Grosel gets it mostly right with his poem "In the Fourth Grade", a succinct an artful blur of external forces vying for a young man's attention. It lacks, however, the third act, the additional detail that would elevate this above oh-hum irony that keeps too many poems chained to the earth. This is a poem that should have soared high and grand.

One might be too severe in deriding the comparison between catechisms and Adventure cards, but both both have something to do with what role is too play in the world; one learns their parts, becomes aware of their weaknesses, and pursues their ends for a good that is , finally, greater than oneself. Catechism, it should be said, is simply the first layer of a Catholic Theology that is about as sophisticated and textured view of man's place in the universe which God created and how one may best use the abilities and skills they've been gifted with to make way through an pitiless existence for the purpose of bringing some of His grace and goodness to this life. It is a whole system , elaborate beyond the basics regular catechism outlines, and in that a central tenet is that Man has free will and must intuit and intellect his way through ambiguous circumstances to move toward teh good , the goal, shall we say, entails honing strategy skills and such no less than what pop culture past times offer.Adventure cards, as Grosel calls them, in fact mirror the Christian mythology that institutions like the Catholic Church have developed a substantial moral philosophy from.

I suppose what the poet is getting at is that the boy, attempting various cool hoodlum poses and such before the bell rings and the lines form, drops his mannerisms and learned street attitudes and takes on the proper behaviors and deference the nuns expect of him and the other fourth graders. Conversion, in this sense, is a pun, a weak one, in that one can relate this to how one converts currencies; the young man here converts his playground attitude to one that enables him to get along under the sister's watchful eye. It doesn't work, though, and something more is needed, another idea besides the easy resolution involving conversion experience is required. We have, as is, a well turned construction that delights with the indirect rhymes and disguised alliteration that lacks the third act; Billy Collins, or better, Thomas Lux would have been able to twist the readers off the neck. This is merely sweet and feeble by the end.



As far as it goes, the poem is a fine bit of observation to my mind, and Grosel treads lightly with the parallels he brings to our attention; some other poets would have talked the comparisons into submission, others would have pounded you over the head, while still others would have choked on the incoherence they were creating. Not so with this writer, who maintains his balance, does not lose his cadence, keeps his emphasis visual, and terse. The poem is fine for what it sets out to do, and the only failing , for me, comes with the ending, which was too easy, too obvious a matter to deploy, but which is not irredeemable with a smart revision.


I suppose what the poet is getting at is that the boy, attempting various cool hoodlum poses and such before the bell rings and the lines form, drops his mannerisms and learned street attitudes and takes on the proper behaviors and deference the nuns expect of him and the other fourth graders. Conversion, in this sense, is a pun, a weak one, in that one can relate this to how one converts currencies; the young man here converts his playground attitude to one that enables him to get along under the sister's watchful eye. It doesn't work, though, and something more is needed, another idea besides the easy resolution involving conversion experience is required. We have, as is, a well turned construction that delights with the indirect rhymes and disguised alliteration that lacks the third act; Billy Collins, or better, Thomas Lux would have been able to twist the readers off the neck. This is merely sweet and feeble by the end.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Whiteness


When in doubt, slap a new coat of paint on an old idea and hawk it as something brand spanking fresh, as in the case of the folks who started up the site Stuff White People Like .Well, yeah, I laughed at this, recognized the material things we as a light skinned privledged gather about us, and then wearied of the whole notion of this satire. It's a riff that's been played into submission, like hearing the umpteenth posthumous live version of Hendrix playing "Red House" or the final "must-see" episode of the current season of Law and Order; try(and lie) as you might, there's nothing especially surprising at this point in Hendrix's drugged guitar fumblings, and the unexpected twist or turn of the legal scenario of that L/O storyline, the one that would simply stun you even though this show has been on the air for 18 years, is simply a hyped -up run through of old plot lines, old outrages, with the twists arriving on time, on schedule.Making fun of white people has been a dependable staple of comedians for years, a safe haven for those times when you have a need to deride, insult or stereotype an entire population with the most reductionist jibes. 

The sweet part of the deal is that one can indulge this stale diversion with impunity, as no one will muster the nerve or umbrage to yell foul; Richard Pryor through Dave Chapelle can mock the doings of the lighter hued race sans a protest, and white comedians will do it to their own kind because the current tone is zero toleration for a discouraging word said about anyone, on any terms, for any reason. Except white people. It's lopsided, yo. Gore Vidal remarked in the Sixties that homosexuals were the last minority group that one could make fun of and get away with, but times, attitudes and the strength of group pride changed all that. There remains the need to mock someone. White people are it. It may well be our turn in the barrel to many people's thinking, but that sort sort defeats the purpose of judging people by character, not skin color. This is progress?


"Post-racial" is a preferable state for the world to fall into, but meanwhile racial and ethnic matters are as touch as they've ever been. Ethnic cleansings are a very recent memory, and the GOP's hard right flank isn't shy about unloading racist stereotypes in their opposition to Obama's policies. Still, there remains , codified in our ethics, our laws, and our basic sense of decency, the notion that invective aimed at blacks, hispanics, gays, women, Asians and others is "wrong" , and evidence of a disturbed mind. I wouldn't argue against that; racists have to be censured, the message that it's not okay to denigrate anyone for matters of race, gender, sexual preference is unacceptable. My point though, is, that making fun of those of paler skin and European heritage is okay. No one in an official capacity, or any level of cultural influence, will arise and advise the rest of us , indeed remind us, that reducing a population to the sum of their stereotypes is not the way a more just and tolerant culture is created.

Friday, July 4, 2008

An unfair take on Derek Walcott


I am not a fan of Derek Walcott, and here I get the usual DW routine of reading a poet who spends an inordinate amount of time trying to make what he sees, smells,hears, tastes interesting in themselves, blessed only with an excess of qualifiers that the poem becomes something like perfectly fine cup of coffee ruined with too many spoons of sugar. It's not that I haven't tried to get acquainted with the man's work; he did win the Nobel Prize for Literature, after all, and was at the time required reading for anyone thinking themselves up on poetry. The Nobel Committee isn't infallible, though, and matched Walcott prolix poetasting in 1992 with the selection of Dario Fo in 1997, a questionably lefty playwright I think never should have been allowed the small press.

The difference, of course, is that Walcott has an audience, the same audience that sees poetry as a means to get to the Idea behind the Things we see , taste, and feel, the same audience Billy Collins more skillfully (and succinctly) caters to. And so Walcott hams up the language with digressions that offer more silt than sunshine. It might be a dual problem between reader and poet--his audience thinks he's going somewhere with the elephantine mythology he constructs, and so does the poet.

The problem, I guess, is that Walcott tries for elegance and transcendence and yet never convinces you that he's even looked out the window let alone taken a trip anywhere. There is so much rocking back and forth between obvious extremes of situation, so many adjectives and verbs seeking to convince you that details being offered are more exciting and significant because DW perceived and categorized them. It is both arch and prosaic, a monotony of routine list making.

THE SEASON OF PHANTASMAL PEACE
by Derek Walcott,
born in St. Lucia in 1930
Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill --
the net rising soundless at night, the birds' cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.

And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
what the ospreys trailed behind them in the silvery ropes
that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep;
it was the light
that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
what change had brought into the raven's cawing,
the killdeer's screech, the ember-circling chough
such an immense, soundless, and high concern
for the fields and cities where the birds belong,
except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change, betrayals of falling suns,
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.



This is the kind of self-consciously literary language that ruins the literary experience for millions of readers who otherwise wish to be transported through a brilliant use of language. The theater advice applies here, "don't let them see you act", meaning that the effort to evoke conditions and states of experience through artistic means should seem effortless; the technique should be invisible , unnoticed. The artful should conveyed without the conspicuous essence of art. Walcott's poems make think of a man who wants to let you know that he's a poet, that he is a wordsmith.The elegance for the sake of elegance always seems more the subject in Walcott's poems, or the point of the writing; the subject exists primarily as a means to display  his  virtuosity. The net effect, in my readings of him on an off for twenty years or so, is a stalling tactic--the undecidability isn't an Ashbery like conundrum after one of his intense and relatively compact scrutinies between his Stevens-like formations of perfect Ideal Types and the world independent of the senses. In Ashbery's and Stevens' cases, the point of the poems was to evocatively ponder the distance between perception and a material existence that will not conform to the demands of brilliant language. That creates tension,suspense, irony; there is intrigue and there is reader interest in what the poet makes of it, if anything.

Success, though, depends on how      well the language used to accommodate the subject and ideas being subjected to the kinds of extra-critical interrogation. For Walcott, it too often seems a case of indecision of what to settle on as a nest of notions on which to write and instead obscuring that blankness with sparkling qualifiers that , after a point, enhance not ideas or emotions but rather emptiness, a lack of anything interesting to say.  It's not for me to demand what this means because that's the least interesting thing to worry about in a discussion of a work, but I would expect a competent poem to at least be able to evoke sensations, associations and the like toward a satisfying ambiguity; a certain genius with the language is required, and Walcott, Nobel Prize or no, hasn't that genius. The banal poeticisms of "soundless voices", "betrayals of falling suns" "the pause between dusk and darkness" and the like are arty rather than artful, It amazes a certain readership,but to me this borders on kitsch.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

"When in the Uterine Empyrean They Told Me" by Patrick Donnelly


"When in the Uterine Empyrean They Told Me" by Patrick Donnelly is one of the more intriguing poems I've come across in the last couple of years, a recollection of someone trying to bring coherence of things he has heard in the ether, whether words themselves or the sensations that suggest them. There is that feeling that the narrating consciousness is off stage, trying to remember his lines and the marks they're supposed to hit, trying all this time to integrate the warnings, advice and sensory overload that accumulate as the cue for the narrator's entrance onto the life's stage draws near.

Somewhere in his writings(in his story/essay "Eureka", I believe) Poe writes of the "memory from before birth" , a metaphysical riff he practiced as he waxed grandiloquent about Aristocracy and their fated superiority in the material world; his idea, if memory serves ,is that there are those among us who are born with a knowledge of who we are and what we are to do in the ordering of the dimensions balancing the physical and ethereal plains. For Poe, of course, this was an attempt to buttress his obsession with decadence and degeneration with a philosophical waxing, and it gives the whole notion that souls about to be born have a whole and lucid set of instructions with them as to their purpose,their manner, their temperament and the talents that will emerge as a result. It's a flaky design of the unseen path to this life, but it does make poetic sense considering Poe's conviction that only that which is in the last moments of life, the precise moment before skin goes brittle and breaks, can be truly beautiful. His theory and his tales and poems are a package deal.

Donnelly's poem, though, is decidedly non-determinist in its vision of the pre-life, a terrain not misted but corporeal, fluid, a drift of nutrients and sensations that carry medley of voices that seem to a streaming audio of generation-ally expressed family personality.

When in the uterine empyrean they told me

of love, they named it a sickness, fever, impediment
to enlightenment. Some swore it could make you wail
over hills of hell in a long black veil, defenestrate

yourself in a Second Empire gown, or stand
wringing-wet at the intersection with a cup and a sign
reading COMFORT ME WITH APPLES.

"They", to be sure, are not named, they are faceless, they are without form but are vivid in the nature of the kinds of love this family has expressed, experienced, had lost. These are phrases and clipped whispers that might be trying to give warning of what lures will chain you to drudgery and hardship or a promise of what joys and pleasures await that will make the crushing physicality of life worth the struggle. The signals are crossed, confused, and there is pleasure in the reading of these lines; this is a consciousness that is attempting to come up with a finite picture of what's to come based on bits and pieces that drift boy on the blood flow. But there is clamour, more noise, and what seems to get louder are less warnings about what one will materially wedded to once they emerge into the hard light, but rather grand and anonymous forces will seek to rule one's existence, enforcing a quizzical Will with vague threats;

There were a few, humiliated and exalted, who rose
like comets in yellowy tiers, to sing in Proven├žal
of the Name, the Name, the same longing Name.

But others warned that whom He loves, He corrects,
of "friendship with benefits," balcony scenes, mad scenes
in all-white restaurants, of the turned back in bed.

It's an argument that's overheard, a bickering the yet undelivered is being drawn into even before one gets the chance to master their language or gather experience from which to assert them self as fresh, independent, unsullied. This is the bickering and division that is Original Sin, and one is brought into the world suddenly, painfully, protesting and ready for battle.So our soul is already propagandized, seduced, ready for the battle; Donnelly suggest that there is the moment when a choice is given, that one might miscarry them self and defer their emergence or dive, so to speak, right into the rumble and bustle of the messy world that awaits. Our narrator is primed for action, and responds to a genetic inevitability:

But when they said I could remain behind
if I chose, like an unlit lamp,
sounding my brass and tinkling my cymbal,

I didn't think, I seized
the bloody flag of my attachments
and tore down the tunnel of what I couldn't know

was my millionth birth.

Donnelly sets up an interesting parallel to Poe's essay, and gives us a rich imagining of how our deeds rationalizations and best motivations might come to influence generations to come. There is something reminiscent of D.H.Lawrence in this poem in that the novelist had a theory that the best virtues and worst traits of men and women are exchanged through love making, and that the qualities or infirmities are passed on "in the blood". It had been suggested that the poem was Donnelly's attempt to write about the tension between being gay and trying to abide by a spiritual doctrine that considers your very being an abomination, but I demur.It's there if you're determined to find it, but it seems a stretch. What I picked up on was the embattled spirit coming through some convulsively argumentative and contradictory loop from which it attempts to make sense of, coming into life already fated to be self-seeking and self-defeating.

This , for me, suggests an absent God whose plans have gotten static and stripped of anything like grace or transcendence, and the generationally collected consequence of ill will and meanness congests the air, as it were, of the elevated plain. It's an existentialist situation mixed in with a notion of eternal recurrence, reincarnation; Mailer does something similar with his novel Ancient Evenings in which a magic-dabbling Phaero manages to extend his lineage through the ages, but grows increasingly distraught that his version of immortality morphs in meaning and uses beyond his grandiose scheme.

Homosexuality might well be one thing Donnelly intended for his stew of tensions and bad faith results, but I don't the poem is about the problematic nature of being gay and attempting an authentic ,loving life; the narrator's dilemma, I think, is more open ended than that, and this is where the power of the poem lies for me, in the way the language can be so vivid, concrete, and yet remain oblique.

The notions are repellent, sure, and there are grounds aplenty to attack them, but the case here is that Donnelly has taken the over riding idea and made it much less abstract, given us a scenario in an actual voice, and provokes from us a sympathy for the new born who must emerge from the chaos and struggle against the bitterness that has already been foisted upon him, This is a fascinating poem.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

USED BOOKS: the reputation of writers


There's brilliance in Norman Mailer's readings of how mass culture turns us into somnambulant consumers, but it would have been better, saner perhaps if he'd said that whites should walk a mile in a suffering man's shows rather than reify his (and her) culture and then wax philosophical about their supposed relationship to violence. On many points one can argue was on the mark , but his supposition that a keen and honest sort of violence , person to person (as opposed to intuitional violence perpetrated by the state) enables an individual to have a more authentic life sounds a sophomore crush than it does a useful cure. Mailer, though, backed away from these statements in terms of how violence was treated in his work. The best examples are two novels, written one after the other, An American Dream and Why are We in Vietnam? Dream rather obviously was a metaphorical attempt to duplicate the delirium and raging insanity of stabbing his own wife Adele with a character who shores up his manhood with the murder of his wife, beating up a black character obviously modeled after Miles Davis, stealing a Mob boss's girl friend, and defying the New York City police department (and other federal agencies) in making the murder look like a suicide. It is an exciting and disturbing book, written in sheer deadline mania, with it in mind to present place the reader inside the mind of someone who is seduced by the lure of violence. Mailer, I think, was disturbed by the turns his imagination took, and gave us next a metaphorical study of how such monstrosity comes into being, Why are We in Vietnam? being essentially a blow-torched recasting of Faulkner's story The Bear, told in the voice of a narrator who mashes languages, tongues, and tones and varying degrees of dictions and slang to describe a bloody bear hunt in Alaska.

Vietnam, one must note, isn't mentioned until the last page, and one can discern the answer that makes for the novel's title; we were in Vietnam because, as a country with an insane faith in rugged individualism and the right to bear arms, we were compelled to be in that country as an armed, occupying. We were there because we had to be, it was in our blood. Mailer's conclusion echoes William Carlos Williams ' quote that "...the pure products of America go insane..." Mailer never repudiated The White Negro, but he did treat violence as a negative result of being It's one of those books I always see lying around somewhere, and it's one that I always pass by.. Giles Goat Boy I've never read It's one of those books I always see lying around somewhere, and it's one that I always pass by. No particular reason. But I did enjoy his The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, and I found his essays on literature to some of the most trenchant commentary offered by a contemporary American author. The Floating Opera, I’d say, was when the post-modern novel, ever self-reflective of its own narrative technique and the embedded hegemonies they contain, was written back when such stance still had the capacity to be comic, satiric, and ironic without that last quality being the default tone for an entire story’s length. This was quite a bit before the term was invented and then became codified as a style one may learn and mimic for a designated middle brow audience; Barth, Pynchon, Barthelme, DeLillo, Vonnegut, these writers had the spirit of Twain more than one would suspect; as Twain investigated the effects of the East Coast capitalist culture changing the face of American cultures in the Western States with the reach of railroad lines to spread it’s values and economic philosophy, our nascent post moderns traced the places when the grand narratives that made our sense of place and purpose began to slip, as technology shrank the world , broadened awareness of Others , and unleashed counter narratives to the end all and be all of the world.

Robert Coover is one of the most interesting writers from that generation of meta-fictionists--he is what I think of when I think of a writer taking apart a narrative strategy and making the parts fit in new and maddening ways. Spanking the Maid was deliciously skewed where Robert Coover retells, reshapes, reformulates a hackneyed seduction scenario which adheres, in all the twisting and colorations, to the classic line of erotic writing; the excitement isn't in the getting , but in the anticipation of getting, in the suspense between subjects. Robert Coover makes the suspension that space where the senses are no aid to one's idea of self-empowerment. The Universal Baseball Association is a book I consider to be as close to a Great American Novel as anything of worth that's been published in the last fifty years. That I've read anyway. Origin of the Brunists is especially potent, and I think his writing on end-of-the-world cults is as potent as DeLillo's or Pynchon's, maybe even more so.

What I find interesting is that the writing of these writers--Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon, Ronald Sukinec-- follow up on the proto meta-fiction Lawrence Sterne gave the world with the adventures of Tristam Shanty and the rather obvious and beguiling conceit that the characters are aware they are contained in book. So you're right, there's nothing new, as it were, in this kind of writing, but it does one well to see that the form can thrive with writers who can master their materials and the form and invent something that produces both pleasure and intellection.

On that score, the ability to make one laugh as they read and gain an insoluble insight in a fictional form, Gore Vidal will have his reputation rise, as you mentioned, since he is a more disciplined novelist than Mailer --Duluth is undervalued indeed-- and his essays, while sometimes recycling various testimonials , are models of how a writer ought to think at the keyboard; clearly, unaffected by conventional wisdom, willing to advance an unpopular but soundly argued alternative to received opinion in clear, elegantly phrased language.

USED BOOKS: All the King's Men


All the King's Men
Robert Penn Warren (Harvest Books)

I recently re-read Robert Penn Warren's "All The King's Men" after seeing the needless 2006 film remake starring Sean Penn, curious to see how well the tale had worn now that we're in the serious business of considering which way the country will go. I enjoyed nearly as much as when I first came across it during a course while in college. I had read Robert Penn Warren as a poet and critic of the Fugitive Group, and I was never convinced even as an impressionable, nee gullible romantic by his attempts to persuade his readers that what we need is a return to an agrarian economy, and all the values and virtues that come with it. This was a return-to-Eden move that will spring up occasionally in the history of literary thought which seemed less an inspiration to improve life or make lives more authentic through action than it was to dodge the issue about the hard labor of living according to principles based on measurable action; it’s easier to talk the revolution into being than to hand out a leaflet. As such, I'm too much of a city kid, and even as a whelp thought that Warren's idealization of an old southern moral superiority to be soft at the center, not what I think poetry in the 20th century needs to be. Life in the city, even the idealized down towns of my imagination, was better than pouching the back forty, feeding the chickens, let alone waking up before sunrise to participate in a life that was loathsome to dwell on. Warren’s poems to those virtues were lost on me; there was static where he intended music to be heard. He was a better novelist, and "the entire King's Men" is indeed a masterpiece on several counts, but the center attraction is Willie Stark, Warren’s fictional depiction of Huey Long. Big, blustering, swaggering, a loud and dynamic presence of sheer Will-Too-Power who speaks of serving the people in direct and personal ways and swears to fight big ticket cheaters and scoundrels on their behalf , but who is seduced not by the passion for justice than by the accumulation of power for its own sake. The novel becomes a tragedy, a loud, tawdry, intensely observed tragedy as Stark declines and dies pathetically and nothing and no one in his wake is changed for the better. Matters by novel’s end seem as though they will only get worse for sometime to come, which is part of the price humans pay for giving over their own social obligations to work as a community to a charismatic figure who, despite protests to the contrary, has stolen their birthright to self-governance and has himself mistaken himself as the source of all moral authority. Hubris at it’s funkiest.