Thursday, January 29, 2009

Emily Dickinson, the philosopher of Closed Space, meets Samuel Beckett, the muse of entropic amnesia

An Emily Dickinson poem, No.443, has the cloistered poet speaking elliptically, mysteriously about her duty to her small labors and benign daily obligations in the wake of a personal catastrophe; her resolve to stick to her routine with an even greater conviction is an extraordinary will to power. Rather than surrender to grief and a long,tedious death knell, she confirms her existence by tending to the world that is left to her. It's less that she is chained to her routine than she is liberated by them, elevated even. It's a way to be engaged with things not related to matters of personal misfortune; through the tasks, small and inconsequential as they seem, are a boon to her.There are sound echoes of Samuel Beckett in this arresting poem, the similarities between a shared theme that we are creatures of habit, routine and appetite, that the motions we go through are the irreducible fact of our human condition. A Beckett reader from years back was called I Can't Go On, I Go On, and bitter-sweetly so,
as it is a phrase that summarizes the dry, splintered core of the Irish writer’s world view. Without the compelling vision, let us say delusion of an overriding ideology, whether religion, political, economic, aesthetic, life is really little else but an eternal return to repetitive functionality. Even in disillusion, Beckett's characters do not transcend, they do not change, they go back to what disgusts them and lose themselves in reveries of a past that seems to be only something they've read; the redundant tasking is the only anchor in the present time.

Dickinson, though, was well aware of the sheer repetition of her daily tasks and took them to be the things that make this life purposeful and with a shred of meaning, small and banal her small chores might be. It is the doing of the tasks, the chores, the run of things it takes to keep her household in order, that creates purpose--the well worn existentialist notion that one accepts the consequences of one's action through a form of creative commitment to the results-- and it is in those moments, giving oneself over to a string of small matters that require daily attention, that she is engaged and for a moment outside herself, in service to something greater than herself.

The time 'twill be till six o'clock
I have so much to do—
And yet—Existence—some way back—
Stopped—struck—my ticking—through—
We cannot put Ourself away
As a completed Man
Or Woman—When the Errand's done
We came to Flesh—upon—
There may be—Miles on Miles of Nought—
Of Action—sicker far—
To simulate—is stinging work—
To cover what we are
From Science—and from Surgery—
Too Telescopic Eyes
To bear on us unshaded—
For their—sake—not for Ours—



It is at that moment when matters are concluded for the day that our psychic bearing ebbs and we are returned again to the trembling , merely mortal flesh that trembles from the ceaseless self awareness that one is alone and not the recipient of glory or attending serenity from on high; the mind chatters to itself, contemplating the stark uselessness of things; the more we find out about ourselves from the sciences, the lesser we seem in the grand scheme of an unknown god's cosmos. Dickinson, the philosopher of the closed space, the metaphysician of precision, refuses to think of herself as lesser in comparison with the vast and unnervingly incomprehensible existence that lay far outside the walls of her Amherst home--this life of hers, these things in that life, were no less consequential as the rage for big ideas and larger, more complex constructions; her life was a matter of fact, of record, and it was for her to tend her minuscule bit of the world and finds with her dutiful attendance elements that link her with the larger chain of American endeavor, a culture and economy that’s locked itself in the present tense, defining itself with the tasks they undertake, the ones they finish, the new ones they begin.

There is the question if Dickison is speaking of herself alone or instead turns the personal into a general world view, as in the way she skillfully switches from first person to plural in her narration.I think that Dickinson's subject is herself alone, and that the I and the we of her poems--when both occur--are interchangeable; it's not an uncommon trait that those who prefer their own consul and company would refer to themselves in the third person. Caesar did it with powerful effect in his De Bello Gallico, Henry Adams revived the technique in his Education of Henry Adams, and Norman Mailer exploited the style wonderfully until he wore it out in an intriguing series of autobiographical testements. It's a wonderful device, as it allows one the distance to address speak of themselves with more intimacy and less modesty than a first person narration might. It can also be a convenient way to ease the reader into a writer's point of view by treating oneself as if he or she were a fictional character; it eases the sting of obnoxiousness, provided there's an attractive style. Dickinson, though, wasn't concerned with an audience and seemed, in my reading, to switch to a Victorian plural as a means to dig a little deeper, prod her memory a little harder. It was a technique with which she could crystalize her contradictory responses to her still universe. Nothing went unnoticed, everything was framed in narrative distance, amazing things from the minute domain were revealed.

Where Beckett offers us a body of literature that informs us that the condition of human kind is a prison house of rote tasks performed without variation by a species that’s been harassed and hazed to a devitalized race of doddering amnesiacs, Dickinson is of heartier stock, a chronically depressed Irish cynic contrasted against a Yankee that will not lay down and die and which embraces Life however insignificant it might seem. Some junior high school existentialism creeps into this cursory discussion:The central issue comes down to the essential existential paradox, from either the spiritual or atheistic; one is never not free, regardless of circumstances or forces that one finds themselves subject to. There is always a choice that can be made in even confined and restricted circumstance that cannot be taken away. Sartre, from whom I first gleaned the idea, exaggerated in his emphasis in his attempt to undercut determinist currents thought to rule human behavior--religion, economics, biology--and insist that man is ethically bound to make his creative choices and accept responsibility for the results and consequences.

He sounds a bit like the lunk-headed Ayn Rand represented this simply, and there are far more subtler aspects of his thought as you know, but the point here might be that Dickinson saw her closed in circumstances in the aftermath of her catastrophe but instead as the time to reconsider and re-claim a life that is hers and which has only the meaning and purpose she brings to it. It was her way, I read, of refusing to languish on a past she might be chained to , and to free her, as well, from the anxiety of a shadow future. She frees herself by giving herself over to her present circumstances, attentive, aware, alive, small as that life might be. Small , yes, but her life, uniquely Emily Dickinson's. Hers was the examined the life, and it was worth living.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

UPDIKE AT REST: Our Best Novelist is Dead:


We've lost one of our greatest novelists, John Updike, who died of lung cancer at age 76. Norman Mailer, in a breezy dismissal of Updike's novel Rabbit Run, called Updike the sort of writer who was popular with the mass of readers who knew nothing about writing. Mailer's withering glare, though, was notably fueled with obvious envy (brilliant as he was, the late writer was always obsessed with his literary competition), and what the departed Updike leaves behind is one of the most impressive bodies of work a contemporary writer, American or otherwise, would want for a legacy. His Rabbit quartet of novels--Rabbit Run,Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest--is among the peerless accomplishments of 20th century fiction in it's chronicle of living through the confusion of the Viet Nam war, feminism, civil rights and the sexual revolution in the person of the series' titulat character, Rabbit Angstrom.

Not deep of thought but rich in resentment, Angstrom was an analog of American culture itself, a congested vein of self seeking that never recovered from the raw sensation of youthful vigor; Angstrom, like the country itself, resentfully fumbled about for years ruing the loss of vitality and trying to replace it with new things, the crabby possessiveness of the middle class.

Updike had been criticized, as had Nabokov , for creating characters who weren't sufficiently heroic in their suffering or sympathetic to any degree, a charge I considered a dodge against the dicier matters of personality Updike was fascinated by and lovingly detailed with his poetically charged sentences. The seduction and allure of Updike's prose was the lush and bittersweet tone he could manage while following the curious circles of sense seeking his creations walked in--within any scene, whether a room, a church, a middle class home decorated in conflicting schools of tackiness, there would be an order things established, material goods contrasted against modified and enhanced surroundings that would offer up a vivid sense of how intoxicating, self convincing a character's thought process can be.

Updike, though, didn't trust perfect scenarios or theories as to the meaning of life, and was well aware of the human quirk that seems compelled to foul the nest with self-seeking. Comic, cruel, resonating with moments that are suddenly enlarged beyond the inane doings of his sweetly deluded antagonists, Updike was the voice of the problematic white straight male libido. Everything was sex drive--love, business, politics--and that realization alone is likely what gave Updike so much material to write books about, captured in an unequaled six decades of novels, short story collections, plays, and essay collections. John Updike was that rare talent who had the capacity of vary his approach to novel writing and still remain vital , alive--the ratio of how many of his novels worked aesthetically, and worked structurally within his constant experimentation with form and voice is astounding. What is amazing, as well, is how vital his novels remained as he aged--Terrorist (dealing with the obvious issue), Seek My Face (a novelization of the life of Jackson Pollack), and Gertrude and Claudius (a prelude by Updike to Shakespeare's Hamlet) among others show a fictionist of endless curiousity about things topical, historical, outside his own famous niche of New England suburbs and small towns.

Tom Wolfe accused him of being among those American novelists who've missed the vitality of real people , preferring instead the easier job of writing fanciful "writerly" works, but that's the sort of comment that shows that Wolfe wouldn't let the facts ruin a chance to pour gasoline on a burning resentment. Updike , in truth, took the pains to research a number of novel ideas and then imagine a world where the characters would live--his range of subject matter leaves one breathless. Joyce Carole Oates impresses us with her energy and her sheer productivity, but one doesn't escape the feeling that she's written the same story, with variations in tone and width, at least sixty to seventy times over in her three hundred plus volumes; Updike, a little slower yet still prolific with fifty books , left his comfort zone and applied the novelist's craft to those situations and people he felt had a story worth telling. So too comes his criticism and book reviews, which seemed to make remarks from any number of writers and subjects; his willingness to consider fiction an expandable craft made him one of the more trustworthy reviewers we've had the good luck to read over the years.

If a writer's task is, among others, to help us understand the actions that causes us to fall down and act badly despite our best intentions, Updike has performed a patriotic service. There should be some prize for that.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Robert Burns

Today is Robert Burn's birthday. Now I'll roll over and go back to sleep.



I suppose I should honor the good man, but I always thought his poems sounded unintentionally comic. It's bigoted of me, yes, but the untamed Scot accent makes me think of someone running the teeth of a comb over a live, loud microphone, or the sound of an electric razor purring unattended on wash basin. I am stuck with the Monty Python sketch, which you can see here:


Cell phoning in the city

The sad backatcharolls off the stiff lower lip
and scatters like
cigarette ash
before the sidewalk can claim it,

the yackety-yack
with the lack of tact
in timbre and pace
makes listening to this world
a disgrace to the language
we have
and the faces god gave us,

wide eyes and
pliant mouths
squinted and frowning
at people they cannot see,

nothing in the headlines
keeps my interest,
all that matters
is whether the daughter
of the woman in front of me
wore thong underwear to her sweet sixteen
or if took the key to the belt
her dad made her wear,

it's a great concern
to know how low the liquor bottles were
when she got home from vacation,

the day is gray,
flavorless like bricks,
a phone rings every half a minute,

the street is full of people
who don't see anything,


the air is full of words
angry as wasps,

saying things
only ghosts and angels understand
as they pass through the walls,

ascend to the heights.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Elitist Poetry

Just got off the phone with someone who decided to make their nominal inquiry as to how I was doing after a-long-time-no-see into a springboard to revisit some old resentments. Poetry came up in the course of a miserable (and loud) stumble down Memory Lane, an art and practice she found effete. "You're a snob and you're an elitist and you never listened when I--" I was a puzzled, of course, but that's what I get for having the same phone number for over a decade; folks can revisit you and either get square with you or start the wild fire once again. Anyway, I resented being called an elitist. But maybe that's not a bad thing (within limits, of course).


Poetry has been an elitist practice for decades, and the efforts to bring a larger audience into the fold and investigate the diversity of verse styles is a good think, regardless of the misgivings of the abstruse few. I doubt books will vanish, nor that experimental and radical writing will cease; more likely, such forms will most likely gain readers because of efforts to get buyers to invest in Dorianne Laux or Frank O'Hara instead of Mitch Albom or Dwayne Dyer. It's likely that exposure to poetry and the creation of desire for it where none existed before would eventually get a larger audience for things that are edgier, more experimental, strangely political. The anti-poetics that flourished in the last century might gain an audience not composed of other wayfaring artistes and institutionalized revolutionaries who nod and chuckle at each botched and confounded pun and labored sarcasm. Contempt is fine when it's reserved for those who are perpetrating objectively loathsome agendas on their fellow citizens, such as rationales for social, economic and physical violence of any sort; justice is a quality that must be fought for
every step of the way, and a honed contempt is a part of the mix of responses that would fuel you to oppose the tangible elements of evil. Poetry you don't like isn't a tangible evil, it's only a difference of taste, and tiresome derision on the level of blistering invective does not prepare one's community for A Perfect World; it cheapens discourse, rather, and makes the prospect of writing and participating in poetry essentially the same as inviting someone to have a free sock-in-the-jaw. Why would one lean into a left hook they see coming?

And why would an aspiring poet bother with taking up this essentially unprofitable art if there's no standard for conversation, criticism, disagreement? It shouldn't be strange to anyone why many of our best writers are forsaking poetry all together, and even skipping novel writing and instead situating themselves in various nonfiction categories, areas, alas, where there is readership, and the sort of feedback that appraises worth sans the desire to impale every perceived sinner against a vague notion of worth. Perhaps it would be an audience that might ask what it is Bernstein and a few of his friends are trying to do. Such an audience should be prepared to roll up their sleeves; not every verse is Billy Collins, transparent as acrylic. The words we use and the sounds we make to get across subtle blends of the sublime, innane, blessed and evil is strange enough to consider , and one is refreshed by having their memes and phonemes challeged by way of being made even odder. Language poetry is an honest project, I admit, and I've been taken with it's peculiar power as a method, but there is a point where the personality has to surface undiluted with theory, which such a hypothetical readership would demand.

Oath of Office


Poet Frank Bidart writes about the odd and confounding ritual of issuing in a new President with "Inauguration Poem", a skimpy , momentarily evocative lyric that promises to deliver a moral , but evaporates on the breeze instead. Just as well, really, since these slight stanzas are murmurings instead of exclamations, whispers rather that shouts. Bidart wants to write about the unnamed expectations come to be focused on the taking of the oath. With or without the new president's hand on the Bible, the varieties of disappointment will reign soon enough; even a god would have trouble solving every citizen's concern and dissolving each citizens unease with the empty sound that attends every step. There are no laws against loneliness.This is poem dwells on the idea that what we're actually dealing with as we witness an inauguration is ritual meant to stir ghosts; the past is present and constantly influencing the future, as the sage remarked, and Bidart attempts to isolate some elements of the allure that attracts the best and worst of us. It's a collective point where head strong notions of putting things right which have strayed off course , grossly so, in the presence of a president who'll mount an assault on erring policies and social injustice, a public that desires a change in direction, the sociopaths, the malcontents, the would be assassins who want to strike a blow against the organized brutality the state and the institutions have made his or her world.

Today, despite what is dead

staring out across America I see since
Lincoln gunmen
nursing fantasies of purity betrayed,
dreaming to restore
the glories of their blood and state...


Expectation, hope, rage, rebellion, collective will--a noisy, bickering mess trying to sort itself out and praying for consensus as the new man takes an oath to do his best. Sometimes we make the right choice, history seems to smile and matters work themselves out in ways that amaze us and perhaps make us aware of a hesitant miracle taking place. Too soon, though, our basic interest, our native centers of concern, take credit for the good, we lay blame too easily out side our sphere, we destroy Eden once again with our will to have our way.

under the lustrous flooding moon
the White House is still
Whitman's White House, its
gorgeous front
full of reality, full of illusion


There is always the chance to start over,though, this work in progress--this is a government as the boulder we roll up the hill, only to start over once it rolls down again.That seems the center essence of democracy quite dispite what Presidents have to say about it--we are and will continue to clean up the mess we've made of things, to contend with the bad hands we've been dealt, the sorry slices of pie we've been served. It's not about the getting, it's about the doing, and the spectres Bidart invokes at the margins serve to compel us to keep the wretched machine humming along.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The angst of the pruney faced


Some of us have declared that they don’t care about a writer’s theories on writing so long as the work, absent an explanation , comes up to the snuff one would like it to. I do care if a poet's work add up to the sum of their theories because it's a difference between talking a good game and playing one. Sometimes the theories are more interesting and evocative than the poets’ work as an artist; Pound seemed to me to have the instincts of a good talent scout. I'm grateful for his remarks to his fellows, but I wish reading his work wasn't a path I had to go through in order to find the better poets. His protégé, T.S.Eliot, though, had poetry that surpassed his theories, giving the lie to them, in fact. For all of his stated preferences for impersonality in the stanzas, Eliot’s verse couldn’t outrun his despair. There is something felt and hurt, even moving under the abstraction of the writing, and one comes away feeling that he had hoped the layers of abstruse allusion would render the pains still and not bothersome. I doubt he succeeded, and it’s poetry’s blessing he never cured himself of his disillusion. One is almost able to forgive the anti-Semitism that creeps through the work. Not quite, but almost.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Andrew Wyeth


chistina's world
for Andrew Wyeth

brown hills of grass
where she slept

until the light
slides under
the surface of things,

she rises
hungry
as a fish
patrolling a lake's still surface,

there is someplace to be,

in a chair
at a table
with a place setting
of one plate, one fork,

one empty glass.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Metallica goes to the Hall of Fame


Somewhere in their head banging journey a bevy of smart rock critics seeking a token metal band to extol as encapsulating the rebel virtues of the music picked up on these plodding purveyors of car wreck chord changes and have argued in earnest that their by-number anger and angst is of greater merit than the inchoate whining and flailing it actually is.

If they have captured the feeling of a generation, then it a mind-dead generation they represent; their music is a catalogue of things most of us grow out of. They haven't a memorable riff, not a quotable line to shout in the car on the way to work, not a grunt nor a scream nor a rim shot that would agitate the nervous system to a creative frenzy. Metallica is the music of stalled traffic, tons of machinary grinding gears, moving nowhere.

We're left to ask when will the drugs wear off the Hall of Fame's nominating board and they realize their terrible slight of motor city punk pioneers the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges? Those are two bands who created a sound it took the rest of American and British bands over decade to catch up with. Please, some sane choices for who deserves the pantheon for this insane music.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Big Wind, Good Poem

"
This is a surprise, a lyric poem going for the musical measure and actually achieving the end. "Morning of the Monsoon" is not an over-alliterated fruit bowl of loud colors and stray wind chimes, it is a series of low tones modulating to harder gusts, the peace of a shore line giving way gradually to the roiling plunder of seasonal storm. Diane Mehta gets it right, and elliptically fuses memories of sublime nature writing with the human response to an eden about to be turned and churned by natural process.

The blue-black curve of weather sizzles when it smacks the asphalt.
Ocean air tumbles in, loosely shaped in networks of water.

Embroidered marigolds on muslin, canary-yellow kurtas,
pelican pink blur together in the wash
flowing in rivulets down the grooves of roads

the British built. Rainwater aimless as worshippers
tilted in prayer, chanting the old rhythms.

The monsoon works itself north. Cashews infuse the air
which thrives on motion, ripe fruit, and daily appeals—
a step up in the next world, more love.


So many poems get drunk on enjambment and stall like a car engine we've just flooded with our impatience to get out of the parking lot; Mehta has the ear for the way words cascade and comment off one another, she knows which articles to drop to quicken the pace, and when to slow it down with a line or two of greater length, deeper measure. Rainwater aimless as worshippers /tilted in prayer, chanting the old rhythms is rich and resonant, a rhythm of r's purring over the collective cloistering that seeks a refuge from the disrupted air, the erupting sky. It suggests a layering of sounds, strong winds and shrill whistling through the cracks, a droning prayer that centers the community.

Ash is the color of the road,
my grandmother's ashes cold as my mother's bones,
remains that will be mine. Words don't last in me—

there are too many dialects. I tilt into finite.
The rest plug into a circular, scene-shifting pull of souls—

Nirvana and the rest, rapture—
to be cut loose from life, its repetitions
hell. Like walking into the shade.


A keen ear and a sure tongue are a combination any poet would desire, and Mehta has them both on display with this work, bringing the reader through the experience of the monsoon and out the other side without hamming up the particulars about Nature's Wrath or How I Survived The Big Wind, among other stale strategies she might have taken. It is the perception of the child after an event she had not had before in her short life, eyes full of the blend of muted terror mixed with awe, the experience of seeing everything you've become accustomed to changed in a power set of instants. A poet who gets that right is someone meriting a further read.

Patrick McGoohan


A note for the passing of actor Patrick McGoohan, known to American audiences as intelligence operative John Drake in the 60s television show Secret Agent (titled Danger Man in Britain, where it originated), and especially for the dada/surreal serial maze he created and starred in, The Prisoner.

A craggy countenance and a rumbling boom box of a voice, McGoohan had pacing, brooding presence on the screen, someone who could give you the impression that he was thinking of several different different things while he spoke to you directly about a particular item of dramatized controversy. It was a restless energy he could bring to a career of roles he succeeded in problematizing with a repertoire of ticks, manic hand gestures, tilts of the head, an abrupt change of posture; he seemed like he was about to go off at any moment. He was a smart enough artist to guide his persona into the right roles, and The Prisoner was the perfect fit; an uncontainable individualist quits an undisclosed intelligence agency, only to find himself kidnapped and held prisoner in an isolated village with other prisoners where the cryptic overseers demand information which he will not give.

The Prisoner, referred to as No.6 in the series, continually calculated his escape attempts, all of them failure, a task he would only start again because he would not be contained.
Odd, driving, quirky, The Prisoner fit neatly into a generation's reading and viewing habits where The System and The Man and The Establishment meant sterility, conformity, death on two feet, and it got the spirit of rebellion through the likes of No.6. One suspects that McGoohan's pacing rebel would do well with the counter culture that turned him into a hero: the prisoner didn't seem the sort of trade one sort of conformist rigidity for another. He wasn't a joiner.

Slippery Literature

There was one of those rowdy discussions about literature at a corner cafe habitats for under employed bohemians where the topic of fiction took a hard left turn, when an aesthetic difference became warfare, a conflict of moral philosophies. I was defending postmodern novelists like Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace for the way they were helping blur and otherwise erode the javascript:doSubmit()
Donebarriers that separated fiction-making and reportage, and a woman who'd been in talk suddenly clenched her fist, gritted her teeth, and gave a stare worth of a mackerel facing you down from a cutting board. To paraphrase crudely, her point was that the antics of postmodern writers gave her a loathing sensation she couldn't stand to have; her world was shaken, disturbed. She said she couldn't have the barriers between reason and emotion so disturbed and suggestively destroyed. She went about her business and left the table, and the cafe. I never saw her again, and side step having conversations about half-grasped literary theories with people I've met only that night. It takes so few assertions to undermine a pleasant evening.



The convolution of reason and emotion is exactly the kind of writing literature ought to be engaged in however severe the psychic toll adds up to. If there is no risk to the reading or a dull edge to the narrative, the story is a waste of time. Literature is provocative in the best situations, where style and innovation match and afford the author a means to dwell over the lives of characters who have ambiguous notions of what path to take; heroic, or self-preserving, brave, or cowardly, virtuous, or slippery in ethical and moral principal. It's a tour of the grey areas of existence. Being neither philosophy nor a science of any stripe, fiction is perfectly suited for writers to mix and match their tones, their attitudes, their angles of attack on a narrative schema in order to pursue as broad, or as narrow, as maximal or minimal a story they think a rendering requires.

The attack on modernism's' arrogance that it was the light to the "real" beneath the fabrications that compose our cosmology, is grossly over stated, it seems, vastly over regarded: Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Stein, arguably literary modernism's Gang-Of-Four, did not, I think, tell us in any specified terms exactly what that true reality was, or what it was supposed to be, but only that the by dicing up, challenging, making it strange and making it new could we challenge ourselves, as artists, and as readers that new perceptions, and new ideas about the nature of the world could be had.

Individually , each writer had a different idea of heaven that they wanted the world to become--Pound was ultimately a befuddled, albeit fascist sympathizer, and Eliot became a conservative Royalist (and their anti-Semitism is problematic for anyone looking for real-time heroes)-- but so far as the principle thrust of their work, which was away from the straight jacket of accumulated literary history and toward something new and different that renewed the possibility of art to engage the times in an aesthetically relevant manner, is scarcely diminished in power merely because it came before. I agree with Fred Jameson on the point that Post Modernism , in effect, is a restating of the modernist project which is, in a cramped nutshell, a set of overlapping trends in cultural thinking and expression that countered the conceit that there is a contiguous and coherent way of interpreting the world. After two world wars , discontinuity was the rule, and the ground was set for constructing new ways of seeing the world, as was the cataclysmic optimism that something final and perfect could be made from the ashes. Postmodernism's particular twist was there was no end to historical development and that history was merely a processing of events through convenient fictions. Beyond that, the style of the literary expression hasn't much altered. The key difference seems to be that brand name have replaced place names.

Writing is an argument so far that the central impulse to write at all is to make a series of statements about oneself and one's experiences in the world , and reach a satisfying conclusion, some "meaning" at the end of the discourse.

As Barthes noted, the effort to achieve fixed meaning is doomed, as experience is not an static event, but a fluid movement through time that a writer's perception of changes moment to moment, text to text. The argument is thus not one sided, but multi-vocal, complex, interwoven within perceptions that argue amongst themselves within in the writer and onto their pages, in the extension of characters, plot, instances, local, active bits of imagining where the goal, is finally to attempt to resolve contradiction, arrive at something absolute in a universe that seems to permanently with hold its Absolute Meanings during this lifetime, and to achieve, somehow, some peace, some satisfaction. But no: the argument persists, the imagination soars, the old certainties cannot contain either the unset of new perceptions, nor can sooth a writer's innate restlessness. In literature, the conflation continues, reason and emotion color each other, the eyes shut, hoping for vision, a clear path, but the writing continues, the sorting through of experience continues, the unease continues, the world changes radically and not at all. That post modernism's over all mission is to notify us of the limitations of our tropes, our schemes, and our rhetoricized absolutes seems redundant to what literature already does.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Critics in their Later Years

A diffuse style, effective in previous work where there was a strong sense of a cluster of ideas being brought together, here just lets the whole thing dangle like laundry tossed over a bed post. This seems to be a style of the critic who ascends from their particular niche and limited audience and become, over time , a public intellectual, a smart celebrity. Harold Bloom has been a conspicuous presence in the media for a good while, and years beyond his important books like the useful Anxiety of Influence and American Naturalism, his books have been increasing oracular, visionary, cloudy, full of pronouncements but stalling, hesitating, on a specific points.The last solid work by him was Shakespeare:The Invention of the Human, a provocative and entertaining assertion that what we consider to be the state and plight of Modern Man, a creature continually looking for meaning his actions and his ability to persist despite catastrophe, began with Shakespeare's writings. All our modern metaphors that demonstrate an existential void at the end of our philosophies come from The Bard's genius for making English mean new things.

A little pat, if you will (be leery of theories that account for everything that has befallen the race in it's grumpy history) , but with merit, and wisdom. Otherwise, though, Bloom has trailed off in his essays too many times, as in books like How to Read and Why or even his much lauded The Western Canon: he seems ready to offer us the keys to the kingdom before the cultivated quiver comes into his voice--I swear, I can hear when I read him. He leaves us hanging on a point while he references tropes and metaphors between authors and their works separated by centuries. Perhaps he does return to his points and makes his them clear and lucid, but often enough his writing in his late career leaves me filling in the blanks, interpreting, furnishing connecting paragraphs he didn't write in order to arrive at a semblance of coherent thought.

I don't think it's because Bloom is above my level--and I don't think the good professor is trying to get away with anything. I think it comes to a certain laziness on his part, running roughshod over older formulations, and laziness on his editor's part as well. They seem not to know how to encourage him to write a little more clearly.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Auster's poems

Strange to think, but the spare, undecorated prose of Paul Auster does achieve a poetic effect of sort, but it's something that comes about because he can create situations and odd scenarios that often times gives us the duplicitous ironies that are a good poem's hall mark. One is not sure where they stand after reading an Auster novel, and his poetry in kind does a trick of seeming like John Ashbery without the prolixity.Ashbery's genius is the concurrent circles of reference his hard objects inspire in his mind; they conflate gracefully, refusing closure. Auster's poems refuse closure as well, but his are stanzas that have a hard glare like black and white streets; no technicolor, just high contrast black and white.The stanzas and images are crystalline, hard, unadorned, and the dreamy language around them, the assumptive tone that starts with a given set of attitudes and finds itself changed or shattered by poem's end, is blurry, confused, and imprecise. An interesting tension results--there is the feeling of someone overwhelmed by the conflations and overlapping demands of events and walking away, blinders on, into a new identity.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Poetry v Prose 2: another poem by T.R.Hummer

Years, another poem by the intriguing T.R.Hummer, continues that poet's fascination with the promises and evasions of prose , the language of certainity in an existence that adheres to no protocols that have been spelled out, literally. We could say that the best aspect of having a written language is the poetry that results in discovering that things and events are never as they've been described and defined.

YEARS
Years ago, the story begins. Once.
In such-and-such a place, some season or other,
A stranger, two lovers, disaster.
She wants to close the book, but constellations
Of narrative structures interlock: gunfire
In the street, explosions at the embassy,
Betrayal, failure, decades of grinding hopelessness.
How long ago he died, his face pages vanished.
And she, dedicated reader, carries out sentence after sentence,
Her knowledge of the end complete, her execution certain.




The story begins and it never ends, as this tale and countless others like it are recast and retold; different actors, similar circumstances. Hummer gets ahead of the tedium that self-awareness of narrative form can create but chipping away at the didactic and getting to the good parts, the bits of unexpected circumstance that make a familiar narrative compelling, only they are not so unexpected. This poem might be a highlight reel, or someone fast-forwarding a favorite DVD for those scenes that resonates the most; the condensing of the particulars itself has an exhilarating effect. I think the last lines -- And she, dedicated reader, carries out sentence after sentence, / Her knowledge of the end complete, her execution certain -- because it suggests a pun, a reflection of the words we use to recount and recite a plot we know very well, and also something akin to a sentence one is fated to live through, to a willingly subscribed to circumvention of one's time where one's actions are plotted out in advance.

It would seem to argue that we are only at ease using our own will power when we are secure in the belief that that we're constrained by a grand narrative where outcomes are premeasured and assured, despite our efforts to violate form. You are left to consider whether will power is an illusion in this instance, or if the violation of form is the disregard of the grand narrative and that we do have will power? As with the kind of ambivalence Hummer connects with for, the matter is slippery and does not rest either in or outside the distinctions; the boundaries are permeable.
Will power, nee Free Will, exists indeed, and we live with the knowledge that we have the ability to go beyond implicit and tacit boundaries and create unpleasant consequences, but we chose not to. Most of us don't, in any case, and will use a sounder judgment. The majority of us wouldn't take a gun to traffic court to settle a dispute involving a ticket. This notion is something fluidly referred to as 'sanity', and there is a comfort knowing that one's fellow citizens stay within the boundaries. But there is ambivalence about those margins we stay within; there is an attraction to an existence where the Rule doesn’t apply. This seems a strong reason as to why we valorize and apologize for those artists, poets and writers we regard as artists, the usurpers of the norm. If they would otherwise be an unmannered assortment of louts.
Hummer's interest in written language as subject matter comes from the perception that human personality (in our culture at least) thrives on the notion that we're creative and groundbreaking creatures who can redefine themselves, as individuals, anytime it suits us, but that there is a virtually unspoken need to know that there are limits to how far we can stray from the script we're handed. It's knowing that we could break through the fourth wall and create all sorts of chaos for ourselves and our fellows , but that the host of us choose not too; we ascribe this to Free Choice, but for me Hummer has a darker theme, that of Fear Itself. The dread of an existence stripped of meaning, of limits, keeps us in check.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Poetry vs Prose


The Unwritten History of Prose by T.R.Hummer is a poem sussing through a variety of ambiguities about the competing provinces of Specialist Languages. The upshot of the poem is that the the jargon of each linguistic stronghold bleeds in the common parlance in a big way, one is left wondering, if they stepped back long and far enough from the tropes one routinely uses to discuss their life and their relations, that one's self-description of being-in-the-world is far more fractured than they thought. We are a species being, of course, but the conditions of behaviour and purpose are subject to tweaks and tunings from the experts--scientists, ministers, doctors, lawyers--who act, shall we say, in a profound spirit of self-interest. Whether it's enlightened or not depends on where you had your money invested, if you had money to start with.

Fitting that there is poem about prose, as a form, given the surfeit of stanzas about poetry or, more galling, poets talking about being poets. The difference is striking, and considering them, you can appreciate the reasoning poets, good ones, would consider themselves a stand in priesthood, the antenna of the race; poetry is the manifest destiny of the soul, an expansionist form that conspires, contrives , conflates the matters it chooses to deal with into a unified field theory of how the universe operates solely to make us feel a select schedule of moods. There is , perhaps, a theological assumption here, that just as there is a plan , with protocols, God intends for us to have in order to arrive, or not, at the off world point of this life--remember the phrase everything is exactly the way it ought to be in God's universe --poets treat the human experience as if were a fixed menu written in a language only they could read and order from; if crow was what they ordered, crow was what you ate.

Prose would be more concrete, pinpointed, appreciating the density of the concrete and the earthly essences that went in to making all these things adhere and form other things that are made by man; poetry is the tongue of God whispering his will into our ears, prose is the rumble and logical result following the fall from grace, a post- Babel of competing certainties , voices of conviction basing their expertise only in what can be measured, quantified, molded into a tool, a machine, a city of man made things, enterprise divorced from sacred intention, unmindful of consequences that cannot be felt until every enterprise is exhausted and each resource is depleted. Prose is the language of progress, capitalism, the rationale of moving on to the next thing , creating another catastrophe premised on unbound hubris.

I rather like this poem; it says prose is the medium with which we say "here I am, this is what I did, these are my explanations of my actions, my apologies for each and every failure." In the beginning there was the word , and in the end there will only the rubble of a civilization of things created from concepts those words delineated , and perhaps in the end there will be only the fragments of prose bits that survive, half-phrases, intriguing references and terms torn from context and historical fact, mysterious combinations of phrase that become, ironically, poetry all over again. A new Eden might yet arise, and we might yet again be a tribe collectively guessing the meaning and purpose of the sounds we make with the scraps of language set before us.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

RON ASHETON, RIP


It's a strange turn of the New Year when we first say adieu to arguably the greatest jazz trumpeter of the second half of the 20th century, Freddie Hubbard, and then this week discover that another musical pioneer with qualities opposite those of Hubbard's has died as well, guitarist Ron Asheton of The Stooges. Hubbard was a virtuoso force of nature, to engage in an abrupt use of cliche, a technical wizard who had, additionally, the great gift of melodic invention that put his untouchable skills in the service of riveting improvisation. In the company of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Hubbard coaxed an infinite number of dialogues and moods from his instrument, and he could place in the center of the emotional core of extemporized outings--the virtuosity made you feel alive , with emotions you forgot you had.

Ron Asheton, though, was of a different sort, a merely adequate electric guitarist who harnessed a narrower array of moods, attitudes, those being, I think, anger, diffidence, defiance, indifference to authority, characterized by a grainy, fuzzy, brashly fumbled yet heavily set of major and minor guitar chords. If Dave Davies of the Kinks invented the power chord with "You Really Got Me", Asheton reduced the formula to an even more primeval essence, his guitar work droning, groaning, distorting , aggravating and lumbering a set of teenage attitudes that crystallized the state of being inarticulate with a mind flooded with sensations and drives that had no experience nor wisdom to grant the spectre of coherence. He was the perfect foil for Iggy Pop, rock and roll's master of the throwaway lyric and the over driven ego; Asheton's primitivism had the gravity of a great boulder teetering precariously on a high cliff, finally sliding off with a crash, gaining momentum and mass as the huge rock approaches the bottom of the canyon; whatever was at the canyon floor was about to be smashed. Asheton made it clear on Stooges tune "No Fun", "1969" , "Search and Destroy", "Gimmee Danger" that whatever bad mood and impatient being lay at the center lay at the heart of Pop's lyrics wound up in the barbed wire snarl of his bleeding fuzztone and wah-wah pedal. Ron Asheton, an American rock and roll genius, one of the most influential fretsters of our time. Thank you, sir, and rock on.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Freddie Hubbard, RIP

I had the good fortune of seeing the recently passed away jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard several times when he played San Diego, most memorably in the Seventies when he played at the Catamaran Hotel. At the time Hubbard had made a switch from the straight ahead style on which his considerable reputation was made to a more commercial, funk and fusion approach, heavy on back beats, simple melodies, with a minimum of improvisation, and this was the material he concentrated on for the first hour of his show. Technically impressive, I remembered thinking , and I leaned over to my date and said that I thought it was a shame he was performing the recent radio-friendly hits that had brought Hubbard's name to a broader,non-jazz audience. It was as though Hubbard had heard me, for as yet another anemic ballad finished, he turned to the rhythm section and began an uptempo count and BAM! the group snapped into a head-twisting bop.
Hubbard, who was an imposing figure on stage and had a build that reminded me of a fast, hungry boxer, blew the finest trumpet solo I'd ever heard, a brilliant, fast, blinding succession of lines that skittered, danced and pirouetted in configurations that seemed alive, serpentine. For the rest of the night Hubbard was in command of his trumpet, the strong , bell like clarity of his tone and the sense of fast-witted sass and unexpected delicacy on the slower numbers continually surprising a crowd that, perhaps attracted to the gig by commercial records geared for popular acceptance, quite possibly had no idea that they were coming to see the best jazz trumpet player of his generation.

Hubbard, like many great musicians, made some dubious style choices, and was, at times, a pain in the ass, as I learned when he had a week long engagement in the eighties at the Summer House Inn's jazz club Elario's, where I worked as a reservationist. Hubbard stayed in the hotel during his gig, and was, shall we say, difficult in temperament. I answered the in house phone at the front desk one afternoon and it was Hubbard calling from his room, asking the bellman to bring up a pack of Marlboros; I decided to bring him the smokes myself, seeing a chance to actually meet a musician I admired. I knocked on the door of his room, which opened with a jolt, and saw Hubbard standing there, in his underwear and t-shirt.He tilted his head and looked at me through squinting eyes.

"Marlboros" I said, and handed the pack over to him.He took the pack and shuffled around a bit, an awkward moment. "If you need anything else, just give us a call at the Front Desk" is what I said. Hubbard said something and closed the door. The following morning I spent most of the afternoon answering phone calls from customers who'd come to see Hubbard perform at the restaurant; it seems he got into an argument with the pianist on the band stand between tunes and fired him on the spot, adding a gratuitous remark about the size of his personal business.

Let's say here that Freddie Hubbard was the greatest trumpet player of my lifetime and that what I concentrate on are those records where there seems to be no disputing the fact, Red Clay, Outposts, Body and Soul, Hub Tones. The composer of the classic "Red Clay" had clay feet it seems, but when all is said and done it is the work great artists that lives on, not the foibles and contradictions. Freddie Hubbard,thank you. Thank you very much.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Thomas Hardy as Inaugural Poet

Thomas Hardy finds something beyond his idea of reality that gives him hope despite the rigors of crisis and tumult in his poem The Darkling Thrush, published this week in Slate by poetry editor Robert Pinsky. The scenario here is that the planet is colored by the most dour of moods, seemingly shrouded and engulfed in a corrosive, soul killing pessimism . And yet, amid the foul weather and declining mood, comes a hint of something lighter, a clear wisp of clean air. Hardy seems to have learned that perception is not , by default, fate.


I leant upon a coppice gate
…..When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
…..The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
…..Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
…..Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
…..The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
…..The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
…..Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
…..Seemed fervorless as I.
At once a voice arose among
…..The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
…..Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small
…..In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
…..Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
…..Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
…..Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
…..His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
…..And I was unaware.


Confronted with gray, rainy day, a terrain of alienating spires and barren trees, the funeral day is suddenly lit up with the swelling song of the oddly-placed bird. One feels hope, optimism, from an unexpected source. It is a perfect poem for the day as we anticipate the forthcoming Presidential Inauguration .
Optimism isn't the easiest matter to get across convincingly in a poem, but there is something about the arrival of Obama in Washington that calms me more than a little. The reason might be that the new president is willing to stop arguing all the distinctions-without-difference¬es that have all but obscured our dilemma and instead confront our national and cultural issues straight on, without flinching. The point here is that there is some hope from an unexpected source that we may soon have leadership that an older guard was unwilling or unable to produce; whatever happens through this, we seem ready as a country for whatever comes after the collapse of the status quo.

Hardy's ode convinces with its uplift fairly much because his lines are melodic and they swing rather loosely for such a constricted form--there is that feeling, as we catch the beats and the galloping rhymes , that one might get as they struggle forward in a wrestling match; one senses an advantage looming, an opening about to gape widely, and this sudden expectation charges you hard, pumps a bit more adrenaline, takes you over the finish line . Through it, one is exhausted, sore perhaps, but stronger, more confident, in a state where one does not take anything for granted. Hardy seems to point out that nothing gets better without change and change is invariably struggle.

Hardy seems to be talking about the fact that creatures other than man , who have nothing invested in thinking their species special or blessed in any way, have the ability to withstand and transcend trauma, and ironically appear stronger, nobler for the struggle. The song of the thrush is theatrical, a tad melodramatic, but for poetic effect it does serve to remind the author, lately suffering a depressed mood, that life isn't about the all of existence between in place only to confirm, challenge, or test the philosophy he has developed from the gathered wisdom he has read; there is sorrow, of course, but life goes on separate from expectations and personal bitterness and beauty is not only possible despite awful events and traffic circumstances, but in fact exists, plain, clear, unselfconscious. We have the poet here at the moment when a small perception gives rise to an ongoing re-examination of ideas and relations that have sustained one so far and to appreciate the truth that what a cosmology should be a loose fitting suit rather than a tight fit.

Which is to say that Hardy finds himself awakened to the possibility that even as life goes on, it needn't be a grudging trudge, and that one can experience the wider variety of emotional and aesthetic life than before, when one found himself sure of their ideas and knowing everything without experiencing a tenth of what the world has in store.