Saturday, February 28, 2009

Old Fusion Just Keeps on Burning


*Devotion
*Electric Guitarist
-- John McLaughlin



Devotion,an early McLaughlin early solo job has been getting a lot of play around here the last month or so, mainly because the sound is raw and appealing, and what were the obvious beginnings of a commercial sound hadn't had time to become bad habits. Buddy Miles, of all people, acquits himself surprisingly as the session's designated "rock" drummer, though I wonder what the mix would have been like if it McLaughlin had Mitch Mitchell (or Ginger Baker) on hand. McLaughlin's guitar work is a wheezing grind and buzzing of devices and attachments, fuzz tones and foot pedals galore, and his riffs are choppy , sharp, angular. Larry Young is the textural component here, simply a genius on his outre minimalist take in a tradition still in the making. Electric Guitarist offers up a bit of a recovery of McLaughlin's verve and status after some noodling experimentation in his post-Mahavishnu work. It's something of a resume album, each track with another slew of stellar jazz men and fusioneers --Jack Bruce, Tony Williams, David Sanborn, Stu Goldberg -- playing in a variety of styles ; McLaughlin plays with the sort of frenetic heat that is breathtaking, to coin a phrase; not that he's ever been the fastest guitarist on the block--any number of nimble nitwits play guitar faster than he does with less effect or feeling--but what he does do is use the solo as a blow torch. He burns , in other words, and the neo-Coltrane chase "Do You Hear The Voices", patterned after the obstacle course dash that is the master's classic vamp "Giant Steps", we have the rare time when accelerated improvisation doesn't approximate a balloon going limp in the final stretch. The playing of Stanley Clark and Jack DeJohnette, bass and drums respectively, remind how disciplined these fellows are in the tradition. The metallic distortion McLaughlin brings to this track
updates and invigorates a tireless form.


At Fillmore:Live at Fillmore East -- Miles Davis

Holds up amazingly considering the years that have passed since I've heard this; Phil''s on going project for his book on the electric work of Miles made me go and buy this set again. As much as the trumpeter's later rock/jazz/funk fusion tended t resemble a triple large unpressed suit, Davis makes it work with trumpet work that's bold , brassy, snarky and snaky all at once as he darts between, over and through the churning keyboard dialogues of Corea and Jarrett. Jack DeJohnette and Holland are a blistering rhythm section here; the drums and bass patterns achieve the impossible, maintaining a rock beat and firm bottom that avoids the supreme tedium lesser rhythm sections contrive. Part of the joy of this early electric jazz rock experiment are the lack of obvious heads or signature riffs that keep the music well mannered, orderly and constricted, as well as the loose ensemble fit . There are times that it seems the band is hopelessly lost in a riff fest, going toward the cliff at quick, shambling pace, but all that is deceptive; this a discipline with a different philosophy and use. This is a choice purchase.

More on Kimberly Johnson


The larger issue Johnson may well be contemplating the fact that a religion --Christianity--based, in most of it's varieties, on the premise of eternal life for the faithful depends almost exclusively on violence toward other species for the metaphors that power their theologies. Revulsion and a more extreme profession of faith seems to be the result on this narrator who seems to have considered the facts of man's participation in the food chain, a kind of faith bordering on denial. Perhaps it is, this subtext. The point, though, is that it's likely any of us and all of us would be willing to assume any kind of comforting narrative scheme to allow us a peace of mind , the equilibrium needed to meet our needs and perform our duties from morning 'til the lights are turned off in the evening.


What's remarkable about the poem is the canny way Johnson addresses our collective need to assign a narrative value to our industrialized, mechanized, institutionalized slaughter of animals for our well being as a competitive species; just as there is much trans-formative value in the lamb being sacrificed so that we can avail ourselves of the salvation that is God's eternal promise for us, we likewise distance ourselves from the entrails and viscera we've discussed with a more determined discussion of what this routinized slaughter makes possible in the greater scheme.

The argument becomes an economic one and, like the sacrifice of the lamb, it is a metaphor that assures us that a greater moral good-- the salvation our place in Heaven with the righteous practice of virtue on earth, supplying food and clothing and jobs for a population--is being served.

What I take from Johnson's poem is that the metaphors themselves serve a need perhaps larger than the ones promised, which is to disguise the brutal, food-chain nature of how species feed and prey, and to buffer us surely against a nauseating horror that would other wise make the assurances of spiritual and financial health seem a poor trade against the brutality our industries are based on. Johnson is aware of the power of metaphor and myth to elevate us and move us forward , and she recognizes as well the bloody facts these tropes are helping us transcend. If we weren't able to set these gruesome details aside, none of us would be able to get out of bed and conduct ourselves through the week in good faith.

Friday, February 27, 2009

a gratuitous swipe at MFA programs in poetry


I would generally support graduate programs in writing prose,since this is the thing that all of us live by and it is the language form that is most useful in enabling us to construct something resembling a coherent approach to a world that cares not at all whether we can create metaphors comparing unlike things in the same stanza.

The finer points of writing a prose that can best convert experience, opinion, research into material that is meaningful and useful to a reader is a goal worth striving for, and the social good it produces is rather obvious; a culture that's able to express itself better is capable of generating better ideas as well. We write our sports pages and monographs in prose, not in metered verse.

Poetry would be a side project , in my view, something to be considered as an elevated art only after some required courses in writing clear, articulate prose have been mastered; poetry is about the muddle of our thinking, the ambiguity that lies between the utterances we make, it is the feeling of being unsecured in the world when the talking and the reciting is done with. Even so, the aim is toward clarity of a kind, a connection to a world beyond the words contained in the books professional poets are loath to leave behind. It is a mistake, I think, that one should enter a program with it in mind to become a poet, the way one would become a medical doctor , or an accountant, certified by an institution. The training in poetic technique is fine with me, but only in the larger context of a system that trains graduate students to become writers rather than self-referencing log rollers.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Absolution through poetry.


The small yet dread thought most of must struggle
not to give an ear to as we pass the supermarket meat section is exactly how did all those fine sides of beef, ham, chicken, turkey, lamb get to where they are, from animal to shrink wrapped packages kept cool under glass or dangling from hooks, ready to consume. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb among other books, phrased it well in speech I saw him give in the Seventies at an Earth Day rally, declaring that Americans are willfully ignorant of the costs involved in the manufacture of prepared food; as we roll our carts down the aisles, we assumed the shelves "are restocked by God."

Ehrlich was speaking of the economic costs and how the waste was straining the resources the planet has to sustain life, but on a less alarming level there is the refusal of many of us to face the truth that animals are killed, slaughtered in cruelly efficient ways in order to speed the delivery of the meat to the grocer shelves at a reasonable for the hope of garnering a reasonable profit. Norman Mailer, in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, gives an especially focused account on the mechanized brutality afflicted on the gathered cattle to a community can kept and content:

Well the smell of the entrails and that agonized blood electrified by all the outer neons of ultimate fear got right into the grit of the stockyard stench. Let us pass over into the carving and the slicing, the boiling and scraping, annealing and curing of the flesh in sugars and honeys and smoke, the cooking of the cow carcass, stamp of the inspector, singeing of the hair, boiling of hooves, grinding of gristle, the wax papering and the packaging, the foiling and the canning, the burning of the residue, and the last slobber of the last unusable guts as it went into the stockyard furnace, and up as stockyard smoke, burnt blood and burnt bone and burnt hair to add their properties of specific stench to fresh blood, fresh entrails, fresh fecalities already all over the air. It is the smell of the stockyards, all of it taken together, a smell so bad one must go down to visit the killing of the animals or never eat meat again. Watching the animals be slaughtered, one knows the human case--no matter how close to angel we may come, the butcher is equally there. So be it."

Upton Sinclair, before Mailer, wrote about the splattered ugliness of the slaughterhouse in The Jungle, and in both books the point of the acute depictions of grizzly meat processing is to reveal what it is that we are shielded from and what we continually deny , that there is violence, death, what activists would call murder involved in each steak, hamburger and hamburger we buy or make for ourselves, that our feeding on meat to both sustain ourselves and enjoy, as a residual result, as an aesthetic experience, is inextricably linked to death.

An old equation, perhaps, a faint point to make , but the intent with Mailer and Sinclair's writing was to connect their readers with
the thorough unpleasantness of food production, in short, disabuse them of the idea that where the delicious preparations come from is none of their concern. Disgust was a probable goal, outrage another, all with the hope that a head long stare into the abyss would enable consumers to make better decisions about how they want to live.

An experience like that does change lives. I was talking to a friend last night about thanksgiving, and he told me about how, as a boy of nine, he went with his parents to aunt and uncle's farm for Thanksgiving and, after being allowed to play around in the farmyard and the barn with his cousins, saw his uncle bring the turkey into the barn, place the neck on a stump like we've seen in cartoons, and lop the creature's head off with an axe. The turkey flailed and ran around a bit before
keeling over. That night, my friend said he couldn't eat the chicken. For what it's worth, he became a life long Democrat.

Kimberly Johnson's poem "Marking the Lambs" fairly much covers this territory, highlighting narrator, sounding as if recovering from a dull shock to the system, recounts the subjugation of the lamb. The effect is something like a camera
zooming in with suffocating closeups of struggle,carnage and turmoil, with a narration that itself is distanced and dazed, yet putting together a sequence from the jerking commotion

As crickets geiger-up for spring, we corral
the ram lambs. They stutter and dense against the fence
wheezing for the ewes. Down wince,
down retch: up one and flip his back to mud,
knee to sternum. The banded tail will black
to wizen, prune off easy. But marking is all trespass:
thumb the soft belly to pop the scrotum out, then lunge and turn
the mind away, teeth working, working, to snap back and spit


This voice is fractured, given to half phrases and
short bursts of detail, given to obscure and unexplained usages (They stutter and dense against the fence wheezing for the ewes. Down wince,down retch: up one and flip his back to mud,knee to sternum. ) leavened with inner rhymes
that rise when the description of the carnage threatens to take on momentum and overwhelm and give the lie to whatever holiday spirit a waiting family used as a pretext to gather together. Johnson, though, does not preach, nor proclaim, nor climb on a soapbox to dispense a moral lesson. The horror, the disgust, the aforementioned outrage, is buried, repressed. What the poem lacks in an obvious explicit philosophical/moral point (which some readers would prefer ) is made up in power, as witness the narrator's attempt to consume and enjoy the flesh of the creature she subjugated and mutilated :

I try not to taste but I am
all mouth, all salt blood and lanolin. I hear
their bleatings through my tongue.


The poem is called "Marking the Lambs", a practice not of slaughtering lambs for food but rather a hard scrabble bit of anatomical clipping and slicing to ensure the lamb's health in the production of wool. Johnson,though, makes what I take to be an associative leap and becomes weary with the violence visited upon the meekest of animals. Clothing , food, good times, all enjoyed from the privilged position of uninterest. Awareness of how the pantry and the closet become so well stocked changes our relationship with the things we purchase; we can no longer be nonchalant about it.This had to have the loneliest dinner table this narrator had ever sat at, before a table of ridiculous bounty and a family acting out the spirit of Holiday joy (and I am assuming the poem is inspired by Thanksgiving/Christmas seasons past and present) with the taste and sounds of the
sacrificed lamb protesting it's coming demise all too recent and vivid to deny. It's a moment when one realizes that the Great Chain of Being we muse over after hours in cafes or in discussions of vague spirituality is , in fact, a Food Chain, each link unbreakable and forever.

What we eat comes back to back to be that Thing That's At Us, which we tried to assuage with poems as skilled and powerful as Kimberly Johnson's.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Ted Berrigan


The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan
Edited by Alice Notely (University of California Press)

It's not enough that we have the same first name and the same Irish second initial, my attraction to Berrigan's poems was the rather nonbelligerent way he ignored the constricting formalities in poetry and rendered something of a record of his thoughts unspooling as he walked through the neighborhood or went about his tasks.
"Where Will I Wander" is the title of a recent John Ashbery volume, and it might well be an apt description of Berrigan's style; shambling, personal, messy, yet able to draw out the sublime phrase or the extended insight from the myriad places his stanzas and line shifts would land on.

10 THINGS I DO EVERY DAY
by Ted Berrigan

wake up
smoke pot
see the cat
love my wife
think of Frank

eat lunch
make noises
sing songs
go out
dig the streets

go home for dinner
read the Post
make pee-pee
two kids
grin

read books
see my friends
get pissed-off
have a Pepsi
disappear


This takes my breath away, the idea of a series of sighs and mumbled asides rise to an audible sequence and provide the minimal but powerful considered portrait of the daily grind, the awful routines we commit to rather than pursue our what once might have been thought of as our true callings; the voice hangs on the end of the short lines, as if in suspension, waiting for an affirmative line or joke to lighten the tone, but this remains the bone-picked image of borderline despair, the slow death.
"...have a Pepsi /disappear..." encapsulates the mood , and makes it clear that sometimes one feels the words one speaks to others comes from elsewhere, not our souls, certainly not our mouths.

The world radiated a magic and energy well enough without the poet's talents for making essences clear to an audience needing to know something more about what lies behind the veil, and Berrigan's gift were his personable conflations of cartoon logic, antic flights of lyric waxing, and darkest hour reflection , a poetry which, at it's best, seemed less a poem than it did a monologue from someone already aware that their world was extraordinary and that their task was to record one's ongoing incomprehension of the why of the invisible world.

The Crisis in American Poetry: NO MORE GREAT POETS??


New York Times writer David Orr begins a recent article with a great hook for poetry readers, that Library of America has issued a volume of poems by John Ashbery. Terrific enough, we think, but this a segue for what he really wishes to talk about, that the publication of this particular volume of Ashbery's poems signals that soon we will be without a Great American Poet once Ashbery, now 83, passes on. He writes


What will we do when Ashbery and his generation are gone? Because for the first time since the early 19th century, American poetry may be about to run out of greatness.


Read the entire piece here.A decent read, as far as it goes, but there's something that sounds much too ginned up about Orr's assesment. The sudden obsession with greatness in American poetry seems a phony crisis amid a plentitude of real ones. Greatness in a poet is not at once obvious, and in fact one must confess the great reputations of Whitman, Stevens, Williams and even Ashbery himself are socially constructed. It has everything to do with an accumulation of critical opinion, a subjective lagoon if one ever existed in nature; Ashbery, great as I think he is, didn't come by his greatness over night, and I think the best way he got his current stature is the fact that he didn't die , he didn't quit writing, and he kept publishing. I doubt there's anyone we'd consider a Great American Poet who didn't come by their standing as Great much the same way.

One might also remember that our great poets in their day became great over turning previous standards and establishing their own, signature innovations that, in turn, became the standard for generations afterwards. Ashbery is the last great American Poet of his generation, perhaps, but he isn't the last great poet this country will ever have. Saying so, I think, falls into the fretting, hang wringing sub-Spenglerites who want to predict the death of various arts and institution--the novel, painting, theatre, whatever is old, venerated and in need of a bullet to the head. It's a straw man argument; what we'll have is a new standard, introduced by a generation interrogating an critiquing the previous efforts and ideas of the older avant gard, poems and ideas most of us will no doubt be disgusted by, but new ideas that, with time and new distribution technology, will become a new standard, an addition to the canon, until such time their sons and daughters figure it’s time to knock the current crop of musty posers from their pedastals.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A statement about poetry

The validity of any theory of poetry rests in how well it works in actual poems, not in how well turned the theoretical phrasing is.
There should be an absolute minimum of poems about poetry; poets, regardless of politics or aesthetic preference , really need to turn their language skills to the world and not onto themselves or their craft. Poems about poems , for me, is analogous to building cars from the spare parts of old cars--the enterprise will just collapse under it's own conceited laziness unless something fresh, alien and external , from outside the poet's subjective being and his or her ingrained habits of rhetoric, that would challenge the given assumptions a habit of phrasing would other wise lead a poet to rest upon. The poem is a vehicle to engage reality, not to wish it away with an obsession with it's own form.

Difficult poems are not to be discounted merely because they're difficult. There are poets who layer their works in ways that reward the effort to understand them on their own terms. There are things that cannot really be written about simply, and require genius to have the language extended to the point that a carnivalization of our paradigm can be contained with the word systems we were born with--Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson come to mind.

Clear, concise, "objectively" coherent poems are not to be discounted merely because they make sense to the reader in more conventional ways. There's quite a bit of complaining about the "School of Quietude" that dominates poetry awards, and for the most part I share the disdain--faux confessional bits of inconsequential meditation that does not arise above a listing of wistfully arranged images and an implied, defeated sign, all in the moment. It's off putting and it's a cheat on the craft. But there poets who can compose the lyric that can bring a number of ideas , images, bits of memory to a single moment, a synthesis perfectly realized, truthfully told, without verbal padding. I think of Thomas Lux, my friend Peter Dragin, Paul Dresman, Kate Watson. This is not to say that these smaller poems are the only things these writers compose, far from it. But the smaller ones, about smaller things, should be respected when the near perfections are created

An absolute minimum of literary language and reference; excessive reference to other writers , philosophers, and the like makes me think that someone is hiding their college syllabi and hasn't yet learned to write honestly about their experience. Other writers should be the models, not the frameworks of what a younger poet writes.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rae Armantrout Tonight at D.G.Wills Books

D.G.Wills Books: "Acclaimed Poet

Rae Armantrout
will read from her new book
Versed
Saturday, February 21st, 7pm .

Rae Armantrout has always organized her collections of poetry as though they were works in themselves. Versed brings two of these sequences together, offering readers an expanded view of the arc of her writing. The poems in the first section, Versed, play with vice and versa, the perversity of human consciousness. They flirt with error and delusion, skating on a thin ice that inevitably cracks: “Metaphor forms / a crust / beneath which / the crevasse of each experience.” Dark Matter, the second section, alludes to more than the unseen substance thought to make up the majority of mass in the universe. The invisible and unknowable are confronted directly as Armantrout's experience with cancer marks these poems with a new austerity, shot through with her signature wit and stark unsentimental thinking. Together, the poems of Versed part us from our assumptions about reality, revealing the gaps and fissures in our emotional and linguistic constructs, showing us ourselves where we are most exposed. Rae Armantrout is Professor of writing and literature at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of ten books of poetry."

Friday, February 20, 2009

A poem by Peter Dragin

One of the grand things of being a minor poet is that one gets to make friends with those who are just better poets, but interesting and utterly cordial folks. Peter Dragin is one of these folks, a writer with whom I was in the 1996 anthology Small Rain: eight poets in San Diego. with an elegantly Buddhist drift who has the ability to frame an irony or adjudicate contradictory perceptions with an elegance I find marvelous. I have simply wondered time and again just how he can makes his associative leaps without leaving a long trail of language in his wake; it's not that he's getting to a point in his poetry, he's arriving at a destination.

I've been struck by a particular poem while re-reading sections of the anthology, "There Are No Alternative Fuels", appropriate to the current alarm of global warming and financial meltdown.

THERE ARE NO ALTERNATIVE FUELSPeter Dragin

We are all in all afloat
in the empty space
of our atomic flesh:

presence once arrived
greets presence
ever arriving

in the house
made of heat;

in the forest's
hospitality to
the rising sun's light,

in prime ordered
stillness and silence

where birds wing and
make song as they warm

dwells the work.

Each compression and expression of lips, teeth and tongue,
imagine it makes one dawn,

imagine brain's measure
in vibrant silence and heat;

we are all
Ancient in Days, so

tell me what you could
possibly want
from torching the Amazon,

the rape and mutilation
of every family
tribe and nation on earth:

what's your pleasure?
A car of your own?



Peter, it seems to me, identifies us all as creatures requiring heat to survive just as the planet requires the heat of the sun to thrive and sustain it's life cycles, but confronts what happens when we want more heat than what we need. We become drunk on what it is combustion can power, and we assume a kind of entitlement to having resources used to drive our convenient technology. We are the same, he writes, "We are all in all afloat /in the empty space of our atomic flesh", linked to a seemingly unlimited chain that links us to every living thing and every particle of air, but we have forgotten that our lifestyles, not just our individual actions, have consequences. Our economics and the popular culture it sustains is destroying the fertile ground every species being and living specimen require to live and reproduce.


we are all
Ancient in Days, so

tell me what you could
possibly want
from torching the Amazon,

the rape and mutilation
of every family
tribe and nation on earth:

what's your pleasure?
A car of your own?

It's a world seared by the accumulated residue of whole cities, suburbs, country sides full of citizens letting their cars idle , their air conditioners run, their televisions blasting, the inert remnants of coal and oil fires falling on our skins, choking our pores, infecting our lungs, darkening the sky, murdering a planet that was once balanced. The eden that Peter imagines here is mythical, to be sure, and it seems he sets this up to make a point that comes straight ahead, catching you by surprise. So, here we are at the end of the world that didn't have to come, and what was this sacrifice all for?

Our right to get and run our "stuff"?

The past never happened

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a couple of years ago that the world he now lives in less nice, less patient, less sane than the world he grew up in. Typical for columnist faced with deadline without a lead line, the writing machinery shifts into automatic pilot. Brooks' machinery on this day is a time machine, where we find a wonderful country called The Past. Brooks seems to visit there quite often, perhaps with a wish to be represented in better days by having his profile caught on canvas by a visiting Norman Rockwell. The general drift is that maybe Americans were smarter than we are now, that there was a classier way of comporting yourself through both "good wars" and less dramatic circumstances by an adherence to a private code of integrity, that magazines and publishers and the like weren't afraid to offer up features on art, opera and serious literature as means to improve the soul of its readership.

Sigh...Brooks must have been having a John Cheever moment, full of diminished, muted light, chiming sounds and the smells of fall , only unlike Cheever, who realized that such security found in the lap of absurd privilege is fleeting and not a panacea for the stress that creases the soul, our columnist seems to believe the mythology of his own youth. Cheever, a noted alcoholic who conquered his affliction for the sauce late in his life brought from that experience the notion that nostalgia, untrammeled, untamed and wallowed like warm mud, is a slow and odious death of the spirit. Rather than rage, we get sighs and regrets, rather than laughter, we get weeping. Brooks reads as though he's on the border of crossing into the land of What If...
Interesting, of course, that he places his nostalgic wanderings in the page of old magazines, when there was much less media to tell us how the world worked and what it all meant. It was easy to flip through these pages from decades ago and be able to conceptualize the world as a place where only a limited number of significant things happened from week to week; this was reality presented to us as lateral narrative. The truth is not that the world used to be better and has become worse, more coarse, but rather it's gotten bigger, continuous, multi-headed, sleepless, with a limitless range of Internet, cable and satellite venues to tell us what in the world is going on, with limitless slants, angles, perspectives, interpretations and fanatical absolutism to color each and every report. Brooks mourns the death of the Grand Narrative, the unifying but frayed line that connects the progress of our race through time, and finds himself upset at the surfeit of smaller narratives that have their particular ideas of history, culture, religion, political expedience.

Brooks has a bad case of Post Modern Condition. A typical symptom is the writing of columns like this one that, while well phrased and richly detailed, actually has no message other than that things aren't what they used to be. The harder lesson after that is realizing that things never were they way they used to be.

Poe's Memory from Before Birth


It would be a mistake to approach Edgar Allen Poe with the expectation that there's a solid intellectual argument occurring in his poems.He might insist that there is, in his essays like "Eureka" that have been unearthed over the decades by scholars trying to bring the poor Poe man up to par with the smartest literary sorts, but the fact is that Poe was not much of a thinker. He wasn't a thinker, but he did give articulation to undercurrents of human desire that have had, perhaps, a farther reaching effect in the culture than any straight explication could have.In any case, I think it a mistake to approach Poe with the expectation that there's a solid intellectual argument occurring in his poems.He might insist that there is, in his essays like "Eureka" that have been unearthed over the decades by scholars trying to bring the poor Poe man up to par with the smartest literary sorts, but the fact is that Poe was not much of a thinker.

He was a , as a poet, a virtuoso of leaping rhyme and alliteration and had a chiming quality that could suggest the phonic equivalent of fifes, flutes, bells and other kinds of sparkling effects, but he was also a a genius of mood, despair, obsession; much of the time what the artist explores and renders exposed in terms of material we learn from is not the result of conscious decision.(One does admit, though, that his dissociation of sensibility in the sheer sensory overload of decay that made his metaphors and similes ripe with rot likewise sacrificed sense and logic and as often as not became a species of hackwork, an exercises of hackwork the writer of which tried to elevate to greatness by extreme bouts of overwriting the same limited scale of ideas.)"The Raven", "Lenore", "Annabelle Lee" are fairy tales for depressives, explorations into a world where everything has run down and had the joy sucked out of it; the correlation with the bruising details of his own rearing is obvious enough.

Poe was a precursor of decadence to come, through which beauty had been redefined as something being achieved only in a living thing or object's point of decay. Poe's is the poetry (and stories)that gave rise to the notion that funeral detail and a desire for the last nap called death are attractive and to be desired, and suggesting that the the dark side was actually a means to achieving a higher aesthetic being.

Poe's work is about disintegration, evaporation, dis corporation in all manner, where expertly honed rhymes and rhythms of his writings disguise but then reveal the burning, churning glory of pure form, energy, freed of the bondage of corporeal existence. Poe wrote quite a few essays outlining these ideas, particularly "Eureka" and "The Philosophy of Furniture". In his fiction, "The Fall of the House of Usher" is his most vivid and brilliant realization of his idea of metaphorical entropy.He was a , as a poet, a virtuoso of rhyme and alliteration and had a chiming quality that could suggest the phonic equivalent of fifes, flutes, bells and other kinds of sparkling effects, but he was also a a genius of mood, despair, obsession; much of the time what the artist explores and renders exposed in terms of material we learn from is not the result of conscious decision."The Raven", "Lenore", "Annabelle Lee" are fairy tales for depressives, explorations into a world where everything has run down and had the joy sucked out of it; the correlation with the bruising details of his own rearing is obvious enough.

In one of his essays, Edgar Allen Poe summarizes one the essential elements of his philosophical musings by asserting that we are cursed with "the memory from before birth", a slight and wavering recall of a time when calm and serenity were in place and there was nothing of the distortions or crass money, family, or religion to make us nervous, devious, only half alive (if "alive" at all). The upshot of his baroque hypothesizing was, to be sure , our constant and at times overwhelming desire to return to such a nocturnal, darkened, stress less state, a return to the womb, perhaps; in any event, his misgivings were a desire for sleep from which one needn't wake up from, death in other words.

Following suit are Poe's peculiar interest in things decadent and decaying, those thin , reedy and tubercular characters of diseased gentry and errant aristocratic stock who hang on to the waking life by a mere thread, effete and defeated and gracefully blended into the material realm, waiting for gravity to take its toll and to become themselves receivers of the dirt nap, freed of the binds that only punish you for having nerve endings.

There was, among the decadent writers and artists following Poe, a literal worship of an aesthetic principal that the greatest beauty was in a person or a thing in it's decline, when it was letting go of the struggle and was reduced to it's basic, most true and frailest form. An aspect of this, I suspect, was envy of the declining aesthetic object, be it a human or a diseased elm; a deep and permanent rest awaited them, and death would be that thing that gives the lie to the certitude of philosophy or economic determinism that insist that life must forever be thus, a certain way, without change. Those who die have escaped, and there are no arms to bring them back to suffer more with the rest of us pining over a grave.

Poet Patricia Traxler gets all this wonderfully in her poem The Dead Are Not in this week's Slate, succinctly in her poem The Dead Are Not; as rob and others have already remarked, the poem is brief and each finessed line conveys the complicated, conflicting and confused set of emotions one
journeys through as yet another death comes closer to one's inner circle of confidants and family. Indeed, the dead are not dead yet,

Always they take
their time, and we wait
politely, dreading
how real it will
have to be, sooner
or later, and at the
same time longing
to know that reality.



There are arguments one has with the departed, negotiations still in session, curses and protests of undying love are uttered, self-recrimination and blaming goes on for days and nights until one tires of the their tears and breathes easier because sunrises still come inspite the weight of grief. We mutter to ourselves that the dead are
"in a better place", that they "felt no pain" or that
"...at least they died quick..." all so we get on with our lives and our responsibilities, and yet an echo of our accepting rhetoric stays with us as we shoulder our daily responsibilities, that "better place" doesn't sound so bad, and we become envious and petty all over again, we blame the dead for being cowards and laggards who would do anything to shirk their duty, and we come to envy them and that place they've gone. Gravity takes its toll, our bones ache, the mailbox is filled with bills, someone else you know has told you they have a fatal disease, your back hurts like shit:

Nights, as we reach
to switch off our bed lamps
and close our eyes,
we dare it to take us
into its mouth
that smells of tar,
saltwater, sludge,
take us up then let us
tumble endlessly,
blameless again
and helpless as any new life
forced out for the first time
into the terrible light.




Traxler gets to the center of that guilty little secret
at the core of grieving, the scourge of envy and the many faces and tones of voice it takes. Without metaphysical baloney, faux piety, or even a tone of anger, she writes in the cool, reflective calm of someone who has investigated their feelings and discovered an unknown fact about their thinking. This poem has the remarkable clarity of genuine self-sight, unnerving in its tone, beautifully expressed. Her skill gives us the chance to see something very private, unobscured by clouds of delusion. A very fine poem.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

TV makes you nervous


There are those smartypants lovers of popular culture who've marketed the idea that television makes us smarter. I'd counter that the boob tube, now an accessory to larger telecom media tentacles, makes us more nervous;there's the frequently made error of thinking that heightened awareness of what's going about you for an increase intellect. Rather, I think it makes for the kind of overwhelming where the raw input becomes a torrential blur ; static , in other words. Television used wisely diverts the smart mind when it's time to uncork , but it becomes a nagging, noising chain of it's own accord.

TV has succeeded in making us measurably dumber. Not stupider, mind you, just dumber, which is tendency to accept mediocrity across the board in the kind of false-consciousness that embraces the equality of all cultural matters and mediums .God has a cruel wit if what we have are real people with fake lives watching TV shows full of fake people acting out real ones. Social anxiety disorder is a real condition, though we dispensed with the trend of making every discomfort a disease and just referred to sufferers as either existentially perplexed, or more simply, "neurotic".

Any good post-war coffee cooler philosophe knows the cure to the constant fretting and despair: GET A LIFE, or at least create one. In the current age, we can start with turning off the TV and getting a library card, for nothing makes you smarter as well has reading books , one page at a time, at pace where you're allowed, or rather compelled to develop sound thinking. TV has replaced the ability to abstract with the mere capacity to summarize, which is the difference between synthesizing information and formulating a solution to a problem under inspection, and the other merely a form of inventory taking, hardly more than putting everything in specimen jars, labeling them, and categorizing them in a method that renders the information inert, useless, and mere clutter. We're coming to approach ideas like statistic laden sports fans who have amassed data very quickly but have nothing they can do with it. TV, as fine and brilliant as some of the drama has become, does not provide for a structure through which critical thinking is possible, as would the reading of books. With the latter cannot argue with the screen, cannot add to a conversation under way. It remains entertainment best assessed with other disciplines hopefully read from books that were thoroughly interrogated by personalities that are aware that images are fleeting and forgotten, but words are forever and therefore powerful.

It's misleading to argue that TV overall is better and more brilliant than it was in the past and that as a consequence viewers have become smarter as they interact with the subtler and more complex programming. To my mind, the ratio of quality programming to the rot is about the same, ten percent to eighty percent (in descending order); those shows that one isn't embarrassed to admit to watching--Sopranos, The West Wing , et al--are better than the fabled Hill Street Blues, but the promise of cable television never materialized as you might have hoped. With some exceptions, we have five hundred channels with nothing to watch, to paraphrase Springsteen, and what we have, really, are millions of viewers who are knowledgeable about scores of things of little consequence at all. Being able to link the difficulties with the goon show that was the Michael Jackson trial with the daily debacle of the O.J. Simpson murder case in the minutest detail is not the same as garnering information that would help you devise better ways to educate, employ and protect a community. Television only makes you smarter about television, and I chance it to say that what people remember about Hardball are Chris Matthew's volume and how well or badly his haircut might have been, and not the details of his questions to his political guests.

The situation hasn't made us any smarter in ways that make interaction more successful; most of the discussion that one places so much stress on happens online, alone, in private, which more or less reduces the phenomenon to the consumption of pornography.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Stephen Metcalf and the Decline of the West

Rock criticism had a heyday in the sixties, when the mostly male likes of Lester Bangs , Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh and Robert Christgau combined their counter culture hedonism and the civil-rights informed progressive spirit and composed an ecstatic body of writing that supposed that rock music was more than a newly arrived art form, it was the future itself singing to us. Those of us old enough to remember can replay our favorite bits of prose that underscored the historic struggles embodied by the Beatles v The Rolling Stones, or the visionary accounting of Bob Dylan on the plight of our collectively bedraggled spirit. What of all that? Well, there was some good writing, deluded as much of it tended to be. Greil Marcus has become an ersatz cultural critic who chases around Bob Dylan's reputation in much the same fashion as the later writing of Harold Bloom rides Shakespeare's coat tails, Dave Marsh has become a dour Methuselah, serious and dull as paper clip, Robert Christgau has at least left the past behind and continued to listen to and write about new music, and Lester Bangs, pour sainted Lester, is dead as a door stop.

Not that rock criticism has stopped being written, or that there's nothing good being said about younger artists. But there times when the younger criics read as if they're performing an Andy Kaufman like parody of an older generation of serious reviewers. It's disheartening when you discover these guys aren't kidding.

Latest case in point that I've come across is Stephen Metcalf's hand wringing piece in Slate about Bruce Springsteen's performance at the Super Bowl. Springsteen had sinned some how, and the additional crime , from Metcalf hints at, was that The Boss couldn't sense the beleagured critic's reservations through the ether, over the digital transmissions. Bad dog!

I am not a Springsteen fan, and have written for years on the fact that the good man is severely over rated by babbling pop pundits like Metcalf ( the likes of whom seem unable to even take a dump without summoning summaries of zeitgeists past, present and oncoming) but I do have to say that Bruce isn't required to live up to any coterie's collective fantasy about what his "purpose" is. Metcalf here seems increasingly like those noisy, bellicose and useless color commentators who shout statistics and jargon-clogged truisms over the airwaves while the real players, like them or not, are doing the best they can on the field.

The piece had nothing to do with Music and everything to do with the author's sadness that he's older, more cynical and just a little bitter that he aged his way past his earlier zeal and optimism. Springsteen still plays music with much the same spirit that animated him when he was a much younger man; I don't care for his music or lyrics to any large degree, but I do admire his honesty and his refusal to let age depress his vitality. Depression is what oozes between the sentences of Metcalf's mewling essay, and the astonishing thing is that somehow he seems to hold the Boss accountable for not aligning his performance on the author's soured mood. This is not heroic criticism on the level of William Hazlitt or Matthew Arnold, this is sophistry on a par with the snobbish sniveling of Dave Marsh.As far as TV performances go, it was good, quite good, but Metcalf is just an inconsolable sourpuss because he didn't get his standard Transcendent Effect. But what galls me , really, about the diatribe is the author's odd conceit that he knows intimately what the "National Mood" and how anyone should behave in a down swing. Springsteen is there for his fans, the ones who pay to see his concerts and buy his records, not the likes of Stephen Metcalf, who wants music written and performed by others to a soundtrack for his personal gloom and disgust. Plus, it's absurd to go on the way he did; if he thinks Springsteen was inappropriate in his performance, why didn't Metcalf chide The Steelers for daring to win the game?

Would writers be out of a job if they decided to grow up?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

2 poems for Valentine's Day

I Like the Hat

The articles of faith
are written in
an ink
that looks
like B movie blood,
but this isn't
a movie,
'though 'tis a script
in rehearsed real lives
whose lines
come trippingly
from the slightest of clues.



"Do you like my hat?”
you asked, feigning vanity,
high beam eyes
looking at me
like I were an alley,
a short cut home,
"Do you think this outfit
is myself external.
or was it just
the sales pitch
I was attracted to?"



I was shaving
a mustache that
refused
to mature

and I was grimacing
at the feel
of the snipers' tug
of the blade
caroming over my skin
when you popped your head
in the bathroom door
and asked the
question.

I dropped
the blade
into the sink
and ran the hot water
until
all
the mirrors steamed.


"I like the hat" I said,
towel in hand, face in towel,
"I love the hat,
I love the dress,
and
I even like you,
and I find your
whole attire
is you
under floodlights
of moon and stars,
full and courtly,

at the beach
on the end
of a long pier
where short walks
took us
where we lost ourselves
in chatter
and my hand found your nylons
while waves beat the pylons
and your hat
went soaring

over and into the water
as your feet
dangled in the breeze
in a whole other direction,

"No,
it wasn't the sales pitch your fell for,
it was the sales man
falling for you

and forced
to speak the truth of beauty as it was presented,
he wanted to dress you in hats
and gowns and long white gloves
and imagine lives
in alternative universes
taking the clothes
off you
at the close of days
at the end of piers,


"I love you
with or without the hat
and threads,
that much
I know by heart."



This isn't a movie,
but I can't think
of anything
else to do.
I dropped the towel
and looked
at you
as you dropped
the hat
and some more
and we stood there half undressed,
taking in views
embracing the ivory of enamel,
your legs pointing to the door,
you
taking me in.


--------

From the top of your head


From the top of your head
flowers grow that I've never seen
in the nature of my asking
the meaning of this thing, so beautiful, the wind.

The wind in all uses highlights
the shift of your hips
leaning against rocks, the meaning of this,
the earth, the mother of the deals
that have us eating out
of the hands that pick the roots of your hair
that goes on growing like flowers on hills
with all the houses we 've never lived in.

A clap of thunder is applause enough for pausing
to smell the turpentine that revives the hem and haw
of the wood under our shoes,
rainy nights are ovations and the trance
of still looking into your eyes
where I've always seen them,
on pyramids, in circles,
thirsty yearning.

From my hands comes ruined meaning
about hammers and nails and the holes that made them,
I've stared at your face on the ceiling all night,
water flows where there is no resistance,
insistence makes me forget and remember your names,
every center has a heart
and every heart is broken.
Into your face t
all roads split down the middle,
the wind is a whisper
and a rustle of notes
coyotes cry
in the wake
of our progress,
so beautiful, the wind,
and water rolling
in circles, in circles, in peace.

Friday, February 13, 2009

"Easy to read and melodious prose is one of the least natural things in the world.


In the course of a mad email exchange with a friend in Pittsburgh about writers and their strategies to creating a prose style that effectively conveyed their stories in all their obvious and more oblique consequences, I was struck by my friend's incidental declaration that "Easy to read and melodious prose is one of the least natural things in the world. " But who wants to read anything that has absolute fidelity to natural speech, whatever "natural" speech happens to be? The ear wants something better formed, and memory wants something that is, well, memorable. What is natural, if anything can be, is a human desire for things that are elegant,balanced, pleasurable to behold, a joy to the senses. What makes these pleasures varies radically in subjective examination, and that is what makes talking about the differences a peculiar pleasure in itself.


"Easy to read and melodious prose" has been the ideal since the creation of the professional writer: it's not far a field to say that humans generally prefer clarity over confusion, and to develop methods, developed through experimentation, to achieve those goals. Because we are a species that's smart enough to demonstrably learn new habits through different kinds of training or learning--whether mechanical or in the acquisition of cultural topsoil-- my thinking is that that a clear style is really a natural expression of human habit, determined however that habit might be. Culture itself, the abstract idea condensed histories gathered along a relentlessly twined strands, is indeed artifice on the face of it, but the formation of culture and it's aesthetic distinctions is hardly unnatural to anything one might think is alien to some wordy definition of man's "natural" state.

It's all natural, in other words: most everything we do, whatever our convolutions as a species carry us to on whatever tide of rhetoric, ideology and religious infamy, is the result behavior that is , of course, animal, species related, but also quite human, quite "natural" .We are not outside of nature, but rather our expressions are quite natural within it's all encompassing sphere, and the development of a musical style in order to express some sense of an individual experience of one's environment, the poetry of the moment, falls handily into the categories of "natural" acts.

More useful, perhaps, might be to consider the word "natural" with regards as to how a writer can create a plausible, believable voice within and without their narrative technique: DeLillo and Hemingway, stylized as they are, created powerful voices that compel response. The styles are connected to ideologies that themselves define a poetic/philosophical superstructures that lay final claim to the progress of history, and it is here where discussion as to the use of the voice becomes "natural" in it’s sound and tone, in it's tropes as it outlines a world view.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Compressed Dog walking with Christian Wiman


Sometimes you can concentrate on something so closely that the thing or the idea becomes abstract, blurred or jagged at the edges, a layering of form and sound that makes for a crowded, frame busting tableau. "It Takes Particular Clicks" by the adroit and terse Christian Wiman makes me thing of a walk through a familiar set of scenes that are closely observed but briefly referenced, suggesting something of the narrative stream technique Virginia Woolfe employed in her novels Mrs.Dollaway or To The Lighthouse (among others),There is something odd and detached here that makes me thing of someone floating through an experience, as with Woolfe's prose at it's most sensory rich, Wiman's poem skips and jumps, highlights and moves on to other details. Woolfe, though, awarded her readers with a flood of associations, the world of hard substance negotiating terms with a mind attempting to frame and contextualize the minute particles of the everyday;It is an impressionistic undertaking here, and the way things seem to be as one passes them can be influenced by any one of many moods one experiences in a short order. Fine, I think, but what's splendid of your review is your attention to Christian Wiman's creation of sound; this poem has a soundtrack of clicks, scrapes that underscore a psychological restlessness that narrator/dog walker finds himself in. This is a noisy poem about a brief visit to a noisy world, and you've done a nice job assembling your examples. Good criticism here.
.Wiman's poem is more a fast , hard rain in spring. The briefness livens the nerve endings.

Flip-flops, leash-clinks,
spit on the concrete
like a light slap:
our dawn goon
ambles past, flexing
his pit bull. And soft,
and soon, a low burn
lights the flight path
from O'Hare,
slowly the sky
a roaring flue
to heaven
slowly shut.




This is a poetic situation captured in compressed essence, not enlarged, glorified, vulgarized, made philosophical, but presented instead with a flash-card alacrity Sounds against a sidewalk soon rise above as would a responding lift to note air traffic and the sky that is several tones of cloud-coded atmosphere.
At first reading they seem a jumble of incomplete thoughts, but you've gotten the sense that this is a poem of a mind in full stride through a familiar terrain. Perhaps a bit like the scenery that rushes by a passenger window, the recognition of details nesscarily conflate and color each other in succession, but there is a coherence here; noises, distractions, from planes to speed bumps and the seem to make the walk a peril for our narrator, who seems constantly to be catching with himself ; the onslaught of images and their contextual framing seems constant work. The dog he's walking, though, is unperturbed and is determined by instinct to locate what it's senses have locked on. The shape and meaning of the world changes with each step, but a dog remains a dog and will do what dogs do during walks on neighborhood streets, and in so doing brings a focus to the onslaught, provides the reason to stop, reassemble one's rattled senses and make a statement about the experience: Good girl.

There is a pull of many things on one's attention, and the effort to recognize, categorize, acknowledge the information from a familiar neighborhood walk goes efficiently, the things themselves in curt terms, associations hinted at, suggested, the walker moving along, persistent in their path.

Here's a curse
for a car door
stuck for the umpteenth
time, here a rake
for next door's nut
to claw and claw
at nothing. My nature
is to make
of the speedbump
scraping the speeder's
undercarriage,
and the om
of traffic, and somewhere
the helicopter
hovering over
snarls—a kind
of clockwork
from which all things
seek release,
but it takes
particular clicks
to pique my poodle's
interest, naming
with her nose's
particular quiver
the unseeable
unsayable
squirrel. Good girl.

This string of scenarios unfold quickly, in steady stride, and there is an attending narrative for each thing and a cogent linking between the very different items of speed bumps or the odd thing his dog uncovered during the time on the leash, very little of it explicable , but all of it coherent; this has the eliding sway of a narrative with small notes, cryptic asides. Not as cinematic as John Ashbery's associations have been, but that, I think, is the strength of the poem; Wiman minimizes rhetorical intricacy, concocts a shorthand which suggests unsaid pleasures or private disgusts, and creates in doing a collage of signifiers, the smallish incidents and contents made extraordinary in their banality. This is something akin to the old Modernist's decree that language be treated not as the audible sighs of a wise God speaking directly to us, but instead as a hard, malleable thing; Wiman's style has the mashed together beauty of junk sculpture, the condition of things that were formerly utilitarian and explicable in design and purpose but now, mashed together, cogs, gears, fenders, trash compactors and steak knives pressurized into a furious, creviced cube, approach an organic unity.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham


Recently put down The Hours by Michael Cunningham, and found it rich and entrancing. The particular Woolfe-like riffs he does with his language is lovely, and under perfect control, and it is a suitable way to link the lives of the three women, whose psychic lives of acceptance and denial illustrate a scatter of concentration, a loss of the self when all other memory, personal history leads one only to the exact moment one is in, a cell of complacency, a dead end. The intertwined narratives, connected through time and each related in some marginal way with the issue of Virginia Woolfe and her novel Mrs. Dollaway, is lovely, being about lose, desire, the great inability to frame an ideal and then live in it in a universe that is busy, intrusive, insensitive to inner life. Cunningham commands the Woolfe style : the stream of conscious that is amid thought in the ebb and flow of existence: we have , again and again, real images, concrete in detail and form, become, through character musing and more musing, become abstract, fluid, merged with the fleeting psychology of each passing.Cunningham is quite good at describing a sadness that cannot be named, a spreading melancholy that invades and over takes both dreams and waking lives, and he demonstrates the act of creation as being in some way some way to seek a cure for the souls' illness--at one point or another, the women, compare themselves to the facts of the Mrs. Dollaway story, that it, somehow , is a narrative frame work through which a story, with a perfected technique in rendering its poetic effects, is taken for an achievable ideal , a diorama that instructs the reader how to respond to others, to the world.

Even the character of Woolfe, the author of the story that links the women through the novel, struggles with her unhappiness, and seems, desperately, to try and order her work habits to bring the work some illuminating , enlarging quality that will demonstrate consciousness at ease in its world, fatalistic in to a fatal degree. Cunningham understands the lack, and deals with the sense that things are lost, people die, memories live as long as there are people there to have them, unless one is fortunate enough to have been a novelist, or a poet who, through some publishing fluke, produces works that survives one whose contents, language, style colors the personality of another decades off.

Even so, Cunningham suggests that literature's' promise is not to bring happiness or resolution, but only reminders that the flesh grows old, the mind faint, and regret is a luxury in which no one should invest. The Hours works because author Cunningham doesn't try in any obvious way to assert a connection between the women, other than a tenuous connection with Woolfe and her novel, Mrs. Dollaway.

It's the skillful use of the stream-of-conscious the connects the stories, really, the women and their time periods, the way in which the on set of depression and slowly inhibiting despair is explored in the ways that these women think about the world they live in.

Family, duty, loyalty to others, all the things that the characters have to be loyal to and whose cause the central figures argue for, are seen to come into a continuing conflict with personalities whose centers are eroding, slipping into darkness. Like Woolfe, Cunningham continually deploys the facts and the images of the external world, a sign that the conscious mind is struggling to stay engaged with the world, but we see these images become abstractions, mere definitions, blurry and meaningless as the corridors get darker, colder. Applying this to Woolfe herself, as a character, was a smart and unexpected touch, perhaps critiquing the notion, the myth that one may write their way out of a chronically dour state. In any case, this trio of tales is delicately rendered, and the author's touch here is sure, if not invisible.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Why are Republicans So Mean?


Writer Paul Levinson blogs at Open Salon about why members of the GOP are so mean spirited, an issue that sent me off on a rant, a toot, an unfair diatribe. Think what you will, but Democrats have been demonized since both terms of the Clinton Administration , thanks to the right-leaning echo chamber of talk radio and the seemingly endless liberal-bashing books coming out from Regnary Press; one may cite their own examples. Fair or not, here's my two cents on Paul's topic; by tomorrow I suspect I'll be something like sane again and will approach my work, my bills and my taxes with a level concentration. Level, but not flat line.

There's a latent worship of power , stamina and absurdly skewed masculinity , and the party of Lincoln, so called, more often than not likes to think of themselves as rugged sorts for whom any helping hand from a state agency is sure weakness, moral slack and despicable. Though a good many of them will scorch the earth in their creationist ways and continue to demonize Evolution, the irony rests in the facts that there’s a strong, rancid tendency toward Social Darwinism in their thinking. It’s not that one should do the Christian thing and be kind to one another, cloth and feed the poor, and in general err on the side of decency, but rather that the strong need to subjugate the poor and powerless and in turn carve up the earth’s resources . Anyone who hasn’t power or money or status is , by default, a wretch who cannot survive the rigors of living in the real world; they and society would be better off if they died off, disappeared , vanished into the thin, fetid air that surrounds their corporate towers. I can’t say that all Republicans are bastards—I have anecdotal evidence that a few of them have principles not linked to serving the already rich and powerful—but I’m never shocked when ever the Republicans come into power and proceed to slash funding for helpful federal programs with ease and without a pause in their stride. It’s a determinist imperative, perhaps, a hard wiring of specific genes that cannot be untwined; Republicans cannot help but be hard-throbbing assholes.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Poems and prayer

There are times in the middle of the afternoon after I've finished what I think is an inspired poem when I have the momentary sensation--fleet! is the world--that all those wonderful metaphors and inverted oppositions were given to me by God Himself. I've been sober for twenty years, though, and I have a strong feeling that if I ever heard God speak, he'd tell me to go ahead and have a shot of hooch. Faith I have, but not to the degree that I think a higher power uses me as a mouthpiece for his left over tropes. The feeling passes, and I disabuse myself that poems and prayer are linked in degrees more bountiful than rare. I think the distinctions between the two things are clear and crucial, as both modes of address are for distinct purposes.

The key distinction between poems and prayers are that poems are almost invariably written from within experience, and as a form, is under no obligation to detail and highlight it's rhetoric toward any obligatory pitch or prejudice. The poet, distinct from the praying person, has the freedom to invoke God or invoke him not at all; the poet might even insist that the wonders he or she comes to write about are phenomena in and of itself, independent of anything divine.

Poetry allows for the religious, the agnostic, the atheist and the indifferent with regards to God. The single requirement is that the poem meet the needs of literature, however the poet lands on the issue of the divine; what constitutes literary value, of course, is subject to a discussion that is nearly as abstruse and premised on unprovable suppositions as theology, Literary criticism might be said to be it's own sort of religious dogma.

Prayers, in contrast, start outside human, terrestrial experience and beseech a higher power to intervene in human affairs. While poetry , in general, glories in all things human and is obsessed with the mystery of perception (finding that miraculous enough ), prayer assumes human experience is flawed, in error, and needs a strong hand to right itself to a greater purpose. Prayer in essence is an admission of powerlessness or one's situation and one's instincts to cope with the difficulties presented; the varieties of spiritual inspiration vary and are nuanced to particular personalities and finer or lesser nuanced readings of guiding sacred texts, but prayers share a default position that human existence sans God is incomplete and in need to surrender itself to the Will of a variously described God.

It is possible to write a poem that addresses god that is not an entreaty, finding His presence in the world as we already have it, not as we think it was."Question" by May Swenson does this.

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?


It's a fine poem, and Swenson is speaking from within experience, finding something wondrous in the world as it is. Her poem is about finding God in the details of this existence, and does not beseech a higher power for guidelines about how to live a more righteous life according to scripture. Prayer assumes that human life, in essence, is merely an audition for a seat in Heaven. Swenson assumes we already have our seat and seeks God's inspiration in making the place where we live purposeful and fuller. I don't think God ordains prayers,since they commence with the human subject starting a conversation with his maker in the search for guidance, inspiration, hope. Prayers (and poetry writing) are voluntary, as humans always have the choice not to pray at all and to neither seek nor have an interest in spiritual matters. God does not micro manage what human beings do.

Getting a grip


I'm the first to admit that I was an opportunist jerk more often than I care to remember when I was in college, a bright boy with a morsel of talent who had large pretensions ; I came to realize these things, though, and I've managed to fit into the skin that God gave me. That is, I sobered up July 16, 1987, the day after my 35th birthday. The gave me the gift of time, twenty one years to change my mind about the mission I came to think I had and to try a different game altogether. It's been ragged , rough and full of mistakes, you bet, but there's been good orderly direction all the same; better writing to, although there are those who'd argue contrarily.

The change of attitude has improved my writing. Kerouac, though, never had the chance to get over his over sized idea of himself as a jazz-keened godhead, he instead became bitter when the vibe went numb and the scene became crowded with people he didn't approve of--Kerouac was essentially conservative, after all. As such, he drank himself to death , bitter and disappointed. Writer Barry Alfonso and I have talked about this repeatedly since our days in college, and what he insisted on is that art shouldn't, by default, be in service to some one's death wish. Leaving a good looking corpse is a myth, he said, dead people just look dead and those who died because of drugs or alcohol just bring on sadness over the waste of not so much talent as the life that contained it. Dying young is not cool, he said, and I've remembered that.

These days I respect writers who have resilient through the years and who constantly challenge themselves with new styles and approaches--both the late John Updike and Norman Mailer are examples of these artists. Bright, brief flames for most part seem to get blown out just when they seem to be getting started with the good stuff. How many decades have we rationalized Kerouac's feckless lack of form, or pondered what Hendrix lived and learned to keep his guitar in tune?

It's a species of hero worship that obscures the newer talent: it's the idea that everything that was good in this culture has already happened , and that more recent additions to our arts are imitation, variation, and elaboration of past genius. It's an odd thing, this latter day Spenglerism, this worship of the dead, that it comforts us in times of an uncertain future. I always thought the future was ours to

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

How does your garden overgrown?


Anyone will tell you, if asked, that what they want from this life are merely simple things, not much at all, nothing too large or complicated. Emma Jones in her poem "Paradise" would have us realize that simple things are less simple than the label would indicate. There is enchantment in building our particular nest, but there is work before there is glory, many surprises and obligations to tend to after the daydreaming is done with:

What you wanted was simple:
a house with a fence and a kind of gulled
light arching up from it to shake in the poplars
or some other brand of European tree
(or was it American?) you'd plant
just for the birds to nest in and so
the crows who'd settle there
could settle like pilgrims.



A fine stream of language, this poem reads as if author Emma Jones were half asleep late in the evening typing rapidly, barely keeping pace with the colliding, chiming, alliterating language that flowed through her fingers and onto to the monitor . I'm assuming, of course, that this was composed on a her computer, but even if I'm wrong it has that feeling of a ripe and rapid language that is intoxicated withs the scents and scenery of a tableau being observed and then re-imagined. "Paradise" is a bit like the lash garden, foliage and greenery Jones undertakes to evoke, the words and phrases demonstrating all sorts of conflations intent and verbal assault that there's the feeling of an everyday scene becoming virtual, enhanced, as if in high definition. Unreal as it may be, it fits a poem where the common place thing comes under an intense scrutiny and unlocks the associative tendency. Perhaps Jones was half asleep, writing half way between dream time and the solidity of the chair she was sitting on. It is lovely all the same;


Darling, all day I've watched the garden make its way
down the road. It stops at the houses
where the lights are on and the hose reel is tidy
and climbs to the windows to look inside
like a child with its eyes of flared rhododendrons
and sunflowers that shutter the wind like bombs
so buttered and brave the sweet peas gallop
and the undergrowths fizz through the fences
and pause at some to shake into asters and weep.



If nothing else , the makes me think of the book Cultivating Delight by essayist / poet Diane Ackerman, a lyric series of essays she wrote observing her garden grow , seemingly decline and then grow yet again in the course of year; Ackerman is an especially eloquent stylist with a broad knowledge of natural sciences who persuades you (or at least me) that the seasonal cycle is wondrous, fantastic beyond the scientific data one can cite, memorize.


Jones delights as she describes the garden growing lushly, thickly, out of control finally, finding it's way beyond human borders, insinuating itself into man made things, onto houses, around windows, growing in and around the man made things that intrude on the fertile soil. Her rhymes and slant rhymes are wondrous and give evidence of the musically tuned ear; the near enjambments and alliterations scan easily from the page, and effectively create a sense of sensory seduction--this comes off as an invasion of ambivalence, in that one doesn't know whether to fight for their boundaries or to give in altogether. It is closely observed, sweetly detailed, the way this growth , this spread simply and ably transgresses the invisible lines that define legalistically determined notions of property and in effect change the way one comes to regard the soil where they make a home.


A knowing scenario, the setting up of the small accumulations of things one wanted in a homestead, the fantastical growth of the garden that softens the hard-edged result of consumer-driven housing results and rewards the homeowner who has tended their plot, who has grown roots in turn, and the final summation, a bit of banter where a banal observation is an acknowledgement of a rare bit of sublimity in progress:


The garden is a mythical beast and a pilgrim.
And when the houses stroll out it eats up
their papers and screens their evangelical dogs.

Barbeque eater,
yankee doodle,
if the garden should leave
where would we age
and park our poodle?

"This is paradise," you said,
a young expansive American saint.
And widened your arms to take it in,
that suburb, spread, with seas in it.

One needn't surrender to the chaos of overgrown plants nor develop an obsession with cutting back a foliage that threatens one's door mat; balance is the message, the tending of things,the trimming, the hoeing, the time on one's knees with a spade, gloves and a box of tulip bulbs and apple seeds; a balance is maintained and the pay off, if that's the word, are those moments when what one has, a home, a garden, a preferred street to live on, family and friends to share it with, become of a piece; for the moment, for a precious few moments, things are absolutely perfect