Saturday, May 30, 2009

At least play some better music


Last Friday night, noise, random bleats of bass lines and cursing twenty year old males drunk in apartments by the Pacific Ocean, burning away the night with tequila and swear words. It's all I can do from climbing the stairs and slamming a fist on the door, screaming a rude word from the many I know, demanding quiet, silence.Pacific Beach, just south of LaJolla, is the party town of San Diego county, a collection of streets that are a characterless grid of box houses and gross condominiums that crowd the shoreline of rock and gravel that have replaced what used to be a white sandy beach. Drunks, homeless and crazy people stack themselves on top of one another in this peninsular wedge, and between those moments of relative calm and sanity, there is always something to contend with, some vague threat that dogs you into your sleeping hours.

None of that. I'm not in the mood to have my face punched in, though most of the time these amateur drunks defer to my gray hair and the grit in my voice that reminds them of their dads, no doubt,and fall quiet after some apologies and other gestures to restore the eternal serenity that was formerly part of the weave of darkness.Instead, I look at my watch again, and again it says that it's after two in the morning. I look up to the window where the voices are coming from. Screams, goddamned screams, names against dad, something about a goddamned fucking piece of shit table being broken. My neck hurts as the voices climb an octave and break on the weakest syllable; this is the border between hysteria and hilarity. The wind creeps along the sidewalk along the courtyard I stand in; I'm wearing no socks and my feet are cold , numb by now.

One of these young men is crying. Shadows cross the room, silhouettes against the drapes. There is that flat , smacking sound of someone doing a high five with their best buddy who doesn't quite have the knack of pounding the flat of their palm against the calloused palm of another . Sometimes I wonder why I quit drinking if what's left for me is to listen to the results of other sons of jerk offs squander a good buzz with clotted rage and self pity.

They could at least play some better music.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Diane Wakoski kicks out the jams


Nothing clears the sinuses faster than a choice blast of an angry woman's tirade, especially someone who can write sentences that way a butcher wields a knife. Witness this from poet Diane Wakoski , from her 1988 collection Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987:


Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch .
for my motorcycle betrayer
.
God damn it,
at last I am going to dance on your grave,
old man;
you've stepped on my shadow once too often,
you've been unfaithful to me with other women,
women so cheap and insipid it psychs me out to think I might
ever
be put
in the same category with them;
you've left me alone so often that I might as well have been
a homesteader in Alaska
these past years;
and you've left me, thrown me out of your life
often enough
that I might as well be a newspaper,
differently discarded each day.
Now you're gone for good
and I don't know why
but your leaving actually made me as miserable
as an earthworm with no
earth,
but now I've crawled out of the ground where you stomped me
and I gradually stand taller and taller each
day.
I have learned to sing new songs,
and as I sing,
I'm going to dance on your grave
because you are
dead
dead
dead
under the earth with the rest of the shit,
I'm going to plant deadly nightshade
on your grassy mound
and make sure a hemlock tree starts growing there.
Henbane is too good for you,
but I'll let a bit grow there for good measure
because we want to dance,
we want to sing,
we want to throw this old man
to the wolves,
but they are too beautiful for him, singing in harmony
with each other.
So some white wolves and I
will sing on your grave, old man
and dance for the joy of your death.
"Is this an angry statement?"
"No, it is a statement of joy."
"Will the sun shine again?"
"Yes,
yes,
yes,"
because I'm going to dance dance dance
Duncan's measure, and Pindar's tune,
Lorca's cadence, and Creeley's hum,
Stevens' sirens and Williams' little Morris dance,
oh, the poets will call the tune,
and I will dance, dance, dance
on your grave, grave, grave,
because you're a sonofabitch, a sonofabitch,
and you tried to do me in,
but you can't can't can't.
You were a liar in a way that only I know:
You ride a broken motorcycle,
You speak a dead language
You are a bad plumber,
And you write with an inkless pen.
You were mean to me,
and I've survived,
God damn you,
at last I am going to dance on your grave,
old man,
I'm going to learn every traditional dance,
every measure,
and dance dance dance on your grave
one step
for every time
you done me wrong.


What's remarkable is that there is no submerged meaning here, no symbolic hints at the author's
ongoing despair and struggles with a festering hurt. Wakoski has no time for that, addressing her
anger directly, doing everything except naming name a name. This is a knuckle sandwich of a poem, and Wakoski is one of the few poets whose dedication to getting her emotional currents rightly expressed in her work I can bear to read at length. Over anything else, she is a choice poet, and better, a good writer. "Fun" might to egregious a word to apply to her, but there is that element that draws one to read her again. And again.


Motor Cycle Revenge Poems was one of the five essential collections an aspiring undergraduate poet had to have at my school in the late Seventies, and Wakoski's collection holds up well because it was outside the whimsy and cant of the Sixties counter culture from which it sprang and dealt directly with things that were unspoken for women writers, unbridled anger. There was no flower power, there was no easy sex or sandalwood and black light posters, this was a woman's rage tempered and honed by style that only sharpened the wit. That razor's edge could slice and dice her motorcycle betrayer as fat or as thinly as she wanted, and list the crimes, the sins, the absolute arrogance of being the clod-thickened, presumptuous male. Tellingly, this collection dove tailed with the emergence of feminist activism, when women involved in the movement announced that they were not going to make the meals and run off fliers for the next Black Panter legal fund raiser. Wakoski touched a nerve,lit a fire, she let the dynamite shack explode.
I always like a poems by a woman who ends a dedication to a former lover with the deepest hope that he fall off his motorcycle and break his neck.

I would assert that Wakoski found conventional poetic styles insufficient for the amount of resentment she needed to express and instead found a way that made unfiltered anger a true poetry. This is not an artless diatribe, a sustained screech or mere primal howling. It is writing, through and through, and what she does here is in an idealized vernacular, the voice of someone who has had no voice other than wimpering submission to a man's will and whim finding one over time and submits an articulate, white hot indictment of the man (or men) who did her ill. There is rhythm her, wit, and the anger is crystallized, etched in acid, phrased in cadences that are memorable and ring true. It is a monologue, and could be in a contemporary drama--Edward Albee wouldn't mind calling these lines his own had he written them.

Poetry makes nothing happen


Poems about poetry, or PAP , are going concerns I pass up most of the time; in it's current and most pervasive form, PAP demonstrates the demon-hearted worst of what Ron Silliman calls the School of Quietude, a dominant poetic legion that are conservative in what and how a poem can mean. Not the least of the vain traits are a particular obsession to compose poems that cannot beyond the craft as a subject matter. What's worse is when the poets themselves place themselves at the center, writing about themselves being poets, struggling to find the right word. There is something about the latter that makes you think of one of Graham Greene's troubled Catholics who is so obsessed with making real events cohere with Church dogma that they miss the world entirely. So with the poets who write about themselves as poets--
high priests of a sort documenting the development of their metaphors writing about a world that, as they render it, is as interesting as an empty can. Basil Bunting assumes the persona of a business leader who has had it with the scribblings of the poetic class; in screed Evelyn Waugh would have envied, he might have joined Silliman in spirit against the professional bard who does nothing else but sharpen his or her pencil and fills up a waste basket.

Bunting, though, was writing as a poet who was just a tad sick of hearing those with no kinship to literature opining as to it's social worth. He does , though, manage in lampooning both points of view, in my skewed take.



What The Chairman Told Tom
by Basil Bunting
Poetry? It's a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr Shaw there breeds pigeons.

It's not work. You don't sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap.

Art, that's opera; or repertory -
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.

But to ask for twelve pounds a week -
married, aren't you? -
you've got a nerve.

How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?

Who says it's poetry, anyhow?
My ten year old
can do it and rhyme.

I get three thousand and expenses,
a car, vouchers,
but I'm an accountant.

They do what I tell them,
my company.
What do you do?

Nasty little words, nasty long words,
it's unhealthy.
I want to wash when I meet a poet.

They're Reds, addicts,
all delinquents.
What you write is rot.

Mr Hines says so, and he's a schoolteacher,
he ought to know.
Go and find work.



This follows up on Oscar Wilde's assertion that "All art is quite useless". But where Wilde would decree that that was the glory and significance of art--that humans have a need for beauty and harmony in order to engage the sense that would other would be limited to the drudgery of foraging and merely getting by--Bunting plants us smack in the middle of a rant by corporate head for whom profit is the end all and be all. Bunting's little survey of the others in the room outlines their hobbies as well as their useful , real world skills, with the emphasis being toward those paper shuffling tasks that can bring a pay check. The one being addressed, the poet, Bunting himself we imagine, is seen as having no marketable abilities, nothing that can benefit an employer, nothing that can make a dollar in the marketplace. Poetry is confusing, nasty, incoherent, a self indulgence, and the poet who takes himself or herself seriously is an unfinished citizen, barely human to any niche-ready degree. Bunting's satire is full of the harrumphing windbaggism of the Babbits of the world who, again in Wilde's phrasing, "know the cost of everything and the value of nothing".

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Pathetic



Ruth Padel quits an esteemed Chair at Oxford for some dirty tricks she performs against a rival, Nobel Prize Winner Derek Walcott. What learn again what we already knew, the gods have clay feet.


I'm not surprised reading about the shenanigans among the tenured poets at Oxford, since even on their best days poets do not advance beyond the level of being human and humans, we all know, have basic instincts they, at times, act upon ill-advisedly using. What is surprising is how stupid these folks are in our era of digital communication, in which virtually everything one has written or said is retrievable through a few well-targeted clicks through the Google search engine. It is , perhaps, that these folks, dually gifted and cursed to make language do extraordinary things, have applied their toddler -like desires with the rhetoric of good intentions or higher purposes.

Walcott, through one account I've read, seemed like he was attempting to convince one female student in his class that making love with him would be the perfecting of the epiphany he was attempting to help her achieve. The student rebuffed and Walcott, the esteemed (and over-valued) Nobel Prize winner acted venally by giving her a "C" for her course work. Padel, of course, wanted the position she and Walcott were in contention for and sent off her emails to the press, citing , in her remarks regarding her resignation, that she was acting upon student concerns regarding Walcott's lecherous extracurriculars. No one was buying it, of course, and the matter was clear--what had been a squalid matter of a professor's alleged sexual misconduct became even more squalid by a rival's attempt to take advantage of the mess. Her action is even more loathsome for the fact that the indiscretions Walcott is reported to have had are not recent but many years ago, one in 1982, the other in 1992. Padel's self seeking reveals her to have the instincts of the village gossip, wallowing in rumor and innuendo for their own advancement.

The tragedy, picayune as it is, is that becomes virtually impossible to regard these writers for the artistry and scholarship that made their reputations--one can only think of them as pathetic , ego-driven characters who's respective levels of brilliance did not deliver them from goonish behavior. It's comic, really, to see writers of god like abilities with the language act like weasels when it comes to their crotches and their careers. It might be a good thing that professional poets be made to stand in the corner along with the shamed presidents, deposed kings and celebrity screw ups who've relinquished their right to be taken seriously.

Arise and Write

Lew Welch is credited with having remarked that one doesn't write unless they're not good at anything else, a sentiment describing writing more as process rather than discovery. The myth of writing, that of determining truths, set in place, that will not diminish, change, or expand upon our writerly consideration of a set amount of data, can frustrate one who wants to nail their reality into neatly arranged contexts, like suits in a closet.

This poem under here, is what we do after we've survived our hubris and accept existence as something that is in flux, changeable, subjective in localized meanings, a phenomenon that will always vanquish expectations, and how we re-define our reasons for taking pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
It's similiar to shrugging off the disspointments and disgust with the failure of oneself to conquer the world and continuing with what one has been doing, which is to say that one returns to living ,but with an increased degree of involvement; less of figuring out the world and more of figuring out how to live in it.For all the benefits we claim for poetry--spiritual uplift, blunt truth telling, political anaysis, reconfiguring the language--I tend to think that poetry, above all, is a practice that keeps us focused on what's in front of us, what's actually in front of us.

All the qualities are there--irony, wit, enlarged emotion--but what's pertinent in the matter is that is a form that helps us admit that we may not know what life is all about, but we can at least know it's changing shape and appreciate the bends and turns of each odd nuance.

Arise and Write


Every which way but
into the sleeve of the jacket
now too long and longing
as the arm
drops toward the dressing room floor,
one leg longer than the other
and pants a size too small,
it seems you were invaded
and raided and all the faded
jeans and things that are
what you require for work, lunch,

all the points between appointments of
blue pencil marks, remarks in red pen


displaced, asea in unknown pockets
in a pile of pants and shirts
unwashed like mythical masses
arriving at the docks
after passing under
the grey lady’s armpit
and the light she carries, home fires for everyone,



Nothing makes sense
but that doesn’t matter
when work is the word of the day
and the word is first
when you thirst for a drink
and think you have no dimes
nor quarters for the soda in a can
or water in a plastic bottle,

you just hit the throttle and
plunge ahead into the brand new day
full of traps and fortunes
and the terror
an angry typist can bring you

or an empty page
taunts you with,
you rise, you shave, you
put on your cleanest dirty shirt,
you move on,
the streetlights are still on,

the bus is late
and deadlines are all
you have to live on.

Monday, May 25, 2009

An exchange on Bukowski and Eliot


Some remarks from Barry Alfonso, writer, scholar, college chum, in parentheses. He was responding to an earlier post, The Tedium of Bukowski.Barry is, I need to say, one of the smartest scribes on matters of literature, culture and music, and that world needs more of his brand of nuanced clarity:


For the most part, Charles Bukowski must stand guilty of the primary charges you level against him. I would question whether he truly prostituted his talents – there is something obsessive and nearly pathological about his concentration upon his themes and (I suspect) widening his subject matter would’ve been the true act of selling out. On his spoken word album Hostage, you can hear him snapping back at his bum-bating audience in an act of both self-exaltation and self-abasement. He allowed himself to be everyone’s pet wino and rages at his captors even as he allows them to pet and tease him.

Vincent Canby once described Heaven's Gate as being, to paraphrase, a forced tour of your own living room, and in that vein I think that after we've gotten well acquainted with the contents and results of Bukowski's chosen life and have gone through our phases of admiration and praise for his integrity, we have the author continuing to go on and on further still about his drinking, his hangovers, his loses at the break, his broken heart, his bittersweet take on the daily grind. His poems are in a minor key. It's ironic that a writer who projected the air of wanting to have nothing to do with people couldn't help but fulfil audience expectations.

But what I REALLY want to remark about here is your comment that young people continue to love Bukowski for his near-total nihilism. Complete negation of all values except grim survival and base self-indulgence is one way to term his philosophy. But I would also say there is an astringent quality to his work, an attempt to scrub away things false and unnecessary, akin to the Clorox used to bleach out piss and vomit stains from a skid row hotel.

I'd say that "astringent quality" and the principled refusal to buy into a Big Lie are best evidenced in is novels, like "Ham and Rye" and "Hollywood", where there is less chance to sneak out of a scene on the the slippery elipsis his sort of free-verse poems provide him. Biographical detail and a sure eye and ear for making something artful, humorous and moving from a life of squalid fact forces him to finish a scene and develop a story. It's his poetry that presents the problem, mostly because it's these things by which his reputation is made and through which his readers, old and more recent , know and remember him: a one and half dimensional character who reiterates variations of the same monologue. You can make the case that his poems are appealing because of their bare-lightbulb nakedness--a harsh light thrown on the tawdry, tacky, pathetic skid row of emotion that lurks in the looming shadow of corporate versions of American prosperity--but by my thinking Bukowski's repetitive themes and outcomes constructed another sort of false front, albeit one less crushing than the weight of a collapsed financial system. He goes on as the fatalist, on and on about how he cannot escape basic intractable facts, but the truth was that he made a reasonable amount of money from his writing and could well afford to do something things other than exist at a minimal level and continue to wallow in a misery that he nurtured as though it were a prized animal.I wouldn't say that he was dishonest--that's too harsh--but I do think he lacked a courage to try something different as he aged. As such, he suffered the consequences for his failure to change; he became predictable and without a fresh insight , the feeling that he might have surprised himself.

I will go a step further and assert that this commitment to the absolute minimum of what it means to be human is far, far more moral than, say, the philosophic assertions in the work of T.S. Eliot. Eliot used his erudition and great stylistic gifts to support a world-view of sweepingly negative and unwholesome dimensions. By mocking modernity and extolling an imaginary idealized past, this para-fascist did far more damage to the values embraced by the literary-minded than anything Bukowski could ever hope to do. Eliot is frequently condemned as an anti-Semite (which he appears to have been), but his even greater crime is to slash away at the values of democracy and individualism in the service of submission to empty authoritarian symbols. In one of his critical pieces, Eliot condemned “the myth of human goodness which for liberal thought replaces the belief in Divine Grace.” This is not nihilism – it is worse than that. The fact that this arch reactionary used the techniques of modernity against modern society itself makes him all the more destructive and, in a real sense, hypocritical. By celebrating a pseudo-theocratic Shangri-La, he set up High Church so lofty as to make aspirations to progress and social improvement by mere humans seem futile. Bukowski’s bleakness is something for the reader to internalize and pass through – it can be recognized for the street-level, hard-knocks musing that it is. Eliot – the high brow snob who probably never puked on his shoes in his life – dishes out something that sticks in the mind far more insidiously.

Eliot is one of the less-appealing poets I can think, in terms of what I can draw from his personality, and his anti-semetism is a loathsome thing one cannot ignore, but we are confronted with a nest of conservative, anti-democratic, anti-Semitic vileness as regards the generation of poets he came up with , so it seems to me that one go to the work itself and find what there is in it that transcends (ugh, what an awful and nearly bankrupt word) their worst habits of mind and stands out as something that assigns a clarity to those unnameable shifts in mood and tone that would characterize an historical moment.

Eliot, I think, does this well enough and gets across the pervasive soul sickness and profoundly alienated response resulting from the accelerated expansion of technology into economics, the home, the fighting of war, matters that those philosophers from the right and left were attempting to comprehend and do something about. Eliot the critic has been a hodge podge of notions that argued quite against his own innovations--he longed for an orderly world where everyone simply did as they were told in their assigned life stations while the truly blesed and brilliant were left to do their bit unfettered and undeterred--and it's noteworthy that he couldn't quite come up with a theory of literature or culture that could sustain itself beyond it's parochial set of assumptions about The Fall of Man from Grace.He wants to lay the blame on democratic institutions and longed for a charismatic personality in politics to assume the force of Christ, less for salvation than to enforce an order on a chaotic planet.

He was a pruned up little fuck of a human being, of course, but in his poems, not his theories, we get his genius in full play, where he vents an honest vision of the disconnected and splintered feeling Modern Times forced on bulging populations. His poems were subjective, yes, but this was an element that had been ignored and overlooked or otherwise discounted as indulgent by many a poet taster of the time, and it was Eliot's general intent to give voice to the "rhythmic grumbling" , a voice that struck a wide cord of recognition among a growing body of readers. So that's his worth, found in the poems, "The Waste Land", "Ash Wednsday", "The Love Song of J.Arthur Prufrock", and so on. It gets said at times that if one talks long enough , they will happen upon some language that's free of an unmentioned agenda and express something resembling actual speaking truth to power. That is what Bukowski and Eliot have in common, having a body of work that contained the stuff from which a reader can know something about a world that will not conform to their expectations. My basic point is that Eliot had the larger gift and less in his actual poetic work that betrayed itself.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Control Freaks,Rowdy Hooligans and the man who cannot hold his tongue


The evidence is in , overwhelming, conclusive, as irrefutable as sun spots and as damning as stains on a pair of white slacks; I love to hear myself write. The same goes for talking, actually talking, of course, but there is that thing about writing long sentences, windy paragraphs, dealing in abstruse associations , indulging in obscure metaphor that seems all the more empowering. In this sphere, the writer, the keyboard, the monitior filling up with words in search of a cluster of ideas worth chasing down and embalming in generalities, gives me the sense of knowing what I'm talking about. Truth be told, I rarely know anything for a fact, and the entries on this blog amount to gusty guess work and bluster as often as not. But the key is this:it's fun, it's entertaining, no animals nor natural resources were harmed or burned up in the pursuit of my prolix muse.

I sometimes imagine selling someone a book where I work about the cultural highlights of the town I live in, San Diego, and my imaginary customer would ask me what the big deal is with Apollonian and Dionysian drives battling it out in the smallest interstices of the culture. It’s like the world was really little more than a huge red light district and free fire zone, with the older instincts, the ones for order, rules, traditions and institutions charged to protect the faintly described freedoms we have in a struggle with the forces of the rowdy, the raucous, the dis-repecters of orderly conduct who desire to upset a given procession of society in order to allow their own vague notion of liberty to rise from the confining murk. At this point, after putting the book and receipt into a recycled bag and giving this mythical customer and truth seeker their proper change, counted back to them from the bill they tendered, I would rub my knuckles and scratch my chin, perhaps lowering my glasses down my nose a bit, looking over the rim to allow my eyes to stare off on the shelves of books containing the world’s knowledge just in the background, and then begin to speak. This would be my version of conflating everything I’ve read on this odd subject, conflating ideas with constructs they don’t belong to, making stuff up as I go along. But ho!, what fun, what exhilaration thinking on the calloused balls of one’s feet.

Nietzsche’s Apollonian drive is a desire to find order in a confused, chaotic, and cruel world. It is the mother of all control issues, an insanity of over organization that compels the spirit to quell the spontaneous spirit and instead attempt to keep everything in its assigned place. Half the work is creating categories and new places for the finite groupings of worthy things and excluding newer, suspect ideas, ideas and tendencies unproven and likely to be fraught with danger. Risks not worth taking with what works are avoided, efforts to expand beyond the granted wisdom is suppressed. It's a conservative notion that argues that civilizations are built upon the foundation of unchanging truths about the nature of man, and that the culture that's been created is an accurate representation of everything that is best in our nature. It denies change, and it is an institutional inclination that seeks hegemony in every aspect of life. Order must be maintained regardless of everything. Nietzsche found that life and faith in this state of affairs was the worst sort of slavery.

Contrarily, the Dionysian drive, desires to break down that artificial order. Nietzsche had great fondness for those institutions that reinforced what he felt was the codified falseness of culture, but he was inclined by instinct to favor the Dionysian impulse to make the old order a smoldering ash heap, at least metaphorically speaking. The Dionysian drive was an attempt to describe what instinct must be present for a human being to free themselves of lies, babble, cant and religious and political crudity and position them to witness truth, and create meaning relevant to their existence. It is an impulse to take something very orderly and beauty in all it’s unmarred elegance and then destroy it, smash it, make it as unappealing as aesthetic object as it was in its formalized existence. Marcuse was a Hegelian who had an idea of the movement of history toward some great purpose that was only being gradually revealed to us. Not exactly the Dionysian sort, which is a spontaneous effect occurring among individuals. Nietzsche had little patience for the fate of masses of people, or to restoring them certain rights and qualities liberal philosophy argues are universal; these are sham arguments, he argues, and focuses instead on the sensual experience of the individual, unbound by convention, living beyond the narrow view of existence and possibilities in it. Nietzsche’s is a precursor to many of the rapturous and unruly strands of modern thought that embrace contradiction, irrationality and refute the knowability of invisible and undisclosed meanings and likewise mute ethical laws, and his cranky and provocative views makes him a hero of libertarians, who habitually regard themselves enlightened beyond the comprehension of society. Stalin was not a Dionysian; neither was Hitler. They were monsters.
--------------------------

Does Marxism and Communism, with their materialism and anti-intellectualism arguably "Dionysian” or at least anti-Apollonian, the same thing? No. What Marx has in common with Nietzsche is a dominating idea that the way things are in the world are false and oppressive, and that there needs to be a radical change of venue in order to attain a natural state of being through which individuals can fashion themselves , unencumbered by creaking hegemonies. Beyond that, similarities fade. Marx did foresee a withering away of the State, it was only through a long period of presumably enforced reorientation through the dictatorship of the proletariat; in any event, this meant consolidation of power, economic strength, and coercion of all kinds. Marxism as theorized is rich in insight, and offers a cool sociological analysis to material relations better than breathless Idealist philosophies, but as an applied political method, it became a cumbersome, slow moving contrivance that could not accommodate social experimentation or diversity. Free market systems, I think, are closer to being Dionysian in nature. Ruled by an instinct for profit, it is about as anti-intellectual force that you might mention, and in fact seems to thrive on creating chaos, and like creating order from the mess that it cannot help from making. Nietzsche , Classicist he is, insisted that a balance between The Dionysian and the Apollonian was what should be achieved and maintained, a conservative, disciplined instinct blended with an spirit of adventure, innovation, self-definition. The superstructure of one makes the experimentation of the other possible, workable.

At this point, it would be my luck to have the customer introduces himself as the Chairman of a philosophy department in some small liberal arts college in the Midwest who’d then dismantle all my assertions, letting the air of out all my tires. Or have the client nod rapidly , trying to supply me with a clue that he was in a hurry. Or they would just smile and thank me and join a wife or a fiancĂ© outside for coffee, leaving me with the
sudden sinking feeling that I’d just spoken long and with a certain freelance adherence to the facts and why was it that I couldn’t simply answer that there are things I know about ,and others that I can only guess at? Yes, I love hearing myself talk.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Death and Birth


There's not much in the way of ornamentation in Elise Partridge's "Last Days" , but rather a stark clarity. Time itself has become an irrational quality as one witnesses the agony of a pregnant friend's struggle with and eventually to cancer. There's a gritty,surreal tone in this poem, a feeling that things happened too fast, in retrospect, like a film full of maddening jump cuts, and at the same time lingered long and hard on the details leading to the inevitable tragedy. Partridge's writing is clipped, stripped to the particular items that make this framing an arresting depiction of waiting for the end, holding on to the hope of a distant miracle.


My friend, you wouldn't lie down.
Your wandering IV pole
glided with you, loyal,
rattling on frantic circuits;
crisp pillows didn't tempt;
round, around, around,

guppies cruised the lobby tank,
flickering sunrise-slivers
all guts, mouths urging, urging;
tube-lights buzzed like bees
over your pale shoulders;
you wadded your mauve gown,

yanked on flame-red sweats
matching the bulbs you glimpsed
blazing that Christmas week
through nearby squares downtown;
all through the bluish hours
the night janitor's mop

swung drowsily over the lino,
the nurse tucked one leg up,
barely a monitor blinked—


It would seem to me that any of us who've waited hours and days in hospital corridors and rooms
visiting grievously ill friends and family will grimace and wench, perhaps, at the atmospherics Partridge captures here; there's a feeling of cheap Polaroid snapshots that contain the routines of the hospital, the shuffling rituals of patients and staff going through their rhythm places in the giving and reception of care. What strikes me in the first few stanzas is how well she gets the feeling of a moment stuck in place, not frozen, not still, but stuck, as is a film loop where the same set of motions are repeated, repeated, repeated and all the narrative making possibilities one has to lend an internal coherence of the fatal emerging facts are exhausted.This part of the poem is merely about the waiting, the labored calm that falls over you while you anticipate the arrival of a bombshell, the last facts that confirm that some significant part of your life is about to dramatically.


But not melodramatically. Control of emotion is the mark here, a restraint that is still palpable: the world is coming apart at the seams and all one can do is fix their eyes on those still things and situated rituals--guppies in an under-lit lobby tank, a janitor's lazily dragged mop-- that one notes and magnify , enlarge as if to drown out the impulse to break down or rage against the cruelty of the immediate and infinite worlds. There is a rapid heart beat behind these lines, a mind racing against it's impulse to despair.

There is the need for deliverance, though, and the poem is not without hope: the stricken mother is sedated and her baby is delivered via C section; the child is fine but the mother does not come out of her unconscious state.

you dueled to stay alive
until she could be born.
The doctors that last Tuesday
said it had to be now
and wheeled you off, upright.
Her shivering two red pounds—

you never got to cup them.
Did you even hear her cry?
Only two days later,
your gray eyes glazed, stuck,
a cod's on melting ice.
What could wrench you down?


There is the bitter irony that the mother's cancer makes two miracles occur, the mother released from her terminal condition into the painless realm of death, and the child, freed from a diseased body that might have claimed her life as well. Blessedly, Partridge doesn't attempt to wax poetic or philosophise about the unknowable qualities of death, resists the buffering metaphor to lessen the bare facts of her friend's passing; rather there is something else happening, a piece of poetic perception, if not the miracle we would normally expect--the mother and the baby daughter pass each other, one going to her death , the permanent darkness, and the other coming into the rude and lively light of day. This is a beautiful parallel construction, a superb and effectively conveyed accounting of a tragedy that contains the simultaneity of the book-end facts of our existence, life and death.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A.Poulin Jr. on Radiators in the Dark


The late Al Poulin Jr., poet and publisher of the esteemed BOA Editions, gave a reading where I worked and struck me as a the sort of man who , like, likes to consider the magical elements of the everyday and the mundane world unseen but who hasn't the time for a language that clouds the sensations, not clarify them. It's a fanciful musing to come across, how those sounds you hear only when there is nothing else in motion seem extraordinary and odd; rather than consider the noises as merely the natural sounds a structure makes as it's frame work shifts or sags due to the demands of gravity and its own weight,. Or, in the case of this poem, the knocks and hisses and muted clicks a radiator seems to make only when the lights are out. I rather like the language and don't mind a reference to "In unlighted corners, angles / opening to blank space,--" and, in fact, see the description as purposeful. The noises Poulin speaks of seem unusual and resonate more in the imagination because there is no other sound for them to blend in with--they resonate in those blank spaces, the knocks, squeaks and hisses in the dark resonate longer, deeper, with more texture . The makes me think of those sketchy memories of being in the house, in bed, the house entirely dark, imagining every squeak and creak and groan of the night being the passage of creatures from another realm who passed between dimensions in those hours when all were supposed to be asleep.Poulin's lyric is an adult fixation, sure, but he shows this is a habit that hasn't been entirely relinquished to adulthood.






The Angels of Radiators
by A.Poulin Jr.

Every night when my wife
and daughter are asleep
and I'm alone in this old house
lost in landscapes somewhere
between the points of stars,
my furnace fails like heaven.

The water that will turn
to steam and turn to heat
and rise as grace runs out.
In unlighted corners, angles
opening to blank space,
radiators, cold and white,
are silent and dead angels,
incarnate where they fell.
Every night, every winter,
I have to go down cellar,
turn the valve until the gauge
is full of water once again,
until the furnace starts
to rumble with its resurrection.
Then the house begins to move,
and through the winter night
that threatens us like Hell, by God,
the pure spirit of the fire roars
blue, veins ring, and radiators,
a whole chorus of Dominions, sing
and dance wild alleluias warm as spring.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bob Dylan sings for you


No Direction Home, the Martin Scorsese directed five hour documentary on Bob Dylan has finally aired on PBS after much advertising and hype, and those fans eager, as always, to hear the songwriter talk about his music and his life free of evasion and tall tales are treated, again, to another example of how closely Dylan wants to control the public's perception of him. He was, admittedly, quite a bit more forthcoming to questions than he has been in the past, but one never senses that Dylan wasn't done being cagey with his answers; considering that Scorsese himself was brought in late to a project that Dylan's company had been preparing for seven years and that it was Dylan's own employees asking him the questions , it's doubtful we heard everything he had to say about his affairs. Chronicles, his memoir, was a best seller, and it is a publisher's desire to save the best of the rest for the sequel. In the meantime, the trade paperback edition has just come out, and sales are brisk.

The audience is a curious mix, being primarily baby boomers who want the inside skinny from the man they might well consider the last vestige of authenticity (whatever that is) an American performer has demonstrated, and young people, from teens to those just entering college, either late admirers or the merely curious.

I am , for the moment at least, sated with all things Dylan, and hope that my fellow Dylan obsessives feel likewise gorged. I am a strict diet of Bud Powell cool-period Miles Davis. There is little new information in the Scorsese assembled documentary, but there is plenty of rare footage to feast on, all of which gives us a way of studying the history of Dylan's vocal affectations; one might say that he film is Biography of a Bad Singing Voice. Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Irish laborers, blues groaner, gospel exciter, drugged out whiner. Of themselves, the qualities are slurred and nasal, harsh and authentic, as it were, to the degree of being nearly unlistenable. His rendition of "Man of Constant Sorrow" from an old tv clip wasn't at all pleasant no matter how I try to approach the sequence.

Yet there are wonderful transformations with that voice, when he began writing his own material, his own lyrics. Vowel and voice met and a sound was made, dramatic, effective, beautiful in a new way. His performance of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" at the Newport Folk Festival was riveting, vocally masterful. Nasal, howling, pinched, but asserted, shaped, honed. This wonderful song couldn't have been performed any more effectively with a so called "better voice". I would say that Dylan is an especially bad singer, but I would also insist that he is an absolutely brilliant vocalist. No one could dramatize a lyric like he could. What he does with a lyric is something other than render cozy rhymes against assuring melodies as sweetly as possible.

There is a point in his career, when he eased off topical songs and moved toward more expressive, metaphorical, "poetic" lyrics that his voice became something wholly new in pop music. It's not far off to maintain that what Dylan did vocally between Another Side of Bob Dylan up through John Wesley Harding literally forced us to reconsider what "good" singing was really was.

It was Dylan more than anyone else in pop music history who gave license to the singers-of-limited means to take the microphone and create an emotional experience with vocal qualities that were less than perfect. That is fitting for songs that dealt squarely with less than perfect realities, and this an achievement no less profound than any other Dylan has wrought in folk, rock and pop music.

The Tedium of Bukowski


Writer Charles Bukowski spent several decades writing about three or four things, which were drinking, staying drunk, screwing drunk women, playing the horses, and drinking. His was not a large world, and after reading a raft of short stories,three novels and five of his plenitude of poetry collections, it's safe to say that he'd run out of things to say about the redundant activities of his life. Hence,his redundant themes and the waning energy of his work as his life wore on, with he waiting for it all to be over with. Young people love him because Bukowski is as close to an actual nihilist any of them are likely to encounter in American fiction and poetry. His principle failing is his unwillingness to think harder or differently about the world of drink, cigarettes, whores,race tracks and flop houses and bad sex. This poem, as it goes, goes through the typical moves and ends on some winsome sigh about lost opportunity, faded youth, mauling over of some psychic pain that is somehow aimed at making us understand why he is such a luckless asshole. Ironically, few writers have been as lucky as this guy, lucky in that the game he ran on us held up all these years, and that it still has enough allure to sucker yet another acolyte who just entering their drunken -brutishness- is -authenticity phase. Bukowski was good at one point in his life, but his lack of interest in the word outside is few blocks of Los Angeles made him progressively less interesting as his years and books wore on.What is distressing is that he decided rather early on his career to rewrite "Love is a Dog from Hell" and "Ham on Rye" for the remainder of his life, marking his work as the stuff of a man who whore'd his talent to become saleable to an audience wanting to seem literate without actually doing any reading beyond a certain depth or page length.

from The Future of Poetry

You need to carry a bigger stick if you're going to talk to me about the blues. Everything in the backyard has a price tag on it, It's the way you grind your teeth when you sleep that makes the mornings a welcome advent of stalled traffic at the freeway entrance, loud radio blasting partisan blame, a coffee mug between my legs. Magic tricks with coins at the behest of fingers dancing between the back of the earand the tip of her nose makes the child wonder who’s been placing quarters in her hairas she dreamed of her pretty ponies and afternoon teas with her network of dolls. She told me that you were coming over, and now here you are, and I still don't like you, so there. A mailman sneaks past the apartment building with the lightest steps he can manage. Cats come from the bushes to see who’s making all the noise. The clown at the party faints under the summer sun. Needless to say that there's no use telling the truth, so I'll shut up and allow you to sit there on the prosecution couch, arms crossed and tight lipped, filling in the stony silence with a vibe that's louder than any screaming you might have done. Hey, I just learned how to speak in tongues. A sandwich made from a recipe for alphabet soup. In the right disguise, I thought my voice might rise and ride on the wind with the leaves and smoke. For a quarter more I can give you enough fries to gag an off duty cop. All this gangsta rap is punchy, I mean, so honkin' in yer face, ace. Sentences cannot be jail terms when what you mean is a statement of justice meted out like finger treats and cold cuts. Let's go be with the others at the party, all of us gathered together like pearls around a long, rich neck. Sorry, but you are talking to someone who is smarter than the average bear, but an idiot with regards to taxes and dating tips. Be useful and go far, far away. Here's my entry in the bad Hemingway contest: rain. Close cover before striking. Call me Spider. Woke up this morning with those Phenomenology of Spirit Blues. Superman has moved into the Telephone Booth of Solitude. You think you can take me in a game of Groan? Yes, I never want you to leave in a bad mood, I prefer my relationships pure, like blank job application forms.
Author tags:

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Big If has Big Ideas and sucker punch laughs


Mark Costello's novel Big If is a superb and unforgiving comedy of American life involving a low-level Secret Service agent who must get reacquainted with her estranged computer-genius brother when she takes a respite from the paranoid turns and twists of her nerve-rattling job. This is a book of richly skewed characters doing their best to make sense of their lives, or at least have their lives take on a fleeting semblance of normality.The quests, individual and collective, aren't what anyone would expect--this novel takes a hard left turn from the Anne Tyler/Paulo Coelho fictions that insert everyday mysticism into the complications of city life--, and the results are habits, tics, behaviors and alienation from self that comes close to home, in the heart of the nest: the bedroom, the dining room, the kitchen, the places one lives the most and gains small satisfactions or walls themselves to unreachable Siberias of the psyche.
In many ways, this is one of the best novels to investigate what is one might do in the absence of God, or even a convenient social construction of The Public Good. All points of reference in Big If are minimized and negotiated from relevance. Costello's prose is alive with the things of our life, and is superb at demonstrating the clash between happiness material items promise and the world that denies such rewards. He is the master of setting forth a metaphor and letting it travel through a storyline just beneath the surface, operating silently, mostly invisibly, always effectively.

Their father, in the first portion of the book , is a moderate Republican insurance investigator of scholarly reading habits who happens to be a principled atheist. You cannot have both insurance, the practice of placing a monetary remuneration on unavoidable disaster, and assurance, which has religion promising protection from evil and disaster. The children, in turn, assume careers that seem to typify the dualism their father opposed, son Jens becoming a programmer for the Big If on line game for which he writes "monster behavior code" that attempts to outsmart human players and have them meet a hypothetical destruction. Daughter Vi, conversely, becomes a Secret Service agent, schooled in the theory encoded in The Certainties, a set of writings that lays out the details, nuances and psychology of extreme protection. These are world views in collision, and Costello's' prose is quick with the telling detail,the flashing insight, the cutting remark.

The problem, of course, is that no one can define what "good" is. Big If is quite good, and what makes it work is that Costello accomplishes the dual difficulty of handing us a small town/suburban comedy the likes of John Cheever would have admired, and the other is with the rich detailing of the other secret service agents who work with Vi Asplund. There is something of a domestic comedy seamlessly interwoven with a skewed Washington thriller, with the elements of each spilling over and coloring the underlying foundations of both. In the first part of the novel, we have an atheist Republican insurance investigator who has a habit of crossing out the "God" in the "In God We Trust" inscription on all his paper money, replacing the offending word with "us". Vi, years later, winds up in a job where "in us we trust" is the operating rational, as she and her fellow agents strive to protect their protectee from the happenstance of crowds, acting out on intricate theories and assumptions that can only be tested in the field. Costello is wonderful at the heightened awareness in the ways he presents his details , his comic touches, A beautiful agent who still receives alimony checks from her smitten ex husband carries on a correspondence with him via the memo line of the checks, where he continually writes "come back to me". She writes "No, never" each time, deposits the check, knowing that her ex will see the reply when he receives the canceled checks. The book is full of these fine touches. We have a sense that it's the small things , the small frustrations as much as the larger disasters that conspire against our happiness. On view in "Big If" are different models on which characters try to contain , control, or explain the relentless capriciousness of Life as it unfolds, constructs through which characters and the country and culture they serve can feel empowered to control their fate in a meaningful universe. The punchline is that Life goes on anyway, with it's fluctuating, undulating, chaotic dynamics that only occasionally seem to fall into place. Costello wrests a subtle comedy of manners from the small failures of anyone's world view to suitably make their existence unproblematic. This is a family comedy on a par with The Wapshot Chronicle", but in an America that is suddenly global, an air that makes even the most familiar things seem alien and fantastic.

Monday, May 11, 2009

a new poem

Say Nothing of Your Money

Say nothing of your money
earned in wet trenches

picking up the stones
tossed at you from the gallery above

when the bell rings one sharp report
and the retort is all get-out-the-way

or follow what's already
passed you,

you see when you look up
from the streaming stats

underscoring the rise and decline
of green and red arrows

that it's your jacket , pants and shoes|
you notice passing you in a huff
holding a fist full of notes,

someone found your closet
and all your phone numbers

and learned your script
better than you ever recited it
as if in concert, hitting the high notes
pure and shrill,

Asia declines
and oil bubbles slowly,

pork and precious metals
stall at dockside

and bankers
have given all the credit to God
who is not giving any of it back,

you trade in your car
for an old bike
with a dented bell

that rattles like a marble
in the bottom of an empty can.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Bukowski:Born Into This

Bukowski: Born Into This on DVD, a documentary on the writer by John Dullaghan demonstrate why fans should be leery of meeting a writing hero, especially if said writer specializes in writing about boozing, whoring, bad jobs, pain, despair, bad luck and bad faith: fairly soon the charm of the man falls away during the classic interviews collected here, and we're given a grim picture of an irritating and maddening personality who could do one thing well, which was to write about his life long fuck ups and regrets. Bukowski's writing was limited and his books are something a reader wanders from after an infatuation of the one-trick genius,but the film leaves you with the feeling that way he wrote about the world he knew was singular and will survive many coming trends and fads in writing life.I'd never say that Bukowski was without art or the transcedent grace of the true poet.Lew Welch said you don't write unless you can't do anything else, and in that sense I suppose suppose the one thing the man could do was understand his pain to it's sharpest , needle point jab and then to tell the truth of it all in a voice that was undecorated and splintered. There is beauty in his verse, but his scope was so narrow that I fear over the years he began to write poems and tales according to what he knew were audience expectations. It's an over cited quote from Frederich Engles, but it bares repeating here; quantity diminishes quality. The poems , I think, were a bit too easy for him to compose on the fly, and this is why I think Bukowski's lasting contribution to American letters is his fiction, especially Post Office, Ham on Rye and Hollywood. Fiction is harder to write, and the world of Henry Chinasky, as Buk imagined it, avoids the easy outs the later poems are won't to have.
For hard core fans only , perhaps, but worth catching or getting on DVD. There was something as touching as revealing about the scene where the monster inside him bubbles up while he's sparring with his wife.It's doubly moving when you recognize Buk's flair ups of rage and aggression from your own experience, if you happen have a back ground involving more-or-less alcohol consumption; it's the urge to destroy everything that's important in one's life, to drive off anyone that cares about you because under all the bravado and gallows humor lurks profound self-loathing that will manifest itself at exactly the wrong moment. Not that there's anyone good moment for booze-fueled flare ups to occur. Writing seemed the one thing that was unconditional in his life, and it is the one thing that kept him either blowing his head off or killing someone else. The rare , black and white footage in the movie was amazing, and it was appropiate to open the film with Buk at the Poet's Theater in San Francisco, puking his guts out before going on stage to read to a packed auditorium. The footage I thought was effective was Buk driving his VW bug, taking his interviewer of the mean streets he roamed. Favorite moment: Buk is going off one anecdote/philosophical tangent when a siren drowns him out. Buk falls silent, the camera captures an ambulence speeding past them, cutting through the traffic to some life and death situation, and then Buk resumes his story as the siren fades, not missing a beat. A perfect counterpoint. I thought Barfly was a blown opportunity, mostly due to Micky Rourke's cryptic stylization of the Bukowskiesque protagonist, who seemed to stuck somewhere between an SNL-quality impersonation of Brando's Godfather performance and DeNiro's habitual screw up in Mean Streets. Faye Dunnaway was a revelation, though, giving a performance that didn't need to be propped up by some by-gone idea of glamour. She did well with the film's tone of washed out naturalism.

One thing that I'm grateful to Buk for is his convincing Black Sparrow publisher John Martin to reprint the novels and stories of John Fante. Fante seems to be the biggest influence on him as a writer, and after reading several of his books-- Ask the Dust, 1933 Was a Bad Year, Brotherhood of the Grape, Wait Until Spring Bandini-- I'm firm in my opinion that Fante is the better writer. A better prose style, a funnier sense of humor, a hardboiled lyricism that rivals the best flights of Chandler. The republication of his body of work, I think, was a significant restoration to the American canon. Fante was a writer of the Last Stand ,
of flawed yet ambitious men advancing toward vainglorious dreams despite repeated wounds to their romantic, out sized egos. What gives Fante his edge is his refusal to soften the blows as he writes about the vanities and fuck ups of instinct driven men;
the hurt is palpable, the humor is deadly, the situations believably human.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Uselessness as Utility


Preston Sturgis did something brilliant with his film "Sullivan's Travels", a satire in which a socially conscious Hollywood director pretends to be a hobo so that he can meet and learn about real poor people and their struggles. His aim was to get a feeling of the down trodden masses for his next movie, "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" (claimed decades later by the Coen Brothers). In his journey he is arrested, tried and sentenced to work on a chain gang, where he suffers the brutalizing effects of Southern justice. One night the prisoners are herded into the mess hall where they are going to be shown a film, a cartoon, and during the animated slapstick, these weary, tragic faced men burst into boisterous laughter, belly laughs, guffaws, the whole shot. The director discovered the great truth about what an audience wants and needs, which is entertainment, diversion, a distraction from the crushing sameness of their lives. Sturgis, though, was a cynic even with this conclusion and offered up the idea that art is, after, quite useless when it comes to teaching us anything about the human condition. He's in full agreement with Oscar Wilde, in his preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and to conceal the artist is art's aim.
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.
This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.
That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.
The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.
No artist has ethical sympathies.
An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.
From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician.
From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type.
All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.


Ought you cease being an art maker if you agree with the most over-cited remark the manifesto, “all art is quite useless”? It doesn't have to be either/or in this matter. Wilde's idea that "all art is useless" is something I wouldn't agree with, in the broadest sense, but I do see the worth of his remarks in a subtler application: that the quality of art does not, of itself, ennoble a person, but rather the quality of the personality that selects or creates the art he or she surrounds them self with. As to ceasing to write on principle if I happened to agree with the literal thrust of Wilde's statement, of course not. Wilde was a decadent, an aesthete influenced by a 19th century French modernism that rejected the moral didacticism and instructive lessons much art was glutted with during the period and preferred, instead, an "art for art's sake". The point of art, both in making it and putting oneself in proximity to it, was to appeal to the emotional, the intuitive, the irrational, to achieve "a derangement of the senses", as Rimbaud declared. I'm against any reductionist notions declaring that art is required to do one thing or the other so far as intents and goals by default--the validity of any theory of art is in how well individual art and artists achieve their ends--but according to Wilde's aesthetic philosophy I should keep on writing, for it's own sake, because it brings me pleasure. It could also be the latent Calvinist in me, usurping my Irish Catholic guilt with heavier doses of theological dread: I write to keep busy, to occupy myself in activity so neither mind nor body are idle and wasting away with nothing but bed sores to show for my time. That's more fear based than Wilde was thinking of, but it coheres with the main point, that art, as process, is it's own reward. One needs to reconsider the idea of "reward", though.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The poor are patronized, Baseball gets punked

Lucas Howell couldn't cram enough conditional observations into this over-alert lyric; the poet, seemingly a sympathetic lyric writer by nature (or conceit) wanted to get to the core of the bleak reality of the coal miner's as they emerge from the mines. It's an inelegant pile-on of elegant phrase making where we are, in effect, instructed not to miss the point that these men have extraordinarily hard lives the likes of which we can read about in poems like this.


Out of the broad, open land they come.
Out of a coal seam's
hundred-thousand tons
of overburden, out of shit-reek barns
and shearing pens,
or down from the powder blue
derrick platforms of howling Cyclone rigs
they rung by rung descend.




This isn't bad writing as it goes, but very little of this kind of tone goes a long , long way to the point he wants to make, which seems less about the lives of the workers than it is , perversely, the bragging rights Howell claims as being the witness to both and consequently imagine them in language that makes their lives more vivid, hence more real. Had he moved on from his set up in the first stanza we could have done something different with this poet's acute sense of detail, but the second stanza brings us the example of a writer who isn't sure he'd closed the deal with the reader; Howell tips his hand and lays bare the set up he's arranging with gratuitous of qualitative pronouncements, as in the rather unremarkable and trite observance of



They come bearing the weight
of lives and labor on their boot heels,
a week of night shifts,
or the prairie sun's relentless arc.


We're to shed tears, on cue with the faux-folk music of dulcimer , guitar and fiddle , as we are given over to archetypes culled from Walker Evans' famed portraits of working poor whites. Crushing weight, long work shifts, a punishing heat, life here is presented as it might seem to the casual witness, bleak and hard and beset with no relief. But there's more coming, a conspicuous twist that you sense coming ; one set of detailed if cliched images emphasising a community's unglamorous obligation to go into the earth cannot pass without an equivalent arrangement emerging at the half way mark. It surely does, and Howell lays out all the cards he's been holding--the innate dignity of the human spirit cannot be crushed by the far off requirements of corporate interest, no sir, these men , tired and calloused as they are, reaffirm their dignity and their love of community with game of baseball. The game is not just the national pass time, it is the miracle elixir, the magic bullet for physical pains and complaints of alienated labor. One half way waits for a Liberal Guilt siren to sound; the aim of the poem is solely to create a comfort zone with which those made uncomfortable with unadorned facts might wrap themselves, give a nod, and then walk away.



But here, beneath the lights of Bicentennial Park,
these men work the stiffness
from their shoulders,
crow-hop and sling the ball sharply
around the horn. No matter
who they've become
in the years since boyhood, the game's
muscular beauty remains.


Transformation and transcendence and resurrection are the themes here, and the power of play is the device through which these workers cease , for the time being, being stooped shouldered and regain the elan vital that was plentiful in their youth. It's not that the therapeutic benefits of sports are false--life without games, play, physical recreation wouldn't worth sticking around for--but rather that Howell reduces what he's been witness to a convenient narrative structure that reports the hardship and then no so subtly, gracefully, nor convincingly turns around and provides a homily to convince himself, if not the reader, that something beautiful flourishes, thrives even in the midst of pulverizing ly hard and repetitive work. The last stanza is dreadful and spiked with the shards of truism platitude, and disingenuousness.



And the small victories
sustain them—a well-timed swing, or dusty
headfirst-dive for home—
as they disband,
again, into the world from which
they take their living.


This is a pompous and false dichotomy, that the laborers relish their game and find the "small victories" to be a satisfactory compensation for their dangerous work and poor pay, and it strongly implies that this is the way it needs to be. It's awful enough that Lucas Howell doesn't trust his own skill a writer to make his points and inferences without sticking instructional billboards along the trail of his thinking, but he adds an insult to injury with the banality of his insight. This man is the least interesting poet I've read in years.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Eliot, T.S.


There was someone , in one of those long ago forum rants somewhere on the Internet, who argued that the bulk of the T.S.Eliot's poetry was comprised of lies because he reached erring conclusions about the fate of human kind as it hurtled further into the twentieth century. My friend, of course, was ten years older than I and was an eternal optimist in the ongoing progress of humanity toward a magnificent perfection--history had a glorious end for him, and he rejected and attacked any cynicism he perceived that was contrary to his preferred end game. I offered that he was reading Eliot wrong--Eliot's conclusions might have been incorrect, if one insists, but his writing certainly wasn't false. He wasn't writing to please no one, but only scratch that itch he otherwise could get to.

Eliot, again, was not lying in any sense of the word--lying is a willful act, done so with the intent of trying to make someone believe something that is demonstrably untrue. As the point of The Quartets and his plays have to do with an artful outlaying of Eliot's seasoned ambivalence to his time, the suggestion that "beauty lies" is specious. One has license to argue with the conclusions, or to critique the skill of the writer, but the vision here is not faked dystopia Eliot contrived to a good amount of trendy despair--that comes later, with artless confessional poets who lost any sense of beauty to their own addiction to their ultimately trivial self-esteem issues.

Eliot, however one views him, sought transcendence of what he regarded as an inanely short-sighted world, and sought to address the human condition in a lyric language that has, indeed, found an audience that continues to argue with his work: the work contains a truth the readership recognizes. Eliot was following suit on the only prerogative an artist, really , has open to them: to be an honest witness to the evidence of their senses, and to marshall every resource in their grasps to articulate the fleeting sensations, the ideas within the experience.

This is the highest standard you can hold an artist to; any other criteria, any other discursive filter one wants to run the work through is secondary, truth be told, because the truth within the work is the source of that work's power. One need to recognize what it is in the lines, in the assemblage and drift of the lyric, in the contrasted tones and delicate construction of vernaculars, what is that one recognizes and responds to in the work, and then mount their response.

There is more to the Quartets or the plays than what you regard as defeat--there is hope that his work inspires future imagining greater than even his own-- but I cannot regard the poems as failures in any sense, even with the admission that there is great beauty in them. Eliot renders his consciousness , his contradictory and ambivalent response to the world he's grown old in with perfect pitch, and it's my sense that his intention to provoke the imagination is a sublime accomplishment. As craft and agenda, the later pieces work.

More random notes


That hairy and nameless monster we call"truth", large or small t, is something we arrive at after the fact, up the road, after we're over the hill. The point of personal experience is something we assign later, when memory arranges the particulars in some fine fashion that makes the data resonate like some kind of grand or sad music that needs it's expression in talk, a phone call, poem , novel, blues guitar. Truth is the plausibility of feelings toward the events that shape our conditions, not the calculations that lead us to First Causes and Final Consequences.

Since experience is the hardest thing to convey --it is not an argument I'm making, it's a tightly knotted cluster of feelings and emotions linked to a sequence of events that I have need to relate to you, to bring you into (in a manner of seduction, dropping the suspenders of disbelief)-- I generally favor any writer to use any and all materials available and appropriate.

At best, we see an outline of the truth, a blurred reconstruction, and it's here we , as readers, need to give our trust to the writer to take us through an implied but imaginatively plausible world. Mastery makes us forget the lines we're reading, the very words we're taking in. Good writing , whatever it's style, origins or intent, quite literally pulses , and is that shape, the "truth" we want to pull the veil from.

Do you think artists are creating wonderful veils, or 'pulling' at some pre-existing veils? Important distinction, wouldn't you say?

The idea of the metaphor is metaphorical, and since the 'truth' it's protecting is metaphorial , or at least figurative in some way, it seems like a dead issue. What's useful is to consider the process 'through' the veils, or the arrangement, tone, and orchestration of the narrative events that lead a reader finally to the last chapter, the last page and he last sentence, where one arrives at the author's sense of an ending, and their implications of whether the tale really does "end" there, done with, having served its purpose of illustrating a 'given' moral lesson based on a nominally 'realistic' event, or whether the lives of the characters go on, after the last page, changed after an arduous narrative, braced for an unknown future.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

William Logan can't remove his nasty mask


Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue
By William Logan

William Logan has become more famous as a disgruntled critic and trench-level wit than as a poet, his nominal calling, and it seems fated that the good writer will be recalled who he has dismissed so many for no reason other than an excuse to ladle out more of his cold, lumpy gruel.

Even in those instances where one is inclined to agree with him on principle there remains the scraping sound of a blade being sharpened in the background--in his estimations of Billy Collins, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Robert Frost, all one need do is read on with half an eyelid open , allowing the reviewer to present his good, balanced graces and equivocations until he lands upon the puffed-up sins he wishes to expose and the poems he desires to slice and dice. It's a chronic malignity that suggests more symptom than judgement, an indication of someone who makes a harsher case than is required so much of the time.

An honest criticism is appreciated, always, but the negative is the only coin Logan chooses to spend which, I think, renders his judgements suspect , no less than a publicist's hand out. Does Logan desire to be Poetry's Simon Cowell? Doubtless, since there is a kick indeed in handing out bad notices. In Logan's career, however, it ceases to be a form of Truth Telling than an expression of a mind that cannot adjust it's comprehending filters long enough to dare a fresh insight, an idea that might surprise the reader. The lamest stand up comic alive comes to mind--you've heard these jokes before, a long time ago.We have instead a wind up monkey, clashing it's cymbals intensely until someone winds it up again.(less)
(edit)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Hip: The History


HIP:The History
By John Leland


John Leland's Hip:The History is the sort of book I like to read on the bus, the portentous social study of an indefinite essence that makes the reader of the book appear, well, hip. This is the perfect book for the pop culture obsessive who wonders, indeed worries and frets over the issue as to whether white musicians can become real blues musicians or whether Caucasian jazz musicians have added anything of value to the the jazz canon besides gimmick.

What we have with Hip is a what Greil Marcus has been attempting to for decades, which is write a coherent narrative of the margins of American culture, descendants of slaves and the children of immigrant parents, coalesced in ways in which each other's style and manner intermingled even if the respective races did not. The grace moment in history is that some wonderful things emerged from all this borrowing, posturing and tension, the jazz, rock and roll and a genuine American literary vernaculary; the tragedy is that it took generations of racisim and violence to produce the historical conditions for these vital arts to emerge. The question of hip furnishes the theme that brings Leland's sources together--what emerges is the story of two races that cannot live together and cannot be apart.

Leland, a reporter for the New York Times, has done his research and brings together the expected doses of cultural anthropology, literature and, of course, music to bear on this sweeping, if unsettled account as to what "hip" is and how it appears to have developed over time. Most importantly he concentrates on the lopsided relationship between black and white, each group borrowing each other's culture and suiting them for their respective needs; in the case of black Americans, rising from a slavery as free people in a racist environment, hip was an an ironic manner, a mode of regarding their existence on the offbeat, a way to keep the put upon psyche within a measure of equilibrium. For the younger white hipsters, in love black music and style, it was an attempt to gain knowledge, authenticity and personal legitimacy through a source that was Other than what a generation felt was their over-privileged and pampered class.

Leland's range is admirable and does a remarkable job of advancing his thesis--that the framework of what we consider hip is a way in which both races eye other warily--and is sensitive to the fact that for all the attempts of white artists and their followers to cultivate their own good style from their black influences, the white hipsters is never far from black face minstrelsy. For all the appropriation,experimentation, and varied perversions of black art that has emerged over the decades, there are only a few men and women who've attained the stature of their African American heroes, people who, themselves, were the few among the many.