Thursday, June 30, 2011

Was E.E.Cummings racist?


A previously unpublished poem by E.E.Cummings was recently discovered by literary professor James Dempsy in the course of researching Scofield Taylor, publisher of the influential  magazine The Dial. The Awl as published it , a brief, spare observation that leaves you scratching your head, a typical response to Cummings best and worst writing. This poem , though, is different ; the language makes us asks if Cummings were a racist. The start of the poem gets your attention quickly:
(tonite
in nigger
street
the snow is perfectly falling,
the noiselessly snow is
sexually fingering the utterly asleep
houses)
The entire poem can be viewed here  .


You can feel the hair rise one necks of those modern critics already defensive about the politics of  a number of  Modernist poets.This was another era, a good while ago, and it wasn't an uncommon thing for otherwise smart and perceptive people, Cummings included, using the word "nigger" without intending to judge and subjugate an entire segment of the population on the basis of race. That is to that I doubt Cummings use of the word was used in a racist manner; from readings of Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner and Van Vechten, the use seems more idiomatic than hurtful. "Nigger", though, has morphed in the many decades since Cummings' quizzical poem, as the history of the Civil Rights movement reveals the insane, hateful cultural undercurrent from which the word emerges.

The word is loaded with the freight of every racist thought , judgment and agenda that has been enacted in this country and it has become something that none of us can use with any authority  other than to be hurtful. 
The other explanation for saying or writing "nigger” in light of what the word has come to mean is the kind of weak-kneed "irony"  , that one needs to use the word in light of the pain we allow them to cause. Lenny Bruce maintained that these are only words and it is our forbidding their use that give them their hurtful power; expose the words and the lies behind them and we neutralize their power over our emotions. Lester Bangs, contrarily, wrote years later  in an essay titled "White Noise Supremacists", that he had tried Bruce's prescription and uttered and wrote "nigger" in  what he meant as irony--he was attempting to empty the term of the potential to cause pain.

Bangs, though, gauged the response of readers, editors and friends and discovered his humanist reasoning wasn't assuaging anyone. The roots of the pain were too deeply embedded in our culture's worst sustained tendencies: this word, and words like it, hurt.  Cummings, as a poet, can be excused in part because I suspect he meant "nigger" to be a synonym for "night" or a term equally nocturnal; A quiet winter night in winter, snow on the houses, the lights are out.

There  are subtext s here, to be sure, the obvious ones being the sexual attraction of whites to blacks ,  but there are nearly always subtexts and ambiguity in poems; Cummings purpose is to create tension between terms denoting abstract virtues of black and white and force a reader, perhaps force himself, that one is drawn to the other and that , in fact, one needs the other in which to exist, thrive, to find happiness in the many layers of grief life-as-it-is will hand you. This is a reading, though, that is lost in the sweep of history, save a protest from an apologist arising here and there.  Cummings fans will no doubt make like this poem had never emerged .

Is Cummings a racist for using this odious term? No. Could he have gotten away with writing this poem today? Not on your life.

Monday, June 27, 2011

a hum dinger





What I like about TR Hummer's poems is that he writes like he hasn't yet figured out the poem was going to end, or what he would wind up thinking as he arranged his line breaks and dashes. His tone is vernacular, characteristic of a true voice addressing you directly.   There is no flatness here, no monotonic hum droning on in a pretense of everyday speak. We have poet who frequently presents his narrators as being in the middle of something, in the thick of things that do not make sense just yet. There is a suggestion that he likes to ponder the nature of what he doesn't know in such as way that he seemingly departs from earth's gravity and skips , instead, on the rings of some oblivion bound orbit, as I believe he is doing with "Ooo Baby Baby", a poem I like quite a bit. That context and set up isn't furnished in the poem are not important here, the glory and grace of the poem begins after the opening line, two people, a speaker and his girlfriend/wife/lover, staring at a blank, black vastness after dark, he speaking in an all allusive way along a string of what-ifs and why-nots, the edge of nothingness seeming to made concrete . There is a sensation here, a mixture of exhilaration, fear, attraction and vertigo as the speaker dispenses with his knowledge of the given--this is a lake we are looking at after dark, those are paper lanterns, you and have history --and I would say that what Hummer is considering are the kinds of seductions that commence once the active mind is t taken with an incredible , unthinkable idea.

Hummer has emotion aplenty, and the sense of longing and yearning for less nuanced times is tangible; he is, however, an artist, and combines a writer's restraint with the emotion he is trying to convey. This, I think, gives the reader more to discuss--the art of what was almost, the art of what was skillfully suggested--than a boiler plate expression of unremarkable poesy would.

This is very much a poem of over thinking a situation but that, I believe, is precisely the point, as these thoughts are not an argument made with metaphors to support a supposition toward a metaphysical construct, but instead a fluid stream of associations that are precisely liquid, seamless, seductive in their idea that just as we can imagine that what we know of the world might, in some twisting of the language, can be made to be composed of materials other than what's assumed to be the fact, it is equally as powerful to conceptualize existence being constructed on nothing what so ever . This world, Hummer's narrator appears to be getting at, is composed of those comforts and solaces we find and remember and manage to construct a life worth living out of it, paper lanterns, beach sex, Smoky Robinson and all. This poem is a nicely contained abstract of an imagination that seems entirely capable of being seduced by its manic swerves into the illogic of  a less interesting conundrum/

Sunday, June 19, 2011

CLARENCE CLEMONS, RIP

I have never  been a Bruce Springsteen fan, but neither have I  been one of  the over stating haters who've seen the last three decades decrying the man and his music. Although I think The Boss's music, overall,  hyperventilates  to the extent that the version of rock and roll passion seems appropriate for a musical than a bar band with roots in a working class community, I never thought there was a phony nor malicious bone in Springsteen's body. I approached him with a grudging yet growing respect--for all the promiscuous use of cadenzas, the solemn and unsubtle lethargy of his message tunes, the crazy blending of Dylan lyrics, Van Morrison vocals and  the greased pulse of urban rhythm and blues  that never, never really moved to do anything other than change the channel or to look elsewhere in the record bins for a more spurious excitement, I simply had to resign from the debating team and admit that  I didn't get it. Not that I rescind my former criticisms--Bruce almighty was and remains more rock and roll spirit and drive than I will ever be, even if I don't care for his accent.Springsteen sang about the things all writers of songs marketed to teens talk about, the desire to get away from the parents and find a place of their own; this runs through Elvis and Chuck Berry through the Ramones and upwards to the Foo Fighters and Tool and their moody ilk. It's not that I resisted "getting it", as it were, it's more that I wasn't convinced by the songs he wrote and sang , in large part. It's just as likely that I had turned toward literature , steep reading in American and European traditions, as a means of examining the further reaches of a bad mood and that intractable sensation of feeling apart from, set aside, and put upon by forces one could not control--love?hate?politics? vanity?cruel gods? Songs are a snapshot of the mood, which is fine, but Springsteen over packed 
them like he were going on a long trip with only a split-seamed carry on. I do respect him for trying, and cheer him on the occasional successes --"Tunnel of Love" is an especially taut, pared down exploration of the aforementioned bad moods. At the time , though, I wasn't in the mood for pop tunes: I wanted the dense fugues given me by Mailer, DeLillo, Pynchon, Burroughs, et al. To quote 
Danny Glover, I was too old for the shit that came before hand. Not that I didn't think of it fondly and at times sneak back in through a bedroom window.
6:37 AM PDT

Saturday, June 18, 2011

HOWL


Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" is just over a half century old now, and it will do us no harm to review the first stanzas yet again, for the are as vatic, volcanic and visionary as they were when they first saw print in 1955.The transcendent beauty of a inflamed mind that's suddenly and completely found an articulation for the unspeakable has never been captured better. "Howl" was the perfect bit of literary insanity to appear in a decade where America had collectively laid down and played dead:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves
through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York.
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,
incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between,
Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,
who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,
who sank, all night in submarine light of Bickford's floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi's, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox...
(c)Copyright 2005 The Estate of Allen Ginsberg.
"Howl" is one of the most important and influential poems of the 20th century, and it simultaneously invigorated free verse with the range of its rage and honesty, and spawned a generation of imitators who composed indulgent and lazy lines that were more pose than poetry. This is a poem that speaks from the middle of the century with a voice gorged with collective anxiety and spiritual hunger for an element that would counter technologized conformity and the loss of authenticity. Its long, Bible-cadenced lines have resonated into the century following its debut, and it's likely that succeeding generations of disaffected yearners will find the poem's scalar cry appealing for the way it touches on those soul-demolishing duties that are difficult to identify, impossible to purge yourself of. The real paradox of "Howl" is that it's a poem, a great poem that addressed the great unwashed elements of American culture and their plight outside the mainstream which is now very much part of the Establishment it railed against and, in some sense, sought to disassemble. Only truly great pieces of writing do that, and regardless of what one thinks of the later Ginsberg work where he abandoned Blake an visions and allegory in favor of a relentless and largely inane species of self-reporting, "Howl" is the inspired and wonderfully sustained work of a young in full control of the language and rhetoric he was using.
It's a masterpiece by every criteria, and it remains a powerful indictment against repression, censorship, the closing off of the soul against experience and vision. Even as its been absorbed into the American canon, it continues to transgress against expectations of conservative decorum and other constructions of serene and apathetic community relations; it continues to howl, quite literally, over the fifty years since it's publications.
In the increasingly control-freak environment of that pits paranoid nationalism against civil liberties , "Howl" and it's piercing message is perhaps more relevant than ever.
Ginsberg was among the very few American poets who broke through the larger culture because he was, to coin a phrase, the right man at the right time. The conformity of the fifties, the anti-communist paranoia was sufficiently alienating enough for enough citizens to rebel and push against the barriers of a socially enforced tranquility. The fact that he was, at the time, especially potent in is writing (as well as being a brilliant self-promoter of himself and his friends) doubtlessly aided him in the ascendancy. These days, it's Billy Collins who has the amazing fame and fortune, writing smaller, more conventional, masterfully composed epiphanies of an everyday America that may exists only in the imagination; he is exactly the right poet to come along at time when millions of citizens are weary of nonconformists and their rights. This isn't to suggest a cyclical theory of recent history, but I do find the positions of both poets ironic, if unintentionally polar.
The fact that one still finds room to discuss the poem's politics and philosophical biases seriously attests to the quality and originality of Ginsberg's writing; mere political tracts, like Baraka's "Someone Blew Up America", will grind you down with polemic and are rapidly, gratefully forgotten. 
"Howl", poem, vision, political screed, confession and testament in one, is read and debated over and over again, its choicest lines cited, each quote resonating and stinging as great work ought to. A great poem. 
The real paradox of "Howl" is that it's a poem, a great poem that addressed the great unwashed elements of American culture and their plight outside the mainstream which is now very much part of the Establishment it railed against and, in some sense, sought to disassemble.Only truly great pieces of writing do that, and regardless of what one thinks of the later Ginsberg work where he abandoned Blakean visions and allegory in favor of a relentless and largely inane species of self-reporting , "Howl" is the inspired and wonderfully sustained work of a young in full control of the language and rhetoric he was using.It's a masterpiece by every criteria, and it remains a powerful indictment against repression, censorship, the closing off of the soul against experience and vision.
Oops, there I go again, seduced by Ginsberg's muse and speaking in images that cannot be verified or affirmed by proper critical tools. Just as well, for "Howl" is anything but proper. It is rude, joyous, rambunctious, and full of itself and in love with the world that seeks to shun its premises and assumptions. Much of great American poetry is like that, and Ginsberg's poem is still with us, an exhortation to not let the dull grind of conformity murder the spirit by the inch.

Allen Ginsberg himself succumbed a little to his reputation and began to consider his every journal entry, seemingly, as credible poems in their own write, with the reader interested in the crafted music of words brought together left out in the cold as the poet's late publications concentrated more on the accumulated inanity of relentless self reporting. But he did write "Howl", and for this poem, along with "Caddish" and "Super Market in California" (among others) his greatness is assured. 
In the increasingly control-freak environment of that pits paranoid nationalism against civil liberties , "Howl" and it's piercing message is perhaps more relevant than ever.he fact that one still finds room to discuss the poem's politics and philosophical biases seriously attests to the quality and originality of Ginsberg's writing; mere political tracts, like Baraka's "Someone Blew Up America", will grind you down with polemic and are rapidly, gratefully forgotten."Howl", poem, vision, political screed, confession and testament in one, is read and debated over and over again, its choicest lines cited, each quote resonating and stinging as great work ought to. A great poem.
Even as its been absorbed into the American canon, it continues to transgress against expectations of conservative decorum and other constructions of serene and apathetic community relations; it continues to howl, quite literally, over the fifty years since it's publications.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

OUT OF IT

Too many days off from a job we other wise claim is killing us by the inch is not good for us, which is to say that it's not good for me, white, single, late fifties in age, without a car, a person who lives alone. Sans the work regime, it is up to my own ingenuity to endeavor to be happy and usefully whole; after a period of writing, playing music and reading the required number of pages in whatever books I have going at the time, I run out of things. As I heard someone remark years ago on the subject of having too much spare time, he felt compelled to "go upstairs and visit his problems, his issues, his collected constant worries." Likewise, I go from being eager to being anxious, the apartment I live in seems smaller than it actually is, a palpable paranoia surrounds me like a bad aroma . And so I turn off the computer and head out to accomplish newly appointed tasks. Fresh air, a conversation is what this fevered brow requires: there must be a music other than the static that plays on between my ears.    


It's all you can do
to stay in the moment
as the slices of salmon
catch flies on the cutting board,

someone is smoking
a cigar is what you're thinking
and what they're drinking
is a foul aroma of fun

every turn of the head is
an anxiety you ignored
and now that you're bored
with the dust of your confessions,
new lessons arise and
this makes you twitch like
some useless appendage
that sticks out of the end
of a thick wrap of bandages,

unbound and defenseless
for all that freedom
means on the fourth of July,

all that you can stand
because nothing
fills your days the way
the events of your life used to,

every word and slap on the back
falls with a thud,
something dropped on
old pillows,

the world smells of
sickening sweet medicine
and windows that haven't
been open for weeks,

take this shit to the streets,
you think, give me some air
and socks to wear before me
find my jacket and shoes

every car that passes
and every house you paint
has something of the vibe
going on inside
you can't seem to grasp
or get next to

there are days when
there are only empty swimming pools
in rich neighborhoods,

disc jockeys ignore
all your phone calls,

even the fish in the bowl
swim upside down
pretending to be asleep
until you walk from the room,

there is something you
just missed,
some card hand or punch line that gets swallowed
just before you get there,

just before you get
in step with
the dance and the
thread of the carpet
that gets walked upon.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

More on Mark Strand's poem

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying this poem, as Strand, since I first read him in the Seventies, has never been one of my favorite poets; he continually demonstrated a rather fine lyric sense that could make the banal details of a street, a room, a sound transcend their roots in the commonplace and suggest something more behind the utility of mere definition. His world seemed to pulse with significance that was tangible , conspicuous, yet hidden.


 He has been, though, too much of a worry wart for me, there was nearly always something terrible that has happened or about to happen or that didn't happen at all but the thought of which gave his poems a nervous, anxious quality that stopped being exhilarating after a few dozen poems . This, though, is a collected bit of consideration, a pause to remark on a personal mood that has nothing to do with catastrophes of fact or fiction and wonders instead not about the awful things that might befall his surrogate narrators but rather what it might be to consider a space that is perfect solely because it vacant. The nervousness, real and feigned, gives way to a poem perfect for someone who is tired of holding on to the hand rail too tightly.  
 I am not, though,thrilled by Strand's preference for the paragraph form--I have a fondness for prose poems and enjoy the writings of Whitman, Silliman, Bernstein, Goldbarth and Gertrude Stein precisely because the paragraph is the perfect way to have unlike things collide , conflate and fuse together in radically transformations; there is a sense of havoc being visited upon a number of worn out referential templates that are suddenly made to make sense in ways no one intended.

 The language gets a long and severe road testing there and we, I think, are better for it. Strand's poem, though, is not accumalation, not collision, but a pared down consideration, observation, revelation: I am convinced the poem would be more effective, powerful, lasting in memory if there were line breaks . I hear cadences that the paragraphed original cannot suggest. There is a human voice here, detectable, vulnerable and surprised at what it finds itself talking about, and one wonders about the breathing space between the sentences, the pauses. Line breaks would have the effect of slowing down the poem, to bring to the piece a tentativeness that is already there, waiting to be discovered by the reader who has an ear for such things. The paragraph is airtight and deadens the effect, at least at first. That first impression likely prevents more than a few readers from giving it a second scan.


Here is my version of Mark Strrand's poem, "The Enigma of the Infinitesmial", with traditional free verse line breaks:  
  



You’ve seen them at dusk,
walking along the shore,
seen them standing in doorways,
leaning from windows,
or straddling the slow moving edge of a shadow.

Lovers of the in-between,
they are neither here nor there, neither in nor out.

Poor souls, they are driven
to experience the impossible.

Even at night, they lie in bed
with one eye closed and the other open,
hoping to catch the last second of consciousness
and the first of sleep,
to inhabit that no man’s land,
that beautiful place,
to behold as only a god might,
the luminous conjunction of nothing and all.

I understand the attraction of a paragraph over line breaks for a reader; Strand may be intending a seduction of sorts with the form he chose, luring an audience with something that looks familiar. The effect is that they would read something unlike what they usually come across in a brief, stand alone prose block. 
  A free verse form suggests the in-between state or nothing at all state that Strand addresses in the poem. On the left, there is an elegant murmuring about the neutral zone as a kind of mythic Eden , and on the other, the emptiness of the right hand margin, the white space. This would suggest that the world of things , noise and motion is along side the "the luminous conjunction of nothing and all".

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Mark Strand's Large Nap

Mark Strand's  prose poem The Enigma of the Infinitesimal  shows us a poet who want us to consider those people we all have seen (as he claims) who have a purpose driven life consisting of one goal, to get to the nothing between the noisy and multiple somethings the rest of us have to navigate with purpose:

You’ve seen them at dusk, walking along the shore, seen them standing in doorways, leaning from windows, or straddling the slow moving edge of a shadow. Lovers of the in-between, they are neither here nor there, neither in nor out. Poor souls, they are driven to experience the impossible. Even at night, they lie in bed with one eye closed and the other open, hoping to catch the last second of consciousness and the first of sleep, to inhabit that no man’s land, that beautiful place, to behold as only a god might, the luminous conjunction of nothing and all.

It seems clear enough for me that Strand is talking the desire for a personal oblivion without having to do any of the heavy lifting, that is, he wants to witness the area between the crowded materialism of the earthly plain and the over lit expanse of whatever form of Heaven is in the collective thinking. I think what he means is that he notices his own concentration on the scant inches between things piled on one another, the remaining centimeters of space that still exist before leviathans, politics and economics crowded up the earth with a seamless babble concerning what's important. No business, no church, no politics to decide for you how to spend your time, your imagination; he wants a momentary respite somewhere that is not sleep nor death but still free of static and the overflow of voices and traffic sounds. 

This , ironically, becomes something of a reason to live, to go on despite the horror of life's eternal drudgery; in a sense that seems very much like Samuel Beckett, these numinous creatures seek that space and that state that cannot be found nor reached even with the wildest imagination; all one can do is hatch new schemes, seek new cracks in the architecture, attempt to lose a little more of themselves in the details and the grain of existence in some wan hope that they might transcend the cluttered bounds of earth and witness the perfection of nothing there at all. It would be a kind of Heaven, unspoiled, unassigned, unreconstructed, not blemished a bit by any one's lisping conceit as to how the space is to be used, purposed, designed. 

One might imagine that this  Death Wish defined, the desire for death institutionalized in our personal rituals, but what we have, I think, is Strand grabbing onto to something that Beckett surveyed so well ; the desire to live becomes, instead, the obsession to keep the ritual in order and the tedium in place; while the waking ego expounds a poetic urge to escape the mundane and to live in radical proximity to the sublime elegance of negative space, the body knows more than the spirit and maintains the grind one would other wise claim murders the soul. The soul flourishes, the body would say, because of the tedium, the grind, the unending repetition of habits we've filled the world with; without the tedium there would be only a life that is nasty , brutish and short. The same old same old is the foundation on which our hopes of deliverance rest; without it, there would be no yearning for impossible things.What the poem implies is not an envy for the otherly shadow people seeking that negative space between the brick and mortar, but rather a desire on Strand's part to achieve something like death so as to be relieved of the grind and grunt of daily life. He speaks of them in the third person, but the awareness of their routines and their desires is intimate, it has the lyric yearning of someone speaking from their own experience.  


Even at night, they lie in bed with one eye closed and the other open, hoping to catch the last second of consciousness and the first of sleep, to inhabit that no man’s land, that beautiful place, to behold as only a god might, the luminous conjunction of nothing and all..  

The "lovers of the in between" seek to "inhabit that no man’s land, that beautiful place..." which , to my mind, indicates an obvious desire for something permanent. Not death, but death like, as I mentioned before. "Oblivion" , "near death" and the like are synonyms for Mark Strand's concept of "...the luminous conjunction of nothing at all." Strand's desire is for a permanent condition, what some might consider a zen condition where the ego vanishes and there is only oneself and the very thingness of the world, unadorned by materialist clutter. Still others might equate the poem's yearning with Pink Floyd's song title "Comfortably Numb". The idea is closer, in my reading, with the poems , plays and novels of Samuel Beckett, who managed to extract a dynamic literature from the monotony of existence; as with Strand's reluctance to embrace death by name, Beckett's characters become obsessed with an irresistible urge to transcend their bounds and yet refuse to upset the stratification they claim is killing their spirit. These people Strand speaks of , meaning the poet himself, are pursuing what they know to be an impossible goal; that way means that nothing in their life has to change.


It's one thing to imagine a fictional abberation, a shadow person, lying in bed , still awake, but Strand's detail belongs to someone who them self has spent nights half awake , half dreaming of a perfect, painless oblivion. This is not a prose poem expressing envy of anyone; although he furnishes distance with by avoiding first person in the telling, this poem is a confession, a bittersweet gushing of an impossible dream that underlies all other motivations to get through another day.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Paragraphs for Mark Strand


There was a joke told by Rodney Dangerfield about trying to catch your own profile as you walk by a store window, thinking that you could you see yourself, if only for a nanosecond, in a state of not being aware that you're being observed. All in vain, of course, as all you catch is a snapshot of you pouting somewhat, puckered like a lovesick fish, grimacing with downcast eyes, annoyance tempering the disappointment of not catching your reflection unaware.

In the meantime, you bump into people you didn't see coming the other way. You mumble apologies, get of earshot of profanities, careful not walk into traffic when you come to the corner. On the other side of the window are the people who have already arrived to where they were going, seated at tables over glasses of water and wine, looking at menus; you imagine yourself already at the location you need to get to, safe in a seat with a wife, watching television, anonymous in the shadows of your own making. On the coffee table are the glasses you thought would aid you in seeing the pure profile of you perfect jawline, the certitude of the chin rising to like the prow of a ship cutting a path through aggravated waters, next to the iPod and the ear pieces you wore to make the world sound less like a city at war with it's mechanical parts and more like sound track for an under-lit porno.

The clown shoes are off, the tie is undone, the television nags at you with come ons for shampoo and retirement accounts, prescription drug plans and limited edition gold coins and commemorative plates, your wife is already asleep , you cannot stop thinking of what it is you need to do, your fingers twitch, move in motions like warm up exercises , you want to write something that will put the light back into the day that get darker the longer you stay alive, you want clarity, you don't want to vanish as though turned off with a remote control, reduced to something less than the white do that used to dominate the television screen when the last credit scrolled by and bed time was immediate, irrevocable. You might miss something, you might miss lending your voice to the running stream of remarks that make up the news of the moment, you wanted to write history as it happened, the evidence of your senses keen enough to define the tone and temper of the good and bad things that make this existence such an exciting thing to stay awake for.



Saturday, June 4, 2011

Four sonnets





For those who think these sonnets are an inferior expression of a venerated form, I sympathize with you. Formal poetry is not my strength. They do have their appeal, though, in as much as they force me to constrain my signature turn of mind ; let us use a musical analogy and say that I like these because they amount to me performing my old sicks over a new set of chords.
Sonnet 1
You turn your head, you cough  and recover,
 hand at your throat, the mike buzzes but not before
you shuffle your poems and read yet again, you go on in a room
where everyone has a first line, I would read about your eyes,
wide as they are as saucers cups that are deep as pans of bread
that come from the oven and into my heart, and that’s a start, I think,
you fold your hands as you read; you’ve got this memorized,
yet it all seems extemporized from the bottom of your heart  which hasn’t a bottom at all, now some one else reads, a guy with tattoo of his tongue across his left cheek, he  screeches to hip hop clicks of the tongue but he’s young and not far from done as long as his homies thrown their signs with fingers that cross a language of quieting the flutters of the immature heart, I will read you later, on the phone, with every court and hand gesture, you wave goodnight, I know the line,
you’ll see me in the funny papers.
 

Sonnet 2

Not this day nor that one but the one after all these, rather, 
when we come into town  with pockets full of matches
and cigarettes in a sock, we rock the nation with big beats 
in hock to no groove other than the tire tracks that
criss -cross the oceans on trade winds that carry notes  
like saints carrying a crucifix to the next thorny hill
under a sky that opens only for any spirit that slides 
up the ladder like plumes of smoke, we toke in gasps
 and get out of the car, unload, set up  amps, take up a collection 
for a room to split five ways, give or take the extra guitarist,
 a girl friend who snores, a nice place, we say, this world is ours, 
while over the bridge, in the other life where phone lines connect,
there are meals to eat before the meat gets cold, moms to kiss on the cheek,  
girl friends to lie to because we love them too much to be ourselves on a dare.

 

Sonnet 3

Extra candles at the table mean that there
will be more bread to butter, more sin to absorb

even as we see a motorcade and a pope in
a unbreakable box on the screen when

the first spoonful of hope is served from bowls
that a heat that escapes logic and cold fingers,

bless everything that gets in your way, says Dad,
do the sign of the cross and make the world tremble?

work your voodoo somewhere else, he hisses, hand me a roll and turn off the set.

The screen goes dark, millions of button-down faces
in crowds that line streets and make the stadiums sag

under the human pounds are gone in a small white dot against a dark green field,
and Dad smiles again, snapping his fingers,
and chews his bread with his eyes closed, face framed with kitchen lights and lacy steam.

Sonnet 4

A fevered dream gives up its dark corridors
and invites me to stare at the ceiling instead, 
with music of laughs and grunting keyboards
filling the dim sleepless niches that make up the sky 
that is now filled with circling birds, black and crying,
hypnotized by advertising about home loans and 
travel clubs to the farthest end of a Pacific Island where
there are no dull, all-night parties and robot music that 
grinds away at  unsmoothed nerves, I pick myself from
the bed, kiss your forehead, slip on my open toe sandals 
and sit at the edge of the bed, the edge of my wits,
the end of what feels like the earth Columbus 
must have feared all three of his ships would drift over
in a delirium born on a black, sleepless sea.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Best American Writer of the 20th Century?

No protest against the greatness of Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne or Edgar Allen Poe, but really, their time is past, and this thread is about this century. Kurt Vonnegut easily matches Twain , I think, Updike, at his best, surpasses Hawthorne on the same range of issues, and for Poe, virtually everyone has been influenced by him, but the best of his students have found more graceful, lyrical ways to deliver their work.  

 Simply, one may yearn for the richness of a glorious past as a kind of Heaven to be aspired to, which is fine, if that is the way one learns to cope with the uncompromising pace of the current time, but our writers, truth told, tell a fine tale or two. Literature is also about where we're going, not just where we've been.  DeLillo,Toni  Morrison, William Gaddis, William Gass, Updike, David Foster Wallace, Mark Helprin, Joyce Carol Oates, Sontag, and dozens of others whose work, in varied respects, struggles to be about something larger than memoirs put forth under the name of fiction. Not that I like all the above: rather, just to say that not every novelist these days is hung by their own confessional rope. Ultimately, hindsight is everything, and I wish I could see , who of our scribes will be discussed at the end of the next century.  

The second half of this century produced a lot of major talent who have produced or are producing respective bodies of work that require the passionate reading and argument our already named personal bests have received. Harold Bloom notwithstanding, our canon is expanding with new and achingly good writers, and one would think that the male majority so far discussed will have relinquish room on their uppermost tier.  On the point, Fitzgerald will make the cut because so few writers, then or to the current time, have managed the breathless lyricism contained in the "The Great Gatsby" or "Tender Is The Night". Some have come close, and I'm thinking of the resonating sentences from Scott Spencer's "Endless Love" or some keenly rendered pages in Updikes "Rabbit" quartet, but Fitzgerald at best gave us small masterpieces that gave an sharp view of the time.  Hemingway, I thinks, merits a permanent place on any greatest list because his style, at best, was lean, and his sentences , constructed the way they are, convey pages of buried turmoil, lost hope, small idealism, bravery to pursue another day , to shoulder one's burden honorably. 

"In Our Time" and "The Sun Also Rises" accomplish this. At his worse, though, Hemingway was a boozing sentimentalist whose writing lapsed into repetitious self-parody, as we have in "Island In The Stream" or "A Movable Feast". But I am grateful for the good work he did.  Jack London, I'm afraid, pales for me personally. He was a lot of fun for me when I was growing up, yearning for adventure in Catholic School. But later, in college, closer and more seasoned readings had him sounding rushed, awkward. The mixture of Marx and Darwin that seasoned his writings seem showed a straining idealism that was not redeemed by a modifying style.I've just re-read "John Barleycorn" , and the book is ridiculous. It seemed like so much bluster and blarney toward the end , after vividly recalls his disastrous drinking career, that armed with this new self awareness, he would drink responsibly, that he was in fact only temporarily an alcoholic. He didn't cure himself, and his prose hasn't reminded me less of  piles of smashed concrete over the decades.