Thursday, June 27, 2013

Is anyone else weary of over reaching essays declaring Poetry either dead or hopelessly out of touch? Mark Edmundson takes a turn at being the drudge

This is a spirited response to the Mark Edmundson essay in Harper's in which he declares American poetry obscure and out of touch. The "out of touch" accusation is legitimately up for debate, especially what that nondescript thing it is poets are supposed to be in "touch" with to begin with, but the charge that poetry is obscure misses the point. Edmundson sounds repulsed that modern in this country has become more difficult in many ways , that the  clear vision of someone who can truly sees as they are, without filters, is instead beset by clouds. It's the other way around because when it works, poetry is a case of the thing that was formerly being seen finally being given definition although, in the initial perception, that set of elements, the newly connections between items that were unknown until the poet's discovery of them, is unrecognizable. Piety is about giving names to things that refuse, so far, to have them.

Poetry is poetry precisely because it is more obscure in expression than even the most knotted prose style; it's safe to say that poetry from as early as we decided to subject it to critical agendas has been praised for its ability to avail the poet and thus the reader to witness connections between things--human kind and its experience in the world, whatever ideological or spiritual dogma informs the monologue-- that clean syntax and standardized reason would not.

 The trick Edmundson tries to pull is Intimidation through Erudition--the sheer speed and volume of the writers he cites as evidence of his perceived trend toward obscurity and "being out of touch" and those he mentions favorably are located in the essay to impress, not substantiate. The problem is basically that his subject is too large--American Poetry has a rich and praiseworthy tradition of "difficult" poets and poetry who require more contextualized discussion, and that it is the tendency of serious poets, generally speaking, to address their ideas in ways that challenge conventional language use. He speaks of "us" and other tropes of so-called "real world" touchstones that are ignored in too much modern poetry, proceeding blindly (and blandly) under the assumption that everyone's experience of the world is popped from the same mold. This amounts as an insult to poetry itself and speaks to the limitations of Edmundson's imagination. He makes me think of someone who grabbed too many things from Supermarket aisles who thought he could shop without a basket; the results is that half of what he tries to bring to the cashier is dropped in his carelessness and haste.

The irony of the long battle for concrete and clear expression in poetry only gives rise to new forms of obscurity, for the most part. For all the modernist talk of addressing objects directly, free of literary baggage and abstraction--no ideas but in things, etc--we have instead new forms of obscurity. But obscurity is a loaded word and I think what Edmundson objects to is ambiguity; whichever one you choose and whatever kind of poetry you’re dealing with, whether light bulb bare or elephantine and dressed in relentlessly hard to place analogies, a reader still needs to work through the poets filters and conceits and put the pieces together. The cry against obscurity, per se, is a straw man--what really counts is discerning and judging how well one uses that innate ambiguity/obscurity, and that is a discussion that needs an actual frame work. 
My basic criteria is how well the poet uses this freedom, this allowance to be off center and slightly vague in his or her argument; does the writer give us a sense of what they are getting at in terms of the memorable, the truly unforgettable, are they original in metaphor and simile, are they a pleasure to parse, or are they merely another slog through trope-heavy ineptitude? Edmundson's point is a non starter since he insists that obscurity ought "never” to be part of a how poetry is defined, and that the principal aim of any valid poetry is to bring "clarity" to its subject. This is a plainly, baldly, stupidly reductionist argument that denies that the world has changed dramatically since the era before prose forms usurped poetry's standing as the dominant narrative form, and that the ways of thinking of the world, of perceiving the bigger picture hasn't been effected by the ongoing flux   of new technologies, economic orders, long and bloody wars, natural disasters. Where role of art, poetry included, was to reconcile the human race's bad fortune with religious dogma and the like (which promised both purpose and coherence if a subtly and not so subtly shackled population remained complacent and  accepted the status quo), the influx  of rapid change, due, perhaps, with the invention of moveable type and the increase of literacy and the general rise of expectations among workers and middle class in their lifetime, not the ones waiting for them in a theoretical heaven, the world came to seen as less definite, less clear, in need of a more subjective response in order to connect the raw edge of one's experience against their expectations. Art changed in turn, a natural and right response to the general dialectic that I believe history orders itself as. Edmundson wants the world to remain fixed in the old Platonic notion that there is an immutable reality behind the mere appearances of 

This world and that poetry must continue to seduce us to describe an Ideal that is more perfect, more real (for that matter) than what we have in front of us. This default metaphysics is wishful thinking and a strained argument for the dominance of the sort of window-pane clarity he insists on--it is a dangerous argument because rather than doing the real intellectual spade work of discussing, dissecting, digressing and discerning what is valuable, interesting, notable, entertaining, awful, ordinary, clichéd, trite , contrived among the many varieties of poetic forms available to us, he would simply wish that the last  four or five hundred years of the modern era never took place; it is a dangerous idea to try to roll back people's thinking back to before the  16th century. I hardly like every "modern" and "obscure" poem I read--I dislike most poems I come across--but the point is to develop an ongoing critical response where qualities of worth and  mediocrity are made clearer with regards to the way the diverse majority of us actually live. What Edmundson proposes is taking us to a land where dead things and ideas, so called, carry more weight than what is alive, witty, interesting because of the élan that makes it unpredictable. Edmundson doesn’t want to start discussions, he wants to end them.

A localized, qualitative criticism would be better for getting people interested in poets and their work; this debate, about the vitality or sterility of American Poetry, speaks broadly, too broadly on either side. So broad that much is much is undisguised and the point finely lost.  Who are these people yelling into their cell phones about the price of multigrain bread? What does the bread taste like? 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

CLOUD ATLAS: visually arresting, unbearably pretentous

I had a chance to see "Cloud Atlas" last night, something that was , in essence, a three hour tour of your own living room.This movie was ambitious, a delight to look at and thoroughly pretentious . The actors gave uniformly fine performances and the design of the whole enterprise had a nice feel and look, but it was long , long , long, and finally made laborious by a vague pedanticism , a lecturing quality conveyed  continually when spotlighted characters happens to have an "a ha" experience in which things are revealed give a little speech about the interconnections between people and their events, across borders, cultures, time periods, dimensions. The Wachowski siblings seem incapable of making a smart sci fi movie that doesn't lay out its alleged philosophical underpinnings in the course of already tone deaf and padded dialogue.

 They should try an experiment and adapt an Elmore Leonard novel to film, "Pagan Babies", say, or "Mr.Paradise". Leonard's crime fiction, specifically those featuring the hijinx of chatty , nitwit criminals in and around the gravel and grime of Detroit's gothic ruins, has the sort of fast thinking , cleverly arranged wording that is both memorable and compact;attuned to ironic asides rather than summary declarations of what has gone before and what the nuances should be notices on the way to a unifying theory  of bad faith. His dialogue is texture and lends complexity to the characters as they go about their mission to  gratify their baser instincts.

 Shakespeare would appreciate Leonard's skill. The Wachowski  , specifically, need to detox, finally, from the chatterboxing that were the final taste of their Matrix trilogy and bring their talent for sharp visuals in line  with writing that moves the plot and entertains while it engages.  They need source material that will slap the bullshit out of them.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

http://youtu.be/1ZSSQ1q3HiYGuitarist Allen Holdsworth first came to my attention as the lead player in the British hard rock band Tempest, which was led by drummer Jon Hiseman. The band itself was quite good, if bedeviled by inconsistent material, but Hiseman's drum work was particularly good, a combination of Mitch Mitchell and Elvin Jones, snappy and brisk. But it was Holdsworth who got and kept my attention; the guitar improvisations were a revelation, years ahead of the stylistic curb when Eddie VanHalen would suck up all the attention among guitar fanatics.

Holdsworth was a bold and exploratory soloist, blessed with a fluidity and speed that are distinct, and a technical agility to start a solo in any position, in any key, from any angle he chooses.  There is something cerebral and serene about this musicians alacrity as a improvisiational  thinker; his solos are vexing for those wanting typical whiz kid wheel spinning  offered by Malmsteen wannabes and those who want their jazz fusion players to be either witlessly conservative in the chicken scratching department, or technically impressive and impatient , as has been Al DiMeola's preferred style for decades, whether playing electric or acoustic guitar. Holdsworth is one of those artists who regards each solo as an original composition--there are beginnings, middles and ends
There , in addition to the eccentrically articulated lines he assembles odd chord voicings,  unusual mid-tones , and an ever surprising series of brilliant stretches of fleet inspiration.

Even when he was playing over the Cream-esque riffs of Tempest, Holdsworth aimed toward a jazz complexity. That side of him was amply filled during his later stints in the bands Soft Machine, Gong, Jean Luc-Ponty and The New Tony Williams Life, and especially his own series of solo efforts and collaborations. He is among the few guitarists from that period who continue to interests and intrigue me, as his combination of register-jumping speed, oft-kilter cadences and phrasing, and grandly convoluted note combinations makes me think of improvisors no less grand than Coltrane or Wayne Shorter. Yes, I think Holdsworth is that good.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Man of Steel

I have just returned from Man of Steel and find myself very happy with the results. Henry Cavill is now the definitive Superman, and MOS is now THE definitive Super Hero film. Unlike the dozens of grousing professional film critics who likely had no idea of how they wanted Kal-El to be portrayed, I was impressed with the way director Zack Snyder and writer David Goyer and co-writer/executive producer Christopher Nolan re imagined the iconic character in a way that helped us understand better how he came about his unwavering diligence to do good and his unflinching resolve to overcome adversity. There was something rather clever and subtly effective in establishing that Kal/Kent/Superman was no just different from earthlings, but also different, quite different from his fellow Kyrptonians. The dual fathering of Jor-El and Jonathon Kent made for a credible, believable result in the form of the adult Clark. The action sequences were especially brilliant, with a splendid , inspired use of CGI to convey the scope and magnitude of having a world beset upon by super powered adversaries; Snyder has a comic sensibility that is a perfect match for the ambitions of this movie.

His movies are not everyone's idea of a good time, but for the set that likes fantastic battles and Big Action sequences that concern the eternal issues of Good vs Evil, with  Elizabethan cadences or not, Snyder reveals his customary mastery of the special effects at his fingertips. It has the magnificence of the best Futurist manifesto, which claimed that the staid present must be destroyed and that we need to speed the progress of humanity with the speed, efficiency of machines. Ironic yes, as   this was the philosophy of  20th fascists who desired to bully mankind into servitude. Superman, of course, is the free thinker,t he free man,the defender of the weak against well intentioned conquistadors . Michael Shannon as General Zod was a classic villain , sufficiently complex , with a moral compass no less compelling than Superman's , although at odds, fatal odds with those of the Man of Steel

The final battle sequence, a long one, is among the most exciting action sequence I've ever seen in a super hero film. Metropolis is gloriously, grandly, royally laid to ruin by the unleashed fury of Kryptonian v Kryptonian and it is, of course, a near perfect simulation of the reader's imaginative interpretation of a battle scenario  in the traditional comic book format. Although possessing some of the gloom and desaturated seriousness from  Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, where the watch word has been " realism" from the start, Man of Steel is fantasy all the same; for all the emphasis on Superman's emotional confusion and the junior -college existentialism of his twofold "otherness"--his difference from both his native planet's traditions as well as the distinctions between he and his adopted planet--this is in a long line of science fiction and fantasy films where  grand cities are destroyed, leveled and  turned into rubble in a grand way. 

From the post WW2  nuclear nightmares of the Godzilla movies to the skyscraper decimation in the Transformer franchise, Man of Steel  adds to a  tradition of architectural destruction that I admit is one of my inexplicable guilty pleasures, originating, I think, from my love of the art of Jack Kirby, a comic book artist who's work for DC comics rival Marvel featured battle scenes among super heroes and super villains that smashed through brick and mortar on a regular basis. The shards, bricks, glass and wood that scattered through the frames of the panels he drew were captured as if  by a high speed camera; Kirby created the sensation of a great force ploughing irresistibly through strong , dense barriers.  Director Snyder comprehends the improbable physics behind what Superman and his foes  high powered hijinks and proceeds anyway to execute them. This is the Superman we've been waiting for,  muscular, commited, a guardian of the week against the bullies of the universe who will be as strong as he needs to be to make that all that stuff we take for granted or pay lip service to--truth, justice, an American Way based on fairness and consensus --survive and flourish. For the controversial end of the battle where Superman does something old schoolers insist Superman would never do, I say this: it's about time.  

Although he remains the Blue Boy Scout with his big heart and unerring sense of fair play, he is not a door mat, he is not, as we said back in my drinking days, a pussy. He is a hero who is a strong as he needs to be and who will use his moral compass to guide to him action that will truly serve the greater good, the goal of an honestly Good Fight. 

Whither the paperback?

It felt as if someone had just walked over the ground where my values now lay buried:an article in Slate asks the question whether the paperback book is becoming extinct by slow degrees. They seem to think it is, and it's publishers who would like to dispense with them altogether. 

This does raise the old , dogged, fiercely defiant nostalgia for all things bound between covers, but the story does us the service of letting us on the economic dynamic involved with the decreasing importance of soft cover books.The article belabors a point that's obvious to anyone with the slimmest knowledge of how things work in the actual world, that old technologies are replaced, quickly or slowly, by more efficient technologies. 

In this case, it's the upcoming demise of the paperback book, which has had it's once dominant marketshare eroded by ebooks. The reason is simple: ebooks cannot be resold, as opposed to paperbacks, which can be sold as used books indefinitely. Publishers want to be in the position of being able to charge readers each time they purchase an ebook. From a vendor's standpoint, eliminating the second hand market and being the only ones selling the desired merchandise at full retail is a good thing, although it sucks for the rest of us.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Costello or Waits?


Image result for tom waitsElvis Costello had a brilliant run in the Seventies through the Eighties, but started to take himself way too seriously . He strayed from his strong suits--subtle, hook-driven melodies, virtuoso word play and real passion--and became as an artist a humorless prig. What were interesting, compelling melodies became an amorphous eclecticism that often times ersatz Broadway blockbuster than music that was genuinely felt. The lyrics in turn became convoluted, drunk on their cleverness and thesis-worthy punnage, laden with serial heartache that traversed from song to song, obscurantism disguising his lack of a good idea to bring to the audience. 

In contrast, Tom Waits  has just gotten deeper, richer, stranger, more brilliant over the years--his music is a seamless mesh of styles--Brecht-Weil, delta blues , whore house jazz, world music, country, and the like--that consecutive listenings for me yield new surprises, things I didn't notice before, bits of interplay between elements that differ in origin but which come to compliment and command each other. His lyrics, as well, is the work of a man who has grown in his aging, someone for whom experience has turned into that frail thing called "wisdom", and yet also realizes he hasn't the power to prevent others from making their own mistakes and becoming embroiled in their own tragedies and celebrations. There is a resigned irony in Waits' world view. 

There is only a resume and curriculum vitae in what remains of Costello's.The songwriter  increasingly reminded of many genuinely talented students in college who lost sight of his own ideas by trying to please everyone of his professors and classmates: LOOK AT ME, I AM A MASTER OF ALL FORMS! At best this is mere professionalism; at worst it borders on nervous hackery. Waits had the benefit , I suppose, of having a small audience; he was allowed to go in directions he saw fit and seemed unconcerned with what others thought he should do. His instincts have proved sounder.Costello still writes solid songs when his best instincts are engaged, and he has done at least one album of superb songs and performances, 2002's "When I Was Cruel". This came out after he had released a series of indifferent albums, ie "The Juliet Letters", "Kojack Variety", " Mighty Like a Rose". But that was 11 years ago. 


Waits had the gift of being a genuine witness to the experience of others; it was his deft skill at not making the people in his stories heroic , iconic or otherwise an embodiment of a hackneyed liberal conceit that made his lyrics so arresting. This is what's meant by negative capability, I guess, the ability , through imagination, to transcend your own context and experience the sensations of others. His accomplishment was a rare one for a songwriter who chose to write about poor people and eccentrics; he could empathize while maintaining an aesthetic distance. It's that "distance", so to speak, that brings into the milieu.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Slate shuts down Poems section

Fitting that the last poet we consider on Slate's poetry page is William Carlos Williams, the maverick who convincingly turned the impatient cadences of American speech, a verbal style that seemed to accelerated in pace as new technologies encroached on our attention span, into a means to express experience in ways both plain and abstract.

Slate Poetry Editor and former U.S.Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's selections of poets over the years has been eclectic, daring, unexpected, nearly always provocative; not all his selections have been to my personal liking and I have, in fact, said unnecessarily harsh things questioning his taste. All that storming prose amounts to pounding the end of the bar, frustrated, irate, and smugly content to be that way. In addition to inspiring some of my better writing over the last ten years, those bits of prose that actually convey a series of ideas both fever pitched and lucid, the Slate Poems page and the attendant Fray page allowed me to pretend to be the Big Mean Critic, a self made windbag opining among his books and empty coffee cups for a readership of persons a few dozen associates and friends on the forum.

Over all, though, I respected Pinsky's dedication to not taking the easy way out in terms of his selections--rather than log roll and fill the page, week to week, with a string of poets who all write about similar topics in similar ways with similar failing , trembling voices--there are dozens of them in this country! Where do these people come from??--Pinsky challenged our conceptions with poets who often times took the form apart and rebuilt it in ways not always to our liking. These are writers who hadn't abandoned the idea, by of Pound, to "make it new" and Robert Pinsky, to his credit and our great benefit, didn't abandon the search for the voice that stood out, the voice that was unique,the voice that was legitimate.

There was much I didn't personally like among the poets he chose, but the discussions that ensued on Poems Fray, now defunct, were a perfect way to think through the issues I had with particular poets . Robert Pinsky, as well, demonstrated that his is a genuine and classy guy, willing to participate in the discussion, refusing to take a hard line in favor of adding an additional insight to a counter idea to something you've written. I am deeply sorry that Slate is discontinuing the Poems page. It has been a wonderful experience through the years.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

HOW TO READ LITERATURE by Terry  Eagleton

I've been a long time reader of Eagleton for the plain reason that he has a wonderful prose style and that , as a Marxist in the mode of Raymond Williams, he remains skeptical of using art as a springboard for philosophical speculation and insists that we have to appreciate how authors use their imaginations and techniques to elicit the subtle effects on their readership. He does not dodge the political in art, but he does insist that readers remember that literature is about the human experience and that the role of the artist is to present us with provocative narratives that place the reader in a flow of experience outside their own references.

 Eagelton, though, does go slack in making an argument about why attentive reading and an eye and ear for how a narrative succeeds or fails on the terms it establishes for itself; he is, perhaps, too much of a crank more interested in bellowing at today's kids rather than re-establishing his own reasons for bothering with a career in literary discussion. He makes an attempt to tell us why it's important to have the skills to read with a subtler mind through extensive explorations of emotional conflicts and situational tension, but he is not entirely convincing. 

There was a point in the end pages of his book "Literary Theory" where Eagleton seemed to go into a both a lament an rant about how theorizing about literature, the general examination of books as "texts" and the demonstration of how they cannot mean anything adequate to lived experience, over the finer art of criticism, genuine appreciation, when he postulated that after years of slugging it out with competing academics one--meaning himself, I believe--had to struggle what it was that made one desire to teach and dicuss literature as a career. Perhaps the author has reached that point even as he tries to reignite the passion for the studies of stories as entities in themselves, not extensions of political assumptions. I  like Harold Bloom's assertion that literature's principle benefit to the is that it helps us think about ourselves. That works for me.  Succinct and more profound than a dozen extended regrets.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mailer: self-made sociopath

As a young man banging around New York parties , the late writer Norman Mailer liked to make a big noise among the friends and strangers that he surrounded himself with and claimed, in various guises under varying excuses, that he was the best writer in the world, that no one else could write, fuck or  be more studly thatn he was. Mailer was, though, writing up a storm and was always provocative in ways that allowed him to keep getting published in magazines, newspapers and books. An existentialist of his own design, he wanted to be a man of action, eager to shake off what tethers wrapped around him and to severe the metaphorical leeches the culture laid on his brilliant soul; he was afraid, that his weenie was going soft. He picked fights with people. That was awful enough, all the drunk brawls and head butting committed as a means to distinguish himself from the herd, but he there was that moment when he was fucked up in the head with enough ego, booze and , assumedly, high-powered powders that he stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales Mailer. 

 
There's no way around this  this was an ugly, vile thing that Norman Mailer did to his second wife Adele; even those who greatly admire Mailer both as writer and keen intellect have no easy way of addressing this violent incident. One can cite mitigating circumstances, such as that Mailer was crazed on a combination of booze, pot and Benzedrine (his favorite combination during the Fifties), but there is something to be said for the idea that since Mailer had written so brilliantly about masculinity and the possibilities of violent acts to shatter old , limitations and allow an adventurous man to realize and take advantage of new possibilities (this is outlined in his problematic essay "The White Negro") ,it's plausible that Mailer , crazed with narcissism, drugs and the bohemian spirit of 50s avant garde thinking, decided that he ought to practice what he preached and attempt his own cure. There has been a lot of double talk over the 45 years since I first became interested in Mailer as to whether the writer, in fact, was acting with some sort of perverse integrity by stabbing his wife, and for me that does not cut ice. The best thing to come out of this incident was the fact that no one was killed. Mailer had remained silent , for the most part, on this incident for most of his life, although just a couple of years before he died in 2007 he admitted that he was so horrified by the assault that he could not bring himself to write about it or talk about it. He admitted that it was an vile, mendacious, evil thing he'd done. To his credit, Mailer did try to understand the nature of evil imaginatively in a series of essays, novels, and journalism, most notably in his novels "An American Dream", a fictional piece where a Maileresque hero (the celebrity Mailer) willfully gives himself over to a violent impulse and seeks to rid himself of what he considers is killing him psychically : he murders his wife, steals a Mafia Don's mistress, beats up a character intended to represent to be Miles Davis, and defies the New York City Police Department, the CIA and other sinister , secret forces. It should be mentioned that the novel's hero is constantly drunk through this escapade. It is a brilliantly written book, containing many passages of astonishing poetry and insight into mores and social relations, and I regard it as an obscene male fantasy he needed to write , an act of speculation about what would happen if the Mailer hero were unleashed onto the world.  Mailer, a big older and wizened to a degree, was likely not all that pleased with the mess this Mailerian existentialist in the course of the story.

I suspect he felt to write his next novel, "Why Are We in Vietnam", as an attempt to suggest reasons for the propensity of American males to irrational violence--it's a funny story about an Alaskan bear hunt, a reworking of "The Bear" by Faulkner, and through the characters he presents a thick layering of issues that are not resolved and which, being undiagnosed and not dealt with in any authentic way, mingle and merge and produce a tension that can only be released through violence or art. Mother issues, latent homosexuality, technology removing culture and the people in it from authentic, tactile experience with their world, a political agenda that knows only to expand and conquer with religion and natural law as bogus rationales--this is a lumpy stew of issues that make us , as a whole and individually, functionally insane and capable of nearly anything as the right provocation presents itself. "The products of America go insane" is what William Carlos Williams said, and the title of the novel, asking us why we are in Vietnam, has a simple answer: because we had to be, by our nature. This is not to let anyone off the the hook by blaming Mailer's act on environment and other extraneous details. Mailer's violence against Adele Morales was , at the heart of the matter, a conscious act. He was aware of the difference between right and wrong and he chose to do a wrong thing. Mailer, I think, is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and was deserving of the praise he has received , but he also deserves the damnation . He has written several masterpieces and over all I think his literary reputation will grow . But we need to remember all the things he did and understand, as well, that there is something unjust about a man, no matter how you admire his work, who thrives professionally after the fact.