Friday, September 27, 2013

The Rooster King

Jay  Hopler's poem The Rooster King seems at first like a paean to the good sport of  chicken righting, but one detects an increasing exaggeration of the terms until a certain falseness of claim is exposed.In the early lines one is attracted to the cocksure bravado of Hopler's language and quickly appreciates the parody of athletic boasting and promotion that has long made professional sports just a much a matter of running one's mouth as it is with the combined assets of agility, speed, instinct and determination. One might imagine this as an old forties Warner Brothers barn yard cartoon featuring a caricature of Muhammad Ali strutting around in the background amid the rain barrels and the hens while a Don King lookalike flaps his wings (if not his gums) about the legend and good graces of his man rooster, The Rooster King.


Hopler seems to have absorbed his Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon, as well as the more recent waxing about boxers by the late Norman Mailer and Joyce Carole Oates, as his writing has a high, cultivated lift to it's boasting, the myth making that wants to convert something that is merely a few suppressed coughs from being mere thuggery and criminal enterprise into a tale of heroism, reaching the implied conclusion that some poor, hapless soul--or rooster--has had their character in the fires of tribulation and has made their brute aggression and ability to ignore pain into an art.

Like a cut throat and doesn't


………………………………….............Bleed. And when he bleeds,
He bleeds whiskey—Fighting Cock: 103-proof Kentucky Straight
Bourbon—the light of the world.
The light of the world:

Ruined. Magnificent; ferocious, gorgeous—
So what? You think he's afraid of fire? He wasn't born; he was forged.
He's the napalm love letter, the sweetheart
Carpet bomb, the 1967 Pontiac

With a straight-6, single-barrel
Boot in the face. No ram unto
The shackle, this bantam assassin, his death-red hackles flaring like a funeral pyre.

He's the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Wound 'round with barbed wire, the crucified
Christ tattooed on the back of a contract killer.
It's argued that the poem is a play on the sufferings of Jesus, but Hopler's intentions are grittier, I think. The pain and suffering of Christ on the cross is a plausible scenario, but Hopler is intends a narrower reference, I think. The gospel accounts of his death are not all that reliable as accurate historical record, with the elaborations of his story purposefully elevating the tale to a sanctified mythology that demands that we regard Christ as a man of destiny fated with enacting an absurdly convoluted Plan to make humankind worthy of God's love. All things considered, I suspect the actual Jesus had as much choice as anyone else had when confronted with a situation as to flee from danger or face his accusers. The boxing analogy is more apt, I think, and even a gladiator comparison is a closer fit to the level of metaphor Hopler is successfully attempting. Roosters, being animals with only instinct to push their actions, have no choice but to battle; boxers, the poor men who try to make a living with their fists in some vague hope of achieving , have no choice but to battle because brawn was their only resource. What I read Hopler as doing is deconstructing the layers of heroic mythic association on the idea of brutal spectacle being somehow honorable and necessary for the social and political cohesion of the populace by applying the meme to an absurd example, a battling rooster. For all the fanfare the pitchman can muster, it never eludes us , not for a second, that what he's extolling is a bloody, awful event. The attempt to graft a grand narrative to the cock fighting exposes the lie of battling skill and that more often than not the results are determined not with skill or guile or flashes of pugnacious brilliance, but rather with raw, unforgiving, unyielding. He  who is bigger, stronger, faster wins the fracas.

Hopler does a sweet balancing act here between heaping on the hyperbole and maintaining a straight face as he ramps the praise and the qualifications meant to soften the audience's perception of the frenzied, gouging agony before them. Each stab, peck, talon rip and snap is valorized, connected by association to great battles, hero's funerals, the spirit of invention that forges raw steel into classic automobiles; the declarations become precarious and unsustainable if questioned an iota. One only turns up the volume of the pitchman's incantation and seeks to enter into the illusion that the banal bit of fatal sport betting is a History in the Making. Hopler understands, it seems, the vanity the pitchman is speaking to.The rhetoric, though, isn't for the nominally honored Rooster King, nor does it have anything to do with the skills or extraordinary qualities the toast master makes claim for; rather, the tale telling and accumulating myth making are for the audience's sake, a sales pitch voiced in such a way that it dually obscures the meanness of the activity and creates the illusion that the creature is there , prepared for combat, by some manner of free choice. It's a rhetorical zone that is impermeable to logic, and it is a banter that is kept up without pause , to concoct a dramatic narrative over the bare facts of the situation--that these birds, and the analogous boxers they're standing in for, have no choice in whether they fight or not. Whether through the repetitive causation of murderous behavior modification, or the grim forces of economic survival, the fighting ,the killing has nothing to do with glory, legend or principles: the goal is for one of the combatants to not ring the arena alive.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The sky is falling again!

Mary Beth Williams of Salon is fretting about fashions based on gangsta rap imagery are being marketed to white people. People at Salon like to  sweat the chump change that comes our way.

At this late date I doubt that it's required that a soft-boiled culture critic inform white people that they are not "straight outta Compton." It seems that the issue of wiggerism , the appropriation  of hip hop style by white teens in an effort to gather unto themselves a vestige of an elusive and ephemeral "hipness" and unearned street cred has been made discussed and mocked incessantly; it is a dead issue, I think.

There is a long, long, long history of  white America stealing the art and culture of black America, a problematic dynamic that reveals the underlying disorder of racism that the diminishing ruling class cannot let go of , but as well has energized and continues to energize popular culture to the degree that a certain kind of bi-cultural transcendence happens, in the art that results if not in the righteous reconciliation of the races. 

This issue, though, has less to do with racism than it does with the exploitation of a marketable style;  surely no one who has witnessed hip hop/rap/rhythm and blues venture from the margins of alternative culture, the street level experimentalist of urban life and enter the mainstream in full embrace of the corporations and consumes cannot b be shocked or offended, really, by the fact that the symbols of black  art wind up on fashion designs aimed for a privileged white audience, a demographic with money to spend on the latest pricy artifact of what used to be provocative.

 It's not about race or racism , it's about buying into an image that is manufactured and arranged to attract the naive, the gullible, the young, the willfully stupid. It's about getting paid. That's all.

Proud of being a hipster: One bearded, indie-rock-loving, contrarian-article-writing man’s story.

Proud of being a hipster: One bearded, indie-rock-loving, contrarian-article-writing man’s story.:

Writer Luke O'Neill  has authored a thoroughly pointless patch of self-regard for Slate declaring himself a hipster and defending the word and the stance against the general derision it gets from a mass-culture that has reached the saturation point with all things hip, whether  people, places or things. Norman Mailer's essay on Hip. "The White Negro", had the benefit of being stylishly lugubrious ; it was an essay written enough that intellectuals and pop-culture junkies are still debating , in some fashion, ideas that would have been dismissed in  heartbeat had they been presented by a lesser talent.

 Mailer brought gravitas to the concept of hip,  linked it to existentialism and zen, defined the zeitgeist which gave birth to it, started a conversation that remains vital. Mailer might have been a jerk and wrong headed, but he could argue his foolishness brilliantly. O'Neill , in effect, is defending his right to be a consumer, a customer at what is left of the Counter Culture, and he defends his right to take on the attitude his material preferences suggest they have. While I do believe there are genuinely hip folks in the world--the reader is left to define what they're idea of Hip needs to be, and what set of habits are  required to be a hipster--those I regard in that vague category seem unaware that they , in fact, the embodiment of something genuine , whether it's talent or personality. O'Neill's selling point attempts to make an irritating manner into a presence that suggests authority, a perverse sense of being superior:

" The single most defining trait of hipsters is our allegiance to irony, we're told. And it's true, because I don't even know if I believe any of the stuff I just wrote. It seemed like it might sound cool at the time and I thought by sharing it people would notice me and I'd end up feeling, albeit briefly, less lonely. If that's not hipster, then I don't know what is."
This underscores my contempt for the faux-hip running amuck and aimless , without purpose or intent in the culture, no intent other than to consume and indulge.  The "allegiance to irony"  is a further debasement of a venerable modernist literary device and is usurped to justify a  generation's inability to commit to solid principles and ethical conduct, or even create coherent values by which their doings do more for the community than earn a profit for the corporations  and they banks  earning  interest plus on purchases consumer hipsters make so they may  decorate their flimsy, contrived alternative.  O'Neill is not yet aware of the chain that shackles to the wall of the cave he lives in.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Franzen is right about Twitter

Hush up, Franzen! Don’t blame Twitter for shallowness - Salon.com:

 The article goes on at length to make an obvious point that should only take a paragraph or two to explain, that nearly every communication technology  has had harsh critics who concocted various scenarios of the end of all that is decent and civil. It does not, though, offer up credible suggestions as to how Twitter, in itself, has improved anything; the evidence , anecdotal perhaps, it that it has allowed more people to indulge in their worst behaviors. The social sphere, such as it is, has become a more crowded, more vulgar, ruder place for the introduction of cell phones and texting. Franzen, hardly one of my favorite writers--he is an incessant worry wart who's prose is elongated neuroses with pretensions to elegance--but on this matter he and other critics happen to be right. 
The comedian Louis CK by referring to a credible, recent past, before cell phones and instant messaging when civilized people learned to how to be alone--millions of us managed to make our way through the day being, at various times, alone with our thoughts, sans distractions. We may not have liked the alone time, but there was a sense of being able to talk to people directly when you needed to, using social skills that reflected a social personality, or lack of it.We are now pulverized by the fear of being alone for even a few minutes--we have to check our status updates, we have to make some kind of noise that others can hear, we have to rattle the proverbial tin cup agains the bars of our our own under  interior prisons. 

The point is that you were able to handily shift from a silent, interior existence to one that was fully engaged in the public eye without worrying if you're going to cause a car wreck in the transition. The pathetic fact of our urban existence is that none of us can escape the sense that the real world has been turned into a  voice mail --talking to people is frustrating because everyone is on the phone and we must wait our turn and , when our turn arrives at last, we rush our sentences, we compress our points, we speak in semi literate half thoughts    because we sense the dread phone will ring again and cut off the conversation before anything useful, either socially or psychically, gets said at all.  True, true, the technology isn't going away and that it is a matter of getting used to a new way for the culture to communicate its collective expression, sublime, middle brow or moronic, but that is not a good thing and yes, future devices , codes and technology will , in effect, make these protests seem shrill and silly. 

That does not undermine the criticism, though; the coarsening of how we treat one another continues. It seems to me that what we do is what any person would do who is too lazy to fix a whole in their living room wall--after awhile you get used to it  being there and after awhile longer to convince yourself it was an ethical, aesthetical, philosophical choice you made. It's a mind fuck , is what it is. It's merely settling for a degraded quality of life.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Louise Bogan burns down the barn

Women by Louise Bogan : The Poetry Foundation:
I was glad to hear Louise Bogan remark that ‘Women” was written when she was in her twenties and revealed what , she infers, are a not-unusual bitterness of an intelligent young women feeling frustrated, restricted, defined and contained by her gender. Reading the poem , and listening to the audio kindly provided, it was a relief knowing in advance that her views of her own sex “had improved”. What Bogan provides is a sure and slashing blade of metaphor against women in general, for their willingness to participate in their own oppression.
“Women have no wilderness in them,
They are provident instead,
Content in the tight hot cell of their hearts
To eat dusty bread. … ”
This is as an acute damnation as I’ve read, wickedly sharp, delivered in a masterfully sure stroke; there is an anger here that has sharpened her swing, The spare, cleanly delivered lines and uncluttered imagery reflect an irritation that has been mulled over and considered, pros and cons measured, the complaint reduced to a neatly consolidated statement to which response is difficult. Women have no fields in them, no inner sense of the world outside them, nor a curiosity of the lives that are outside their sphere of self reference and gratification.
 They are, rather, provident, little else but skeletal abstractions of consciousness unto which the ideas of others, by implication the doings of men of industry, political where with all and sexual domination , are grafted upon, seeded upon, constantly turned over as the musings and distractions of Masters change at the slightest whim. Bogan’s judgement is severe and short sighted as to the extent women allow men to define , contain and direct their lives, but this is an account of someone who , though perhaps too close to the contentiously emotional heart of the issue has, ironically, learned her lesson from the Master Hemingway, delivering with relish a superbly honed rhetoric that condemns a self-induced stultification of her gender. Rather than take the plough and make use of the field for their own desires and pursuits, she finds her sisters
“They wait, when they should turn to journeys,
They stiffen, when they should bend.
They use against themselves that benevolence
To which no man is friend.
They cannot think of so many crops to a field
Or of clean wood cleft by an axe.
Their love is an eager meaningless…”
They wait for the muse not to come them, like their own idea, hunch or inspiration, but instead to be given to them, like school uniforms and a script to follow . They are consumed with fear, the fear of a loss of security and someone else’s idea of their worth, creating a collective anxiety that converts the collective anger about the oppression into self – hatred, self-debasement. The poet sees this clearly and what Bogan does is present images that imply nothing else but a serial sacrifice of personal ambition, desire, and potential . 
The inner life of women , this poem, is barren, there is no wilderness to conquer and define in one’s own image, women exist merely as an adjunct quirk of the collective male psychology, a means to gratifying an odious male end. Bogan’s poem, years after the heat and convulsions of the blended Civil Rights movements–blacks, women, gays–has subsided and whose goals and values have lodged, to a degree at least, in the mainstream of the culture, this poem remains a potent polemic. It is political without didacticism, it is philosophical without abstraction. It has a direct language that finds profundity in the absence of profound sounding words. It is a poem of near-perfect craft. This is not craft at the sacrifice of emotional power, though; the ire has the sting of a bad memory as the narrator announces her grievances about the seductive fallacy of women making themselves lesser than men.I was just entertaining the idea of adding more to my post here , emphasing that what Bogan has done is create craftsmanship without sacrificing the heart of the matter, her heart, her feelings. I find the poem wholly convincing as felt experience; the resentment is palpable.

 So many poems, particularly those of the New Formalists , are flawless in their structure and technique but lacking in emotional resonance or even give any idea that the poet knew what it was he or she wanted to talk about. The points in that kind of poetic origami are minor at best, outlines of an experience other wise sacrificed on the altar of technique. Bogan does not vanish from the poem, her voice is there–I would that her speech in the poem, her cadence, is that of someone who , while angry, wants to make a declaration that is clear, articulate, and understood, in a spare language that is accurate. It is fire that continues to burn and still ignites passion, debates, discomfort in the reader, from then to the current day. Her accomplishment is that her craft turned into her irritation into an accurate diagnosis that has not lost its relevance. That is not an easy thing to get across.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 was a clogged up, fidgety, ejaculating bit of huffing that more or less reflects director Shane Black's film work so far, the principle examples being the homicidal idiocy that was (and remains) Lethal Weapon, as we the  painfully self-aware, winking-at-the-audience faux noir effort Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Black seems to content on being a hip Michael Bay, or an idiot's version of Quentin Tarantino. 
Tellingly, lead actor Robert Downey Jr seems distracted through out the affair, listless even; fitting for a movie about a super hero who depends on what is essentially a robot suit to fight improbable villains and moronically conceived threats to the world (or at least New York City, given that this is a Marvel property), Downey clicks into default selection of mannerisms, vocal inflections and registers and spastic body language. To be sure, the action sequences and the special effects are nicely rendered and deployed, but this leads us into the realm of "so what", by which I mean that it is harder to admire films for technical competence in genre required scenes--in this case, further destruction of urban landscape. All the sequences look good , the way motel room "looks good" or elevator music "sounds pretty". 
For the rest, Iron Man 3 managed to be nerve-rattling erratic and tedious at the same time, as in someone suggested, it seems, that they try for some of that Chris Nolan "darkness" the worked effectively in his Dark Knight trilogy; we have a Tony Stark who appears beset by Billionaire's Angst, the worst kind you can get, where in he seems to realize that nothing he can build or spend money on will give him peace of mind or happiness. Interestingly, one of Iron Man's most problematic villains, The Mandarin, is the looming threat in this movie as Stark/ Iron Man tries to quip his way out of his encroaching depression; created in the early Sixties, the Mandarin is a villain that collects all the stereotypes of nasty, slant-eyed Asian geniuses who have plans to enslave the West. 
In the film he is portrayed by Ben Kingsly, the Asian characteristics are smoothed out of his appearance--you really cannot tell what nationality, religion or culture the movie Mandarin represents--and align him vaguely with Bin Ladin and other terrorists who have historically complicated death wishes for The West. At this point we might have had an interesting, complicated villain to contend with, an evil man who's nastiness has a nuanced rationale. This didn't happen. In keeping with a movie that keeps your attention jerking from action scenes that are as senseless as Battle Bots being played with by meth heads in steel storage container and scenes that are dime store pathos, lugubrious and reeking like a man who's waited to long to take a bathroom break, the true nature and meaning of the Mandarin is revealed in a way that tells you that time and money were getting tight as a carnie's lips wrapped around a Marlboro 100.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Bitch slapping talent

I agree that talent that does not "risk" something in the expression --the poet , above all else to be interesting and intriguing to a inquiring reader, must have the nerve to risk failure and have, as well, a casual attitude to the possibility that he or she might wind up being embarrassed--gives us mere professionalism. 

But too often the creed is risk for its own sake with a contemptuous dismissal of the idea of "talent" as being a cruel hoax perpetrated by a long running gang of conservative, homophobic, racist, anti-woman punks; I understand and generally agree with the critique, but somewhere along the lines what used to be considered "risk taking" turned into another gathering of stylistics which has woefully influenced a couple of generations of writers.

I seem to remember that genuine risk takers , whether Burroughs, Artaud, Beckett, Joyce,Ginsberg, Stein, Joyce, had solid foundations in tradition ; they had a knowledge of what they were transgressing, taking apart and reassembling. They had that thing one calls "an ear" for the language they loved enough to master as writers and loved enough to goad it to forms that sharpened our collective wits with it in mind to see the world in new ways and so change it to something closer to truth. Criticism, of course, judges how well these writers and others succeed or lapse in the long run of their careers. History is not always kind: Kerouac was tone deaf, puffed up and pretentious in his rants, Ginsberg when from being genuinely inspired by visions and the legacy of Blake and Whitman and the Bible and became, in time, a mere self-chronicler, while Burrough's perversions, distortions, realignments and genre-jumping fictions remain lively, fresh, funny and sinister, the definition of the Edge so many of us want to flirt with.


My point is that talent and risk, ie , experimentation, need to be reconnected in a meaningful way that can , perhaps, spare us from another generation of too -easily published poets who seem little more than children banging on pianos that have had the keys removed.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, reviewed. - Slate Magazine

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, reviewed. - Slate Magazine:

'This is of great interest, as The Other Most Important American Novelist, Thomas Pynchon, has added his comic paranoid spin to the 9-11 attack. Bleeding Edge, reviewed by  Slate writer Troy Patterson in a a prose style that is ,well , ejaculative, sounds like a dense, comic masterpiece in a minor key. Powerful historical forces interest Pynchon greatly, but no more than does small things that get caught  up in the galvanizing events of change.

Patterson's best phrase about Pynchon's fiction-- V, Gravity's Rainbow, Crying of Lot 49,--is the presentation of history as farce; while Invisible Forces and conspiracies unconscious of their own existence gather, mingle , galvanize and alter the fates of nation, Pynchon concentrates on the regular Joes and Jessicas in the streets, in the cafes, at their workaday jobs, trying to make do and contend with their own comparatively picayune disasters and passions. Whatever grand , destructive, epoch changing things that take place outside the doors of where they live or work are merely the contents of a weather report--rain, snow, earthquake, V2 raid or terrorist attack, everyone adapts their plans and coping techniques and continues as they need to, as they must. 

Don DeLillo,  the writer who shares with Pynchon my Most Important American Novelist assignation, wrote his 9-11 novel, Fallen Man, which seemed, sorry to say, a bit tired; the mixture of odd, random elements from the culture , as translated by television and internet, contrasted , continually against a cast of emotionally neutered characters trying to reconstruct their sense of  autonomy following the horrible events, does not convey the implied irony DeLillo has a master at . 

Loss as been a larger part of DeLillo's writing, the center of his magnificent poetic style, but following the sustained genius of  his masterpiece Underworld--the secret history of the second half of the American Century-- the further extrapolation of the subject on an event of such horrific violence that what is inexpressible eludes DeLillo, who is usually a man who can create a sense of  moods that otherwise defy language to  contain their essence.

 Short as it is, Fallen Man plodded with heavy feet. Pynchon, from the sound of Patterson's review, makes it sound as if the reclusive author contained and converted the energy  of  the hysterical response and decided to laugh, the joke being that despite the blows to our lives, our cities, our metaphysics of order and purpose and our rational attempts to reconcile horror against Grand Designs and Great Agendas, life, being life, goes on, it goes on. Pynchon finds the fact that the smartest among us don't get this and the activities we create in response to disaster is , at heart, a comedy. I look forward to reading this.