Thursday, April 16, 2015

notes on Jack Spicer

Ron Silliman commemorated the 9/11 anniversary on his blog yesterday with a gruesome photograph of ground zero with two poems by Jack Spicer superimposed over the carnage. It understandably caused a minor tempest among a few readers who thought we'd had enough fetishism over the attack , and that it was a use of Spicer's work the late poet might not have approved of. I thought it fine and appropriate; Spicer equated God with a Big Radio, and seemed taken with the idea of a poet's inspiration being transmissions from far off places, old voices of dead poets in turn who find their metaphors turned into apt descriptions of current circumstances.

By the time the hidden essence, the secret nuance of what a poet was talking about catches with a culture's experience, their original intent, while interesting, is not relevant as to how their words make our lives comprehensible, even if only on a visceral level. You could argue that the correlative intimations older poems have on the range of contemporary events is coincidental irony, but there is a saturation point when the lines, intended for what's implied , hushed and only vaguely graspable on specific subject matter, become instead the needed at-hand phrases that get the ideas that elude you when tragedies or windfalls of good fortune intervene on the come-and-go.


The poet loses control of what his poet is supposed to mean as history adds associations to the syntactical skin. Spicer, I suspect, might well object to the use, but there is a savage bluntness about poets and their varied attempts to find a greater resonance from the obscenity of violence that resonates loudly with what we're remembering today. What Spicer intended is a moot point, and in this instance, inconsequential. Today was the day everything changed, as they overused phrase went, and that meant everyone had to take a hard look at who they were, who they said they were, and why that mattered in the face of such insane destruction. Spicer, not the least, likely would have considered long and hard; there is the notion that what you've said in a situation you want to clarify gets repeated against seemingly opposing backgrounds. The voices from out of the air, from the radio of memory, are triggered by extraordinary events that transform our regualar which, after all, are not static in any sense. Silliman's collage is an inspired combination of histories; they are no longer mutually exclusive. 

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I am just finishing the “must read” poetry volume of the year, My Vocabulary Did this To Me, an anticipated republication of the poems by the late Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, and I have to admit that Spicer’s writing has me momentarily forgetting my prejudice against poems about poetry and poets and allowing myself to be knocked by the author’s third-rail wit. A singular figure who didn't fit in well with the Beats, the New York School, nor the San Francisco Renaissance, Spicer’s poems were a set of marginalia at the edges of the principle discussion as to what poetry was and ought to be, and as becomes clear as we read, his counter assertions, his asides, his declarations had more self contained clarity and vision than much of the stuff he looked askance at.

Interrogation of received notions was his on going theme, and ‘though the practice of making literary practice the unifying metaphor in a body of work tends to seal off poetry from an readership that could benefit from a skewed viewpoint—unlocking a door only to find another locked door, or a brick wall, ceases to be amusing once one begins to read poets for things other than status—Spicer rather positions the whole profession and the art as an item among a range of other activities individuals take on to make their daily life cohere with a faint purpose they might feel welling inside them. Spicer, in matters of money, sexuality, poetry, religion zeros on the neatly paired arrangements our language system indexes our hairiest ideas with and sniffs a rat when the description opts for the easily deployed adjectives, similes and conclusions that make the hours go faster.



Thing Language
By Jack Spicer

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Nothing.
It
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.


There is reservedly antagonistic undercurrent to Spicer’s work, the subtle and ironic derision of the language arts that, as he sees them practiced, is locked up in matters of petty matters of status, property, the ownership of ideas, the expansion of respective egos that mistake their basic cleverness for genius. The world, the external and physical realm that one cannot know but only describe with terms that continually need to be resuscitated, is, as we know, something else altogether that hasn’t the need for elaborate vocabularies that compare Nature and Reality with everything a poet can get his or her hands on. What this proves, Spicer thinks (it seems to me, in any event) is that we know nothing of the material we try to distill in verse; even our language is parted out from other dialogues.

The Sporting Life
By Jack Spicer


The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios
don't develop scar-tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a
transistor, which most souls are, the battery or diagram
burns out replacable or not replacable, but not like that
punchdrunk fighter in a bar. The poet
Takes too many messages. The right to the ear that floored him
in New Jersey. The right to say that he stood six rounds with
a champion.
Then they sell beer or go on sporting commissions, or, if the
scar tissue is too heavy, demonstrate in a bar where the
invisible champions might not have hit him. Too many of
them.
The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
counterpunching radio.
And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even
know they are champions.

Spicer is an interesting poet on several levels, all of them deep and rich with deposits that reward an earnest dig. He is , I think, on a par with Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams with the interest in grilling the elaborative infrastructure of how we draw or are drawn to specialized conclusions with the use of metaphor, and it is to his particular brilliance as a lyric poet, comparable to Frank O’Hara (a poet Spicer declared he didn’t care for, with O’Hara thinking much the same in kind) that the contradictions, competing desires and unexpected conundrums of investigating one’s verbal stream are made comprehensible to the senses, a joy to the ear. No one, really no one wrote as distinctly as the long obscure Spicer did, and editors Gizzi, Killian and publisher Wesleyan Press are to be thanked for restoring a major American voice to our shared canon. 

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ack Spicer was an odd and inspired contrarian in place during the San Francisco Renaissance, who conceived poetry as "dictation" of a sort. He had gone so far as to refer to the poet as a "radio", a living device able to intercept transmissions from an other wise invisible world of sharper, bolder, more original combinations of sound, rhythm, form. This is a unique way of insisting, again, that the artist is the "antenna of the race", and there is room enough in his thought to wonder if he considered the poet the one in particular who could touch Plato's Ideal Forms, or if thought he had te ability to peak behind the curtain to espy the furniture of Stevens' Supreme Fiction. Spicer was a troubled man, though, an alcoholic, someone at odds with the poetry community he lived in, but he was a serious, sometimes brilliant poet who could calm his erudition and gives us a poetry of propositions, what ifs, things thornier and much less sweet than the soft candy a few dozen celebrity poets win awards for. Here's a a fine poem, a brief lyric essay considering the likeness of some unlike things.

Book Of Music

by Jack Spicer

Coming at an end, the lovers
Are exhausted like two swimmers. Where
Did it end? There is no telling. No love is
Like an ocean with the dizzy procession of the waves' boundaries
From which two can emerge exhausted, nor long goodbye
Like death.
Coming at an end. Rather, I would say, like a length
Of coiled rope
Which does not disguise in the final twists of its lengths
Its endings.
But, you will say, we loved
And some parts of us loved
And the rest of us will remain
Two persons. Yes,
Poetry ends like a rope.


A cynic's view, perhaps, where the picture that's painted first has the gasping awe of young love, perfect, endless like a circle, the world itself, and later, destroyed, cut at the vital moment of greatest vulnerability, merely a thick string that starts at one end and merely ends, absent glory or beauty, at another. Even after the twists and turns of the thing itself--love, the foiled circle--to restore itself in reactionary spasams, things just end, and rapture and passion are replaced by bitter memory, a bitterness that gives way to a mellowed skepticism, if one is lucky to live long enough to be a witness their own foolish expectations of people, places, things, and especially the foolishness one might have said about poetry in whatever earnest declarations one uttered in classrooms, dorm rooms, cafes where the intelligent and underpaid gathered for a cheap drink and company.


What is artistry?

Artistry begins when you forget your own ideas about what art is and what art making is and find yourself fully engaged in a moment of absolute creation, when everything you know how to do intellectually, technically and can access at command just come to you as easily as taking a breath; it happens  seamlessly. It's more than remember the advice that you cannot let the audience see you sweat and become aware of  rattled nerves and possible indecision, it is forgetting that you are nervous and full of self-doubt at all and taking the fabled Kierkegaardian Leap Of Faith, that jump over the abyss of self-sabotage and knowing that whatever the consequences are better than another minute of wallowing in the rut we've had furnished and moved into. Artistry, to trade further in cliches, is that existential moment where one discovers not the meaning of life over all but rather meaning to their life specifically by an ethically bound commitment to creativity.

Ideas join with other notions and create a dialectic that creates something new in the synthesis, and then again. Artistry is that moment when the mastery of a medium,whether music, visual art, writing, is not just a manner of "going to work" or being a professional at what you do but rather a state of being that comes when you're fortunate enough to ignore the advice, the nagging,the criticism of doubters, cynics and the habitually grumpy and bring into the world some thing unique, fresh, exciting to behold. 

This means as well that you're able to transform your own base short comings, your character short comings; artistry is that process where we have a chance through art making to for a period create a testament of what we'd like to become, better, more balanced, fairer, kinder, free of bitterness and the mentality that the best of what's been said and written and built in history and instead exist in the present tense and seeing hearing things in the world that are other wise invisible and anonymous. Artistry is the amnesia that follows the hard learning and practice and dues paying and is an entry into the dimension of true transcendence. Artistry is that essence where even the most arrogant of technically adroit craftsmen and craftswomen are flabbergasted and humbled by what they've created with their minds,their hands, their willingness to forget themselves for a period and be touched by something greater than themselves.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Genius arising from limitation



Artistry is only incidentally related to sheer technical virtuosity; technique is merely the formalized and acquired skills of how to do some particular thing. Talent, on the other hand, is what you do with the technique you've worked hard and long to attain, IE, create art. Artistry , it seems to my thinking, is one having mastery over the chops they do have and having the ability to exploit those elements in expressions that continue to surprise over time.

Dylan was not an especially impressive guitarist, harmonica player and was, in many ways, highly affected as a lyricist, but there was a manner in which he brought those things together and created something , a way of writing songs, that achieved singular stature. What he had brought together by dint of his influences from folk, blues, and literature and the non-virtuoso elements of his musicianship brought something into the popular mind that had not been there before.

Others are able to step away from their highly regarded technique and move toward more primitive sorts of expression, as in the case of Picasso , who through his experiments with Cubist perspective and inspired emulation of types of African sculpture, among other things, he was instrumental in changing the way art is viewed and discussed. Importantly, artistry , in its most intense and purest form, free of current fashion and critical perspective, changes the conversation.

Coltrane advanced further into rapid, technically demanding improvisation and left us with long solos that stand nearly by themselves as independent art works while Miles Davis reduced the number of notes in his solos and geared his compositions and arrangements toward sparer, more modal means and changed the course of music internationally for decades to come. Artistry is not just knowing how, it's knowing what you want to do at the moment the idea hits and having the means to execute those notions.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The heart loves what the heart loves


Over on a discussion board dedicated to the subject of Modern Blues Harmonica a member posted a well worn topic as to whether white people have the right to play the music of black people, aka The Blues. It's well worn and has been discussed , but it is not worn  out by any means , given that even to this day Americans don't know how to discuss race relations and agree on the seemingly simple principle of Liberty and Justice for All. Touchy subject here, but I would say the issue whether white people have a right comes down to this: perhaps not, due to a long history of white racism that foisted slavery, genocide, discrimination and abject poverty upon black people. Blues was created as an expression of the experience of subjugated African Americans. 


BUT, and this a big one, how are you going to stop those white musicians who've loved the blues as they were growing up, who were moved by the power of the music to pick up instruments and learn from the records they heard? People love what they love and will do what they need to do to have that person/place/thing/art form in their lives because any of those elements (in this case, the music of the blues) is a right fit for an individual's personal experience, regardless of race. 


Declarations and nuanced moral arguments to the extent that white people as a whole have forsaken the right to play a music that moves them greatly because the power structure in place and the institutions that enforce its will and traditions have brutally oppressed black people as a whole does not prevent white musicians from picking up a guitar or a harmonica or a saxophone and playing songs by black blues masters or from creating their own music, reflecting their own experience , strength and hope. The heart wants what the heart wants, and I am grateful that the likes of Butterfield, Mayall, Clapton, Bloomfield preferred to engage the music they loved by playing it and not treating it like it were a museum piece they were not worthy of touching. Things in museums are dead things, and the blues is a living testament to human resilience. 



It is a form of speaking truth to power; the need to do so is not ethnically exclusive. Music writer J.Marks, in a book he wrote called "Rock and Other Four Letter Words" had at least one useful remark, to the effect that while America has been/is a country where the races segregate themselves by choice or other reasons, but even in that isolation from one another , our musics still mingle together and transform and change and grow and create new ways of expressing the mood, the art, the temper and tempo of the current situation. Right, it seems, has nothing to do with it. People are going to play what they feel like playing regardless of who created it. That is the nature of human beings, which is the nature of art making itself.

Friday, April 3, 2015

About Steve Kowit

Wednesday was April 1st, known to us all as April Fools Day. It's the same day that commences the start of National Poetry Month, a four week span selected because of the famous T.S.Eliot line from "The Waste Land" that "...April is the cruelest month..." Thursday, April 2nd was the day Steve Kowit , a great poet, a genuinely principled moralist , a quick witted spirit of irrepressible good humor and no one's fool by any means, died.The irony of how a day dedicated to practical jokes, a poetry commemorative month selected for a line written by a reactionary, racist ,dour by nonetheless brilliant  poet ,and the passing of one of the most jubilant poets and exuberant  personalities collided he way they did is inescapable, I suppose. But rather than inspect and interpret too closely I think it more better, more appropriate, more useful to remember Steve Kowit as a man of many gifts, interests, passions, commitments, from his own work in which he superbly fused the vernacular of street rhythm with the careful and skillfully off-center ear of a jazz improviser, his genius as a teacher where he combined that rarest thing, honest and helpful criticism intended to make a poet a better writer. As a writer , he was loquacious who favored long lines, unexpected examples of what he was talking, odd turns of thought and colorful phrase making and high octane similes; for all is love of  chatter, though, there was cultivation, a genius for getting to the point in the seemingly effortless rhythm of a musician as he ad- libbed fine musical phrases and elegant filigrees over either the most accelerated or most relaxed of tempos. He made what he did sound simple , easy to do, but as any with a love of music and perhaps has even achieved a level of fluidity of on an instrument, the aspect of effortlessness comes with practice, practice, practice. To that end, Steve was always practicing his craft, poetry, always honing his chops. I had always thought of Steve's poems as perhaps the best example of someone achieving the effect of someone musing out loud, thinking out loud, taking a topic sentence, a chance remark about something he had saw, heard, seen, and taking us through the dancing and delicately spun perorations   of  his thought as he came finally to rest, halt, at that place where there is a pause and Steve takes a deep breath and reveals how his experience of the world was altered by the event, the conversation, the book, the thing he heard or saw and thought remarkable.

 Remark he did, and for me he was the most intimate of poets, a writer for whom there is someone being addressed, spoken to, confided in.  Even if it were merely a matter of  Steve loving the sound of his own writing being resounded with the city cadences of his speaking voice, there was still the feeling that he was someone talking to you from across the table or leaning in closer to add an insight or a joke or some confidence that were for your ears alone. But for all the seeming effortlessness of  making it seem as though he was talking seamlessly and without boundaries, off the cuff and unbound, Steve's writing did not, in large part, drift or wander lost in abstraction or confused association. In his workshops and the countless readings he'd given  and in personal conversation, Steve talked about craft, rewriting, honing each poem until it was the most perfect expression it could be. Steve was constantly rewriting poems and would often times introduce his poems as ones that he'd been working on for months, even years. All this sounded incredible to me, a poet who was of the habit to write fast and perhaps do some minor tweaking ; at first glance all that revising seemed contrary to spontaneous expression. Later, I realize why there are so many many poems that are so good. That feeling of effortlessness in his poems was the result of hard work. Steve loved poetry too much to put his least worthy efforts into the public conversation. 

Steve was a great champion of other poets, he had an unfailing interests in others, he was the man we needed to have around at those times when others spoke in code and euphemism and fuzzy equivocation, Steve spoke his mind and cut to the chase. He spoke his own truth, as the saying goes these days, and after a pause, the conversation would begin again, invigorated by Steve's skill at pulling the covers off those things --racism, exploitation, sexual inequality, militarism--that were obscured by babble and can. He taught his students to read a great variety of poets, to learn a great many techniques honed by tradition, to expand their notion of what poems can speak to, and to find within the styles assimilated and the techniques mastered one's own voice as a writer who may then tackle subject with wit, originality, honesty, and great beauty.


One could,of course, argue with Steve about his passionate arguments against deliberately difficult poems and what he considered the worst habits of late literary modernism--I adore my Eliot, cherish my Ashbery,  I am invigorated by the rigor of Silliman, Armantrout and Perelman-- but Steve made his case with the same sort of lyricism he brought to his poems. It was a matter of course with Steve that he felt that beauty was the expression of experience in ways that did not obscure the event and the memory; neither theory nor sentimentality would interfere with the sweet language he used to present the travails and noise and major and minor frustrations of existence. Steve's best writing, which was prodigious, was about love, justice, lust, philosophical ironies that reduced , for the moment, the insurmountable hackery of what life in the city throws at  you.Clarity of expression was Steve Kowit's genius--as wild as his poems became, as beautifully strung out as they could get on a metaphor or a pile up of "then-what-happened?" that had the makings of an especially hirsute  shaggy dog story, Steve was in control of his instrument. He hated obscurantism and overly literary self-referencing and insisted, demanded that poetry be about the writer's engagement with the world he or she lived in, worked in, made love in, laughed and cried in, and not be a receptacle of meditations on its own form. In conversation with him when I attended a workshop he conducted at San Diego State in the early eighties, I recall saying that he wasn't opposed to abstraction in poetry all together, but that he opposed to the sort of writing that lay there, thick and more or less dormant, daring the reader to make sense of tangled syntax, private jokes and artlessly inserted intrusions from areas that offer more murk, not clarity. Poems either created the passion within the reader to think harder and deeper into the experience of their lives, or the poets failed in their Poetry was about the ear, not the foot note, not the end note. Poets needed to be in the world perfecting their craft, not in the study writing obscurities being shared with only other obscure poets. Steve Kowit seemed like a force of nature and even now it's difficult to imagine a world with out him.


I can still hear his voice each time we met, I can still see him smiling, leaning in close, asking me if I was still "dry" , even twenty five years since my last drink. I can still hear him telling me to proofread my poems and prose better. I can still remember him telling to put a volume of my own work together and , for the love of God, send stuff out to the publishers. Life is rewarded by the energy one puts into it. "Live" is a verb,after all, and Steve's message to anyone was to for those of us with things they want to do to get out there and live a little, take a stand, start a love affair, write a poem for your parents, get a job you actually like. Good things come if you work for them.  My glancing friendship with Steve Kowit was one of the best things in my years as a San Diego poet.