Sunday, April 30, 2006

Sidney Bechet Deserves Better Than This

Poems evoking the names of jazz greats is one of the favorite gimmicks of writers who are stuck for an honest opening line; the mention of an improvisor's name from the early days of recorded music gives you an instant atmosphere of the old and serious sort, and gives the writer a fast entrance to the expressway of half-realized musings. Most often, as I've read them, the ploy , the name dropping does not working. Irony is still something that needs to be worked for. A seeming homage Sidney Bechet and to the ease and perfection of his playing becomes a tale of envy, a dwelling on the ideal of form of women that reveals itself to true artistic masters, becoming, in the end, a dual edge cry of resentment against better , more masculine artists able to coax the "burnt sugar" from their metaphorically female muse, and against women in general by way of a not so subtly implied extension of his thinking.Moss has some issues here, I guess, but there's nothing I can read that suggests he's working them out in an interesting way. It's one thing to be enthralled by Bechet's reed work as he improvises and whirls like Nijinsky over the band's rapid changes, and it's admirable that it inspires to write a poem in inspiration.

It's admirable, that is, if the inspired work equals and even surpasses the wonder and awe Bechet might have stirred in Moss's observer Michaelangelo.Even a nasty, power loving grouch like Pound believed that art was supposed to galvanize every creative and aspiring force in a human being and deliver him or here to a state of transcendent creativity, a higher plain of perception from which to alter the world.One may disagree whether that goal, in itself, is a plus or a minus so far as poetic intent goes, but the point is that Moss's narrator is evidently disillusioned with the whole process of art, of creating and finding new ways of seeing the world. It's implied that he feels his own work is inferior to those he isolates as untouchable geniuses, and then complicates his ambivalence further by casting a specious erotic edge to his musing; inspiration, lyricism, heightened perception were a sexualized essence from the feminine muse that it was their duty to attain through coaxing, seduction, or force. The implied picture with Moss's last few lines is as unattractive as the mood that seems to have motivated this poem:The sunrise bitch was never mine.He brought her down. In twelve bars of burnt sugar,she was his if he wanted her.This is not a poet sitting under a tree on a spring afternoon contemplating clouds and heavenly wonders; rather it's a guy at the end of the bar slugging away at beer as he broods and gets angrier about a universe of smarter men and unattainable women conspiring to make he feel like scum. It's an ugly creation here, and I'm convinced that Moss is being ironic or creating a character not himself.

This is less a poem than an outburst you wish an associate hadn't blurted. But there it is, out in the open, a snake pit exposed.I think it's simply a failed attempt at an ironic gesture. What's complicated--as opposed to complex-- about the work is stuff that's not in the work and still in Moss's head. What he manages, his protests to the side, is to write a piece that envies violence, metaphorical or otherwise, to achieve gratification. He travels periloulsy close to endorsing rape as an unspoken yet viable option for the Walter Mittys among us to use.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Boss

Where the trend had been for old rock stars to attempt to give their careers a third act with the issuing of albums wherein they croak their way The Great American Songbook, aging Blue Collar Hero Bruce Springsteen goes the other way and releases an album of old folk songs. The search for authenticity continues, and the plain-spoken Springsteen--remember when each of his lyrics was interminable operas of intemperate desire?--sings it plainly, clearly,
simply. No swelling melodies here, no subtle segues or seducing counterpoint.The new folk album, some have said, is suitable for Bruce, as he was never a great melodist anyway when he was doing the songwriting. I'm not a huge fan of The Boss--it takes too much work to reissue the same objections, and after twenty-something years of bitching and groaning, I'm willing to maintain he's done music I've liked without embarrassment.

Bruce Springsteen isn't Duke Ellington or even Burt Bacharach as a melodist, but that was never the point of his work since his sound is big, brash and in-your-face rather than, catchy, seductive or otherwise subdued with subtler chord selection. His music is equal parts rhythm and blues, Phil Spector, British Invasion and folk rock, with generous portions of Kerouac, Dylan and a wee tram of Whitman stirred into the mix. For the sort of blue-collar exhorting he does about love, death, being broke and struggling for a better future, Springsteen's melodies are exactly as they need to be; at their best, they work as well as anything a popular pop-poet has managed to do. When his work is contained and crafted, sufficiently edited, he's easily as good as Dylan as a melodist, the equal of Seger, the equal of John Lennon.I have found too much of his music overworked, grandiose and cluttered with the kind of business indicative of someone who hasn't found the central theme of what they're writing about; we see this in poets who compose at length, leaving no trace of a parse-able idea behind them, and one can witness it as well in novelists--Franzen, DF Wallace--who haven't in them to cut away the excess so the art may show. Springsteen has this problem as well, a habit of overwriting, and the effect in his longer, louder pieces tends to be a little Maileresque, circa the mid to late Sixties, where he keeps preparing to say something profound and yet the message is deferred. I prefer the punchier, grabbier, riff-based rockers he puts forth, or the terser, grainier ballads. The big band material he comes up sinks as fast as any Jethro Tull concept album has in the past. It's about songs, not the arrangements.

Springsteen singing old folk songs and protest songs interests me not in the least, although it might be a means for him to ease into the writing decent material for his next great period. Dylan landed into a profound late period, as did the Stones and certainly the quizzical Neil Young. Bruce would be a dandy addition to the grand pantheon of old guys,\ Productivity isn't, by default, a desirable trait. Talented artists can dilute their impact and lessen the esteem they've held in with the rapid issuing of mediocre, substandard or half-baked albums. Costello and Dylan are prime examples of this, although both songwriters frequently rebound with strong albums after some artistic lagging. There's an appeal for artists who aren't in a hurry to release product--I am a fan of Paul Simon's solo career (not crazy about Simon and Garfunkel music, which hasn't worn well) who has released albums at a snail's pace over the last thirty plus years; he's a careful writer, and his body of work is therefore rich with strong, moving, intelligently evolving music. His musical ideas work more often than not. The same may be said for Steely Dan, a band I've always admired for their consistent excellence for melody, production, oddball melodies and especially well-crafted lyrics. Being slow to release albums of late places Springsteen in honorable company.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Enduring Relevance of "Howl"

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.

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.

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.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Henri Cole's peachy poem

The latest Robert Pinsky offering on Slate is Henri Cole's "Eating A Peach", which made me feel as if I was undergoing a gruesome regime of aversion therapy.I read some Henri Cole a few years ago and remember that his work left a bad taste in my mouth. There's nothing I remembered specifically that put me off Cole's work, only that minor, creeping dread that goes up your spine in a chilling rush as you come across a dreadful totem. Now it comes back to me, and here we have a compression of bad habits and awful writing that lends you the momentary urge to fall back into deep, restorative sleep, or swear off sleep altogether.The problem here is tone , which is arch, Gothic, over generalizing in reach and utterly unconvincing in how the epiphanies and moral connections are unleashed. Cole writes as if he were a racing dog who has no mind or use for the residential build up to a point and instead chases after profundity mechanical rabbit from the get go.

Eating the peach, I feel like a murderer.Time and darkness mean nothing to me,moving forward and back with my white enameled teeth-and bloated tongue sating themselves on moist,pulpy flesh. When I suck at the pit that resembles a small mammal's skull, it erases all memory of trouble and strife, of loneliness and the blindings of erotic love, and of the blueprint of a world,

These are lines revealing a protagonist with Geiger Counter sensitivities who cannot so much as snack on fruit without the Ghosts of Significance wailing and carrying on and making so much racket in his head that he simple joys like fruit deserts cannot be enjoyed in themselves alone. Instead Cole's eater is beset with all sorts of confusions and conflations, feeling like a murderer but also probably not a little like a vampire and rapist as he violates "moist pulpy flesh", and considers the pit at the center of the orange as would a taxidermist, suddenly locked on a site erases the squalling mess of "erotic love" and all trace of the outer world's intricacies. There is the possibility, I suppose, that Cole intended this as a send up targeted at vegetarians and vegans with the archly phrased message that even eating fruit can involve you obsessively in the entrails of a once living thing one his consuming, but the humor, the punchline eludes me. (Which wouldn't be the first time obvious matters have eluded me). It depresses me to consider that Cole is dead serious with this poem, sober as a Mormon barn dance:

Eating the peach, I feel the long wandering, my human hand—once fin and paw reaching through and across the allegory of Eden,mud, boredom and disease, to bees, solitude and a thousand hairs of grass blowing by chill waters.

This eager wallow in vague supposition and preening dilettantes reminds me of the absurdly pretentious lyrics that decorated the album sleeves of Yes and Jethro Tull , or worse, Vandergraff Generator. Cole has managed something both unique and odious; for decades rock lyrics have been ruined as songwriters tried to sound like poets mulling over, contemplating and examining the heaviosity of existence, and now Cole returns the favor by writing bad poetry trying to sound like bad rock lyrics. Another post-modern moment, but one where there is no irony to what strands of high and low culture are being brought together and being given a gaudy coat of bright, speckled paint. Irony at least makes a point about the interpretative baggage one carries with them and demonstrates, through incident, the crucial information that intellection and systematic thinking donÂ’t alter the course of things.Cole's invention is absent any form, exists in  arenas that are liberated from a concern as to how one wants to sound when serious matters are discussed. Each trick and gizmo is used to make the unspectacular seem resolutely violent, dramatic, decisive. The endless renderings of metaphor riven reality wearies the imagination, exhausts all patience. It is too much foreplay. No one should have a life so persistently dramatic, nor should another have to read such over ripe accounting of clouded perception.Cole gives us the physical details and tactile elements that I would normally insist are crucial for a poet if he or she is to wander off into the language of near-philosophy and the attending subsets, but there is more to it, which is an ear, a sense of shape, a sense of proportion. This piece is an over stuffed suitcase, and our poet couldn't decide what to leave out, reasoning, perhaps that each little clause between commas, each writerly riff or pun on death and the food chain might come in handy should a smart remark be needed in his daily wallow in ersatz angst and tubercular tedium. He could have whittled this down to a sharp, pointed perception, a chiseled image and a powerful, understated idea, or he could have gone at greater length, perhaps fashioning a language and rhythm that would accommodate his Gothic metaphysics and save them from their current pomp. As is, he hasn't a poem but rather a humorless, droning groan of self-importance.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Smartest Typist at the New York Times

Michiko Kakutani

Michiko Kakutani, who is celebrating twenty five years as the chief book reviewer for the New York Times this month, is a wonder of wonders, a case of the spectacularly uninteresting being rewarded for their chronically undernourished opinions with celebrity and, we assume , more pay. A shame that talent has little to do with the prominence of the most visible reviewer on the paper, as she reviews books like the smartest kid for a junior college bi-weekly student newspaper, which is to say that her insights, her scorn, her depth of field would be amazing for an eighteen year old in any decade.

This, of course, sets up those who continue to read her to have expectations that she will someday come into her own and develop the qualities one desires in a critic--real passion, a lively, unstrained prose style reflective of a personality that wants to talk to you, and, if it's not asking too much, insights, conclusions and judgements that break away from the cliches and tropes that often, too often pass for commentary. This blossoming is not forthcoming for Kakutani, who remains an extremely ordinary reviewer of other people's work. She does not sound as if she cares about the books she's tasked with giving an opinion on, and there is mechanical movement to her columns, a method she's seemingly developed in order to dispatch her obligations as soon as possible.Pauline Kael cared about the movies she wrote about, and though she faltered toward career's end with messy pronouncements and idol worship, at her best she convinced you that movies were importand and had you talking about the issues she's raised. Kakutani just makes you wonder again and again how any reviewer could make reading books or writing reviews about them seem like such a joyless way to spend one's time.

Saturday, April 8, 2006

The Gospel According to the Son

The Gospel According to the Son
a novel by Norman Mailer
(Random House Trade Paperbacks)
Norman Mailer has had a radical trajectory through the course of his career, and now, at age 75 with fifty years as a professional writer behind him, a summary collection is the fashion, and The Time of Our Time is the door stopper through which posterity should judge either his ascension, or decline in our literary Olympus. It's amazing, actually, how Mailer has controlled the course of criticism of his work, as he did with "Advertisements for Myself" and later with the Prisoner of Sex, both books through which his aesthetics were linked with a peculiarly Maileresque cosmology.There is much to argue with in The Prisoner of Sex, and though I'm in sympathy with the aims of the women's' movement, I cheer Mailers' defense of the artists right to use their sexuality and sense of the sensual world as proper fodder for poetic expression. What makes the book important is precisely the fact that Mailer felt there was a need for a man to stand up and have a word against and about the rising tide of Feminist theory; while many male writers were too confused, adrift in daydreams of irony or bottled up rage, and while the academy was surrendering its arms without a shot being fired, Mailer spoke up and wrote that there was a profound and important difference between the sexes, and that while social justice must and will prevail regarding the rights of women in the work place and overall social sphere, one cannot maintain, straight faced, that the only difference between the sexes has to do with genitalia.

There are times when Mailer- the- mystic clogs up an otherwise lacerating argument, where his romanticism veers dangerously towards a lunatics hallucinations, but his defense of Miller, Lawrence and Genet against the clumsier moments of Millet's' original critique in "Sexual Politics" is literary criticism at its most emphatic. "Prisoner of Sex" is, I'm afraid, incoherent at times, but there are long passages of rich knock-out prose that demonstrate why Mailer is thought by many to be one of the premiere stylists of the times, and if nothing else, his lyrical defense of D.H.Lawrence is worth the purchase by itself. One might despise Mailer and his philosophy, but a critic was still trapped discussing the work through the author's obsessions. And that is the mark of brilliance, Mailer could get is readers to talk about things he wanted to speak to, because his language is strangely persuasive, at his high point, even as it addresses the dark and obscene corners of the imagination, and the baser instincts of American power.
The Time of Our Time again makes us consider his entire career through Mailer's filter, and understandably, it can be aggravating for someone expecting an easy in to the body of work. But it gives us the rewards, with generous selections form his best work, Naked and the Dead, Armies of the Night, Executioner's Song, An American Dream--and like wise long excerpts from slighter efforts, like "Gospel According to the Son" and his recent Picasso biography. What there is an impressive reach over the five decades that he's been in the public eye, an early brashness turning into a combative and provocative brilliance that at times trips over it's own eloquence that later turned into thoughtful, epic scale story telling through which the previous ego centric prose vanished behind the tragedy writ in the Gary Gilmore saga.

It's difficult not to be impressed with the range of Mailer's topics, in fiction, journalism, and essays! --World War 2 in the Pacific, Moon Landings, Black power, Women's Rights, Hunting, Reichian sexuality, the failure of Marxism, The Kennedy Assassination, Ancient Egypt, masculinity and American Literature, the dread of Modern architecture, the real meaning of the right wing, Boxing--and while Mailer at times seems breathless and throat clearing in his writing, that he's spreading a style too thin to cover the feeling that he's , for the moment, is bereft of anything interesting to say, you note the way he changes tact, changes styles, and ushers in another period of solid books that stand as his strongest. The Time of Our Time provides an over long reflection of a career that has been victim of the author's proclaimed desire to be the champ of his generation, but it also gives us a chance to appreciate a brilliant talent that found expression in spite of Mailer's the self-annihilating quirks. Controversial, problematic, self-absorbed, but quintessentially American, and one of the best witnesses we could have had for the second half of the century

Had Norman Mailer written "The Gospel According to the Son" forty years ago, in the middle of a decade endlessly divided against itself, we would have a very different novel. Jesus, our narrator here, probably would have been another Maileresque hero, like Rojack in "An American Dream" or DJ in "Why Are We in Viet Nam?", a marauding, secret voice driven White Negro Hipster, committing miracles in hot, violent frenzies, a visionary on the verge of beholding the clarifying image , yet at the sacrifice of his sanity. It might have been that Mailer's obsessions and theories would have followed him into this book like a stray dog he couldn't lose and made the story as ungainly and problematic as the most congested pages of D.H. Lawrence. Unlike Lawrence, though, Mailer lived long enough to get over the brash brilliance of younger days and brace himself for a longer march. "The Gospel According to the Son", has Jesus writing his own story from a place somehow outside history, neither heaven nor hell, for the purpose of modestly correcting the gospels of his scribes Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.

The writers, this Jesus insists, have buttressed the saga in order to enlarge their fold, and declares "What is for me to tell remains neither a simple story nor without surprise, but it is true, at least to all that I recall." The same may be said for Mailer's tact in writing the story. Unlike page bombs like "Harlot's Ghost "or "Oswald's Tale", both of whose considerable merits are had after long, sluggish pages , "Gospel"is brief, a succinct 242 pages, with language that's spare and almost miserly in the use of verb and adjective.

The minimalism succeeds , as it gives the narrating Messiah a credible voice, and underscores a genius that's little discussed even by Mailer's defenders, his mastery of first person singular. As in other novels, specifically in the characters of Rojack in the heady "An American Dream", or, closer to the new book, Marilyn Monroe in the guise of her private diary "Of Women and their Elegance, *we have a character whose voice is divided against itself. One, there's the aspect of a young and skilled carpenter coming to knowledge that he is the Messiah and touched with duty that's beyond himself, but there's the human trait as well that and dreads, not wholly sure of the mission.

This Jesus at times occasions doubts of the reasons and effectiveness of his instructions, wonders often if God's voice might actually that of Satan's speaking too sweetly in his ear, or if he really is a madman as some call him. We are even introduced to the notion of that God Himself is not all powerful as the gospels exclaimed, but finite, as Jesus feels depleted of His power after days of performing miracles in the Temples. Credibly, there is even doubt from the weary Jesus about the wisdom of dispensing miracles at all, as the razzle - dazzle of Christ as serial healer proves a growing distraction from the teachings. Humans remain humans and concern themselves more with material comfort instead of the care of their souls, and our Jesus finds himself loathing the whole activity .This dualism is easier discussed as theological precept than it is conveyed as motivating literary action, but Mailer controls his pen with a sure hand. The spare and exacting cadences of the narrator's tone is matter-of-fact and achieves a kind of lean poetry. Both the glory of God in Heaven, and the dry, brittle facts of an earthly plain are addressed as facts of equal consequence. Because Mailer's intention is literary instead of heretical, we have a believable past that is convincingly made of hard soil upon which miracles are being dispensed.

The character of Judas is brought out splendidly in a crucial dialogue between himself and the reticent Savior. An anti -Roman agitator desiring the liberation of the Jews, Judas announces that he does not believe that Jesus can lead any people through the gates of Heaven, and that he follows Jesus solely for the political potential to galvanize a movement to toss off the Roman yoke and force them from their land. He declares he will be loyal only so long as Jesus embodies that potential . In turn, Christ responds to Judas' entreaties that he can only tend to the spiritual needs of his people, charged by his Father to bring Man back to the practice of a living faith. The opposing declarations set into motion the mechanism of an inevitable betrayal by Judas that will ironically fulfill Jesus' divine and quixotic purpose on earth.

It is written in the gospels, and repeated in Mailer's novel, that God so loved the world that He gave his only son for it's redemption. The fleeting, spectral essence of love has been a major subject of Mailer's other fiction, especially in how obsessive quests for getting and giving love become wrapped, distorted and demolished in struggles for power and influence. Mailer has investigated how these rudely combined energies result in self-made disasters through which his past heroes and heroine - -Rojack in "American Dream", Tim Madden in "Tough Guys Don't Dance" ,and yes, Marilyn in "Of Women and Their Elegance" need to trust the expanded authority of their senses and earn for themselves a personal philosophy they can live with and, presumably, die for.

"The Gospel According to the Son" brings this wide current in Mailer's novels to the forefront and enlarges it vividly, and ironically, in the briefest book he's written in years. This book, finally, is about the hardest love of all, a quality of love that forces anyone to consider again if they have any capacity to be Christ -like. Mailer's superb telling of the story convinces that there's nothing heavenly in being in the slightest way divine.

Friday, April 7, 2006


I was saddened to hear about the passing of singer Gene Pitney, dead of "natural causes" the day after he'd given a concert in Cardiff. Fittingly, he received a standing ovation, and this comes with the old saw that he "died with his boots on." Timing is everything, I realize, and it's a kind thing that God in His wisdom allowed Pitney to finish the performance; better to leave an audience stunned with news of an unexpected death than traumatized with a witness to a singer's last tortured high notes.
Tortured high notes were precisely what Pitney's music were about, observable in the operatic, compressed, grandiose and florid teen angst songs he sang with a voice that could start out low, smooth, slightly scratchy with restraint, and then in the sudden turn in tempo and a light flourish of horns or sweeping , storm-bringing violins, slide up the banister to the next landing and again defy gravity to the yet the next level as he his voice climbed in register, piercing the heart with melodrama and perfect pitch as the most banal love stories became the raging of simultaneous tempests. It was corny on the face of it, but Pitney had the voice and he had the songs to pull it off and make records that still have that stirring hard hitting effect; "Town Without Pity", "It Hurts To Be In Love", "Twenty Four Hours to Tulsa", "I'm Gonna Be Strong", and an substantial string of other hits he had ( 16 top twenty hits between 1961 through 1968) took the tear jerker to the next level. As mentioned by someone the other day in the British press commemorating his music, his tunes weren't love songs, they were suicide notes. Pitney's multi-octave sobbing qualified as Johnny Ray turning into the Hulk wherein the sadder he was made,
the stronger his voice became. All this was enough for me to buy his records in the early Sixties when I was just making my way to developing my own tastes in musicians and their sounds.
Most of the early stuff I liked--The Four Seasons, Peter Paul and Mary--I dismiss as charming indulgences of a young boy who hadn't yet become a snob, but Pitney? I kept a soft spot for his recordings in my heart, and defended him in recent years when those verbal battles about musical tastes found his name impugned in my presence. The Prince of Perfect Pitch deserves respect for turning the roiling moodiness of teenage love into
sublime expressions of virtuoso emotionalism.

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

The Unfortunates by Cates Marvin

"The Unfortunates" by poet Cates Marvin, is a sad tale of sensitive people who are overwhelmed by life's cruel tricks to make them feel bad and keep them awake at nights contemplating what is horrible, ugly and unfortunate in the cities they live in. It is not to my liking , mostly because the poet, Cates Marvin, tries to find some equal ground between herself (and those she presumes to speak for) and the homeless she espies who's misery gives her the jitters and attending guilt feelings, to which I say no dice. These steamy, cold streets are the mean ones better writers than Marvin, or myself have walked down before, and they've managed to absorb the seaminess and squalor of their life and, depressed or no, didn't obsess on their frayed nerves. Their anxiety wasn't the subject matter, but an entree to another topic. Marvin sticks with the frayed nerves, and that makes the poem a chore to read even once.It's a straining, over stocked equation; after spending the first stanza presenting the pathetic detailing the doings of the sad creatures he pities in ways that make them sound exotic, alien and strange, the second stanza smacks us across the face with slippery buckets of self-reflection in which Marvin, or the poet's stand in, waxes and whines on how this saps the vitality, makes the soul sink, and essentially turns sleep into a rehearsal for death:

Those hours we haggle,
wondering when the sincerity of sky's blue
will arrive, how come nobody's bothered to
repair the loose latch on the front gate, and
what kinds of eyes melancholy lovers have.

There is enough baloney here to make a hundred Salvation Army sandwiches. And for his sleep, one wonders why she doesn't buy ear plugs and a new mattress.Fragile poets are nothing new to verse and one ought not condemn them outright for their confessions of bad serves and upset equilibriums, but Marvin is neither Eliot nor Plath nor John Berryman , all three of whom could do more with their depressed witness to harsh facts and resulting sets of despair with remarkable self-reflection; the result was an honest poetry of personal exploration, and none of them, I recall, used the facts of poverty or squalor as a pretext to wallow in the kind of makeshift misery Marvin has concocted. It helps us to remember that Samuel Beckett's plays, novels and poems were about those situations that have sapped us of our will to live creatively and makes a continued life of drudgery unthinkable to bear and yet we do, getting up each day to face the same repetitious humiliations not from any courage to stay the course but because, more plainly, less gloriously, much more banally we cannot think of anything more interesting to do with our days. From this Beckett gives us great comedy and creates a language of men that is more animal instinct than discourse; he digs within the sour mood of dread and drudgery and reveals sentences as loud and fragmented and repeated at odd intervals to kill what small spark of truth still rests in us, dormant. Beckett , unlike Marvin, reveals nothing other than antics and absurdity, the rituals and recititations of
characters keeping themselves distracted against a yawning chasm. Marvin can't stop talking about it and her feelings, and this quality, this yakkity yak she provides us does nothing to make you care or make you stay interested in the struggle.

The heavy intent of subject matter makes her lines lead-footed, with some comically awful alliteration.",,malice moves like mice.." is noteworthy not for evoking states of depression and ennui, but rather of old cartoons where the mice come out their hiding places after the lights are out and throw one hell of a party). It's not a good fit at all, and somehow I'm dubious to Marvin's intent with the poem. The message is less about economic injustice than it is Marvin's feelings of powerlessness, which is fine in itself, but powerlessness per se should not result in this kind of static, powerless writing.

Monday, April 3, 2006

Philip Levine's Free Radicals

It would be one thing for Philip Levine to write a comic narrative about his college days and his hanging with nominally radical friends and eccentric cohorts, but you think the novel or the short story is the superior form for what he's trying to do here. His poem,"Our Reds", gets nothing is done that is worth mulling over longer than it takes to send email. This reads like notes and character sketches for longer work where the real writing takes place.

Let us bless the three wild Reds
of our school days. Bless how easily
Gaunt Vallejo would lose control,
the blood rushing to his depleted face
while his mistress in a torn trench coat
stroked his padded shoulders to calm him.
We'll call him Vallejo after the poet
only because he vaulted into speech
in such a headlong rush. (In truth
his name was Slovakian.) We'll call
her Lupino after the film star
because she was more beautiful
in memory than in fact, her cheeks
drawn over fine bones, her hair
tumbling down from under the beret,
hair we loved and called "dirty blond."

This is a not a poem, but a pitch for a movie script that hasn't been written yet; you can nearly hear the index cards sliding one over the other.   

Levine should have rethought his premise--a group of friends bored to death during a college lecture--and may be conceived this as a dialog piece, the sort that William Gaddis would have done in his novel JR, or Elmore Leonard in any one of his choice Detroit crime novels. Fellow Detroiter Levine has the material here, and I could imagine the absurdist four-way dialog between the exasperated professor and precocious radical undergraduates in a cavernous lecture hall on the Wayne State Campus; it needn't be along piece, requiring an ear tuned for human speech, and an eye for the spare, telling detail.

The poem fails because it strives to be a condensed and potent summary, fast and punch like vivid recollection itself, but it winds up being merely crammed. This is too many items for a suitcase this size, an imbalance that negates the intended pleasure this reading was meant to induce. Rushed is the word I would use where others might say "breathless"; Levine's writing here sounds like he's rattling off a schedule of things he wants a receptionist to get done while he's hurrying out of his office, one arm in a coat sleeve. It would seem he was trying his hand at an Albert Goldbarth ramble and rant, without the crucial talent to keep the string interesting to the reader; in Goldbarth's poetry, it is the process and commentary that is the point, not the final argument. Many poets try their hand at this style, and very few are anywhere as interesting as he is. Levine isn't one of them, not in this instance.

It's a sure bet that Levine meant the lecture sequence to be comic, bad as it came off, and the sudden sentimentality in the last stanza is abrupt and unprovoked. The mock-blessing of the names, their deeds, and their personalities as they separated and cast their fates to the wind seems nothing more than a disguised exit sign over a door leading you out of a poem that doesn't work from the first sentence. Ken Kesey has a great short story called "The Day Superman Died", a fictional recreation of his friendship with Jack Cassidy. It's an incredible story, funny, sharp, bouncing with lively writing, spirited conversation and engaging weirdness when, at the end of the story, Kesey goes soft and drifts into a long coda that invokes the names of fifties writers and artists and comes as nothing more than a sorry, nostalgic cry for a return to innocence. Innocence cannot be regained, of course, and is a permanently rich subject for writers to wrestle with, but not at the expense of crucifying their good art for the sake of cheap sob over a brooding beer.

Would that Levine brought Aristotle into play in the poem. Hard to do, yes, but not impossible. Levine's problem is that he tells more than he shows, and the telling isn't that interesting. It has the vague nagging of a droning voice at the end of phone conversation you don't want to have. Mention of philosophical forbearers here--Aristotle, Hegel, et al--are window dressing. Subtle manipulation of their ideas through movement might have made this compelling, but the references just sit there. Like unread books, or unused barbells. The comic element is here, and of course one can make a case that the poem lampoons, or tries to lampoon each generation of would-be radicals and avant-gardists, but the success for this kind of work is in the delivery. Timing is everything, and timing acknowledges and makes use the skewed rhythms of human speech, especially speech that's improvised when there is a disruption the normal give- and- take of comfortable, banal banter. It's Levine's voice that does this piece in for me; his narrator is mirthless and does not seem to understand pacing or a punch line's religious reward if done right. He's not Woody Allen.