Thursday, August 31, 2006

Blood on the Tracks was second rate Dylan

Joel Rosen of Slate gives the new Dylan album favorable hits all the expected marks when he declares Modern Times to his best album since Blood on the Tracks, which implies clearly that he thinks Dylan has been producing crap during most of that thirty-one years. I find it ironic that thirty-one years ago I reviewed Blood for the San Diego Reader and gave it a bad review. My grievances were Dylan's straying from the kind of blues-informed surrealism that typified what I still think is his best period--Another Side of Bob Dylan through John Wesley Harding-- in favor of a more conversational, chattier, looser, more cliche bound lyric style that cast Dylan's persona as a wandering stranger. Our hero would go from town to town, from job to job, meeting interesting men, having affairs with alluring, cryptic women, and then would be off again after some minor incident, some unsaid faux pau, walking up the road, sticking his thumb out, the sun setting, the lights of the next town in the next state glowing over the hillside, dreaming up vague strands of philosophy to assuage an even vaguer heartache he was feeling. He was Joe Christmas always intersecting with Lana Grove in some desolate, anonymous America, an angle interesting enough to work once or twice, but this was a field that was over tilled. It sounded constructed and contrived to me at the time, toned up on the energy and ramped up on the bullshit, and to this day I'm of the opinion that Dylan is a miserable storyteller and someone who has a difficult time creating narrators with a personality that don't seem to be recreation of how he spends his weeks. But I've softened my position considerably and now find much that I was too impatient to appreciate all those decades ago, and yet I can't bring myself around to say that it's one of his best albums. It isn't. My review ventured the guess that Dylan had run out of things to say, and had lost his knack for saying the obvious in interesting language and locutions--Paul Simon and John Updike could show him something in that regard--but he maintains his need to talk, to write, to prate continually as if the production of songs, albums, and tours in his late career were another shoring brick in is reputation and a hedge against death. There are a couple of stacks of meandering and mumbled music between Blood on the Tracks and Modern Times, and truthfully I think it's only within the last decade that Dylan has gotten his mojo back. Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft are strong music from an artist who's persona finally fits the gathered texture of his years. There is finally things he has to say before he offers his last guitar strum, and I suspect Modern Times will only add to what seems like a long and robust third act in this remarkable man's life.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Curtains for Christo

Christo is a ridiculous celebrity who has managed to make a famous and assumedly profitable living repeating the same trite idea, in this case a matter of convincing townships, city governments, government bureaucrats to grant him permits and permissions, and donors to give him sufficient funding so that he may wrap another building in massive amounts of swaddling cloth, or hang a Leviathan laundry line across an expanse of inaccessible space. Okay, we get it, you introduce one aesthetic element into an area where we wouldn't have expected to run into it , thereby creating something of a framing device which decontexualizes the familiar and forces us to reconsider our relationship with the spaces we inhabit, the spaces we pass through, the spaces we create where there were no space before.

It's a not a new idea, and scale does make the make the project any more important, let alone profound, nor does it make Christo and his cult seem any smarter, except one does admire the craft with which they manage to get usually positive press and use an accumulated reputation to marginalize critics (or just plain non-experts) who might wonder aloud how one succeeds in getting paid for engineering these philistine notions of art in public places. For the Gates, you suspect he and co-worker Jean-Claude were inspired while shopping for bath mats and shower curtains.

The fact that there is a line of them, going along a path doesn't diminish the out-scaled tackiness of Christo's singular idea; we have in our midst the equivalent of the bad joke teller who repeats a punch line not once but three times in the course of a stop-and-go round of small talk, with the wan and waning hope that someone might chime in with feverish paragraphs to explain the punchline, to create context and criteria, to invent terms from whole cloth (appropriate analogy) , couched in vague and mysterious use, that have the sound of authority in defending the failed attempt at humor, but lacks something in the area of a tangible , comprehensible idea that gives us a spark and makes us say aha!.

It seems unlikely that Christo and co will have as many defenders and contexualizers and exploiters of invisible success at their side with this effort; he is simply too old to get away with this stuff anymore. What he ought to consider is a marketing himself as a celebrity spokesperson for Tide, or Cheer, or some such miracle whitener; it would be a chance for him to admit that he's a hack in a way that's more artful than the work he's managed over the last dozen years. Metaphorically, it would a chance for him to come clean on his deal.

The ephemeral essence of Christo's applications of swaddling cloth can't hide his bankrupt aesthetic. Christo's body of work consist of one idea, and what's obvious is that it's the application of a gimmick, a trademark rather than an investigation of problematized proximities. There's more than a hint of the Dada gesture in the projects , but there comes a point where "Oh wow" is replaced by "So what?"

Nearly every artist who wants to commit public art gives a variation of this apology for what they've foisted on public space, and in fact this sounds like an echo of my paraphrase above for same such explications. Fine as the reasoning might be, you really can't escape the fact that large scale works are oftentimes only measurements of ego , not intellect nor talent. Had Christo done things with more variation in his life as a celebrity avant gardist, he might not be producing yawns.Art in public places is no less subject to criticism and value judgement than that safely on the walls of museums and galleries. There are public works that succeed brilliantly, like this from Picasso , in Chicago. Why and how they work are issues for larger discussion, but we in these famous cases we have the work of painters translating their visual notions from canvas to three dimensional space,working with materials they were not accustomed to. The spirit of surprise exists in these pieces, and it's both are in situations where one may indeed scratch their and wonder productively about their relationship to the community sphere. Christo is oblivious to such a real inquiry, and you're stuck with the idea that he was eager to clear off his drawing board and get the piece erected and ocumented in order to fatten up his portfolio. Where The Gates
went up seems unimportant

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Time for Robert Pinsky to Pack His Tent

Robert Pinsky is a good if unspectacular poet, and acquited himself as well as anyone could have in his tenure as U.S.Poet Laureate, but there is an accumulating since among those who read Slate magazine's poetry section and discussion board that the man has outlived his usefulness. The selections he makes are maddening, half-hashed, and phony as the bulge in a castrati's leotard. His current choice, Jill McDonough's"December 12, 1884: George Cooke", from a series of sonnets she's been writing drawn from actual events in American history, has only one good virtue going for it; it spared me the purchase of the book.

This reads as if it were a combination of dry facts from a history book blended with a student's marginalia. Scissors, paste and yellow highlighter are all over this assemblage, which indeed seems more assembled than composed. There is a punchline McDonough wants to land on, an example of Fate's anonymous wit, but there is not enough here to make us, meaning me, the reader, care enough to interpret the poem so that it becomes whole and coherent. It would be easy enough to dwell on issues such as how a sensationalist media twists historical fact into personality driven events and fictionalizes the record with romantic constructions in the interest of selling papers, but that would be too much weight to lay upon such a slight and underfed piece of writing. Such speculation would be more than the critic's invention than the author's intent.The mistake was to approach this set of information as a poem, as this is a clear case where an unambiguous prose format would have achieved what resonance McDonough wanted to have us experience; prose seems better suited for such terseness. I'm thinking of Ernest Hemingway, who's masterly avoidance of qualifiers still provides a powerful kick, particularly his short story collection In Our Time is a masterpiece of what wasn't included in the telling. The italicized sketches between the longer stories are what McDonough should pay attention to, as they show how only a few facts conveyed in a paucity of words can still pull at your heart the way she wanted with "George Cooke" .

What do with Pinsky. Nothing ,truthfully, since it is the Washington Post that must decide whether they think they are getting the most bang for their cultural buck.The truth is that Pinsky does precious little for Slate other than select a poem for the week.Such is not a labor intensive activity,speaking from my own experience. What's gallling isn't just the log-rolling that goes on with the poets selected for the week--former students, colleagues, the like-- but it's the non-existent interaction Pinsky has with the readers. It would be one thing if he were to write a commentary each week about the poem and provide with some idea what appealed to him.

His remarks would most likely give Fraysters informed points of departure. He doesn't, though, and there's an inescapable feeling that he's getting a paycheck from Slate accounts on the basis of being a former Poet Laureate.

His Washington Post column is slight as it is and could use more heft and controversy in what it declares; he could at least give us the other portion of his half-measures in a column writ especially for Slate. If Christopher Hitchens can meet weekly filing deadlines for a half dozen publications, Pinsky should be able to manage an extra four brief paragraphs a week so it doesn't seem as if we're all getting rooked.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Ellen Wehle and the Art of Not Getting It Right

Ellen Wehle's poem "Augury" , printed in Salon in July of 2003 and which I came across last night surfing through that magazine archive of previously published, is a wonder, a poem about memory that achieves the epic without the expected drag of self-dramatization.There is none of the photographic exactness of detail that makes me think that there is fiction being passed off as truthful episodes; poetry is in large part fiction, I think, but poets (like myself) are reticent to admit that not every line we write is directly autobiographical. If it were so, we would have reams of duller poems, dreary and inane; there would be no art. Art is artifice, after all, and there is no good reason to equate artifice with lack of honest effort or glorious intent. But I like about Wehle's poem is the realism here, the way she gets at the moment when memory fails and details and context dissolve into dust. This is the art of not getting it right.This is a small and minor poem as I read it, but I like it fine, and think there's something honorable in the way Wehle left her undefined problem (her ennui, soul sickness, and terminal boredom) unresolved.

The language is mythic in the rhetoric it assumes, obvious in the choice of "fortune teller" or in sections that literally drip and ooze poetic flourishes, as in
": gabled night, the secret trees
spilling darkness around streetlights, blown roses
singing hosannas over a fence."

What makes the poem interesting, though, is that the world itself, the one the poet is actually walking through, does not really yield anything, become more profound, nor offers the slightest clue to a deeper, life-sustaining argument for all the beautiful used to describe the activity as it unfolds; this poem has the jammed-up literary haste of a restless mind that is certainly too self aware as it goes through the simple activities of executing the banal obligations of daily life.

The mind describes details in literary language, and yet the banal remains banal, ordinary and unreconstructed in spite the epic attempts at metaphorical largeness.
"Don't get me wrong, nothing was solved." is what Wehle writes in the middle of the poem and from there we see it all come apart after that meticulously scripted first stanza. This is a poem that is contrary to Wallace Stevens's notion of poetry being the intuitive and elevated means to get to the Supreme Fiction that lies behind the mere descriptive alacrity of words.

Wallace had a notion that art and life become unified in such a way that the barriers, intellectual and basely instinctual, that separate the primal and the abstract vanishes, disappears, and is gone as perception is heightened and we see the world we are born into as an entirely new place.

Implicit in that is the notion that to see the world differently is to also make it possible to make the world new and revolutionary.
Wehle, in this verse, can't make use of this mythic ability to penetrate into the secret heart of things; her malaise, her situation remains the same, though festooned with the garlands of intense description. The moment of the narrator's admission in the single line middle stanza marks the poem's wonderful disintegration. The language becomes choppy, monosyllabic.

Attempts to re-ignite the dramatic language turn into exhausted mumbles. I actually get the feeling that this a poem Wehle started in good faith and then soured on by the middle, and allowed the poem to gag on its failure to remain grand and dynamic in a field crowded with exclamatory poets and their noisy, incantatory verse. "

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Smearing Johnny Cash

Pop music critic Jody Rosen writes in Slate that as if no one realized that Johnny Cash was really in Show Business and that it's his mission to point it out. Such is the strain of producing weekly columns where some little-discussed
"issue" or controversy with an iconic musician has to be brought to our attention and addressed with varying degrees of make believe alarm.

We've had a snippy, chatty, snarky little stretch recently by David Yaffe about Bob Dylan's interest in Alicia Keyes in particular and strong black women in general, leaving out the salient point that Dylan and the objects of his affection are, we assume, consenting adults engaged in attractions that have harmed no one, nor resulted in theft, destruction of property, or anyone being arrested. Yet Yaffe brought us a "scoop" every other news outlet overlooked or ignored, and his analysis of this decades long habit showed us ...exactly what? Only that Yaffe managed to get Dylan and Keyes mentioned in the same headline on the sheerest of reasons , and presented an outline of Dylan's career that was virtually pointless and dull. That's a hard trick, considering the subject.

Rosen on whether Cash's late recordings amount to cheese rests on the teetering premise that a musician cannot be a Celebrity and an Artist as well; citing hi jinks with The Monkees (or reciting corny poems with shlockmeister Rod McKuen) are things that come with the territory, and it ought not surprise anyone that Cash's best work , which is impressive and large , obscures the admittedly cheesier tasks done in the name of show business.

Comparing the marketing of Cash to the bloated, grandiose and drunken belligerent tough guyism
of late Sinatra misses everything you can name, whether it's the bus, the boat,or the point, if there was one to begin with.The examples presented are anything but cheesy; what's remarkable is the restraint in framing a taciturn icon's accumulating reputation as Great American Musician.

All work simply and effectively with qualities, virtues and image Cash has always had all these decades, variations on The Man In Black and the ongoing themes of sin, redemption, honor and the lack of it.Decorated and posed and framed and lit just so, yes, but the effect is classy by it's lack of baroque excess. Sinatra's presentation of self in his declining years, let us say, was a continual "fuck you" of self assertion (to use Robert Christgau's line) through which he took pride in his fuck ups, his infidelities, his crudeness, his dalliance with Mafia goons and brushed them off with the maudlin bathos of "My Way". Sinatra's reputation of being one of America's greatest pop singers, ever, takes on a foul stench that won't abate, like a dumpster in the back of a food market.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Jesus loves a good bashing

Because I didn't think my sins were interesting enough, being anemic , venal transgressions on the more minor points of God's limitless conditions of existence under His grace, I used to make stuff up when I went to confession because I was unclear on what confession was, didn't want to reveal the impure thoughts coursing through my twelve year old, and because I thought the whole idea of going into a black box with a man in a black dress creeped me out.

I was creeped even more hearing him breath through the screen, deep, grating rasps of a man who smoked and drank hard, amber alcohol. I was sorting through my contrived sins , trying to remember how many times I had done each imagined offense and attempting to calculate as well the penance I might receive (there was an element of trying to get a "high score") when I heard the priest mutter under his breath c'mon, hurry it up, c'mon... I told the priest to go fuck himself and ran out of the confessional and out of the church to get on my bike, riding off down Livernoise Avenue with a faint,tired yelling of "hey" behind me.

The next day at school some older boys were leaning against a fence by a parking lot adjoining the Catholic School."You told Father Martin to go fuck himself" said the biggest kid, one of the altar boys who helped the parish priests perform Mass during the week days, " You got yourself a fist full of trouble, punk."

He pushed me off the bike, and after I fell to the asphalt, each of the older boys kicked me something fierce; my books were strewn over the parking lot, my bike was thrown into the middle of the street, my nose was swollen and bloody. "Eat shit, punk" said the biggest kid."Jesus loves you" I wise cracked.

He turned around and kicked me again, right where it counts.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Bruce Smith's Motel Room Art

There are times when deferred meaning and elliptical syntax are just the thing to spark up a reader's imagination so that they best piece together a poet's fractured missive from the muse; it's the kind of interpretive exercise that got me interested in the game to begin with, graduating from the lunch counter surrealism of Bob Dylan's lyrics to the the abstruse, evocative, exotic diffuseness of TS Eliot's suffering clerk sermons.

The fun of it all was finding what lines, half-image, fleeting reference fit together, what small iota of coherence could be made to create a larger significance, metaphysically, than what mere description could provide. One pays for this with all sorts of foolish speculation and willfully errant readings of obvious moods the poet has laid out, but my senses developed over time, as I continued to read poets and their work, expanded my frame of reference, changed my tastes, and became less interested in establishing immutable rules for poets and their poems and instead became fascinated by what made a poem work.

To say the least, the interpretive work I could became a more interesting process,about making connections between a writer's style and technique and how the sensible , tuned-in application of things could make an accounting of ideas and experience a true benefit to a reader's daily life. A benefit, let us clarify, less in the life-changing mode--- the art of poetry ceases to be art when it attempts the philosophical , as poets (when truly writing as poets and not displaced intellectuals) are creatures of intuition, not analytical rigor--and more for the valued addition of gaining some information or an insight that hadn't occurred to the reader before. Poetry and it's contemporary habit of not revealing it's
collectively arranged meanings on the surface, makes speculation a pleasure, and lessens the burden of being a creature for whom introspection is the curse of the species. Joined at the hips, perhaps, but they aren't the same thing; poetry works within the moment, restrained by what is more often than not a personal account of
phenomena, a very subjective terrain, and the good poet, with whatever sort of style or techniques they choose to use , to modify or create out of whole cloth, attempts to write in a language that achieves verisimilitude with that experience. "Poetic", in plainer speech. Philosophy , as a practice, as an art (if you're inclined to apply the term) requires more rigor in it's discussions of experience, the acquisition of knowledge, the forming and transmission of values that would make for a better culture; philosophy concerns itself with the creation of systems of analysis with a specialized language that is not open to the non-specialist. Poets writing with the expressed purpose of giving forth a philosophical lecture will wind up most often writing verse that won't satisfy anyone as poetry save their best friends and their parents.

Harold Bloom, a favorite critique because of his insistence that literature is a valid way to set one's sense of the universe in order for at least a short (and continuous) periods, tells us straight forwardly that poetry helps think about ourselves. The skilled diffusion and deferral meaning by the master poets Eliot and Stevens, the glorious creation of self-metaphor of Whitman, the the condensed , diamond contradiction of Dickinson,
all these results of a poet's concentrated effort to capture some perception in language which would otherwise be lost, is an extension of their process to the reader, who might create their own links, fill spaces with their own biography, and become just a more alive than before.

That is assuming that their diet of poets doesn't consist of poets as lazy as Bruce Smith, whose poem "Contraband" is this week 's selection in Slate,takes the elliptical and the diffuse elements of Eliot, of Stevens, of Pound, of WC Williams, and turns from stylistic devices to
mannerisms, dead, soul-less generic touches. The poem begins interestingly enough, suggesting a problem with an email attachment

That thing you sent didn't open,
didn't change my life as it should, didn't complicate,
or play,- -.

A writer could have a good time making sense (and nonsense) with a whole range of verbal cues and suggestive allusions; things that won't open up, unwrapped packages (of a sort) containing something wholly other than what was described,
expectation and result not linking up as one might have thought. There are several ways this provocative opening line might lead us to a rich stream of legitimately ironic points of arrival and departure; this is something that might have kept on going for several dozen lines. I was thinking of a new Ginsberg, perhaps, full of vision, metaphor and wide breadth, creating a list of paired things , ala Howl, that could have scorched the ground. Smith, though, is cheap in his estimation of the reader's patience and splashes bits of paint in a series of commas, dashes, clauses that hang together like a paper chain one pulls from a desk drawer.

as it should, didn't complicate,
or play, although it made a hate
crime, a love note—both of those—a stolen
thing from the Congo passed through France
then shown to Picasso by Matisse at Stein's apartment
a carving, a mask, a dance—a misrepresented
soul that became the thing—a trance
we lived in while we built the Great Wall,
The Chrysler Building, the Erie Canal—servants
to the civilization, dowsing, digging,
never stopping to drink. God strangled
the details as we smuggled the cargoes
of our gifted lives, our lies, our singing.

I've been a fan of poet David Lehman for years and have defended his method heaping scattered bits and pieces into his lines, and have found his style of disconnection to have the flash and verve of modern jazz ala Monk and Ornette Coleman, and the clipped, broken elan of pop art; Lehman seemed to not go for making of sense, ie, a clearly communicable argument a reader can discern and respond to rationally, as opposed to the creation of a broader, less obvious "sense" of things in his writing.

There is an atmosphere and tone in Lehman's writing I found contagious, musical, and honestly arrived at. I don't know about Smith's personal honesty, and I wouldn't say that he wrote "Contraband" intending to bluff his way through whatever audience he saw reading thSmith is a good poet who has written a fine number of decent poems, like this one:

The air like the street numbers was high and rare and had a low-voltage, low-wattage light and flavor

of something burning still from the extinguished 60's

or something about to be combusted in commodities

and futures remembered now as then. Bread and junk were cut and risen out of the sub-basements

to the street in packages of Wonder and bags of Mrs. Jones. Substance and dust. Through the crossed wires of the telephones

voices from Memphis said Jerusalem was on fire.

All I could do was talk about desire

while I rendered the face of the Sojourner Truth Apartments, like a myopic Monet, in different light. Mostly I was mute.

Upstairs the dancer turned engineer was mostly in tears. The air shaft was a cloud chamber of jilted beds and chairs.

I wanted to translate the stems of red carnations in the gutter and the golden fluids of the Eldorado and the Town Car.

Given a longer line , he gets a rhythm going, a pulse that gives his concrete details and his historical references a sweep that brings you into the midst of a private conversation precisely because there is not the push to construct significance out of an obfuscation of an other wise obvious point. He gets the half-dream state quality perfectly here. It's not over drawn, it's not belabored, there are no short cuts. It's an honest poem that brings a interesting string of associations together. "Contraband" remains as I said it was, not honest, contrived. is piece, but it is a safe bet to say he was in the perennial hurry as most of Pinsky's poets of late seem to be in , evinced by the frantic and slap dash quality of the verse. Even poems that are marked by the elliptical method, the with holding of information, a fracturing of narrative thread, still have associative leaps that are more than private jokes or transcriptions of marginalia from an old anthology. The iconic names--Picasso, Stein, The Great Wall, The Erie Canal, The Chrysler Building--are a self conscious assertion of his own "cultural knowingness"--and are more distracting than evocative of something outside the text; the name dropping is more like washed- out motel room art that vainly attempts to make you think of something other than the fact that room is drab.

Saturday, August 5, 2006

Arthur Lee

Arthur Lee, lead singer, guitarist, and principle songwriter for the seminal Sixties Los Angeles rock band Love, has passed away at the age of 61, succumbing to acute myeloid leukemia. It's impossible to understate the importance of Lee's work with Love during that critical time; in a time when it was the norm for white bands to adapt black American musical traditions, Lee, an African American, took on the guise of a “black hippie” and embraced English British rock in the guise of the Stones and the Beatles, and he wasn't above blending it with a surreal smattering of Middle of the Road vocal styling. As a vocalist, he was a unique and brilliantly transparent, alternating between a Mick Jagger glottal, semi-Delta moan and grunt, and the honey-toned tenor of Johnny Mathis. It was genius, intended or otherwise, that he would assimilate the influence of a British singer who made a career emulating black American soul singers, and a popular black singer who crooned without a trace of racial signifiers apart from the “good music” expectations desired by a broad, mostly white audience. This, combined with a sensibility that effortlessly fused hard rock, folk, classical and jazz, and sweetly odd and dreamy psychedelic lyrics, and we have a genius that though short-lived inspired a generation or two beyond. Forever Changes, Love's third album, is considered by many to being the best American response to the Beatles' bar-raising disc Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. As is too often the case, Lee's is a case where the great creative period was short-lived; drugs, jail, eccentricity and erratic behavior prevented him from regaining the heights he reached with Forever Changes. There are very, very few rockers, though, who have the bragging rights to being the creator of such a masterpiece. Rock on, Arthur.

Friday, August 4, 2006

Miami Vice: Colin Farrell's Attack Mustache

Director Michael Mann has brought his old TV show Miami Vice to the wide screen, and the results are darker, grittier, nastier. But lets place the emphasis on darker. The original was bright pastel pinks and saturated sunshine up and down the Florida coastline, the movie, starring Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx as the undercover Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs, is in severe contrast  dark , as if filmed from inside a bottle of Coca Cola. Night sequences are what Mann does brilliantly, evinced by how sexy , alluring and alienated he made downtown Los Angeles appear in his previous film Collateral; this is a world of taciturn masculinity set against black and amber city scapes and empty industrial sites where the gears of inevitable violence are enacted in quick, cryptic spasms of dialogue. The plot itself is hard to follow, as drug-trafficking stories usually are, and it's a vain effort to seek philosophical substance or solace from what any of these characters are saying; Mann's films are about the actions characters take to define themselves and maintain their authenticity, moral or immoral, in a world where poses and equivocation are the norm. To be sure, there is a rousing fire fight between good guys and bad guys at the end.Colin Farrell as Sonny Crockett fairs better than you had a right to expect; gravely voice ala Nick Nolte, slicked back hair and handlebar mustache, he takes his terse dialogue and offers up a face that is determined to see his mission to the end even with the knowledge that he and his partner's efforts against the drug trade is a war lost from the outset. Jamie Foxx , in the role of partner Tubbs, is a convincing mass of sleek, muscled anger, a man with deep wounds with the discipline to contain his rage into a drive to undermine the drug dealing bad guys foul enterprise and to make them accountable for the evil they've insinuated into the populations. Miami Vice is short on compelling dialogue or an articulate expansion of the moral ambiguity of selling drugs to a clientele willing to forgo safety and health for a momentary chemical distraction--there are no Bondian villains who suddenly become philosophers expiating about the inevitability of vice and challenges to right-thinking--but it is rich in style and mood. What he lacks as a thinker Michael Mann makes up for in a beautifully mounted  evocations of masculine adventure, sullen, unshaven, muscular, terse, matter of fact, elegant in action, decisive  in results. Hemingway would have liked these movies.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Poets Gag on their Own Gore

I mean no disrespect, but most of the poets who are featured in the Slate each Tuesday sound as though they are waking up from a druggy, dreamless sleep, are bound and gagged with old socks crammed in their mouths and secreted away in a trunk kept in the storage space under the stairs, or have recently been on the receiving end of electroshock therapy. Add your own sour description. But the problem is that the good poet's habit of destroying a good piece of work with an indifferent , retarded, and emotionally stunted performance is hardly isolated; one can nearly drive a truck over the dense layering of constant droning that originates with the flaccid readings the ill-spoken bards hand us. It is as inviting as asphalt rash.

The bottom line is that few poets in that forum sound happy to be doing the reading; it sounds as if they're grumbling that they have to work , for chrissakes, and life is not fair and things are rotten, and for the money they receive, these otherwise honorable scribes hand us the slowest, driest, least-contaminated-by-joy recital they can devise in their vengeful little heads.This does not encourage me to buy their books. It makes me think that poetry is something of a self-serious sham when it's read in these portentous, un-inflected ways.

Let's put some life in these readings, OK. If one lacks the pulse sufficient enough to make these poems sound interesting, they might do themselves and the readership and decline the offer to record their voice. A bad performance embarrasses everyone.

Someone I was talking to in a net forum about this situation recommended that I observe HBO's "Def Poetry Jam", where writing and performance are more obvious than one get elsewhere on pay-TV.I agree that there are some amazing writer/performers on that show, but it often goes too far in the other direction.

Every word has to be absolutely per-formative, every gesture has to be over-sized, large, exaggerated beyond need, every line has to be declaimed as if it were the neutron bomb of punchlines, and just about every voice of every reader has to follow the same rhythmic pitch, the same inexplicable accelerations and slowing downs, the same beat-box repetition's of vowels that destroy an idea rather than reinforce it.

It's a monotony of content and presentation that makes the weekly line up seem nearly as form-fitted as the mainstream, academic, white-bread poets that are very easy to make fun of. It's something of an old joke straight from Lil Abner, where all the kids want to be nonconformists just like everybody else.

I would be very interested if HBO gave Quincy Troupe a deal where he could produce and select the talent, as he has for the last twelve years in La Jolla with his brilliantly arranged series Artists at the Cutting Edge. Troupe knows that quality needs to be matched with quality, and the poets and writers he's brought to San Diego would be an example for the producers of Def Poetry Jam as a means of livening up-their mix: Derek Walcott, Allen Ginsberg, Tony Morrison, Charles Wright, Bei Doa, Jerome Rothenberg, Amiri Baraka, Gary Snyder, David Foster Wallace and scores of others, of many races, creeds, colors and politics , have all read in this series. Most, also, were able performers of their own material, and it is from these writers , scribes who've not only discovered their voice in their work but also a way in which to verbally dramatize it, who are fit and diverse models for those who imagine themselves ready to move beyond the rhythms and clicks that comes through their head sets.