Saturday, September 30, 2006

Smitten by fame

I know I railed against the worship of celebrity in the previous post, and be assured I meant every word of what I had to say regarding the general view that such
mindless adoration reduces us individually and diminishes us collectively. There's been thirty years plus of reading a wide swath of social criticism, from Marx, Adorno through Mills, Mencken and Vidal that's given my gut feeling a theoretical, if
densely phrased base. None of what I've said is original, I might say, though a phrase or paragraph might keep the torch lit a while longer. And yet I have to confess that tonight I am working an event at a local bookstore here in San Diego,
and that for all my objections against the the religion of fame that I am looking forward to meeting the acerbic and beautiful New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.
She'll be appearing for the paperback edition of her recent book Are Men Necessary? My integrity is comprimised, and I am willing to be a slave, at least temporarily, for the smart and funny lady.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

A week without Celebrities

It would be a fine Holiday gift if print, broadcast and internet media gave us a week without celebrity "news" or gossip and give us a chance to consider lives of less mythical proportions.

After all is said and done, someone like Jennifer Aniston is no more interesting than the bowl of cereal that sits in front of you each morning. Probably less so. But given the way this obsession with the increasingly banal coverage of the famed and moneyed, are we that far from stalking celebrities should paparazzi chance upon JoLo tying a shoe, or Matt Damon being told by counter help that the CD he wants is out of stock and then foaming, fuming and gasping at the impossibly demanding pressures celebrities have heaped upon their special lives? The possibility of seeing or reading about the over-renowned having tantrums , among other things, gives us the thrill of seeing ourselves as others would see us if we were given to
having breakdowns in ridiculously public places. I might guess that it assures us
the melt down and other egocentricities are okay after all. The inner child never takes the afternoon nap.

Why is it that we anguish collectively over whether Robert Downy is able to revive his film career and forget our personal obligations as citizens by failing to show to vote in elections, or offer our services to projects in our community that can really improve the lives of others. It comes down to selling papers, of course, but the level to which our obsession with celebrity has advanced suggest a religious intensity, a love of icons and their status among the heavens, which is precisely what corporate powers want us to become, passive investors in entertainment and distractions to keep their means of production running and in their firm control and to forgot about how to change the reality that confines us in grim and grey banality.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Shame on Alfred Corn

"Windows on the World", a poem written by Alfred Corn and published in Slate on September 11, 2003,is an ill conceived poem commerating the attack on the World Trade Center that would seem to confirm the skeptic's view that poets are willfully suffering narcissts who think everything in the world is in play in order to disturb their peace. In other words, to fuck with them. It's strange, odd, perverse, and somewhat immoral to write a poem using the 9/11 attack as a pretext to write another self-infatuated poem that really is more about how much the writer thinks about himself and his assignation as a "poet"; whatever the goddamned what Corn puts on his tax return as "occupation" has to do with the still barely speakable horror this day has come to mean is beyond any sense I can find, and worse, it is beyond anything useful to others.

This is a wandering and traipsing along the subject matter like a drunk tourist gawking at the bizarre ways of the big city, a laughable and loathsome tour of Corn's intellectual baggage. Connecting the ruin of the WTC with the crashing of Windows operating system is a ploy him to remain a thousand miles from any connection with real emotion; it is relentlessly ironic and snobby in its form as a poem. The subject matter, the real horror is aestheticized out of mind the way a narcotic lulls one into a stupor and then a nod against a world that still must be faced and made sene of.

Corn does none of that at all, but what he does do is give us a long, wavering and arrogantly ambivalent stretch of muddled semiotics where everything is a straining reach, a forced association, a willful perversion of real imagistic reach. Had the subject not been so grim and disheartening, this would seem more parody than anything else.

This poem angers me to no end. If Corn was paid for this piece, he should feel honor bound to donate the sum to a cause that actually gives hope to others in the human community. Following that, he might quit whatever teaching job he as in the instruction of writing and get a job in the receiving area of a Salvation Army Thrift store.

Gregory DiPrinzio's Canary Sings the Hits

Although it threatens at first to become a sentimental gush, Gregory DiPrinzio's poem"Remember Baby?"is a nice surprise, a poem clear and clever and creating a sweetly constructed vernacular which makes the small intimacies between the narrator (who I assume is male) and the woman real, tactile. It reads like a belated postcard to an ex wife, a recounting of events after strife and turmoil where the wounds have healed and sufficiently scarred the soul and now there is only recourse to maintain a resentment or to laugh at what was said, what was sought. This poem is neither confession nor blame-placing, but rather recollection. There is a crucial difference.

There's a bittersweet quality that's appealing , alluring for the fact that just enough information and characterization is mentioned in the memory; although we ostensibly come in in the middle of a conversation, the situation is coherent, the narrator's monologue affectionate and insinuating all at once:

At first the house was so quiet you could hear the songs
no one was singing and you wanted company,
so you went down to the pet store and bought a canary.
You told the boy you wanted one that sings:
no bird in a silent blue-funk, no washed-up has-been
crying into his water dish.

This is as lovely as it is plain spoken, the description of the house empty of human sound and the solution of going to the pet store for a canary. This is a rush of detail, with all manner of knowing detail and action laid out in an idealized
speech . Remarkable, too, is Gregory DePrinzio's
deft touch with item and incident in the way he has the choice of canary reflect what is the dear woman in this poem fears, "no bird in a silent blue-funk, no washed-up has-been crying into his water dish." This is rather masterful, a salient element of anxiety made tangible without portentous and unwieldy metaphors and cliches that would clumsily botch the description of a more complicated and denser state of internal affairs. This is a confection that is spun and layered with a master's
sense of grace. Cheever couldn't have described a better scene of man/woman awkwardness any better, and Hemingway would have admired the exactitude of the phrasing. A male world, I would suppose, but there is poetry and beauty here none the less. For a change we have a male not moping over the failure of a relationship, but rather giving his account of what he's seen and thought of it. This is not a negoiation for a seduction, but a conversation that has continued after the sparks have gone out and the music has soured. This is a relationship that continues in some form, in grudging maturity.

DePrinzio sticks with the symptoms, the mannerisms, the glaring contradiction of what's avowed and what is actually done, revealed in an atmosphere where
a friend, a confident, lays out a memory. I am attracted to the absence of malice here; a fondness undistorted by lust or obsession emerges as the narrator goes further with the tale, citing the bird's name as Leo and how wearisome his songs became. More beautifully arranged details:

you dropped the purple cloth over his cage,
closing the curtain in the middle of his set,
but still he couldn't take a hint...


The cage
kept getting closer to the window, the sliding
doors kept getting left a little more open
as Leo pounded away at the standards
to an empty room, or competed with the stereo.

The tone is comic , the telling is unvarnished but tempered, and there seems, under the irony and exasperation, a feint hope that the woman, the girl friend, the ex wife might put the pieces together and gain an insight about how to stop making her life miserable. This is guess work, to be sure, since we appear to come into the middle of a conversation that had been going on awhile before we entered the the scene as eavesdroppers, but what is left out makes for the kind of speculation and wondering that gives us a richer experience. There is a shock of recognition here, slight as it might be; there are more than a few readers, I would wager, who had a sudden recollection of small matters with their wives, girl friends, life partners, the things said when the rest of the world was absent, that one carries with them and has little opportunity to reveal. DePrinzio's poem was a key that unlocked one of the doors in my available memory, and I mean that in a good way.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Maynard G.Krebs, America's Premier Existentialist

Machiavelli is said to have coined the subtle curse "May you live in interesting times", surely an extra jab at the dimwits he'd have been insulting who would be slow to realize that "interesting times", generally speaking, are the domain of periods of unflagging disaster. One would imagine a man in his living after the ceiling has fallen around him deciding finally that he needs to call the roofer for an estimate. So we are in interesting times with respect to the Iraq war, as unmitigated a catastrophe as the U.S. government has gotten us into. And now Hurricane Katrina, water logging and virtually destroying New Orleans, with the response from the Federal government being sluggish, half-witted, ill-prepared. To coin a phrase, it was as though we had Gilligan running the show from the TV Land archives. I made that remark to a friend the other day, as doubtless, millions had as well as we all witnessed the terror unfold from our TV screens. We were in a hand basket just a half mile from Hell's gates and buffoons and lesser thugs were in charge of those agencies that were supposed to help citizens in dire times, in a grievous emergency.Gilligan.Irony seems the only way a quizzical God can speak to society as fragmented, distracted and functionally insane as we often time again. Actor Bob Denver, who played the character on Gilligan's Island for three years in the Sixties, has died at age seventy. It was not a show I ever liked, not then, and not now, not even out of some gross romanticizing of the decade, but the surname did become synonymous with fucking up, falling apart, goofing off, a display of genius for doing precisely the wrong thing at the most crucial instance of an emergency.I preferred Denver as Maynard G. Krebs from Dobie Gillis, an earlier show where his character was a hipster par excellence, a jazz-loving, intuitively-inclined White Negro, but without the mind-expanding violence or star-moving orgasms. Krebs was a latter-day Candide in tow with Dobie Gillis's reverse Panglossian shroud; no matter how confounded Dobie found himself week to week, Maynard would appear and find something uniquely wonderful about the particulars and the world it existed in to remind his good friend. Not that anything he had to say was appropriate or useful as a curative for Dobie's gathering cluster of blue notes, but there was something sublime in the way Maynard G.Krebs saw the world as a series of moments that were unique and which needed to be appreciated for the surprise each waking hour brings us. Maynard was hardly a theorist of anything, but he was a better man to have around in a moment of crisis. This is a better legacy for Bob Denver. You have to honor a man who's best actorly creation explained that the "G" in his name stood for

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Frank Rich and David Plotz Fill in a Vacume

Photographer Thomas Hoepker was one of hundreds of his trade who worked on September 11, 2001, getting the images that would help us define a momentous day in our history. A photograph Hoepker withheld, pictured, has caused something of a stir in the Pundocracy whose members like to reduce complexity to tasteless and easily passed morsels. Frank Rich of the New York Times invests the shot with these words:
"What he caught was this: Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker's photo aren't necessarily callous. They're just American. In the five years since the attacks, the ability of Americans to dust themselves off and keep going explains both what's gone right and what's gone wrong on our path to the divided and dispirited state the nation finds itself in today."

David Plotz of found Rich's summary distasteful and responded in opposite adjectives here.The fact of the matter is that we don't know what these people were talking about at that instance when they turned their gaze away from the smoking Manhattan skyline and toward each other. It's striking in contrast to the host of dramatic framings we've become accustomed to seeing in relation to 9/11; there is an eerie calm here, an image of people who seem to have stolen a moment for themselves to reflect, ponder, digress among themselves while the rest of the world collapses on itself.

All the, what were they saying? We don't know, and we cannot know for sure, and the lack of documentation makes some on the public soap box to tell us what it is they see in the details (or the lack of them) , later to be followed by yet another hack with a megaphone taking the opposite tack, emphasizing the same details (or ones he imagines) to suggest an opposing qualities. Disengaged? Debating vital issues? Bored and indifferent?Shocked and outraged? All the evidence, such as it is, is there in David Friend's photograph,and it strikes you, after reading Frank Rich's mandarin claims about this being a country that likes to move on and David Plotz's assertion that this is evidence of Civic debate, that we haven't the slightest clue, not the faintest shade of a hint to what these folks were talking about, nor what they felt seeing New York seem to give itself up to fumes and flame.

Idylls of the cave, to be sure, and one assumes smart men like Rich and Plotz have taken a variation to Intro Philosophy. I suspect they have and attribute this phony controversy to deadline pressure and the irrational notion that one must say something significant on a significant anniversary. So much eloquence and banality has come and gone in the five years since the attack that every truism has been mined, every fresh expression of outrage, grief, hope, patriotism has been formulated and put forth that there's a desperation to devise fresh metaphors, new simulacrums through which our rusty platitudes can be channeled. Centering on the photograph and it's alarmingly un-alarmed image would seem the perfect dust storm over.

But we don't know what they were thinking, nor what was said, and the suppositions of Rich, Plotz and other smart guys who might join this faux fray are engaged in undertakings that Daniel Boorstin described in in his 1962 book "The Image", a deft, precise and early description of how news organizations willfully create non-events to cover in order to sustain themselves as an economic entity. One may mention Baudrillard and his limitless meanderings, but this is something that is closer to a Don DeLillo novel, and is especially re-mindful of White Noise, wherein two department chairmen, one the head of the Department of Hitler Studies and the other the director of Elvis Research, confront each other for a colloquium.

What they wind of doing in front of students from both departments is citing various random factoids about Hitler and Elvis, the smallest scraps of information, the most arcane and useless tidbits only intense research could yield, all to no obvious purpose, nor effect. But everyone is happy and glad that reasonably sound and sane summations were uttered, however untroubled by a crucial absence of context. Rich and Plotz are people who are paid to say intelligent things about important subjects, and speak they did. But at the end of their respective days I can't help think that they're aware their words regarding this photograph were extensions of wishful thinking, and five years after the attack on the towers they, like the rest of us, are still reeling.

Monday, September 11, 2006


Five years after the attack and I've said and written nothing that equals this poem
I managed to get out between horrified periods watching the Towers burn and collapse. Suffice to say that I will just publish the poem here, five years later. I have nothing to add.--tb

Rain of any kind

Everything is different
yet nothing really is

in the center of lives
hanging on every word

crackling over phone lines
and wireless transmissions

voiceless where smoke, glass,
the dust of humanity rises in billows

and curls and laces and balloon obscenely
where it seemed the center of the world

was a wealth of words and
sleep after hard work in the

twin aspirations of family dinners,
laughs, tears only when it was

the rain we cried about
when our plans were vacations,

escapes out of town,
toward the wonder of the world,

But everything is changed,
yet nothing changes at all

in the whitened streets choked
with the burning heart of

passion igniting twin spires that
fall onto itself, completely, like

a folding table over burdened with
ideas of desire that give up and

blow up and send us running toward the river,
into hallways, behind gates again,

the wrath of our aspirations gives up
its ideas of settling into chairs or sinking

into cushions while TVs tell us that we
all wear the black hat even

in our best week, yeah, right,
The center of the night, when clouds clear

the arc of the moon
and the crying children

and men is heard coming from cell phones,
face up in the dust,static and batteries going dead,

there are too many people to
say good bye to,
our city smolders on the river,

the moon rises over the skyline,
a hand is clenched and now two hands are clenched

and a rag is dragged across the
furrows of our brow as

every tool that was ever waved and plied and made to align a
home and a store front in the places where

our joy and our speech spoke the many tongues
we were blessed with and

sought to keep alive and on fire,
as we roll up sleeves and

make the world flesh again, a tall and visible pride that
argues with itself in many tongues speaking

all of the alphabets that fell on the world,

we go on
we go on,

and go on into the business that is the worth of the life
that was here filled with commotion of a life

that you either want to have forever
or want to kill

horribly in its sleep
while the children watch, screaming, I say

we go on because we must,

Everything is different
and it hasn't changed at all,

why we must go on
and take back the sky and its promise of

birds, and
rain of any kind.

Saturday, September 9, 2006

A note on preferences, subject to change

The poets I like have to be good writers, first and foremost, no matter what their work looks like on the page. There are many writers whose works are stunning to look at as a kind of typographical art, but reading them winds up being an insufferable experience, unpleasant not so much because the poems are difficult but because the writing is just plain awful, being either willfully obscure to disguise a lack of real feeling toward their experience, or, most typically , for exhibiting an inane, unoriginal and cliché choked sensibility that would never have gotten out of a junior college poetry workshop.

In either case, the visual look of a poem is a distraction from the mediocrity of the piece being read. Good writing always matters, and there are many, many wonderful poets whose works have an originality achieved through a mastery of language that fortunately leads us away from the nagging dread that a tactless and unschooled avant garde (rule breakers who don't the rules to begin with) has completely overtaken the conversation. Good poets must be concerned with language, I think, since that is the stock and trade of the art. Language made fresh, reinvigorated, reinvented-- I have no arguments with anyone who earnestly attempts to make language convey experience, ideas, emotion, or even the lack of emotion, in ways and with techniques that keeps poetry and poetic language relevant to the contemporary world, the one that's currently lived in, but there is a tendency for a good many young poets , fresh from writing programs, to repeat the least interesting ideas and execution of their professors and to make their work obsess about language itself, as a subject.

The concern, boiled down crudely, is that language is exhausted in its ability to express something fresh from an imperialist/patriarchal/racist/individualist perspective, and the only thing that earnest writers can do is to foreground language as their subject matter and investigate the ways in which proscribed rhetoric has seduced us and made our work only reinforce the machinery that enslaves us. This kind of stuff appeals to the idealist who hasn't had enough living, not enough bad luck, not enough frustration or joy to really have anything to write about, in large part (an grotesque generalization, I know), and it's easy for someone to eschew the work of absorbing good poetry -- Shakespeare, Stevens, Whitman, Milton, Blake, O'Hara-- or learning something of the craft and instead poise their work in non sequiturs , fragments, clichés, sparsely buttressed inanities, framed , usually, in typographical eccentricities that are supposed to make us aware of the horrific truth of language's ability to enslave us to perceptions that serve capitalist and like minded pigs.

More often, this sort of meta-poetry, this experimental notion that makes a grinding self-reflexivity the point of the work, reveals laziness and sloth and basic ignorance of the notion of inspiration-- the moment when one's perceptions and one's techniques merge and result in some lines, some honest work that cuts through the static thinking and makes us see the world in way we hadn't before. I speak, of course, of only a certain kind of avant garde; one I endured in college and have since survived when I found my own voice and began to write what I think is an honest poetry. With any luck, some of these writers will stop insisting on trying to be smarter and more sensitive than their readership and begin to write something that comes to resemble a real poetry that's fresh and alluring for its lack of airs.

Others might do us a favor and get real jobs. Others, I think, will continue to be professional poets as long as there is grant money to be had, and will continue in their own destruction of forest land.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

"Banish Misfortune"; a poem by Ralph Sneeden

It's a reflexive habit to grouse over Robert Pinsky's selections for the weekly Tuesday poem, and I even got into the extreme and admittedly attention getting spirit of the bashing by suggesting that it was time for him to do more to earn his pay as Poetry Editor, or to move on. There's been good reason for the complaints, the bashing, the dissatisfaction with his results,but there are times when one of his poems is soexquisite , finely placed and arranged that my ire dissolves .

For the moment, all is forgotten, if not forgiven. "Banish Misfortune" by Ralph Sneeden is a sweeping yet brief piece of music,a sweet and surely constructed composition that amazingly gives off the air of swift and sure improvisation. It is, I think, the poem of a poet with that well tuned ear that senses the balance of language as it unfolds on the page during the writing and who is able to sense how it will sound when spoken. The aspect I enjoy is that the language is almost impenetrable, a series of concentrated images that elide into one anotherin what can be described as an entranced narrator's soft murmuring description.

We are not out of the woods,maybe in the wrong neck,
like birds intending stasiswho weave their clot
of straw in the grill beside the headlight.

These are the things an attuned observer would almost miss had they been just a shade less impatient. This is a poem of sitting still in momentary respite away from traffic, cell phones,demanding children or creditors, where the mindbalances and weaves together a number of vaguely recalled strands of thought, while the eyes brings to the conscious level arrangements within nature that are there before our intruding gaze and seem extraordinary when noticed. Even more extraordinary is the fleeting feeling of stepping back away from the frame one's imagination has placed around the tableau and senses themselves as part of the strange little diorama, the observer feeling them self observed..Sneeden uses simple, clear words to make his motions clear and concise, and provides us with a descriptive style that gives us vision, like a slow panning camera simulating a set of eyes taking in the terrain and its incidental arrangements, as in

When we watch the dog
watch the bee's hungry circum-navigation
of the apple fallen to the fading lawn,
that burrowing amusesus,
as if the excavationof imploded rot were somehow
different than the steamrising
from our coffeeor eaves of the future's
sun-lit mud room and rusty nail

This is not a poem that tries to abolish the world in pursuit of the perfect imagistic center to find refuge within; Sneeden's soft spoken narrator acknowledges the material world beyond this delicate frame and finds a hushed wonder in actually seeing what one has known only in theory, that nature will eventually and always grow around, over and through the best constructions humanity can throw at it. The birds building a nest in the grill next to the head light of an abandoned car is the simplest , clearest evidence that nature will not be contained, fenced in, or asphalted over.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Give Robert Christgau A Writing Gig NOW!

The firing of pop music Robert Christgau from the Village Voice by their new owners gives me yet another reason to pass up the weekly on the news stand and to cease dialing up their web site. I'd been reading Christgau's insular, fannish, personal and idiomatically dense reviews for decades and rather liked the idea that I was part of the cognoscenti who could parse his sentences and follow his train of thought. Any Old Way You Choose It, his collection of longer reviews and pieces gathered from the Sixties and Seventies, is one of of my all time favorite essay collections, a brainy, chatty, at times exasperatingly idiosyncratic journey through a couple of decades of extraordinary innovation; I love it for the same reason I still cherish Pauline Kael's I Lost It At The Movies, for that rare combination of true fan enthusiasm and discovery. As with Kael at her best, you can sense the moment when Christgau comes to an insight, a discovery as yet undiscovered by other writers; he has that element of "ah-HA!"Coming to his Consumer Guide column, where he would review anything and everything available, from the varied strands of rock,disco, reggae, folk, jazz and popwas like meeting that clutch of friends you knew in college who considered rock and pop the emerging Grand Art.

His was a column where I found someone who kept the conversation going, and strange and self indulgent as it may have seen, it was a fertile ground to debate and exchange ideas on the relative qualities of music. Anyone who's been through this bit before, the obsession with rock music being an art and establishing the critical terms with which one can assess, appraise and make note of what makes albums worth the purchase, appreciates the kind of critical thinking which becomes a habit of mind. In college I was Arts Editor of the thrice weekly campus newspaper, and was required ,in addition to my studies, to write a crushing amount of column inches a week on matters of music, theatre, television, movies. Rough life, I know, but it was alot of writing none the less, and the chief debt I might have toward Christgau , an admittedly sketchy model for a minor league reviewer, was the creation of a tone, a style.

The Village Voice, founded in the fifties by Norman Mailer and Dan Wolfe, was formerly noted as a magazine where the pittance that writers were paid was somewhat compensated by the freedom they had to develop writing style, ideas and journalistic beats. It was a writer's publication, and that was the chief attraction for a reader who wanted more than cooker cutter reviews or cursory coverage of politics and culture. Christgau is a product of that freedom and developed a particular argot and style that was intended for those as obsessed and concerned with music as he was; he is a critic, not a reviewer distinction being that the critic assumes that his or her reader has the same background in the area under discussion as they do.
Unlike reviews, which are final and absolute and brook no discussion beyond name calling, Christgau's essays are addressed to the concerned, the convinced, the true believer that pop music traditions matter as much as so-called High Culture
expressions. This leaves him incomprehensible for many who think his writing is too dense with insular references and verbal short hand to bother with, but that was a chief part of my attraction to his writing. There were many a time when I was in my twenties when I hadn't the slightest idea of what he was talking about-- who was Adorno? Marcuse? Sun Ra??-- but the subject matter at hand compelled me to investigate references further. It was an old fashioned enterprise, his column in one hand, a dictionary and an encyclopedia at the ready to clarify the murkier waters of his prose. Any inspiring critic does that.

Christgau and the late Lester Bangs gave me some ideas and methods in learning how to write fast, and well (or at least well enough that some light editing could be done without a major operation and my copy could be taken to the typesetter before deadline). What is impressive about Christgau is his catholicity of taste, his constant curiosity about new sorts of noise and racket, and his ability to form connections and generate operate theories. His writing is unique, and the Village Voice's loss will be another editor's gain.