Friday, April 27, 2007

Awarding genius for the right reasons

It was a fortunate circumstance in 2006 that the long denied Martin Scorsese finally won his Best Director Oscar for The Departed, luckier all the more because the star-driven crime drama was actually one of the best movies that year, and a strong effort from Scorsese himself. One may name their own example of a important artists being belatedly honored by their peers and critics with an award given to something that is not their best work. The Academy dodged the bullet that time, and Scorsese can make the legitimate claim that he did the best job of directing a film last year.Following suit, the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to long time jazz maverick Ornette Coleman for his 2006 album Sound Garden. Nothing ages worse than yesterday's avant gard, so it's said, but Coleman's work survives fashions that have gone to the wayside because of his uncompromising singularity of concept. Sound Garden, uniquely fractured with funk, twelve tone colorations, skewed bop references and a full host of energized against-the-grain improvisation, continues a
hot streak the saxophonist and music theorist has been for the last decade. The Pulitzer Prize folks have been seeking to make their awards for best music composition less Eurocentric, and here picked an outsider genius who, fate of fates, might now have to make peace with the cultural mainstream.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Hip Hop's Intransigent Vulgarity

Kalefa Sanneh weighs in on the renewed focus on hip-hop's intransigent vulgarity in the New York Times and offers a typical middle of the road position about the music's part in encouraging violence and the furthering coarsening of American life. Don't blame the music, Sanneh writes, these words, these jokes, these attitudes have been part of African American and urban culture for generations, evolving from.   The tradition of "toasting" and graduating from the streets and the rent parties to the airwaves, discos, and television. The point of it all was to shake up the mainstream, upset the comfortably settled, and give voice at the same time to a vital life that boiled and roiled in the heart of every poor neighborhood languishing in the shadows of corporate America. Blame the corporations for disseminating the material to the larger population, blame your uprightness if you are offended and taken aback by the rough language and general ugliness of much of the work. Some points well taken, and I'm of the mind that music and lyrics, whether Muddy Waters, Elvis, the Ramones or NWA in themselves cause people to have unprotected sex and buy "cop killer" bullets--this is a controversy that gets replayed every few years when media critics and their employers have exhausted the current crop of pseudo-events for their capacity to inspire unending opinion-mongering whose collective outrage seems more scripted and assigned than spontaneous and reflecting real offense--but what irks me is the casual implication that if we'd relax and take a broader view we wouldn't get so upset. 

That's the old Lenny Bruce theory on foul language, that words are only words and that if we use them frequently and openly, they would lose their shock value and their capacity to offend. Nice theory, but very Fifties in fact, and one that does not travel well. Lester Bangs, writing of the N-word in a seventies piece called "White Noise Supremacists" in the Village Voice, examined his adherence to Bruce's notion to de-fang the quarrelsome words and found the formula lacking. The word is generations old, used as a powerful weapon to reinforce cultural and institutional racism and oppression, so much so, he found that no matter how ironic one tried to be in their attempt to liberate the term from it's originating pathology, the N-word hurt, it hurt deep, it still caused anger, as it was designed to. Violence is an inevitable consequence for some when this word gets used, and so it goes with the hip-hop's street-level idiom. 

The language will not be less upsetting merely because most of us shrug our shoulders and do nothing. The republic will survive, and the language we might object to will cease finding its way into our public spaces only when the reality the words reflect ceases to be attractive, enviable, romantic. We return to our original and ongoing problem as a country: the transformation of a political apparatus into a means that allows people to achieve lives worth living.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"In Flight Couplets": by Alfred Corn

Alfred Corn's mentions of Mandelshtam in this week's poem ought not be made too much of, since it's name dropping vanity to mention the great Russian poet in a poem that he, Corn, is writing about his own fears of being forgotten as an artist
in the event of a catastrophe that would eradicate his name and the words he wrote. It would one thing for a poet to compare himself to another writer if that nervous one-to-one resulted in work that surpassed the fragility of the author's self-image and touched on matters that involved a readership larger than those who are entertained by the poet's version of mirror-gazing. Norman Mailer is notoriously obsessed with his fame, influence and his position among the writers of his generation and the generation before him, but he hasn't be disingenuous about his craving for influence and praise, and has worked hard to make that liability into a problematic asset.
Fraught with peril, the self-advertising resulted all the same with memorable books that transcended the neurotic center of Mailer's ego and got him to engage events larger than himself, whether massive antiwar marches, political conventions, Moon landings. The scheme was simple, effective more often than not; there were Mailer's expectations of how he would change things when he wrote about personalities and events, and then the realization of what was actually underway; Mailer got beyond to best DosPossos and Hemingway and Faulkner at their own games and became, instead, a voice unlike any other of his generation. Not well liked by many folks, yes, but undeniably the author of several brilliant books that flourished despite his worst habits. The secret was that Mailer knew when to get out of the way of the story.Corn does not know when to step aside, though, and the constrictions of the sonnet make his subject a swim in the muck that comprises a writer's vanity that cannot transcend itself. His poem "Windows on the World", nominally about 9-11, was a distanced recollection of cranky ironies that were whimsical rather than resonant with the solemn associations we would term "poetic". Horrible attacks were reduced to being mere finger exercises for the poet to limber up the writing muscle. This week's poem again works a similar airplane/bomb equation, and there is poor Alfred Corn, prisoner of text, scribbling away the words of his own epitaph , as if this page would be discovered, identified and applied to posthumous notices if the worst that happen indeed took place. The silliest thing of this whole poem is that Corn wants the audience that would read him after he's nothing but splattered body parts that he read Mandeshtam. It's comical; if one cannot be remembered for their work, they can at least be remembered for their good taste.

Monday, April 23, 2007

I get a kick out of Jesus

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

Kill Your TV

He scratches his chin where he just shaved minutes ago, the drone of morning cable news making the air in the apartment seem filled with static. This was the first time he could remember where the thought of canceling his cable service stayed with him overnight, a notion that came when he was moving between the two hundred stations, concentrating on the news and movie outlets, becoming slowly aware that there are, according to the networks, only five or six stories worth covering in the world; Anna Nicole Smith, Don Imus's propensity for stepping in his own piles of crap, Sanjaya Malakar's inscrutable lack of singing talent,, The Virginia Tech Massacre, Alec Baldwin's tirade against his eleven year old daughter. What bothered him wasn't the stories themselves, as they are news and need to be presented and understood in some fashion, but there is a point where there is nothing more to say when nothing more is known but yet the talking heads just keep right on yakking up a storm, pushing other stories off the air. Literally, off the air.

When there is nothing more to report, talking heads present some other "authority" from some hereto-for unheard of blog site, specialty magazine or perhaps a former aid to a senator that once sat on a committee loosely related to the spotlight controversy , who would then be peppered with a series of inane questions he or she didn't have a real answer to. Airtime filled with supposition, best guesses, speculation, old fashioned rumor mongering, all in the name of the public's right to know what is or is not happening to the over famous, the overpaid whose hyper image is out of bounds with anything one recognizes when they finally leave the house, start the car and attempt to navigate traffic as one makes their way to work. I have a job to pay for this seamless and seamy stream of irrelevance? It's possible to watch cable news programming for a whole day and learn nothing at all for the time spent. He twitches. The shirt is stiff and scratchy like a trucker's scabbed fingertips. The tv keeps making the yammering drone of nonsense, and the roof suddenly seems be lowering upon him; is this what a sardine feels like?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

"Civil Twilight": muttering small talk at the wall

Someone needs to offer the featured poets of Slate's poem of the week some lessons for reading their work over the phone; case in point is Terri Witek's
reading of her selected poem "Civil Twilight",published online in Slate. Her rendition, as is , was lugubrious, ponderous and downright slow, like clogged dial up connections to early Internet fare, but the slight ringing of feedback, the hollow ambiance of someone speaking too closely into a phone receiver proved irritating. One felt as if an oaf was trying to be intimate with you by breathing into your ear. Can the Microsoft engineers devise a better sounding result from the software at their disposal?

Not that it would help Witke's poem much, since it is stationary abstraction that in turn cannot move a single reader's grey matter to cogitate an empathetic response. There's an attraction to writing a poem loosely based on an arcane or mysterious phrase taken from an old text, but one would think the resulting verse would strive to make some sense of the cryptic words by positing coherent questions and underlining ironies that might arise when old instructions--whether technical, moral, or hygienic (or spiritual)
are considered in more recent contexts.

Witke only produces more distance, which would fine if there was a sense of an inward inquiry in play one takes to be occurring in the poems of Elizabeth Bishop or John Ashbery. But that isn't happening.
The poem seems more like lifeless conundrums
uttered as passing sighs in the night, exasperation expressed in groans and half phrases that can't even give clear color to their interior state.

Who arched the bridge to this island of flare-ups?
Which is the key to the hotel of dismay?
Nests blunt the junctions between river and ocean.
I suppose we have done with our mutual heat.

We are meant to consider this in light of the sublime disgust and resignation Eliot gave us with "Ash Wednesday" and "The Waste Land", but Witke hasn't the gift for the pithy phrase making that was Eliot's supreme gift. "Hotel of dismay??"
The poet wants to telegraph the mood, but wooden and trite phrases like that will not suffice.The poem is about one's discontent with a world that does not measure up to private paradigms,but it remains an awkward grumbling at best. Another poet falls victim to their weakest work being highlighted in these pages.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Don DeLillo, Cell Phones, The Destruction of Irony

A week ago, after work, on a crosstown bus, and all I wanted for the half hour ride was to read the galley of the new Don DeLillo novel, Falling Man,a ruminative narrative highlighting the lives of New Yorkers on the day of the attacks, 9/11. Finally, a novel about the attack that matters; not to give too much away, but this is prime DeLillo, exploring the sober side of what was White Noise's premise for post modern comedy, the disruption of fixed and certain lives by the intrusion of an event beyond imagination. 

In White Noise, the effect was comic, funny, and all ironies laid in the day were comedies of the clueless trying to make peace with the nagging changes that cause everyone to avoid the void as they try to retool old habits with new explanations, theories, contrived proofs that the world will return to normal. Now it's tragedy, and the quality of irony finds itself made ironical.The attack on the World Trade Center puts us beyond abstractions like comedy or tragedy , on which one can grasp onto something fixed in their minds as a normality they can get back to. All is muted, rendered mute.Rationalization is deferred.

So what I wanted to do in this thirty minutes was to swim in DeLillo's brilliant prose and wallow in my own abstract and unconnected intellections, vaguely aware of neon signs and street lights going past, when my own sallow pleasure was deferred, tipped over by a growing sound, beginning in consciousness as a mild buzz, a gentle irritant, but which now had increased in volume, length and grating persistence that it could no longer be ignored.A girl, twenty, yakking away in the back of the bus, at full volume. I was sitting in the front of the bus, but I could hear every word clearly. I might as well been listening from a across a Starbuck's table." --so Jenny says to me that Brad is a creep and has issues and such bullshit that makes him flake and bail on phone calls he was supposed to return or money he had to pay back, and told me too that going out with him was a bad idea, mega bad, but I said to Jenny that she could cool her jets and let me find out for myself because all that shit about Brad fucking Zoe is nothing I don't know about already and ---"
A breathless gush , a river of seamless nouns and adjectives, accelerated in tempo and announced to the entire bus in a pitch that resembled the high strung whine of apartment house plumbing when someone takes a shower; her voice was less appealing than a six year old with a bullhorn. I rose and asked her to lower her voice. She stopped talking."Your talking about stuff that's too personal for 
public consumption. We don't want to participate in your conversation..." Christ, I sounded like a goddamned old man, older than my father ever sounded when he chastised me for unctuous behavior in public. But I am an old man, truth be told, fifty four , almost fifty five, and convinced that I've lived long enough to not have to put up with this mindless inconsideration. Of course, I was talking to a nineteen year old girl, and not some muscled loud mouth male, or a crack head trying to score a fix. Big man. Still, let it be known.


Of course, I calmed down. Not good for the blood pressure to fume about the small stuff. But the irritation lingers, it's not likely to subside, and what makes matters really aggravating is my awareness that I'll have to , at some time, get a cell phone.

I oppose cell phone use commercial airlines and applaud the FAA's refusal to allow them to be used. It's not right to force people to listen to chatter junkies prate on and on when one hasn't the option to move to a quieter spot. Cell phone users driving cars, in check out lines, in theaters, in bookstores, in cafes must all be quiet. "Social conventions" have yet to emerge as something we apply to cell phones. If there is a "given" about the devices, it's that owners assume they have a right, mandated from God, to use their phones where ever they choose to discuss whatever they like, making life in the city all that less delightful. San Diego, New York, Chicago, Detroit, folks flip them open, prate about their affairs no matter how inane or personal or private--I had to listen to a psychiatrist wax to a colleague about a patient, name and everything, about a patient's difficulties and the treatments he wasn't responding to in the middle while in the middle of a crowded bookstore. So much for doctor/patient privilege. Really, social conventions, such as tact,respect for your fellows, holding a civil tongue in public, are dismantled and discarded when cell phones enter the picture. I don't regard the use of a cell as an unconditional civil right and would encourage Airlines to simply ban them outright, on the principle that paying that kind of money ought not be a buy-in to listening to yammering neurotics whose company I cannot leave until the plane touches down. Or when my bus comes to my stop.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A poem by Joyce Carol Oates

"Kite Poem," the Joyce Carol Oates poem selected and posted at  by Robert Pinksy a year or so ago, brought audible moans from my lips when I first read it and considered it at the time to be her expected stew of haphazard, unproductive edginess. It was settled: violations of form which worked for her fiction writing more often than not made her poems drear and precious attempts to dance along the edge of reason in hopes art results in the transgression. I re-read it today to see if I had been too harsh, too quick to judge, reacting in a pique of professional jealousy. I gave it another several going over:

Her art as a prose writer is problematic enough; depending on who you talk to, she is either the most important American novelist since Faulkner, or she is a grotesque aberration of the language, taking too little care to craft her ideas or her prose. I am somewhere in the center of that controversy, thinking that she writes too rapidly to be consistently good, but acknowledge that she here novels have ofttimes been brilliant explorations of the psychologically marginal personality and that at her best, she can produce great fiction that concerns itself with the sudden violence that can visit any of us, at any time. She is a major novelist, like it or not. But she is an awful poet, and why she follows this thing other than the compulsion to write in every style and genre she comes upon--look ma, no hands. But what it seems she's attempting to show us as being an effortless work is instead cryptic, undecided, and full of awkward poses. The form is one thing, rather clever in a third-grade crafts class kind of way, but a move that begs for a death sentence. Those of us old enough to remember the fad for concrete poetry and the quizzically airless experiments of Richard Kostelanetz and his late modernist cronies will find this ploy, well, quaint. Better than Oates concern herself with content because the form otherwise dictates something like the air itself; emptiness.

I think, maybe, that Oates is proposing a new form of poetry, Compressed Literalism, as there's the feeling that she intends nothing beyond the banality of these unremarkable lines. That would have been fine had there been something else implied, something another feeling, idea, a paradox of things in the normative world that the sight of kites provoked Oates to speak of these things. Imagists, at their best ("The Red Wheel Barrel," "In the Metro"), manage to create whole worlds with their precise treatment of the image. Oates evokes nothing other than an offhand remark that only seems to start an idea and never finish it. The last word, "heap," signifying the end of the kite's tail, is meant for us to get some irony visually, where the banal words are expanded, elaborated upon in our own imaginations. We're meant to finish the poem ourselves by operating as co-authors, but there is not enough art in all of Oates' artifice. It's cute, contrived, and dreadful, and it's a sin for a writer of Oates' otherwise impressive accomplishments to waste her reader's time with these soporific outings. Better another half dozen half-baked novellas in the likely chance a keeper is produced than any more stanzas that are without effort, art, or a hint of lyric grace. Mary Ann from Slate's Poetry Fray Bulletin Board asks, "Maybe she saves her "better" poems for hard copy literary journals and uses Slate for her more off-hand pieces."

Doubtful. I've read a few of her poems over two decades, and what's appeared on Slate is par for the course. She really hasn't the ear or the eye for the off-hand associations this sort of fragmented, harsh free verse she wants to write, ala Denise Levertov, Diane Wachowski, or the sainted Sylvia Plath. Nor does she have the patience to create a plausible case where negative capability plays forth. Her verses are ideas disguised as poems, but what's missing is a natural-sounding diction, a voice, and a sense of imagery that has the seamless quality of natural talent. From what I hear, she is a realistic fiction writer of a certain kind and a decent playwright. But she remains a lousy poet. If she wrote at a slower pace -- say, producing one novel a year ala Updike -- she'd get high praises for improving her craft and writing better-crafted books. She already receives primarily glowing reviews from critics; it's funny that it's those of us in the trenches, the readers, who do most of the complaining about Oates's sudden outpouring. She writes as if she wants to get the Nobel Prize in the worst way. Writing so many half-baked novels is undoubtedly the worst way to go about it. Beasts, a novella she released last year, is the kind of penny-dreadful she's wont to write. She often attempts a reversed feminist take on the subject of violence against women. In this case, the story of a young woman who falls for the power she believes resides in the knowledge and experience her poetry professor possesses. Naturally, what happens is that the girl is summarily drugged, raped, and subjected to various indignities, all of which will shatter her idealism and motivate her to change her assumptions and effect devastating revenge. Compelling abstractly, as a topic for a coffee glitch, but botched in the novel; the prose reads without a hint of conviction and would be more suitable if it were the treatment for the script of a miserable made for TV film.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Joe Scarborough's failure to make distinctions

The Imus Affair has been good for the cable talk shows this last week for the simple reason that it's freed any and all of the usual suspects from having to shuffling their talking points around intransigent political problems and allows them instead to opine, preen, pout, and shout over a simply grasped matter on which little or no
background information is required. It is a food fight, yes, and many things get said in heat over an event that is being spoken off in comically exaggerated terms.
It's been good for Joe Scarborough because it's let him reassert his conservative credentials ; his point , of course , is expected, but a valid one, which is why are rap artists getting off so freely for more offensive language than Imus ever uttered?
In the heat of debate--Scarborough's show can be a shout fest much of the time--Joe wonders why the New York Times, august institution it is, blesses vile rap language as genius and genuine poetry. Scarborough makes the common mistake of assuming that an individual critic's opinion on a consumer product is an official position of the newspaper. Joe, though, would be hard pressed to find an unsigned editorial on the OP/ED page endorsing gangster rap and everything mythos it indulges in. Joe, 'though, is not a stupid man and is well aware of the difference. It's a clever way for him to bash some liberals and the NY Times to reassert his conservative credentials and
make amends for the compulsive Bush bashing he's taken to in the last year. I don't mind the Bush bashing, nor mind that he's a conservative, but it's annoying when a smart guy plays dumb with simple distinctions to build up his credibility.

"GRINDHOUSE": a real grind, to the nub

There are few things sadder in Hollywood than watching a director's hot streak go cold, doubly sad when the freeze hits two directors in the same movie. Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill, Vols. 1 and 2) Richard Rodriguez (Spy Kids, Sin City), coming off critical and box office hits, evidently thought it would be a sure thing for them to combine their talents and mutual love of jacking up junky film genres and give the world Grindhouse. It sounded good when they batted the idea around, I'm sure; both would make an individual film as an homage to the slasher/zombie/car crash/women-in-chains flicks that used to populate downtown theaters that usually resided at the edge of the porn district, complete with scratches, missing reals, jumpy frames and melting film stock. The results are three hours of sheer send-up, accidental laughs, and more than a little tedium. "Planet Terror," written and directed by Rodriguez, is a labored parody of flesh-eating zombies, mad scientists, maverick Army squads, geared for maximum gross-out effect with the overflow of exploding heads, bloodstreams, severed limbs, and oozing pustules being popped. "Death Proof," Tarantino's offering in honor of the road movie, is talky, chatty, wordy, prolix in ways that stop being amusing and begins to feel like the time-killing schtick it actually is. That the talk, talk, the talk takes place among women rather than clubby male comfort he usually scribes these lines for is significant only in that even with women characters Tarantino reveals habit of over-marinating his best writing. At best, the dialogue is naturalistic and formal without showing a strain; one easily imagines anyone of their friends who switch their dictions in midphrase without a hint of pretension. Tarantino's problem, though, is that the writing becomes the showpiece and distracts from the narrative, what there is of it. By the time we encounter Kurt Russell and his serial killing stunt car, we are simply too stupified to thread the excess of chick-chat with any underlining irony QT might have in mind or any hint of homage or parody he'd like us to witness.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Don Imus Gets Canned

Don Imus is a crotchety geezer who, on his best day at the microphone, radiates an incomprehensible arrogance that cannot be traced to any innate talent or knack on his part. There is nothing intrinsic about Imus--not intellect, not wit, not looks--that is admirable or worth the stale sweat naked envy evokes. His talent, as it were, is his penchant for being an asshole, of not giving a good goddamn what others think of him. What is obvious is that he's that sort who merely wanted to be famous, and didn't care what he was famous for. It paid off, to be sure, since he's been marketed as that supposedly rare breed of iconoclastic truth tellers who actually say what the rest of us are thinking." It's claptrap and marketing, and the drive time audience loved to listen to the bellicose bile and offending slurs
for those pre-dawn excursions on the freeways to the office. His bad karma has gathered against him over all the years that he's been given a pass by bosses and media critics, and his recent fall, having been fired by both MSNBC and CBS in the aftermath of his "nappy headed hos" crack about the Rutgers Women's Basketball Team, strikes me as something he might has well have been asking for. Ideally, we will have seen the last of this frowning scarecrow and the rest of us can get on with things that actually interest us.But no. The story isn't going anywhere, and the experience of OJ, Michael Jackson and the debacle of Anna Nicole Smith staying for ceaseless, seamless, unending periods of time on our broadcast and cable talk shows remind us that American media is addicted to celebrity , obsessing over it as if it
were a religion,a metaphysically fixed certainty. The issue of racism and misogyny and other offenses are no longer the point; everyone wants to get their say in, everyone with half a a foot in the door of Fame wants to be associated with this farce, to the extent that the bad faith is boundless. Al Sharpton's fiasco with the Tawana Brawley and Jessie Jackson's referring to New York as "Hymietown" are not forgotten, but they aren't mentioned as the two of them bray and pontificate about injustice and all manner of foul words and deeds. The injustice, though, is that everyone having their say, even if what's uttered only mirrors that thing they claim to find abhorrent.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

More from my record collection

I've been clearing out old music these days, giving discs away, selling them, and playing a few I haven't heard for awhile. Here some of the one's I've kept:

"Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane" --Kenny Garrett

Kenny Garrett (alto saxophone), Pat Metheny (guitar), Rodney Whitaker (bass), Brian Blade (drums).

I guess I've been in a straight ahead mood lately, catching up with CDs I haven't played much since I bought them. Garrett acquits himself here on his alto, and allows himself to mess with Coltrane's' sacred phrases: a potent abstractionist when need be, but a man who's outgrown the old clothes and demonstrates an inspired re-tailoring of the material. "Giant Steps" has a swaggering waltz feel, with a sly, side long reading of the head, and Garrett's' improvisations come in deft, spiky explosions. Metheny remains a marvel of jazz guitar here, a continuing revelation since he more or less walked away from his fusion stance some years ago, and the bass and drum interplay between Whitaker and Blade tumbles and rolls nicely through out.

"Remembering Bud Powell" --Chick Corea and Friends

Roy Haynes (drums) Kenny Garrett (alto sax) Joshua Redman (tenor sax),Wallace Roney (trumpet) Christian Mc Bride (bass).

Yes, yes, I am playing a desperate game of catch up, and habits tend toward stellar tributes rather than primary sources, but this Corea Bud Powell collection is notable for, besides dense and cutting improvisations, is the quality of Powells' compositions. Corea resists the temptation to Latinise or fusionize the material and instead plays the charts straight--Powells' sense of harmonic build up and resolution is loopy, easing from sweetness to tart dissonance. All of which is the canvas for some good blowing. Corea reins in his extravaganzas and weaves around with a now untypical sense of swing. The efforts of Garrett and Redman are a reed lovers idea of heaven. Roney has a cool, crystalline tone , and his phrasing is meditative, reserved, nicely so, though one desires a Freddie Hubbardish scorch at odd times. Haynes and McBride are champs.

:Blues --Jimi Hendrix

A typical gathering of Hendrix loose threads, centered his outstanding blues guitar work: some tracks work better than others, the band is not always in tune , and sometimes drags terribly, but this is more than archival stuff for completest. "Red House" is included, always inspiring, and "Bleeding Heart", a truly mournful show blues work out that has only surfaced once or twice on some imports, has Hendrix digging deep into the frets. A live "Hear My Train A Comin'", originally on the "Rainbow Bridge" album, is a masterpiece of pure, blazing Hendrixism: Everything Hendrix could do right on the guitar is displayed here, the sonic flurries, the screaming ostinatos, the feedback waves that he turns into melodic textures with a snap of the whammy bar: this track ought to the one any Hendrix advocate plays as proof of the genius we speak about.

GO --Dexter Gordon

w/Gordon--tenor sax / Sonny Clark--piano / Butch Warren--bass / Billy Higgins--drums.

A 1961 gathering, a roll-up the sleeves where only the music mattered, from the sounds of things here. Gordon has such an easy gait on the slower, bluesier tunes, and an engulfing sense of swing on the faster tracks. And in between, any number of moods , his phrases whimsical, suggesting , perhaps, what Paul Desmond might have wished he sounded like if he would only dare step out of that glossy, modal style and burn a little. He might have garnered a bit of Gordon's humor. Billy Higgins is wonderful here, and Sonny Clark is a bright star through out: his chord work and harmonic turns brighten up the room.

Barbecue Dog --Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society

Cranky post-Miles fusion, highlighting the tone-dialing bass work of Jackson, and pre-Living Color guitar work from Vernon Reid. Lessons from everywhere--bop and Zappa, Miles and Ornette--some of this does not hang together as well as it might, but some tracks mesh to fantastic results: particularly "Harlem Opera". Quizzical and cubist.

Jazz at the Hi-Hat
--Sonny Stitt

w/Stitt--alto and tenor sax/Dean Earl--piano/Bernie Griggs--bass/Marquis Foster--drums.

Whether Stitt came up with this style on his own or did in fact cop from Charlie Parker is moot: this album, a 1954 live date with a strong band whose reputations are unknown to me, shows him playing as if he owned the style solely: the phrasing is fluid and ridiculously rapid, ebullient and melodic all through the melodies. Conventional fair, but pulsing bop, alive and kicking.

Ed Palermo Big Band Plays the Music of Frank Zappa

Superb selection of material--"Peaches and Regalia", "Twenty Small Cigars", "King Kong"--but you feel Palermo labored too hard to transcribe Zappa's music exactly. Still, the compositions stand tall, but the formalist air doesn't lighten. I kept wondering what it would have sounded like for Palermo to have a smaller band that substantially reworked Zappa's works, really messing with the moods, and extending. Maybe some one will see that through some day.

One of A Kind--Bill Bruford

w/Bruford--drums and percussion/ Allan Holdsworth--guitar / Dave Stewart --keyboards / Jeff Berlin-- bass

The King Crimson and sometime Yes drummer had occasional jazz-fusion sessions when he wasn't furnishing beats behind abstruse angst fantasies, and surprisingly, the music holds up well. There is not an amphetamine strain fuzz tone anywhere to be heard. What helps are good tunes, most by Bruford, that mix up funk, Zappa, and Prog-rock stylistics under unmannered conditions, allowing the instrumental work to mesh, mess around, and burn as needed. Holdsworth offers some impressive ultra legato lines, and Jeff Berlin is singular on the bass. Bruford, hardly a Tony Williams-like goliath, fusion monster, lacks some the swing you might like, or even the blunt Bonham-oid pow! to make this rock harder, but he's an able timekeeper who keeps the session forging ahead.

Zygote --John Popper

Curious to see if the Blues Traveller leader might extend his unique harmonica playing to some styles that might render his speedy riffing into something consistently resembling music, but NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. Twice, I count, he lets us know that he's a terribly fast player whose blurring cascades overwhelm you, but even on these tracks he becomes directionless, wheezing, void of an inspiration except perhaps to think that if he plays real fast , all the time, he might live up to the offensive comparisons of to Coltrane that have been made by more than one nitwit reviewer. Sugar Blue is your man, if you need rapid fire harmonica work. The songs? They sound like a man ploughing a field without a horse. Cumbersome at worse. At best, tuneful, but not often enough.

Monday, April 9, 2007

American Idol's Pitch to Destroy Celebrity

It seems each cable talk show is required to have an American Idol segment in which commentators, critics and erstwhile political hacks try to assess the impacat of that show on American Culture, and more importantly, why such a mewling, tuneless, graceless ham like Sanjaya Malakar on the show. The subtext, if there is one, is who do we blame, producers, advertisers, network execs? Who is tampering with the voiting protocols?

Actually, one may as well blame the people who are voting for Sanjaya; the wise man noted that no ever lost money underestimating the intelligence (or the taste) of the American public. Sanjaya is this generation's Mrs.Miller or Tiny Tim, and what people seem to be responding isn't his courage, or even his "heart", that vague, schmaltzy quality the gullible will use to euphemize the lack of talent. Sanjay, in fact, seems heartless, even calculated--his wretchedness is put forth by design, for a purpose. What he does have is an unslakeable thirst for fame, wealth, the desire for center stage. He's that guy in drama class who was smitten with his porno doll looks whom we've all seen leering at himself in each mirror he passes; Sanjay wants to be stared at, adored. Every musical genre he deforests, each ballad he abuses, each uptempo song he ties to chair and takes a rubber sap to are all means to keep him on the air, under the spotlight, on the blogs and the cable talk shows no matter what is being said about his presence. It's about this fool attaining fame, no matter the cost.
His audience adores his singular ambition to be larger than life, and with the fact of there now being scads of famous people without a trace of measurable, observable talent might well be the End of Celebrity As We Know It.
That, of course, may not be a bad thing, since the alternative to watching pointless famed folks on TV is to pay attention to one another instead.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Tom Sleigh, Again

It's prudent to refrain from declaring someone a bad writer merely because you might dislike a particular piece they've written, particularly a poem. Bad poems happen to good poets who write them, and such is the case for Tom Sleigh, who's poem "The Hole" I slammed awhile ago when I first read it in Slate. Perhaps my case was over stated, but I still think it's a stinker, but lo!, doing a Google search on Sleigh produced a bounty of helpful info on him, and some of his poems as well, all of them ranging from pretty good indeed to absolutely splendid. Sleigh might be tone deaf occasionally--my own work is too often a drone one experiences in vacuum cleaner product testing laboratories--but he is , in essence, a solid crafts men, a genuine lyricist. His erudition creates resonance , not static, and what I especially liked is this poem:

After Midnight

After midnight in the summer heat,
the black river of the road flowing out and out,
windows rolled down, tires buoyant as water,

the car floats through the night gone still forever
around the hospital on the hill,
the neon of the ER turning the waiting eyes to glass.

Mist rises from the river,
the moon nowhere in sight,
only thick-leaved trees sweeping the cool black.

Secret in her power, like a sunroof
sliding open to the air, Athena touches you
and makes you, to yourself, younger, stronger

--vital as the river where rats
along the bank breed in the sweet grass
infusing the heavy air,

the radio tower
above the quiet city beaming
from its lone eye a voice sobsinging,

"Spring can really hang you up the most" . . . disenchanted
siren who sings you back into yourself
warily hoarding the charmed strength

of your middle age, your eyes not on the stars
but on a shadow under the trees
like Cyclops in his cave

praying to Poseidon to deliver you
to destruction even as you boast, "My name
is No Man, No Man is my famous name--"

the car hurtling weightless through the open night.

The lives of the gods are truly our own as Sleigh
invokes the classic paradoxes, challenges and tests in unpretentious language that sounds like it is actually addressing tasks that have weight, are a burden. All this rushing, hurrying, desperate conquests of obstacles are no less and no more important than the jitters of nervous gods on a hot night on Olympus, and as we humans struggle with torpor and fend off the urge to fall asleep behind the wheels of cars, we draw our strength from gods we've forgotten the names to. Similarity is everything, and it's merely a matter of scale --Herculean meets Walter and Mrs.Mitty---but the frustrations, satisfactions and the moods in between are the same.

The language as well is enticing, intoxicating, set up with verbs and adjectives that artfully stationed; the movement is tangible, as in the sharp, effervescent sweep of the opening.Fine, fine writing.

After midnight in the summer heat,
the black river of the road flowing out and out,
windows rolled down, tires buoyant as water,

the car floats through the night gone still forever
around the hospital on the hill,
the neon of the ER turning the waiting eyes to glass.

This is a panorama worth of John Dos Possos's from USA Trilogy, in a world where it would seem Harte Crane and Wallace Stevens have their personalities melded for a sense of the Supreme Fiction settled in a city we recognize as very much like our own.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

April is the cruelest month

It'd be interesting to have Bernstein meet up with Steve Kowit [] and see if they can hash out their differences. As Bernstein rails against the fact that National Poetry Month emphasizes a more accessible , "mainstream" style in order to secure an audience , all while sacrificing the brave work of more experimental, edgier, gutsier poets (like himself), Kowit argues in his essay that the difficult, the avant gard and the abstract poem had taken over the poetry main stage and choked out more accessible poets as a result. Each side seems to view it's aesthetic as an endangered species at the hand of their evil twin. Bernstein himself is a Language poet, a method that attacks the idea that traditional ways of writing about experience and ideas in poetic fashion accomplish anything like truth; in fact, Bernstein and friends would insist that traditional Western poetics are oppressive and express nothing but the hegemony of soul-crushing capitalism.

Language poetry, and similar radical styles before and since, are by nature limited to a small audience, less because the means of distribution kill potentially high sales of the works of Zukofsky, Charles Olson or Ron Silliman, but more that the originality of the new styles are constructed precisely to challenge, baffle, and mock the expectations of the general reader. Marginal poetries demand intellectual rigor, the argument goes, and those who stay the course and master the critical vocabularies will get "IT".
That might be the case, but the general audience instinctual dislikes being held in contempt by small bands of snobs, whether New Formalist conservatives or left-leaning Languagers, and the collective sensibility of the interested audience will seek things that don't precede on the premise that they're morons who need to be instructed by their betters.Poetry has been an elitist practice for decades, and the efforts to bring a larger audience into the fold and investigate the diversity of verse styles is a good think, regardless of the misgivings of the abtruse few. I doubt books will vanish, nor that experimental and radical writing will cease; more likely, such forms will most likely gain readers because of efforts to get buyers to invest in Dorrianne Laux or Frank O'Hara instead of Mitch Albom or Dwayne Dyer.I have to say that I've enjoyed a good number of language poets and their poems, having taken classes from more than one of them, and done readings with them in the past. Take away the political shell of their theory and you have yet one among the many avant gard movements that have contributed to the richness and variety of American verse.Their agenda and goals were limited , though, and the problem is that the good work was done early on; particular works of Bob Perelman are perfectly comprehensible once you discern the satiric shrift he gives the rhetoric of political and academic speech, Rae Armantrout's best work has a compressed self awareness that compares somewhat favorably with some of Dickens and Millay, and Ron Silliman's work extends the cubist angles that Gertrude Stein gave her more invigorated writings.The difference, one might say, is that they gave their devices a different name, though I think the techniques are largely the same, and the purpose of their writings is to force language to do things other than render the world into pretty pictures and have valorize the predictable responses of narrative personalities within the conventional framework.We see, of course, that the work was finished early, and what was legitimate experimentation , a desire to develop new ways of looking at the world through the sieve of language , became naught but another style, incoherent for its own sake.By the time I came across and met these poets in college during the late Seventies and early Eighties, their moment had already passed, and since then have ceased to be a leading force in the culture. The controversy over the language poets in the areas where these contentions matter abated some years ago, as we've seen the vital resurgence of meaning as the principle purpose of the poem. Houlihan's 2000 essay is many years behind the times, and it makes you think that this was an old, unpublished batch of resentment she had lying around until this opportunity to publish it online.I'm sure she's a fine writer and a nice person in real life, but one wonders as well what kind of trauma the language poets put her through to make her attempt to revivify a controversy that's no longer relevant to the state of the art.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

"The Hole" , a poem by Tom Sleigh

Few kinds of writing are worked on as hard as a bad poem; sometimes I suspect poets are aware that they've committed to an unworkable conceit and labor over it from pride, misplaced as it goes. Gonna make this son of a bitch work, goddamnit, no matter how hard it squirms and wriggles to get away. The reek of dried flop sweat never quite leaves the result. Tom Sleigh, otherwise a good poet, has one of them with "The Hole", published last year in Slate.From the first stanza where the wind is laughably compared to a dog trying to make a bed against the foul weather--rather hard to anthropomorphise the wind as a pooch let alone reconstruct our associations enough to imagine weather conditions seeking shelter against itself--to the self-conscious literary references to poets and their writings, I found Sleigh's poem dead on arrival. I object: wind is not like a dog , unless one lives in a cartoon,and the logic of having a weather condition digging for protection against itself reads like an insular joke about post-modern
self-reflectivity or , better yet, existential self-examination inspired by a light reading of Walter Kaufman. It takes too much explaining, it distracts
from the notion that Sleigh lacks a point to get to, or even an idea to develop through the stanzas. It is, in plain fact, bad writing, the depressed equivilent of the crowd who compose optimistic poesy and decorate their notebooks with hearts and roses.It's poetry written to fulfill a task: BE DEPRESSING,BE HAPPY!! This command-theme poetry caters to its respective audiences the way sundry and contrived pop music does; it allows the reader a fake sense of the poetic and reflective without any real work being done. Inspiration, the drive to side step obvious tropes and catch phrases and usual riffs, makes no appearence in this make-work effort.

One may, if they're inclined, sift through the images and dissociated images to get meanings and inferences to larger, buried controversies, but this poem is freighted with rather typical angst and dread. Sleigh's symbolism is the kind of thing one wrestled with in the fifties and sixties with Lowell, Plath and Sexton, disguised and not so disguised confession and perpetuated despair that sometimes resulted in striking, brilliant verse. The brilliant verse, remember,was the result of the poets trying their best to come up with a poetry of a sort that hadn't been composed before. Not all of it was good, some of it was especially self indulgent and grueling to the eye and ear, but there was genius somewhere in those lines, some of which emerged in particular poems. Sans the occasional spark, much of the work of Lowell, et al, seem less poetry and more the mutterings of

Sleigh's slide- show confession gets stuck , frames askew. It's a grab bag of corroded symbolism that he drags around in a burlap bag, trying to sell off for gas fare. It's just not very good.There are many "new" poetries making the rounds, as there always has been. I prefer poems that work structurally, whatever the style or technique. The poems shouldn't have language that is strained, labored, or needlessly opaque, vague or abstruse, there should be a fresh idea or perception at the heart of the writing.From the first stanza where the wind is laughably compared to a dog trying to make a bed against the foul weather--rather hard to anthropomorphize the wind as a pooch let alone reconstruct our associations enough to imagine weather conditions seeking shelter against itself--
to the self-conscious literary references to poets and their writings, I found Sleigh's poem dead on arrival. I object: wind is not like a dog , unless one lives in a cartoon,and the logic of having a weather condition digging for protection against itself reads like an insular joke about post-modern self-reflectivity or , better yet, existential self-examination inspired by a light reading of Walter Kaufman. It takes too much explaining, it distracts from the notion that Sleigh lacks a point to get to, or even an idea to develop through the stanzas. It is, in plain fact, bad writing, the depressed equivalent of the crowd who compose optimistic poesy and decorate their notebooks with hearts and roses.

There are many "new" poetries making the rounds, as there always has been. I prefer poems that work structurally, whatever the style or technique. The poems shouldn't have language that is strained, labored, or needlessly opaque, vague or abstruse, there should be a fresh idea or perception at the heart of the writing. Frank O'Hara, Dorrianne Laux, Kim Addonizzio, John Ashbery, Richard Tillinghast, Paul Dresman, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Paul Blackburn, among several slews of others who do the artful balancing act of writing in a manner that is both friendly to the ear, simulating spoken rhythms, with a heightened rhetoric that makes the expression memorable, worth a second and third read. The goal is to seem natural, and the writer's stance might be to consider what it is he or she might want to read if they were to spend some time with stanzas. What they share is not style or ideology but rather an ability to make me, the reader, stop a second and consider their thoughts.

Poetry,especially free verse, should just about never have itself as subject matter, nor should the poet refer to him or herself as a poet in the work. The self-referentiality is a dead give away that the poet is stuck for a transition and will instead digress among a plenitude of ready made discourses about poetry before getting on with the show, often times with ham-handed transitions from the poetry rap to the larger theme. The poet who refers to themselves as "poet" in a poem is often times bragging without a accomplishment to justify their pride; it's a conceit that maintains that the "poet" is the antenna of the race and is capable of greater perception than the poor, clueless reader.This marks an insecurity on the poet's part that they're not really sure of what they want to say, and it comes off as busy work rather than actual poetry writing. As such, it distracts, detracts , diminishes and otherwise gets in the way of what a poem ought to be doing, sans self-justification. A poem should be proactive with life, not the writer's library.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Emily Dickinson ponders immortality

Emily Dickinson, the mistress of compressed reflection, advances her belief in the probable darkness that follows death when she writes on the subject of the immortality of poetry. As with much of her work through her harbored life, there was a preoccupation with the concept that sheer nothingness awaited each of us. There was no "passing over", there was no seat next to God despite sermons and summons to behave righteously, there was no ethereal vantage point to see what writings were still read, which had been scrapped, which we rediscovered. Death was not a "state" one lapsed into as if it might be something one might come out of again; it was entirely non-being, bereft of potential. The fate of a poet's work, in popular regard and currency, were to be unknown once the lights went out. She doubtless refers to her own work with these lines:


The Poets light but Lamps— 
Themselves—go out— 
The Wicks they stimulate— 
If vital Light 

Inhere as do the Suns— 
Each age a Lens 
Disseminating their 

She seems to assert that the poem survives if it is vital and with that the meaning of the poem changes with each generation that it passes through. Author intentionality is relevant only when the poet is still alive and is around to make further arguments, write more poems to expand or contract their original thesis. Afterward, what the author intended to say, what they originally meant, becomes merely historical, and the poem assumes a life independent of its author's particulars. The poem, because it is vital, is adapted and absorbed by each succeeding "lens" "circumference" it passes through; vital poems and vital literature in general are a means for which the intellectual and cultural givens of age can confirm or critique the legitimacy of their habits of mind.
The text of the poem, or the author's thinking and intentions, cease being the end-all and be-all of interpretation since the work's passage through generations of readers and discourse presents a contemporary audience with something layered and laden with meanings and associations that are not easily dispensed with. The dialogues of a vital work have become as much a part of the poem as the actual words on the poet's tablet, freshly writ. This makes Dickinson quite contemporary in her thinking since it reveals an awareness that there is no metaphysical certainty that will lock her work's definitive and final meaning into place, for all time. Rather, she was aware that, seemingly, that so long as a poem continues to be read, it continues to be changed, revised, altered. She would have been an interesting person to discuss reader-reception theory with. I don't mean to say that what trying to grok what Dickinson is driving is impossible or useless; I think I overstated that part of my rant. Rather, I think it's impossible to read the poem in situ, by itself, sans outside references, which is how New Critics would have us take up the text. Generations of discussion and interpretation have become inextricable from a vital poem and, though one may well re-establish a poet's original set of concerns and the gestalt from which their poetics originated, that is not a place modern readers can profitably dwell for long. Our readings must engage decades of previous readings that have become inseparable from the vital work. The goal is comprehension, in terms of making a poem mean something to readers beyond the poet's imagining, and that means creating new contexts and criteria for relevance. That is something I positive Dickinson, always one aware of the nearness of death, had on her mind. Or something akin to it. I don't think Dickinson anticipated immortality, but it seems likely that she wondered how her poems would be interpreted beyond her life. She seems to have been of the mind that the poems, 'though fixed, as such, in the same scale of words, wouldn't be quite the same poems she'd written. Absent her voice to correct an erring view, she was aware that the poems would come to mean different things to commencing generations.