Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Barry Goldensohn offers up a poem titled "War Work" here, the intent being to bridge childhood memories of Manhattan thunder storms that he mistook for a nuclear attack, and how his parents consoled him that his small world still held its comforting center. A moving sentiment ,perhaps, if told in real life, but horrid and malnourished as a poem. The poem confirms the tired complaint that too many poems are bad prose broken into irregular lines--the reader is given the worst qualities f both forms and must surrender to vague critical asides that claim there is more in the ambiguity than the unguided eye can connect. Or the reader must suffer the personal insult, by implication, that manage to live despite the fact that they have no heart. I suppose I have no heart.This poem is so weak that if on the off chance that this incident is true , I hope his parents made fun of him from that day forward, into his adult life. Writing this poem the way it is seems like an attempt to ennoble a childhood embarrassment by dressing it up in the unseemly character warping issue of Nuclear Destruction and General Apprehension. This has interest if one were to read it as a single entry on a blog, or paragraph out of a long letter, but as a poem is slight and repulsive for being so unambitious. It's the equivalent of being a bad mood while on the way to work early one mid-week day and seeing homeless men gathered at bus stops, smoking mooched cigarettes and drinking , and then having your mood uglier. You want to throw these guys in jail for being lazy, shiftless, drunk and leisurely at 7 in the morning while you and your fellow wage slaves go off to work to make a wage and eventually pay a tax that pays for the bench that has become their reclining point. It has nothing to do with fairness, logic, the like, and it goes against my professed belief in social justice, it's just an emotional response, hitting me like a sucker punch. I feel the same way about this poem; it irritates me that this half-baked pot of gummy sentimentality gets the exposure (and the poet gets the paycheck) while the rest of us work hard for our muse, producing better work in the responses to this gruel than the what the actual poem contains. Again, fairness, balance, reason has nothing to with this reaction, and it's obvious there are other things under the tight lid of my personality that makes me want to slap Goldensohn for being so shiftless in my presence (in a manner of speaking). Envy, resentment, arrogance? Well, yes, all those pesky defects. But beyond it all, beyond all my failings on this issue of being a wordy critic of other people's poems, this poem has the appeal of a small toy after a baby as finished slobbering and puking over it. It mights the bag, it chews the root, it sucks long, deep and with braced teeth. This poem is so bad it hurts.
Monday, July 30, 2007
I was sorry to read that Tom Snyder, maverick and generously egocentric talk show host for NBC in the seventies with his late night Tomorrow Show program, has died of leukemia at age 71. In the same period it was the hipper choice to prefer Dick Cavett's brand of chatter with writers like Mailer, Vidal and Kingsley Amis, but there was something controlled about Cavett's manner that was at once appealing and off putting. You wanted him to get steamed when a rude or inane guest was getting on his nerves, but he didn't, falling silent for a moment instead and adding a fast quip or witticism to defuse the tension. Snyder, on the other hand, was all gusto, having something of a Marine attitude in a conversation that made him charge forward with a barrage of questions towards a guest whose work or notoriety our late host seemed positively clueless about. In a constant grey ribboned haze of cigarette smoke, he'd bluster, laugh, wave his arms, slip into rather pointless anecdotes about small TV or radio stations he used to work (complete with suggestions about what bistro served up the best steak, and the like) and ask questions that at times seemed to mystify his guests. Best of all, Snyder often blew his cool. Actually, he never tried to be cool, as MacLuhan's dictum of what a "cool medium" demands of a personality. Snyder was hot, hot tempered, hot blooded, a loose cannon. One of my favorite television memories during college was his attempt to interview Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols; Snyder would field some questions, seeking some information on which to base the rest of the interview. Rotten, noted malcontent and general purpose Antichrist, rebuffed Snyder again and again with a host of Anglophone vulgarities. Snyder in turn fumed and told Rotten as much, with the result being an effective deconstruction of the talk show format. Johnny Rotten refused to play along, and Tom Snyder refused to pretend that nothing was wrong. Good show, Tom. Fire up a colortini for me.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Robert Frost is better than Edgar Guest, I suppose. But he drives me crazy with all these slant rhymes and pastoral silences. I wish he could make me think that there was something horrible going on over that hill, in that cabin covered in the snow, in that grove of trees, by that still lake highlighted by moonlight. But he doesn't, and too bad. This is a world of someone who doesn't need the company of others,and that, frankly, is so quaint it's insufferable.There are those who will rightly protest the unfairness of my dismissal of this revered poet and correctly point out that are poems he's written that are darker, more complex than the winter and fall landscapes I characterize his verse as. But it's to no avail.
All the same, I just never cared for Frost's brittle diction and solitary pluming of his darker side; if there was something horrible going on behind the shrewdly arranged stillness of his poems, and if that something were in his house, then it was all in his head. I thought it was corny and contrived and airless when the nuns had us all parse his efforts and then write papers on the constant presence of death that pulses under the surface of his unadorned lines, but even at that age I distrusted the writers' persona. Bitter, depressed and solitary he might have been, but there also seemed to something machine-made about his poems; it was an easy style for the larger public to like and for the critics to praise and extol upon without seeming like they're blurbing merely for the sake of being quoted. The result, in my next to worthless opinion on the matter, is a poet who is over rated, over praised, over anthologized. I have never cared for the old boy's brand of grumpiness, and I never will.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
This is a weepy little exercise, written by a professional poet who knows the audience he was writing for, an intimacy having less to do with shared values than knowing which subjects and words can move a reader to awaken some easily agitated nest of sentimentality. Hirsch is one of the better grey-suited lyric poets of our time, but there times when his professionalism kicks in when his inspiration is flagging, and we end up with stanzas that seem to exist only to push buttons and bring the unexpected tear, the reverse of Billy Collins, who’s mastery more often than I care to admit make him serve up the easy laugh, the conceited snort. “Conceit” has everything to do with Hirsch’s “Green Couch”, drawing upon a poet’s life of homes and apartments filled with bookshelves and tacky furniture, a life characterized by the fact that the narrator remembers personal milestones by what turns his reading habits took:
That was the year I lived without fiction
And slept surrounded by books on the unconscious.
I woke every morning to a sturdy brown oak.
That was the year I left behind my marriage
of twenty-eight years, my faded philosophy books, and
the green couch I had inherited from my grandmother.
Smart man, reflective, in the center of a dissolving relationship, leaving through the door of three decades of marriage into unknown adventures. There’s a visual style here that is too obvious, an all seeing eye that not only gets the details but comes complete with flashbacks and back story; this is a cluttered storyline that is presented in orderly fashion, but reminds one of desk drawers that are artfully arranged and superbly organized that, for all their tidiness, look overstuffed all the same. You suspect there are things in the drawer that need to be tossed out, shredded, gotten rid of finally, not folded and placed in a pile of junk, according to size. The Hirsch poem reads like a outline for a two hour film, or a pitch for a miniseries, or a sketch for a middle brown romance where people in late middle age have their lives disrupted and discover that everything they know was conjecture after all, wishful thinking. Hirsch knows his audience the way a professional songwriter knows their market. The green couch, abandoned, stored, rescued and now awaiting a final disposal, becomes that immaterial thing that rather conveniently turns out to be the place where Hirsch’s narrator found the link between the expectations of having a life that makes sense and an education that warned he and generations of other readers that what we take for granted is not embedded and fixed.
All my difficult reading took place on that couch,
which was turning back into the color of nature
while I grappled with ethics and the law,
the reasons for Reason, Being and Nothingness,
existential dread and the death of God
(I'm still angry at Him for no longer existing).
The counterpoint here is one of those stray bits of detritus that fell from the drawer that’s been opened too many times; the drawer we figuratively speak of, as well as the poem itself, slides into disarray. All the neat symmetry falls away from use and scrutiny, and Hirsch, the professional, imagines time is money and that one, being professional, must bring this project in on time and under budget. We get rushes of biographical tidbits that haphazardly attempt to show us that the green couch, that molding and reeking remnant of a life that no longer exists, is both the symbol of the narrator’s deeply felt convictions, and is also an empty signifier, merely an aging assemblage of wood frame and spring with which the narrator has unattended issues.This is the kind of poem that inspires critiques that are more exciting than the actual art ; an analysis is fine and subtle, edging on brilliance hell, let's say it, it is brilliant, and so saying this illustrates for me the problem with the poem, something that inspires sympathetic responses more an application of generic technique than a guiding inspiration, and results in commentaries that are far more arresting and intriguing than the poem they try to illuminate.
For all your sympathetic and incandescent explication on how things are arranged in this poem and how they appear to be having a dialogue with the writer through the decades, I never shook the feeling that these were instructions for a montage in a weepy soap opera in which each frame and item within the frame is arranged for pure, suggestive value. Only in this case it is less the suggesting than the telling t I likewise think it is an underperforming work from a poet with as much talent as Hirsch. I had worked in bookstores for years, and it was expected by my managers that I'd read four or five books a week, novels mostly, and in the near decade of having to do that in the interest of making informed recommendations I found myself reading a number of novelists who's fictions of irritable middle class folks seemed sheared from the same, unruly cloth. You begin to sense when things are going to turn specific ways by conspicuous signifiers--blinking answering machine lights, someone espied in the distance for no particular reason who shows up thirty or forty pages later with a life changing challenge for the hero or heroine--and though one can learn to enjoy these mechanized movements in prose fiction (something about prose helps you accept suspend disbelief and enjoy the yarn on its own terms) it is disquieting to see the same moves in poetry, a form that many writers claim eschews the obvious in favor of the original. All writing has formula, of course, all writing comes down to a structure that will help a writer finish a sentence and come to their point, the effect they want to have. Aesthetic preference, though, insists that such things be invisible, undetectable. This poem is an occasion where Hirsch wasn't able to hide the map he was using to fill up the page. hat gets me. This poem is film like without at all seeming cinematic.
That was the year that I finally mourned
for my two dead fathers, my sole marriage,
and the electric green couch of my past.
Darlings, I remember everything.
But now I try to speak the language of
the unconscious and study earth for secrets.
I go back and forth to work.
I walk in the botanical gardens on weekends
and take a narrow green path to the clearing.
And so, the last recall of a dying father plus one, a lone, forsaken marriage, a loud resounding sigh, a whispering metaphor at the end suggesting a psychic departure from the city and a migration to the country to “study the earth for secrets”. His life is reduced to the comings and goings of his profession, persisting against loneliness, bitterness, disappointments in the exactitude of his routine, yet retaining the hope that he might grow and achieve yet more insight, perspective, by walking the short lengths of botanical garden and green paths. This lets readers off the hook Hirsch was impaling them with; he retains hope, his is still a romantic, tomorrow will be another day!!
Fiddlesticks. This might be marvelous if Hirsch had spared us the tangents and conditional ironies and provided rest spots along the way. The poem, though, is tight as a drum head, and just as airless. “Green Couch” would work well if it had been boiled down to essentials, fewer details that would have more plausible secret history of the things we own. But what we have instead are several plots to many "B" movies.
Monday, July 23, 2007
Sunday, July 22, 2007
David Eggers tries to disarm readers with the ironic intention of the title, and it's worked, it seems. I smell bullshit, though. For all the self-reflective contrivances he forces himself to build, for all the zany-escapade tone he lets rip through the pages, Eggers doesn't sound as if he's able to get a handle on his own story, and in fact, I sense a certain glee, underneath the expected incomprehension and shock of the death of both his parents and the sudden weight of responsibility, that all this bad luck was happening to him because oh boy, I have something to write about, oh boy boy oh boy!!!
In my college days, I used to go out with friends and get do all kinds of fucked up things so we can have "experiences" to write about, and any kind of bad luck streak that would happen to one of our future-Hemingway pals would make us perversely envious: that raw material would make for some fine writing. We used to joke, in fact, as to how many pages a particular stunt or even would avail us. The actual writing his mindset produced among us was , in large part, arrogant, grandiose, inflated, mannered, untempered by real empathy, clotted up with bookish conceits that made reading them a dreary endurance. My apologies to those I inflicted these pages on. Egger's book is the shock of recognition. It's a pity, however, that this story had to become material for yet another book that short-sheets the strength of the story line in order to wallow in the psuedo-problems current brands of lit-crit have created. This is a case where neither the tale nor the teller can be trusted. If he'd saved this narrative and did the harder work of transforming it into a novel, a deliberate fiction of some kind, this Mad-magazine style autocritique might have worked: it does not, and what we have is a tone of constant anxiety: this kid wants to get off the stage, but keeps talking anyway, incessantly, hoping something clicks. What Eggers needed here, and will need in the future, is an editor who can use the blue pencil, and is willing to send pages back for rewrite. Eggers problem is stylistic rather than factual. The grating , unearned irony he structures Heartbreaking with simply makes his personality unreadable. I am an ogre for stylish writing, but the preening Eggers has here simply destroyed the story. Eggers book is something I endured, not enjoyed. The shock of recognition. "Unearned irony" is the deployment of a dominant narrative line that is the nominal subject of the story, while at the same time winking and whispering and nudging the reader that it's ,like, so wierd. This eye-rolling irony dominates the book , and avoids the work needed to make real irony work, which is that real irony is the result of several situations in the narrative being developed, over time short or long, that result in nuanced epiphany where a character in the story is at odds with the "real world" he inhabits. It's power resides in the not knowing when the effect takes place: the point is that you're not supposed to see the irony approaching, best shown in The Recognitions by William Gaddis, or The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Carey. The effects here are worked for artfully. Eggers stops just short of announcing that he's being ironic. A magician who shows how their tricks are done perhaps ought not to be a magician: maybe an editor. Or a literary critic. Now that would be ironic. For editors, it is precisely the job of an editor to make manuscripts into books, to eleminate the fat, to blue pencil digressions and areas of receding interest and, believe, send pages back for rewrite. The tendency is to let manuscripts, "experimental" or otherwise, get sent to the press without editorial oversight. It's a waste of perfectly good forest. Wisdom needn't be the censor that kicks in after a certain age, but it can have the effect of giving one a sense of how an interesting life can be told in an interesting way, ironic or otherwise. Best of all, though, an acquired wisdom ought to avail one with a self-editing instinct and to realize the difference telling a story and committing coffee talk to paper.
Rock and roll is the great escape artist of the century, a genuine Houdini of an art form. I go back to what was posted before, that the desire to play the guitar with hurricanes of passion, and rage cannot be killed. Whatever else happens, Spirit prevails. What stinks, it seems, is the obnoxious certainty in the use of the word "dead": rock and roll is as its always been in my experience, mostly "trendy assholes" and an intriguing swath of credible acts, bands and solo, who keep the edgy rigor of the music in tact, and vital. The dustbin of history is always full, what survives the clean sweep is anyone’s' guess. In the mean time, I reserve the right to be excited, engaged but what is honest and, to whatever extent, original. If I'm tired of dead things, I should leave the grave yard.
Rather, I think it's criticism that's ailing, if not already deceased as a useful activity. Rolling Stone abandoned itself to gossip magazine auteurism, Spin gives itself over to trendy photo captions and for the scads of "serious" commentary , much of it has vanished behind faux post- structurualist uncertainty: criticism as a guide to larger issues at hand within an artists work is not being done. Rock criticism, taking its lead , again, from the worn trails of Lit/Crit, has abandoned the idea that words and lyrics can be about anything. But rock and roll, good and ill, cranks on. The spirit that moves the kid to bash that guitar chord still pulses. To say that bad, abstruse writing can kill that awards too much power to what has become an inane, trivial exercise.
The sooner I accepted that, the easier it became to listen to music I didn't grow up with. My frames of reference are less broad musically--I'm a harmonica player of thirty five years gasping experience in some times bands--but it seems to me that the difference falls between techniques versus talent. Technique, I'd say, is sheer know-how, the agility and finesse to get your fingers to execute the simplest or the most difficult of musical ideas. Talent, though, resides somewhere in the grey mists of the soul, where there is an instinct that, or lets say intelligence that knows how to make the best use out the sheer bulk of technical knowledge: making it all into music that's expressive and new.
Rock, like the blues, its closest elder relative, is principally about feel, and citing Dylan, Young, The Beatles and others as great musicians is to address the feel, the subtle combination of musical elements and lyrical blasts that result, at best, in the sheer joy drums, bass and guitars can provide. Rock criticism, when it's performed as a practice that seeks comprehension, and hearkening back to it's early days as an outgrowth of Lit Criticism, probes these elements and addresses why a blues guitar lick, roller rink organ, nasal vocals, over-miked drums and abstruse lyrics convey meanings and provoke responses whose origins are mysterious. It is feel, or Spirit, that connects Coltrane, Hendrix, Dylan, Little Feat, Hip hop, a sense of where to put the line, when to take it away, when to attack, when to with hold. Feel.
Rock, perhaps, is about trying to address the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable. That is what I think writers like Christgau, Marcus, and even (sigh) Dave Marsh aspire to do. Christgau and Marcus, at least, are inspired most of the time. Marsh remains a muddle, but then again, so are most attempts to talk about the extreme subjectivism of art making, be it music or other wise. Influence is an inevitable and inseparable part of being an artist, and a rock and roll musician is no less subject to the activity of borrowing from something they like. Without it, going through the eras, right up and including the debate about hip hop and its artists proclivities for Borg- style assimilation of others music onto their likeness, we would have no music to speak of. Or so it would seem to me. Our respective selves may be locked behind cultural identities that make it hard for us to interact, but our cultural forms mix together freely and easily.
I'm sympathetic to the crowd that prefers the soul of an instrumentalist to a sound board jockeys' manipulating of buttons and loops, but I do think that this is the advent of a new kind of canvas. Most new art seems profoundly ugly when first perceived, at least until the broader media brings itself up to speed.
I think that hip hop, rap, what have you, is an entrenched form, and is not going away. It will co-exist with rock and roll, and will mix its particulars with it, and generate a newer, fiercer noise. As music and musicians have always done. Anyone who argues that rock musicians are somehow responsible for the tragedy in Colorado are themselves a rock critic in the narrowest sense, and there we have an impassable irony, and more ironic, this is where some leftist brethren meet the Christian Right square on in what they gather is the source of all our social eruptions: popular culture in general. Neither the quacking vulgarists of the left nor the quaking apostles of the right like it very much, and both in their separate ways, and contrarily reasoned agendas, have attacked it, the source of whatever grace there was to fall from. The left will emit a squalling bleat about an "artists' responsibility" for the defamiliarizing "aestheticization" of real social problems , thus robbing working people of real political consciousness and maintaining the force of the Dominant Culture and Capitalist Imperative.
Such is the kind of no-neck culture-vulturing as a I listened to a Marxist lit professor critique "Guernica" or Frieda Kahlo’s' portraiture as though the modernist formalities Picasso and Kahlo put upon their canvases were the reason, and only reasons, that bombs go off, that babies die, and why woman get raped by art-sickened men. The Right, in turn, finds evidence of decay and decline in everything not sanctified in the Bible or in limitless free market terms, and everything that occurs in society that involves a tragedy on a spectacular scale is reducible, in their view, to the errant need for self-expression. Much of this is old hat--its been going on for years, and again, its the job of thoughtful critics, critics or are genuinely provocative to bring a larger analysis to bear on complex matters, to strive for truth that stirs us away from the intellectual panic that some of our pundits seem to want to fire up. We have another case of left and right agreeing on the basic tenet that artistic freedom is wrong headed, and that it must be hemmed in my so many conditions and restrictions that its practice would be practically pointless. We have a pining for a world of Norman Rockwell small towns and church bake sales.
How pathetic. The rock and rollers duty, as it is with any artist, is to seek and express the truth they perceive in the comprehensible in terms that extend our notions of what the human experience is.
Parenting is part of that profound experience. Might some people still be alive today if parents paid attention to what their sons were up to? Marylyn Manson is only the messenger of what's already in place: to shut up artists because the message is some times vile and ugly is, at best, cutting off our antennae to what the rest of the world is feeling.
Yet its curious here: the original claim was that rock music was dead, slain by critics, by extension Big Media, corporate America, which has turned it into a commoditized vulgarity through which it sells back a teenagers sullen notion of empowerment one CD and one Concert ticket at a time, reaping billions. But yet:
We're still out here playing, and teaching the unnoticed, the unheralded, and the unfashionable kids who, in spite of everything, want to be able to play to. So, I gather, rock and roll does live after all, it lives on because others, dedicated idealists like you from thirty years ago, continue to play and instruct younger players who want to play with an accomplished and feeling voice. I'm sure your idealism is real, Clint, and your CD collection enviable, but you've back tracked right into the opposition’s camp: rock and roll is a human activity that survives and persists despite marketplace distortions, if you're inclined to lazily call it that, and in fact even thrives because the market is open and unrestricted toward content. We insist, and you affirm by clarifying your sketchy autobiography, that it is force that continues in the places where people live and practice, not in high towers, corporate or academic.
As for Dylan and Marylyn Manson, I don't think that what they're doing is any less honest than a searing Allan Holdsworth guitar solo: it's a matter of making distinctions, and that is precisely the function of able criticism that David Smay makes in is superb post. The music, like all living art, changes constantly the more individuals from different experiences play with it, and commentary, at best, is an on going project that brings coherence to the phenomenon. It's an on going activity, it’s not done. Rock and roll is a large part of show biz, rebel-sanctum that is, and the comeback gambit is as old as drunk driving. Joan wants us to think that she remains teetering on the edge of the culture, is, in fact, more dangerous than she was before, is ridiculous at best, and to be expected. The results must be dreadful, though one wishes her well, and an audience. Chrissie Hinde , though silent for awhile, has managed to sound her age and still brandish a cutting gutter and verbal jibe, and others aging gracefully are plenty: Lou Reed, Bowie, Stones, Piggy, Grace Slick, who refuses to perform at all regardless of the offers. Even Blondie, who sound invigorated in their reformation. Debbie Harry, no longer the debutante, older and wiser, and wider for it, remains an intoxicating vocalist: her work with the Jazz Passengers didn't hurt a wit.
The Stones are ageing gracefully with respect to their studio work: the newer songs, I think, have a strong kick; Keith Richards remains an amazing source of riffs and melodic turns, while Jagger manages to turn in one impressive vocal after another. Live, all I can say is that they're workman-like, completely professional, and dull as white chalk. Boring. Pure show-biz.
Ditto on Eddy Vedder's yearning to be the moral voice of grunge and beyond: if he and his band mates wanted to avoid the cruel truth of big business, they well could gone with a smaller label to begin with, and spend their days driving to gigs in small alternative clubs, playing for car fare, integrity unsoiled. In lieu of that, he could just give all the money away and join a monastery. It would improve Pearl Jams' mu
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
James Reiss’s poem "Bureau of Missing Persons" disguises itself as a Borgesian fable where we have the superstructure and the casual filaments of narrative structure foregrounded, and what we would expect is a clever and disguised fable where once again our methods of explaining ourselves to ourselves and presenting to others is composed of an endless stream of fictions, and meta-fictions pretending to be true.
It is a tired conceit at this point in the 21st century, where each fanciful bit about surfiction, fabulation, self-reflectivity and late modernist pastiche have inched from the experimental margins of literary art and have been absorbed into the supremely commercial mainstream; it’s a wonder anyone would want to try yet again to get something fresh from the ritual disassembling and debunking of the last gallery of useable allegory, i.e., literary style and it’s attendant metaphors.
From the terse whispers of Borges, Rod Serling(our Supreme Ironist and The Only Moralist Who Matters) to Thomas Pynchon’s satiric welding the beams of History, Literature, and Science together and positing them all as manifestations of the human need to create and sustain mythological structure and thus have a means to believe that there is a Plan our random experiences are connected to, and onward through the humorless deconstructions of postmodernist twitches and glitches, we consumers of culture have gotten the message after all. We are ciphers at the end of our imagining, we are cursed with a genetically-inscribed instinct to insist on metaphysical certainty only a means to sustain the race, we are, finally, merely dust in the wind (to coin a philosopher’s salient point), producing books, paintings, poems, movies and the like that get nothing at all except demonstrate our own vanity in thinking we could explain ourselves in front of our Maker should such an afterlife moment come to into being.
Reiss, though, keeps it simple, keeps it smart, and is subtly subversive in utilizing the metafictional gimmick. What strikes me as peculiar, and unique, is what seems like a reversal of the standard self-reflective ploy; where a rigorous and torturously unreadable novelist like Alain Robbe-Grillet would foreground his narrative elements to the extent that his novels were more about the sheer description of everything contained within a writerly frame, items and cracks poured over again and then again from different angles and habits of mind, all to the exclusion of characters, who, if they existed at all, were only cogs in a fathomless fiction machine needed solely to make the apparatus run , Reiss speaks of characters who wish to be absorbed by the machinations of narrative structure , plot devices, and symbolic meaning, those
holiday shoppers, taxicabs yellow
as sunset, and swear they'll find dog walkers
dreaming up haikus, day-trader night readers
of eBooks—all stalking the sidewalks.
In any sense, those being looked down upon, from the conceit of having those who reside in a skyscraper perched library that contains, from implication, the sum of human learning, are in the middle of the roil and rush of life, going about their business, anonymous to one another on the street, perhaps, but obviously coming from places where they were with purpose and now off to other places where their presence is desired, required, in any event, absolutely essential. The resident caretakers of the high rise archive, the presumed custodian of Knowledge and who all, of course, seemed drabbed and despairing given their nuanced insight, thanks to their study of said books and scrolls, that all this running about is pointless and without greater, nobler purpose, look out the windows, over the ledge, mesmerized by the commotion:
In the dead writer's last short story the characters
have no names. They speak without quotation
marks in a setting that looks less like a penthouse
than a storeroom for books and old scrolls.
Still, when they stride out to their terrace
and peer over the city, they swear this
is the ultimate high-rise, the true resolution
to a plot involving disappearances..
A superb and unforced contrast here, subtly put forth; those on high, an elite force anonymous in their own right, viewing the external events as if there vantage point, arrogantly cast as sophisticated and wise, were the only correct perspective, the only lens through which truth could be read. We are witness here to a myopic hubris, the unresolvable contradiction of those with so much alleged insight into how life works that they see nothing at all, that they’ve completely missed the point of literature, art is to enhance life, not embalm it. Reiss puts forth an anti-intellectual message that I find a shade off-putting—why can’t we just leave that for the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world—but he has written a clever, subversive little poem here that finds a new spark in an used-up idea. One may argue with him over a club soda in real time, but there is still the last lines to enjoy, and savor. Hamlet spoke to Horatio that "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" , and Reiss’s floating narrator, noting the purposeful bustle if the citizens of the street and the contrasting gloom who are convinced that humanity is governed by deterministic laws, illustrates the how the archivist’s goal of making experience fit into finite defintions will only become more unmanageable thusly:
the atmosphere deepens. The short story loses its way.
Every night life will continue to unfold in inexplicable complex and unpredictable ways, and the theoretical narratives some of us attempt to tie it down with will just collapse from it’s own bloat.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
I'll never say that guitarist Eric Clapton can't play the blues; it's because of this particular brilliance he has in his wrists, where he gets that ghostly vibrato and stinging, bittersweet bend just right, that keeps me listening to him since seeing him with Cream at one of those ballroom dances in the late sixties. The man can play; he has, though, made the sad decision of pop stardom over integrity, not a thing he can be blamed for, since who among us can easily declare they'd do otherwise if such fortune were ours? The fact remains, though, that one wishes Clapton made better choices. This is an old review I wrote in 1990 of a Clapton box set, Crossroads, and herein we find me opining in what seems like the reading equivalent of monotone that Slow Hand was sucking in the Nineties.
Monday, July 16, 2007
Mel Gibson Hits The Bar In Costa Rica
Tonight I celebrated twenty years of continuous sobriety, and it's instructive to see that photo of Gibson, fortified with copious amounts of goon juice, smirking like the clueless nitwit who'd drank again to silence the noise that's clamoring between his ears. Gibson is an artist and all that claptrap, but no one really buys that it is a condition we must accept and tolerate if we're to see him continue making films. The mad artist who is so sensitive to life's crushing awfulness that he or she has to drink and take drugs just to stay alive and reach the soulful part of themselves is a romantic crock fans and some critics have used to excuse the drunk, slovenly assholism of Kerouac, Bukowski and a slew of other sloshed scribes, a generational habit of mind that was enabling in two distinctive ways; it made the artist feel that they had to drink, that it was their responsibility to drink in order to stay true to their art and audience, and it give a perfect escape for the audience from confronting the blunt fact that alcoholics , when they drink, are jerks, assholes, reprobates, completely unpleasant people when they part take of hooch. Gibson, of course, is a disturbing personality and artist whose continuous stream of good reviews has more to with financial matters than with merit, and he's someone given to some problematic religious beliefs that can't help but get him into controversy. The actor/director might well be a creep sans alcohol, but it must be said that having it in his system brings that character trait to full volume. This is why it's instructive for me to see his smirking drunkenness this night of a landmark anniversary, as I have several photographs of myself with that same graceless grin, that same
look that makes one appear that they're being propped up, lest one's face wind up in the chips and guacamole. And lest I take too much credit for the felt miracle of my sobriety, I can see that face and that bottle can be mine again anytime. posted 07/17/2007 at 01:31:41
Saturday, July 14, 2007
A friend opined over a soft drink, responding to my misgivings against poems about poetry, that it might be argued that all poems written are about other poems.I drew one of my hair-splitting distinctions.There are indeed good poems about poetry, but they are rare and the product of genius, which is also rare. That it can be argued that all great poems are about poetry, I doubt this can withstand close scrutiny.A poem about a poem forms a dialogue, which implies a basis in felt experience. Empathy for the human condition, to risk a cliche. Poems about poetry, as form, amounts to no more than studying the instruction manual and never taking the driving test.It's a form of mystification that gets in the way of good writing.
The point, however, is that what we're talking about are poems by modern bards that forefront poetry as subject matter and hedge on their duties to their craft by euphemising about their inability or their unwillingness to engage experience. I am not anti-intellectual, and I am not one who pillories the Academy each chance available, but there is something odious about the way poetry has been institutionalized by Universities and turned into a Profession, a situation that has caused many contemporary poets to take themselves too seriously, ie, serious in ways that have little to do with art and everything with to do with status.
Writing poems about poetry is symptomatic of this thinking, a tenuous boosterism designed to convince the poet, his colleagues and the small audience for that sort of self-congratulating offal that what they do really is important, it really matters, honest, we as poets have hard time of it, swear to God, I mean, no one knows what we go through, right?, no one knows how terrible it is to bear the strain of having a muse and a Geiger counter sensitivity, you know?, yeah , you know, you know what I'm saying, yeah, yeah... You get the idea.
All this furious scribbling , much of it has appeared here as Pinsky choice in the four or five years I've been here, is vainglory, art without valor, a template of maneuvers where one quite literally fills in the blanks or shifts around some plot points or shifts the expected alienated and alienating effects.It always reads as false, contrived, nervous,unmoving.It is tragic that so many young writers have gotten degrees in creative writing only to write such witless drivel.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Since this blog ostensibly concerns itself with contemporary poets and their work, I'll post one of my own and invite all responses, yay or nay. This is a nod to my beginnings as an ersatz surrealist, not as an effort to regain youthful vigor and more an effort to recollect the pretensiousness with which I started writing poetry.--tb
A knife , fork and a cracked plate don’t constitute a meal , though all three items are handy for show, as are empty frames on the wall when there is any kind of company visiting , who demand our attention, taxes, documents of your legal rights, you just say it’s the wall you wanted to highlight, the frame is only a, well, a, well, uhhhh,a framing device!to bring a viewer’s attention to the rub of the paint, the embedded fingerprints, the light switch in the center. Likewise, it’s knowledge we’re hungry for, isn’t it? Knife, fork, cracked plate are about the idea of eating as others go without forks, knives, or cracked plates. Dead ethics professors choke in non-intrusive urns and French deconstructionists blow kisses from balconies and any perch they can secure, Appearances are misleading, explanations are fictions worth listening to for the way the words are warped and wrap around each other until it’s not reasonable descriptions of a material world we are listening to, but rather melodies flitting about like nervous birds trapped in a small cage, a messy page of tuneless songs, all this for a description of my house that now seems to rest on top of a giant hill, bracing clouds and tree tops, a form I’m filling out asking me to describe myself and all the desires I would bring into the world if finances would allow, I would allow everything is what gets written, and everything not forbidden would be inscribed in the rhetoric of future tense, when software anxiety rules the body electric.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
“SWEEET NUTZOID NAZI CURLING IRON
MAKES MY BLOOD GROWN WAN AND PALE
MEANING BUSH AND CHENEY UP TO NO GOODNESS GRACES,
LOOK HOW UGLY YOUR FACE IS,
ALL WE HAVE IS EACH OTHER
AND THAT’S LONELY SIDE OF SLABBING TRUTH
THAT GETS MY HANDS TITHER AND WITHER AND GRITHER
IN GRITS AND CROCERIES, ALL I SAY IS UP THE SYSTEM
AND FIGHT THE POWER
DON’T BE SO SOUR
YEAH, MY BALLS ARE SOUR,
JUST GIMMEE SOME TRUTH
OR ELSE LEAVE ME BE
WHAT IT IS
WITH MY RAZR MESSAGING UNIT,
Grank was in a trance, raised his arms as if receiving great wisdom from cloud gods watching from just above the whirling ceiling fan that only seemed to make the coffeehouse hotter, he was in the groove , he had the élan from Ceylon, he was indeed the PaduchaBazooka©, and as he lowered his arms and raised his head, ready to open his eyes and witness the stunned silence that was is genius’ calling card, something struck him in the head. He opened his eyes in time to see a coffee mug come flying at him and then feel it , painfully, smash him in the nose. Then someone hit in the back of the head with the microphone stand. His eyes were closed again as he collapsed to the stage and curled into a ball as the steel toed tips of a dozen Doc Martin boots dug their treaded thickness into his ribs.
“Your poetry poetry blows donkey dongs in H-E- DOUBLE HOCK STICKS” someone screamed before they kicked Grank in the head.
“Tough crowd” was what Amos said as he leaned over the table to make the remark to Shelltone. Shelltone closed her notebook and took a sip of her Hammerhead.
“Yeah, these Fray fuckers are a real tense bunch”.
“Uh huh” said Amos, who then arose to get his licks in.
It's hard to write good poems, period. I have to admit that I've generally little or no use for most rhymed and metered poems, basically because there are so very few poets who are able to compose as such without seeming like they sacrificed emotion for a metronome and a rhyming dictionary. It is not something that pleases my ear under normal circumstances. Free verse, in turn, is in large part willful obscurity and arbitrary line breaks where the point is to disguise one’s lack of anything interesting to say. The drone replaces the metronome, and a cuisinart of unconsidered images and arty inferences take the place of an interesting arrangement of materials that, though quite different, find an atmospheric and tonal coherence in the hands of the genius, that rarest thing among us all. The dirty little secret is that most poems written by most poets are mediocre, substandard, self satisfied little noise machines composed by scribes who are, to some degree, either delusional or self-aggrandizing
Lisa Russ Spaar’s poem "I Consider My Mother's Mind" makes me think of something that that has been suddenly and violently emptied after a long time of neglect, a wallet crammed with too many business cards, gummed encrusted post-it notes, receipts, expired credit cards and coupons, small scraps of paper with phone numbers attached to first names whose faces you've forgotten. Or maybe a drawer in the farthest end of the kitchen, just over the lower shelves with the cooking irons and sauce pans , with the evidence of a life lived for decades in the same four walls, with more receipts, creased photos, frayed or snapped rubber hands, recipes clipped from Family Circle, report cards, bank statements, more photographs, notes of congratulation and condolence, an overwhelming mass of paper work that has been confined and added to by a stern-fingered determination to consign these things to the margins, documents of no practical use which one keeps nonetheless and despite the clutter for fear that their presence and life force will be diminished, fall under erasure. This what struck me about the poem, that there is a considerable amount of unattended facts and figuration that have been stored, unrecorded, experience really unspoken, now faded, faint, vanishing with the failing of memory, whole chunks of decades missing between what is remembered not so much as memories but rather as sharp, clear, bright and sense-compelling parts of an incomplete narrative; there is the sense here of what the daughter hears an aging parent telling here, visualizing the details , hoping the tactile bits, the tangible references, can somehow become clear and full in the mind's capacity to form an oracular whole;
Stars of the Great and Small Bears,
lost in a cobalt padlock above Detroit,
the orient coruscations of car factories,
skating ponds, six-lane highways,
now lumbering across decades
into my childhood suburb, that rimed ruin—
picnic table, dispirited shucks and obeisant leeks of our winter garden, homunculus at the mind's edge--
Spaar’s narrator seems to be interiorizing hours of listening to the sort of wandering, diffuse, grasping monologues an elderly parent might drift into when endeavoring to respond to simple , direct questions; the process of endeavoring to remember what is nearly gone from recall creates intriguing associations that are verbalized and followed on their own. Soon the answer to the question is not the point, and one is left to confront a narrative that is being told, spoken before it fades and is lost with the dying brain matter. One is witness to a personality trying to recreate one's life , to remember and perhaps feel something from the past yet again before the last moments of coherence are over, and the daughter, finally, accepts , grudgingly brutal facts of what happens with aging, and attempts to see the terrain of the decades her mother mentions in various pockets of lucidity.
The landscape is an intense blur , a montage; Spaar captures the feeling of Detroit I remember flying into my hometown where one can, if fortunate enough to have a window seat, witness the industrial city and it's suburbs, a gray, flat spread of factories, suburban sprawl, highways the width of mighty rivers, a hard land to raise a family in; I am impressed with Spaar's masterful contrasting of elements with simple put details, the faceless city stooped shouldered and hardened through bitter weather and economic disaster, and a terse description of a family garden that attempts to thrive regardless of a downbeat outlook. The human element is many-layered here, struggling through the impersonal forces of inevitability and insisting that such a life matters; the mother who speaks of her life in defiance of the loss of re-collective powers, the daughter who attempts to imagine her mother's life as full and real based on the fractured and collage quality of the recall, and a family giving the home a human, “homey” touch that expresses the need for an abode to be welcoming , even in a city as violent and embittered as Detroit.
At this point I get the sense that Spaar’s narrator has wandered the tableau she has mentally constructed from her mother’s tersely phrased murmurings, has allowed herself to feel a rush of sensations the streets, the factories, seasons, and winter gardens might arise, and to become overwhelm, melancholic in what becomes a witnessing of another’s life caught in the movement of small-scale history, formed from coincidences of context and personal choice. There is a feeling of helplessness, of wanting to give warning and consul and coming to the sober realization that there is nothing to do with the past except remember, draw from it what lessons one can, and try to use the experiences as useful touchstones for living in the present tense. But living in the present tense, in the now of the noun, does not sever one from the past and the sway it holds over us, no matter how much be busy ourselves with hobbies and acquiring more material things we don’t need. Some almost forgotten thing will make the knees buckle, cause the eyes to blur with tears that form, something will remind you of who you are, what made you, and will make you feel vulnerable and sense regardless of the layers of maturity and autonomy we grant ourselves.
I can't return to you, though I believe you're calling me
from the polar house of hibernal fear
with its skirted vanity table, its angry mirror
& Bakelite brush, bristles up, still fleeced
with a child's hair, a wavering frequency
in the key of oblivion, mammalian, contracting.
This is the “Rosebud” scenario, where an insignificant detail, a banal trace of material good, arises and is amplified in the waking mind, setting forth a cascade of sensations and impressions that humble you inspite of the strength of your limbs or the power of your will. One learns , if one is fortunate , that the past is always present and constantly influencing the future. The death of one’s kin does not mean that they’ve moved out of our lives.