Saturday, December 29, 2007

Jazz saxophone great Michael Brecker, 1949-2007

A belated word on the passing of Michael Brecker, a jazz saxophonist who, with this trumpeter brother Randy Brecker pioneered the use of horns in fusion and rock-accented jazz improvisation, passed away last January 13 of this year. Brecker , of course, was much more than a fixture on the fusion circuit; as with the case of guitarist Pat Metheny, another musician first associated with the narrowing dynamics of jazz-rock, Brecker made his mark as an explorer of form, fashioning a rich and full bodied tone and a supple, inventive style in the way he presented his formidable technique. The sound of his spirited solos has poured from my apartment windows for years, and his was an identifiable style that would get me moving my fingers as if I were holding an instrument myself, punching up and punching out the down beats and wrapping a thick, lacy set of ribbons around the busiest of bass lines. My heart sank when I read of his early passing, and from here, nearly a year after the fact, I offer a thank you.

Friday, December 28, 2007

TMZ bottom feeds its way to the top

Gossip website has been slinging the proverbial crap at celebrity fuck ups for a while now, and one needs to admit that it was guilty fun watching the overpaid get some come uppance as their missteps and errant thinking were held to saturation ridicule. But then the nausea set in, the sheer meanness of the enterprise; constant badgering and inspection of the doings of people of no real consequence just makes seem like a playground bully who is too much of a beef-brained moron to think of anything better to do. Now they have a television show, it's a success, and the New York Times covers them with a puff piece. The "newspaper of record" sounds like it's endorsing this televised goon show. The newspaper's lack of criticism or direct comment on either the web site's or the program's pernicious pandering seems a further stab as they reach for that large segment of their potential readership that's attracted to this sort of bottom feeding journalism. That's a tragedy in a sense, since it would be refreshing for someone to be the scold and demand that someone stop giving these paparazzi-enabling knuckle draggers free time on my television. It’s one thing for an Internet creation to break out into the mainstream, but the awful drag of it all is that it had to be a petty, smug and bullying infestation like I realize that celebrities are an odd breed who are paid unreal amounts of money to fulfill audience requirements of glamour, power, beauty and grace and who are fair game when their lives go awry (or right, for that matter). But what does is just a shade shy of stalking, and the need for anything half-way resembling news about famous folks to fill their way web pages and TV slots, any snarky, sneaky, unfounded rumor to regale their audience with is mendacious pandering. Certainly the likes of Paris, Britney, Lindsey, Te al, have created their own catastrophes that are going to be played out in public, but the daily hammering these folks get goes far beyond someone getting their “just deserts”; the television version of the show especially is mean spirited and a superior tone that suggests a staff drunk on it’s seeming power to make or break reputations. The saturation is pornographic, honestly

Thursday, December 27, 2007

"Aftermath": an artful evocation of a difficult state of being.

Rosanna Warren's poem"Aftermath" is the kind of reading that brings to mind the cliche that at times you gets a deadly chill that makes them think someone had just walked over the spot where you'll be buried. This is a very sharp, very clear utterance of a moment something you see clarifies and reveals the facts and truth behind an all consuming anxiety. The cancer survivor, undergoing various sorts of therapies, has the time to reflect and sort through a life that is past, negotiating with the hard fact of her mortality, and witnesses the birth of the doe, a new life having a violent arrival into the land of the sense and sensation.

The fawn couldn't stand
but raised its too-large head to gaze at you.
You were, as you said, already more or less
posthumous. You took each other in.
One of you before, the other beyond fear.
Two creatures, side effects on one another,
headed in opposite directions.

This is a nice play between the narrator and the doe and her new fawn, two examples of aftermath, the first being the reviewed results of a life nearing the end of it's term that teeters just a bit on a wallow, the second being the abruptness and pain of birth. One is an exit, the other an entrance, and there is the slightest suggestion of what might be larger stakes in this epiphany, the endless cycle of birth, life,death. It is a bit anthropomorphic, one would say, to suggest that the fowl and the narrator had a primal connection as this chain of life was pulled forward, one creature being pulled in while another is moved out, but it's a conceit that works simply because it isn't overworked nor used a license for a murky metaphysics; poet Roseanna Warren maintains brief, taciturn, fully aware that her task is to serve the image and it's subtle revelation.

Compare this with Norman Mailer's style of attributing human characteristics to a moon rock, observed through thick layers of compartment glass, in his wonderful book about the moon landing Of a Fire on the Moon; Mailer was at his loquacious best at the time, and had to extend several elaborate metaphorical constructions in order to get away with his suggestion that he was in telepathic communication with this lone, vacuum packed lunar nugget. Even Mailer partisans like myself wince when he come across this concluding passage,
and realize that the writing was more performance than insight; Mailer's rhetoric capsized any insight he might originally have had.

Warren , in contrast, is particularly delicate in her handling of an idea that would be ludicrous in left in in the hands of a less discriminating discriminating writer.That she resists the need to lather it up, lard it up or lord it up in her effort is evidence of someone who can mold language to fit a mood, to underscore a mood. The tone here is ambivalence which is marked by a paucity of qualifiers, and there is the sense that one is in a rarefied air , crisp and chilly, where a cold light is about to reveal an unadorned fact in your life. "Aftermath" is a gem, a melancholic but artfully restrained evocation of a difficult state of being.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

How God Created The World

No god I know
waits for a chat
as he waits
in a garden ripe
with words that
are first in line.
There is no garden
until he desires fruit
rich in the taste
of particular soils,
there will be no desire
until he creates hunger
and the need to sit down,
there will be no table or chair
to put anything
that belongs on them
until he contrives the
things that go there
and makes it all look
like they've been present
for the ages.
There will be no ages
unless he makes things
with tongues, mouths,
tastes of all sorts,
something alive
with a memory of what's good
in this life they discovered along
the way as they experimented
with ways to talk to a god
who seems so busy
thinking things through,
he realizes
nothing will age
unless there are creatures
that die.

The god I know
thinks of big words
and broad strokes,
he's been asleep
since the beginning
time, which he invented,
he will wake up
and create, I think,
the cell phone, on a lark,
and will notice
at once
that his voice mail is full.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Oscar Peterson

Oscar Peterson, possibly the chief jazz piano virtuoso , has died. No one I've ever heard surpassed either his speed or his technical mastery of the ivories, and he was one of the handful of thuderclap virtuosos who's solos were continuous streams of melodic invention. His was an immense talent in service to musicality; his improvisations were so well developed that one might say that Peterson composed music each time he performed. One of my favorite jazz reissues is a disc called Face to Face which features Peterson with an group of improvising elite, including Freddie Hubbard and Joe Pass. It's a furious and magical blow out, with a long and faniful lacings and ribbon like sorties managing to leave me breathless each time I play it. Peterson, to be sure, led the way through the mad accelerations and fevered playing, the sparkle of his dancing cascades evoking jubilation.Thank you, Oscar.

Friday, December 21, 2007

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy and written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen , is easily my favorite film of the year, especially surprising because the departing 2007 turned out to be a solid year for American films. Letters from Iwo Jima, Zodiac, Valley of Elah, Breach, Gone Baby Gone, Children of Men , The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 To Yuma and some lesser lights kept the movie going a pleasure, and even the more blatantly commercial and pandering movies I saw, under the excuse of their being guilty pleasures (Live Free or Die Hard, Resident Evil: Extinction) were sure footed enough in premises and execution to not dilute nor drag down my impression that the lot of us are about to leave a year of unusually good film releases. One does hope that Ridley Scott finds his footing again and can make a film as good as his past successes--Blade Runner, Blackhawk Down, Gladiator--because the glamorized Scarface/Serpico move he attempted with the listless and static American Gangster renews that annoying question you ask yourself when you walk out of his more recent efforts: what was the fuss about him anyway? One would wonder as well when Denzel Washington might lose that nasally wavering monotone that's become his signature vocal tic, or when Russell Crowe might convince an audience again that he can act and not merely memorize his lines and hit his marks.

No Country for Old Men is one of those Coen brothers films that doesn't miss a beat, doesn't miss a trick, and which makes use of each rhythm it invents and each trick it employs in service to the story with the sort of mastery that makes you forget that you're viewing something that was meticulously constructed. Seamless, in other words, as was their Fargo, a comedy that worked in broad, slowly applied strokes of the brush that inspected the ticks and quirks of the characters as they headed for their eventual comeuppance. Hubris is a striking theme in the Coen's movies, and it appears again in their new thriller, where one has the simplest of conflicts, a trailer-living Vietnam vet comes across a bloody drug deal gone bad and tracks down the two million dollars that was meant to seal the deal, and finds himself, through random occurrence, sheer chance and whimsical decision, being tracked himself by a hired killer.

The center of the film are these two characters, the vet (Josh Brolin) thinking he can outwit and kill the stalker seeking to put him on ice, and the killer (Javiar Bardam), a force of nature who cannot die, will not be deterred, detoured or delayed. His character, oddly named Antoine Chigurh ("Soo-gar"),fulfills his task required by the detection of the unwarranted pride a protagonist assumes for himself; he is the force that one does not see coming, that thing that cannot be stopped nor will wait for you. Chaos and carnage are his sole purposes. Brolin's character, named Llewelyn, has no idea what he has decided to go up against, and from here one is aware that the stage is set for the inevitable tragedy that will come and cannot be halted. The Coens have an outstanding sense of being able to slow down and draw out a scene, to have a thumb on the turntable, so speak, as they prolong an agonizingly nerve rattling sequence --Josh Brolin's character is chased across a river by a hell hound pit bull which comes mere seconds from tearing his throat out, a scene causing audible gasps both times I saw the film--and still keep to intrigued with the goings on and the detailed bits of business the characters involve themselves in.

Clarity with an unforgiving reality principle one theme in play, with this movie being a four way split between those who have no idea the cruel game they're in: Chigurh’s citizen victims, those like Llewelyn who think they can avoid or change what is inevitable, the uncompromising destructive force that is the killer Chigurh; and , in a moving and subtly, softly underplayed performance by Tommy Lee Jones, the growing awareness of a cocky sheriff who realizes that the murders in his district are without reason, logic or even passion, and that this represents a sacrifice he is unwilling to make. Destiny is another theme here, and Jones' sheriff loses his nerve and retires. Late in the film, restless and not sure of what to do now that he's left an occupation he was fated to have by family tradition, he recounts recent dreams with their vague symbolism of what direction his life was meant to take. One wonders on this aspect of the tragedy, the correspondence of action creating purpose and definition. The sheriff may have saved his life by retiring, but has he robbed himself of his purpose in the life he wanted to keep. He is caught in an ambiguity, and it's a toss up at this point which is worse, a death in service to professional duty, or living with an unsettled issue no consoling will allay.

The encroaching despondency on Jones' face as he tells his wife of his dreams, where a wise ass smirk once was now replaced with a tight, brave smile that cannot disguise a man who voluntarily relinquished his grasp on self-certainty, is its own unique tragedy. Only the craggy and creviced face of Tommy Lee Jones could have evoked the inner broodings that tear at the soul, and only his voice, cracked, rough, and choked on dust , could have managed to bring out the melancholy contained in his elliptical monologue without once raising his voice or gesturing wildly. Javier Bardem's virtuoso turn as the psychopath Chigurh , as well, is among the most memorable presences to inhabit the screen in awhile. Self-contained, virtually expressionless, given to odd bits of logic and rituals, he is not a character but a personification of every foul thought of vengeance and fury one has ever imagined in their life. He is not someone you meet, but rather a catastrophe that happens to you and hope you survive.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Noisy Eden

Below the Falls" is one of the noisier poems we've seen here for awhile, and it is Kevin Barents' peculiar attempt to convey the idea that turmoil and drama exist in those areas one might normally assume to be areas of balance and natural tranquility. Barents' goes against the archetype too readily here, and after all this is done, all this wandering around a natural scene that continually yields miniscule melodramas and suggested cycles of birth and dying oscillating in condensed terms, whether the Nature-As-Eden myths were something worth debunking, even in metaphorical terms.

The immediate association one reaches for is Wallace Stevens and his Palm Trees at the End of the Mind,, part of his sequence of poems that tours the Supreme Fiction's variously rich terrains and interrogates the tone of these mental constructions with queries about their fidelity to slippery emotional nuance.Too which he marvels at his imagined terrain's ability to smooth out contradictions, anomalies, disruptions to the nature of Idealized Form. Stevens never mistook his lyrics as being anything other than the gilded musings on what his felt, not measured.

A poem should not mean
But be.

Poet Archibald MacLeish wrote that, in his piece "Ars Poetica",his reasonable and witty manifesto liberating his poetry from having to be "about" anything other than itself. That thrust, in essence, was that poetry was no longer the central domain in which speculations about the nature of reality , beauty, and the pursuit of the Good Life were discussed and debated, and that it was , in modern times, not the friendliest grounds for discussions about God and his purpose for us on earth. Other, prose dominated disciplines had quite handily usurped those topics as science handily dislodged, diminished and debunked the mystery and mythology the general consensus used to apply to the material world. A poem should not "mean" anything, as in questing for the precise definition of things and thereby making fixed, general statements about them. A poem should "be" as a thing itself, a material item true to its own nature, a construction of words, considered by MacLeish, WC Williams and Stevens (among the poets of that generation) to be malleable no less than clay, glass or steel. The aim of the poem was not to reinforce the materiality of the world and the given political and economic realities that relied on perception that markets could define, exploit and profit from, but rather that poetry should tend to perception, free of the filters we've been indoctrinated into. These poets were not especially overjoyed with capitalism (although one would be hard pressed to call them leftists in any sense) and it's propensity to smash and upset the unannounced world. Williams wrote (and I paraphrase) that the thing itself was it's own adequate symbol,which , considered closely, stated that there is no God and that human personality could and needed to see the things in the world on their own terms, in and of themselves.

Barents writes in an arcana-cluttered tongue that he's disturbed, angry in fact, that he and his walking associate found not refuge from the city's grind and violence. What they discovered instead was only more of the same , in other forms.

Greedy hemlocks crowded in the draw
eclipse a hophornbeam. We've picked along
a path held from the hollow's laurel hells

to where a trickle pushes off the cliff
and grabbles down into a greenstone bowl
the drop has pestled through the same old years.

Barents over writes through the entire piece and consults the notebooks where he'd written those exotic words and phrases he took a fancy too, seduced by their peculiar phonics and untidy plumage. There pair making their way through the nearby wilds may as well be in the center of the city they wanted to get away from. The central idea here isn't peace but unrest, not peace but constant turmoil, of nature being a state where it quite naturally consumes and regenerates itself in new forms . Barents attempts to disabuse of one set of ideal types and tries to substitute another paradigm, that of nature as great destroyer and vicious feeder.What do we do?

Protect an heirless joy
or fold our suffering into this place?
The limpid races aren't potable.

Rusty thrushes drop a stranger's line.
Huddle with me in our leave a while
before we hurry back to our fatigues.

I would agree that this poem is glutted with obscure words that have been used for the sake of dressing up the banal, unexceptional ruling idea that is the poem's central theme, that nature contains its own kinds of dissonances and violence , and his result is nothing less than an ugly tract housing with a front yard full of garden gnomes and enamel deers, large Mexican planter pots and Christmas lights remaining on the front door months after the Holidays. Nothing distracts from the quarrelsome inanity of this poem, and adding to it's lexicon only makes the condition worse.It might have have helped if these words were used musically, but that didn't happen--it's as if Barents had three contrasting "formalist" approaches in mind when he composed this, and hadn't the heart to make this expression a purer example of a given style and habit of thinking.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

John Hazard's "Luanne": where ever you do, there you are

I haven't attended my high school reunions for the simple reason that I still live and work in the same town in the town I went to school in. There are enough of those I went to school with, late middle aged, "thickened into silence" or garrulous and bony, who I see during my week. I'm aware enough of who has died, divorced and remarried, who is undergoing treatments for fatal diseases, who has joined AA or started drinking again, who has become a new grandpa or granma. Paying good money to discover news I can get or deliver over a cafe table seems foolish.

There is , additionally, the plain and gruesome fact that there are those in high school I don't care to see again. Old girl friends, druggie friends, bullies, class peacocks, the brown nosers and the brown shirts. Some people were horrible , monstrous entities when they were teens, and although there might be the outside chance that they've changed, found a path, and turned into reasonable, decent people, there is the awkwardness of running into someone you haven't seen in years, someone with whom you've had only a tangential connection, and finding yourself standing there, struggling for words after a hesitant greeting, a handshake with a loose grip. Who is this person? Do I owe them money? Did he steal my gal? Did I steal his copy of Led Zeppelin lV?

John Hazard writes as if he's suffered through this voluntary form of punishment in his poem "Luanne Again, Southeastern Ohio", and conveys the dulling shock of seeing other members of his peer group showing the evidence of gravity and time taking their combined toll. Everyone he witnesses in the conference room seems lifeless or somehow inert and drained of whatever animation made their memories intriguing enough for the narrator to come to a reunion,

Reunion: some sit almost nameless

in a motel conference room—red and gold

balloons. Folding chairs and ham. Forty years.

Some have thickened into silence. Some are hard.

He does make an effort to imagine that it is the obvious peculiarities of the scene and the resented confines of the conference room that makes his situation so stifling, a reality where the faces might radiate life in response to a world they’ve made for themselves since graduation:

For all I know, those faces on a normal day

might stare over sinks, dandelion yards,

the children's children playing there,

grass-stained photo ops.

Still, it is deadening all the same, the faces remain expressionless masks, and so the narrator’s mind wanders over names of those who are not there, Shirley, Fred, and especially Luanne. Hazard does an interesting trick here of isolating a moment of daydreaming life when someone’s name and face come to mind, someone who one hasn’t thought of it years, not thought of but haven’t forgotten; what he gets here is the swift and seamless segue to that conscious filling nano- second where there appears a name, a face, an event, vivid and sharp, and just as brief. Hazard’s character here concentrates on Luane,

Sometimes I dream about that dog of hers,

brown or maybe tawny, hit by a car

outside my uncle's grocery. It lay

in its blood as she fled crying

to the family store (hardware, paint)

the way I ran home later that year—

fat old Rudy, coal truck,

as I watched by the side of the road.

Her dog was bloodier.

In the place that she's inherited,

is her silence richer, too,

than my packages of words?

I wouldn't be the reporter she would choose.
Hard and compact, these are details that are alive as the narrator tells it, and reveals a slight change in tone, where the foregrounding scene in the conference is an evocation of stasis, entropy and this scene of the past, where there is life, vivacity, real emotions witnessed. Here there is history, here there are events that mark a consciousness still forming a world view.

It’s not a big moment, not a third act of a Hollywood movie where there is some moral that’s learned the hard way and the beginnings of a mythologized justice being brought to bear on what has been amiss. Hazard’s narrator has only a fleeting regret, the recognition of an unspecified opportunity missed .

But here I am, Luanne, to say I regret

the vast rock between us. For all I know,

the dogs of your other life—not frisky,

not mean, not especially sweet—have been

steady, staring for scraps or staring from a porch

at grass in a breeze. For all I know,

your other dogs were happy and lived forever.

Hazard’s instincts here are right sized for the size of the perception he sought to convey on paper; this poem has the unlabored purity of the passing thought; it is the best that someone already ensconced in the complications of their life can do as the memory and
unresolved nature of whatever happened to? arises and distracts the bearer from the faces in front of him. It’s a thought that has to be tied up in a hasty knot, a botched ribbon as present circumstances demand an audience. One concludes with a soft regret of the distance that has grown between them, an admission that admits no guilt, no self-incrimination, and a bland wish that Luanne has in the intervening time prospered somehow and that he dogs , if she still kept them, lived long and prospered with her. What I appreciate here is the lack of specifics beyond the accident involving Luanne’s dog; the lines are graceful and taut in equal measure, and achieve a balance of composition. Anymore freight might have compelled Hazard to offer up a dirge along the lines of Robert Lowell, a dangerous poet to model yourself after. Hazard’s intents are much more modest and this poem has an admirable precision in getting at inglorious subject: middle aged man remembers a girl from school who’s image he cannot wait to shuttle off again into some obscure corner of the mind. There comes a time, always, when you have to stop rummaging around the attic and move fore worth with what needs to be done now; laundry, shopping, bill paying, a kiss for the woman you love in this life, not the one you left behind.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Baker and Beckett

This isn't about poetry, but it's what I've been reading, and it's what's kept me in my chair 'til too late at night, that being the semi-fictions of Nicholson Baker. Not a pleasant experience, if reading, as Barthes claims, is an activity we do, at heart, for the pleasure of the text. This was more like a calculus assignment, an exercise to see if I've been being attention to the most current shifting in what is considered fiction. I think I was ahead while I was still napping. The general reeling I get from the Baker work I've read, U and I, Mezzanine, Vox : aimless wandering around a subject, speculation for its own sake, a kind of dithering response to extrinsically urgent circumstances, something very much like going up and down an elevator. This is the writing of distraction, and it's a body of work that is compellingly shallow in its aim, a window display.

Very post-modern, I'd say, but it's disturbing to think that men and women who are nominally good writers can fill up pages and bandwidth with a tweaked yammering that exists only to avoid the ideas they begin with in the subject line. This is very much like Beckett's' novels, Malloy, Malone, The Lost Ones, More Pricks than Kicks, and here we have the link with the Late Modernism that had the creator (author) and subject (novel) rising, in their imperishable need to produce, from the noisy clash and clutter of an aesthetic philosophy that demanded new ways of putting the world together, of making the world non-liner and multi-faceted, sufficiently prepared to be remade with technology and criteria. The Beckett/Baker writer seems to face the endless variations they may take for a narrative, and instead defer the decision about which one to take and what sort of fictional ethos to manufacture. The deferral is the subject itself, the eye-averting technique that wills itself to be endlessly about the undesirability of how the reality should be written into being. This is a sub-stratum in the thought of postmodern writers, the avoidance of death through the refusal of becoming engagement of any process of decision-making that would definition to a sphere of activity that must then be engaged, acted within.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Emily Dickinson, Our Contemporary (expanded)

This poem I wrote about Emily Dickinson was less about her poetry--than it was about what I imagine to be the spectral dimensions of her cloistered life. Writing poems, speaking only with her own readings, informed by her books, her only audience her surroundings, her tiny little world. She is one whom speaking her mind in compact cadences, in densely packed epigrams seemed to be enough . Published but a little in her lifetime, I could only imagine further her bundling her missives, musing that she might become a voice, or a myriad of voices whose murmurings might seep through the foundations and plant a line or two in some passerby's ear.

We are all Emily Dickinson

We are all Emily Dickinson
talking to the furniture
over the pages of a book,
each leaf a reach across

small moments twixt
centuries by the inch,

we speak with modest tongues
when there is weather rattling
the windows, panes quaking
as though nervous with old meals
served on dark trays,

we have stopped moving
and have been nowhere at all
and we pause in our stopping
to consider the ash that rises
from the chimney logs,
the rooms and hallway
viewed through a crystal
that makes the air itself
become pithy, overgrown with reticence,

we become Emily
as we tie our missives together
with haggard twine in lacing loops,
we place our murmurings into a drawer,

we will laugh
like small girls
for years to come
as visitors come and go
through the rooms
swearing to one another
that they heard voices
behind the wall,
the eyes of the paintings
seemed to follow them around the room.

Emily Dickinson, the mistress of compressed reflection, advances her belief in the probable darkness that follows death when she write 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 it's 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 poets 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

don't see ED as romantic either, but rather as someone who was doing the best they could do with a personality and temperament she couldn't help but have. Her reclusive life was her choice, and in that decision she was fulfilled, with her books and her writings. It's unfair to characterize it as "wasted" if she didn't strive for anything beyond her home in Amherst. It may well be that she was incapable of adding to the social good beyond her writing; not being a social creature, reticent to meet others and loath to travel , she wasn't inclined to engage others with ideas, projects or causes. There was nothing there to waste. Some folks are just like that, I'm afraid, shut ins with their hobbies and obsessions, doing the best they can do with the solitude they crave. The judgement of history is that Emily Dickinson has done substantially better than most who don't often venture into the light, whether sunshine or moonglow. Since her poetry is the direct and desired result of the reclusive life she chose, it really is impossible to contemplate how her extraordinarily odd and often brilliant verse without considering, speculating and opining what that life was like. She is Emily Dickinson, who left the world a bounty of work that's been mainstreamed more than any other American poet and, as such, she has no right to privacy. I am of the school that says that a poet on her level of recognition needs to have eveything about their life and work scrutinized so we can a better idea of what that greatness is. This includes her sex life, or lack of it: it has a bearing on the tone and style of her work.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

When Music Mattered

There is no limit to introspection in the younger artists: mumbling heartfelt and half baked poetry to guitar bashes, electric or unplugged, is a tradition that was strong by the time I graduated high school in '71. The melodies and the mumbling haven't improved when the Torch-of-the-Tortured-Poet was passed between generations.

But even in our glory days, with our Anti-war, counter cultural, vaguely leftist politics, what we're we ever to the record companies than a demographic to be sold to, and in turn, sold to other creators of pop culture content? I think that that Hollywood and their cronies on the fabled Madison Avenue had us pegged, detailed, and enumerated as a predictable market share just as much as they had broken down the buying habits of housewives. We were ready for shipping.

It seemed a matter of the snake taking on the language and lingo of the target audience. In 1967, or 68, in the midst of campus demonstrations, student riots, and so on, Columbia Records took out large ads in underground and antiwar newspapers, periodicals they virtually supported with their advertising budgets. The photo showed a multi-cultural in a holding cell--a long haired white, blacks, Asians, men, women, a couple of old folks (I think), all with head phones on, listening to a stack of new Columbia albums, music, presumably, to smash the state by. The slogan?


Either we were too dense to think, for a second, that the ad was a cynical ploy and that, in fact, Columbia Records was "The Man", or may didn't care and bought the albums anyway, but what this ad, and ads hawking different things over the years, revealed the keenest insight: instead of being so special that we would change the world with music and higher consciousness, we were just another age group with high amounts of disposable income passing through, buy what made us feel special. Columbia knew what made us feel special: they knew us better than we knew each other.