Monday, January 28, 2008

New Pound Biography from A.David Moody

Ezra Pound:Poet
A Portrait of the Man and His Work.

Volume I: The Young Genius, 1885-1920.
By A. David Moody. (Oxford University Press. $47.95.)

Pound the poet, the propagandist, the editor, the talent scout, all dutifully reported and examined by A.David Moody, a literature professor and literary biographer. William Carlos Williams had opined that the self-created Pound was certainly a genius but added that he was, as well, “an ass”. I was grateful to read this in this slow moving biography , if only to know that it wasn’t just me that thought him as someone who it was more work than it was worth to know.Moody's thesis seems to confirm my suspicions that the greater part of Pound's genius, as it were, lay in his massive appreciation in the genius of others. He was, in my view, a first rate talent scout and an enthusiastic supporter of new and revolutionary work. I will admit that there are those few poems written by his hand that I've actually liked, but as the review suggests, his most radical writing wasn't just dense difficult by a daunting learnedness, but because the writing was a melange of styles , emulations, parodies and voices that collectively couldn't pierce the veil of self-imposed obscurity. The difficulty seems a self-fulfilling prophecy; purposefully abstruse verse with little aid to the curious, and a built in rationale for further lacerating the rubes for their failure to "get" what he was getting at. Like Ayn Rand, Pound's central belief was in genius that was dictatorial and not obliged to make the new ideas comprehensible . One got with the program or be trampled by the revolution to follow. Pound is one of the most fascinating men in American literature, and he'll no doubt continue to vex generations of bright poets to come. But that is something we who think literature should , by default, have "progressive" leanings will have to grin and bear. Like or not, Pound revolutionized Poetry coming into the 20th century just as D.W.Griffith created the modern film narrative style with his epic and naively racist Birth of a Nation. Much of the time great work doesn't come from morally unambiguous personalities.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

More on Joe Osterhaus

It was mentioned in an exchange about Joe Osterhaus's poem, discussed in a previous post, that he perhaps fails because there is an impure quality of the voices he puts forth, an imprecision in how exacting he conveys the details; these mixed dictions are the poem's strength, I think. They work in much the same way Robin Williams' comedy routines do, with his crazed careening of voices, accents, illusive references, the colloquial and the profane chumming it up with the serious, the stately. Some on the forum who objected to what Osterhaus had done protested that he wasn't doing something that a poet was supposed to do, ie, write with a fidelity to the world as it presents itself to the senses. This is where the difficulty comes in.

It’s a mistake to think that the default task of the poet is to get a scene exactly right, to offer up a snap shot of a situation under review. In most cases we discuss each Tuesday, the task we assign ourselves in how well , how effective a writer has offered up their view of a recognizable scene, in their voice, in their style. Ostehaus’s poem works for me because he knows how to create tension between the desire to dress up the ruthlessly ordinary in language that would elevate and transform , and to have it checked by a plainer , less varnished details signifying a world one is a part of and cannot transcend however sharp one’s descriptions happen to be. One of the things I thought attractive in the poem were the mixed dictions, the slightly arcane and obliquely filtered melded with the colloquial , the utterances less burden with literary weight. This anchors the scene making in time and place, and is , I think, a rather apt representation of the fluidity of one man’s thinking.

Recollection, in this case, as details considered are in the half-world characterized accurately by Bottomfish as similar to Edward Hopper’s paintings; a world of idealized objects in what seems like suspension, awaiting another set of events to lend them a narrative continuity , interspersed with the predictable ticks and spasmodic motions of the human form. I appreciated “the crawl forward” and that the cashier, contrasted against the somber tonality , “yanks her cash drawer”. We’ve all seen this in lines we’ve waited in on busy business days, and anyone who has worked a register knows the fast and brutal efficiency one applies to quickly remove their drawer from the till so they may count out, make their drop and go home at last.

Art and Fun

Last night over coffee, beer and election returns the conversation drifted to the subject of the internet and how such a thing has ruined the primacy of Real Art Making. Echoing a title of a recent book about blogging, my friend slurred his opinion that the "rise of Amateur Culture" turned matters of aesthetics and discerning taste into items to have fun with; "Everyone is having a grand old time" he said," everyone has a page and everyone is putting their two cents , their pictures, their poems, all the shit they've gathered and are putting it up on the net. It is not fair, this is serious work, I mean..." By that point MSNBC had projected Barak Obama the winner of the South Carolina primary, and I was left to stew for a night for an answer.

"Art" is massive set of aesthetic activities that accommodates a lot of agendas in its generalized practice, the practice of "having fun" not the least of them. "Fun" is that sense of something that engages and provokes in someway a facet of one's personality that makes up the personalized and skewed way that one understands how the world works in actual fact. Whether Cage piano recitals, James Carter solos, Fassbinder film festivals, or whatever gamier, tackier sounds cleave to ones' pleasured ganglia, the quality of fun, that fleeting, momentary state that defines an activity, is why we're attracted to some kinds of music , and not others. It's a legitimate definition for an aesthetic response, but the problem comes in the description of the response, the articulate delineation of what made a set of sounds "fun".

The point, of course, being that everything that is entertaining or distracting from the morbid sameness of daily life cannot be said to be exclusively in the domain of the willfully dumb, conceived in a massive expression of bad faith: what is entertaining, from whatever niche in the culture you're inspecting, is that activity that holds you attention and engages you the degree that you respond to it fully. "Fun", in fewer words.

Rush Hour--Joe Lovano

It’s early as I write this, and I'm listening to Rush Hour by Joe Lovano, composed and conducted by Gunther Schuller. This is as aesthetic a moment I've ever had, as Lovano's saxophone work operates in a variety of faint moods and dramatic sweeps; his phrasing is always choice, his cadences are full of surprise, his tone is a well trained voice of its own.A handy group of orchestrated compositions--"Prelude to a Kiss" (Ellington), "Kathline Gray" (Ornette Coleman). Lovano's tenor saxophone work is supreme against the sweeping textures of Schullers' orchestrations: ensemble and soloist work as choice extremes over the mood scapes. There's an ethereal steam brewing amid the extended blues choruses, bop cascades and serial investigations. This is the kind of pure musical work I wish Zappa had more time for. I am amazed at Lovanos' control over his technique and inspiration: he seems to draw a cool, fluctuating of bends and slurs from his horn: his ability to step inside the tradition and then step out of it again to entertain some grainier abstractions brings Wayne Shorter to mind. Not that one stops at the comparasion, only that Shorter comes closest to doing what's evident in Lovanos' inventions. Credit to Schuller: he project recovers nicely, I think, from his undiffereniated patchwork of "Epitath", a troubled labor of love.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Why stop at three?

Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald are considered in many an old-school clique to be the triumvirate of American Writers, to which I ask, reeling against the noxious habit of limiting “best of” lists to no more than three, why stop with three? The thinking is that writing in this country soured and became an insufferable murk of confessionalism and tone deaf experimentation in the last half of the twentieth century. Think what you may, but the second half of this century produced a lot of major talent who have produced or are producing respective bodies of work that require the passionate reading and argument our already named personal bests have received. Harold Bloom not withstanding, our canon is expanding with new and achingly good writers, and one would think that the male majority so far discussed will have relinquish room on their uppermost tier.

On the point, Fitzgerald will make the cut because so few writers, then or to the current time, have managed the breathless lyricism contained in the "The Great Gatsby" or "Tender Is the Night". Some have come close, and I'm thinking of the resonating sentences from Scott Spencer's "Endless Love" or some keenly rendered pages in Updike's "Rabbit" quartet, but Fitzgerald at best gave us small masterpieces that gave an sharp view of the time.

Hemingway, I thinks, merits a permanent place on any greatest list because his style, at best, was lean, and his sentences , constructed the way they are, convey pages of buried turmoil, lost hope, small idealism, bravery to pursue another day , to shoulder one's burden honorably. "In Our Time" and "The Sun Also Rises" accomplish this. At his worse, though, Hemingway was a boozing sentimentalist whose writing lapsed into repetitious self-parody, as we have in "Island in the Stream" or "A Movable Feast". But I am grateful for the good work he did.

London, I'm afraid, pales for me personally. He was a lot of fun for me when I was growing up, yearning for adventure in Catholic School. But later, in college, closer and more seasoned readings had him sounding rushed, awkward. The admixture of Marx and Darwin that seasoned his writings seem showed a straining idealism that was not redeemed by a modifying style. I’ve just re-read "John Barleycorn” and the book is ridiculous. It seemed like so much bluster and blarney toward the end , after vividly recalls his disastrous drinking career, that armed with this new self awareness, he would drink responsibly, that he was in fact only temporarily an alcoholic.

I doubt the record shows that London cured himself.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Joe Osterhaus has a sure tongue

Truth be told, I rather like most of "Food Lion, Winchester, Tennessee", andI find Joe Osterhouse's writing to be rich and evocative, not overwritten. Elegant is the word, I think, a balance of concrete specifics and artfully placed qualifiers, both elements which produce a vigorous and quietly urgent music of an ordinary set of observations considered from a larger view, larger just so. Over writing , for me, is the evidence of a bad idea, or an idea that hadn't been completely thought through in which the author tries to compensate with a muscled-up language inclined to bullying the reader to accept a premise instead of taking it apart, inspecting it closely. This trait, I think, is a central reason why so many political pundits sound like a cracked-out Greek Chorus of doomsayers; the smallest incident on the campaign trail or in Congress is riddled with every rhetorical gun in the arsenal .Osterhaus isn't over writing with this poem, as overwriting by default means a writer has an imprecise grasp of the qualities he's trying to join. The poet here offers up choice descriptions of credible scenes.
Night sways at the lit boundary of the lot.
Downroad, a Lotto billboard dances with flies,
whose reels card strands of glare, and epaulet
a gambler shaking the bias from two dice
and a drum sunk in the embankment, gouged with rust.
*******Inside, the clockwork mists
***track Raleigh's world: from a field
*********of broad leaves, twists
of cured tobacco; and, from harbors gigged with rest,
a waxwork queen wept on a waxwork shield. 

This, I think, is in a league with the best prose we take from the short stories of John Cheever or John Updike, or even Hemingway , in his tour-De-force description of the Cuban marina in the middle of his novel To Have and Have Not. This is a world where qualities of light matter, either brightness burning through the blackness as morning comes, or the darkness hovering over the lit patches of the earth as citizens scurry to complete their tasks and perform their duties. The sweep of this stanza is smooth, euphony, moving with the grace of a Hitchcock tracking shot from the line inside the store with it's details of cashiers switching shifts, to the edge of the parking lot as night moves in, revealing just beyond the edges of the lot as darkness gathers tobacco fields and military bases.

Osterhaus won me over with his apt language, his skill at describing the commonplace in interesting ways, such as when he writes Downroad, a Lotto billboard dances with flies, or in the next stanza where he writes of a shopping cart's Wheels corkscrewing. This, for me, is the work of a writer who has developed his ear and mastered the rules of writing to the extent that he knows when he can credibly and effectively break them; Wheels corkscrewing is an choice turning of a noun into an adjective. Osterhaus loves language enough to abuse it wisely.Or again in the first stanza, where there is the perfectly rendered description of the minor tedium of waiting in a supermarket checkout line

From here, the line seems not to move at all;
back beneath a clock that diamonds the hours
with blushing vents of coke.

James Cain couldn't have been more effective with an opening line; for him, one is tossed off a water truck in the first sentence, and here, one is in the afterlife waiting in a line that will not move no matter how many times one checks his watch. Osterhaus has that talent too few poets attempting this sort of broad sketch have, the knack for putting the reader inside the details.

The final lines spoil the effect,though, and the sudden evocation of soldiers, the Iraq War, and a bit of self doubt concerning the narrator's bravery compared against that the enlisted men is more pandering for ironic effect than anything else.The poet feels compelled to make it known that he is the sensetive sort who harbors a self-recriminating demon that informs that he is a spineless worm, even in a supermarket at night. It's a sudden intrusion of the narrator's issues , and fails for the reason that Osterhaus ought to have found a less obvious way of dealing with the soldiers other than gently flagellate himself.This is a Lifetime for Women movie moment when a sudden detail changes the tone and causes the participating heart to drop to the floor with the sudden gravity of cruel fate. The only thing missing here is the low toned, off key violin chords to signify that the good vibe is now soured;does the poet really need to Pavlov his readers? It rings false, a coda of self-criticism that neither convinces nor benefits the poem as a whole; had this been my poem, these would have been lines I would have highlighted and deleted and try instead for an ending that didn't seem a cardboard prop in a world of hard objects.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

There was a gasping blowhard on a blog who in the course of a debate as to which country , America or Britain, had produced the largest number of Great Rock Bands uttered these phrases that still have me gritting my teeth these seven years later, formulating a ready response: American bands with VERY few exceptions SUCK! The best I could come up was this: Do you mean all American bands, ever, from any time in rock and roll history? You don’t believe that since American bands and solo artists are the architects of rock and roll, and that without them, the British bands you love would not exist, at least not in the form that makes you go gaga and loopy, like and roll ought to do. I refuse to believe that any art that I love stems from, or was influenced, or made possible by anything that ‘sucks’. Since American bands influenced a good many great British bands, American bands, by and large, do not suck. Great musicians tend to be influenced by other great musicians. I think you understand that. For the track record in the post-British invasion phase, I insist that it’s about even, America ahead by a neck. But here, we can have a reasonable disagreement.

The fact of the matter is that the history of British rock and roll is a reworking of traditions that are not native to your shores. You've produced great music and extensions of established styles, but rock and rolls' bleeding edge comes from America, finally: that seems to be the only advantage to being as gummed-up as we are--there is a tension in the musical culture that remains constant and vital that you Brits, historically, have only refined into an aesthetically arguable style. Britain has gotten all the credit for punk rock, and even that’s not their own invention: The MC-5, Iggy and the Stooges, The Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls were playing years before Malcolm McLaren placed his want-ad for future Sex Pistols. But what of it all? It goes back and forth, and it’s unlikely that either shore would have made as interesting music had we not been exposed to the music the other was making. Every note that gets played comes back to us changed, modified, altered to suit another players' purpose relevant to his experience.

The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks crushes one’s skull and destroys one’s notions of pop decorum just fine, but it does sound like Kick Out the Jams sixteen years later. The psychodramatic of marginal bands who are locked out of the star-making machinery is, like it or not, is a long and rich tradition in America with the likes of Alice Cooper, another Detroit boy who sold several million albums with the proto-grunge rock sometime before the Pistols had half a wit about themselves. One cannot take black music from the equation; to do so is racist and foul and evidence of bed wetting. Rock and roll is black music at its heart and base, and we'd be dishonest to exclude the matter. It does, after all, come from Chuck Berry. Ask Keith Richard. Chrissie Hynde still sounds American to me, and still sounds like Akron, Ohio. Iggy Pop and Ted Nugent hail from the Detroit/Ann Arbor area, and the geographic/temporal coincidences certainly didn't cause either to sound like the other. In turn, why should Hynde sound like Devo? Any hoot, she kicks it major ways, she is awesome, a goddess. And obnoxious? I only have to buy her records, not buy her dinner.

For BB King and other blues artists, its still another case of Brits admitting that the music they're making is based on someone else’s work. We cannot seem to get around that. Eldridge Cleaver is as fallible a cultural critic as anyone you can name, and his comment about the Beatles was intended to appeal to white radicals who were buying his books. It was a nice for him to assure his audience that he wasn't a complete monster: say something nice about something they love. Proper credit for a white man making black music acceptable to white teens, though, properly goes to Elvis Presley. Anyone of our blessed Brits would cite the El as their first exposure to black music, along with millions of white American teens, was through him. The Beatles essentially were needed links in an ongoing chain of influences. But Elvis was the groundbreaker. Period. Any other statement is not accurate, Eldridge Cleaver to the contrary.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Pushing Daisy

She Didn’t Mean to Do It
Poems by Daisy Fried (Pitt Poetry Series)
Daisy Fried wrote about on line poetry forums a while ago for Poetry Magazine, and had some dour remarks recording Poetry Fray, the board where I hang my hat and dangle my participles . She evidently wasn’t impressed by what she saw, or rather scanned, and wound up calling those of us who opine and poeticize there “extraordinarily lame.” Since Fried doesn't’t seem to have followed any of the more energetic discussions the forum produces, and seemed to lurk rather than engage, she gave me a resentment, the same kind of distaste one gets when listen to a fool prate about something they’ve scarcely investigated. So this is payback. Fried, I have to say, is one gummed up poet.

These are the kind of earnest and stridently hip posturing that shows up in abundance in college poetry writing classes, with the worked over details of grit and snippets of overheard chatter striking one not as any kind of expression that freshly re-frames the perceived world , but rather the results of one selecting items from a set menu. . One would do just as well with the poetry magnets one can arrange on the kitchen door; if the words themselves don't nourish, one is at least has a food close at hand. Daisy Fried serves up a plate of undercooked material.

That said, I can calm down and say that Daisy Fried is actually quite a good vernacular poet--she can whip up a storm of conflated chatter and have it all echo with a Greek chorus effectiveness of announcing an irony undetected or casting a skewering glance at a future that remains doubtful to other eyes. Of course , I contradict myself from the previous paragraph, but I did say that this was "payback", an activity that isn't, by default, honest, rational, or fair in any sense other than shoring the boundries of one's permeable ego. The truth is that while Fried has room for improvement in her performances as a cultural journalist, she is , all the same, a poet worthy of her publications. A tart and witty tongue lives in the that head of hers. The title poem, below, is a hook-laden thing. Enjoy.

She Didn't Mean to Do It
Daisy Fried
Oh, she was sad, oh, she was sad.
She didn't mean to do it.

Certain thrills stay tucked in your limbs,
go no further than your fingers, move your legs through their paces,
but no more. Certain thrills knock you flat
on your sheets on your bed in your room and you fade
and they fade. You falter and they're gone, gone, gone.
Certain thrills puff off you like smoke rings,
some like bell rings growing out, out, turning
brass, steel, gold, till the whole world's filled
with the gonging of your thrills.

But oh, she was sad, she was just sad, sad,
and she didn't mean to do it.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Burn the Manuscript.

I’m generally not a fan of posthumous books by great authors for the simple reason that most of what surfaces after a famed scribe’s death suffer in the goriest possible terms. After the fact manuscripts by Elizabeth Bishop, Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson and (most grotesquely) Ernest Hemingway are less than the respective genius enthralled in the reader. Rough drafts, juvenilia, awkward early writings where one was working toward a mature style, and copious late-career self-parodies are all things I‘d have preferred to remain in the drawer, or in the box; it’s embarrassing to have a book in your hand who’s publication wasn’t approved by the author in which there’s writing that falls below the superlative standards the author set for himself or herself. Ralph Ellison hasn't fared well with the editor-gathered publication of his incomplete second novel Juneteenth, a rambling and unshapely project he worked on for decades and never finished ; the selected publication of this mess sullies , I think, the reputation of a writer who one could read and at least be content with the knowledge that while he wasn't prolific the books published under his watch at least showed him at the top of his game. Juneteenth, great as it may have been and perhaps is in parts, dampens one's estimation. Modern Library has plans to publish the entire thing in 2008 under the title Three Days Before the Shooting, a task they might have considered before since it would be fairer to Ellison's reputation; instead of pretending to have released a finished novel, one can enter into this posthumous zone knowing that what they might behold was a work in progress, and as such bears every inconsistent quality such things inevitably contain.

The prospect of Vladimir Nabokov's final work, an unfinished tale he ordered his brother Dimitri to destroy after his death, finding it's way for public view makes me queasy, something like the extended final tour the body of the late James Brown was forced to take as he got funkier due to nature's way, not natural rhythm.

Hemingway’s reputation as a stylist diminished in the view of critics of critics and readers with the surfeit of previously unpublished manuscripts had the tendency to be mawkish and sentimental in his rawest form, and you wanted to avert your eyes from the page of a work he wanted to remain apocryphal. Mailer fanatic that I am, there’s no thirst on my part to read incomplete and unpolished prose from the late writer set between book covers; it seems immoral to let the less tidy writings be presented as “unpublished gems” , or “lost masterpieces”. It’s a dishonest cheat, a fraud laid upon the readership. Nabokov was painstaking in his craft, and it’s his judgment I trust if he deemed the manuscript unpublished. Burn it and allow us a genius unspoiled by erring scholars and eager publishers.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Picking Up Ed Dorn

(a repost)

There comes the occasional need to clear the poetry that becomes waxy sediment in one's ear by returning to an old standby, a dependable set of poems that fired an imagination decades ago that can still inspire one to think imaginative writing is indeed the method with which one can "break on through". This isn't a slight against anyone I've been reading, though there are hills and dales in the perpetual reading list I keep; it's just that I want the gravity and grit of sentences that distinguished themselves from the common expression. So I go back to Ed Dorn, introduced to me by poet Paul Dresman back in the late Seventies, particularly his epic poem "Gunslinger". Equal parts myth-making,satire, phenomenological investigation and an expansion on the Charles Olson projectivist project that twined style and diction, personality with the physicality and accumulated history of region, some of what Dorn was up to now reads psychedelic and out of sync, of its time, the Sixties, but there remains beyond the dated lingo the verve of a writer that understands the absurdity of all manner of defining rhetoric and which finds purpose in exposing what's under the cornerstones of dogma. The warning sounds again and again in Gunslinger against someone finding themselves described at all; set in a West of the imagination, where one can start over and start again potentially as many times as the imagination permits, being described imprisons one in another person's frameworks; you become what they think you are. The late Ed Dorn wrote a masterpiece with "Gunslinger", an anti-epic poem that prefigures many post-modern gestures from its 60s era starting point. Funny, cartoonish, erudite to the extreme, it also locates a tuned lyricism in the Western vernaculars that Dorn uses: the metaphysical aspect of our legends, the sheer questing for answers as Euro-Americans come treading closer to a West coast that will stop them and force them to settle and create lives from dust and ingenuity, comes alive in way that never escapes the zaniness of Dorn's narrating inquiry into the nature of the search.

A masterpiece

 Giddy stuff, this, but Dorn is brilliant at the stretch. He gets it done. One finds solace too in is shorter poems. Some are plain-spoken knockouts:


But now I pass
graveyards in a car.
The dead lie,
with their feet toward me--
please forgive me for
saying the tombstones would not
fancy their faces turned from the highway.

Oh perish the thought
I was thinking in that moment
Newman Illinois
the Saturday night dance--
what a life? Would I like it again?
No. Once I returned late summer
from California thin from journeying
and the girls were not the same.
You'll say that's natural
they had been dancing all the time.

Tom Robbins' wrote a blurb for one of Dorn's books (Hello LaJolla), "Ed Dorn is a can opener in the supermarket of life." He was one of the great masters of the Western Voice in the 20th century, a voice maintaining rural accents and wanderlust that has been subdivided with Eastern conceits and European irony; his epic poem Gunslinger is something of a post-modern masterpiece after the pomp of Whitman and Charles Olson have worn away; the student has an expansive persona as well, but it is zany, frantic, engaged in constant conversation with the variant dictions he contains within himself. Moving on to the next thing, as you say, is what is always required in this personality; there's always something else to learn, emotions to feel anew, a new dance step to absorb, a new direction to take over all. I like this because Dorn has a way of interrupting himself and getting to what it was he really wanted to say without the initial lines being a waste; one appreciates the mastery of the bold strokes, the odd alignments. One appreciates, as well, his relative brevity. Ed Dorn could take you a journey in a poem and leave you at the side of the interstate in the middle of nowhere, wondering what just happened. I mean that as a compliment.

If anyone cares to read it, a poem I wrote for Ed Dorn can be seen here.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Cop Shows

The Wire on HBO has come back for it's fifth and final season, and for one last time we get to witness the further doings and undoings in the city of Baltimore. There isn't a television drama, let alone a crime drama , that's done what this program has done, construct a narrative line with a novel's depth and complexity .Each class level is explored, characters of high, low and pragmatic motivations are given full back stories and who's personalities and motivations are subject to unexpected fluctuations of mood, tone. There are no cardboard characters in this drama.Created by author David Simon, who authored the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, the drama began as an investigation by a rag tag Baltimore police unit into street drug trafficking, a covert activity informed by the phrase "follow the money". Follow the money this crew did, and what's unfolded in the four previous seasons is a textured, superbly layered of how all that unmarked cash has found it's way into the social,educational, religious and political institutions that nominally exist to improve the quality of civic life; corruption blatant and subtly seductive both undermines the best intentions of the virtuous and deludes those with power that there efforts in this corrosive mire is progress toward a brighter day. Hard truths triumph, though, and matters get worse. The heros , as it were, fight off the a bitter cynicism and apply their ideals to unforgiving circumstance. The Wire is a true tragedy,and nothing else is likely to be as compelling a television experience for many years to come.

I was an obsessive viewer of the genius television cop drama Homicide:Life on the Street, one of the faithful who stuck by the show during it's wobbly seven year run. The show never gained a huge audience, but it has had a huge influence on serialized drama to come; demon-plagued murder police trying to make up for shortcomings but speaking for the murdered dead, the grit and grease of dogged police investigation, tersely eloquent dialogue where the characters considered larger things in the universe other than themselves without a trace of writerly strain or artifice.Elmore Leonard meets Ed McBain. The writing and acting on the show was superior to what one would pay ten dollars for at the movie theater, and thanks to the release of the entire series on DVD and the insane convenience of Netflix, one can view the classics over and over, until they are well sick of the show and the actors. That has yet to happen with me, and a recent viewing of the last episode of the last season, gets me just a little choked up. I try to be a cynic and come across as hard, hard to impress, but somethings get me just a little weepy.

The sense of the show is that at anyone time a character thinks they've come to an understanding of how some universal principles operate in the world, some crisis, some kind of natural catastrophe or outbreak of meanness upsets their paradigm, leaving them confused, angry, demanding answers about the "why" of evil from a sheer surge of global energy that never bothers to answer. Frank with his arguments with his Catholic God come to mind, but also G with his Blue Brotherhood provincialism, and even Bayliss, with his Zen enlightenment being only another Totalizing paradigm that works only to shield him from the nagging notion that perhaps there is no "why" behind the random homicides he investigates, and that the only reason to track down and bring killers to justice is all show and tell, a flurry of activity that distracts the grieving and the frightened from what may be this worlds' scariest truth: there really is nothing behind any of these things, nothing to maintain, no "great' truths of moral virtue to be upheld. These detectives have been pounded relentlessly from the first day of the show, and since it , despite the strong vein of humor, is mostly in the Tragic form, we have displays of Hubris being smashed to bits, slowly, rapidly as the situation fits the action: expectations are constantly downsized, withered, dying from the sheer onslaught of raw phenomena that has no humor , or inkling of irony. Bayliss, at the end, displayed an air of listening to one view after another, realizing that from Munch to G to Lewis , the world views expressed are as valid as it makes the skin of the sayers fit better, yet the only thing he learned was that he had loved Frank, and that thing, that person, who had given his job meaning at all was gone, and with the departure, his reason to stay.We have Bayliss leaving through the door he came through seven years earlier, knowing at last that only love gives meaning to the world, and that the lack of love kills it.

There were some middlebrow revisionism in the TV columns that have made the case that NYPD Blue, an cop show that ran on ABC for year seasons, was a sexy TV show. Scratch that. Not sexy,but erotic.Hardly. Even in the early days when this program was supposedly "pushing the envelope" regarding what they could get away with on a broadcast network drama, there was an aggravating smugness to all the pressed-ham glimpses of butts and sliding side views of women's breasts.

Nudity and sex had long been accepted in commercial films , and the response that Steven Bocho and David Milch came up with , a timid glance of nudity, became distracting set pieces in the story lines; in the interest of perpetuating the "drama" of the program, everyone who had sex in this show never seemed to enjoy themselves leading up to, during, or after the fact. NYPD Blue were cops in a perpetual post-coital funk. Intercourse wasn't an expression of love but rather something that resembled sporadic acts of desperation.A good part of the meanness and bad faith that inhabited the characters simply continued beyond the stumbling awkwardness of the act. One can, of course, make the case that this is a storyline in which intimacy is well-nigh impossible for cops whose job requires them to observe the endless insults foisted on human dignity and decency, but there are limits to the dramatic plausibility as it played out each week.

Between furtive sex scenes,NYPD Blue became rudderless over the seasons, reduced to a few plot moves to justify another three-five episode story arc; let's kill Andy's partner, let's make Andy drink, let's kill Andy's son, let's make Andy get sober, let's kill Andy's wife, let's make Andy drink, let's get Andy sober again, let's kill Andy's new partner, let's make Andy stay sober this time. This set of variations of deaths and relapses got old over the last five seasons, and all you could wonder is why any Detective would partner with Sipowicz given the trail of bodies he left behind. One wonders, also, why it was this battered soul remained a cop considering it didn't seem Fate would cut him any slack.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Miles Davis Tribute Worth Keeping

A Tribute to Miles Davis--
Wallace Roney(trumpet), 
Herbie Hancock(keyboards), 
Tony Williams(drums), 
Wayne Shorter(reeds), 
Ron Carter(bass)
You need to bear in mind that this isn't a dusty museum exhibition where the music of the late trumpeter and bandleader is dutifully eviscerated and mounted on a pedestal. Quite the opposite, as Davis alum Hancock, Shorter, Carter and Williams, along with firebrand trumpeter Wallace Roney perform a number of familiar tunes with vigor and intensity. Mere reverence is replaced with passion and a willingness to stir things up. Roney, in particular, is a wonder and an inspired choice to fill the trumpet position; he has a hard-core virtuosity that rivals Freddie Hubbard, and yet retains a sublimely modulated, vibrato-less tone, clean and pristine. His register-jumping flurries on the live version of "So What" or the delicately etched readings are remarkable examples of pace and phrasing. For an instrument known for its uniformly declarative, sound, with the notes, as executed by the most superlative of players, sounding sharp, full, hard bits of color sculpting whole structures of sound from the metaphorical block of granite. Roney,though, had something else, the rarest of thing in jazz trumpet, the ability to make his extemporaneous statements fluid,one note flowing out of the one before it and into the one that follows in a deceptively easy legato that made you think of the accelerated fluidity of saxophonist John Coltrane. Roney, I'd wager , is the obverse of Hubbard; in my life I've witnessed the glory of two of the most compelling jazz trumpet players, one the skyrocketing lyricist, Hubbard, for whom precision and speed were in the mastery of musical ideas that sped by in breath taking forays, and the other and no lesser , Roney, whose virtuosity was in the service of seemingly unlimited ideas of restatement, reconfiguration, and reimagining of a composer's written score. 

And, square as it may sound, it's always great to have Hancock et al return from their wanderings in the fusion wilderness and apply their singular skills on material that requires the best of their improvisational genius. Shorter, for my money, remains the best saxophonist of the post-Coltrane generation, assembling his solos in abstracted sections and deliciously snaky tangents. Williams is, to say nothing else, an astonishing drummer, a continuous rumble of polyrhythms, rising and falling with the many sly turns of this music. Bop, ballads and casually asserted samba rhythms are highlighted with William's strong, graceful stickwork.


It's been a week for visiting old albums, and the Stones were the band in the spin cycle. Specifically, their monumental efforts Let It Bleed and Exile on Main Street. One could wax poetic and vaguely in the style of Greil Marcus about how these songs form a moment in time when so much of the invisible stuff that holds reality together would come undone unless we seized the moment, listened to the records, and acted on the philosophical irony our millionaire visionaries were laying out, but that is another round of binge daydreaming. What's important now is a realization, a reminder, of the particular genius of singer Mick Jagger's way of articulating, mumbling, 
growling, mewling lyrics. Mick Jagger is a vocalist who learned to work brilliantly with the little singing ability God deigned to give him: knowing that he didn't have the basic equipment to even come close to simulating Muddy Waters or Wilson Pickett, he did something else instead of trying to sing black and black informed music-- talk-singing, the whiny, mewling purr, the bull moose grunt, the roar, the grunts and groans, the slurs and little noises, all of which he could orchestrate into amazing, memorable performances. One Plus One(Sympathy for the Devil)Godard's film of the Stones writing, rehearsing, and finally recording the song of the title, is perfect because it captures the irresolute tedium of studio existence (in between Godard's didactic absurdist sketches attempting to address the conundrum of leftist media figures being used by invisible powers to squelch true revolutionary change). More than that, we see Jagger piecing together his vocal, his mewling reading of the lyrics from the lyric sheet; his voice is awful, in its natural state. But we do witness Jagger getting bolder as the song progresses through the endless stoned jamming, a grunt added here, a raised syllable here, a wavering croon there. Finally, at the last take, Jagger is seen with headphones on, isolated from the others, screaming his head off into a microphone. At the same time, the instrumental playback pours forth in what is presumably the final take. Jagger, all irony and self-awareness, created something riveting. For all time with the marginal instrument, he was born with and is part of what I think is a grand tradition of white performers who haven't a prayer of sounding actually black who none the less molded a style of black-nuanced singing that's perfectly credible: Mose Allison, Van Morrison, Felix Cavalari (Rascals), Eric Burdon (early Animals), Peter Wolf, late of the underappreciated J.Geils Band. We cannot underestimate Keith Richard's contribution to Jagger's success as a vocalist. Someone had to know how to write tunes Jagger could handle, and Keith was just the man to do it. Richard's guitar work, as well, riffs and attacks and staggers in ways that match Jagger's strutting and mincing. Writing is everything, as always. Fogarty is obviously influenced by black music, and his voice does simulate an idealized style of southern black patois, but it's the tunes that make CCR's music matter. Fogarty is in the same tradition as Chuck Berry in his ability to write short, punchy tunes with a story to tell instead of philosophy to impose or depression to share.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Deeper Soil

Poet Tom Sleigh’s on going fascination with mortality in his work produces mixed results, to be sure, but the focus on death and the dwelling on what is different in later years and who is no longer in your company isn’t a sure sign of morbid obsession and down scale verse. Sleigh’s task is a difficult one, to give an honest voice that takes the longer view of what a life, one’s own or the lives of friends and family, has amounted to. The results of such an inquiry vary wildly, irrationally, madly between sorrow , giddiness and all the small rills and valleys in between. The process of remember ignites any number of emotional cues quite against one’s expectation of seeming in control of their responses.

The death of a loved one is not something that one just "gets over", as if there was expiration date on grief. Yes, one moves on with their life and tries to have new experiences and adventures, but poets, like anyone else, get older, and the longer view on their life and relations comes to the for. Poetry will tend to cease being the bright and chatty record of one's impulses, leavened with fast wit and snappy references, and will become more meditative, slower, a more considered rumination on those who've are gone yet whose presence remains felt and which influences the tone and direction of the living. It's hardly a matter of getting mileage from a tragedy as it is a species of thinking-out-loud. We speak ourselves into being with others around us to confirm our life in the physical world as well to confront the inescapable knowledge of our end, and poets are the ones writing their testaments that they were here once and that they lived and mattered in a world that is soon enough over run with another generation impatient to destroy or ignore what was here only scant years before so they may erect their premature monuments to themselves and their cuteness.

We survived our foolishness and quick readings, a poet writes, we lived here and mattered to a community of friends and enemies in ways that no novel or epic production can capture, and we wish you the same luck, the chance to live long enough in this world you seek to fashion after your own image so you may write about your regrets, your failures, the things you didn't get around to doing.

Let me remark that despair isn't the default position for poets to take as they get older; as I think is plain here, poets will in general treat their subject matter with more consideration, more nuance, more acuity as they age. The host of emotions, whether despair, elation, sadness, celebration, aren't likely to alter, but the treatments are bound to be richer, deeper, darker. One has aged and one has experienced many more things since they were in their twenties, and convincingly casting off the same flippant riffs one did in their fifties as they had while a college freshman is a hard act to pull off, emphasis on "act". One grows up, if they're lucky, and acts their age. Acting one's age doesn't necessarily mean one becomes a crotchety old geezer yelling at kids to get off his (or her) lawn; those character traits are formed long before the onset of old age. But what I think is a given is that an aging poet would be inclined to be more thoughtful as he or she writes. And why shouldn't they be. They have more experience to write about and to make sense of.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

John Lennon and the Weekly Standard

There's an uncommoly irrational amount of slobbering gibberish coming from this Weekly Standard's piece from 2003, about the 23rd anniversary of the death of John Lennon. Shame on these guys for a waste of brain power. Lamely, hired shill Joel Engel attempts to parse the utopian day dream of Lennon's idyll "Imagine", citing a line from the song, and then going on about the usual cruel realities of the read world. All of this, we find out, leads to every sin and perversion we might concieve. It's tiresome, of course, because it argues, at heart, that there is nothing anyone can really do to make things better, and that one might as well be grateful for the tense little bits and pieces of material gain they have in a world where military might and technology stands in the way of dark hordes taking over our country, our country, and our women. It's a frothing rant, demanding apathy of readers who might other wise be convinced that there is a way to not merely describe reality, but also change it.

The writer misses the obvious point of the tune which is that it's written as if it were a children's song, and that the song only asks the listener to "imagine" a perfect world, that's all. Lennon, though not a subtle political theorist, was an artist and something of a poet in his finer moments, and the song here is meant to motivate, encourage, nudge, and encourage people to actually try to have better lives by being better people. The point is clear, even if not obviously stated: engage the world, seize the world, carpe diem. What worries the Weekly Standard editors is that the form of engagement might well be scores of folks suddenly registering as Democrats.Silly, but this is in keeping with the grand old party's tradition of less goverment and creating an apathetic distance between the common folk and their government that regulates how rights are divied among the population and how resources are used. Silly,yes, but less so than the creaking insults Engel cobbles together for this anniversary hit piece. Joel Engel hack job here is the gasping disdain of a party hack , an moldy pile of obvious sarcasm he attempts to use to obscure the fact that he hasn't a clue as to handle the song. Doubtless an editor assigned him the task of pissing on Lennon's memory, and this is the sorry best he could come up with.

This is right wing rock criticism that equals the bone headed assertion by George F.Will some years ago when he declared that Springsteen's "Born in the USA" was a song of unquestioning nationalist pride; as with the case of Engel, Will didn't consider the song's lyrics, and you wonder if he even bothered to listen them closely at all. The simple narrative of a pissed-off Vietnam vet myseriously eluded Will while he vainly tried to turn it into Republican propaganda.

Will didn't succeed in his stint as rock critic, and Engel fails even worse. The worst part of it all is that he spends his time wallowing in the kind of sophistry he accuses Lennon of. But it does me good to realize that twenty three years after his death, John Lennon is stil considered an enemy whose spirit must be attacked by those who identify him as evil, bad, a harbinger of bad times a'comin'. It makes me think that there are some things in this world worth fighting for.

Trickle Down Post Modernism

One confronts the average man's working definition of modern art as being the sort of difficult object, whether visual art or literary text, as being something that's open ended into which the viewer can infer any significance . This works fairly well as a definition in a nut shell, accurate in the intentions of what the host of self-referential aesthetics enable us (or forces us, rather) to do if we the audience are to make the effort to bear witness worth the sustained use of our senses. This wreaks havoc with conservative aesthetes who think art should be a giver of laws instead of platforms from which one constructs their multi-faceted paradigms and (in a phrase) deconstructions. One might sympathize with the law givers for reasons having not a bit to do with maintaining and orderly and chaste life, but with the particular tedium of modernist (nee post modernist) strategies. The self-referencing of the medium, the placing of format as the subject of the work ceases to be an interrogation of played out narrative explanations as to what experience leads to and becomes a cloying club of knowing gestures, a wink, a nod, an elbow in the ribs, the patois of yet another privileged group suffocating in their theoretical enclosures.

A key reason for postmodern writing was because reality itself had gotten too strange, obtuse, inflated with its own self-justification for writers to try and be more fantastic than. Cited before, especially from the writings of Brit critic Tony Tanner in his book City of Words, the only way for literature to thrive and reasonably to a fantastic reality is to attempt and be even more fantastic, to shed itself of the need to be faithful to reality and to become even more aware of how fantastic language and technology have caught up with and surpassed conventional fiction's ability to penetrate it's center.

Did Derrida and Barthes actually "define", or address at all the rather slippery notion of "post modernism"? Seems more appropriate to say that they, in their respective inquiries, high lighted some real conceptual issues in Continental philosophy, and created another layer of jargon that made an industry out of what, in retrospect, seems a small addition to our ways of thinking about writing.

Both were inspirations to a generation of literary critics who wanted some Gallic gravitas in their corner so they may speak philosophically with out actually philosophers--or so they may extend their embedded existentialism with into the world with a bright and shiny new paint job--but my reading of them didn't come across the word "post modern". I may be wrong.

Siding with Jacob for a moment, the act of preferring one writer over another with regard to value , style and impact constitutes a choice, choice being a decision. This personal canon-formation, a nascent writers' set of examples of what writing can be, ought to be, and where writing ought to grow from, is obviously a set of choices, albeit convoluted.

Likewise, I doubt that there's a moment in a writer's activity when they are not aware of the shadow of past genius that is cast over them, the Greats--however defined--that they aim their work away from, toward an originality, and maybe genius,that is their own. The anxiety of influence, courtesy of Harold Bloom, is almost an observable dynamic in sensible study. The scholar, in turn, only uncovers who the influences are in the course of credible research, but does not choose them. The temptation may be great, but the theorist/scholar/critic can speculate only so much in their interpretation of real data.

Writers begin with private views and prejudices about the given world, perceived through their eyes, their sets of experience, but an aim of writing to begin with is too seek consensus: it's the shock of recognition, among other things, that gives the aesthetic satisfaction with a narrative that's rendered well. Private projects don't stay private: they enter into the reading world in an attempt to give us more ideas, fixtures, metaphors to help us think about ourselves . That is all, I think, that literature can ever promise, the work itself. Criticism, like literature proper, is hardly a fixed set of standards, a Biblical claim of absolute, final totality. It's an activity that's adjacent, secondary to, literature, and at best can act as an aid to the reader seeking to underline salient elements that dovetail, enlarge, or illuminate the problematic nature of experience that won't, and cannot, tell you what it means.

The artist DOESN'T choose his influences, rather, he finds himself chosen by them.
Too flat an absolute a statement to be useful here: Bloom's refinement of a dialectical model to describe, in sweeping, how influence forms new writing is spectacular, but he over reaches, and over states his case with an insistence that influences choose the writer rather than the other way around. This is a deconstructive reversal that's cuter than it is precise. It's half the tale. Better to have it half and half: the writer certainly exercises choice so far as who they opt to read through their lifetime, and makes judgments based on their reading as to who matters more than others in the forming of a idiosyncratic aesthetic. The writer, as reader, is not a passive agent here.

A writer "being chosen" by their influences makes more sense, I think, when he place the statement at the moment when the writer is actually writing, when inspiration, imagination, and whatever other resources a writer has at their behest combine, churn, swirl, and combine in ways during the drafting that could result in interesting, original work. Process is a word that's horribly abused and bled of meaning these days, but here it's appropriate. Creative process is a strange ritual unique to each writer, an idiosyncratic set of habits that are the basis of the discipline needed for a writer to actually stay seated long enough to produce and bring the work through all it's stages. It's the mysterious clutch of protocols that unleash the influences into the creative roil , and it's here, during these churning, erupting , fever pitched sessions where a writer looses the ability to control the influences about them, large and small, whether from their personal reading, or from the larger culture: it's here where the writer is literally "chosen" by the influences and styles about them and literally have their style defined and guided. So it seems to me, anyway. For the force of the unconscious in the work, of course: memories emerge, scenarios spontaneously form, and arcs are drafted and written out to link disparate sketches on a narrative spine that rapidly becomes a fleshed-out work.

But the steps to get to the point where writing actually commences, I believe, begins with some conscious choices the writer makes in the world that's given to them: deciding what has value among the given--whatever we mean by that-- constitutes choice. What happens beyond that is what becomes problematic, and subject to niggling disagreement. But conscious human agency is not

The self is earned, not invented, some might say, but I might say that the thing which is earned is now less constructed. Well and good, but someone had to invent the criteria of a "self" that's awarded to someone who's "earned" the appellation. A gift wrapped box of "self" does not pop into being at some ceremony one attends on graduation day. Something that is earned needs to have a definition, however slippery or subjective, and that entails construction, more choices to be made in the inventing of a generalized "self".Anything that can be "earned", abstract or material, first needs to be invented.

Anything that is "constructed" is thereby real, whether abstract or material. A constructed entity is operative and has an effect on one's conduct through a problematic sphere. If a self is "constructed", it has dimensions, it has definable limits, it has conditions that are a premise a personality is initially based and layered upon with experience. If it can do that, it's as real as anything as anything you might throw a tin can at. A thing's existence, then, is understood as the actuality of its essence. Allen Ginsberg, speaking of a conversations he had with his mentor William Carlos Williams, gave a definition of Modernist perception as being that "...the thing itself is it's own adequate symbol..." Further, there is the strong suggestion that there is no God in this scheme, that the "thing" being perceived did not require an ideal type, or any other kind of Ideal superstructure in order to exist, to be. Ginsberg, and later poet/critic Jerome Rothenberg, gave a suggestion that this was Western writing's back-door approach toward more open structures, to decidedly un-systematized philosophies, witnessed in the Beat flirtations with Zen. This brings us knocking at the door of an extended Modernist approach--a style in which avant-garde procedure became an ironic protocol to literary writing--that became, in some critical finessing, post modernism.

How could the beliefs be useful if they weren't true? I could have many false beliefs that are coherent, but of what use would they be? The test of any theory is in how it works, and the gauge for how it works is in whether it's employment is of observable benefit to others, i.e., does it give some one and their community a coherent and workable structure to live life, to promote what would locally be defined as the Greater Good, and likewise provide a means for helping a community absorb change, how however and why ever it happens. The test of whether a theory is useful, if I remember my William James, is whether such a methodology leads one to a truth that's germane in situ. The usefulness of a theory is judged by how it side steps the confounding and conflating "proofs" of what constitutes Truth, with the big "t", and instead enables one to find something that works in mending the immediate situation.

Speaking for myself, Lost in the Funhouse is nicely written gripe in which author John Barth, flowing of pen, voices a buried resentment against his own reading habits, a collection that's kind of dull: he voices the complaint against the dreary optimism of modernism, the same dull complaints, in fact, and yet wishes that had been him, rather than Joyce or Faulkner at the key moments of break-through novel writing: a Bloomian moment with his career, with his writing desperately bloated books, his "literature of exhaustion" to demonstrate how much more radical he would have been had he the power to intervene in recent literary history, and also a classic example of the School of Resentment. Barth, I think, resents his teachers, or at least writes like he does.. His work, though important in the postmodern genre, is among it's dullest. The Floating Opera, though, is a masterpiece: brief, funny, unusual, unselfconscious in it's re-formation of the novel. Many readers would find Infinite Jest too hard to follow because they are reared on typical mainstream fiction that sticks to strict, world -shrinking genres. The Modernists we've mentioned here, if in passing, are Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, and Beckett, among others. Faulkner was the only one who produced works resembling mainstream entertainments, with As I Lay Dying and Intruder in the Dust, yet even these less consequential efforts in his body of work are daunting for the vaguely referenced "general reader".

It's a tenet of Modernism that in order for writing to be truly contemporary, it must achieve a level of difficulty that allegedly force the reader to reassess their take on experience. Impenetrability was encouraged, so far as the Modernist project encouraged any specific tendency among its early practitioners. "Make it new" was a chief slogan at the height of the Modernist literary movement, courtesy of Karl Shapiro, and the works, assimilated into academic study, don't comprise the sort of literature that makes for lazy readers. Rather, it's techniques set up the ideal reader, say, "reared in the Modernist style", to grasp the manner and aim of a Postmodern writing, which again, I believe, in it's best expression, is an extension of the Modernist agenda, albeit tweaked about the edges with a bankrupt critical apparatus. The theory cannot keep apace with the actual imaginative writing: sorry, but many theorists seem like bright children adept at taking things apart who cannot quite put them back together in anyway that's useful, meaningful.

The accurate statement about Modernists, in general, is that theirs wasn't a search for the single, unifying meaning, the single, capital "Truth", but rather that human beings have a capacity of breaking old habits and developing new ways of seeing the world outside their skins. There is a notion that that writing, art, architecture, film, et al, can be used in unique ways to bring about new perceptions of the addressed world, new ideas about human experience, rather than finding the one unchanging Truth, the single metaphysical road sign. Modernism operates, in a real and traceable sense, within the the concept of the Pluralistic Universe, addressed by William James.

There is truth out there, goes the assumption, but it's less about an absolute dogma about an underlining definition than it is about how the human personality comes to perceive and form a sense of place and belonging within it. The search for singular Truth was a vain task, noted by Eliot, Pound and others: at it's best expression, Modernism remains an invigorating vehicle , a keen investigative sense. Postmodernism searches for fallacies, so called, but we're stuck with the old binary oppositions that deconstructionists find offensive: we cannot have a definable sense of what is false unless we give ourselves over to an idea of what it opposes, the truth, or truths, plural. By default, postmodernism continues the Modernist project for what is useful in our descriptions. An extension of Modernism, in other words.

greased harmonica

Tom Sleigh looks for the mourner inside.

Tom Sleigh has an ongoing argument with God which comes to be little than how did He get the job when things in the poet’s life are going so badly? Or not badly enough.There is a strong aroma of dissatisfaction with the materials the poet's higher power has given him to write write about; making do , he resorts to big guns, large concepts each, and smothers the feelings. Sleigh is prone to write some of the saddest poems in his neighborhood, and sad fact accompanying his melancholic verse is that , from evidence presented here in Slate, writes with the sterile seriousness only the most mediocre scribes can manage. “Recording”, as is his style, has the narrator squinting too hard to see how the movements of air carries particles of God’s cloistered whimsy, squinting into dark corners in badly a badly lit room. This is a tragic scenario in which the loss of a dear friend incites the deeper pondering of the bends and dents that make up the mortal coil, but one cannot escape the feeling that even though his friend is the one who is dying, the poem is about something that is happening to the narrator. I imagine a mordant writer trying to enjoy his soup when he gets the call about his friend’s worsened condition, to which he frowns, grimaces, and says under breath damn, more psychic probing to do, damn it all…

The first word God said made everything
out of nothing. But the nothing shows through—
through his breathing on the tape casette,
so slow, so tentatively regular, so almost
at an end although it doesn't end but keeps
refreshing itself over in the quiet it's

recorded in, that it almost seems to float
in like a medium of water, deep down

near the bottom of something too dark
to see through

It might be a natural reaction for some to seek the higher order of things, to ponder the supernatural order behind this fatal happenstance and perhaps prepare a brief against the failing friend’s ignoble end, but Sleigh can’t seem to do anything except write himself into a syntactical muddle. These sentences go on at length and lose their emphasis, which is to say that unsold formless and without the vaguest impact; one may well be able to decipher the substance and themes of Sleigh’s dirge, but that’s merely a victory of critical reading, not a gift to the reader’s soul. Very little in Sleigh’s writerly world is serene , and the sour and souring experiences comprising his subjects are not things that can be, conveyed directly, clearly, with emphasis and impact. Poetry, above all other language arts, is the form which is best suited for the purposeful use of ambiguity, obscurity and a certain amount of cloaking of the terrain one speaks to, but there is a requirement, regardless of what aesthetic or revisionist manifesto that might direct a writer’s hand to at least create a sense of a situation, an emotional imbroglio, a scenario where the distinctions between ideas and forms collapse and language creates terse paradoxes that form the poetics of a severely mixed feelings.

Eliot, whom I assume is a major influence on Sleigh, merged his soul sickness with a richly honed physicality in the form of brilliantly scanned details. They had the effect of making the impossibly vague and indefinite qualities he tried to parlay into language comprehensible to his readers and established the grounds for empathy. One might not have been able to make literal sense from “Ash Wednesday”, but one did garner of sense of its conditions and recognize a human element that transcended Eliot’s vague discontents. What works in Eliot, though, is his ability to leave mention of his own nervous skin and jittery frame of mind and to project his psychological state onto the world his interior life filtered; there is the sense that the inane , the banal and commonplace items that compose the world he knew—breakfast nooks, asylums, cafes, salons , galleries—are transformed into constructs of melancholy, decadence and decline, and yet there remains that it is the experience of the reticent speaker , his drawn-down point of view, that colors and characterizes the environment. His universe was a series of broken dioramas with scenes whose imagery could elicit several generations of critical interpretation that has yet to exhaust Eliot’s text. The author was smart enough not to, in Tom Wolf’s phrase describing Mailer’s fiction “lard things up” with an excess of thinking.

This was the particular miracle in Eliot’s poems that he could exteriorize his feelings and spiritual desolation without analyzing them into inert specimens. Sleigh needs to occupy the states of mind he gives to the page, to declare his ownership of this melancholy and to continue to define the terms of the loss he’s feeling, and it’s this emphasis that makes recording overwrought; hearkening back to an earlier idea that he was irritated by this tragedy at some deep level, he overwrites to the extent that it reads as if he’s attempting to compensate for a lack of first response, and so he plumes the depths of his vocabulary
to construct a suitable model for the depth of his grief. It comes off as strained, convoluted, and unconvincing. Unconvincing for me, at least.

His breathing
is the breath that makes me catch my own breath

coming into my lungs as the sound comes
into my ears and into my brain and into some where

inside me I know is being hollowed out
by each breath of his preparing a nothing

that is so dark and seamless I lose sight
of him being borne away on the currents

of his breathing that inflates into the everything
the nothing wants to be.

When he lay there,

shrinking back away from sunset, the nurse said
his fear was common, called "sundowning."

And when he finally settled down, and later sank
into a coma, he began breathing just this way,

breath flowing out, flowing in, while the nothing
moved on the face of everything and God
climbed down into the rising of it.

This is much ado about the sound and sight of another invading his own senses and how such a case of powerlessness places one in a whispered contact with a concrete yet mysterious inevitability , a real response for anyone who has watched a loved one die, but I particularly resent is Sleigh’s relentless application of the first person “I”, the melodramatic presentation of his internal brooding and symptoms of grief; this is the stuff of the science fiction trope of the android constantly monitoring and analyzing it’s reactions and responses to incidents in order to gauge how close to being genuinely “human” he has become. All through this piece , one is not convinced that the narrator has actually gotten in touch with that well of grief , has gone through the variously stages of coming to terms with a dear loss, and has turned that experience into a strength. Or at least a good poem. “Recording” is an apt and ironic title; moods, flights of dementia, physical reactions are made note of and there is an attempt to duplicate them and reveal the submerged essence of it all in imaginative writing that does not , over all, evoke more than a fictionalized, formula-bound tragedy. It’s an image one finds in a script, with directions for the camera , nicely articulated notes for where the lens should focus , which shoulder to peer over, closing in at just the right speed until we come upon the narrator, sitting alone, holding a cassette recorder; then the music fades and the sounds of the breathing fills the screen. Next , the music raises again as the narrator lifts his head and peers into a corner spot in the ceiling; we hear rain drops. This resembles nothing so much as a dozen closing shots in episodes of “ER”

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Three Larry Coryell Albums

Toku Du is among the "straight ahead" jazz a 1988 set of sessions focusing on jazz standards combining the guitarist with Stanley Cowell (drums), Buster Williams (bass) and Beaver Harris (drums) with results being academic at best. This tunes, Coltrane's "Moment's Notice", Monk's "Round 'Midnight","My Funny Valentine"-- get a neat, circumspect treatment that is gutless at best. The guitarist enters these "straight ahead" projects as if he's doing penance for past sins, or that he's been trying to recover his reputation as a musician since his coke-fueled days in the waning days of fusion. Coryell does better with a later release, My Shining Hour, as he rolls up the sleeves and rags and rages on a material from Miles, Ellington, et al; the playing on the later release is positively liberated and exhilarating, and his band on that session likewise swings and rocks and generally pulses with an verve  the present disc in large part lacks. Coryell always bears a listen, but when he chooses to be bad, he chews a foul root. Not that Coryell has forgotten the jazz-rock that made his reputation in the Sixties, as we can see with Cause and Effect, which highlights the guitarist in a Tony Williams Life format with keyboardist Tom Coster and former Journey drummer Steve Smith. Coryell back in his native land, jazz-rock, and the results are prodigious, fleet, searing. Coster and Smith, keyboards and drums respectively, are a galvanized rhythm section switch-hitting time signatures and polyrhythms with a slamming accent, and Coryell is very much at home, very cutting, swift, brilliant. Freed from the archivist's sense of delicacy with older tunes "in the tradition", Coryell follows his wild, sober instincts and lets the notes fly; he hasn't been this exciting in a fusion context since his controversial work with Mingus. Fine and shredding

2008 ? Already?? Ah, man...

We're all nearly a week into the new year, and last night was memorable (but not momentous) because it was the first time in the forthcoming 54 weeks that I wrote "08", and did so without having to cross out an erring "07". The date was on my rent check, due the fifth of the month, and after I signed my name it seemed official, if actually inane; I have committed myself to 2008 as a fact. That being said, one would suppose I'd also say that it's time for folks to stop sussing out, for god's sake, the best and the worst of 2007--c'mon, we're six days into 2008, people , get with the program!! --but before I bid adieu I will suggest that anyone who hasn't seen the film The Assassination of Jessie James By the Coward Robert Ford should so before it slips from theatres. Or at least make your next NetFlix selection. Directed by Andrew Dominik and with a screenplay by him and Ron Hansen (adapted from Hansen's novel), the film features choice performances by Brad Pitt, as James, and Casey Affleck, as the sycophantic Ford. Dominik has a parched, coolly elliptical style that reminds you of Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven) as he draws a dry poetic backdrop in this unfolding tragedy. It is about the cult of celebrity worship seen from the 19th century, with James seen as an erratic manic depressive given to exaggerated bouts of joviality and rage in an effort to mask his growing depression; we witness the slow but inevitable course of Robert Ford's infatuation with James turning into paranoia after he joins his gang and moves into his home. Pitt and Delp are amazing polarities here, drawn together for a grim result you'd rather not see coming. This film makes up for the overplayed hype that accompanied the merely OK western 3:10 to Yuma; that film was dressed in old garments that didn't quite fit.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

A fine poem from Kevin Young

Kevin Young is an interesting but inconsistent poet who has yet to purify his style; the ghosts of those he favors make their noises in what seems to be every other poem I come across by him. But he does slam the ball from the park about as often as he swings through air. This works rather well, since the voice is stronger, more assured, the language taking on a diction that can make its influences mesh and produce a distinct set of tones:

Campbell’s Black Bean Soup

Candid, Warhol
scoffed, coined it
a nigger’s loft—

not The Factory,
Basquiat’s studio stood
anything but lofty—

skid rows of canvases,
paint peeling like bananas,
scabs. Bartering work

for horse, Basquiat churned
out butter, signing each
SAMO ©. Sameold. Sambo’s

soup. How to sell out
something bankrupt
already? How to copy

rights? Basquiat stripped
labels, opened & ate
alphabets, chicken

& noodle. Not even brown
broth left beneath, not one
black bean, he smacked

the very bottom, scraping
the uncanny, making
a tin thing sing.

The model, Frank O'Hara, suits Young's ability to catch the manic swerves of accelerated city speech and still have the precise phrasing a poem requires to be memorable. The conflations here, the puns, are electric and potent in the contradictory stances they bring together, a white art world and a young black artist trying to make a place himself amid the shilling, hype and inverse racism and still maintain his cultural identity. Would that he was this much on the beam much more often.

Friday, January 4, 2008

ACT NOW AND SAVE: minimalist misery

There is something to be said about being chintzy with the number of words one puts on the page as one attempts a compact and powerful expression of an idea that might otherwise be talked to death. "Less is more", in the words of architect Mies van der Rohe's explanation for his Spartan designs. In the builder's sense of the phrase, form follows function, with the aesthetic of the structure shaped by the functions the building is required to fulfill; the idea was to disabuse urban populations of the decorated and sickly festooned traditions of the bourgeoisie that have gone before and introduce a new set of relationship between human beings and the spaces they inhabit.


The modernist poet, inclined to the terse and abrupt phrase, the broken image, the elliptical sensibility, wanted to use words as if they were objects to be arranged to achieve a specific effect; the aim in turn was to discard several generations of accumulated rhetoric, not the least being the argumentative digressions of the Metaphysical Poets and the shammed-up personas presented by the most drippingly egocentric of the Romantics, and give us all, rather, a direct treatment of The Image. A reader was to be made aware that what they were bringing to the poem were associations already contained in their head; the poem, the hard expression of the perception, stripped of the adjectives and qualifiers usually the poet's ready, is meant to be seen in itself, isolated. One is supposed to examine the conditions of their response and realize that it is they, the reader, who completes the poem upon reading. Williams, though, considered his world rather concretely; there is nothing beyond the mist except vacuum. Eliot is present, not at all for the obvious reason that Eliot and his revamping of the Metaphysical Poet’s habit of poeticizing their philosophical arguments weren’t principal sources of Young’s anxiety of influence. It’s Williams, with his notion that poetry needs to be in the vernacular and that the thing in itself is its own adequate symbol, whom Young has gone to school on and is influenced by. You of all those here should know that not every poet gathered in this generation of geniuses had the same view as to what poetry and language must do. It has been said that there are as many types of modernism as there are modernist’s exceptions, and this ought not be considered a claim that the poets in America and England were on the same page, reading the same paragraph, nodding their heads to an agreed agenda. The argument that Young sides with, and which I find the most appealing, is the one Williams, Shapiro, MacLeish (and Stevens, for that matter) make in their different ways, especially in their Imagist experiments, was that what is need in poetry is a clear, hard, material language where the things of this world can be treated directly. This was the principle thrust of Modernism, however divided the schools were in their particular aesthetic--to change the way the world was perceived and, as a result, change the world for the better.

All this is fine as long as it works, which is to say in each case that as long as the buildings are reasonably attractive or have intriguing shapes in the city blocks where they've displaced older buildings, and as long as the poem is , on its terms, making use of a language, sparse as it might be, that gives one the phrase, the trope, the image, the spark that will make the reader's mind engage the cultivated intuition which makes poetry worth reading (and writing) in the first place.

But too often enough less is less, and this is what poet Kevin Young has brought us, again, with his poem "Act Now and Save". Young is one of those young poets whose work veers between genuine invention and gimmicky application of line breaks and pauses lifted from WC Williams or Archibald MacLeish; one wonders when he will stop trying to please his professors and mentors and slip into something more comfortable, such as his voice. His previous poem here, Elegy, was nothing less than a low-rise building under construction, bare girders and preliminary piping through which a stiff wind blows. That's the point, I suppose, of a creaky construction of unmoored signifiers requiring brick, mortar, lumber, wiring, the placement of windows, so it can finally resemble something useful. It was so bare that one might as well have been gazing at lone, gnarled steel rods sprouting from the compact dirt at construction sites as they wait for the rest of the building to appear, one rivet, welding spot and steel beam at a time. There are better ways to make the mind do interesting things. Act Now and Save has the same problem, a sequence pared back so far that there remains only a gutted root of a poem. It's a sequence of unfinished sentences, declarations that are choked off before the mind can convince the voice to finish the sentiment and commit to knowledge that about the speaker's life has changed. That ambivalence might be interesting had the verbal chunks themselves, the smashed syntax, been interesting enough to have us imagine, that is to say, finish the scenario, and alternative scenarios as well.


It's a wonder of the world

keeps its whirling—

How I've waited

without a word—

Staring where

the sun's no longer—

You gone

into ether, wherever

You want

to call it. Soon

Sun won't fight

off the cold

But today warm

even in the rain.

Whatever the well

you want me

To fall down I will—

Meet me by the deepest

part of the river

And we'll drown together

wading out past

All care, beyond even

the shore's hollers.


I can't for a moment find sympathy for this depressed person who is standing by the river talking to another who is present only in memory; "river", "drown", "rain" "sun" come off as readymade words one selects from a write-your-own-free verse-poem list, terms in themselves that when properly placed give us automatic evocations of loss and the feeling that world is too complex and mean spirited to continue to live in now that a certain someone is gone. Not that there is anything wrong with these words as such, just as there is nothing wrong with the notes one hears in a glutted guitar solo on a classic rock station. Context is everything, a suitable melody for the guitar notes, and sharply drawn particulars, details, in the case of Young's poem. It sounds hackneyed to say this, but Young didn't make me care about this mumbling; one hears this stuff on public transportation all the time, but the beleaguered there are not paid four hundred dollars by Slate. Young at his worst sounds like he’s still trying to prove himself to his elders . The essential point didn’t require a thorough outlay of the trends in modernist poetry since the Jazz Age, since that would have been padding. I spoke to those facets of modernism that are the models Young sees himself in line with. The limits of empathy are tested and exhausted every day until the next morning, and a professional like Young should give us more than this dress rehearsal. It's opening night here, and his fly is open.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Exile on Main Street

“Happy”, included on the Rolling Stones’ album Exile on Main Street is one of their great songs, and Keith Richards does a superb job singing. Richards, in fact, is very much the credible singer, having a hoarse, whispering croak of a voice that marries his blues and country influences. There is a measure of palpable emotion as the guitarist’s haggard voice stretches for a note that might not be his to possess, something like the battered working stiff who finds new reserves of inspiration when inspiration makes him forget the weight of his day and declare what there is in his life that’s worth standing up for. This is a singer whose talents would have blended to excellent effect with the rustic tones of the Bands' Levon Helm and Richard Manual. I've been listening to Exile on Main Street lately, and it's spectacular how these albums just seems to deepen with the years: it's one of those great releases whose basic roots-music emphasis places it in the considerable company such the early Band records or Moby Grape.

It's a tough call because both Exile On Main Street and The White Album have unique strengths. Preference, though, falls with The Beatles, since it's an unusually strong double disc of songs, featuring Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison at their zenith. The variety and quality clenches it. Exile has the appeal of mood, atmosphere, the ennui that the bands’ world-weariness had caught up with them, to which the response is an inspired re-investigation of their roots in American southern music. I believe that this as honest a music Jagger and Richards have ever made together (or as honest as Jagger has ever been), but whether the two discs are real emotion or skilled posing, the tone, and mood of the album can't be denied. It is their last great album. I'd say Electric Ladyland needs to be in the top five best double-albums ever released (rock/pop division) for the consistent genius in all areas, start to finish: Hendrix was hitting what might have been a long stride as a major songwriter, his guitar work had never been more inventive and searing than it was here, and the production is near-flawless, with the guitars and such adding something of a grand religiosity to the proceedings.

The point , though compressed, isn't mysterious, nor coded in arcane jargon: after the wide-ranging and successful experimentation with sundry styles that reached a slick , professional peak with Sticky Fingers, Exile on Mainstreet was a re-examination of some of the forms that were the basis of their music, namely rhythm and blues, straight up blues, gospel, country. It's all there, I do believe. The mix was muddy, not clear, creating what one perceptive writer called an air of "audio noir", and the band sounded tired but fully invigorated by some spark of energy, some keen sense of mission that made their grooves and beats sound fateful. The additional layer on Exiles' re-imagining of the foundations of the bands' sounds was the experience and cogency they applied to the subject, the splintery, inane and unchanging truths that fairly inform the lyrics.

Beggar’s Banquet, the album which was their best expression of how drugs and other excesses might lead to worldly wisdom (or at least an artful cynicism) was l in line with the general hedonism that was the hallmark of the hippie-movement, wherein one trusted the resilience of youth to bring them back from the edge they danced very close to: gross consumption and gratification of ones' senses was the by-word, and Banquet handily defined the period, albeit its dark, mean-humored side. Exile had the sound of a band whose high-living had caught up with them. This feeling, this sound, is a large part of what distinguishes this album from the albums that came before it. You might try actually listening to the album.” Torn and Frayed", "Stop Breaking Down", "Sweet Virginia", "Ventilator Blues", "Shine a Light", "Soul Survivor", even the bouncy and rocking "Happy" all, in their manner, reflect a sense of pausing, getting a breath, contemplating the ache at the end of long cycle of over-extension. These are not the same kinds of songs as earlier ones, ala "Satisfaction”,” Get off My Cloud", "Play With Fire", "Stupid Girl" or "Street Fighting' Man", potent rock and roll numbers that match a younger, more impatient and more arrogant psychology: the songs on Exile work so well precisely because the mood of the band was more somber, reflective, wizened with wear. Jagger and Richards were at the peak of their craft on this set, and the songs have a tangible moodiness, a real set of expressions that add up to a more cautious, and increasingly wised-up world view that tacitly, and explicitly comprehends the fleeting quality of mortal life.

It’s not far to suggest that this album is the best album regarding the extended effect of decadence on a Bohemian community , along with Lou Reed’s blisteringly and cluster phobic Berlin. The production of Berlin fits the ideas: the characters are decadent, the city, and the period were decadent over all, and the production is, I think, suitable for the terrain Reed covers here. A big, thick wall-of-sound, Phil Spector filtered through Bertolt Brecht. Reed was writing about his own popular culture indirectly in the way he wrote of his fictional wastrels on Berlin, but the music and lyrics are etched from what he's done and witnessed. The production works, and this album is an underrated masterpiece from the Seventies. Berlin was controversial in my circle and resulted in heated debates and a couple of estranged friendships (and eventual reconciliations). It would provoke similar response today if it were dropped, brand new, on the younger generations that is too sensitive, too incurious , too smug and fatally lacking any sense of irony . Everything that gets said by anyone in the arts gets subjected to so many slanted qualifying exams that both Reed and this album would have been crucified, metaphorically at least, for daring to write about what he has actually seen and done and to use his gifts as narrator to present us with scenarios that presents the underworld as grim, sad, lonely, tragic and fatal. No one who considers themselves as part of the marginal classes wants to be discussed in terms that don't line up with the heroic folk lore currently in fashion. I think the record is a masterpiece and that it is literature in the vane of Burroughs, Brecht, Le Roi Jones, John Rechy, Harry Crews. There are no heroics the characters along this long dark road can resort to; it's life under the weight of the Leviathan.