Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"Abundance" by James Longenbach:Less would have been more

James Longenbach writes his poem "Abundance" as if he wanted to direct a Hitchcock movie. As with the Master, the poem opens with flurry of cross cutting of images that shape the narrative to come; a man on skies crossing a freshly frozen lake, a shot of a clock or watch to tell us what time it is, a cracking in the ice the man doesn't see, a flash of open water to the north, the man sliding off the ledge, never to be seen again, a crowd at the shore, watching, shocked, hands over mouths, heads turned.
It's too much to hope for the audience to follow the shifts of perspective as this poor loner vanishes under the ice.

The omnipotent perspective that conveniently gives us the back-story, the crucial event and the sad result that the first person narrator lays out has a journalistic affiance that seems like a suit case that's too well packed. It may well be that Longenbach wants to give voice to someone who's had time enough to process their grief and absorb the shock and comes to speak of the odd tragedy in a tone reflecting a mind battered with bad news, but that is not how it comes off. Rather, it has that filmic quality, which would be urgent and compelling had this been a movie we were watching, but it is, instead, a poem we're reading, and the admittedly deft use of the quick edits is more like someone desiring to dispense with the set up so they can arrive at the "poetic language", the portion of the poem where the reader is meant to oooohh and ahhhh. There is a bit of button pushing going on here, like a template for a romance novel; insert your emotional response here.
The center of the poem, the stanza one might point too if they had to demonstrate why this is a poem at all and not merely a sequence of clipped prose, is the wondering of the meaning of it all, the mystery of a man wearing skies while crossing an iced-over lake, the unknowable facts motivation of a man who knew better than to walk over a lake that had been frozen less than 48 hours:

Immediately the gossip began.
Why did a man who'd lived on the island all his life,
Who knew enough to unfasten his skis,
Cross ice no more than forty-eight hours old?
If the wind hadn't kicked up,
If anybody could have thrown that far,
If there's been no ice, if there's been enough—
All-seeing stars that never sink beneath the northern pole,
Whose orbits embrace heaven, circling the earth,
My friend the poet lived on an island.
He built a cabin, planted beans. More than anything
He liked to visit other islands.
When the ice collapsed he drowned.
Fire shall burn, earth grow,
Water shall wear a covering,
Locking up the sprouts of the earth.

I can’t say that I’m surprised that the man who made the fateful journey across the ice is a poet, an assignation that , by association, should make the mystery Longenbach wants to be the poem’s center seem even more mysterious, ominous; this feeds into the notion that the poet is an oracular figure, doing quizzical things, saying cryptic things as they ply their hyper tuned sensibilities to the sounds and slight glimpses they pick up behind the veil between the world as it’s merely seen and the world as it really is. The notion goes further in that there is a fatal attraction, of a sort, operating here, the man , the loner on the island drawn to travel to neighboring islands when the lake freezes over, working on a hunch , the inspiration of which is beyond his grasp but one that he honors none the less with activity that baffles others.

top heavy with introduction and weak on resolution and what happens is a page full of several ideas that not aligned in an associative order. The last lines , though , are a perfectly drawn poem, a minimal concentration of images that set up, imply, suggest, and remain mysterious.

My friend the poet lived on an island.
He built a cabin, planted beans. More than anything
He liked to visit other islands.
When the ice collapsed he drowned.

This works for me, having both the abruptness to have you wonder aloud “what the hell” and yet containing enough detail where you can supply the missing details, as one would do with WC Williams.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

If Hillary can't withstand Olbermann's metaphor, why should she be President?

There's understandable concern that the longer Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama battle for the Democratic nomination for President, the more it will help the Republicans in the November election; the longer the tussle, the harder it becomes for the Democrats to pull their act together and present a United Front with a plan for a Better America. But it's not enough, it seems, for Democratic politicians to pile on each other, it seems that Democrat -friendly pundits have to start smacking each other around in like fashion. Salon editor Joan Walsh, a smart woman and a welcome addition to the cable news cadre of Rotating Commentators, took a vague, niggling exception to a remark made by MSNBC's Keith Olberman regarding the attempts to have a party elder meet with Hillary Clinton in private to persuade her to drop out of the campaign. Olbermann subsequently apologized for his metaphor on the air, which subsequently set off a round of comic liberal self-examination. One wonders if somebody remembers that there is an election to win.

Keith Olbermann is one of my favorites if only because he was the first anchor on cable news who didn't cave in to the talking points of The Right Wing Noise Machine and rather talked back in terms they (and his audience) understood, loudly, clearly, emphatically, and armed with documented facts and precise, exact quotes, presented in context. It's little wonder why GOP activists dislike him. He might have been harsh with Hillary Clinton, but it's not as if she hasn't merited the scrutiny; her misleading statements about her record of public service, her flip flopping on issues, and her husband's ill-advised introduction of race into the debate are matters to be parsed and critiqued. It's ridiculous to take umbrage with Olbermann's metaphor, since the outrage is nearly a parody of the hypersensitivity of certain liberal constituents whom Rush Limbaugh takes so much joy lampooning. Hillary Clinton is wants to be President of the United States, and she claims that she’s ready for the job, whatever the job takes. If Joan Walsh thinks that’s true, she should stop fretting whether Olbermann’s remark was sexist and resist the urge to make women candidates a Special Class, exempt from the rough and tumble anyone else interested in the office has to suffer.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Harmless Poem": powerlessness and transcendence

There are days that start that with a bad mood, a sour disposition, a curse on the breath as you leave the house to make your living, and most of us are lucky, most of the time, that these bad starts abate and a lighter view comes over us as we interact and engage our encounters on their own terms, not how we wished they were.

There are those days that start bad and stay bad, when each and every small thing that hits a sour note on what we demand be a perfectly tuned keyboard just grates at us, sends a falling current down the spine. The day becomes a down escalator down a bottomless shaft for the rest of the day and into the night , and the litany of those who have sinned against us, the material things that impeded our path, slowed our advance toward a short sighted goal-- the stop lights , the traffic signs, the intruding phone calls of people who need help, the cigarette smoke and the barking dogs-- all become a conspiracy to lower our spirit, to distract us from grasping whatever it is that is just beyond our reach.

It's a bad situation and I am glad they don't haunt me as long as they did when my certainty about how the planet ought really to spin caused me nothing but arrogant exasperation. In my experience, the especially dispiriting part of these bad-mood binges, these black holes of being, was that there was nothing tangible I could name , no incident nor reciept of bad news, that would have triggered a unified field of gloomy perception; the senses that a mysterious God had given me to learn about and get by and be creative in the world were now the source of an unlimited number of soul-killing annoyances. How things, looked, sounded, felt, smelled were my sources of torment.

My mood was such that each person and thing by simply and dutifully existing as they were, unmindful of my presence (and certainly unaware of my unease). You guessed it, I was full of my own presumptions, nothing seemed worth doing, there was no point in going on. This was nothing to laugh at because I had no sense of humor. To those in the know, these were the symptoms of forgetting Rule 62.

What appeals to me about Stuart Dischell's poem "Harmless Poem" is that it contains the sort of rolling, incantational swerve of a powerful prayer that beseeches something greater than the speaker's wits can muster on their own for a relief the bondage of self to have a sense of humility and the attending sense of humor restored. I've no idea what inspired Dischell to write this poem, but it does sound like someone attempting to lift himself from a grossly generalized negative world view by admitting the absurdity of his complaints of objecting to people, places and things for being merely what they are. The poem is well paced, arresting , with a mounting set of things and their faults listed in increasingly surreal depiction,

Forgive the web without its spider
The houseplant with few or many flowers
And the stars for hiding in the daytime,
Forgive astronauts for distance
And surgeons for proximity,
Forgive the heart for the way it looks
Like something a dog eats from a pan,
Forgive goat-gods and wine-gods
And the goddess bathing in her pond,
Forgive the sea for being moody,
The air for its turbulence, the stomach
For its vomit, forgive the insistence
Of sperm, the greeting of the ovum,
Forgive orgasms for their intensity
And the faces they make in people's faces,
Forgive the music of liars, forgive autumn
And winter and the departure of lovers.
And the young dead and the persistence
Of the old, forgive the last tooth and hair.

This is a chain of association of a mind that gathers up the evidence of offenses, makes notes of things and the results they get and makes the connection to the next link that is effected and made to make fragile concept of harmony shakier still. This is the confession of a man admitting that he is powerless , after all, over what gives him aggravation and that his life is unmanageable in the cumulative misery these otherwise inconsequential irritations give him.

The title seems more ironic than anything else; what it implies is that the "harm" we all need "less" of is the result of when we pass constant judgement and create for ourselves an ongoing condition that culminates in deeper depressions, more anger, poor decisions, meaness for its own sake, and the poem's entreaty is for relief from this toxic turn of mind. I sense someone taking deep breaths as they speak these words, and fingers grasping rosary beads. Dischell is smart to compress the process to the concluding prayer, the litany like entreaty the poem is modeled after. This is the fabled by very real Moment of Clarity, when one realizes the exact nature of their wrongs as they are and is able, for a moment, capable of getting to a personal truth unobscured by defense and denial. The truth is this; nothing in the world will sit right with him until all his forgiven and accepted as being exactly they way are.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Robert Pinsky blows his nose

Former Poet Laureate and current Slate poetry editor Robert Pinsky recently caused a stir , a small one perhaps, with a column he wrote for the online magazine’s Culturebox department where he offered up a Poetry Frequently Asked Questions. He gave a number of questions it seems the mildly interested have asked him over the years such as why don’t modern poems rhyme, why are they so hard to understand, or why don’t contemporary poets write about politics and current events? The selected questions tip Pinsky’s hand, and his own replies are terse, as he prefers to instead quote a poem at length to clarify his point or contradict an inquisitor’s assertion. The feature read like it was Robert Pinsky giving everyone the rasty raspberry with his version of Frequently Asked Questions, and the sarcasm and condescension of his replies and example poems reflect someone who is tired of being kicked in the groin each Tuesday for his selections. It's time for the poet to move on, or if you prefer, to move forward to other projects where he hasn't such an opinionated readers who are more than willing to flip him the bird and eviscerate his often quizzical selections . Pinsky tipped his hand answering the final question, a one word reply that sums up a few years worth of bottled aggravation:

9. Well, I like poetry that is amusing, that maybe makes me chuckle a little. I'd rather read something reassuring and light than something complicated or gloomy. Is that bad? Does that mean I am a jerk?


The abuse the former Laureate has received is due more than his idiosyncratic choices; his refusal to engage the criticisms from PoemsFray commentators has put him at a remove. His silence is imperious, detached, reeking of contempt. When he was writing his Washington Post column about poetry, Pinsky could write lucidly , and concisely, on a topic and specific poems, and more than one of us at the PoemsFray had hoped that he would offer prefatory remarks to his weekly selections. Not to give away everything before the poem could be read, but with enough context and insight into style and technique that could well have been a launching point for more varied thinking on the board. But remark he didn't, and from anyone can tell he gritted his teeth , waiting for a chance when he might have his turn at the microphone. Yet even here he pusses out; it's worth remembering that what he presents in Culturebox is what he thinks are the most frequently asked stupid questions that have come his way, queries given him by legions of straw men to whom he gives poems as a way of saying "fuck off". We have, in effect, an editor who really can't understand the resentment he's created, cannot (or will not) talk with the posters, and gives vent to his congested anger in a messy, unsightly spectacle. Yeah, maybe he should go on to the next project, the next appearance on The Colbert Report. The point is that he should probably be someplace other than on Slate.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The sublime and the hurried

  • Swift narratives that both cover ground and supply both the pace and blitz of rapid, time-constrained travel have their appeal; everyone loves a cliffhanger, and it's a sweet thing when the story leaves the expected and begins and ends with qualities that are distinct and opposed, violence and kindness, but which are linked. Michael McGriff’s poem [the line between heaven and earth]is a minor pleasure because he shows that he can give a sense of a cinematic timeline as he shows us a journey that begins with a brutal and unflinching slaughter and evisceration of a bear and what processes the removed gall bladder goes through to emerge, in the end, as a cure of a kind, that blandly presented item that eases discomfort and, we assume, exists entire free of violence. 

  • It works because McGriff has the wit to show the procession from raw animal guts to a palliative that will soothe a child’s fever. The imagery is concise, telling, and free of editorial conceit or metaphysical conceit. As with a camera lens, this poem observes the determination of a poor man to prepare a folk cure for a child's discomfort, the virtual act of faith, and taken with no evidence nor guarantee that it will have the desired result. The line between heaven and hell begins in the heart of the person willing to soil and foul themselves with bloody work, which intends and follows through in their effort to comfort another human being. 

  •   The line between heaven and earth ******glows just slightly when a bear's gallbladder ******is hacked out and put on ice in California: ******the line between heaven and earth begins ******with a ginseng root and ends in an anvil: ******the gallbladder rides in a foam cooler ******on a bench-seat in a pickup heading north: the line ******between heaven and earth carries a crate of dried fish ******on it's back: The man driving the gallbladder ******used to sell Amway and sand dollars blessed ******by Guatemalan priests

  •  This is thinking that believes in the cause and effect relationship between the earthly and the supernatural, and fittingly, the flow is fluid, serpentine, with the sure slither of hissing tires coming up a wet street; less than McGriff concerns himself with locations as he instead focuses what is nearby, in suffocating proximity, such as ice, a foam cooler on a bench seat, a man who used to sell Amway and shoreline contraband. The poem is suggestive of place, and this is a style I wish he’d maintained. Unfortunately, he saddled himself with a title that promises large significance and revelation. Still, there are no Blake-like metaphors geared to tear apart the thin veil that divides the realms from one another. There is no adequate irony either to make a diminished expectation pleased with the result. 

  •   into the mouth of a child ******whose fevers grind the teeth of rage: ******this is how the stories of all miracles begin.

  • Alas, a mere summing up in pedestrian terms, a moral of the tale delivered as if the reader were in third grade, grappling with the simplified versions of Aesop’s Fables. The subtext is not so disguised as to make the poem an inert collection of ossified cleverness, nor is it so obvious that one might yawn upon seeing the resolution telegraphed so far in advance. Mcgriff, had he maintained his delicacy, would have had a piece where the reader would be allowed to parse the ambiguity and arrive at conclusions that might surprise them. As happens too often, the poet started looking for the exit before engaging with an ending that fit the surefootedness of his initial images and lean flow. McGriff furnishes his own spoiler and hadn’t the confidence, this time, to let his subject—that acts of kindness and charity are linked intimately with the genuine evil of existence—emerge unexplained but in full context, with resonance and that bit of mystery that makes many a spare lyric linger in mind than would the details of a sermon or a presidential speech. I'd have been more satisfied had McGriff left us with images of striking contrasts, like the animal entrails, the hammered anvil, the child taking the grimly created cure, and allow the reader the chance to discern the line between heaven and earth, the juncture where miracles happen, is in the instance when something caring and noble arises from relentlessly mean circumstances. He needn't have given us the marginalia from his first draft; we would have gotten it after all.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Recently from NetFlix: Cinderella Man

A friend of mine commented a couple of weeks ago that in a time when what we consume in popular culture is so prefabricated , formulated and test-marketed until all potential joy is legislated from it's predictable husk, we tend to praise any movie, band, play, novel as "brilliant" that displays anything resembling a heart or half a wit about itself. Other superlatives come into play as well, like "great", "genius", "masterpiece" and all the rest, and the over rating of perfectly ordinary albeit respectable entertainment goes on. It's a sad and sorry cycle, especially in the case of the movies where the critic's assessments are most readily consumed by movie goers and used to pick the flick to while away the dark with. It's a sad time for anyone who wanted who wanted to write about movies because those that influenced--Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, James Agee--could think cogently about films in their essays. The paragraphs too many critics are dis spiriting; every other sentence reads as if it could be taken out and plastered in the ads as fully servicable blurbs, heavy on adjectives, empty of ideas.

It's a classic case of setting up great numbers of folks for disappoints aplenty: perfectly fine motion pictures like "The Interpreter", functioning perfectly well as classic B movie genre pieces, are saddled with overpraise and hyperbole , written by critics suffering , perhaps, from "irrational exuberance" for a movie that was marginally better than the swill too often served up on big screens. Critical reasoning is out of whack, and films that are fine and dandy without being profound , edifying or in anyway "brilliant' beyond their professionally executed duty to entertain well are not given a proper reading. This makes films age badly.

"Cinderella Man" is certainly a fine B movie project by all involved, and there are plenty of compliments to dispense to all involved here, particularly in the continued fine work of Russell Crowe. He continues to reveal previously unseen nuances in his performances, and here is perfectly fine as a decent palooka who through what's portrayed as a humble Will-to-Power rises above his poor prospects as a fighter in order to provide for his family.Nearly everyone in the film is a decent personage--damn decent, you could say--and it's a compliment to director Ron Howard for not letting the storyline sink under the accumulating bathos. It's perfectly played, laid out, absolutely symmetrical in the way it arrives at the conclusion in which the power of contender Jimmy Braddock's selfless love wins out over the brute strength and Vesuvian rage of heavyweight champion Max Baer. There is a tug at the heart, you choke up a bit, you fret and cheer and applaud with every glove that land's on Braddock's face and every connection he makes with an opponents chin, nose or ribs. Fight movies are the only genre where the skillful director, armed with an able script and smartly placed cast, can make the button pushing moves plausible; Clint Eastwood's recent "Million Dollar Baby" is another example of the human situation being reduced to a few determinist particulars the hero (or heroine) must rise against so that the invisible quality we call Human Spirit can become a plausible thing for us to respond too in ways that are no longer abstract mouthings.

My preference between the two films, though, goes with Eastwood's drama: it veered unexpectedly (but not implausibly) from the underdog storyline and presented an unvarnished tragedy in the making; the situation of "Million Dollar Baby"'s characters was problematized , and the personalities of the characters became intriguingly complex as the issue of assisted death arose as a plot point. As someone has said, everything in the world of "Baby"'s characters changed in minute, leaving the issue of Human Spirit and unconditional love more complicated than whatever cliches that would come trippingly and unthinkingly off a fast, glib, idea-free tongue.

"Cinderella Man", of course, has no such complications, and stays the course towards what is a classic Hollywood Ending:the good guy wins the fight, makes good on his debts, lives a productive and decent life in the glory of American hopes and dreams; what makes it work is Howard's particular genius for narrative rhythm and momentum--the storyline moves ahead with a leisurely swiftness that stands in contrast with Eastwood's remarkable ability to take his time and dwell on scenes without dragging in his direction. This is not, I don't think, a great motion picture--I'll hold out for the superior "A Beautiful Mind" by Howard--but it is a very good one, a finely crafted and engaging bit of professional film making from a Hollywood director who remembers when Hollywood itself made the best movies in the world

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A poet in the lower case

It's strange to go through old bits of writing and see again what you once thought was simultaneously cutting edge and timeless. This isn't the sort of thing I pursued in my writing life, and have vacillated between degrees of difficulty that at least read well, but I can't quite dismiss my time attempting to write within the self-critical confines of Language poetry as being a waste of time; it was , in fact, terrifically instructive, not least of which was to direct me toward my strengths and away from my weaknesses. I also have a real fondness for some of this en-jambed lines and marvel at the language's capacity to snap back into usable form after being tortured and twisted by willfully abusive wunderkind.

But overall, I couldn't see writing a poetry that only a brief coterie of associates and a thin scaffold of masters might appreciate. I read this and recognize that the non-sequiturs have there origins in actual conversations in which tempers flared and love affairs commenced, and that the puns are jokes I used to share about texts, authors, gossip, local landmarks, pop culture references, all mixed together in a way in many attempts to dislodge the master/slave relationship we thought existed between writer and reader. The words to describe the appearance of things that compose an imitated world are the subject of the Language poets; the variant commodity fetishism that links a unified idea of poetry to a consumer reality is reduced to non-sequitur, babble, a distracted murmur of people standing in line.

The problem, though, is that that audience for whom the pieces were intended has dispersed, moved on, or died as tends to happen in the unexamined life, and the poems and texts I produced emulating Language poets are homeless, so to speak, sans an audience to confound and taunt. People just stared at me at the readings where I dared trot this creaking experiments and attempt to perform them; imagine a room full of confused dogs staring at you, heads tilted the side, waiting for the biscuit of wit you don't in fact posses. But by this time my appreciation for the Language writers I was coming familiar with --the multi-tracked universe of Ron Silliman, the satiric inversions of Bob Perelman, Rae Armentrout's crystallization of the fleeting perception that would usually escape a sentence's ability to make lucid--only deepened in an appreciation for the rigorous pioneering their aesthetic undertook when no one would really shake up the post-Beat/New York poetries. But what they had started was there battle to put forward, not mine, and as I began to develop something resembling a mature style--when the poems were "more hits than misses" as poet Paul Dresman told me-- I resigned myself to being an unusual sum of all that I liked in poets in their work, someone at the margins of the scene I was nearest who's influences were clear but whose application of styles had grown beyond emulation and formed something natural and original, something my own. I was content to be a good minor poet, unknown for the most part, but satisfied that what was on the page with my name on it wouldn't embarrass nieces and nephews after I was gone and perhaps some future professors might find some poems that were actually satisfactory in estimations other than my own neurotic rethinking of my own worth as a writer.

Unlike Cage, extended silence bothers me tremendously, and over the years I've opted for a style and strategy that at least invites the reader to interact with. It's not inaccurate to say that I found my subject thirty years ago, but only fifteen or so years ago did I find the consistent, flexible voice to give it life. But I am grateful for the fifteen years of poems that don't make me wince and which have brought a nod, a laugh, a tear to some others and which made me feel as if I was actually connected to a greater chain of circumstance that fended off the desire to wallow in the kind of EZ alienation that is our culture's chief curse and cheap excuse for doing nothing to make this life better. It beats putting a gun barrel where it would do the most harm. Breathing, says all good poetry, beats not breathing.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Who needs to age gracefully?

Claude Scales is a thoughtful blogger with a keen ironic sense who quotes New York Times columnist Gail Collins on the issue of boomer aging:

Long, long ago, Mick Jagger used to say that he couldn’t picture singing rock ’n’ roll when he was 40. His message, obviously, was not that the Stones planned to retire, but that Mick planned on remaining in his 30s forever. That which we cannot change, we ignore.

Ah, I hear you. A friend of mine solved his age issue by refusing to have anymore birthdays. It was a funny line at the time, when both of us were still in our mid thirties in 1987, but the last time I saw my friend a year ago I beheld him in latest guise as a high toned, edgy shoe designer for Hollywood stars. He certainly took the part seriously, with his thin designer glasses, body fitting shirts that hugged his weight-machine toned torso and arms like a small glove on a large hand. And then there was his face, which was lined as it ought to be for a man in his fifties; he's a good looking man, to be sure, but the conflict between an untouched face and clothes more appropriate to Euro trash movie villains leaves one scratching their head intensely, at the risk of making the scalp bleed.

Not that I am without vanity; a mirror is sometimes the only friend I have, in that a friend is someone who tells you the truth no matter if you like it or not. The evidence is in; act your age, yes, you've gained weight, those lines around the eyes are yours, friend, enjoy the character they give you.The best I can do is play blues harp in sometime bands with musicians of like age, 39-55, and resist the twitchy urge to mime guitar chords.The generation that listened to big bands had an easier time with their idols aging than we rock and roll boomers have had; jazz musicians stand there and play great music while the rock musicians, in sound and mythos, is predicated on the promise of youth and rebellion, ridiculous things to strive for when the grey hair and creases and body mass gang up on them.

All the same, one has to tip their hat yet again to the Rolling Stones and appreciateaa the fact that whatever the issues of age have been, they've protected their reputation as a working band. They continue to release albums with new material, most of the tracks being surprisingly taut and crisp (even though Mick Jagger's famed jaded ambivalence in the lyric department sounds rather pat these days), they continue to tour , they continue to sound like what rock and roll , in theory, should sound like, angry, ironic, aggressive. We might also add that Jagger and Richards et al sound , in their best recent music, wise but not withered. Like the recently departed master Norman Mailer, they aren't leaving show business without swinging for the fence each time at bat, hitting more long balls than anyone has a right to expect. Might we get some of that energy and inspiration?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bob Dylan's Pulitzer

I'm leery of awards committees creating special categories where none had existed before just because someone thought it would be a great idea for Dylan to get one of their prizes. What Dylan got wasn't the equivalent of the Oscar's Irving Thalberg Award, an established prize awarded to an individual who's life's work has advanced and influenced cinematic art. Dylan's specific award seems to have been given for no other reason other than the Pulitzer thought it would raise their hip quotient. Bestowing this award on Dylan seems as meaningless as a university giving someone an honorary Phd to a celebrity because it briefly raises that institutions visibility. The degree itself is meaningless, signifying status, not accomplishment. It would have been meaningful if Dylan's Pulitzer came from something he was actually nominated for, but with the way these things work out , I'm not sure this group of editors are ready to create a category for pop musicians.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Alan Shapiro's Heroic Impotence

Alan Shapiro has been Robert Pinsky’s choice  a number of times for the Slate's Tuesday poem installment, and he is writer who is inconsistent in his execution. He is , as a poet, by turns clever, subtle, able to bridge vague quandaries with concrete emotion . At other times he will become parochial, stale, a self- aware mess who too often mistakes an examination of his own powerlessness as a fit subject , of itself, for a poem. This is the case with prolific poets; there’s so much dedication to producing the work that one hasn’t the time, nor the inclination, to give the newer material the disinterested editor’s scan and detect where one’s worst tendencies surface.“Triumph” is one of the lesser poems Shapiro has had published here, an attempt to write a poem about a homeless person the narrator, the poet most likely, he sees daily. There are telling details Shapiro picks out and presents with a journalistic precision, especially in the clean way in which he describes the homeless man’s bedding ritual:

saw him as I drove by—
I don't have to tell you what he looked like—
Spreading a plastic sheet out
As for a picnic
Except he wasn't picnicking;
He was lying down to sleep
In the middle of the sidewalk
In the middle of the day
On a busy street,
The spoils of him lying there
For everyone to gawk at
Or step around.

There’s nothing here that would open the

I would suppose that Shapiro intended this little tour of his psyche’s interior decoration to operate as a criticism of how literary types allow their infatuation with metaphors, tropes, generic conventions and relativizing their reactions to real events, but what his results are less effective as commentary on alienation than it is a specimen of narcissistic self-regard.

Yes, even measures of negative self-estimation are narcissistic and are evidence of larger vanity since they remain instances in which the author becomes the subject of what’s been written. The homeless man is made less real, and is no more than the misery idex’s equivalent of a nice sunset inspiring a poet to rhapsodize about their frolic under clear skies on a warm day. The poet here ignores an obligation to frame the world he witnesses and to offer an image that would help us think differently about circumstances separate from our set attitudes. This is a formula confession from Shapiro, a poet who should know better ; the easy slide into self-dramatization is galling. It’s offensive.
But whatever I did or didn't do
I did it to forget that
Either way
He was the one asleep on the sidewalk,
I was the one borne along in the car
That may as well have been a chariot
Of empathy, a chariot
The crowd cheers
Even as it weeps
For the captured elephant too wide
To squeeze through
The triumphal arch
And draw home

earth and the skies of our awareness of the hard facts of this man’s life, but there is a hint given to a witness’s arsenal of associations that try to comfort the leery from too much bad news. Shapiro’s narrator thinks of picnics at first instead of realizing that the destitute man was carving a space out for himself for a night against the elements, both weather and human. The problem with the poem comes when Shapiro, the poet, tries to figure out what to do with the scene he has just established; it wouldn’t be enough to allow these circumstances speak plainly and loudly for themselves, sans a lecture or the slippery rationalization of why one does nothing. Shapiro reveals his real intention of the poem, which wasn’t to establish empathy with a fellow human’s struggle but rather to examine his own apathy and his desire to remain in his head, piling metaphor upon upon metaphor as he processes the unruly sights he repeatedly sees and repeatedly drives away from;

Monday, April 7, 2008

The disgrace of National Poetry Month

We are here in April again, and those of us concerned a little about poetry as art need again to accommodate the ludicrous thing called National Poetry Month. The hope is to get folks to change their reading habits to include poetry volumes along with their steady diets of mysteries, romances, celebrity cookbooks, and memoirs written by people who will soon be exposed as liars and cheats. Is there hope for the General Audience? The divisions in the Poetry War are drawn, both sides will wage battle for the soul of the book buyer, but the unfortunate truth is that vast promotion and arguments as to the worth of verse are to no avail. Literally, no one is buying it. Or buying too little of it for the fuss and bother of having a month out of the year dedicated to poets and their obscurities.
The General Audience I speak of is vague, purposefully so, as it says to anyone who has an amorphous notion of generalizing about poetry readers share in common. The war between various schools, groups, and the like strikes me as more bickering between the professionals, poets, critics, and academics (some of whom happen to practice all three occupations) who have status and power on the line as they advance their agenda and create an enemy camp in the interests of bolstering whatever claims can be made for a particular group's alleged superior aesthetics. Some of this ongoing disagreement is fascinating and useful since the distinctions as they're clarified can be informative. The criticisms each has of the other's perceived shortcomings can potentially yield insight on issues a writer might otherwise be too close to.

I have my preferences, sure, and I subscribe to a particular set of principles, but these rules of poetry are worn like a loose suit, not a straight jacket. Most readers who are interested in poetry, contemporary and older, will like or dislike a variety of different approaches to verse for an equally varied set of reasons, most of which, if asked, our hypothetical General Reader would be able to explain. The fundamental question of a poem, whether written for the lyric voice, the vernacular rant, or the experimental rigorist, is whether it works or not, both on its own terms and in terms of whether it gives pleasure or joy. Someone might suggest that teachers could increase the audience for poems if they taught the material better, but this is a strawman. We can't lay this at the teacher's feet because it's my firm conviction that most poetry, ambitious or otherwise, isn't going to be the large majority of their students will take after in adulthood, regardless of how good or bad a job is the instructor might be. We're talking about adult readers here, those who have reading habits formed and in place for a lifetime; some are more curious about more ambitious forms, most who read poetry prefer the greatest hits of Whitman, Plath, or Dickens. If they read poetry at all, and the General Audience, as we've been calling them, has no interest in poetry, except when they need a quote for a funeral or a wedding.

Consumers who might buy a book of poems do so for the same reasons as they always have been, word of mouth, display, book review, and so on. Things like National Poetry Month do so very little to increase the fraction of the book-buying public to have even a casual appreciation of poetry; they simply don't care for those things that are not measurable by generic conventions. Charles Bernstein wrote a cogent if slightly smug essay in 1999 called "Against National. Poetry Month As Such," in which he derides the notion that publishers and a clatch of state and federal arts czars can increase interest in, and sales of poetry collections by reducing to the level of the contrived New Age/faux mediation group think that would have us read the literature with the hope that stress and pain will go away. (I am thinking of Roger Housden's odious collection "Ten Poems To Change Your Life," which abuses the work of good poets by presenting them as accessories one buys on impulse at the cash register). Bernstein's main point is well taken: poetry is being sold as something it isn't, like the volumes poets publish are good for you in the way that pop-psych and New Age literature claim to be. What is being sold are the specious promises of poetry, not the poetry itself which, of all the literary arts, should stand alone, unencumbered by political or therapeutic contrivance. National Poetry Month is a hypocritical waste of time, I think, a commercial venture born of the kind of cynicism that enables corporations to manipulate buyers into purchasing things they haven't a real need for.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Chris Forhan's Mastery of the Compact Reverie

Robert Pinsky has been on a winning streak lately with the poems he's selected for Slate's weekly poem, and I thank him for the consideration.

"Oh Blessed Season" by Chris Forhan comes upon us like the first days when winter becomes Spring and the days are glorious and sunny to a fault; after months of bundling up against a constant cold and having had rather enough of stuffy noses and over the counter remedies, we greet the suddenly gorgeous days with a new sort of fever, that of hope and insurgent optimism. Our expectations, in the collective assumption that the season's change is our time to renew our Contract of Life and to make the eternal chain of work blossom and become ripe with growth again, do tend to be overstated in the first flush of sunshine and raised temperature , and as the zest soon enough becomes the daily grunt work it had been during fall and winter. Save for vacations and an extra day off, we merely modify our layers of clothing and adjust our complaints about the weather. But what I like about Forhan's poem, though, is the way he creates a rhetoric of optimism, the days as they create a sensation of well being; the season brings about associations with many things, pleasant and fulfilling experiences. This poem is a chain of associations that suggests a euphoric condition:
Summer strode slowly in clownish festoonery, forgiving everything.

Blessed was the fruit of its womb: slumbering bees, blossoms' furious purple
clouds scattered like napkins late of lips moist with cream and champagne.

Chiffon was a word heard often then.

Oh, to live like that again, operatically bored with the reckless long business of

To loll on a ridge above the jostling gondolas,
to sprawl in a field amid the ruins of lunch, the crumbs and rinds,
to be slaked by a final swallow of wine and feel safely ravaged and awry,

These are not the declarations of someone expecting the worse to happen still, not someone waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop, but rather the larking tones of a man who seems quite intoxicated with the light, the warmth, the breeze. The worry of the world seems comic quite suddenly, and the temporal division between one's selective memories and the harder truth of the current station are blurred for the time being, dissolved. There is a sense in Forhan's even-handed opulence of someone who is willfully trying to sustain the good feeling; there is , I think, an awareness that this too shall fade soon enough as the reverie gives way to an admission that the verve of youth ages, becomes seasoned, creased, that petals fall from every blooming flower.

To loll on a ridge above the jostling gondolas,
to sprawl in a field amid the ruins of lunch, the crumbs and rinds,
to be slaked by a final swallow of wine and feel safely ravaged and awry,

to joy in the horses' forelocks, beribboned with blooms of sweet everlasting—
a distraction from the black, inapt cast of their eyes,

that sequestered look, as of something they've seen and not forgotten yet.
The evocation of communing with nature and the creatures of the profusely rich terrain introduces the downbeat, the faint, off-note that returns the desire to the world unprogrammed by wishful thinking. The gaze falls upon the horses, who's sequestered look parts the clouds , so to speak, to show the accurate relationship between things. The last line brings this idyll into the present tense and establishes it as something being recollected, the admission that these sensations vanish or are taken for granted when youthful eyes are described as giving a "...sequestered look, as of something they've seen and not forgotten yet." Masterfully done, the narrator shakes his head, snaps to and witnesses his world again in real time, without sense-addling filters that good weather can become. Without the baggage of tenuous philosophizing, sans the need to "wrap up" the poem and deliver a point, Forhan's lets the narrative sequence unfold as the reverie itself might of, a sudden flush of sensation, and then an ebbing of the good feeling as the current situation reasserts itself. This is a beautifully written poem of a fleet moment that otherwise would resist the attempt to capture it so compactly.