Friday, May 30, 2008

A bitter sweet comedy from Philip Schultz

This was originally posted a year ago, I believe, and just today found some additional thoughts on Philip Schultz's fine poem; vanity , perhaps, but not without purpose. Enjoy.--tb
The last Tuesday poem in Slate caught my eye, made me laugh, and made me sigh (just a little). "Failure" by Philip Schultz is that kind of poem, a potentially maudlin and morose subject matter that draws you in with some unexpected punch lines and left turns. This is as fine a lament for the Walter Mitty type as Tragic Figure as I've ever read. I thought this was a piece of comic writing, a funny monologue that gathers each tense muscle and clustered ganglia in a man's set-upon shoulders and releases the collected negativity as a Woody Allen digression where one defends the unsupportable with unexpected distinctions. It opens up with an opening line worthy of an early Philip Roth novel:

To pay for my father's funeral
I borrowed money from people
he already owed money to.
One called him a nobody.
No, I said, he was a failure.
You can't remember
a nobody's name, that's why
they're called nobodies.
Failures are unforgettable.

Poet Philip Schultz has a perfect set up with which to riff with variations of the punch line, and that he does, admitting the farcical nature of a father who's plans for success seemed from the outset unworkable to everyone but him

An uncle, counting on his fingers
my father's business failures—
a parking lot that raised geese,
a motel that raffled honeymoons,
a bowling alley with roving mariachis—
failed to love and honor his brother,
who showed him how to whistle
under covers, steal apples
with his right or left hand.

What makes the poem moving is the particular reserve Schultz shows here ; there is, to be sure, plenty of material in family recollecting where each stain , wrinkle and idiosyncratic whiff of dysfunction upon the family name can be a suitable launching pad for confessions, first person melodramas, compulsively unfunny comedies of baroque proportions, but Schultz keeps his ground. He admits his father's faults, enumerates documented failures, gives details of things that were bothersome, nettlesome, annoying--watches that pinch the wrist, snoring during movies--and yet embraces him all the more. Admitting his father's flaws he admits his own--the fuck ups of the father are visited upon the son? -- and in doing so finds a clue to what comes to the bare fact of existence, a constant seeking to create a context in which can exist on their own terms , not what's dictated by religion and financial institutions:

He didn't believe in:
savings insurance newspapers
vegetables good or evil human
frailty history or God.
Our family avoided us,
fearing boils. I left town
but failed to get away.
If the dead father's strivings had been successful, the same said "cause" of his perceived failures would have been viewed as the source of his good fortune. I don't think this poem has any real religious underpinnings other than the rabbi's closed-system dismissal of a deceased's refusal to invest in dogma. He is, rather, more a model of what we view the truly existential man, someone (to paraphrase Sartre) "condemned to freedom" who defined himself by his resolute decisions and actions, and by his acceptance for what the results, good or bad, turned out to be. This implies is that the son assumes his father preferred to live a life of his own defining, in good faith, instead of swearing alliance to a belief systems he had no use for. The son, who left town but never escaped, realizes that there is more of his father's temperament within himself than he might have first realized.

His father wasn't a nobody, Schultz insists, he was a man of distinction: he was one who tried and failed repeatedly to create meaning his life, and that is something to be understood, not belittled. Unsaid and yet implied, Schultz finds himself channeling his father's unrest and sees for himself a variation on his father's life in his own attempts to accommodate a life that seems like a suit that's 5 sizes too big. He left town but he failed to get away. There religious element is important in the poem because it characterizes what cultural institutions the deceased father placed himself outside of while he was alive, making up his own mind about what he wanted to do with his life. It's my feeling that Schultz intends (and succeeds, I think) in conveying the specific tone of the belated criticism. The poem, though, doesn't involve a critique of a man who turned his back on the faith that might have a line on a One True God; that would make it dogma, not poetry, however skillful the language. What's involved here, in a more general (and more purposeful) sense is the judgment of groups casting judgments on members of their faith, their group, who they feel have strayed, be they agnostic Jews, lapsed Catholics. The situation is universal, if we dare use the word, but the texture is culturally specific.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Frank Rich finds his price, loses his voice

Frank Rich, a cultural and political columnist for the New York Times, has recently announced that he has signed on with HBO as an advisor, of sorts, his task being to aid them in creating new programming. A plum engagement in addition to his NYT chores, and the Times, so recently burned with too many reporter scandals, has slapped Rich with a restriction that he may not write about his work with HBO, or about HBO at all. Avoiding a conflict of interest is prudent, yes, but the situation effectively neuters Rich as a critic, even on those cultural products he has no financial interest in. A nominal critic, I think, ought not be accepting any money for any work from any entertainment combine. Whatever safeguards The Times sets in place to keep Rich's intergrety in tact, it's become clear that the man is willing to accept funds and so have his voice modulated, if not muted outright.

I'm of the mind that Frank Rich must choose one or the other , be a critic not beholden to anyone who can say as they please, or be a cultural entrepreneur , delivering arts-related programming to the marketplace and subject to honest commentary. I've never been comfortable with the idea that Time magazine reviewers, for example, are charged with critiquing the worth the movies , television shows and books published by the subsidiaries of its parent company, Time Warner, even if the magazine editors made it a point of including unfavorable reviews among the estimations.The point is that a corporation like Time Warner , in effect, is controlling the conversation of their product by having both film makers and reviewers on their stuff, a situation that mutes negative remarks and converts merely into the buzz that excites potential viewers to buy tickets.

Lacking an independent voice outside the the Corporate culture that produces the products diminishes the reliability of the reviews as honest appraisals. Worse, though, is that the situation of corporations having studios , publishers and reviewers on the payroll makes the task of speaking a brutal truth to power--our entertainment industries produces crap and little else-- too daunting a task, and produces, in effect, a collective feeling to merely allow the mediocrity continue . Rich, in any case, is about to become a compromised presence on the pundit scene, and that's a shame.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Judith Harris: Soma Poetry

There comes the occasional moment in the week when you walk past a room with the door ajar, and note that it's mostly dark save for light straying in from a window , casting the furniture and the folds of whatever fabrics in plain sight in a deep , earthen hue; there is peace, there is a richness and depth to the colors you see by chance, there is a idea that what you're seeing on the sly are things of themselves, in arrangements free of the harnessing concepts of what utility they might have.

We see them , for a moment, in pure form, from a dimension of being only absurd math dares make an attempt to address in dimensional terms. But we get busy with our things we-must-do before leaving the house again, our perception , which has strayed outside the paradigm, finds its purposeful step again, and the room is merely a place where the lights are off. The half shadows no longer suggest magic or tap an instinct at the base of the skull where the brain contains its secret places and spiritual hankers for that which cannot be defined and divided up as commodity. We see these things in passing for years, and some of us spend careers trying to get the moment right, in words, words that fail them.

"Memory" by Judith Harris goes for the moments that seemed so right so long ago and gives us a Hallmark momento as a result. This is not an awful bit of remembering, if one were actually listening to a friend over coffee or a meal , listening to them pull bits of a detail in a story they were telling you, placing the detail in the right place in the narrative , and then remembering even more things as the picture they speak to us becomes an even larger verbal canvas.

It would be something to witness a racounteur stop, rewind their tale, embed and embroider the new information, and then proceed with the tale. In the unhurried moments, those days when there are no deadlines, no timetables, agendas, chores looming, and when the company one has that day is someone who you don't mind listening too at length, the telling, the style and personality of the presentation, can be enthralling. It's one of those times when you realize that life is worth the effort it takes to get through the day.

Harris' "Memory", isn't one of those rare and special get -togethers when the sharing makes for more profound bounding; it's a quaintly antiseptic, nutrition free bit of sweetness that is all set for the last line.

Those years, after dogwoods
and purple phlox
the color of dyed Easter eggs,
the screen door rattling like a nerve …

On the porch, a cardboard box
for the stray cats
who stayed just long enough
to swell and litter.

So simple,
my mother, home
from the stenographer's pool,
starlings dangling like keys
over the rooftops,

the late hour pulling us in
like a magnet,
the moon baying,
the solitaire train of cards.

We are to linger over the commonplaces set before us and recognize them, remember them in situations of our own, and surrender to the mood of another tingling epiphany, a swooshing rush of nothingness sweeping over us. The details seem less like things one would notice in pursuit of the right phrases to describe to someone else an experience or an emotion that's difficult to contain in a sentence or two, than they seem to be from a list one dresses up their template with. "The moon goes here, solitaire goes there, but lemme put the Easter eggs and stray cats over here". The details seem more from a prop department than from felt experience, and one really shake the feeling their being set up through a series of stiff, over burnished cliches for a finale that is , in some measure, supposed to take our breath away, stun us into silence, have us utter "oh wow" while fighting an urge to weep.

Nothing could budge us
from our own little island,
our own little cushions,
where we stayed,
eating tuna sandwiches,

just her and me,
floating on TV laughter,
her hand clasped over mine
like a first date's.

This is where I feel like someone had dropped a bowling ball on my head and there were cartoon tweety birds and visions of Saturn and star, jagged stars circling my harried skull, meaning that has a hard time thinking they hadn't been sucker punched for sticking with this work , hoping for a subversive element or an idea to emerge and run a parallel, more skewed set of proposals to Harris' medicine -breathed sweetness. We confront a poem that reaffirms its own inanity and which wades in the receding hallows of an unexamined life; Judith Harris prefers the world which never existed, the sort of universe where happiness and joy are givens without reservation, unproblematized by disaster, tragedy, a late credit card payment, even the inconvenience of a cold caller. Hers is a world of perfect forms to match every unruly thought or unannounced glitch in the daily plan, with props , cliches, tropes , schemes, and two dimensional set of equations that are designed to keep a reader sentimental, submissive, weepy and resigned to the sort of
pickpocket morality that will keep one quiet, receptive to every easy answer to come their way; poetry is the prison house of language fans of this kind of sonambulent tripe are locked in. Pity the fan who might actually be surprised by circumstances no items in Judith Harris' playbook can explain.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Rand is smited

Now, more than ever, I believe The Fountainhead, to be a dangerous book. This may worry a point already mulled over here, but one cannot just pass-off this book's implicit assertion that mass destruction is justified in the name of "higher values" whose substance supposedly overrides the need to respect and protect human life. It is only irrational romanticism and literary convenience that Rand softens Roark's destruction with an empty structure. Roark is the hero of all those ruggedly individualist libertarians whose opinions sound as oddly uniform as CPUSA position paper, but shed of the that odious veil, he's pretty much the prototype of the perplexed goons and gangsters whose lives are committed to making the world notice them by the most miserable means available.

Rand a sense of humor, a meat hook kind of satire that wasn't especially funny to a readership unaware of her set of villains; a salon scene in Fountainhead, where progressives and other manner of elite collectivizers hold forth amid an exchange of vaporizing platitudes, comes as a surprise, considering the other wise lock-box seriousness of the rest of the novel. It's ironic that I imagine this scene makes me think of Rand and her circle sitting around themselves at some interminable skull session, reaffirming a core set of involutedly starchy tropes that reduce what they think is a comprehensive critique into short and simple phonemes.

Anyone wondering what practical use a Rand-obsessed architect might be outside a ridiculous plot line would pose the question. Rand's brutal prose makes her hero's activities to be the most direct means to Resounding Truth , but she is an extreme romantic who , no doubt, thinks that her fiction were reasonable outlines of how the world actually works. No doubt she sees the actions in her novels as being the diagnosis of what ails her adopted society, which places her in a tradition of the Naturalists, who in turn wrote longish, turgid works. Even so, one is within one's rights to query what real good Rand's heros might be if you needed them to commit an actual task, apartment demolition excluded.

The idea of social construction has more to do with the structures humans create within a phenomenal world, and it additionally supplies an idea of how the human structures of culture, society, law, institutions are able to adapt to a world that functions quite independently of the absolutism Rand would insists she's able to distinguish. Rand insists that there is a world with a fixed , finite , and intimately knowable existence upon which her Ideal Geniuses can impose their own Systems of use. This is the kind of End-of-History daydreaming that often sullies insight, whether Marx, Toffler, or Rand, and with Rand's ideas, giving the phenomenal world over to the unencumbered exploitation by the kind of genius that is hers alone to define, we come to the end of discourse and arrive at a dreamy heaven.

Social construction, in the writings of Erving Goffman and Thomas Berger, Lyman and Scott, among others, describes the ingenious ways that humans create cultures and societies and form kinds of political resources that aid populations to exist within an unmindful nature, and they describe as well the notion of action within the socially-constructed systems; it is more a theory that describes how communities are formed and remain dynamic within a material world, whose final and ultimate nature is unknown, unknowable, and finally irrelevant.

If we can't know anything about the ultimate nature of reality, how can we make claims about it, such as whether "it" has any "relevance" to the familiar world of medium-sized objects?
We can make our best general statements about what comprises what we know of reality drawn from the best measurements we can take of it, but a claim to a final, , conclusive and "ultimate" definition of that reality , is arrogance, and over rates science's ability to replace the comforting theology of religion and other exotica to contain our references within comprehensible and metaphorical boundaries. Such boundaries prescribe limits to what nature is, and operate on the notion that it is containable and finally exploitable to our own end, as the thinking has been for centuries that reality exists only to furnish us with raw materials to pursue or own needs and abstracted desires, free of consequence.

This is hardly been the case, as the results of industrialization and war have come back to choke us in the air we breath. We can , though, make statements about what we measure, and piece together some sense of reality that becomes a comprehensible world where laws, culture, religion, art and economics are devised to aid in the creation of human communities. Within that grossly over stated riff, there is infinite variation in how resourceful the human race is in constructing relevant communities of politics, culture and commerce. Only that which man makes can man know. Vico wrote that.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Three Poems by Jim Powell from Slate

When he's on his game, Jim Powell has a finely tuned ear for voice, place, and period, which we can see with his poem "The Seamstress," which can be read here in Slate. A good poem, as it goes, nothing special in the long run, but Powell does a neat and not-so-obvious job of creating parallels between a holiday that commemorates the dead and keeps their memory alive (and in so doing preserving some order in the minds and morals of those remaining alive), and woman trying to bring a decorative skeleton figuratively "to life" so it might add impact and meaning to the celebration. Powell is rather good at implying that it is all for naught, under the noise and decoration; the dead will remain in their graves as dust despite collective conjuring, and the skeleton will just continue to look limp and tattered, a rattling assemblage held together with costume thread and brocade. 

Powell's poem "First Light." and so it sits as well with the seamstress, herself old, creaking at the joints to finesse a stitch, squinting in the night light as the seams get wider, less tight, loosened with age. Her bones ache, her eyesight fails by degrees, the skeleton is a limp and tattered symbol whose power has waned, and meaning has lessened to the level of Saturday morning cartoon. The dead themselves are even more deceased than they were before, memories of their existence buried under the same ground the children dance upon other than that children love to the dance for any reason or no reason at all because being alive is only its most fun and enthralling at those times and moments when there is no knowledge of limits, of what you can't do or what can't be done. What about it? Perfectly suited for a slice-of-life poem, an observational piece focusing on the workplace, though it's problematic that the job described turns out to be in a bakery, alone baker just beginning his workday before light. The situation is a shade archetypal, and what has noticed in the lines, "tufts dusted with a snow of flour," and especially "thick arms cradling rolls and crusty loaves, a gift for late-returning revelers..." for the derelict who washes in the creek under the bridge his daily bread at daybreak come off more as wish-fulfillment than an inspired vision.

The setting is too ideal, everything that you would expect to be in an early AM bakery tableau just happen to be there, right down to the homeless man who picturesquely "washes his hands under the bridge." The stops being a poem at this point and become instead one of those faux Impressionist paintings of Parisian cityscapes in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, filled with blurry, alienated figurines in their shops and on the slippery hued streets going about their anonymous chores. There is an idealization in this well-crafted piece that strikes me as wrong and inappropriately dreamy. This may be because Powell gave us one painterly detail too many in this hyper-literalized diorama. Had he omitted the line "under the bridge" -- the problem is that bridges and rain are ever such ready poetic words to use when inspiration falls midline -- and substituted another tactile element, something plausible, recognizable yet unexpected (garden hose, a playground water fountain, a janitor's mop, something that could credibly be in the scene), the poem may well have worked. Even so, one expects something more to be said about this situation than the idea that it swells, dreamy, and meant to make you go "oooooooohhhhhhh" and "ahhhhhhhhhhhhh." There is an underside here that is ignored, and Powell shuns an urge to get beyond his cozy poetics to discover something remarkable, disturbing, and finally memorable. This poem is not unlike those previously mentioned faux Impressionist paintings, which are produced by the hundreds for tourist dollars. Powell's poem reads as if he's written dozens of variations on it. That isn't writing; it's merely production.

Not every poem clicks, of course. Another poem published in Slate, "Two Million Feet of Vinyl," worries an idea instead of bringing it to life. A bit laborious, heavy on the obfuscated detailing of industrial manufacturing in the attempt to let convoluted descriptions yield strange, alienated poetry. But one sees rapidly where this going, where everything, including workers, is mere materials to be converted in endless, brutal processes and wind up as dust. Powerful, perhaps, in a poem that doesn't telegraph its tragic punchline so much--you can see it coming like the Underdog float in the Macy's Holiday Parade--but here it just hangs there. You want more, and it doesn't come. It appears that he's seen "Things to Come" recently and is enamored of "Modern Times" and tried to emulate their effects with his own reassembly of the deadening effects of a technologized economy. But this is not a journey where Luddites and technocrats haven't gone before; it's a setup for a joke; man shapes his tools, after which the tools shape man. It's a poem based on first-semester political science lectures. The level of discourse is fine for freshmen, but by the time one gets around to be a published poet, there is the reasonable expectation that there's more than the gasping gee-whiz of it all occupying the writer's worried mind. 

What's being delivered is the moldy metaphor of alienation in Modern Times, that repetitive and mechanical means of production have made a man a part of the machines he invented to save him labor and time.  The facile equations between machine processes and the rescinded world are irksome at best. I don't know if he intended this to be ironic, a parody of futurist rhetoric, or whether he merely wanted the glorification of a brute, soulless contraption would itself yield remarkable poems of the "found" variety. This isn't the kind of ambiguity that makes for great art because it would have to at least point toward something, give a sense of direction if it were worth discussing longer than a terse dismissal. But this points nowhere other than at its clipped locutions. Powell is a good poet who must have dashed this off in an odd mood and didn't see fit to change it. Fine, I have dozens of poems that are exactly like this; cryptic, spacey, unyielding in their impenetrable weirdness.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Brian Thompson smites himself

I believe it's important for anyone who desires to write to write everyday , for no other reason other than maintain the discipline of composing something even when there is no inspiration nor the germ of an idea. Norman Mailer commented awhile ago that he maintained his regimen even on the worst of days because he needed to hone a style and so become better player of his instrument; I suspect wrote each day because it was important to him to realize how potentially bad he might sound while in pursuit of a suitable voice for the project he might have been working on. It seems to have worked well for most of the near sixty years career he had a professional writer.

We ought to note that Mailer, good or less good, never sounded like anyone else stringing words together, something that can't be said for Brian Thompson, writing yesterday at . Titled "Mailer=Hulk", Thompson attempts a big of digressions and asides trying to find a common theme that might exist between Mailer's writing and the rebooted version of The Hulk; this is where we learn that while it's important to sit down and type out something no matter how good or bad, a writer should have the honesty not to publish every small matter they happen to spell out. Babbling in print is babbling all the same, and Thompson informs us that he had known the late author and had to slap him around because Mailer had crossed him, straining to mention matters of rage, masculine grace and the potential of violence to release truth and beauty in human affairs. It's not that these sorts of fantasies aren't needed consider the kind of mythology Mailer created for himself, but Thompson's effort is unremarkable and , well, dull. I'm thinking of the penultimate spoof on Mailer in Alan Lelchuk's brilliant novel American Mischief. Among other matters, a drunk Mailer offers a psychotic professor Bernard Kovell a chance to sodomize him, where upon the professor, aswim with Mailer's theories of murder and such in his essay The White Negro, crams a gun in the fictional Mailer's anus and pulls the trigger. The real life Mailer wasn't amused at the time, and sued Lelchuk for libel.

Thompson has read Mailer, it seems, but perhaps not closely enough. He writes
I leaned over his typewriter. “'The White Negro?'” I asked. “That's completely nonsensical.” His thighs nearly burst his purple jeans. His temples radiated Kirby dots. “I AM PROVOCATIVE!” he screamed. I barely realized the hot bath towel had been torn from my hands before he wrapped it around my neck.

It's late in the day for someone to attempt to parody Mailer now; what can be lampooned, exaggerated, made grotesque in his life has been done over and over through the decades, done so often , in fact, that even Mailer haters tired of hearing the same old complaints and defects brought up yet again, and again, and still again. He outlived his harshest critics and now the unthinkable has happened, one must consider the relative merits of the novels, journalism, plays, essays, criticism and screenplays he wrote over six decades. Thompson , though, seems to resent the fact that he never took on Mailer in any meaningful way and hastens to dust off the old insults, recycle the tired formulas.The satire arrives stiffly here, but while one might debate the worth of The White Negro as philosophy, it should be noted that Mailer composed the essay in long hand, having sworn off typewriters after writing his second novel Barbary Shore. The pencil was his preferred instrument. Michael Lennon, Mailer's friend and archivist, was kind enough to post that to this blog a year ago.

The crows resent the parrots

I was walking back from the market a couple of days ago when I beheld the loud screeching wing spans of Amazon parrots flying toward a power line, where they alit
with several other parrots on a power line that ran in front of a church and some densely packed apartment buildings. Beautiful as they are, these birds are noisy, noisier than the crows that have become prominent in the San Diego area in the last five years. I could well imagine worshippers and the preacher competing with the cacophony during a service, the parrot bawks , grunts and screams a wild counterpoint to exclaimed interpretations of Bible quotes defining the definition and progress of God's creation. The parrots might seem like the rude boys in the back of the hall, punctuating the solemnity with juicy arm farts. From what I've heard from others, the parrots are especially noisy early in the morning, when they make their collective noise and then take flight at the same time; one's plans for sleeping in spoiled by species behavior. Not fun. This inspired this attempt at a poem about the parrots and the crows that might resent interlopers. A first draft, any comments, criticisms, suggestions are appreciated.

The crows resent the parrots

The crows on the wire
move over and then
take flight on burnt, black wings
as louder screeches, longer wing spans
crowd the sky and obscure clouds,
green , screaming creatures
from the lurid loop
of the Amazon
wintering in manicured palm trees
or monitoring intersections
from sagging telephone wire,
the tree in front of your room
is alive with early morning parties
taking flight , branches snapping
and feathers shed, falling to
graveled yards in dervishing twirls,
Roofs of apartment buildings
have new sentries I see coming back
from the store with bags of food
and cleaning goods,
glass rattling protests,
a flocked fluttering of wing,
each red capped head tilted and peering
with one good eye and then the other
while my shadow stops at the corner,
waiting for the light,

Squadrons of crows
fly from tree to chimney
and back again
before they align
on a balcony
in a line where they
seem to leer at the parrots,
as if intent on staring them from their roosts,
casting a slick and darkened vibe
through the air
that Winter is gone
and it's time to go home,
south, if not further.

There are no travel plans
or calendar days
in a parrot's life, it seems.
In the middle of May,
approaching June
and the death traps of July,
cats and nervous walkers
flinch and scatter
walking past big, unshorn trees
that used to disguise the blight
of the last century's architecture.

Now even the plant life is too loud
for human habitation.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

More on "Just a Tranquil Darker"

John Hogden's poem "Just a Trifle Darker" has inspired a livelier debate on Slate's Poems Fray board than has been seen for awhile, and that's a good thing for anyone who bothers to click on the link hoping for reasonable modulated discussion. The forum has had it's squabbles among regulars and been visited by serial spammers, although those bits of irritation have passed and discussion has narrowed on the topics at hand. A new poster named GHarryS defends the poem against a majority who disliked it and insists that the poem is rather grand in the second stanza

What I claim is 'grand' is what arrives in the second stanza, with all that stuff still hanging in the air from before, when the movement changes, and the focus changes, and it suddenly feels like the 6 in some kind of slow-march sonnet, or as I said above, Adagio Sonnet ... I was thinking of 19th c symphonic Adagio.

An interesting distinction, and one I hope he elaborates on. He cut out after he wrote those intriguing sentences.I'd agree the confusion between "trifle" and "tranquil" is the point from which Hogden constructs his poem, but it seems more fanciful than something he actually heard. The words don't sound remotely alike, and both are common enough that makes them unlikely to the kind of comic misuse that are the staple patter of Norm Crosby, Archie Bunker or, lately, Tony Soprano. It's one thing, for example, to mistake the word enervate for meaning "to fill with energy", since it sounds so closely to invigorate.

The comic possibility exist in how closely the words are to one another in sound and and yet their meanings are in perfect opposition, as in the subversive activity in demonstrating that resolute beliefs, political, moral, religious can be unhinged by mistaken usage. Hogden's elaborations are based on something overheard that sounds too conveniently "poetic" in its error, an ill-considered phrase too ripe with speculative potential to have been entirely without preparation. The phrase is fictional, I think, and is an obvious set up for a ramble yet to come.

Mechanically, the poem works fine, it glides well, Hogden is in other situations a solid craftsman with a tuned ear to phrase, but everyone who writes poems, even those who are considered by readers and reviewers to be poets at their peak, write pieces that don't work as that seamless joining of technique and intention that would make a poem art. Splendid they may be, but you can hear the gears grind to keep "Just a Tranquil Darker" moving along.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Poem gets talked to death

"Just A Tranquil Darker" is a contrived poem I’ve read this year, more excercise instead than an execution of an idea primed for the words one would labor to give it deserving expression. This is rather odious because it is, we note, a poem about poetry, and the writer has so taken the typical license to wallow around in that mire of gooey irony and what-the-hell whimsy. It operates on the premise that the narrator has overheard some part of a private conversation, where the woman’s request, quaintly and innocently phrased, sparks the poetic response, as does the optometrist reaction to the odd qualifier, saying not a word nor giving a gesture that gives a clue that he might think her vain, precious; she is his customer, she deserves respect, he , the professional, knows what she wants and in providing her service gives her what she needs, a decent set of lenses.

John Hodgen , though, gums up the moment with literary language and cornball erudition, straining to convince us that all the large ideas of religion and philosophy comes to the simplest and most direct things we say to one another , in locutions both local and meaningful to community tasks on hand.

…maybe he is God himself, the great optometrist, or at least that dim image
we strain to see of the omniscient god who mostly does not trifle with us.
The occasional hat flown off our heads, perhaps, the tossed banana peel
with the businessman's wingtip approaching, the hurtling safe heading
down for our heads, all of us so intensely looking elsewhere, as if our lives
were God's New Yorker cartoons, all his back issues stacked up, the ones
with the Elizabeth Bishop poems, teetering, in his waiting room.

This is quite a bit of language to consider the slight mystery that exists between the women requesting the tranquil , dark lenses and the doctor who anticipates her desires and knows her needs. What ought to have been, I think, a sequence of images, a record of gestures, a scenario composed of sight, sound, smell and light, is talked to death. What we are presented with isn’t so much an incident or a statement that would inspire a testimonial or a breakdown of the high and middle brow references that might be read into or drawn from the small request and the effort to fulfill it, but something quieter, nearly as fleeting as the incidental itself. Arm waving and loud as he may have been, Frank O’Hara would have written a poem that was right sized in the rhetoric brought into play, as in his masterful “The Day Lady Died” or “Why I Am Not a Painter”

Why I Am Not a Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.
--Frank O'Hara

Robert Creeley comes to mind as well, a poet Hodgen might have thought about as he considered the off hand remark he wanted to memorialize. It's a fitting influence, since so much of Creeley's writing inhabits that space between unadorned expression and a spatially terse elegance. But Creeley, even in adding to bits and pieces of small things in his poems and then stepping back a little to give them a longer look with some authorial intrusion set upon their essence, doesn't lose his subjects exactitude in rhetoric;

The Rescue
by Robert Creeley

The man sits in a timelessness
with the horse under him in time
to a movement of legs and hooves
upon a timeless sand.

Distance comes in from the foreground
present in the picture as time
he reads outward from
and comes from that beginning.

A wind blows in
and out and all about the man
as the horse ran
and runs to come in time.

A house is burning in the sand.
A man and horse are burning.
The wind is burning.
They are running to arrive.

The issue, I think, is that O’Hara and Creeley understood the situations when what the poet thinks of what’s happening inside his poem isn’t important and is, in fact, the least interesting aspect to consider; what’s missed in “Just a Tranquil Darker” is that lack of humility that prevents a writer from forgetting that they are a poet and so be able to get at something out of his control, a phenomenon that just wandered into his perceptual field by the odd chance. There are those things which occur that stop time the slightest bit, amaze and confuse our codes, and then are gone, sketchy and yet vivid, a perception that remains in memory and which changes us a bit each day, each year that follows. Getting these incidences right in poetry –right in feel, tone, texture, pitch—and Hodgen hasn’t done it here. But he did remember that he was a poet, and that is exactly how he chose to behave here, and that’s a shame.

Monday, May 19, 2008

2 poems I like by A.R.Ammons and Marvin Bell

Called into Play 
A.R. Ammons 

Fall fell: so that's it for the leaf poetry: 
some flurries have whitened the edges of roads 

and lawns: time for that, the snow stuff: & 
turkeys and old St. Nick: where am I going to 

find something to write about I haven't already 
written away: I will have to stop short, look 

down, look up, look close, think, think, think: 
but in what range should I think: should I 

figure colors and outlines, given forms, say 
mailboxes, or should I try to plumb what is 

behind what and what behind that, deep down 
where the surface has lost its semblance: or 

should I think personally, such as, this week 
seems to have been crafted in hell: what: is 

something going on: something besides this 
diddledeediddle everyday matter-of-fact: I 

could draw up an ancient memory which would 
wipe this whole presence away: or I could fill 

out my dreams with high syntheses turned into 
concrete visionary forms: Lucre could lust 

for Luster: bad angels could roar out of perdition 
and kill the AIDS vaccine not quite 

perfected yet: the gods could get down on 
each other; the big gods could fly in from 

nebulae unknown: but I'm only me: I have 4 
interests--money, poetry, sex, death: I guess 

I can jostle those. . . .

Since I've raged and ranted more than once around here about how there should be no more poems about poetry, I thought why I liked "Called into Play" and not the work of other writers. Attitude is the difference, I guess. My basic gripe is against who regard poetry as a vehicle of relentless self-revelation, the sub-Nerudians and faux Rilkeans who seemed to have skipped the other qualities their inspiring source's poetry had and instead are determined to make a cult from the practice; the poet as priest is not an image that appeals to me and even the most supreme of egoist geniuses, Walt Whitman, would likely find the conceit a bit vain. I don't include the Language Poets, as someone had asked me, even though poetic language is at the forefront of their work; the effort there, I think, is an honest and exciting investigation into new ways of thinking about how language can be written to more creatively engage the complexity of experience. Ammons, of course, is much less formal, and has an the appeal of some who'd just gotten out of bed and is trying to get the sleep from his eyes. What he sees is the same old things, only completely different, to paraphrase comedian Steve Wright. I like the way Ammons demystifies the subject by simply talking about search for something to write about. What he mentions here, things like lawns, mail, current events, are brought up as things he might impress into being the details and subject of a poem he wants to write. He might have been talking about a mad search for missing car keys; there's humanity in this momentary frustration.There's the suggestion that Ammons is tired of his old turns of phrase and wants to forge new ones:
...should I try to plumb what is 

behind what and what behind that, deep down 
where the surface has lost its semblance: or 

should I think personally, such as, this week 
seems to have been crafted in hell: what: is 

something going on: something besides this 
diddledeediddle everyday matter-of-fact: I 

could draw up an ancient memory which would 
wipe this whole presence away...

Ammons admits his limits as a seer or oracle and speaks of language as something he works with through the craft of poetry, a practice he works at diligently in an effort to find an expression that transcends mere competence and achieves an artfulness. The poem is funny and moving in it's way, as Ammons' work is constantly aware of death, which makes philosophical certainty a cluster of moot points. This all puts A.R.Ammons' musings on poetry in sharp contrast to a host of others who'll essay forth in verse about poets being the intermediaries of Truths and Principles only a select few are able to deign and decipher for the less gifted. Without repeating my previous misgivings, I'll say that this his Hogwash and Elitism, and these are the sorts of people I imagine Ammons himself asking to go away.

Marvin Bell
He believes the tar pits hold bones but preserve
no emotions, and he believes space is matter.
He still thinks a kiss with full lips transformative,
the hope of a country boy with an uncultivated
heart, from the era of doo-wop and secret sex,
when the music was corny, cliched and desperate
like teenage love. Who now will admit that poetry
got its start there, in the loneliness that made love
from a song on red wax, from falsetto nonsense.
Who does not know that time passing passes on
sadness? A splinter of a song lyric triggers shards
of memory and knots in his gut. He regrets he was 
lashed to the mast when the sirens called. He
believes the sea is not what sank or what washes
up. There are nights the moon scares him.

Marvin Bell is one of those poets who can offer a string of non sequiturs and still having you following the heart under the odd contrasts in his lines. Associative leaps are not the easiest thing to do when so much of what your attempting to get across has more to do with a transitional state of mind than it does an position that can be easily parsed and contained.  Unlike Tony Hoagland's poem, "The Story of the Father" (featured at Slate last week) , where what should have been scene from a longer prose narrative got compressed beyond human caring with mannered, showy language, Bell has the ease of line transition, the ability to jump from one nervy island of reference to another and provide a sense of something gathering speed, assuming nuance. The young man going forth into the world of the senses, sparked by music, sirens, scents and touch; there is a skillfully maintained idea, implied and not editorialized as an intruding and infeffective aside, of music as that thing that bypasses the mind's censors and entrenched protections against foolishness and lands and seeds the desire to experience more with the senses, to test one's expectations against experienced fact.

He believes the tar pits hold bones but preserve
no emotions, and he believes space is matter.
He still thinks a kiss with full lips transformative,
the hope of a country boy with an uncultivated
heart, from the era of doo-wop and secret sex,
when the music was corny, cliched and desperate
like teenage love.

This is a fast run of language, streaming , quite literally, with all the elements that compose it melded together in a fluidity that rushes towards a crashing and overwhelming satisfaction. Tempo, rhythm , what the hip hoppers refer to as “flow”, this poem is simply perfect, simply lovely. This makes you think of magic nights in a music club where the lead soloist is at the very heart of an intense improvisations he or she is assembling, destroying and recreating in seeming simultaneity, absolutely transcendent in the spotlight and oblivious sounds of drunk talkers, dropped silveware, or the arguments of traffic noise coming through an open door. The soloist is in the moment, in Steven's land of Supreme Fiction, discoursing with a world that should be but is not. 

Friday, May 16, 2008

Poem as Dagwood Sandwich

I wanted to like Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Story of the Father” more than I did, if for no reason other than the description of the father burning the photographs reminds me of a potent scene in Reynolds Price's bittersweet novel Love and Work. In the novel, a middle aged English professor finds life closing in on him as he tries to balance the demands of organizing a literary festival at his college, becomes more estranged from his wife, and quite suddenly has to realize that he has to close the house of his recently deceased parents. The professor is an especially loathsome schmuck, self involved, resentful of the needs of work and family on his time and patience. Coming upon boxes of old family photographs, the beleaguered teacher throws them into a metal trash can and sets them on fire and it is there, watching the photos curl and bubble and finally obliterate the youthful faces of his dead parents that he looses it, breaking into tears, confronting the frustrate, clenched assholism of his current life. Price is a splendid writer, not one to over describe or tell you with an excess of verbal flair how to read the scene; he is very able to get across the tension, the unspoken dynamics of a situation without so many metaphors or flashing similes and allows the scene to make you think of some of your own touchy circumstances. Empathy is the word.

Hoagland's poem is all editorial, though, a clinician's report of a depressed patient. Whatever the intent, this poem is etherised upon the table.The writing is actually better than "a clinician's report", but there is the sense that what was over written in first draft was cut back but with the full intention of keeping the poem weighted with two generations of family grimness; the over writing still shows in lines that hope to be clean and elegant in their lack of qualifying distractions.

How quiet the suburbs are in the middle of an afternoon
*****************when a man is destroying evidence,
breathing in the chemistry of burning Polaroids,

watching the trees over the rickety fence
****************seem to lift and nod in recognition.
This would be expected in a Rick Moody novel, who has tried to revive the darkly humorous melancholy of John Cheever with writing that combines battling metaphors and inclusions of botched, deadwood imagery, so glaring in his novels like Ice Storms and Purple America, the kind of writing that is a stall for time until the author can finesse a transition. Hoagland's lines here are self conscious to the degree that he expects to gain respect for telling an anecdote so close to the Everyman’s grief-sick heart, but this poem seems no less a template of sad tale telling than what one is likely to hear or say when no can figure out what the proper words are when trouble arises and troubles formerly smooth waters.

Hoagland sticks with fussy details that he writes about as if he were still mentally arranging their order as he settles for the one among many unsatisfying options. The contained and compressed form of the poem might well be his trouble, as these are details that fit a short story or a novel where family interaction and private rituals emerge in a more expansive narrative. You read lines like these and wonder what Richard Ford or Russell Banks might have done if they were used in the length of a novel;

Over and over I have arrived here just in time
to watch the father use a rusty piece of wire

to nudge the last photo of the boy
************into the orange part of the flame:

the face going brown, the memory undeveloping.

It is not the misbegotten logic of the father;
it is not the pity of the snuffed-out youth;
The writing is fine as is, but the effect is toppled with a narrator’s remark, a summary that draws attention to the rote dynamics, as well as showing a writer trying to condense a bulkier cargo of ideas.

It is the old intelligence of pain
********************that I admire:

how it moves around inside of him like smoke;

how it knows exactly what to do with human beings
to stay inside of them forever

This is a sentence that begins a work of fiction, along the lines of “Call me Ishmael” or “They through off the water truck at noon”, a fast and arresting introduction to a character that then tells of his immediate situation and then recounts the events that have brought him to his present vantage point. Hoagland’s attempt to crystallize the unspoken alienation, anger and stunted grieving with phrases that don’t introduce character but rather attempt a wistful acceptance of what cannot be explained leaves too many things unattended to. This poem is a Dagwood sandwich that spills from between the bread slices.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A page for Paul Blackburn

The Electronic Poetry Center (EPC), an online resource for information and works of major contemporary American poets based at Suny at Buffalo NY, has gone live with a page for Paul Blackburn. He was an amazing poet who could parse the spoken idiom and make it sing with a unique tone and personality better than any poet since W.C.Williams, and he could insert the most subtle of philosophical paradox and shifting viewpoints with writing that seemed off hand,an effortless expression.The seeming ease of line indicates the attuned ear, the steady pen, the economy of a master who could arrange his blocks of language, position the line breaks, compose the length of the line to a rhythmic sense that doesn't escape you as you read his work. If there was anyone who understood and achieved great effects of Williams' theory of the variable foot, Blackburn was that poet. There was always an electric current in his best poems, the thrill of the mind racing while the body is charged with energy, excitement.


Long ago and far away

and the swimmer
heading out into the bay
arm lift, plunge down, the head turning;
my heart you may swim forever
out. Look,

there is the horizon
Sea and sky meet, change; why
are we not this real intensity forever?
surrounded and known.
The world else is brown and calculated.

There on the beach, the
woman watches.
Between her legs the dog sits,
wiggling, wanting to go
too. It is a kind of death watching him swim out,
away from her, his head getting smaller and smaller, flash
of arm in sun, down,
distant churn of water between the small waves. She
holds the dog's two haunches in her hands.

He is hardly to be restrained, and love
is manifest, is felt from the two of them

The swimmer is himself.

There was a large world his eyes beheld, and he had the skill to get his perceptions in tuned with a personality framed the ironies and contradictory impulses in that odd space our language skills that allows us to hover over our own views, ambivalence and ambiguity. Not that Blackburn himself was distanced from his subjects; rather, his poems, his finest work, integrated his ideas with the terrains and the personalities within them. Please go to the page and read the wonderful poem above with the line breaks intact. Click also on well on the links for splendid Blackburn commentaries by Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Creeley, Robert Kelly among several other notable poets and commentators.

Thank you the folks at EPC for their work, and to Ron Silliman's blog for the link.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Did someone kill painting?

Back in the late Nineties I was involved in an online debate as to whether painting were a dead art , in view of the then emerging new digital media which promised to give artists a new canvas, a new palette, a revolutionary way of creating art that hadn’t been done before. I harrumphed and pouted and tried to be sage in my remarks, but there wasn’t much of anything I could offer to the discussion other than this: Painting will be dead when artists stop painting and when art lovers stop desiring to look at the work of past, recent, and current artists. So far, there are no so-described symptoms of paintings' impending demise. In any case, what is with the impulse for some to declare entire mediums "dead", as if a literal body had been discovered somewhere, knife in back, bullet in brain, i.e., "the death of literature", "death of the subject", "death of the novel", "the death of the author", "the end of history", "jazz is dead”,” history is dead", "rock is dead", and so forth. I've read these declarations over the years, some with, some without arguments, some articulate, others ruthlessly abstruse, and save for a momentary rush of certainty that the many threads of history are suddenly woven together to the precise moment that the respective professors are making a case for, one realizes that the activities still go on in strength.

Humans have a way of tending toward their business and their pleasures, in the ways that suit their needs and personalities, quite despite the cloudy forecasts of aesthetic morticians. There seems to be an easy habit-of-mind that wants to advance a more recent set of techniques, usually attendant on new technologies, only at the mortal sacrifice of older mediums. Co-existence seems a concept that makes a self-conscious avant-garde nervous. In any event, shall we say that there are things that can only be done with painting that nothing else, really, has come close to? Even if it did come close to achieving the effects, good oil or watercolor can, what makes the new medium anything other than an advanced species of clip-art and simulation.
The body count, I think, is greatly exaggerated. Devalued, no, if the aim of new art is to re-create, faithfully, effects produced by painters. Sadly, this seems to be the only motivation behind many competently technologized artists whose work is often little more, really, than the reproduction of painterly effects. I'm willing to think these new medium artists are still wood shedding and experimenting with what they can do with their "new canvas" and "new palette", but it's plain that many have yet to make Real Work. We have fascinating results that have an inescapable crisis of its own, an utter soullessness coming from any intrinsic lack of character apart from the shiny, show room sheen of simulacra. Clip art is the result, I believe, if that is the only impulse motivating the particular artist. Newer methods can indeed co-exist with older--it's all around us--when artists drop the show-offish instinct of duplication and instead reconcile themselves to the limits as well as the advantages of their particular form. The crisis, I think, festers on the other end. The death of painting not withstanding, it seems that painters long ago accepted the terms and strictures of their chosen craft, and are in a long and envious history that they can play with at will, add to, diminish, broaden, contract, what have you. No painter I know feel crunched or sickly because of the imagined malaise --human need to express itself perseveres and is acted upon whatever revisionist rhetorical brackets are set around them, trying to diminish their worth, relevance, or health. The death or crisis of their art is meaningless to the working artist. The announcements that arts or particular mediums are "dead" or in "crisis" are melodramatic inventions that comes from bad, over generalized criticism that's in a hurry. It's better to get on with the honest work of art making, and focus commentary on the interaction between art styles and periods. Technologized, digital art is the art that is having the crisis, if anything: a personality crisis and one wonders what his new art wants to be when it grows up. This is a real question: what is "real work?"

Work that artists manage to do that's unmindful of having to illustrate a critics' or a harried art historians' criteria. What that evidence is endlessly subjective, and will vary artist to artist, medium to medium, but it will be the work, I think, that seems the most self contained, mature, and complete, with all influences assimilated and artists experiences and personality full enough to inject an individual intelligence into the work. It will be the work that utters precisely the ideas the artist has about ways of seeing. It is art that works as art, not demonstrations of yet another manifesto. We're talking about professional adult artists here, not small children or plants that need tending. What makes a form of art- making grow are artists who dedicate themselves to their process, their work, and who focus their energy on how the medium they've selected for themselves. A healthy self-criticism probably doesn't hurt the production of new work either, as with the notable artists who can tell the difference between pandering to an imagined niche market, or a specialized audience that inoculates the work from honest appraisal, and the real work that is made quite apart from anyone's expectations or demands, except the artists'. Good art-making is a rigorous activity, playful as it is, in whatever mode one operates out of. Everything else seems to take of itself if the art is good, worth being noticed. One advances into a their art with no real concern about making history--their obvious concerns are about making their art, with some idea of what it is they're advancing toward, and what past forms are being modified and moved away from. But the judgment of history--as if History, capital H, were a bearded panel viewing a swimsuit competition--will be delivered piecemeal, over the years, after most of us are dead, and our issues and concerns and agendas are fine dust somewhere.

The artist, meantime, concentrates on the work, working as though outside history, creating through some compulsion and irrational belief that the deferred import of the work will be delivered to an audience someday, somehow. That is an act of faith, by definition. The artist, painter or otherwise, also casts their strokes, with brush or mallet, with the not-so-buried-dread of the possibility that that the work will remain unknown, shoved in the closet, lost in the attic, and they will be better known for their day job rather than their manipulation of forms through a rarefied medium. Less that democracies are anti-artistic than they are resistant to the notion that aesthetic concerns and artistic expression are reserved for a cultivated elite. Democracy rejects this sublimated priesthood on principle, and opens the arena, the galleries so that more who wish to do so may engage in the intuitive/artistic process and keep the activity alive in ways that are new and precisely relevant to the time--this is the only way that the past has any use at all, as it informs the present day activity, and allows itself to be molded to new sets of experiences. Art is about opening up perspectives, not closing them down, and that is the democratic spirit at its best. Otherwise, the past is a rigour-ed religion, and history is an excuse for brutal, death wish nostalgia. History, for that matter, is not some intelligence that has any idea of what it's going prefer in the long run--the best I can offer is that history is news that stays news, to paraphrase a poet, which implies that the painter who survives the tides and eddies of tastes and fashion and fads will the one whose work has an internalized dynamic that is felt long after the brush is dropped and the breathing stopped.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Does God Change His Mind?

The stark differences in God's persona between Old and New Testaments had changed his mind as to what to do with the world he created, and it's reasonable to think of him as a deity who is constantly changing, evolving. Otherwise we'd have a God who is static and incapable of changing; he'd be someone who'd be incapable of dealing with a continually unfolding cosmos which he put in motion in the first place. The Prime Mover, I'd think, must by definition be able to move again, and yet again, as needed, as his vast mind assesses, discerns and decides. Process Theology, put forth by Alfred North Whitehead and others, deals with a bit of this, as does Norman Mailer in most of his writings, most recently in his dialogue with Michael Lennon, On God.

It may be, after all we ponder about his Greatness, a mistake to think of God as omnipotent; if we are made in his likeness then our weaknesses are his as well, and this gives a vital clue that God is less than all-powerful and that he doesn't know the outcome of each and every matter before him. It's an attractive notion that God remains teachable by the very things he creates.

There's a reason that it's written that God blessed/cursed man with Free Will; I actually believe that FW is central to his Divinity, in the sense that he could choose to battle his creative power and simply do nothing. The existential nature of God, though, would become bored and ill-tempered simply existing in a vacuum, and so he decided to create meaning for himself, much as we do in this realm. Free will is that thing that allows us to associate together and determine and define right and wrong, good and evil, and it is also that inspire given instinct, I believe, to empower us to fight the baser desires and instincts

Friday, May 9, 2008

"I'm Not There": Dylan Degree Zero

The more interesting aspect of Dylan Watching the last four years or so hasn't been his new music, which is fine if a bit cornball and relying too much on the songwriter's reputation for a passing grade, but rather in how well, how brilliantly he's managed and manipulated his image and mythologies. Chronicles, the assumed first volume of an ongoing memoir, had him writing clearly about his influences and his struggles as an up and coming folkie in Greenwich Village in the Sixties, an intelligence that maintained a bucolic trace that never let on too much, too soon about what his fandom wanted to hear about.

I actually enjoyed Tarantula and still parts of it brilliant in ways that would have been interesting if Dylan had continued writing for books, especially the riffs on Aretha Franklin and the odd fellows who suit her, and especially the poem about the end of Bob Dylan, recited at the beginning of Todd Hayne's recent fantasy I'm Not There. As for film making, at least he's allowing professionals, Scorsese and Haynes, to put his accounts together.

I don't think that manipulating his reputation so much in recent years makes Dylan less of an artist, only that it's been the most ingenious expression of his art of late. The self-construction of his persona is crucial to his ability to write songs in the manner he did. The work does stand by itself once we deal with the albums and not the reputation, but like Miles Davis there is a context of rigorously maintained mystery about them that can't really be separated from the work.

Actually, I think Dylan's albums of new material in the nineties and the 2000s are among the best writing in decades, a sure recovery from the depressing drift of his work in the eighties. Love and Theft and Modern Times are the writings of an artist who has let his masks slip a little, allowed his defenses to open just a tad and allowed his thoughts to develop a clear, if haggard voice. None of the lyrics approaches his genius from his best work, but then again Davis never produced some quite like Kind of Blue after that, nor did Mailer attempt to write another Naked and the Dead. While I'm bored unto death with the packaging and repackaging of him as cultural icon, I do admire his willingness to move on to the next music to be written and played, regardless of what others might make of it.

He wasn't about to give away the core and cause of his mystique, and seemed determined to with hold more than he would reveal, a shrewd and measured use of his charisma and allure. The Martin Scorsese directed miniseries for PBS No Direction Home was, of course, a feast of obscure footage and interviews with Dylan and his fellows as they recalled his rise to stardom and their time basking in Bob's cold glow, but again it was a production underwritten and controlled by Dylan, with Scorsese being only the hired gun to bring it too market. Now, finally, thanks to NetFlix, I've seen I'm Not There, director and co writer Todd Hayne's movie that deconstructs, in several overlapping narratives derived from Dylan's factual biography and his self-mythologizing, with a series of actors including Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett taking turns doing impressions of the reclusive icon. I turned it off forty minutes into the DVD , my prurient interest in Dylan and the manner in which he continues to add layers to what's left of his charisma finally exhausted. It’s not that the various versions of Dylan here aren't good or canny; the actors are good mimics who imitate Dylan's accents and affectations from the differing periods of his life, from the days when he wanted to be Woody Guthrie and took to adding a twang to his speech and dropping his g's like were seeding an apple grove, to the citified version of himself, post Greenwich Village and Gerdes Folk City, when the media discovered him and he made himself another cryptic sage with a bag full of self-cancelling aphorisms perfect for the age of McLuhan. Blanchett gets this ideal of Dylan down perfectly, an angular, shock-theatre hair do, a firm, scowling face, a constant attack of the amphetamine jitters.

What brings it down is the lack of a story line that would make this fanciful and hard to take fan letter into something that would inspire my willing suspension of disbelief. There is something about Dylan’s fan base that nears a cult identity, and one picks it up from time to time when a writer starts speaking in a stream of Dylan’s, where song titles and oddments of phrase, riveting and hackneyed, substitute themselves for a real argument; you know the audience reading the stream just nods and grooves on the heaviosity it all. I posted about Dylan’s problematic Pulitzer a month ago, and the only response was from a writer who’d self-published a novel where the character names and the major plot lines are taken straight from Dylan lyrics. I haven’t read the book, but I would imagine it to be at least as annoying as the Beatles film Across the Universe, where a plot is contrived from that band’s lyrics to offer us up—what else?—a tour of the most over-studied clichés of the Sixties. That I was getting the references this movie was making in the course of its unraveled narrative style made the matter more frustrating; it was depressing to realize that one had to be a Dylan obsessive to follow any of this at all. There has always been something cultish about Dylan's fans, but this, among other efforts since the start of the 21st century, is too close to the songwriter asking to be adored and coo'd over. He is willing to remind us again and again and yet again if we missed it the first time that he was a genius poet of the juke box, and we, a generation priding ourselves collectively for being so bright and hip to the Man’s trick of co opting our best ideas, seem more than willing to let this guy sell us our own memories.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Draft Beer, Not Poems

Sometimes a writer tries to protect him or herself against complaints by attempting to theorize their work’s shortcomings, as we seem to witness in Slate’s recent weekly poem. It's a neat trick for James Longenbach to title his poem as "Draft of a Letter" , since it would inoculate him against the expected criticism and outright sneering that the poem makes no sense. Faced with the carping and complaints, he can fall back on the title and announce that the poem is an abstraction of a draft of a communication, a literal letter half written and half still in process, percolating in the author's head, with ideas and images and associations jumping between streams like so many dozens of digital fish one might imagine in a rather pointless computer game. The poetry, he would say (and probably does) lies somewhere in the spaces between the lines where our own imaginations construct our own connections between sentences that are hermetically sealed against coherence.

The preemption ploy might be believable if what was actually written were more intriguing, but Longenbach's parts are the sort of undergraduate
experimentation and emulation one reads endlessly by the time a workshop gets up to reading The New York School. I see nothing here that wasn't written better by a dozen or so of my poetry buddies in college--Steve Farmer, Melanie Nielson, Shelley White, David Sternbach-- before they abandoned their spirited emulation and forged their own styles. Or anti-styles, depending on what you're attempting to make language do. Longenbach's poem doesn't read as if he's trying to make language do anything except lie there in it's tentative frame, hoping someone will stare at it (nee read it over and over) until a white spotlight shines down and the unspoken relations between Longenbach's skeletal remains of a poem are revealed. In this case, it is less an interpretation of a poem, less a parsing or evaluation than it is, in fact, an autopsy.

This might have been a healthy piece of writing at some point in its compositional history; there may well have been some rather sleek and alluring connections between the suggestions of dream imagery, sexual awakening, the conflict between wanting to fly and the rules of gravity that hard earth that enforces them

CloudsFrom the invisibleMountaintops,Then mist.Rain soaked the groundUntil it swelled,LiftingMy body
Flat on its back.Delicate fingers,Voice fair.In the end
I found myself drawnTo what was neither very large
Nor very small.In heaven,If you say the word death,Nobody understands.

I have no reservations diving into the heart of allusive poems; it's my preferred style, as you might have noticed. But I demand that the writing, however fragmented and subjected to whatever fashions, trends and hot button theories about poetry, at least have a surface quality, a snap and a way with a phrase that makes the work of sussing through and reassembling the disconnections worth the labor. I think poetry needs music and rhythm no matter what the approach, and Longenbach is as musical as flat iron being pounded with large steel hammers. Even fans of Industrial would cry enough and beg the DJ for some Mahler. There are the beginnings of an interesting poem here, and I suspect that there was something much more substantial when Longenbach got started, but then the most casually advanced advice and admonishment one gets from workshop situations--- prune, prune, prune--took over as operating principal, and we can say, safely, that tactless and unfenced trimming of a poem often times leaves us with something that is malnourished, chintzy and cheap in it's minimalist array, stupidly arrogant in its incomprehensibility. The title is the tip off, an admission that this hardly a poem at all, but a murder. What stream of ideas our author was trying to bring together died on the way Slate's poetry page.

Two poets published in the last three years in Slate’s weekly poetry series have respective strengths and deficiencies which center on similar habits of composition,
which ought to show that individual skill matters more in this game than the stylistic ideology a writer would throw at you in defense. The idea of having a musical ear plays strongly here.

First, one should know up front that Nadia Herman Colburn's reading of her piece “Love Poem” the poem is a buzz kill. Already hindered with the least appealing sound quality, she reads her verse blankly, stiffly, to the beat of the metronome and not the speaking voice. Remember movie scenes where the character is on the phone and the person at the other end of the line is made to sound as if they were speaking from a closet, yammering through a gag? Colburn doesn't sound much better; the reading and the sound quality have less audio appeal than what gets from an answering machine. Too bad, too, because this is not a bad poem when read alone, without sound, a series of elliptical images and sudden memories, seeming to come to the narrator in fast rush. There is some lovely, if diffuse writing here.A lake flickers after snow,and I enter the refraction,like playing the piano—fingers moving under handthe hour stretched with Chopin.A confluence of sensation, a shiny lake surface, a recall of music, a suggestion that the body remembers where it is and what do as would the trained fingers on a keyboard. Something in her responds, is aroused, bits of place and incident brought together in new configurations, just as the fingers themselves never know what music they might play under fingertips actually touch the ivory.In children, too, it's habitual:a group mazes its way along the streetlike an amoeba under a microscope—but once when the day still held usto itself, there was a sudden turning towards—as when, in Wisconsin, from the back of the car,I first saw the man in the moon:An interesting jump here, children in winter crossing the street, a sense of driving forward, to the center of some mystery so far unknown. But then the revelation, some sight observed from the backseat of the car, as if witnessed for the first time, eyes open, and alert.those craters, the eyes, the wide shadow at centerthe mouth. It was so obvious!Now I'm always trying to forgetso it can come again,naturally, like the cat through the cracking the window over the garage,or the fallen leaves that collect each night by the door.

This is an intriguing string of images, one stanza said and laid over the other like oft-kilter whispers or distinct melodies performed slightly out of sync. The main point, that one's whole body and being will respond to triggers and cues and make one feel that there is meaning and resonance in places that cannot be spoken, is successfully gotten across, but what strikes me is the chain of association that reflects the short cuts of thinking, quick measurement, fluid framing of context and detail, yet malleable, in flux, unfixed. Her language is musical, graceful, and strangely enough provides us with a dissociation of sensibility that retains a delicacy that is rare. It is an elegantly wrought poem. For the time being we have seen fewer poems-about-poetry and have become witness to another notable tendency for the Tuesday poetry selection, poems of intense narcissism. It's not necessarily a bad thing, since last week's poem by Nadia Herman Colburn both outlined and made sense of fleeting images of a faint past without forgetting that her task was to be lyric and evocative with the material she chose; Colburn's wonderings and bemusements of the sharp synapses her environment provoked involved us in a poem that precisely and unpretentiously captured the intensity of the perceptions, the rush of recall, and avoided an understandable seduction of placing a lecture in the confines of her choice of selected words.This is not true for Louise Gluck's poem "A Myth of Innocence", which is lecturing, nearly hectoring, and weighed down by a ridiculous solemnity that reminds me of the pinched nerve seriousness of elder priests at mass whose ruthless lack of cheer or life would make a nine year old boy or girl want to liven things up with arm farts or gum popping. Gluck's writing is so weighted with unbelievably padded writing that it reads in slow motion, like a funeral march, through all the obvious paraphrases of overplayed myths and the cumbersome attempt to bring a universal concept into a private moment when ones loss becomes the sadness of the world.

She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,I was abducted, but it sounds wrong to her,nothing like what she felt.Then she says, I was not abducted.Then she says, I offered myself,
I wanted to escape my body. Even, sometimes,I willed this.
But ignorance cannot will knowledge.
Ignorance wills something imagined, which it believes exists.

This syntax is tied into knots and hamstrung loops of unfulfilled metaphor and allusion that it makes you think of a distracted chef who cannot complete a single plate of an artfully prepared meal. I get a strong feeling that this poem is likewise composed of scraps, items intended for more complete poems, wholly coherent and perhaps fresher in their utterance. So many indefinite and transcendental qualities flow back and forth in this writing, mentions of myth, reflecting pools, a yearning for a younger self and an unsigned future. It's a traffic jam of references, none of it particularly musical or convincing beyond nudging a reader with strong hints as to what Gluck has been reading all these years.

I have a feeling that this may be a poem that Gluck worked on quite a bit in order to give a semblance of poetic content, but no matter how she tailored her first draft the writing remains lifeless and unconvincing. I've written hundreds of poems that I hoped to make evocative with a mannered strangeness of phrase and allusion until I realized I had only produced a variety of convoluted poesy. Gluck should have moved on, cleared her palate, and gone for a simpler, less cluttered tongue to speak what her muse presents to her.I don't think that there's a gender gap concerning like or dislike or dislike of Gluck's poem. As I said , I rather enjoyed last week's "Love Poem" by Nadia Colburn even though it treads much the same territory Gluck is traipsing about in--both poems concern a narrator's vivid glimpse of an acutely missed past--and I think the preference is about style, not gender. Colburn writes as if she's aware of the pitfalls and pratfalls of incessant concentration on the modulations of one's emotional temperature and rather smartly, I think, veers her line to that of William Carlos Williams ' that there be "no ideas but in things". The surface quality of her words are absolutely true to a gone moment in time, tactile, physical instances that trigger a rushing recall; her sensation is real, felt, and there is something in the elegant sparseness that allows a reader's mind to enter into the scenes and "finish" the poem, to diffuse the intrigue with the resonances of their own experience.

Colburn is smart as well in with holding what she knows about larger matters, and keeps her literary fore bearers out of the stanzas and on the shelves where they belong. In mind, but out of sight."Love Poem" is a marvelous and careful composition, a neat composition. Gluck, who, I have to admit, has rarely written a poem I wanted to reread is someone who’s vaunted jaggedness and open ended writing I find somewhat prosaic and all-thumbs in her attempts to seem daring and innovative."A Myth of Innocence", perhaps more approachable than the host of her other poems, is the least interesting thing I've read by her; it is an exercise on a routine and not so compelling theme, and whatever emotion she might actually have been drawing from to write this is leeched out by a characteristically ill-thought involution of syntax, and a need to instruct the reader as to how to respond. Her poetry is a glacier paced assortment of ponderous bits that strike me as remote, abstract, and cold, and their is strain in her associations that makes the muscles in my arms tense. I never get beyond the feeling from reading her poems that an overworked muscle is about to tear, and some real pain is about to begin.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Jerry built poems

Some of us make sour remarks after confronting a poem daring to be vague in uninteresting and undernourished ways,and the activity, to an extent, is guilty fun;nothing boosts your ego more than having a go at someone else's presumption of their genius. Still, it's a mark of cynicism, unearned and easy to tap, that reveals a unease that has little to do with the poetry itself. A review of my work even as of a year ago reveals the closed-universe strain of poems, the sort where nothing is revealed and not a detail is given to help along, a truly clueless poetry. I am trying to be more optimistic and sunny.

The grousing is understandable since nothing grates in the literary arts than a scribe trying to extend the expressiveness of language by reconfiguring the parent tongue. One may furnish their own examples of poets who've littered their front yard with the clunky scraps of their experiments, and we can all commiserate in a common distaste for the over rated hacks who hide their inability to say write anything interesting behind a wall of willful hebephrenia.

Sherod Santos does something remarkable this week, though, demonstrating with his poem "A Place in Maine" that it's possible to use conventional language, clear images and place the narrative situation in recognizable contexts and still write a poem that is incoherent, indecipherable, absent of interesting particulars or even an interesting turn of phrase. Compression, normally a trait I prefer in short poems (where details are spare and tellingly placed along with terse commentary from the nominative narrator), is the source of Santos derailed intents. There is something going on between the woman at the table and the man who has moved out of her life after several decades, but there isn't anything given to us about the quality or dynamic of their relationship for us to use as a clue where a parsing of the intended ambiguity would yield a reader's useful (i.e., enjoyable) speculation. The poem is spare parts and standard confessional designs dredged from the cyclone-fenced lot behind the Poetry Workshop; the piece sounds written to meet audience expectations as it goes about it’s jerry-built paces. Along these lines, a lack of conviction becomes obvious, with writing that seems nearly a parody of stuffed-shirt language,

It hurt for her to see me see what I couldn't,
in my heart, quite pity. And yet, across the lesser
distance of some forty years, she invites me
over drinks to think how hard it must've been for her.

Involuted syntax would work if there was something remarkable and mysterious to come upon while reading and so give the reader grounds to fathom the ambiguities and undecidable clues an interesting poem could provide, but this gives us none of it. There might be a temptation to consider this telling of the meeting as the account of someone still stunned with the peculiar and hurtful emotions dealing with an aging parent who might well be suffering from dementia and who’s jumps in conversational matter is mirrored by Santos’ absence of connecting detail or segue, but that would be a case of doing the work for the author who could well have strengthened the poem by adding to the writing, not taking away from it. There have been limitless times anyone of us might have sat through open readings where one would-be Eliot after another attempts the rough waters of elliptical reference, battered and bamboozled by one bard after another with violent images, in jokes and contrived melodrama that couldn’t stand up to a harder scrutiny.

The effort could be explained as a suggestion of troubles, conflicts, unresolved dramas that go largely unsaid, but that doesn’t cover it ; even a work that is sparing with the connections between stanzas requires enough for a sense of a desired implication to satisfy a reader’s desire not to feel they’ve wasted their time. Suggest “A Place in Maine” does, but it doesn’t evoke the dread at the center of the poem. Automatic pilot is the key phrase here, with one quizzical element on another as the poet attempts a dense and fine layering of merged complications; these are more like random snaps one picks up from someone’s basket of family photographs. Furnishing your own linking narrative between the various photos of first communions, weddings, and the odd shot of people standing in front of old cars can be as interesting as the images one is given. The elements of this poem are blandly generic with a pretense to more troubled tempests, crystallized by the poem’s last line “You mustn't forget I'm still your mother." This made me think of sight gag of Steve Allen or Johnny Carson taking a drink of water and then spitting it ought when their side kick uttered a confounding bit of nonsense. This is the sort of rhetorical bomb shell one would employ to cast every suggestion and insinuation that had come before into a new and possibly more dangerous light. It comes off as a cheap trick and even an admission that one was writing a poem that required an infusion of intrigue. No soap. No dice. No poem.