Sunday, August 31, 2008

Miami and the Seige of Chicago.

Miami and the Siege of Chicago
By Norman Mailer
(New York Review Books)

We've all heard the remark used too often to describe an egocentric's prerogative to to be self-consumed and reticent to acknowledge the rights and opinions of fellow citizens: " It's his (her)world, we're just living in it..." There are infinite variations and elaborations , all headed for the same punchline no matter the navigation the teller chooses, with hardly an improvement on the insight. The phrase, in fact, is stale and in need of retirement.
The phase had been used recently in a chat I had recently with someone regarding the re-release of Norman Mailer's account of the 1968 Republican and Democratic Conventions, and the mention made me want reach for the imaginary lever for the equally imaginary trap door down which the utterer of petrified phrases would fall, the bottom chamber of which they would remain until they appreciate that cliches are no substitute for an original aside, a choice metaphor, a wild ride of associations that prove that one has been paying attention to the events about them. Paying attention is precisely what the literary journalist in his nonfiction writings, and what Miami and the Seige of Chicago (blessedly reissued by NYR Books)shows is that for all his self-obsession, Mailer was no mere narcissistic punk considering the world his realm and its inhabitants his subjects. What gives the narrative its tension is Mailer's knack for addressing the world as he thinks it used to be what it ought to become and then confronting blunt facts that won't bend to his wishes, give in to his whims, follow a script he might have written. Mailer is a counter puncher, to use his parlance, someone who reacts with a mind that brings details , thesis and counter thesis , call and response into spinning loops of image-saturated language. Miami/Seige , like a good amount of the nonfiction Mailer wrote during the sixties and seventies, is a richly nuanced , feverishly grandiloquent mid century reversal of Whitman's latter day desire to contain multitudes and find himself in each breath , phrase and circumstance of every American's story; Mailer, an early idealist who wanted to forge a revolution in the consciousness of the nation, as he announced in Advertisements for Myself, refuses bitterness and despair when his designs become moot and embraces ambivalence and irony instead. This makes for a desireable place from which to wrestle with the things that irritate his senses and insult his intelligence.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Image result for KISS KISS BANG BANGShane Black, the screenwriter behind the Lethal Weapon franchise, comes up a decade later deciding he wants to give the buddy movie thing a new twist, like Tarantino. That is to say fatally hip, self-aware, deconstructive and distracted, fitfully amused by its own absurdity. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which Black wrote and directed, is that movie, with a premise worthy of Elmore Leonard (which I won't bother to summarize here) but which gets lost in cleverness, cute tricks, and smirking flashiness. Imagine Oliver Stone directing this mess, with as many gratuitous PoMo interruptions, witless edits and grandstand mugging for the camera. Leonard has all manner of convolutions and twists and bizarre bits of business, but his novels are little masterpieces of craft and, lest we forget, storytelling and his ability to create characters and dialogue make the strange world of the criminal mind a fascinating place to observe. There is that observation of craft for all of Leonard's weirdness, which at times can make for splendid film diversions, like Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, and Out of Sight.

But not always, with last year's adaptation of an earlier Leonard novel, The Big Bounce is the case in point; good crime novels require good scripts, as good looks and pretty locals alone won't create something we care about. The crucial flaw in The Big Bounce was fairly mindless, let us say the arbitrary shift of the novel's location from Leonard's native Detroit to Hawaii, which someone thought would be a better backdrop for turning the gritty novel into a romantic comedy. It was a rudderless enterprise in all, without rhythm or snap, highlighting Owen Wilson running low on whatever beach- bum charisma he'd trading on for the last half of the Nineties, and sadly the avuncular Morgan Freeman with little to do but look wise, bemused and entirely non-threatening. The best news from that effort, assumedly, is that the producer's checks cleared for Mr. Leonard. Kiss a sometimes amusing, visually busy effort that is graced by some good dialogue,but chokes by a sense that everyone is laughing at their own joke.

The punchline is never delivered. Which makes this movie a shaggy dog story, all without the zen "aha". Robert Downey is fine, though. Sober and confused, just what his part called for. Here's to seeing him in better movies. Val Kilmer is a homosexual private detective named Gay Perry, no kidding, and is wonderful in a slow boil performance; with all the flashy cuts and ragged edges to suggest a faint idea of self-referential ugliness (too much motion, not enough music) Kilmer has understated fun, and delivers the best line I've heard in a film in 2005. When asked by Downey's character if his Dad loved him, Perry replies that he didn't know but "...he used to beat me in Morse Code, so maybe I didn't missed it."Kilmer appears to have a developed a fondness for the weird character, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Pounding the Poetry Beat

By Ted Burke
Steve Gehrke is a wonderful poet, a fine lyric intelligence who is brave enough to investigate issues of art and aesthetics in ways that suggest that our vanity is more wrapped up (so to speak)in our creation of pretty images than we were led to believe on those grade school field trips to the county art museum. Chosen for for Slate by poetry editor Robert Pinsky in November of 2005, it is not something you could easily warm up to, which is Pinsky's style. Gehrke gets to the heart of the artist's obsession with the image as a hedge against aging, of forestalling any hint or sign of his or her inescapable death. Gehrke understands the outer edge of aesthetic fixation, and in his poem "Self Portrait; Masterbating (after Egon Schiele)" we understand how the up close examination of skin, it's folds, it's unexpected contours and deviations from the perfect moment of perception can become sticky.

Our painter, aged, flabby, slow to respond either with his art or his body to stimulations that formerly would have sent him raging with inspiration and the need to cast his vision into the world, now confronts himself wizened and not wiser) save for an idea that youth is wasted on the young)and finds his gaze turned from the world he sought to remake in his image , but upon himself, his body a failing range of fleshy, wrinkles, folds of old muscle, flaccidness itself. This is masturbation as a way of remembering when the gesture, the movement, the inspiration of youth was effortless, boundless, and the reward was an overload of sensation that was reward enough for the intensity.

This is not my favorite subject matter to read, but I admire Gehrke's skill to set this potentially tasteless scene in a kind of writing that is sympathetic without a miss step into bathos or apology. Personally, I'd rather re-read Dorianne Laux's poems about giving a blow job--the subject is a better fit, so to speak, for my view of myself in the world--but the present poem commands respect. That is a poem whose scenario I could see myself in. Truth told, I see myself in Gehrke's poem as well, and all the tangled issues one can imagine it knots up ever further. It's just that I prefer Laux's wonderful words of adoration for her man. Gehrke's rumbling has at least the benefit of being well done.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dickinson, syntax, the poem that does not get written down

By Ted Burke

There's an intriguing discussion over on Slate's Poems Fray forum regarding Emily Dickinson's condensed visions and the use of syntax to achieve her odd and impressive effects. Poet and professor Paul Breslin argues that there 's an underappreciation of Dickinson's mastery , and rewrites the poem somewhat as if it were a single sentence, furnishing the missing words to make the poem a coherent example of her inner motions. I think that there might more to it.

Syntax is key in getting to the things Dickinson mused and murmured over, but I'm not inclined to think of a many of her poems as single sentences with the connecting articles and transitional qualifiers removed . I'd think that hers would be a poetry of longer sentences that had been scissored and had their parts arranged in abrupt, quizzical verbal eruptions. Her dependent clauses sometimes hit you in the head like a flying rock you didn't see coming, that shingle that conks you on the noggin when you're trying to repair the rain gutter.

The actually poetry for much of her work would be the unwritten empathy between her lines and cohering strategy a reader creates on the spot to translate, literally, her language into a diction that a contemporary fan can understand.

We have a situation that might not be dissimilar than that of Ezra Pound's translations of Chinese poetry, where he was not translating directly from the original language but rather modernizing, re-writing another translation. He had , in essence, not done a translation as much as written another, unique poem altogether, in pursuit of a verbal ideal.

Eliot, aware of Pound's habit of remaking literary ideas in his own image, referred to his editor as the creator of Chinese Poetry; it isn't a bad thing, of course, but the results are brilliant other than what's been claimed by Pound or his early champions. For Dickinson, her intriguing impressions, her conflated monologues, her faint but evocative traces of interior complexity, often times results in a brilliance that is exterior to her own writing, that is, the genius of the reader responding earnestly.
I don't disagree that Dickinson's poems are fragments and shards of what she might have been thinking about in lifetime seclusion; the habit of mind she displays in the poems is indicative of someone who's developed their own lexicon and signifiers that are sealed against obvious interpretations, a short hand that, in the context of the poems, are not elaborated upon. This enigma is a large part of the allure her work has , and a I think a great deal of her greatness resides in the legacy of interpretation that her small stanzas have provoked.

Whether we've written in done in essay for or have contemplated the consequences of the dashes and asides in private, we find ourselves so furiously "filling in the blanks" and providing end notes to suggest context to the poems that there exists, in fact, a secondary literature that rather seethes, flows and weaves brilliantly, sloppily, energetically through large portions of the Western Canon; rather much of Dickinson's poetry gets lost as comprehensible statements and are converted for, say, more recent generation of response that cannot help but leave Dickinson and her world behind and instead discuss her work against contemporary conditions and philosophical drift. She is not a little like Bloom's,Shakespeare, casting a shadow a younger writer cannot step wholly from under.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Poet as Interior Decorator

"In Another Country" is a big , comfortable chair of a poem to write, a familiar and over upholstered seat in the middle of a crowded room where the poet can plop and sink into the cushions, gaze at the books and ephemera surrounding here, musing, or rather half musing, on a snail-paced account of the week that is more wistful than touching, brittle rather than robust. Mazur has written of being dislocated before and has done some interesting things with the idea of culture shock within the larger stretches of one's own culture meeting up with minor key alienation to produce a sense of fleeting anxiety.This, though, is a return too many to the same well.

The writing is shiftless, too cute--are we really supposed to think that her Houston students are such hicks that they shyly steal gazes at her mismatched shoes in the assumption that this is a fashion trend from the East Coast?-and smug. Not that Mazur is smug herself, but there is a tone and unapologetically disregard for thematic tightness where her comfort level for the details she is sifting through, highlighting and making half-formed asides about excludes the others in attendance, the readers. There's not a poet alive who hasn't written reams of poems one might consider "practice runs" or "finger exercises" that prepare one for a substantial bit of writing, and here Mazur suffers the embarrassing, albeit nonfatal indignity of mistaking her notes for a poem for the poem itself.She is a more interior designer here than poet, moving the furniture from one corner to the next, bringing in new pieces, refusing to toss anything out; someone might tell her that it's a bad habit to exhibit one's erudition in the form of formula name dropping

I sat at his oak desk trying to write,
ate at his table, holding his fork in my right hand,
turned the pages of one of the books,
then another, from his alphabetized shelves:

Mandelstam. Merwin. Milosz.
O'Hara. Petrarch. Pound.

It's fitting she ends the poem that she ends the poem with a paraphrase of an old joke relating to the mismatched shoes she stunned her Houston students with

—But those shoes, the maroon and the blue:
 as the joke goes, I had another pair, just like it, at home.
Likewise, it's likely she has a dozen poems in her files just like this one, earnest gatherings of incidental autobiography and tidbits of wit and self-effacement, some of which make it out of the drawer and fulfill a reader's expectation. This isn't one of those lucky poems. This is dizzy, torn, and mumbled, and the associative leaps Mazur tries don't make it over that yawning abyss of self-reference and land in a terrain where her subject is less private and insulated, more animated, more full of life we can empathize with.without a mention of an idea, a notion, a metaphor any of these writers have written or said offhand, let alone conducting the work to expand on the paraphrase and produce a discourse . The addition of these names to the poem's length reaffirms the amateur interior decorator analogy, as they're treated like pillows and throw rugs one leaves about a space to brighten the place up.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

MANNY FARBER , 1917-2008

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 its 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 overrating 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 moviegoers and used to pick the flick to while away the dark with. It's a sad time for anyone 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 shame of it all is that readers seem not to value critics who not only break with the reshuffled deck of platitudes and clichés that pass as criticism but who offered as well a coherent, tirelessly focused take on the art of movies. The late Manny Farber was no mere contrarian loudly blowing his nose into a dirty rag, he was a writer who spoke instead about what it was in a movie maker's art that interested him. Extracts from reviews in our current time are not pithy quotes from thoughtful and idiosyncratic points of view, of writers who actually did some heavy lifting when sussing through their responses to a movie. 

The cited remarks are "blurbs", concoctions of gutless verbs, lazy adjectives, and quizzical qualifiers that are more sound effects than meaningful statements. Pow, Zap, Pow!!! The passing of Manny Farber this week underscores the mediocrity of the scribblings that pass as film criticism these days. With newspapers dismissing their staff film reviewers in wholesale fashion, one pauses to consider if what Farber did exceedingly well and originally, think about movies, is headed for the dustbin of antiquated skill sets.

Painter and iconic film critic Manny Farber has passed away, and here I acknowledge a stylistic debt for my habits of critical mind. In both, his film lectures at the University of California, San Diego and in his groundbreaking collection of essays Negative Space, Farber, who nearly always appeared as if he'd been awakened prematurely from a long hibernation, insisted that movies were an art form of their own, not an ancillary product of other mediums. He broke with the mainstream habits of subjecting Hollywood films to literary criteria and instead developed a method of appreciating movies and movie makers as practitioners of recent and dynamic art that told stories visually. It was a painter's eye he brought to the classic black and white and technicolor masterpieces the old factory system produced like proverbial clockwork, and the good professor was influential in getting a generation of film critics to observe the framing of a film and making note of how editing between scenes advanced a particular narrative psychology. One admired as well his writing style, half of which seemed like a cross between blunt-but-friendly bar talk and aggressively packed care packages of ideas about how moving images, cut into particular sequences, lit in a certain manner and framed in arresting perspectives and odd, telling angles could convey a complexly weaved narrative line, stylized, compelling, confounding audience expectation. 

He better than anyone else I've read or have listened to seemed as well equipped to appreciate the stylistics of a Howard Hughes or a John Ford and describe the effects they could achieve in creating fictions that were sensual, sexy, dynamic. Perhaps because he was a painter, he seemed intrigued by the small details, the arrangement of objects in a frame, the juxtapositions between classes and interests coming into conflict. He noted the small things that made movies work and pleasurable.I took his classes back in the Seventies and early Eighties, and it was rather a treat to see this grumpy bear of an artist overcome his apparent discomfort at speaking in front of huge classrooms, rub his hand over his face, and point out the more salient, less conspicuous details of a director's visual art. More of a treat was when he would have other film professors and critics--Jean Pierre Gorin, Jonathan Rosenbaum-- suddenly have an exchange about the less obvious issues of film art. The topics weren't of particular interest to the general audience but to a student obsessed with intellectual mavericks whose critical apparatus transcended the ordinary BS and qualified as measures of genius, Manny Farber's film courses are among those moments one treasure and one is thankful for having witnessed for a period.

Manny Farber, thank you.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Poetry as on ramp

There's some chatter one hears that poetry is the safe space of ethical consistency and spiritual balance, something to be desired, attained, sought after. Poetry as some ideal garden to get to. Hardly the case, I think; literature is littered with geniuses who's best writing couldn't cure them of their demon summoning ills; they continued to be bedeviled.

Poetry is something to escape through, a tunnel from one place to another. Thinking that poetry is that place itself, the Lacanian "real" that is lost to all of us, is like stopping in the middle of the stairs as an end in itself. You get nowhere that's useful, unless you're sitting next to someone who thinks talking about stairs and their various qualities suffices for a day's subject matter.

The place to where poetry allows us to escape, however, has no geographic location an is namelesss; it is something akin to a heightened sense of extraordiarily weird life will seem if one insists on locating safe havens and resting places for the troubled , contradiction grasping intellect. Poetry is more process than psychic space or state; it's a rigor that enables you to come up against things, in themselves, that will not yield their essences and remain sane as you look for the parking space, fix lunch, return phone calls, check your bank balances. It keeps moving forward without thinking of straight lines.

UpdateSkyplumber ,in the comments, asks the pertinent question as to whether what I've said here might be construed as a arguement in favor of dismantling Fine Arts Programs. Geeze, I hope not.I suppose one can usurp my argument (a gripe , actually) to launch a campaign against fine arts in general in favor of some nativist tradition they would concoct. But that's not the aim, and those who would use anything I've said here for their agenda would have to go to cartoonish levels of distortion.

I aim not like John Dewy who regarded aesthetics more as "experience" a common person can learn to have rather than an end product. I believe in final art objects , "products" to risk the vulgarity. One needs, I think, something from which to start their processing. I just buy the idea that poetry, in itself, as collection of problematic writings trying to accommodate a corkscrewing reality, provides anything of an ideal realm where we get a hint of perfections and harmonies only God can know. The notion interests me not a bit, and the insistence that poets and their writings remain a priesthood deciphering invisible orders of things and offering up obscurantist clues creates a muddled thinking.

Poetry is not theology; I think more along the lines that poem is result of some period of intense inquiry on a set of experiences and conflicting ideas about them. The poem, though, isn't the end of it, in my view. The real success of a poem lies elsewhere, in the readers, among whom a writer would hope their work starts a conversation among voices that otherwise never have listened to one another.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

No one here

This short missive might seem ironic to the few who are acquainted with my sticky objections to self-reflective writing. My objection remains, but there are exceptions to the rule, always, but there are those who are able to write with imagination and wit while obsessing over writer processes and perspectives without excluding the general readership. Paul Auster's style is so clear of superfluous adjectives, verbs and dead weight qualifiers that he gets across some of the mystery involved in composing a verse, a quality that eludes other writers. A novelist by trade, Auster's fiction often fashion themselves after mystery novels where every assumption and cover story is questioned, and in which action is moved forward by chance; whole chains of events and consequences in his best fiction-- The New York Trilogy, Book of Illusion, Leviathan-- that depend on the fickle choices of where one desires to place themselves, on impulse, on the spur of the moment.


No one here,
and the body says: whatever is said
is not to be said. But no one
is a body as well, and what the body says
is heard by no one
but you.

Snowfall and night. The repetition
of a murder
among the trees. The pen
moves across the earth: it no longer knows
what will happen, and the hand that holds it
has disappeared.

Nevertheless, it writes.
It writes: in the beginning,
among the trees, a body came walking
from the night. It writes:
the body's whiteness
is the color of earth. It is earth,
and the earth writes: everything
is the color of silence.

I am no longer here. I have never said
what you say
I have said. And yet, the body is a place
where nothing dies. And each night,
from the silence of the trees, you know
that my voice
comes walking toward you.

White Nights likewise comes across as a detective novel, combined with a ghost story; within in it are the themes of someone writing something in isolation wondering if anyone will read, how anything will change if a readership is found, how the writing lives on in the writer's words haunting a stranger years later, in another part of the world. This would the poetry Don DeLillo would write, I think if he were more attuned to the associating residue the covers a landscape or neighborhood that was once familiar but is now estranged by time. There is a novelist's precision in declarative statements like " The pen moves across the earth: it no longer knows what will happen, and the hand that holds it has disappeared " that mimics perception itself, how something beheld can seem so clear and self-contained to its purpose, place, and use and yet morph from the particular to a swirling ambiguity with the slightest alteration of mood.

It comes, finally, to that flashing recognition a reader experiences when the words of another voice confirm some trace of feeling one has felt in their travels through an amorphous existence. I think the poem is lovely, compelling, finally undecidable to final meaning. But that is the whole point, I would think.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

No more poems about poetry

I've posted this elsewhere a year ago and would have been happy to let the archive swallow it whole until retrieved, but the subject is an arguement that cannot be settled, and it seems that I'm not yet done thinking about it. The immodest musings on meta-poetics are posted here where new readers might find something to either cheer for or sneer at. I am assuming , of course, that there are those who are interested in my half wit opinions and can stand my careening sentence structures. -tb

April, hardly cruel with its longer days and constant sunshine, does not seem so cruel in Southern California these days. T.S.Eliot, author of the fateful phrase that would be oft-cited sans context or coherent application, would doubtlessly agree with that assessment had he come through months of rain, gloom, mudslides and general grayness. The burgeoning of spring, the blossom of flowers, a quadrillion butterflies taking to the air, with all this you couldn't help smile and think life in April was worth waiting for, that this is a month worth savoring every sunny nanosecond of daylight for.

Grim facts do emerge in the month in spite the manic-cheer leading of the previous paragraph, the sorry and necessary fact that Federal Income Taxes are due by April 15, though one can absorb this philosophically however much it hurts to pay out what's due; death and taxes and all that. It is such an inevitability that it's pointless, you'd think, to have anxiety attacks over the fact. It is part of the texture of the day, a constant recurring weave in the tapestry of life. And all that.

A worse occurrence , a worse sin of existence, is National Poetry Month, where we will have the usual suspects , those few poets whose names are known by the mainstream reading public, engage in all sorts of self-congratulation and puffery , all in a grandiloquent attempt to sell poets and their work to a larger crowd of book buyers. Besides the fact that it doesn't work--those who don't buy poetry books, or care not to read poems at all are not likely to start the enterprise merely because Robert Pinsky or Billy Collins provide soothing assurance that poems are good for the digestion--what irritates me is the oncoming onslaught of poems about poetry. Readers are invited to observe poets attempt to make love to themselves in any number of verses where poetry is the subject.

Poetry against poetry is an amusing theme the first time you do it, but the contrarian stance can't mitigate the general obnoxiousness that it remains poetry about poetry all the same. Beyond the fact that it's usually a self-congratulatory clustering of poets praising themselves on being the "antennae of the race "(Pound's dreadful hubris-choked flourish), it illustrates a grating, even willful failure of imagination. "Failure" is perhaps too dramatic a word. "Laziness" would be a better fit.

Poets, regardless of their politics, religious beliefs, spiritual nuance or circumstance of gender, race, or even intelligence, have an over all need to deal with the world around them, to grasp experience as something raw and full , and then compose a poem about it all when there is something on the mind worth recording and revealing to a curious audience; it ought not carry the reminder that the author is a poet having the experience and who wrote the poem the reader currently holds, presumably reading.

It detracts from the job at hand, it dilutes, and it practically demands that the reader be grateful for the privilege to be in the presence of a soul more sensitive and attuned to life's nuance than him or herself. The promise of self-reflective art, brought to us in the Sixties by Godard and the sleeping sickness called Structuralism, was that once we understand the mechanisms and devices that form our ideas of meaning beyond the conventional, we will then be free to address social relations in words that would empower the reader to change society—to make a better world, to coin an odd idea.

Not much of that has happened in four plus decades, but the habit remained in poetry beyond the flesh-eating foisted on the art by those who misunderstood , I think, what L=A=N=G=U=A =G= E Poets were up to and centered their career making verse their subject matter. The Language Poets, one should remember, considered language as their starting point , with the work of Rae Armentrout, Barret Watten, Ron Silliman, Bob Perleman and others , in various ways and strategies, interrogating, contesting and disassembling entrenched assumptions and conventional wisdoms about tongue we define and hang our perceptions on. Theirs was a project to witness contradiction, paradox and ambiguity, to take up the modernist task of fashioning a rhetoric that vibrates and gives way to the unpredictability of events and experience and perception. Not to everyone's taste or thinking , but Language poets, I'd say, are interested in maintaining poetic dictions as a resource the writer and reader can take themselves beyond the increasingly inane pronouncements of the publisher's preferred vocal style.

What's happened in the wake of these writers is a fungus that's seeped into the marrow of the Body Poetic and given a generation of poets a way to write without having to make some greater sense of their experience. Less disguised, this means that many poets are seduced but the surface sex and sizzle of an antifoundationalist theory and are with pages of alleged verse that hasn't a single communicable notion in them. There is in all this maze traipsing a lack of ideas; nothing seems to be said about being in the world in details or nuance that makes the prospect convincing . Craft and style are essential to honing emotional content into something greater than mere confession or less appealing forms of monomania--I'm not wholly enthralled with the idea of poetry being a substitute for therapy or group-groping apologetics--but the continual emphasis on poets and poetry as subject matter represents a flight from the standard practice of poetry as an extraordinary way to fathom that unexplainable condition of being human. Carpenters who talk about hammers and nails only don't get houses built. Poets writing poems about poetry aren't being poets at all, but is rather being dime store Hamlets practicing meditative poses in the perfume counter mirror, so much erudition impaled with the spike of their own cleverness, afraid to wander through the door and perhaps have an experience.

Marianne Moore's "Poetry" is widely anthologized and often cited, and it shouldn't be a mystery as to why this poem among the hundreds she wrote is the one that an otherwise indifferent audience remembers: IT'S A POEM ABOUT POETRY!! She rather handily summarizes an array of cliches, stereotypes and received misgivings about poetry a literalistic readership might have ,feigns empathy with the complaints, and then introduces one crafty oh-by-the-way after another until the opposite is better presented than the resolution under discussion.

Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
"literalists of
the imagination"—above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Moore is a shrewd rhetorician as well as gracefully subtle poet.Clever, witty, sharp and acidic when she needs me, Moore is clever at playing the Devil's Advocate in nominally negative guise, saying she dislikes it but mounting one exception to the rule after another until we have an overwhelming tide of reasons about why we as citizens can't exist without it's application.

It works as polemic, indeed, crafted as she alone knows how, and it adds yet another well-phrased set of stanzas that want to turn poets into more than mortal artists, but into a priesthood, a race of scribes attuned to secret meanings of invisible movements within human existence. It sort of stops being a poet after the first jagged stanza, not unlike all those pledge breaks on PBS that tirelessly affirm that network's quality programming while showing little of it during their pleas for viewer money. It's not that I would argue too dramatically against the notion that poets and artists in general are those who've the sensitivity and the skills to turn perception at an instinctual level into a material form through which what was formally unaddressable can now find a shared vocabulary in the world-- egalitarian though I am, there are geniuses in the world , and those who are smarter and more adept than others in various occupations and callings--but I do argue against the self-flattery that poems like Moore's promotes and propagates.

Novelists, playwrights , and journalists have had their mediums rightly demystified over time so that the title itself--novelist, playwright, ET AL--does not by association inoculate a writer against proper judgement; criticism, as such, deals with these scribes as craftsman , and the larger issue, literary wars and preferences aside, is how well an author writes, with how well they are doing their job.

The mystique remains,somewhat, for the poet and it is one that a good number of poets, good, bad and resoundingly mediocre, seem to want perpetuate. Moore, I think, had whimsy in mind when she wrote her piece, but the impulse to have poetry as the subject matter of new work keeps the medium unapproachable for many for no real advantage other than what appears to be vanity and status. There's a tendency to keep the edges of poetry blurry, smudged, indistinct as to the terms one is given to talk about poets and their work. One in this area doesn't want to give the whole game away.

Enough. Enough. If a poet has something besides themselves and their gift to share with us, please, let's read it, let's hear it, let's compare notes about life in this world. What poetry has lost in large portion is the capacity to evoke a sense of invisible structures behind the details of everyday life that , given the occasional hunch or flash of inspiration, could be sensed however momentarily and provide the reader with some extra energy to live fully another few hours on this plain in the attempt to make the world yield more beauty and fairness, and in it's place has come, in equally large portion, a self-consciousness that brings attention back to the poet as-arbiter-of-meaning, a broker of slippery signs who is so conceited (knowingly or not) about their nominal privilege and power that they can well dispense stanza after stanza of mirror-gazing narcissism without risking their standing over the minuscule dominion they lord their constructed value over.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Whiteness ll

Stuff White People Like is a blog dedicated to mocking the ways of white folks, the class that is cursed with white skin and too much education and money, and as I've remarked elsewhere, white European Americans are the only ethnic assortment someone can make fun of with impunity; it's now beyond whatever value it as irony or poetic justice and now exists as a bad habit for taking cheap shots. Now we have a piece in the NY Times about the site's principle author talking about another white person's groupsyncratic curse, poetry readings.A laugh and a good wicked snort can be had making fun of the habits of poets, but limiting the odd ways to white folks alone amounts to taking the easy way out no less than some of the poems that appear on Slate. Everyone is in a hurry to get to an easy punchline, not in the interest of having an audience see their own foilbes but rather so the motor mouthing wise guying can jet through another batch of sarcasms so lame that one wouldn't even dare utter them at 1am on a Comedy Store Amatuer Night. Is someone brave enough to investigate the wierdness that besets ethnic groups in particular once they become infected by the poetry flu? Not really, it seems, and white people remain the easy target one may mock with out the slightest fear of being called to the carpet for the stereotyping disrespect. It's a sorry, lame ass practice

Stuff White People Like is a blog dedicated to mocking the ways of white folks, the class that is cursed with white skin and too much education and money, and I've remarked elsewhere, white European Americans are the only ethnic assortment someone can make fun of with impunity; it's now beyond whatever value it as irony or poetic justice and now exists as a bad habit for taking cheap shots. Now we have a piece in the NY Times about the site's p

A laugh and a good wicked snort can be had making fun of the habits of poets, but limiting the odd ways to white folks alone amounts to taking the easy way out no less than some of the poems that appear on Slate. Everyone is in a hurry to get to an easy punchline, not in the interest of having an audience see their own foilbes but rather so the motor mouthing wise guying can jet through another batch of sarcasms so lame that one wouldn't even dare utter them at 1am on a Comedy Store Amatuer Night.

Is someone brave enough to investigate the wierdness that besets ethnic groups in particular once they become infected by the poetry flu? Not really, it seems, and white people remain the easy target one may mock with out the slightest fear of being called to the carpet for the stereotyping disrespect. It's a sorry, lame ass practice

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Dullness of Intentions

This week's poem has been compared to Wallace Stevens and his regimented wonderings of what it must be like to permeate the membrane separating our existence of mere representation and enter into the realm of Platonic ideas, where the real things actually exist. Heady stuff for a poem to plough its way through, but there is at least an elegance in Stevens' ruminations on these fixed landscapes, things-in-themselves-unsullied or spoiled by human vanities.

I had concluded some years ago that Stevens had stopped his search for intrinsic and immutable meaning in the nature of things and concluded that his imagination and his gift for scrupulous composition would be put to better use re-framing the texture and position of things among those palm lined shores abutting the fabulous terraces and columned cabanas, thus investing his language with a further power to evoke the mystery of things that seem, to him, to collude amongst themselves to keep us guessing to what end our days serves. For most of us this results in periodic bouts of being dumbfounded , a chronic state of WTF; the pratfalls we have at the point when we assume we've discovered our path results in arguments with the results. Stevens fairly much admits that he'd be baffled if he thought he could define anything in this world of appearances, and realized he would be guessing. Fortunate for us the guesses were inspirations in themselves and that he had the genius to transform his speculative method into poems that would inspire the intrigued reader to ask better questions.

Ferry, though, hasn't the elegance or eloquence Stevens, and his poem The Intention of Things is a rudderless mess. One might have fun chasing pronouns and such things as they try to follow these elliptical couplets, but this reminds not so much as a poem of phenomenological speculation linked with the secret purpose of objects than it resembles a stoned rap a group of dopers would wander into once the smoke took hold and the world around them became an unreal cartoon they'd been dropped into. The worse part of it is that it reads further as if one of the zonked participants actually remembered the disparate topics of the ganja fueled rap and wrote it all down, trying attempting to make it a serious inquiry into the sequestered nature of things and events. It is humorless, it is over done, it is sophomore metaphysics, it is dull and very pretentious ; the narrator seems to think he's Hamlet , standing apart and on high, ruminating on human folly , the inevitability of death dispite all in-genius plots. But that's a speech that's already been delivered, an unsurpassable achievement. David Ferry's dry verse here seems more a typing exercise committed while he paraphrased a seeming half dozen ideas already infinitely paraphrased .


Sunday, August 3, 2008

A new kind of Barbaric Yawp:David Lehman

David Lehman’s poem “November 18”, from his collection Evening News, was the subject of a dispute among some fellow poetry readers, half of whom liked the poet’s disjointed connections, and others who thought the poem was dated because of a seeming lack of unity and the use of the names of dead American musicians The conversation became rather steamy. All the same, the poem is hardly dated. Leham writes as though he's a radio recieving transmissions from across the decades, playing the music and the voices on bandwidths that bleed together. This is channeling indeed; what makes the poem enjoyable is Lehman's playful into a single communication, a voice ramped up to talk about several pleasures at the same time. The intrigue is not just makes into the excited stanza, but also those things that are left out, the segues and tranistions that are this speaker's connecting tissue. That tissue, I suspect, would make a poem as intriguing as this ode to hastily discoursed artistry.

Because it mentions people, places and things that are equated with the '50's? An arbitrary habit of thinking, I think. Lehman essentially creates a medley of voices, different streams of language that melt into one another, and with he balances the texture of associations the references bring; this is very much in the modernist mode, especially as practiced by The New York School, who, through the work of O'Hara and Ron Padgett, made a city poetry from an every day language of the noise of the city, it's billboards, magazine stands, grand hotels, loud radios and sports extravaganzas.

November 18
By David Lehman

It's Johnny Mercer's birthday
from Natchez to Mobile
in the cool cool cool of the evening
very cool with Barbara Lee
singing Marian McPartland playing
the greatest revenge songs of all time
hooray and hallelujah
you had it comin' to ya
and a bottle of Rodenbach
Alexander red ale from Belgium
with cherries and "Tangerine" in
the background in Double Indemnity
he had a feel for the lingo, "Jeepers Creepers"
as Bing Crosby sang it on my birthday
in 1956 I just played it three straight times
and an all-American sense of humor what does
Jonah say in the belly of the whale he says man
we better accentuate the positive that's it
happy birthday and thanks for the cheer
I hope you didn't mind my bending your ear

Lehman lays claim to to a particularly American sound here, starting with Whitman's barbaric yawp, coming up through William Carlos Williams, and finding itself resting next to other high art forms that found much to use, exploit and find glory in from popular culture. It had been mentioned that Langston Hughes did this sort of thing” infinitely better”, but that’s an assertion meant to distract. Hughes never did anything remotely like what Lehman succeeds in doing here, I'm afraid. He sought a blues cadence, a gospel resonance, and a voice based on an idealized African American idiom, but what his brilliance is a separate set of accomplishments. They are simpatico on a number of points, but to weigh over the other on the merits of a fictitious objective standard is spurious.The terrains are different -- Hughes rural and black, Lehman white and urban -- and the motivations behind the experiments vary dramatically. Lehman is an inspired heir to the mood and tact of the New York poets, and what he is able to do he does cogently, with humor and a genuine love of making language behave in ways that are poetic for the sheer ingenuity that cogent barbarism can bring.

Hughes was quite a different case. the poem can't make up it's mind as to whether it wants to be urban jazz or rural blues. The poem is about, among other things, the thriving, buzzing, and churning diversity of noise and music and tempos that one finds spread out across the American landscape, and what happens is a nice medley of musical emulations. If you've driven across country with the radio on all the way, you'll have an idea what the poem manages, the layering of music, voices, references all on top of one another, some fading to the background, others picking up as you near the transmitters, everyone in competition to be heard on the limited band width. You pick up this curious, adventurous, experimental verve in his brilliant music. Lehman is in much the same grain grain, an artist filling up the space of the American Vastness.

Belgian ale? Why not Belgian Ale? We have choices in this Big Country, and the use of this sort of potable enhances that ours is a place comprised of ideas from many other places. It's a nice, fleeting detail that emphasizes the idea of constant surprise. Is it fun? Big fun. It may be to people familiar with Johnny Mercer and his lyrics. That's millions of people, so I don't think you can accuse Lehman of obscurantist tendencies. One needn't know classical Greek to read "The Waste Land". It's the language and the tone that carries you through to the feeling that's being created. A poem ought not mean but be. Now it's a tired old baby-boomer of a poem . This is a poem where the speaker is happy to be alive, is happy for the life he's had, and demonstrates an eagerness for what is yet to come. Lehman concisely, entertainingly and skillfully has written a poem that tells us to enjoy this noisy existence while we may, because the time we have is finite.

Natchez to Mobile certainly gives us a rich slice, but few would say that it's a particularly urban slice,the poem is about creating a feeling of the vastness of America , and also the sorts of loud and hopped up sounds that are made up to fill up what is largely space between the coastlies; part of the way you create that feeling is with place names, time honored and effective. One has the feeling of pointing at a map, seeing an odd sounding name that has native-sounding exotica, and telling your traveling companion "let's go there." It's texture, and it adds this pieces city/country/city layout. This is a poem with names that travel well through the decades; they travel far better than Pound's name dropping of long deceased Chinese poets lyricism in any guise that effectively makes a reader forgo reason and engage emotional, more "felt" associations from what the language highlights cannot be said to be antiquated; it is always timeless. This poem is perfectly comprehensible to anyone who cares to read it with open ears.

Mercer is the starting point, but the poem moves on, along the roads, through the towns, the meals, the intriguing place names. Lehman addresses Mercer's lyrical, vagabond spirit. In doing so, the poem, like travel itself, moves from where it starts, and becomes about something much larger, and harder to define. Final definition is impossible, more than likely, but what we have is the realization of one of my favorite clichés, it's about the journey, not the destination.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Swimming from two shorelines

I was asked what a poet was talking about when I showed a friend a copy of John Ashbery's Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and I was, of course, stuck for a fast answer. "Everything in the room" I said," and nothing in particular". An unsatisfactory response, she said. "I know" I replied,concluding "that's why he's fun to read." She made a sound and arched her eyebrows, annoyed , maybe, by the implication that poetry should have an entertainment value

The question ought to be not if the Emperor is naked but rather if the observer is blind. My take is that if one thinks there is nothing to John Ashbery's poems, they are bringing nothing to their readings.There is,I'm convinced, such as a thing as Author's Intent , an element literary critics have been trying to beat to death for four decades or so, but even so the reader is obliged to fill in the blanks and to stop complaining the poems are , alternately, too direct or too complicated. Willingness is the key; something of oneself needs to be invested in reading the poems in order to find pursuable verse.

But nothing ventured, nothing gained.He was more the walker than Ashbery, I suppose, or at least he wrote more about the going to and coming from of his strolls. unlike Ashbery, O'Hara loved being an obvious tourist in his own environment, and didn't want for a minute for his poetry to leave the streets, cafes and galleries where he treaded. Ashbery is more the stroller who gets lost in his associations triggered by what he beheld. Ever more the aesthete than his fellow New York Poets, he was interested in things a little more metaphysical, that being that the reality that exists in the inter-relations being the act of perception and the thoughts that are linked to it, which branch off from the perception and link again with another set of ideas, themselves connected to material things observed and remembered.

O'Hara was immediate, like the city he loved, while Ashbery allowed his senses the authority to enlarge his perception, to explore the simultaneity of sight and introspection. In a strange way, Ashbery is the more sensual of the two, willing to examine that even the sacrifice of immediate coherence. I'm not a fan of difficulty for the sake of being difficult, but I do think it unreasonable to expect poets to be always unambiguous or easily grasped. Not every dense piece of writing is worthy by default, of course, and the burden falls on the individual talent. Ashbery's writing, for me, has sufficient allure, resonance and tangible bits of the recognizable world he sees to make the effort to maneuver through his diffuse stanzas worth the work.

Poetry, to distinguish itself from the precise mapping capacity of prose, ought to be written in a manner so ambiguity and multiplicity of possible readings thrive. .Otherwise, what would the point be? What matters for me as a tempered reader is not how well a writer coheres with a party line but rather how well they accomplish the goals of a craft that , by rights, should engage with a way of thinking of a confounding existence in a language that seeks to purify itself, continually,of easy attained tropes taken from a gallery of responses and generate instead some new ideas. Even the most conservative of poets in form and content do this very thing if they happen to be interesting writers at all; Poetry tradition is not a parsimonious use of language, but rather a deliberate expansion of what words pieced can do, what meanings they can evoke, and what sensations they can create.

Prose is the form that is, by default, is required to have the discourse it carries be clear and has precise as possible. Poetry and poets are interesting because they are not addressing their experiences or their ideas as linear matters subject to the usual linguistic cause and effect; poetry is interesting because it's a form that gives the inclined writer to interrogate their perceptions in unexpected ways. The poetic styles and approaches and aesthetics one may use vary widely in relative degrees of clarity, difficulty, and tone, but the unifying element is that poetry isn't prose, and serves a purpose other than the mere message delivering that is, at heart, the basic function of competent prose composition. I paraphrase the pragmatist’s credo: the validity of an idea is in how it works. It’s more interesting and fruitful, I think, to debate why individual poems work and why others just stay on the page, unlovable and flat, instead of holding the literary equivalent of Stalin Trials as to how well or badly a poet adheres to an approved party line. Quietude vs. Incomprehensible Quandaries? I reserve the right to swim from both shorelines.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Two concert DVDs from NetFlix

Miles Davis: Around Midnight (1967)

Filmed near the end of 1967 for the most part in Stockholm, Sweden, we have here a choice document that dispenses with the Davis mystique and allows us to hear the music , free and clear. Miles Davis didn't say much, as a rule, to his audiences, but with a band this good playing jazz this brilliant, it was wise for the band leader to allow the improvisation get the message across. Davis' trumpet work is all that is legend, crisp, curt, cool, muted, full of spatially lyric melodic forms and bursts of striking tones and angular phrasing. You anticipate the trumpeter's every solo, wondering what he'll think of next. Wayne Shorter on saxophone is Davis' perfect foil, an original voice who could provide you a sense of fully conceived and executed composition with each of his solos. The rhythm section of Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums is wonderful as well, especially Williams, who provided a malleable pulse that linked the instrumentalist’s dialogue.

Jimi Hendrix: Blue Wild Angel: Live at the Isle of Wight

We who grew up with Jimi and were saddened by his early death need to face facts and admit that he was an underdeveloped as a guitarist. In concert, anyway. While there is an oh-wow factor to consider in the man’s playing , the context is historical only, and an out of tune guitarist who sounds bored with the songs , the riffs and the stage antics he’s paid to perform does not travel well into the 21st century. For all the genius he demonstrated in the studio, he was a messy, out of tune, mistake-prone improvisor live, and this DVD shows him at his most exhausted. This is not experimentations in dissonance, as some would suggest, it's just inferior guitar work. Sorry, Jimi, but I do wish you had lived and gotten your act together, but at least you left us with "Electric Ladyland". I wish we had another ten years worth of music that amazing.