Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Whale Puke, Drum Battle, Wynton Marsalis

By Ted Burke

Worse ad slogan for a new album happened in the late 60s when Columbia records released a debut effort from a band named Ambergris. Likely as it is that the band members liked the sound of the word--so Elysian Fields, so Ambrosian, so Strawberry Fieldsian, as the word traveled from the tip of the tripping tongue--without a hint of what it meant,some pot head in Columbia's' marketing department did their research and devised this catchy handle:
Ambergris Is Whale Puke.
I saw the ad in Rolling Stone, saw the album in a rack somewhere, and then witnessed the dust of history blow over the name, the album, and all traces that the band ever existed.

I remember reading in Rolling Stone in the early seventies of a drum battle between Elvin Jones and Ginger Baker. Baker, then touring and hyping his rather lead-footed bigband Airforce, had taken to baiting Jones, the usual young gun sass about his elder being over the hill, slowing down. Long story short, and hazy on the details on my part, there was a concert with the two of them in New York, culminating in a drum battle between Jones and Baker. Baker had his post-Cream hardware, double bass, double toms, double snares, double everything, and Jones had his regular kit, simple and to the point.

After some standard trade offs, you guessed it, Jones proceeded into rhythmic areas Baker couldn't follow him into: Baker received, to borrow from Howard Cosell describing a fighter just out-gloved by Ali, a drumming lesson. What Jones did on the drums was apparently beyond Bakers' nail hammering sensibility.

It was one of those write ups that made me wish I was there.


Wynton Marsalis plays a fine trumpet, but he when he's not on the band stand he's running his mouth about the finer points of jazz improvisation, a fine point to make , I think, but what makes the great musician an bothersome conversation starter is his implied premise that jazz has peaked, the form is fixed on it's technical merits, that what comes into as a musical element after the mid sixties, when fusion crackled through Miles Davis' horn, is merely exotic gimmickry and certainly not jazz at all. And this makes Marsalis a tad controversial.

Marsalis is a political conservative, a William Bennett sort who has his own 'Book of Virtues' agenda in his educational projects and with his directorship of the jazz program in Lincoln Center, and that I view his own music as less than the fiery blaze of Freddie Hubbard (a better trumpeter than Wynton, really) and less compositionaly textured than Ellington. But who says there has to be a consensus in the debate. To the degree that Marsalis has opened up the discussion to the larger culture, he has rendered a service to the state of jazz. To the extent that he has gotten alot of people's dander up, well, I think that is a good thing to, because in the hands of dusty musicologist moon lighting as critics, jazz has seemed a gasping, brittle artifact, like old furniture in a museum display, that one appreciated for it's former glory, for all it's accumulated history. Whatever stripe you happen to be, Marsalis implies, jazz is not past tense, it is not a thing of history, it is a living thing that has history.

The shame of it all is that Wynton Marsalis has come to represent everything a public considers to be the 'art'of jazz, and as he continues to proffer tame music, the adventurous stuff, the "out" playing that keeps the music alive remains unheard and alien to the curious listener.That there is an Jazz Canon that needs to be loved and preserved is not disputed, it's just that Marsalis acts as if all the innovation is now past tense. Maybe he believes it is. His style is conservative and chiseled after his heroes, Miles, Clark Terry, Clifford Brown. Their music, though, came as a result of extending their technique into areas that were unknown in the culture. Marsalis has done none of that. He is cheating himself, and boring the rest of us to death.

The distinction between an on-going spotlight between jazz musicians defining musical sensibilities amongst themselves, at work, and that of Marsalis discussing such things is that Marsalis has the spotlight, the media and the audience goes to him, and it is there where the debate, this debate begins. We disagree as the to the role of critics, but I think the ghettoizing of jazz is to laid precisely at the feet of white writers and intellectuals. Amiri Baraka is a great man and an important critic, and presented jazz as a continuous aesthetic of liberation, and correctly defined African American music as music about freedom and struggle, and the search for knew knowledge, the extension of the voice, the exploration of the soul into knew knowledge. As Baraka is an unapologetic socialist to this day, a brave and lonely vantage in an a culture that thinks a free-market can resolve permanent problems in the human condition, I don't think it accidental that his views are ignored, and frankly unknown to most. Marsalis William Bennett-ish view, that jazz should embody virtues conduce to conduct in a democratic society, is a valid one, and we may understand it's broader appeal, but real, neo-bop purism is needed in an art like jazz, as art, any art, cannot be remain a living thing, generation-to-generation, if the past is not known.Simply, Marsalis is part of generation of artists and intellectuals in the African American community who are no part of the mainstream dialogue in America.

For the ghettoization of jazz, my impression from reading Feather, Lees, Giddins, and Balliet, is the lack of lyricism in their prose, the lack of imagery in their description.The tendency--noticed over three decades of reading their stuff on and off in dailies and in journals--is that they approach jazz merely as a matter of technique and stylized virtuosity.Maybe this is the only way they could approach, maybe these were the blinders they couldn't remove, but the approach still reduced jazz to a sub-category of European music.The rise fo the black artist and intellectual into this conversation is to say, all matters being undecided, that jazz is not a sub category of anyone's music. This upsets a lot of people.I think it's one of the most interesting cultural debates going on in America at the present time.

Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, Cornell West, bell hooks, Gerald Earley--these are actually first rate thinkers, agree or not with their conclusions, but the fact of the matter is that we need more high-profile cats like Marsalis, from every facet and corner of the black community, to debate , to clamor, and to insist on jazz being a great American art form they created, and thus claim their rights Americans. Again, Marsalis is not my favorite player, and I think his dalliance in two camps, classical and jazz, dilutes his performances in both, but he did get us arguing something that really matters.I will say it again, for that much, he deserves our thanks.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tarted Up and Refusing to Bloom

By Ted Burke

David Biespiel is a poet after my own heart, which means that he prefers to have his language interesting and spiky on the surface rather than being merely clear; this will allow the reader ample chance to sort through his tricky conflations and tricked up tropes and so enjoy the benefits of delayed awards; for all the cuts and nicks his writing can cause the uncalloused psyche, there is a marvel of a writer taling about the plain facts in not so plain ways, and that's fitting. Nothing really is what it seems to be at first, right? Well, no, nothing is what it seems like at second either, which is why I suppose Biespiel writes the way he does, and why his poems merit more than one, two or three readings. They are compact measures of various narrators climbing out of their life time of rhetorical defenses. This we see in his poem Though Your Sins Be Scarlet"

There is something intensely private going on in this poem and for want of anything else to say, the conflict herein involves someone struggling with sexual orientation . There are enough phrases and oppositions joined in smarting retorts to make us assume this otherwise unremarkable interpretation , especially in this richly conflicted section:

Scarletted-up—all those years—I fiddled and giggled
And got muscle-bound as a deaf dreamer, a striper,
A pressed-against pirate, got teary and ripe with the scuttled
Worry coming back again and again, and no winners
To speak of, no vintage TV to settle in with like sins
Of the zodiacal light or kissing cousins or crummy laws.
I haven't been called a weak sister, and I don't mean to, that's plain.
But the rummy tumblers, the bloody knuckles, I'll crawl
For them. I'll crawl. And the cutting up and the swear words—
One gets the struggle of harboring the secret and toying with the idea of letting it all out and allowing the cards to fall where they may, but there is, again, conflict, a taking back of one's decision and yet another attempt to live up to ideals other than the ones finds or creates for themselves. The images provided by television, by conflicting stereotypes, whether body builder or sentimental sissy, offer anything like real solutions to this dilemma of identity and desire. Sadly, though, it seems that one has accepted their lot , to be marginal and abused and used with no center of self to fall back upon when reflection is finally possible but there is no other life one can imagine they'd want to lead. It is a poem of a some one's hell who cannot see a way out of it.

Update 9/26/2008
Biespiel's poem deals with a personality that is, if not at war with itself, at the very least is attempting in this impressionistic stew to merge contradictory notions of gender and the sexual/manneristic qualities any of these memes ought to ensure. There are no real incidents in the poem to locate these flashing qualifiers to and hence create a picture or at least a narrative outline, rather we are in that sort of verse that is a form of mumbling, a stream of associated terms and distinctly paired contradictions that are like a species of schizoid speech one might see in public places as homeless men or women speak to vacant spaces as if someone were actually there, embroiled in a life time of counter assertions to demands and pressures they feel have tortured them long enough.

In any case, there are the constant contrasting of qualifiers, material references of macho body building culture and camp elements more directly gay and effeminate by association, that the poem seems not about straight versus homosexual identity, but rather appears here as streaming bit of harsh imagery of the confusion as to what sort of identity a gay man might settle into; identity crisis might be the basic point of this odd, effectively elusive poem. A life situation, barring particulars that could happen to anyone.

Commenting on this same poem, Paul Breslin remarked on Slate’s Poems Fray:

This poem speaks in a voice that soothes pain with the pleasure of extravagant language but, unable or unwilling to name the source of pain directly, arrives at no closure--the poem doesn't so much end as stop, for now.. The speaker needs to keep talking because silence is unbearable, while the playfulness of linguistic invention comforts.

This nails something I was thinking while I read the poem again and again, that it's part of a longer and perhaps endless stream of cognitive associations that just happen, in this example, cluster around a cluster of ambiguities and which hint that the language might further morph and encompass another series of binary oppositions that confront a restless personality.
It's a writing that makes me think of John Ashbery , only with more agonizing, more self-laceration; Ashbery's soft focus dialectic between consciousness and the phenomenal world maintains the lyric tone and finds the narrating presence at some measure of equilibrium despite an influx of sensory input (whether memory, an offhand remark, a distracting aroma).

There is aesthetic distance between Asbhery and the things that inspire him to write poems the way he does. One can even say there's a serenity in this realm.Biespiel's poems, though often as cryptic, are shorter, yes, more constrained than Ashbery's quotidian expansiveness, and there is a provocative admixture of the self-mocking, the lacerating, the cynical and the fatalistic that makes his willful refusal to clear subject and tone seem like a bomb about to go off. Biespiel might be carrying on the dark, depressed tradition of Mark Strand or the Confessional poets; this is the poetry of thoughts seeking a clear, declarative phrase, only to have their distinct lines blurred again by persistent agitation.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

more notes on "The White Negro"

The White Negro | Norman Mailer | First Separate Edition, Second ...It would seem that an especially troublesome tract from the recently belated Norman Mailer's writings will be his essay The White Negro, published in Dissent in 1957 and later included in his landmark 1959 collection Advertisements for Myself. In a rough paraphrase, Mailer argues that whites need to emulate some of the jazz-inflected style of black Americans, whom, he said, had developed an attitude, a lived philosophy in the face of the violence they face daily solely because they are black. Mailer placed a good amount of hope that the Beats might be such an evolution in the Caucasian mind. Authenticity,

a self rooted in primal reality and not lodged in a language-locked template, was the goal. Mailer's assertions, to be sure, came under attack, not the least of the asides being that he was taking something of an exotic and racist view of the lives of black people. The misgivings are understandable.

Some of what Mailer said in the essay was embraced by some in the black community. Eldridge Cleaver, another man obsessed with the metaphysics of personal violence as a response against Institutional violence cited him favorably in his book Soul on Ice; Cleaver, though, was doubtlessly trying to rationalize the rapes he was convicted of as being political acts rather than demonstrations of a pathology or, further, that the pathology itself was a result to being oppressed. It's a slippery slope, as Mailer realized. Horrible as it was, Mailer never used his stabbing of his wife Adele as an example of How-To-Be-A-White-Negro; his treatment of violence in later books was more measured, weary. All the same, the ethos of hip-hop and rap culture endorses Mailer's assertion that black Americans have a authenticity and knowledge that white community cannot have because of the fact that they live with an intimate, daily, as-is knowledge of violence as something that saturates their existence, that it might be visited upon them at any instance merely because of the color of their skin; many rappers, in principle, might agree with Mailer as well that the edgy style of hip hop is a result of their being forced to exist at the margins of the culture. Mailer writes that a major reason that black American culture developed the way it did was in response to the racist violence that might befall them at any moment on any day. This was knowledge of violence whites did not and could not know, Mailer argued, and postulated further that the cultivation of the style he wrote about, complete with its violent elements, was a canny response to the brutality that faces them. Mailer thought that whites ought to emulate the style of black culture in order to live more "authentically"; in either case, what Mailer talks about in the essay is that one is confronted with having to make a conscious choice in how one confronts stultifying conformity and Statist oppression. He does not argue for anything "intrinsic" in human beings, and argues through the essay that one must deal with the consequences of their action.

It's true enough that Mailer added violence into the equation for its potential to transform the individual, but he worried in the same piece about the relentless and purposeless escalation of violence for its own sake. What he saw in the urban black culture of the time was a particularly acute style and manner that could accommodate and hone the violent impulse and use the energy to a more creative purpose. This presents all sorts of problems for intellectuals and gullible whites (and blacks) attracted by the flashy density Mailer's writing, but it should be noted as well that Mailer modified his pronouncements. Mailer, believe it or not, matured. Which is not to say there wouldn't be sufficient grounds to argue with his later writing. I agree Mailer’s tough guy stances were a species of posing, and it seems to me that he had a rude and crucial awakening after he nearly killed his wife Adele by stabbing her when he was crazed on Benzedrine.

He didn’t disavow any previous declarations, of course, but it’s interesting that two of what I think are his best novels, An American Dream and Why Are We in Viet Nam? are two lyric flights that are fueled by the sort of rage he gloried in a decade earlier, the first book being something of a Blakean purge where his hero, Stephen Rozack, attempts to berserk himself into transcendence through violence against targets that he felt undermined his tenuous grasp on self. Transform he does, but he is an unenviable mess for the carnage, some one stuck on some psychotic edge with virtually nothing to build a new life on. Mailer seemed content to let the violence, the raging burn itself out in the novel, with their being the tacit moral that “encouraging the psychotic within” is a dead end, a nihilist fantasy. The second novel is poised to investigate, through metaphor, the source of this insanity, an obscene cruise through American repression, obsession with masculinity, racism, and an insane obsession with individualism, guns and God. So many polarities battle each other in the book that the question posed in the title is thus: we were in Vietnam because, as a nation crazed on many ill and contaminated streams, we had to be.

William Carlos Williams is said to have remarked that the “pure products of America go insane”, an idea that Mailer accepts in the form of the book’s crazed, multi-voiced narrator DJ who, representative of a complex cultural stew that will not blend but rather form a thickening cluster of unpalatable projections on the face of the planet, is compelled to expand upon, disrupt, dominate, and decimate the people and resources outside it’s actual borders. Mailer here echoed Susan Sontag (in attitude at least) that the white race was the cancer on the face of humanity. In any event, we’ve been lucky enough that Mailer had the sense to forgo his arm chair philosophizing for long enough intervals so he could do some real work; I am a fan of his novels, but along with most Mailer partisans, I think it will be his non fiction that will secure his reputation, Executioner’s Song and Armies of the Night, certainly, but also Of a Fire on the Moon and Oswald’s Tale.

Monday, September 22, 2008


A car rolls by on the street with the windows down, music blaring, loud bass and nail-flattening drums from the speakers breaking up the tentative serenity one found at a street side café, a rapper stammering about hoes and bitches and gangstas and bling and getting’ paid and bodies bags, a litany laced together with variants of four-letter words that no longer shock or even offend but are ugly all the same, like large piles of crap left on an otherwise fine dining table setting. It’s kids telling us where it’s at, and they are in our face, says an associate, and suddenly, you feel like you’re in the Culture Wars once again.

Progress means moving forward. Four-letter words blasting from car speakers on public streets isn't progress for anyone, it's a loss, both in civility and to respect others. The same goes for morons yammering about their hemorrhoids or some other aspect of their inane and consumerist existence to fellow dunderheads as they drive their cars or fill our stores, theaters, and cafés as their r broadcast -quality mediocrity saturates square foot of  public space. It's another degeneration of the public sphere, unless you think that being able to establish yourself as a lout and a self-obsessed boor rapidly in the presence of strangers  constitutes an improvement. I am willing to concede, however, that for some of us becoming a full-time creep with pretensions of  Thug Life constitutes an improvement, which only underscores how pathetic a large portion of  our youth has become, shrill and vain.

Moreover, any kid, black, white , Hispanic or Asian ambling down school halls emulating 50 Cent is regression of an odious sort, a realization of Norman Mailer's romantic ideal of “The White Negro”. It's doubtful even Mailer would find this trend enviable, a generation of young people placing a value on the ill formed locutions of millionaire goons and wallowing in a subculture that prizes accumulation of material and money at any costs, including the sacrificing of one's humanity and the community one lives in.

Being from Detroit in the 8-Mile Road area, I know full well what “Wiggers” are, and I'm old enough to realize that the phenomenon is not a new wrinkle in the scheme of things. Times and styles change, but a constant in my life and in my parents life was white kids affecting the style and musical habits of the current edge of black culture. My reference was to Norman Mailer's famous essay “The White Negro”, written in 1957, where he argues that whites who want to free themselves of crushing and killing conformity must emulate the style and language of blacks because blacks, he opined, are closer to violence and thus privy to kinds of rapidly deployed existential knowledge that a bookish and emotionally neutered dominant culture could never know.

Mailer had a continuing theory  that living close to violence, the kind of violence that is 
an intractable of your race's metaphysical being, was an entry to spectacular influxes of new perception and awareness that dismantles the many veils of false consciousness. It's all beautifully if bogglingly argued in the essay, and there is a good discussion here of Mailer's work, ideas and this particular essay here [www.english.upenn.edu]; the short of it is that Mailer thought whites blessed to be attracted to black style and culture and sought to emulate it with” spontaneous bop prosody” (Jack Kerouac's phrase) were the hope of the white race. Mailer was speculating that the kind of knowledge of violence that blacks had would do well to help the questing Hipster gain new perception and new experience and allow him to create a truthful world where real choices are possible and individual responsibility for them is a matter of what private, divinely derived ethics one has made with the God of their understanding.

Among the problems with all this righteous forecasting and waxing poetic is that the Revolution as described never starts, and Heaven does not arrive on the planet, conditions that are easily explained away by revisions to theory where it practice is at fault, not the catechism. Petty and major criminal acts continue to be romanticized as a people’s spiritual rebellion against crushing falseness and capitalist hegemony, and the emulation of those manners in the popular culture becomes an unconnected cluster of trends and marketing clichés. Above all this is Marcuse’s fleeting notion of “repressive tolerance”, often mocked and maligned but prophetic, timeless and tersely wise when one witness their idealistic style turn into advertising slogans and their manifestos become the humorless rationale for being a monster, a thug. Everything is allowed, everyone has their say, each word of dissent and radical exception is allowed , nothing is forbidden, and everything is the same. Nothing happens .

Simply put, the Man, as he was affectionately called in the Sixties, makes your protest and revolutionary style ineffectual by allowing you the means to express yourself and your peculiar take on the erring course the culture has taken. Your protests become part of the news cycle, more factoids to fill the spaces between advertisements. Nearly fifty years later one wonders if Mailer would approve of the bragging self regard that black style has turned into, and if he would admit that "wiggers" , albeit emulators of black style, are merely followers of fashion and consumers after all is said and done with.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

There is no standing still

By Ted Burke

I wanted to remark upon the two Bob Dylan poems that are in the new issue of the New Yorker, but the muse intervened and I wound up instead writing this poem.--tb

There is no standing still

I pulled the car to the side
half way across the bridge

just to look at the grey water
below being christened with wakes

of barges hauling the remains of
the month we've lost to a port

where they can still drop anchor
and all else besides.

You don't drive, you said,
lighting a cigarette I saw from the corner of my eye,

long white gloves, a gold plated butane,
This isn't your car nor the city

that sustains your center when verbs
get nervous and adjectives lose their spine

You talk a lot for a memory,
I say, feeling the wind from the open Pacific

carry the diesel fumes between state lines
and the laws of gravity we wear

on our belts like shorts
too tight in the waist,

I will park and gaze anywhere
I have a mind to, yes, this world

belongs to the public that sees me
coming up for air from subway staircases,

every town I walk into or drive out of
is a hometown that writes our names

under the signs
that tells us population numbers.

But you are gone, the car has vanished,
the bridge leads me to the same houses

and hallways,

the earth just spins
and there is no standing still.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Seeking God in Bitters

By Ted Burke
Bar drinking was fun ,as I remember it, and there tims when I miss the days when I was holding court, drink in hand, poking the shoulder of whoever was next to me while I made a point about some uselessly abstruse distinction. Twenty one years since my last drink and there are times when that memory becomes seductive and alluring, not a good thing for me to consider as an option. But there things, reminders, gifts of Providence that remind me of the bone-dead reality the bars were for somone like me; a field of defeat. Kathryn Maris has a poem in Slate this week , "Lord Forgive Me" that reminds me of the mess that was; not a lecture on drinking, mind you, just a big, ashen portrait of slow deaths in progress.

Scenes from a marriage sliding down the wrong side of the hill, toward the junkyard, the waste land, the foul pound that lies just over the horizon from every temporary bit of bliss. "Lord Forgive Me" sounds like the lament you'd under someone's breath sitting next to you at the neighborhood bar you thought you'd visit for a taste of local color, a cryptic utterence that gives you a shiver and shows you that the regulars who drink here so more than imbibe; they suffer, they regret, they fixate on their drinks with their small mantras and private prayers, they fixate on games on the television to isolate themselves from a nagging past of regrets and perceived failures and a future that promises even grayer reception. Clearly this is not a world of "Cheers", these folks do not exist for our entertainment.

So we come in mid-thought, getting a narrative as it unfolds , a consciousness that surveys the scene and the ashen images within; the prayers , the language of salvation , resurrection, of an existence made whole and purposeful, attempts to tap into whatever hand or great eye might be the director of the grand purpose of it all and beseech Him weakly to lend a hand in self transformation. But gravity is too grate, the deadness is overwhelming, the bar is full of defeat that weighs heavy. Eyes are fixated on the televised game; there is nothing but the game being played, and after the game, only discussion of the game that was played and what ought to have been done at spontaneous moments of play, and after the post mortems ,the drinks, the cigarettes, only the wait for the next game. This is the culture of funerals where one says only the kind things of another when it's their turn to speak at a wake.

Kyrie iesu christe, God above
and me below, drinking at the Hog's Head.
"So. Will you love me better when I'm dead?"
He knew it was no joke and didn't laugh

but turned away to look at the TV.
(Arsenal was playing Everton.)
Another man was fixed upon the game

and held his hands together on his knee
and chanted and rebuked. But not my man,
who recognizes neither loss nor blame.
This is the perfect cure for the romanticized Bukowskisms that have come to represent bar drinking, that there is glory and vital humanity at the bottom of all that thirst; Kathryn Maris gets the flatness, the deadness of it all, the long silences, the melancholy that colors a room after despair wears thin and angst is seen as an affectation. The sound of the tv, the random sighs and curse words, the telephone ringing , sounds that break the silence that wraps around the drinkers like a thick, fuzzy gauze. Not an attractive scene,but Maris gets it right, and her sonnet form is perfect, hard vowels, a dirth of adjectives or cluttering verbs, spare images, all arranged to balance the memory of spiritual fulfillment and the realities of what one's life and relations has become. Not a joyful poem, but a powerful one, and I admire the poet's ability to keep it vivid,brief, true to the nature of the scene, which is the sort of isolation that takes place in the most crowded places. Kathryn Maris has a poem in Slate this week , "Lord Forgive Me" that reminds me of the mess that was; not a lecture on drinking, mind you, just a big, ashen portrait of slow deaths in progress.

Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace 2

By Ted Burke

I'm still struggling a bit with what I thought of David Foster Wallace's writing two days after his death, and the truth is that I find him the dual embodiment of the kind of excess that makes me want to toss any and all keyboards I have in my domicile
and the kind of genius I wish I might have been as a writer. It seems appropiate to repost an old essay here I wrote six years ago about the poor man before his best virtues stayed me longer than my misgivings.

David Foster Wallace is an interesting writer who is in dire need of a vicious but fair editor. He notices everything that is odd and potentially wonderful of ponder in his world, but he's able to organize his perceptions; he lacks the ability to discriminate what's actually interesting to a reader from that which is worth only a smirk and a snort for himself.

A Supposedly Fun Thing works, I suppose, because it's nonfiction and the pieces are short, but even here he doesn't take advantage of the compression. He goes rather long too often, and what's is wonderful about his writing and his intelligence is lost. It is really too much work to sift through the giddy semiotics to unearth the verbal gems. Barthes himself had the good sense too be brief in the columns he wrote for the French popular press.

Infinite Jest is perhaps the most exasperating novel I've ever read, along with being the most chronically overrated in contemporary fiction. It may be argued that he novel is about the digressions he favors, and that such digressions place him in line as being the latest "systems novelist", taking up where Gaddis, Pynchon, De Lillo and Barth (John) have led the way, to which I'd say fine, and what of it? The AA and recovery material is potential good fun, and the aspect of powerlessness over a movie ought to be enough for a writer to mold a sure satire, but Wallace seems far to eager to surpass Gravity's Rainbow and The Recognitions in his long, rhythmless sentences. It's been offered that Wallace's particular genius, his contribution to what written language can do, is the extension of the details a sentence can sustain , however long the length required for the feat, and still be grammatically comprehensible.

It's an impressive skill, I suppose, at first or even third reading,but it wearies you, truthfully, it defeats your patience with the author's muse and method as it defeats itself with it's own formless mutations. It may well be that the fault is mine and that I'm either too lazy, impatient or perhaps even too stupid to grasp what Wallace is on to with the infernal linking he does in Infinite Jest, the way every aspect of a addiction and recovery is snaked through quite like the way the tail of Godzilla would drag and smash it's way through the skyscrapers and lesser neighborhoods of Tokyo and Manhattan on the Big Screen. I suspect that I am not so dumb: I've the aforementioned Long Complex novels and I've been able to parse each of their many and subtly placed parts with diligence and patience. Yet Wallace tires me, and gives rise to the need to set the book down, if not toss it in the trash, or use it as weapon, or some other non-literary utility. Pynchon, DeLillo and Gaddis , true their grounding in Modernist narrative ploys (however much each of them warred against a previous generation's concern for a tidier narrative form) supplied you with the sense that they were going somewhere with their parodies of form; there is that element of the shaggy dog story in each of their seminal works, and the comic is recognizably framed; you recognize the effluvia of American culture , and this brings the laugh, and the relief. "Relief" about nails what I find wanting in Wallace's writing; there is none. An editor willing to roll up the sleeves and set to work with an assertive blue pencil would have noted when and where such moments are required, and where they would naturally occur. It would be ironic, in an alternate reality, if the publishers tried to market Infinite Jest to that audience that was put off by the sheer size of the original product with a heavily touted edited special edition. Longer versions of iconic works are published all the time (with rare improvements on the original shorter works); it would make sense that shorter, breezier, sharper version of Infinite Jest would find a market. A big one.The aforementioned editor I proposed would have handed the manuscript back with the observation that this set of multivalent-channeled satires has already been done by the previously mentioned authors whose works are not likely to be matched. Said editor would then advise that over-writing isn't the sure means to break with your influences, but that developing your own style is.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

David Foster Wallace Dead at 46

By Ted Burke

David Foster Wallace wasn't my favorite writer, and I didn't quite "get" the metastatic comedy that was the central work in his short list of books, Infinite Jest, but I did read him often and closely enough in other novels, essays, short stories to see genius, real genius, perhaps the stand alone talent of his generation.He was extremely wordy, prolix was his stock-in-trade, but you kept reading him because he was also brilliantly funny; in this sense Wallace was a true heir of to the late William Gaddis, another genius of long , satirical novels like The Recognitions and JR. Writers like these two are that rare combination of intellectual rigor and approachability; their shared virtuosity was in service to humor, a lessening of the thick clutter that gathers in our waking lives.

At his best, David Foster Wallace is an astute chronicler of the often needless (and fruitless) complications characters create for themselves. In the eight stories that make up his collection Oblivion, he outlineed absurdity, sadness, and sheer comic reality of the outer-edge of consciousness. Fashion magazine editorial boards, consumer research companies, and paranoid office situations are among the areas fictionally explored where human activity fractures into dozens of frantic, nervous tangents. Oblivion is a dizzying, daring set of tales - a riveting virtuoso performance. What was unique about Wallace was that his refusal to be conclusive in his writing, in the sense that a subject ends or a story ends and is finished with when he stops writing. As with a mind that engages life not as framework containing an easily explained and grasped beginning, middle, and end, his prose didn't build to a point to be made, an effect to be had, nor did it perform the artificial dialectic of having it's dualisms come into conflict and produce some unexpected new thing.

Wallace's virtuosity and brilliance at undermining a reader's expectations didn't always justify the lengths he went to in order to set up scenes and digressions.
Much of what could have been knock out prose simply goes limp at length. There's a numbing lack of emphasis in Infinite Jest and The Broom of the System that reveals what one would call undigested research. The encyclopedism is a habit he gained from Pynchon and DeLillo, I think, but both those writers have a since of scale, and a style that reins in the excess: their sense what makes an antic sprawl is better served by their respective senses of proportion, developed, I think, under the the tutelage and blue pencil of editors who were not afraid to hack away what does not work and instruct in the mending of what does.

Wallace has no such sense of scale, and remains a promising talent; he was less a wunderkind than bright chatterbox who, not finding the right words for an idea, uses all of them. This seems to be the case when first experiencing his prose, and one does discern a method, a purpose and a heart that goes with his profusion --he as much as any writer tested the limits to which writing could embrace it's contradictions and ambivalence as the a counter thesis was instantly presented any discriptive/perscriptive remarks he might offer. He was a "systems novelist" like Pynchon, DeLillo and the late William Gaddis, but Wallace's system who nooks and crevices he inspected, invaded and described in mesmerizingly, excrutiating detail was language itself. His prose seemed the equivilent of actual speech, full of stutters, doubling back, purposeful self-contradiction. Indeed, prose and the sentences that mark length was an extension of a mind that will not settled in place; his point was the refusal to have a point. Life was too important to have a meaning behind it all; that, he thought, would be conclusive and spoil all the joy and strange tastes of sadness that come our way between dawn and dusk.

The fiction didn't have a pretense of fulfilling a grand narrative; rather, these were mini narratives we traveled through, formations of the society and the habits of its characters revealed who are at once loosely connected with everything else in the area and yet so close in proximity. His writing was a record of continual process, full of unveilings, small voiced declarations, competing manifestos of how to change the way things are. Whatever DFW comes to be called years from now, he was a perhaps the first post modernist writer to understand irony as it's lived, not applied as a card trick. He was a master, and he will be missed.

Ironic, yes, that Wallace's exhausting "maximalist" style, which seems dedicated to fitting everything in sight into a sentence that contains everything else, works best in his shorter pieces: the humor hits harder, the stretches of associations don't have time to die on the vine.
Wallace could make sentences seem like it were a sentient being with lives and curiosities of their own, touching everything their looping syntax and serpentine rhythms could circle their clauses around, and rarely loose the central premise that commenced the writing to begin with; his writing was something akin to a Keith Jarrett piano improvisation where theme and variation became such fully and forcefully units of energy and execution that they soon became full developed bits of art on their own, with their own terms.

American writing has lost a champion.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Snowed in

By Ted Burke
We brought the dog home in the trunk.

All the way from school Dad said she was
back there, feet on the same red carpet as mine.

And so Laura Polley's sad little verse "Winter Accident" opens, promisingly, intriguingly, with a couple of declarative sentences that efficiently, even a bit brutishly set in the scene, a dead dog in the trunk, a little girl on a car seat, a father reassuring her in ways none too convincing. Apprehension is the tone here, and the reader is intrigued by the situation; how did this car ride get to be so extraordinarily weird. There's enough here to make you want to read more and find out what this strangeness is all about. James M. Cain couldn't have done better.But the third line blows the game:

The February sun made me feel like a thief.

This wouldn't have been the place to use a simile, and if the use of a simile were imperative, I might not have used to describe the first person narrator but instead some other detail of this world. The intention here is to sort through a sequence of recollections that are fragmented and partial, vivid in fleet imagery, powerful in the emotional sucker punch they provide, elusive to context and details, but Polley gets ahead of herself and turns this poem into murk, almost a wallow. A bit more distance from the narrative line and a smart gathering of images that could furnish a definitive mood of ambivalence --the sense that the young girl doesn't know how to react to a sort of situation she's not yet had to deal with--could be established by implication, not direction. This is where the poem evaporates entirely, becoming an untidy set of bound clippings from some one's streaming introspection. There details, of course, precise bits that convince us that someone once walked through his house, rode in that car, cared for the dead dog

You're not part of this memory. Your figure is missing
from the strange gray half-light of the closed garage
where he tried but couldn't shut her eyes, Siberian blue,
where we stood, two blunderers, not knowing what to do
with the clumps of dead fur coming off in our hands.

But it seems stilted at best; Polley feels the need to prep us for the emotional subtext of her stanzas and neglects to connect the sequence with anchoring tropes that would make the elliptical style a more interesting thing to parse. The central theme is estrangement , I think, and that is not interesting in itself; there is simply not enough here to bother with. The poem, in brief, is a mess; interpreting it what she might have meant while writing it , for me, is tantamount to letting off her obligation as a writer and finishing the poem for her. It's a cheat.


By Ted Burke

Here it is, the day that changed everything, the anniversary of the worst thing that could happen, the day when every bad thing we feared came to fruition, and now, eight years after the horrible attack of September 11, 2001, we as a country are up to our necks as the consequences of Bad Faith undermine our spirit, our credibility, our greatness as a Nation. Ensconced in two wars, unemployment exceeding 6 percent nationally, home foreclosures going through the roof, health care out of reach of increasing numbers of Americans , and bin Ladin still not captured, still breathing in some cave plotting more attacks on the Nation.

Things have not gone especially well for us as a people who habitually prefer to think of themselves as a country that can do the right thing and lead by the best example it can set. We are, though, being subject to the tyranny of fear tactics set forth by the GOP during election periods that would have the electorate compliantly relinquish further civil liberties for fear of another terrorist attack while policies favoring unhinged corporate expansion are set in place; the goal, I suppose, is to have John McCain gain the White House with his Creationist, gun- toting running mate and initiate the permanent marginalization of the American People. Sad to say, but we have, as a collective, been swayed to vote against what you'd think were our obvious interests. 9/11 has become a rhetorical ploy to convince voters that this is no time to worry about constitutionally assured rights to life, liberty, happiness; the terrorists are coming to get us. One admires Keith Olbermann's remarks on the GOP's obscene usurpation of the anniversary as a means to gain power.

What should be a time for us all to drop our political acts and come together to not just mourn but to recommit to values and principles that make America honestly great is now an excuse for the party of Tired White Men to pull every fire alarm in the communities we live in; their displays of splintered patriotism and sluggish symbolism resembles the worst performance art piece one could witness, but without even the benefit of an explanatory irony. It might be sugggested that this is the death rattle of a party that no longer has relevance, but what I'm afraid of is that the GOP might take the rest of us down into their grave with them.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Circular Modernism

By Ted Burke
Ron Rosenbaum of Slate has an interesting piece this week called “In Praise of Praise of the Praise of Poetry”, in which he offers a sarcastic tone for the those poets who’s blurbs for other poets sound better than the work they are ostensibly lauding. He means it in a bemused fashion, and declares with a half-sober voice that perhaps this is a literary genre in itself, newly emerging, to be taken on its own terms. Rosenbaum means to be ironic, but he does touch on a point that many readers, myself among them, are at times confounded by lines that are either too abstract and distanced to attempt to enter , or the reverse, too inane, obvious and , honestly, pretentious an imbelcilic to bother wasting another lost minute reading, so we go for our big guns and produce alot of steam to talk around a particular poet's work. There is something artful in the way one learns to cram a string of reworked buzz phrases into sentences have a true elegance; what this really is, I think, is the blurbist following up on his own thinking who is using the nominal praise of another poet as a dry run for perhaps a longer, self-indentifying manifesto they might be readying for that mythological creature, the poetry audience. In some odd fashion we have parallel text going past one another , trains whose contents share nothing but a brief stretch of land where the tracks are laid.

It had been remarked that one of the purposes of the deconstructive method was to banish binary oppositions and the requirements that some forms of text production, ie writing, are subservient to another, with the particular (and vested) interested in elevating criticism to the same level as the literary text it elucidates. Intertextuality has looped an octopus arm around another pillar of conventional thinking. e now have a new form, circular--modernism. It's been ba.d enough that we've had to suffer a generation of dull poets writing poems about poetry (PAP) where the subject seems to be either the poet as sensitive being channeling the variety of vibes that the rest of us cannot discern, or the inability of poetry to "get" at the exactness of the moment. These folks are quiet, reflective, with not a thing to say other than they like the sounds words make when there aren’t any ideas percolating.

Now we have writing in praise of writing about poetry. There is a good amount of log rolling here, with more than a clutch of poets intent on not giving away the game on which careers and reputations are built on, but one does admire the adroit skill that gets applied to the least interesting of the least tangible . What is even more interesting is that a good amount of the essays exclaiming the value of these poets under nominal review don't actually explain how the poets are successful at their tasks; more often we get an examination as to the poet's intention, and then a long run in eloquence describing results that I , for one, witness too little.

I ought not generalize too much poets remarking on the work of other poets, since there is a difference between actual criticism-- evaluation based on close inspection--and the sort of careerist suck-upping one finds on the back of new books. There is the idea that some wag had put forwarded about poets who put forth their own theories about they and their associates do; the theory is more interesting than the poetry it discusses. It is, often enough, more poetic, in the sense that one is prompted to read the theory again, relish the fascinating phrases and decided defamiliarizations and attempt on their own to assemble points the writers are going for. Writing that provokes someone to cogitate cannot be called wholly unsuccesful.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Gary Soto's train of thought

I take trains from time to time from San Diego to San Francisco, stopping between stations to breathe different air and to have a separate state's sunshine on my skin. You go on with the journey, studying the passing terrain from your seat, making a note of ordinary things that seem extraordinary if only because you're passing through. You wonder about it all as the towns, the old farm machinery, the faded barn sides, and dilapidated factories scoot past your invasive gaze: who lives here? I like this poem because Soto appreciates the wandering and the wondering about people and things in their places.
Who Will Know Us? by Gary Soto (for Jaroslav Seifert) It is cold, bitter as a penny. I'm on a train, rocking toward the cemetery To visit the dead who now Breathe through the grass, through me, Through relatives who will come And ask, Where are you? Cold. The train with its cargo Of icy coal, the conductor With his loose buttons like heads of crucified saints, His mad puncher biting zeros through tickets. The window that looks onto its slate of old snow. Cows. The barbed fences throat-deep in white. Farm houses dark, one wagon With a shivering horse. This is my country, white with no words, House of silence, horse that won't budge To cast a new shadow. Fence posts That are the people, spotted cows the machinery That feed Officials. I have nothing Good to say. I love Paris And write, "Long Live Paris!" I love Athens and write, "The great book is still in her lap." Bats have intrigued me, The pink vein in a lilac. I've longed to open an umbrella In an English rain, smoke And not give myself away, Drink and call a friend across the room, Stomp my feet at the smallest joke. But this is my country. I walk a lot, sleep. I eat in my room, read in my room, And make up women in my head — Nostalgia, the cigarette lighter from before the war, Beauty, tears that flow inward to feed its roots. The train. Red coal of evil. We are its passengers, the old and young alike. Who will know us when we breathe through the grass?
Unfinished thoughts are the point of the poem, and unfinished thoughts, the ones that come in a stream, one after another, with hardly a seam showing between responsive notion to the next, is one of the attractions of train travel. Soto gets this flow rather well, and in some way, he offers us a version of John Ashbery might read like if Ashbery weren't so reticent to provide a location, place in his work.

  Like Ashbery, there is the thing that passes by at a speed that allows one to recognize it and the context it resides in, there is the start of thought processes that might attempt to abstract from the thing seen, but then there is an interruption with the motion, the new thing that passes by the observer's gaze; ideas overlap, bleed into one another, there is a fascinating language forming from textured details and the emotive qualities one quickly draws from them. It is a kind of music one creates for oneself, the contrasts in things, shapes, forms, the striking differences in the qualifiers one quickly deploys to get the detail right. Unlike Ashbery, though, Soto's poem doesn't abandon us at the station, and he provides a graspable sense of melancholy under the intoxication of streaming perception; it's not just "who are these people" but also, for the citizens of the places these tracks pass through (or pass through no longer), it's wondering about who remember them when the last house goes dark. The school no longer teems of a new generation. Poetry is a self-conscious medium. In any case, it's an intense examination of one's responses to what life draws them through; anyway, I don't see Soto as being so self-conscious as to weigh down the poem in self-doubting murk. 

He doesn't once mention the fact that he's a poet, nor ponder poetry's inability to get at the essence of things and situations in themselves. Instead, he's like the rest of us in the trenches, lost in thought, engaged with the meaning of things in ways that catch the drift of perfectly arrived ellipsis. It's a well-turned work, relatively modest in proportion to the issues it flirts with, quite moving as a reminder that beauty, joy, sadness are all things we can experience in a single moment.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sarah Palin Pales

By Ted Burke

The GOP is working overtime giving John McCain's choice for VP, Sarah Palin, an extreme makeover in the attempt to make the selection seem a sane and rational one,a benefit to Republican prospects everywhere. I think not.

Palin is a blunder because she undercuts McCain's claim that experience matters most when electing a President; this is virtually a gift to Obama surrogates who will use this flip flop as an effective ploy against McCain. They will also make note of how swiftly the GOP has been resurrecting old Icons, ala Teddy Roosevelt, when it became obvious that the "experience" issue wouldn't work for them anymore.

This also goes to the matter of McCain’s judgment versus Obama's. It was a persuasive litany of contrasts on issues during Biden's and Obama's speeches, sure fire talking points that will give potent bullets to the Obama campaign during the race to come. Add to this the fact that the selection of a Vice President is, principally, not to deliver sectors of the voter population to a candidate but to have a qualified person ready to step in and become President should something happen to the elected Chief of State. Biden's experience is beyond reproach no matter how one wants to attack it, and it's clear that Obama vetted his choice to assure the country of having someone in place that far exceeds any criteria for competence. Palin's thin resume would do well for a local politician, but in the matters of national and international affairs, she would be no one's first choice to take up an office whose chief responsibility is to be sworn in and become President should the unthinkable happen. McCain's cynicism shows here in gross proportions; Palin satisfies the hard right of his party. Say what you will, but Obama can make the argument that he served the public interest by his careful review of his potential choices, and that Biden was the best person for the job based on his experience and demonstrated expertise on a variety of issues that would concern the President.

The Palin selection also makes McCain's age an issue as well; he is a 72 year old man who has had several bouts with cancer, an inconvenient fact that makes him susceptible to other issues of getting older. One does not relish the thought of having this man elected; should some incapacitating fate befall him ,we'd would quite literally have the least qualified VP in American History stepping up to the plate. Obama at least has shown a sure and subtle grasp of issues over the past two grueling years; we have a definite idea that he knows what he's talking about. Palin, a governor of a state that hasn't the total population to fill a typical moderate size midwestern city, is an unknown quality who isn't likely to convince voters that she's up to the task of stepping up to the calling.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

"Walking in Fog" by Barry Goldensohn

By Ted Burke

Fog has its appeal because we’re interested in the idea of a nether world coexistent with our own, where things are less definite, less material, able to appear and vanish into other details , or into vapor altogether. It’s a filter over the hard edges of what we see and take for granted and perhaps even curse for being solid, precisely drawn, an arrangement of three dimensional things we have to walk around, not through.

Walking in the fog, through the woods is what Barry Goldensohn fancies with his poem “Walking In Fog”, a jaunt that has one feeling that one is walking through unforgiving barriers, penetrating unseen membranes.

There’s that twilight , near dark feeling of the world one knows becoming vaporous and and translucent, less fixed on names and definitions that are written down and conveyed by way of essay and routinely complicated system-making, and which seem more as ideas in themselves, the notion of things that hover over our straight forward lives whispering subdued captions of what our lives and our contexts are like free our fear of not having enough or losing what we have.

Goldensohn’s trek through the forest,through the signifying fields, has something in common with the dyes of a madras shirt; everything ,from detail to the slightest glimmer of joy or foreboding trilling lightly at the delicate edge of the paradigm, it all bleeds together.

Everything looms at me. Hound's-tongue
with wet doggy leaves and blue flowers
starts up from the mist-streaked hillside.
Standing by itself, framed in fog
the live oak twists black arms above me,
an embrace, free of the crown of leaves that hides
the outlines of limbs in the crowded background view.
The canyon and the next hill disappear.

There is a dream logic at work, not the rational cause and effect a more stainless-steel mind requires, but instead the logic,intuited sense of how elements fit together; Goldensohn has an especially balanced poem here, the physical details veering toward the surreal but never escaping the atmosphere so as the poem is made turgidly weird and overwrought with metaphors that might have sank the poem.

There is , with sincere thanks, a lack of explanation about any of this means, and the power of the poem draws from the way things appear and vanish in this verse, from looming branches and wet leaves; things emerge as one comes closer, things that one has just past vanish into the cottony mist. There is the feeling of being drawn in, embraced by all that one sees; animals and their habitats . I come away with the feeling of being absorbed

Plunging into dense puffs and gusts of fog
along the road a dying friend wheels
and lunges from cliff wall to cliff edge
in a bright yellow blouse and blue jeans
joyous with losing herself and coming back
in daily magic, you see me then you don't.

It comes to death, of course, the fascination with it, the thinking of whether this life is worth the struggle and the pain and the sheer labor just to be current with one’s accounts and relationships, and the thought does arise among many of us, musing at twilight, at dusk or dawn, in fog near the cliffs where the songs of sea maidens and powerful water gods offer their promise of rest and deep, coral toned symphonies, that the transition from this life, the hard life, the life where everything has density and measurable weight, to the life where gravity takes no toll , would be simple, ease, painless, natural beyond nature. The final image of the dying friend wheeling herself to the cliff edge, decked out in a bright blouse as she considers going over the edge and then returns from the fog, as if by magic, caught me by surprise, it stopped me, it fairly stunned me.

Writers, the sort we like to discuss, the introspective and the thoughtful and the perennially worried, are most comfortable on the smooth, stainless steel surface of given meaning, but they (we?) are cursed (blessed?) with the impulse of analysing where they stand, why, and how it might be otherwise if there rules of gravity weren't an imperative.

The speaker here is someone noticing how things familiar and commonplace appear to be at once ethereal and somewhat supernatural given the change in atmosphere, light; the density of things gives way to diffusion and there is the feeling that you're walking through the material world and travelling great distances in no time at all when you stroll through the forests; our narrator observes what things appear as, notes the change in a personal psychology, the rise of feelings that have to explicable basis, but never gives way to the seduction of his mood.

He is firmly rooted, and wonder as he might about another plain his language is inadequate to describe, he remains on the soil he landed at birth. He has much he wants to do, and hasn't the hankering to consider other options; the wheelchaired friend, though, has the luxury to wonder, to play games as described, coming so close to a mystical abyss only to back away from it's yawning gasp. Giddiness is the mood, finally, the thrill of having trekked alongside certain fatality only to walk away from it, if only by mere inches. It is one of the benefits of not taking the Leap, the reminder that one is alive without doubt when every sense is going off like fire alarms.

The fog, with what its qualities suggest about being a portal to some greater realm above our own, is something we journey through, absorbing the associations, daring to think of a life free of the dreariness of making a living and keeping your word and thinking perhaps further that passing on would be so bad, and then coming back, an aberration in the mist, slightly crazed, energized, fresh from the fox hole, ready to shoulder the weight of the world one was birthed into, realizing there are still some things one would like to attempt before presenting a boarding pass.