Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On Slam Poetry

By Ted Burke

Slam poetry gets tedious quickly, the reason for which is that it's a style that knows one style, one attack, one speed, which is staccato, in your face, and angry. This isn't to say that there isn't a good slam poet here and there, but so much of what gets called poetry in these settings (that I've seen anyway) is an unfocused rant declaring independence in what sounds little more than a string of bumper sticker and T shirt slogans focused on a particular audience who are in the early stages of developing their poetry taste. It's the conformity of non conforming, rebels gathered together in the same room, aggressively agreeing with each other.
The in-your-face style and anger dominate , yes, and serve the purpose of drawing attention and making the speaker's agitation obvious, but with respect to the crucial matters slammers say they're dealing with, whether social justice, racism, rape, the performance style wearies the observer who isn't part of the mosh pit mentality that makes up a slam community . The injustices one tries to expose and address and the humanity they try to reclaim is more than obscured by the fidgeting exclamations coming from performers uttering their slogans at unnaturally high levels of throat stripping volume. The issues you bring up are reduced to an equivalent selection of talking points the RNC fashions when they sick their attacks on Democrats. At any point, the central theme of slam poetry is me and my anger and my right to express myself and you're not going to tell me what to do , man... It's a kiddie thing.

Would you not agree that poetry to supposed to motivate emotions?
First, I would say that poetry is not supposed to do anything other than be a poem, to paraphrase Archibald MacLeish. You can't write a poem with it in mind that your successfully living up to a strict set of requirements; not and remain an interesting poet.I would say that emotions are what motivates the writing of poems in many instances, not the other way around as you perhaps mistakenly phrased it. An emotion, a mood, a thought comes prior to the writing, which is the poet's attempt to frame their experience , their perception. Some might argue that slam poets take the emotional subjects and seek to make the audience feel something beyond the page and podium from where the poet recites, but often as not the feeling is like getting hit by a car over and over again.

Emotions are fluid , mercurial, gracing and cursing us with an infinite stream of sensation sublime, miserable and limitless variations in between, and the poet who seeks to do justice to the nuance of the feeling and their perception of it would attempt to find a language and the phrases that would get that fleet sensation across to an empathetic reader. In your face is fine if that's what is called for, but the constant barrage of anger, drum line pieces of rage, anger and pain makes one assume that perhaps some writers are cultivating their pain , refusing to allow their wounds to heal in some productive way, or that they pursue new miserable experiences for the sake of having something else to fit into their templates.

Anger dominates the idiom, and even it doesn't the pace has one speed, rapid, frenzied. It becomes monotonous; the real test of how good individual poems are is how they survive committed to the page, where the rhythms , cadences, pauses and euphonious effects resound in some idiosyncratic way in the reader's private sense of music. It should be, I dare say, something akin to a composition from which there are firm cues and structures that survive as literary art separate from the the author's / reader's projectile recitation. Even in the gentler, kinder, more ecstatic moods slammers might attempt, there is a feeling of wanting the experience to be over with. Rather than do justice to an experience, an idea, an emotional complex, too many slammers sound as if they prefer the crowd pleasing line, the cutting analogy than the sustained mood, which makes me think that the concern is less art than it is acquiring bragging rights. It's a tradition related to toasting, hip hop and such, and while it's a tradition of it's own making and standards, it's cursed with a monolithic ally monotonous style that seems more like the way Detroit used to think about the way they made and sold cars; the packaging was more important than what was under the hood.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"HOWL": Keep Howling, Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" is  over a half century old now, and it will do us no harm to review the first stanzas yet again, for the are as vatic, volcanic and visionary as they were when they first saw print in 1955.The transcendent beauty of a inflamed mind that's suddenly and completely found an articulation for the unspeakable has never been captured better. "Howl" was the perfect bit of literary insanity to appear in a decade where America had collectively laid down and played dead:  

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves

through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,

who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,

who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York.

who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night

with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,

incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between,

Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,

who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,
who sank, all night in submarine light of Bickford's floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi's, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox...  
(c)Copyright 2005 The Estate of Allen Ginsberg.

"Howl" is one of the most important and influential poems of the 20th century, and it simultaneously invigorated free verse with the range of its rage and honesty, and spawned a generation of imitators who composed indulgent and lazy lines that were more pose than poetry. This is a poem that speaks from the middle of the century with a voice gorged with collective anxiety and spiritual hunger for an element that would counter technologized conformity and the loss of authenticity. Its long, Bible-cadenced lines have resonated into the century following its debut, and it's likely that succeeding generations of disaffected yearners will find the poem's scalar cry appealing for the way it touches on those soul-demolishing duties that are difficult to identify, impossible to purge yourself of. The real paradox of "Howl" is that it's a poem, a great poem that addressed the great unwashed elements of American culture and their plight outside the mainstream which is now very much part of the Establishment it railed against and, in some sense, sought to disassemble.   

Only truly great pieces of writing do that, and regardless of what one thinks of the later Ginsberg work where he abandoned Blake an visions and allegory in favor of a relentless and largely inane species of self-reporting, "Howl" is the inspired and wonderfully sustained work of a young in full control of the language and rhetoric he was using. It's a masterpiece by every criteria, and it remains a powerful indictment against repression, censorship, the closing off of the soul against experience and vision. Even as its been absorbed into the American canon, it continues to transgress against expectations of conservative decorum and other constructions of serene and apathetic community relations; it continues to howl, quite literally, over the fifty years since it's publications. In the increasingly control-freak environment of that pits paranoid nationalism against civil liberties , "Howl" and it's piercing message is perhaps more relevant than ever.

The fact that one still finds room to discuss the poem's politics and philosophical biases seriously attests to the quality and originality of Ginsberg's writing; mere political tracts, like Baraka's "Someone Blew Up America", will grind you down with polemic and are rapidly, gratefully forgotten. Ginsberg was among the very few American poets who broke through the larger culture because he was, to coin a phrase, the right man at the right time. The conformity of the fifties, the anti-communist paranoia was sufficiently alienating enough for enough citizens to rebel and push against the barriers of a socially enforced tranquility. The fact that he was, at the time, especially potent in is writing (as well as being a brilliant self-promoter of himself and his friends) doubtlessly aided him in the ascendancy. These days, it's Billy Collins who has the amazing fame and fortune, writing smaller, more conventional, masterfully composed epiphanies of an everyday America that may exists only in the imagination; he is exactly the right poet to come along at time when millions of citizens are weary of nonconformists and their rights. This isn't to suggest a cyclical theory of recent history, but I do find the positions of both poets ironic, if unintentionally polar."Howl", poem, vision, political screed, confession and testament in one, is read and debated over and over again, its choicest lines cited, each quote resonating and stinging as great work ought to. A great poem. 

There is an unfortunate hip cache that has formed around this poem and all things Beat in general--needless to say, both he and Kerouac became iconic and brand names, products to be sold with other units from the store shelves of corporate America these once-young men belittled and disowned--but a reading of "Howl", a verbal exclaiming of it's wonderfully and brilliantly reaching imagery makes all such commercial aberrations vanish from our concern. The integrity of Ginsberg’s masterpiece is intact, and it still manages to strike a center in the soul that avoids the intellect all together and makes one wish to take a deeper breath and blow a long, bopping solo on the first saxophone some angel hipster might hand them.

Oops, there I go again, seduced by Ginsberg's muse and speaking in images that cannot be verified or affirmed by proper critical tools. Just as well, for "Howl" is anything but proper. It is rude, joyous, rambunctious, and full of itself and in love with the world that seeks to shun its premises and assumptions. Much of great American poetry is like that, and Ginsberg's poem is still with us, an exhortation to not let the dull grind of conformity murder the spirit by the inch.Allen Ginsberg himself succumbed a little to his reputation and began to consider his every journal entry, seemingly, as credible poems in their own write, with the reader interested in the crafted music of words brought together left out in the cold as the poet's late publications concentrated more on the accumulated inanity of relentless self reporting. But he did write "Howl", and for this poem, along with "Kaddish" and "Super Market in California" (among others) his greatness is assured.

The real paradox of "Howl" is that it's a poem, a great poem that addressed the great unwashed elements of American culture and their plight outside the mainstream which is now very much part of the Establishment it railed against and, in some sense, sought to disassemble.Only truly great pieces of writing do that, and regardless of what one thinks of the later Ginsberg work where he abandoned Blakean visions and allegory in favor of a relentless and largely inane species of self-reporting , "Howl" is the inspired and wonderfully sustained work of a young in full control of the language and rhetoric he was using. It's a masterpiece by every criteria, and it remains a powerful indictment of repression, censorship, the closing off of the soul against experience and vision. ven as its been absorbed into the American canon, it continues to transgress against expectations of conservative decorum and other constructions of serene and apathetic community relations; it continues to howl, quite literally, over the fifty years since it's publications.

In the increasingly control-freak environment of that pits paranoid nationalism against civil liberties , "Howl" and it's piercing message is perhaps more relevant than ever.The fact that one still finds room to discuss the poem's politics and philosophical biases seriously attests to the quality and originality of Ginsberg's writing; mere political tracts, like Baraka's "Someone Blew Up America", will grind you down with polemic and are rapidly, gratefully forgotten. "Howl", poem, vision, political screed, confession and testament in one, is read and debated over and over again, its choicest lines cited, each quote resonating and stinging as great work ought to. A great poem.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Critical Obscurantism

Bob Dylan mania is upon us like so much hard wind blowing off an hot and angry sea, and the scrutiny, in the form of documentaries and a wave of yet more books on the songwriter , focuses almost exclusively on six years in the Sixties. Critic David Greenberg wrote a fine essay in 2005 why Dylan's later work, much of it as brilliant as anything he created earlier, is mostly ignored by cultural historians who want to make a case for greatness. Read it here at Slate.

History is not just written by the victor, but also by those who live the longest, and in that sense it's small wonder that Dylan's dynamic six years in the Sixties, spanning the albums Another Side of Bob Dylan through John Wesley Harding are the ones that are poured over again and again. For otherwise bright and brilliant literary commentators and keen minds like Todd Gitlin and especially Greil Marcus, Dylan's career is ceases to be about the way he fused separate musical traditions or broadened the scope of how song lyrics could address experience and more about the good old days when things were smoking.

Marcus, who above all others is the most chronic of the prolix Dylan obsessionists, has adapted Dylan's poetic tricks of not saying what he means, offering allusion, metaphor and other bridges to nowhere as he discusses the work. Rather, he discusses everything that is around the work, seemingly to create historical context and situate the words of "Desolation Row" or "Like a Rolling Stone" in relation to leftist politics, Hegelian zeitgeist, and counter cultural virtues, but that is abandoned quickly enough as Marcus's endless stream of essays become, suddenly, the equivalent of a forced tour of the old neighborhood.

As well as he writes and as keen as he can sometimes be as an commentator, there's something like Granpa Simpson in how Marcus talks about Dylan; there is a propensity for anecdote, political aphorism, mentions of high and mass culture icons, a cursory reference to seminal past avant gard movements, and then....vapor!, nothing at all, a sudden halt or a radical change in direction. Marcus perhaps wants to lead the pack in this industry of Sixty-something Dylan critics by molding his remarks in the cryptic diffusion that has always characterized Dylan's lyrics and is hopeful, perhaps, that yet another generation of furious scribblers will fill their hard drives with essays trying to parse what it was Greil Marcus was trying to get across about Dylan's deep-imagery before he was distracted. It's an intriguing idea that so much of the commentary rising from the bright , the brilliant and acerbic, in the guise of Marcus, Christopher Ricks , Gitlin and endless others, become fuzzy, drifting and vague at the center of their commentaries when Dylan and his art are the subject.It might be that to say what you think, or at least make what you mean clear, would blow their game altogether.

Some blues harmonica

By Ted Burke

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Faulkner goes down the rabbit hole

By Ted Burke

Catherine Pierce wants to get to the initial ache of teen sexual arousal with her poem "Reading Faulkner at Age Seventeen, You Forsee Your Reckoning". One can, if they wish, outline what they recognize from the novel under the narrator's young scrutiny, but that is the least interesting thing one can parse. I rather enjoy the idea that the book is the seduction, that thing one gives them self over to when one's present tense is, for the moment, too inane and ill-winded to remain in. This seems like advertising in one sense, that a few words describing a place with the right words might make you want to max out your credit cards and take a trip to someplace you’ve never been—suggestive selling indeed. But here we deal with a life that is just coming into its own and is hungry for the kinds of experience that they may someday use as that raw material from which to write stories like Faulkner—teenagers reading anything that makes sense in the moment or seems to give voice to emotions they didn’t know they were experiencing; this poem is about the spark of awakening, the sudden jab of metaphorical daylight in a personality that had been, shall we suggest, slumbering and ambling and otherwise getting along with the comforts of their parents’ home and their friends’ conformity. Bang, you read the passage, and then there’s a word, an adjective that takes you at once into the world you’re encountering only on paper;

The harvest moon hangs heavy,
a gourd. Your desires heave inside you
like a blood wave. Ignore the cat

pulling on your trousers. Ignore
the cicadas bossing you from the elms.

See yourself in this hot gold light.

You are the brother in love with Caddy.
You are the idiot son. Your mouth dumb.

Your mind lucent. Everything you want
sharp as the cat's bite at your ankle. You pull
your foot back. A yowl, pointed as teeth.

The moon is what will fall on you.

This works because what was being sought was a fast, hard and fleeting sensation that somehow one has received special knowledge from a voice speaking from across history, not just the page to the reader’s eye. There is that rush, that feeling of what’s described somehow being your own experience; defying logic, you assume there’s a link, a fatedness to the sensation that’s quite a bit more than momentary euphoria. But it is such that it comes in flashes, slices, bits and pieces of tactile things recalled from both real experience and the writer’s power to suggest imaginary people and their homes as though they lived across the way: what one assumes they are feeling as they lay the book down and become lost in the world that unfolds for them and which vanishes so rapidly is the recollection an old person who has their narrative in vivid fragments drawn over along decades. All this becomes the young reader’s domain, an intimate knowledge of a world that is yet become real for them; only living long enough can provide them with the actual feeling they think they’re feeling now.The taut images, the half-heard snatches of conversation, the close-up iconography of night images amount to an intriguing assemblage by the poet; I would complain a bit that there is too much dependence on the title to explain this otherwise curious string of associations and wish that we could see a reworking where the conceit is less mechanical, deus ex machina . But I do like the tone, the flow, and greatly appreciate the absence of pretention.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A message from MoveOn.org

A note received, a note worth passing on:

Dear MoveOn member,

If you're an Obama supporter, watching the polls or reading the news can feel pretty good right now. And we should feel good—progressives have worked hard to get this far!

But we can't listen to the pundits who say it's over. Can you share these "Top 5 reasons Obama supporters shouldn't rest easy" with your blog readers—and encourage them to volunteer for Obama between now and Election Day?


1. The polls may be wrong. This is an unprecedented election. No one knows how racism may affect what voters tell pollsters—or what they do in the voting booth. And the polls are narrowing anyway. In the last few days, John McCain has gained ground in most national polls, as his campaign has gone even more negative.

2. Dirty tricks. Republicans are already illegally purging voters from the rolls in some states. They're whipping up hysteria over ACORN to justify more challenges to new voters. Misleading flyers about the voting process have started appearing in black neighborhoods. And of course, many counties still use unsecure voting machines.

3. October surprise. In politics, 15 days is a long time. The next McCain smear could dominate the news for a week. There could be a crisis with Iran, or Bin Laden could release another tape, or worse.

4. Those who forget history... In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote after trailing by seven points in the final days of the race. In 1980, Reagan was eight points down in the polls in late October and came back to win. Races can shift—fast!

5. Landslide. Even with Barack Obama in the White House, passing universal health care and a new clean-energy policy is going to be hard. Insurance, drug and oil companies will fight us every step of the way. We need the kind of landslide that will give Barack a huge mandate.
If you agree that we shouldn't rest easy, please sign up to volunteer at your local Obama office by clicking here:

We're just two weeks away from turning the page on the Bush era—but we can't afford to take our eye off the prize. We've got to keep pushing until the very end.

By posting this Top 5 list on your blog and encouraging folks to volunteer for Obama (and signing up to volunteer yourself), you can make a big difference and help Obama win.

Thanks for all you do.

–Adam, Lenore, Adam G., Patrick S., and the rest of the team

Ashbery, John

(Daniel Pritchard has a lively discussion about John Ashbery going on at his blog The Wooden Spoon, the subject of which seems to be another bout of head-scratching over the purpose of the poet's work. Respondents, sympathetic and contrarian, offer up their views. Here are my comments.)

That's what MacLeish said and that's what Ashbery holds to, which places it smack in the middle of a tradition in American poetry that's been with us since the rise of Modernist practice with Pound, Eliot, and especially the esteemed Wallace Stevens. I find it puzzling that there are those who continue to harp on Ashbery's difficulty and summarily dismiss him as an enemy of “meaning”; it's hardly as if the poet is a foe of the capacity of humans to make sense of their lives through language, and that such use can furnish oneself and one's community with purpose and, perhaps, an ethical structure that would instruct and aid said community against expressing its worst instincts. What Ashbery would oppose, if he were a polemicist (which he isn't) is the idea that the “meaning” that language is capable of creating through writing and, in this instance, poetry, is the final destination, the last stop on the route. Ashbery isn't interested in the hidden meanings that one might pull from a text like it were an archaeological artifact, but rather in the fluidity of perception; his poems are filled with man-made things in a natural world, and it's here his power as a writer, for me, takes hold. Our homes, our cars, factories, the shape of city streets, are custom designed with purposes to help us settle and “conquer” a raw landscape, nature, who's metaphysical presence eludes our conventionally dualistic approach to dealing with the world.

 The contradiction between our ready-made distinctions and Nature whose essence is constant change, unmotivated by rhetoric comes clear. We age, we change our minds about ideas, our store of memories expands, and we cannot view the same things again the same as we had; Ashbery's is a poetry of the concrete world, solid, dense, of itself, and the consciousness taking it in, associating sights, smells, gestures, personal possessions in conflations, synthesis. Wallace Stevens imagined the Supreme Fiction and wrote of the balances the perfect shapes of the objects and attending senses in his most ecstatic work, and Ashbery effectively extended the project. The supreme fictions and the imperfect physical things that represent them commingle, inhabit the same space. The result is not the easiest of writings to parse , but what the poet is doing is less undermining the province of language to provide meaning and structure useful for both community stability and expression than it is an affirmation that the singular idea of “meaning”, oftentimes spoken of as if such a thing were a monolith on which all communities and individual sensibilities can ride, does not quite exist. Social constructions have a stronger hand than some folks would care to examine. Examine Ashbery does, and brilliantly at that, if confounded so.

For me, poetry is very much the time it takes to ;unroll, the way music does..it’s not a static, contemptible thing like a painting or a piece of sculpture.– John Ashbery
Exact meanings of things, of this world we live and grow old in, changes with the introduction of both our years and new social arrangements brought on by new technologies, wars, any number of things. But the aim of Ashbery’s poems isn’t to declare that legitimate meaning cannot be had; he wants to instead inspect the way an interaction between our thinking, our interior life, and the world external to it exists as a kind of permanently placed negotiation between our expectation and the change that comes and which is inevitable. Ashbery embraces process more than anything else, but not at the sacrifice of a meaning that makes what’s desirable and repugnant to us recognizable. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Aristotle's metaphysics, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists before manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, a guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the difficulty loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgment and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.
What Poetry Is
John Ashbery

The medieval town, with frieze
Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow
That came when we wanted it to snow?
Beautiful images? Trying to avoid
Ideas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving
The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it
As we believed it. In school
All the thought got combed out:
What was left was like a field.
Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.
Now open them on a thin vertical path.
It might give us--what?--some flowers soon?

This poem talks about representations of things captured at moments of aesthetic iteration and speaks to our expectation that things, as we actually experience them, adhere to a narrative we’ve assigned them. But where some readers despair at how real places, things, people stray from the fine lines that tried to get at their essential nature, Ashbery wonders and finds something remarkable. There is that “it” that we’ve been instructed to seek, the moral, the lesson to be learned, but the poem asks us, in oblique yet alluring images, are we to give up the quest for meaning because the world is not the static place one might have assumed it was the goal of poetry to confirm? He calls it here, as close as he ever has in his career, when he writes “In school /, All the thought got combed out: / What was left was like a field. “ We have been trained to quantifying the content of our experience, we have been instructed in many ways of quantifying sense perception and turning into data that, in turn, is given over to endless narrative strategies –literary, scientific, ideological, economic—that promise a lump sum of a Larger Picture. The task after that, the obligation of the poet afterward, is to know something more about the experience by gauging the fluid nature of our responses to it. Ashbery in his many good moments gets the dissolution perfectly, beautifully. Confounding, but beautiful.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Not Ballistic Enough

By Ted Burke


poems by Billy Collins (Random House)

Billy Collins writes poems that are literate, elegant, artfully crafted, and utterly coherent in the point he wants to get across , the feeling he want to evoke, the irony he wants to convey, and his ability to achieve all this in successive books in equally successive poems is both the attraction to his writing and what bores me silly. His new book, "Ballistics", is the writing of someone who wants to take the starch out of the image of poets and the willfully abstruse poems they compose. Rather, he pulls back the curtain and lets you see the process. Often enough he'll set up the scene, paint a picture, and then address the reader directly, aware that he writes verse that will be read by thousands of book buyers, and includes them in on the joke.

This is charming , of course, and one admires the grace with which Collins writes his lines--a better balanced set of free verse I've never seen, really--but for all the pleasure he provides for the painless duration of his poems and the usually flawless what-the-!@@1 surprises he offers up for the final stanza, a formulaic tedium sets in. Disguised as the essence might is, there are trace elements of journalistic efficiency here ; one notes the style, the arranging of details, how the poems start with an announcement of the poet beginning his day futzing around the house, walking into rooms, staring out the window, and then the intruding thought that distracts and manages to make the banal yet telling details of his home life and his community take on a more somber (or alternately, a giddier ) tone, a final, spare description of an item that eludes the metaphorical devices he's deployed, and then the twist, the coda, the pay off that makes you go ahhhh
as though his poems were nothing more than a fast swig from a cold soda. There is so little range to Collins' work that one thinks of a world stuck in one of those Mobius Strips MC Escher was wont to draw compulsively.

Collins writes poems about poetry, especially about the poet in the act of seeing something of the world as if for the first time, certainly as though a veneer had been stripped away and there was Truth Laid Bare, just the essentials of things and activities in themselves with their invisible ironies and vague meloncholies. So much of this is larded with self mystification that Collins, a wise cracker at heart, cannot help but but mock the poet as as lait priest; he gives you the nod and then the wink, and repeats until you get it.

August In Paris

I have stopped here on the rue des écoles
just off the boulevard St-Germain
to look over the shoulder of a man
in a flannel shirt and a straw hat
who has set up an easel and a canvas chair
on the sidewalk in order to paint from a droll angle
a side-view of the Church of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

But where are you, reader,
who have not paused in your walk
to look over my shoulder
to see what I am jotting in this notebook?

Alone in this city,
I sometimes wonder what you look like,
if you are wearing a flannel shirt
or a wraparound blue skirt held together by a pin.

But every time I turn around
you have fled through a crease in the air
to a quiet room where the shutters are closed
against the heat of the afternoon,
where there is only the sound of your breathing
and every so often, the turning of a page.

There is an efficiency of scene setting, tone and delivery of punchline that makes this a close cousin to prose, and there at times that one might mistake Collins, poet, for Dave Barry, humorist. He writes about being in Paris, at the cafe, in such an engaging way that it is possible for the untraveled among his readers to think what he does, or at least what he writes about, is the most natural thing in the world. One would nevermind that Collins scarcely writes about jobs he has had, rarely quotes those he has spoken with, or suspends or restrains the sense of his poised (but proclaiming) persona and concentrates on treating a set of ideas without his usual filter. He's mastered his tools and he cannot seem to go beyond the effects he's learned to create so flawlessly. Their dependability, though, is what makes them unmemorable once their page satisfactions have been had. I nod my head, I turn the page, I forget what I've just read.

It's like driving through an old neighborhood a few too many times; the ambivalence and nostalgic rushes no longer come after familiar buildings are viewed a hundred times too often. With the facile use of the names and pet phrases of Chinese poets, mentions of jazz greats, the sustained gazing upon still objects in and of themselves (doing nothing), the revitalization and one-dimensional ironizing of cliche, we arrive at a poet who has the mark of The Professional, "professional" in the same sense that a newspaper columnist is , a writer who is constantly preparing for the next piece, the race against a set deadline, the marshaling of all notes and ideas in the rush toward a finished set of statements. I remember I used to marvel at how elegant and spontaneously brilliant George Will seemed to be when his columns appeared two or three times a week, but after a while of reading him I recognized the formula he used to sustain his writerly flow. Collins, although not as prolific as Will is required to be, still produces an occasionally splendid poetry that does not challenge the mechanics required to write it at the same level of consistency; monotony is the result.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Numbskull philosophy, and Concept Albums

By Ted Burke

I have a softness for the numbskull profundity that marked alot of truly awful albums in the 60s. The best is "The Beat Goes On" by Vanilla Fudge there is not one complete song on it, but there is a lot of rapping, sound collages, the history of music and war and what not, and a "rap' session Q and A that where someone asks the keyboardist questions like

Q:What do you think of black power? A:I think its a bad use of some very good energy? Q:What do you think of trips? A:For a quarter you can take one on the subway.. Q:What do you think of Ice
Cream? A:I like ice cream!
It goes on like that, inane , glib patter lamely modeled after the Beatlisms from "A Hard Days' Night", with lots of cheesy organ oscillating in the background. Only Yes, some years later, would equal the pure gall for pretentiousness.

The Beatles succeeded with "Sgt.Pepper", "Magical Mystery Tour", and, and "Abbey Road" ( easily their most consistent set of material, I think) because they never abandoned the idea that the album needs to be a collection of good songs that sound good in a set: over lapping themes, lyrically, are absent in the Beatles work, unless you consider the reprise of the the Pepper theme song on a leitmotif of any real significance (it's use was cosmetic), although musical ideas did give the feel of conceptual unity track to track, album to album.

Lennon and McCartney and Harrison's greatest contribution to rock music was their dedication to having each one of their songs be the best they could do before slating it for album release. For other bands, the stabs at concept albums were routinely disastorous, witnessed by the Stones attempt to best their competitors with the regrettable 'Satanic Majesties Requests". The Who with "Tommy" and "Whos Next" and the Kinks , best of all, with "Lola", "Muswell Hillbillies" and "Village Green" , both were rare, if visible exceptions to the rule. "Revolver" and "Yesterday and Today" are amazing song collections, united by grand ideas or not. I buy albums , finally, on the hope that the music is good,the songs are good, not the ideas confirm or critique the Western Tradition.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Revenge of the Lawn

Odes to Spring are usually those bits and ditties where the earth is celebrated for the miracle of life itself, that despite what turmoil one is confronted with, fresh starts can always be had. It is one of the persistent cliches of literature, I suppose, but there is always room for another take that is less hopeful, downright depressed in fact, as one can read in Joseph Campana's poem "Spring Comes to Ohio", featured this week at Slate. It doesn't work as a poem for my taste--it seems more of a stream of conscious ramble from a novel when an author artfully enters a character's interior life-- but it does give a sense from a young man's point of view as to how the sunny and the colorful can excite an urge for violence.
This is a poem of submerged, sublimated, passively enacted revenge against the sunnier season that makes the world thaw from it's hard, icy encasements and to bloom and become green under a nurturing, breezy air. One is invited to inspect the world one had known as grey and cold and to see what was buried under all those layers of ice and slush; seeds grow and produce flowers, lawns grow and become long and green.

But one thing conflates into the other and some disguised hurt associates the sunny disposition, the natural activity of nature renewing it's life cycle with an awakening of some trauma that had been inert, hibernating. There is the feeling in the description of this skewed landscape of someone gritting their teeth while they pull the stitches from a recently mended wound

All the evening flowers
are coffins bursting with 
possibility. Why not pick 
one, why not let your 
sorrow sink into the dirt
where it will die? The first
gesture is the hope that it
will die before you will
or that you will learn to
read it like a book. Come 
read, come to the flower 
beds and the mowed-down
fields where the heads of
yellow soldiers burst in
the grass. If anyone ever
gave you something, that
gesture of fading beauty
was the first sign that
the price of generosity 
is the flower that would
rather not be ripped from
its heart

Young boys are flowers and flowers are things that are planted in place and at the mercy of whatever rogue set of fingertips chooses to pick them at random , and with the author adroitly altering the point of view to simulate a child's reality-bending fantasy. Dandelions are soldiers being vanquished brutally with a decapitating lawn mower; the violence is senseless, the very things that we are invited to inspect, to read remain secrets only a skilled therapist can interpret and disarm. But the meaning of it seems clear enough, which is that the world, in the traumatized narrator's view, is a series of layered appearances, one hiding a secret, power thing or fact, with the reward being only pain and punishment for the curious.

Come read your heart
which has shriveled 
into a flower receding
before night. If the sun
ever will come back here
the first thing you'll do is 
reach right out to touch

This poem sees the seasons as a serial sucker punch, winter is the time when betrayals, fights and other states of disagreeable experience are put in stasis and the young man return to their homes to nurse their wounds, shore up their psychic armor, prepare for the coming thaw; when the thaw comes, the pain starts anew, one may fall for the old trick again and experience the stabbing sensation of recollection. Something primal kicks in, aggression grows that becomes a lifetime habit. The reflex is that this life exists only to torment us, and one must proceed with a determination to carve it up, engrave one's name on the soil, to have the planet yield to one's will or be devastated.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, a capitalist despite his band's tendency to dwell at the edgier margins of anxiety resulting from living a life in a faceless corporate society, has decided to place his Jean- Michel Basquiat painting "Untitled(Boxer)" up for sale at Christie's auction house. Not surprising for a millionaire rebel who sued the original free-download version of Napster for allowing Metallica's albums to be gathered by poachers without a dime of remuneration; art is about more than making a living, it's about making a profit. He says that his art collecting has now gone in the direction of gather emerging artists, which is fine, though I'd be more impressed if he just said that was tired of looking at an ugly canvas.The thing about ugly objects that one has paid alot of money form is that as much as one pretends to love their purchase, said objects don't love you back. Yes, the painting is powerful and emotionally wrenching to witness, but so is a car accident; it's not an experience I try to recreate. Had I the funds to hang some paint-brushed screaming against on my wall, I'd opt for the late British artist Francis Bacon; his human subjects , in the way they seem to be morph from classically defined features to a blurring, bleeding dissolution are more the stuff of art than are Basquiat's kvetching stick figures.

I've been reading a rather lavish and well-tuned book on the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Basquiat, edited by Marc Mayer, rich in selection from the painter's brief career. All the same reactions and responses arise, the combination of rank amateurism and visionary determination, broom remains and waste basket scrawls combined with an idealized sense of tribal totem ism that nearly excuses Basquiat's failings as a draftsman.
The late Jean- Michel Basquiat's best trick in his short ascendancy as a painter was that he managed a fusion of street credibility and the gloss of high culture faster and more authentically than did his formally trained mentors. His mentors and inspirations Warhol, Schnabel, DuBuffet and Twombly , among many others, learned the traditions and the techniques of Western Art History in order to undercut them with the cranky, jazzy, electric vibe and artifacts of contemporary urban life. The aim overall was to blur, if not completely destroy the line between a culture's high art practice and accompanying aesthetic and the reality it was created in. Beauty, harmony, balance, and revelations of essential Truths about the Human Spirit were not the motivations for an art created in bombed out neighborhoods and abandoned factory lofts. It was praxis , an applied theory of revolution.Basquiat had no theory other than his instinct for what happened to fit his moment of composition and was interested less in fusion of cultural arrogance than in things he saw that he could use in his work. It definitely was a Hip Hop art, not unrelated to the DJs spinning the music of others in endless mixes, speeds and pitches and speeds to produce something completely new and in the moment. Basquiat appropriated their mannerisms, their studied sense of the incomplete and canvases that are "under construction", and effortlessly, it seem, applied it a graffiti style that was suited for the sides of buildings and freeway overpasses, not gallery walls.

I was never a big fan of Basquiat's paintings, and the praise he's received is , as is the estimation of artists, musicians and or writers who die young, is overblown and overstated. The body of work does not support the complexities ascribed to it; it's more a grand case of reading things into works rather than drawing things from them. Everyone loves a young, beautiful and dead artist if for no reason other than it's a handy way to keep our tenuous definitions and tropes of genius, beauty and justice ( of a kind) in place.

If we may say that someone of a particular gift passed on too young but left evidence of the best expression that the race is capable of, things that live beyond their life, we can maintain our certainties a little longer. The metaphysics of presence is shored up until the next crisis of global conceptualization.

Basquiat's work, though, has a charm that is anything but phony; he has the hallmarks of what is called "outsider" art , or "naive expressionism", the art making of the sensitive but untrained and unprofessional whose awkwardness of line and contour is something genuine in mass culture. It is an interesting display of artists thinking about the world that's given them to draw their energies and phobias from. Basquiat hit the payday, of course, but the faith of graffiti remained at the center of his paintings, which is to say that his bright and garish forms and highlights weren't make the city any prettier or revitalize old notions of harmony.

Rather,it was a way of making the city right-sized, not decoration but instead a note that says that this where he lives, this is what he has passed through, and this location of every nuanced joy and agony a life in Manhattan can give you.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The past gets better to more I talk about it.

By Ted Burke

A friend phoned from Los Angeles called down last week to discuss movies, books, politics, stuff in that order, and in the course of a long talk Ridley Scott's movie Gladiator came up; I enjoyed the film, thinking that Scott's undeniable but erratic talents found a suitable epic tale, while my friend, a reader of history, a precise noter of detail, derided for being inaccurate. "It's bad history" he said, and I , not a history buff but a lover of a good yarn told well, replied half-assedly "It's not history, it's a movie."

Movie it is, but I do understand someone for whom accuracy matters tiring unto death of college kids and their aging icons looting the historical archive in order to give us tales that can easily turned into computer games. We become disconnected from our past in terms have having an sense of where we came from, and quite easily clouds any sense of a better future--a destiny, if one prefers--that can lay ahead of us. We're left in a static present, where there is only the motion of distraction, the anxiety of cabin fever, a room you cannot leave.
The postmodern habit of mind is skeptical of the idea that History can be recounted in any neat formula: what has been useful in the deconstructive era has been the realization that written history, the record we refer to for a grounding, is no less a narrative structure than are novels and poems. Elements are arranged in interesting alliances and oppositions, conflicts are stated as plot lines in a convoluted drama, and the virtue being fought is made to seem as if it emerges, self evident, from the facts.

This tendency to make our past one long historical novel has been recognized, and we've at least an awareness of a buried political agenda being worked out. This clearing-of-the-playing field may, in fact, allow the marginal populations, the less-promoted cultures, to come to the center and have their narratives eventually woven into the story so far. But it comes back to good writing, which is the problematic element of postmodern criticism: discussions of the aesthetic, the poetry, the emotional accuracy of great literature is performed little, if at all, replaced by a critical cement, dense as the tax code, that pretends to be the theoretical prep-work that is readying the populations for a stalled insight. Living up to their own conceits, judgment to the quality of work is delayed, deferred, because such elements we use to define the artistic worth of a work are ultimately indivisible given their ultimate un-prove ability. What this results in is bad writing that travels quite a distance without anyone being able to yell tripe when tripe is served.

An unfair dismissal of a Walter Savage Landor epigram

By Ted Burke

Slate's poetry editor (and former U.S.Poet Laureate) Robert Pinsky joins those of us on the Poems Fray forum to discuss his most recent selection for the weekly poem, Walter Savage Landor's "On Love, on Grief". I don't think much of epigram, but I take my hat to Pinsky for rolling up the sleeve to discuss the poem with the board's regular participants. It's a pleasant surprise to have an editor descend from the mountain and shoot the breeze. He seems like a good chap.

On love, on grief, on every human thing,
Time sprinkles Lethe's water with his wing.

Slight, compact, dense with associations that come in the form of end notes or paragraphs of prefatory remarks, this epigram does little for me as a piece of writing. What pleases one person as euphonious phrasing , an ideal aligning of vowels and consonants that keep a beat and a lift, I find instead to be sing-song and nearly trite.

The verse has an appeal for the classicist, the marm, the relentlessly erudite who recognize what is disguised by Sandor's compressing sensibility and who take a special joy in excavating the terms and elaborating on original context and usage, but this effort seems , to me, to be in service to cracker-barrel distillations of kinds of wise adages that have become cliches and platitudes; Shakespeare's quips continue to surprise, Oscar Wilde skewers us continuously , Donne can still be counted out to make you consider present circumstance in larger terms, but this?
Two lines that seem like the joined limbs of a twig, caught in the Lethe's waters, battered along the shoreline, battered by rushing rills, drowned in the crashing foam.

A forum participant, a resourceful writer writing under the name Mary Ann, posted a counter example of an epigramtic poem where what is seen is more important than what one thought about what was seen:


by Howard Nemerov

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

There came a moment that you couldn't tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.

The Nemerov poem is disciplined enough to leave the abstractions alone and concentrate instead on the details and their movements, in their space, in their context. Although no poet can truly escape the trap of loading their images with the subjectivity that attends their word selection, Nemerov at least keeps his rhetoric under control and comes as close as one might at a poem when perception of the thing itself is before us. Sandor sounds poised to settle an argument with a verse that tries to make all parts of a problematic sensation surrender to a harmonious relativity, while Nemerov isn't interested in debating points but rather in seeing what's in front of him, understanding it , perhaps, without his regular filters in place. This is all that Pound extolled, that we have to rid ourselves of the lard and concentrate on the right words to get the perception right, in the sharpest focus.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

By Ted Burke
Permanent Nobel Prize Committee member Horace Engdahl must have been having a bad time of it on particular morning as he finished reading yet another Danielle Steele novel, choking down a bit of soggy toast with concentrated orange juice, and commenced to crack open a Dan Brown book."American literature is too awful, too insular, to fixed with American concerns to be really play in The Big Leagues" he must have gasped, his quaking hand spilling still-frozen ice crystles from his glass of would be orange juice onto his crisply pressed pajama bottoms, "Europe, oh our writers are so superior, so much more worldly,yes, we are the world, after all, ohhhh, ahhh..."

Has anyone who's read this man's remarks on American Literature not been struck how closely akin elitism is to provincialism; not to slight anyone , but there is a small town boosterism that resonates like small, thin bell that cannot produce anything more than a flat, metallic clanking. He doesn't have the arms, one guesses, to beat the big bass drum for his beloved European superiority. I'm reminded of the old Roger Corman movie Bucket of Blood where a preening , brain dead blonde ingenue berates a bus boy in a bohemian coffee house , telling him, in effect, " who are you but a mere bus boy? We're all sophisticated beatniks..."

How on earth can the slandering of an entire country, its people and the complex and diverse culture it contains be considered "enlightened"? It cannot, even if this sort of hubris-choked braying comes from the mouth of a permanent member of the Nobel Committee. It’d be one thing if this were something said in a bar or at a sufficiently boozed-up party where baseless claims are the norm and the revealed ignorance radiates no further than the next morning when hangovers and amnesia take priority over one’s global pronouncements to the insularity of American literature. Horace Engdahl’s remarks belie his own insularity; one has a hard time imagining someone so unaware that they’re fulfilling the rank stereotype of the half-cocked dilettante who cannot support his view with anything other than a snotty tone. I’ve my doubts that he’s read Roth, DF Wallace, Oates, August Wilson, Don DeLillo, John Ashbery, Kate Braverman; one may furnish their own examples of worthy Americans not given the and consider the Nobel Prize itself irrelevant.

Monday, October 6, 2008


By Ted Burke

The poetry blogosphere has been abuzz with the doings of some folks who've promised and finally delivered a massive, nearly 4000 page PDF file promising the work of many, many, many, many poets. In fact, the list of who would be featured in this work, from a blog that's named itself with unspeakably obvious literary reference, seemed to include every poet who has a blog, myself included. With delivery of the down loadable file, I quickly searched for name and the poem I supposedly submitted to editors I've never spoken with.

I was will to suspend any disbelief I had thinking perhaps that those folks had cribbed a choice verse I posted to my poems site , or some other place on line, usually obscured by word clouds. No wish fulfillment here, as the poem was something I didn't write. Not that I'm all that smokin' a poet, but the poem attached my name is rather bad, in the way one writes an awful set of stanzas on purpose. And lo, it turned out that I wasn't the only listed writer who hadn't composed the verse assigned their name; you can view the down loadable file here and read through the responses as well at the website where this hoax was perpetrated.

The project is not about what poems "belong" to an author as much as how many authors there are on the Internet who regularly check their status in the blogosphere with periodic Googlings of their name. The sheer quanity of names here, my own included, rather assured the instigators that there'd be a sizable , blog heavy response. It's a Dada gesture and a provocation made with the intention of upsetting a good number of poet's sense of themselves as autonomous agents and authors of their own experience. On that account, the anthology, fake poems and all, succeed famously. The aesthetic effect is the ripple they create among a scattered group's perception of a single event, small change as it maybe. Further disquisition on the relationship and fragility between the concept of authorship in an amorphous sphere like the Internet is, of course, fascinating, but secondary. It's gravy, but it's npt essential to what these fellas had in mind.Perhaps the instigators are Rove-like neocons who specialize in changing the subject; what better way to make people forget their economic ills than to appeal to their base insecurities. Rove would appeal to a poor American's nervous patriotism, while these fellas mine the thin vein of self-esteem too many poets have. In both cases, the ploy prevents one from the duty of the poet to change reality rather than merely describe or complain about it

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Hayden Carruth has died

By Ted Burke

Hayden Carruth, as fine a poet who has ever taken a drink and recovered from the culminated grief of the fact, has died at the age of 87. Not a serene soul nor a seeker of quick exits from a line of inquiry, Carruth had what James Dickey called “a kind of frenzied eloquence, a near-hysteria” . Carruth's range of interests was, to use a quaint usage, flabbergasting, and there was in his work an effort to penetrate the convenient shells that disguise the things of the world and to sense, instead, the orbits friends, occupations, ideas keep around each other. Perhaps influenced by a personal philosophy informed, in large part, by European existentialism, his poems, and his critical writing resisted the temptation to arrange or discourse upon scenarios that would finalize an idea or an arrangement of images. His view was broader, his view was that something happens after we read the last line and raise our eyes from the page if only to see what is in front of us now and how we might consider the complexity with our own nested recollection. He was a fine stylist, with a command of the speaking voice that could cut to the quick, serve up the essence, isolate rich sediment of association with the inspired riff, the punched-up phrase. Plus he wrote one of my favorite drinking poems, this one:

Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey
by Hayden Carruth

Scrambled eggs and whiskey
in the false-dawn light. Chicago,
a sweet town, bleak, God knows,
but sweet. Sometimes. And
weren't we fine tonight?
When Hank set up that limping
treble roll behind me
my horn just growled and I
thought my heart would burst.
And Brad M. pressing with the
soft stick and Joe-Anne
singing low. Here we are now
in the White Tower, leaning
on one another, too tired
to go home. But don't say a word,
don't tell a soul, they wouldn't
understand, they couldn't, never
in a million years, how fine,
how magnificent we were
in that old club tonight.

What gets to me is that Carruth gets the imbibing culture precisely because the poem deals not with the drinking itself , the confessional rants as to what drove one to the bottle, or the good glory of one's drunken vision of a spiritless present the arch romantic is imprisoned within; there is no mythology, but there is the idea that the camaraderie one thought they'd achieve the night before at bars, with toasts and the buying of many founds is now fading with the rise of the sun. The geniuses, the wits, the beautiful company one kept under bar light and streetlight now seem wizened, human, full of aches, wrinkles, slight limps, and all are united by hunger and encroaching hangovers. It reflects my history of all-night drinking; the bare fact that the next morning comes and you haven't been to bed yet and the only real question to ask yourself after the bent-elbow heroics and bravado on the barstool, once you're on the street, looking for your keys or loose change, is "now what?" This is space being the dying buzz of the booze and the accursed remorse that will settle soon enough, too soon enough.