Saturday, November 29, 2008

Peter Manso: notes of a displeased groupie

Image result for mailer peter mansoThe 1980s saw the publication of a highly readable oral history of his hero and mentor Norman Mailer, titled "Mailer: His Life and Times", by author Peter Manso. Manso, a good writer in all other respects, has republished the book with a 44-page afterword in which he repays the insult Mailer had paid him when it turned out the biography displeased him greatly. Mailer and Manso were close friends during the eighties, with Manso admitting as much that he was, more or less, Mailer's acolyte.

The pair even shared a beachfront house in Provincetown, MA. Mailer had written to the local newspaper, stating that P.D. Manso is seeking gold in the arid desert of his inner life, where lies and distortions are the sole source of sustenance for him.Ouch. But what puzzles me is that Peter Manso has seemingly nurtured the hurt for over thirty years and now takes a few too many pages to give his account, share gossip, insult Mailer friends. The aggrieved author seems less a wounded innocent than a gold digger irritated that this vein will yield no more.

The lesson, I suppose, is that one ought not live with their heroes. I'd agree that Manso's Mailer biography is a fascinating read as far as it goes; it's hard to go astray when you've got a group of interesting people giving an intimate account of a singularly intriguing and often brilliant personality like Mailer. But based on this, Manso's introduction to the new edition just sounds like 44 pages of sour grape he wants everyone to take a sip from. The issue with having heroes who embody every virtue and goal one desires for themselves is that they will betray you, whether they're doing it out of love or not.

I've no idea what went on between the two men while they occupied that beachfront property, but it's very possible Mailer had other things he wanted to do besides listening to the sound and sight of a dedicated fanboy sucking up; perhaps Manso crossed over from being a mere acolyte and exhibited a malignant sycophancy. Or maybe not; Manso would have served himself better getting over a three-decade-old slight and finessed his remarks a tad more. It was Mailer's particular genius to make himself, as subject, fascinating in ways a reader wouldn't have suspected. That same talent isn't Manso's. Would that he merely republished his worthy oral history and gone onto another book.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Paul Dresman

Full disclosure: Paul Dresman was a teacher of mine at the University of California, San Diego, and he was the nearest thing I had to a poetry mentor. He has a genius for the unexpected phrase to describe what would go unnoticed in situations and encounters, and he has one of the most perfectly developed ears I've come across; his free verse has a vital, rhythm,a sound of surprise. Here, he provides us with a comic scenario for the tensions between the animal and human kingdoms; what is revealed is that we are getting in the way, quite unaware that we share the planet and soon enough will experience a similar dilemma. -tb_____________

Speaking of Routes

By Paul Dresman

Behind the beaches, the plains
cut back into the red ochre,
yellow ochre canyons
and, in places, the torrey pines
have been slashed to the quick
to lift houses on pads,
rainbirds turning circles,
grasses ad ornamentals
where dry brush rattled pods
and the elfin forest went about
surviving each dry year
(rabbits love to come at dawn
and graze the fresh watered lawns).

Where the freeway cuts and concretes the access
the animals are funneled through the underpass
Nights in your lights (maybe one-eyed, returning from parties)
their eyes flash and they move hugely
--foxes coming into sudden new view

But they pass as fast as a pair of hips
in a party kitchen
moves around behind you, brushing you. lightly
inscribing a small intaglio in your imago,
a moment between car and animal,
between hello and where are we going to go?

But the onramp beckons, the empty lanes
lead to the cities of the plains
where animals are found in dreams
like a passing fancy of endless party people
dancing in circles, wanting…

The animals are wanting. One half
of our face caves away. We stand,
along the chain link, waiting
to cross the impassable highway.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


There are some poems I read that put me in a bad mood and keep me there; the insidious thing about that experience is that the mood isn't bad, it's mean, and a host of my anti-social impulses awaken and demand their satisfaction. "The White Skunk" by the lead-footed David Ferry is such a poem, offered up on Slate. Think of the Drama Club ham who treated every gesture or half sentence of dialogue into an audition in front of imagined producers, every poli-sci blowhard who couldn't jargonize obvious facts fast enough, a movie so long that sometimes you think you're still watching it. Ferry is one thing, a bore, a never ending cold potato.
White Skunk" , ironically, caused to remember a Little Rascals episode I watched when I was a grade schooler, specifically an arresting image among the usual film hi-jinx of one a young black five year old chasing a skunk into a the gang's club house, saying "HERE KITTY KITTY KITTY". The skunk darts into the building and, of course, everyone inside comes flying out of the windows. My memory, of course, is a bit hazy on the exact details of the scene, but the scenario is correct, and it's an apt metaphor for someone who gets fixed on a bad idea and labors until the end, the result a busy and messy assemblage.
David Ferry chased a skunk thinking he had a brilliant idea on his hand; the metaphor gets extended here, in that this poem stinks as badly as the maligned animal would if sufficiently provoked. The poet might as well have been a drunk lout at a party , pants around his knees, lampshade on his head, spelling "Mississippi" with the rich raspberry-tuned gases he could squeeze from between his cheeks. Musical he might have though this poem was, but with all the useless padding, the buffering qualifiers, the allusions to Homer seeming no less than a moneypit home addition that knows no end, Ferry's attempt to turn an interesting scene into a moment of dimension ripping revelation gives a wordy disaster, whole stanzas composed for a unifying theme that does not come.
Ferry makes the familiar mistake when things aren't clicking , which is to overwrite in determined fashion to compensate for inspiration. Too soon it's more than squeaking gases the poet is passing our way. Thinking of a groaning man inside a men's room stall who's sat on what's he's consumed for too long, straining for release. Ferry, though, was straining for effect, but the poem , not flushed with success, still has an odor one would normally remove themselves from.
 Ferryis a noted translator with some poetic instincts and precision when he brings his skill to reanimating Homer, should offer up this unedited mess as a finished work. The project would have worked if he made only the most oblique and distanced references to the classical poem he was paraphrasing and drawing parallels from. He needed to ennoble the skunk less with mythological freight and bring the interaction between animal and human down to a more plausible point. Similarly he would have done well to make the imperiled father and daughter less melodramatic; as it goes , it has the pitch of excited overwriting, an athletic effort to put words in place when narrative layering isn't working out.  Had this my poem, I would have pared this back to the point where the allegories all but disappeared and the reader would have instead a poem that could be read for it's own merits. Those astute enough to recognize the borrowing from Homer, well, good on them.  

Ferry wanted to do fine things with the overlays of this poem--a contemporary scene of animal v human tension segueing into an ancient Greek tale--but the result is ham handed and displays the unwieldy amateurishness of a writer unwilling to rid a work of particulars that don't enhance but only clutter and clog. There is a way to make this idea vivid and emphatic, and the first thing would be to de-emphasise the classical references; as is, it merely seems like the cultural window dressing that has more to do with bragging rights than usefulness. Second, the action should be sparer, mirroring Ferry's enamored tale, but making little or no reference to it. Third, the language can be cut back within an inch of its ideal intent. Ferry needs to spend less time telling us what's happening and more showing us.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The choice cynicism of Jack Spicer

By Ted Burke

Jack Spicer was an odd and inspired contrarian in place during the San Francisco Renaissance, who conceived poetry as "dictation" of a sort. He had gone so far as to refer to the poet as a "radio", a living device able to intercept transmissions from an other wise invisible world of sharper, bolder, more original combinations of sound, rhythm, form. This is a unique way of insisting, again, that the artist is the "antenna of the race", and there is room enough in his thought to wonder if he considered the poet the one in particular who could touch Plato's Ideal Forms, or if thought he had te ability to peak behind the curtain to espy the furniture of Stevens' Supreme Fiction. Spicer was a troubled man, though, an alcoholic, someone at odds with the poetry community he lived in, but he was a serious, sometimes brilliant poet who could calm his erudition and gives us a poetry of propositions, what ifs, things thornier and much less sweet than the soft candy a few dozen celebrity poets win awards for. Here's a a fine poem, a brief lyric essay considering the likeness of some unlike things.

Book Of Music

by Jack Spicer

Coming at an end, the lovers
Are exhausted like two swimmers. Where
Did it end? There is no telling. No love is
Like an ocean with the dizzy procession of the waves' boundaries
From which two can emerge exhausted, nor long goodbye
Like death.
Coming at an end. Rather, I would say, like a length
Of coiled rope
Which does not disguise in the final twists of its lengths
Its endings.
But, you will say, we loved
And some parts of us loved
And the rest of us will remain
Two persons. Yes,
Poetry ends like a rope.

A cynic's view, perhaps, where the picture that's painted first has the gasping awe of young love, perfect, endless like a circle, the world itself, and later, destroyed, cut at the vital moment of greatest vulnerability, merely a thick string that starts at one end and merely ends, absent glory or beauty, at another. Even after the twists and turns of the thing itself--love, the foiled circle--to restore itself in reactionary spasams, things just end, and rapture and passion are replaced by bitter memory, a bitterness that gives way to a mellowed skepticism, if one is lucky to live long enough to be a witness their own foolish expectations of people, places, things, and especially the foolishness one might have said about poetry in whatever earnest declarations one uttered in classrooms, dorm rooms, cafes where the intelligent and underpaid gathered for a cheap drink and company.

Good poem.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

More Pith than Poetry

I do enjoy apples, savor them, dice and slice them, eat them enthusiastically and wallow a bit in the crisp and sweet delight that . "Apple Economics", though, is enough to kill my taste for the prized fruit. Edison Jenning's writing misses the the whole savor experience and produces instead a set of regimented lines that neither make sense nor appeal to the senses. It might be that Jennings wants to give the sense of a listener coming into the middle, or the last third of a conversation, with all the signifiers connected to an emotion that was initially expressed at the start of the monologue but which as abated with the on going details.

Though livid and salacious, supermarket Red Delicious
don't deserve the name. But after bagging two or three,
I think of old-stock Staymans that grew behind our house
in weather-beaten, bee-infested rows no one ever pruned,
and all we had to do was reach. I must have eaten bushels' worth while balanced in the highest limbs.

This makes me think of those nauseating camera sweeps you used to see in Sixties adventure series like The Man from UNCLE or I Spy where the lens spins around a crowded terrain in the wan hope of getting in all of the incidental exotica with the fewest shots and manhours with little sense of how coherent the sequence might be. Jenning's method jumps from one stance to another, from euphonious memories of supermarket shelves to backyard harvests, with the only determinant being that apples had to be mentioned in each of the long and otherwise segregated lines.Each sentence seems like the start of a new poem, and I wonder if Jennings has read the notorious Language Poets, in the guise of Ron Silliman particularly. Silliman, an envelope -pushing writer who's unmoored referents are written with a rigorous methodology and purpose , uses images and image-born phrases in long succession that are seemingly separate from the sentence before it and the sentence that follows.Silliman's new collection, Age of Huts, brings together several books he's published as a long standing project. It makes for alterntely exihilerating and exasperating reading. Each line can well be said to be the start of another poem, and although the approach , which foregrounds language as subject matter, and while the aesthetic effect of Silliman's poetry is culminative--there is a cubist perspective that arises when one gets a hint that each of the writer's pieces, nonsequitur that they may seem, have physical locations, sites, real people with whom he's had real conversations, and there is stammering and stuttering rhythm which is oddly musical as he works through his variations of chosen icons--tone appreciates the length to which Silliman has continued his course of examining the dictions and tropes that constitute the way we address our experience in the world.

Jenning's aims are more modest and less successful, chiefly because he seems to want to transgress that troublesome line that separates poetry from prose and so produce writing that has the effect of a collage. The ambition isn't political as is Silliman's, it is nostalgic and quaint. We are meant to take this in as a series of associations , personalized with first person pronouns, as an epiphany, a rush of sensation that is elusive, powerful, and which makes us weak in the knees in the fragmented recollection.

With one hand full of apples,
the other swatting bees, I watched swallows tip
and skim the tree-rimmed skies already hinting cold,
the windfall left ungathered, the fallow years that followed,
and now this bag of garish fruit my memory grafts to vintage
among the rows of grocery aisles that green to fields of praise.

There are not many instances when I would invoke the name of Billy Collins as an example any other poet should emulate, but in this case I think Collins' transparent "writerly" stanzas would have been a perfect match for the ambivalent nostalgia Jennings tried to get across. The failure is what I see as Jenning's willingness to flirt with nonsequiturs to get his feeling across; it reads as arch and stiff, and the worst offense, dull. Collins has the benefit of not trying to be bold or experimental in his verse celebrating the mundane . He might be a hack, but at least he succeeds in what he's trying to get across in a poem. But this is stiff as as a starched brassire, unnatural sounding for an impressionistic chain of autobiographical images; the associative leaps between the lines would be more vivid with a tongue speaking with fewer words one has copied from a thesaurus, to be used in a poem when the muse is ready to motivate an idea. It reads as if it has been worked over, concentrated upon, with new phrases added, deleted, reworked, over-thought. Edison Jenning's would- be tribute to apples sounds forced and unappetizing. Nothing convincing of either apples or his experience of them comes across here, and that's a shame.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

November 22nd

By Ted Burke

It seemed for years that we were caught in a loop of empty testimonials and evocations each time November 22nd happened upon the calendar page, an increasingly hallow chorus of platitudes and crumbling cliches centering around the promise of the late John F.Kennedy's administration and how that road to our destined Eden was bombed, blasted and dug up with his assassination. So much hope, but we trudge on, there was so much promise, but we carry on the work, the world has only become more insane, but we maintain faith in our hearts of our better instincts and work all the same towards that Paradise that is the American Dream.

We've been through these waves of self laceration, self-loathing, mumbled commitments to social justice, and we've trudged on instead, weighted with hostage crisis, nuclear brinkmanship, bi-polar stock markets, entrenched meanness regarding race and economic gain for the working class, our optimism stashed in a box, crammed in the back of a closet overstuffed with dashed hopes for a better existence.

Those of us in our fifties who embody the cocky retorts of a bright boy and the spite of the laziest who disguise their apathy with a pretense of cynicism roll our eyes when the fateful date comes again, the speeches and the hushed tones are read again, that our noddings of the head will suffice in place of expressed irritation less out of respect for the memory of John Kennedy and what he represents so much as maintaining a peaceful workplace. It's a sad fate to have one's internalized values become a source of venal aggravation. Irony, easy literary devices, earnest cliches become true; hoist by my own petard.

At the moment George W.Bush is giving a speech to an economic summit and it's the lowest of ironic effects that the President who presided over the evisceration of our economic system, our prestige as a presence internationally, and who launched an unjustified war should be lecturing anyone, at anytime, in any capacity about the right way to run a nation. So much hinges on the coming administration of Barack Obama--the liberal verities are revived, the multiple crisis are in place, there seems to be a consensus among many of us, even those of us who've surrendered to an extinct to an easy chair nihilism, that we can, as a country, face up to and face down the catastrophes that confront us. 2 million new jobs? Financial help for Detroit automakers with it in mind that they get their respective houses in order? A health care plan for every American? President Elect Obama has a full in-basket, perhaps the worst set of conditions an outgoing President has handed over to an incumbent at any time in our history. Yet Obama inspires that yearning to work with the rest of the nation toward solutions to our current states and the reemergence of a Greatness that can truly benefit the World. Time will tell, and sooner than anyone really suspects--history makes a lasting judgement much faster in our high velocity times.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

History : a lost beach ball among smashed bottles

By Ted Burke

A poem describing an ambivalent response to a tepid commemoration of an important WW2 Omaha Beach by By Piotr Florczyk , is the sort of poem that almost succeeds too well towards the author's intended end. It's one thing to find yourself skipping pop cultural references you grew up with when discussing things with those thirty years your senior
-- your audience wouldn't know what you're talking about--and it's a quite another to realize the important facts and reasons of our defining moments greeted with a yawn. There is a surreal tone to how this is laid out, more Fellini, I think, than Dylan, but odd and quietly unnerving all the same. It strikes me as a situation where there is an on site ceremonial attempt to revive the memory of the Great Battle for a far removed generation that might well have the collective idea of WW2 as a backdrop for Indiana Jones movies, a comic bungling of Good vs.Evil.

We have, in fact, a site of a terrible and crucial battle where so much was at stake and the sacrifice of a generation dedicated to patriotic service was inestimable the memory of which is receding into the historical archive as references fewer and fewer recall first hand. The important fading event mingles with a drifting attention span that conflates matters, dithers and ponders an absurd connection between past horrors and the calming banality of what these beach now seems, dark, rained on, cold, only as violent as the weather and tourist attitudes

There is a tendency for collective memory to extend only so far after a generation's sacrifice for the good graces of their country. What had been vivid, immediate, absolutely crucial to be dealt with resolutely , what had been shared as a sense of urgent mission, inspires just a tad less with each succeeding generation, until the critical elements of a Great War and Vindicating Victory become like cliches and stock events from various pulp fictions and their derivative; young people coming up five or six decades later might come to know World War 2 as a template for old and new Hollywood movies, as a only a cartoon like battle between competing stereotypes. Dates are blurred together, names misplaced, place names of bloody struggle are widely known but fewer people these days know why , or care. The telling of the carnage and the stakes becomes a drone that invites quizzical responses.

Returning here, it hasn't been easy
for them to find their place in the black sand—
always too much sun or rain,
strangers driving umbrellas yet deeper

into their land. The young radio host said so,
speaking of the vets. When the sea had come,
some curled up inside the shells;
others flexed and clicked their knuckles

on the trigger of each wave, forgetting
to come up for breath.

There is the presence of one who remembers, of course, perhaps someone who'd been there as soldier, observer, or the adult child of a veteran who'd grew up with a father who came home changed and who managed to confer the profound events and consequences to his family. There is distance here, in the ears of someone listening to a radio voice intone deeds and dates while the eyes gather in a view of the beach and the events it once hosted; a lachrymose reading of the facts is the backdrop for a recollection of steely nerves coiled to the the breaking point.
The telling of this historical summation comes across suggests tedium, an over familiarity of a saga that's been told , glorified and considered from different ratios for so long and so often that there is a desperation for a digression, a distraction, a resounding need for the ceremony to collapse upon itself. It's a tale over told, a memory over burnished, further removed from flesh and blood recollection; though we all know the historical facts of the event, the bloodletting, fewer of us know what we're talking about. This is rather like an announcer's bored professionalism, full of false enthusiasms, make- believe earnestness, prop department gravitas. It's a pitch one hears and though realizing what emotions and sentiments the spoken cadences are supposed to suggest , none the less recognize the make believe emphasis that disguises an intractable boredom. The audience in turn is bored and considers the commemoration as bad entertainment instead of sincere tribute to those a nation owes a debt to. The poem, powerful as is, presents the irony that arises when even nostalgia fails to elicit a genuine response.

"Genuine response" , that fleeting issue of authentic awareness of the Great Good that was defended against the Great Evil, might well be impossible as generations roll on and history is taught and told in increasingly fragmented ways. Something is missing at the center of the tribute the well intentioned might bring:

But he didn't
give us a name at the start or the end.
Nor did he explain how to rebury a pair of
big toes jutting out from the mud

at the water's edge. In the end, it's a fluke.
A beach ball gets lost. And a search
party leads us under the pier, into the frothy sea
impaling empty bottles on the rocks.

The enormous inanity of daily life goes on, and as one moves along looking for the scars that marked a culture for decades to come there is , instead, dislocation of the facts ; history is an anonymous parade of shadows playing melodramatic charades against the wall of a collective memory. What we do find, though, are those things we make for our consumption and leisure and which we cannot hold on to either, a lost beach ball, smashed bottles. History, it seems, has poured out of the dustbin and gathers at a shoreline that cannot gain be made pristine.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Daydreaming among the paper mache

Peter Everwine's poem, Aubade in Autumn, published in the New Yorker in 2007, caught my notice last night when I was recycling magazines that had stacked up over the last couple of years. I chanced on it when I paused during the chore and flipped through a random dog eared issue and paused instintively when the poem appeared.

Much as I enjoy the writing of the New Yorker--I am one of those who consider it the best written large circulation magazine in America--the poets they publish over the decades too often take on a passive tone that strikes me as simply the equivalent of perceptual passive aggression, the pursuit of poetics in a limply progressing string of associations that haven't the muscle to involve my interest in the stretch.

These are poems you open the door when they ring the bell and then collapse barely three steps into the hallway. I am pleased with their recent inclusion of the estimable Rae Armentrout into their pages, but theirs is a reputation for for poems that prate will take a while longer to live down. Everwine, a Detroit native, offers up a swoon for an ideal childhood; this is a dollhouse full of paper cutouts.


This morning, from under the floorboards
of the room in which I write,
Lawrence the handyman is singing the blues
in a soft falsetto as he works, the words
unclear, though surely one of them is love,
lugging its shadow of sadness into song.
I don't want to think about sadness;
There's never a lack of it.
I want to sit quietly for a while
and listen to my father making
a joyful sound unto his mirror
as he shaves - slap of razor
against the strop, the familiar rasp of his voice
singing his favorite hymn, but faint now,
coming from so far back in time:
Oh, come to the church in the wildwood...
my father, who had no faith, but loved
how the long, ascending syllable of wild
echoed from the walls in celebration
as the morning opened around him ...
as now it opens around me, the light shifting
in the leaf-fall of the pear tree and across
the bedraggled back-yard roses
that I have been careless of
but brighten the air, nevertheless.
Who am I, if not one who listens
for words to stir from the silences they keep?
Love is the ground note; we cannot do
without it or the sorrow of its changes.
Come to the wildwood, love,
Oh, to the wiiiildwood as the morning deepens,
and from a branch in the cedar tree a small bird
quickens his song into the blue reaches of heaven -
hey sweetie sweetie hey.

In college , a host of us had a competition to see who could write the best parody of a New Yorker poem, our central criteria being who among us could write a poem that best falsifies an experience of city life with the kind of sticky rhetoric this poem gives us. Peter Everwine goes for the old trick here, constructing a poem based on something he heard or misheard, which is fine, but here he lays it on too thick for my liking. That a handyman's singing a floor below him would spark an unraveling recollection of his father's shaving rituals and the sound of his singing voice is entirely too convenient to be plausible; this almost reads like a parody of John Ashbery's poem "The Instruction Manual", (one of the very rare poems where Ashbery actually mentions work experience) where the narrator, a technical writer at work, diverges from his task at hand and allowing his mind to roam in a fantasy of vacations, islands, various exotica.

Think what you might of Ashbery's style and purpose, but he does have the skill to convey the daydream and the unrooted associations the mind creates as it strives to create narrative continuity with the day to day. There is the matter of knowing how to use length to one's advantage, which Ashbery does with effectively. One does have the sense of having caught a ride on the narrator's train of thought and then feeling slightly changed once one reaches the end. Everwine's poem reads more like a series of jump cuts in a movie who's script had undergone too many rewrites. The tape holding the film together are very visible.

I might suggest that the dreamy set up be jettisoned and that the poem start with the father's shaving rituals, his singing, to start at the point the recollection commences, and then pare back the self references. He'd have more poem, and less window dressing.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Selected Creeley

By Ted Burke
Selected Poems, 1945-2005.

Edited by Benjamin Friedlander

There's a new collection of verse by a great American Poet, Selected Poems 1945-2005 by the late Robert Creeley, and I'm obliged to go out and buy it. My paperback editions of his books are, sad to say, falling apart with that rare affliction for poetry volumes, poetry books with a cracked spine.It's a fine time to remember Creeley's mastery of the terse lyric poem, a major characteristic in a time when "lyric"for most writers mean lazy associations, odd line breaks and a verbosity that is more about extended a line than treating a subject.


What, younger, felt
was possible, now knows
is not - but still
not chanted enough -

Walked by the sea,
unchanged in memory -
evening, as clouds
on the far-off rim

of water float,
pictures of time,
smoke, faintness -
still the dream.

I want, if older,
still to know
why, human, men
and women are

so torn, so lost,
why hopes cannot
find better world
than this.

Shelley is dead and gone,
who said,
"Taught them not this -
to know themselves;

their might could not repress
the mutiny within,
And for the morn
of truth they feigned,

deep night
Caught them ere evening . . ."

Robert Creeley's poetry was the terse vocabulary of a man who feels deeply and yet has hardly a voice to equal the sensations that warm or chill his soul. It is the poetry that exists at the margins of and in the spaces between the huge language blocks of what is commonly deferred to as eloquence: they are thoughts, full formed and fleeting in their unmediated honesty of a first response to a new things or upsets, a poetry where heart and mind have no natural boundaries.


America, you ode for reality!
Give back the people you took.

Let the sun shine again
on the four corners of the world

you thought of first but do not
own, or keep like a convenience.

People are your own word, you
invented that locus and term.

Here, you said and say, is
where we are. Give back

what we are, these people you made,
us, and nowhere but you to be.

I sometimes consider the poet to be a film editor of perception, isolating key images and spoken lines in their spaces and arranging them in sweet and near silent succession where mood and sentiment are restrained but clearly present, nakedly expressed, without embarrassment.The surprise of his poems is that he seems to bring you to the "thing itself", without the contextualizing and taming rhetorics that buffer our responses; this is his ability to move you in ways that never feel like coarse manipulation. Creeley's was a vision with sharp-stick wit, the straightest line to a truth no one will admit seeing.

Thomas Gunn called it a "eloquent stammering." I can't think of a better superlative.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Two poems

By Ted Burke

Someone is in a garage (if we were imagining location), having a diet coke as they look across the dark room, past car parts and machine tools and into the glaring light pouring in from the street, talking past the person they're talking to, summarizing the state of the economy, the community, their own slice of a wretched existence, and conclude with what is they're willing to settle for. "It is no good to grow up hating the rich" warns B.H.Fairchild, to which our monologist, a persona who had read this quote somewhere and found a space in a conversation he was having to both cite the reading and to respond , responds thusly

Why not hate the rich? It's easy,
and some days easy's what I need.

This is speech from a Larry McMurtry novel or one of those films where a minor character suddenly becomes very chatty in a key scene and finds an articulate voice and give us the complications of his life and world view in a writer's attempt to give him more complexity, and as a speech it might work fine given the context and narrative conventions fiction or a movie would allow. It might not seem so, let us say, incredible and contrived. It's a splendid thing when a piece composed of a character's voice works, with the precarious balance between natural , loose cadences and digressive tendencies and a writer's control of the idea , in getting it across for an effect without showing his hand, but Joe Wilkens ' tone here is Hollywood production.

There is one thing for someone in theater to go off on a soliloquy in the presence of another actor , since good stage writing and direction can effectively imply that we've entered the character's more resonant thinking for a few beats; the lights come up again, the other actor recites his line, and the plot continues apace. We have no such context in "The Names". The other person this narrator is assumed to be talking to is never implied, and the notion that these are the private considerations doesn't convince me either, since this poem strains between being a rambling string of anecdotes and a polemic. The thoughts are too complete, too polished. Someone with this kind of insight, or at least this ability to artfully phrase his details, ought to be able to do better than wallow in his own disappointment:

This country I call home is, like yours,
lost, and my people too are lost, like me,

so let me hate with them, let me sit up at the bar,
and curse the banker, the goddamn-silly-designer chaps
the new boss man from back east wears,
let me speak the names of the dead and get righteous,
for at least one more round.

Barroom bathos, a country singer's stoicism, a poem that seems more like something emerging from Central Casting than coming across as something made from things that one might actually have heard or had seen. Over rehearsed is the phrase for this, with the small town details arranged in such a circuitous way that they unintentionally expose what "The Names" actually is, a tall tale to flesh out Wilken's sarcastic reversal of Fairchild's one-sentence quote. It's a lot of work for so little effect.

Mitch Mitchell, RIP

By Ted Burke

Mitch Mitchell passed away this last week, and it's an odd thing to realize that all the members of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience are now deceased. Drummer Mitchell was a wiry, pro-active, Elvin Jones influenced musician who was one of the few who could keep up with guitarist Hendrix's flamboyance , both when he was brilliant (was frequent) and when he was out of tune and erratic ( just as frequent).
In either case, Mitchell was there, piling basic rock beats, 4/4 time, but often enough embellishing and tricking up his stickwork with polyrhythms, counter bits of propulsion, attacking the written and improvised structures from outside the progression and at times catching Hendrix on a sweeping uplift of rattling, snare drum cracking uplift.

One has only to pay attention to the Experiences first album Are You Experienced?to understand how important Mitchell was to Hendrix's developing genius--the crashing waltz time he keeps on "Manic Depression" is a fury that condenses the mania of Tony Williams Life that provides a drumming excitement the equal to the band leader's fabled fretwork, or in the tension Mitchell creates on the iconic song "Hey Joe", with Hendrix's vocal and guitar slow and insinuating as Mitchell performs jazz-slanting furies behind Jimi's slow, snaking approach to the song's message of anger and payback. The surface calm and the roiling rage under the off hand presence, the perfect dualism, musical and narratively.

And then there's Electric Ladyland, one of the very few albums from the Sixties that qualifies as an unabashed masterpiece; one may discuss this assertion at length in other venues, but the point here is that without Mitchell's amazing chops as a drummer , Hendrix most likely would have had a vastly different double record release. No one could do what Hendrix could do, and no one could do for Hendrix what Mitchell did, and it's one of the great rock and roll tragedies that these musicians didn't have the opportunity (or inclination?) to record more albums as great as Ladyland. But I am grateful for the great music that was given to the listener, and am grateful for the privledge of hearing Mitch Mitchell lay it down for Jimi.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

O'Rourke on Ryan

By Ted Burke

Meghan O'Rourke offers a credible description and defense of our new Poet Laureate, but as much as I enjoy the reasoning, I find the idea of Kay Ryan , Poet, more interesting than Kay Ryan's poetry. I'm not a fan of ornate language, since most poets do it badly, even those who are praised for it as a default remark, including our drifting poet Laureate Derek Walcott--if similes were empty wine bottles , he'd have drunk himself to death--but I would like some elegance and lift in the briefer lines as well, some polish besides the formulations Ryan offers us from the page.

The poems are lean, yes, clever with their internal rhymes, slants, conceits and all the rest, but there isn't the stamp of a personality to enliven these dry dictations. She is compared to Dickinson rather excessively, since Ryan's aim is to move toward a point she's cutting through the underbrush toward; she seems to know before hand what she's driving at, and for me so much of what she does amounts to seeing a neighbor park their car in the same spot for years after the work day is over.

Dickinson's minimalism is a slippier sort of stream to wade into; her habit was to meet herself coming the other way while on an investigation of a nuance; she contained and expressed her own contradicting assertions. Dickinson is the more interesting poet for all the material she implies, suggest, touches up with the minimum of space her poems consume; the dashes and asides still bother us, provoke discussion. Ryan is of the generation that thinks poetry has to have a point to make , a purpose to reaffirm. This makes her work, finally, fatally forgettable.

Two Movies I Never Liked

By Ted Burke
Writing at, Louis Bayard turns in a cute piece defending that barnyard stinker Scarface, mustering up what reads like a strained enthusiasm for that movie's grinding, loud and bloody imposition on the senses. It's perfectly fine to find something interesting to talk about in films that otherwise stink on ice, such as the controlled formalism King Vidor gives to the Ayn Rand's proto-fascist film version of her novel The Fountainhead; the ridiculous politics and Vidor's visual elegance make the film watchable , not a little campy. It's a quality worth commenting on further. Bad is bad, though, and Bayard's love of the egregious Brian DePalma film cannot quite get out of the drive way.

It's an old space-filling trick for a pop culture wonk to take up the case of a commonly derided example of mass-art and argue the hidden or forgotten virtues therein. Lester Bangs was brilliant at inverting commonplace complaints and making the case for bands who would otherwise be swept off the historical stage, and time has shown that he was right as often as not, noticeable in his early raves for Iggy and the Stooges and the MC-5. But the trick is a stock ploy now, and the reversals of fortune have become a splintered, ossified rhetoric, and this defense of Scarface doesn't carry the weight to make what has to be Brian DePalma's most elephantine,graceless, absurdly baroque film into anything resembling a watchable entertainment.

Even the fabled violence and allegedly "operatic" style, over the top as they are, no longer , if they ever did, jolt, shock or make us consider the effects of mayhem on the viewer, nor does it make us contemplate the nature of violence in American culture at large. All the other virtues, as intrinsic critiques of American greed,the cult of the individual, the flesh-eating glee of unconstrained capitalism, are all there, surely,but these elements are less examinations of causes of real world ills than they are pretexts for the leaden DePalma show piece stylistics where he see the director , again, mashing together camera strategies he's lifted from directors who work with a steadier hands. Steady DePalma isn't, and Scarface drags and seems interminable despite it's reputation for vulgarity and grizzly gun play.

It just goes on and on and on still until the sheer tedious weight of the thing mashes you into the seat. One might say something of Al Pacino's flame-throwing performance of Tony Montana, and here it is; even Oscar Winners can be wretched when left to their own devices, and Pacino without a good director or a decent script might as well be an antsy house cat clawing up the furniture.

A buddy dropped me an email to remark that he'd re watched Last Tango in Paris after thirty years of staying away from it; he said the found it dull as wet lint, and that Marlon Brando's baroque mannerisms seemed over the top and under considered. It was a drag, he said.I'm inclined to agree.I saw the movie in the Seventies and I went along with most everyone else who desperately wanted Brando to reclaim his genius; while what he did in Last Tango remains interesting and brilliant in it's peculiarity, his performance, as we discussed, has little to do with acting. He appeared more intent on destroying the craft of film acting than anything else--what he produces is that ugly thing that is none the less unique in its distortion. You cannot avert your gaze.

Or at least the kind of acting that works well in a decent film we can recommend without having to qualify with clichés we nicked from New York film critics. I look at his work here as some kind of proto-performance art primitivism, a conscious projection of an unchain Id. The film, when I tried to watch it again several years ago, was awful, dull and pretentious in ways that are absolutely offensive. All this self-loathing seems an easy guise to assume when you’re compensating for a lack of sympathetic characters or coherent circumstances.

Here’s my obligatory Mailer self reference; some wag had mentioned that it was impossible to write about sex in a boring way until Norman Mailer came around. Bertolucci seemed intent to making a sex movie that was infinitely more tedious than your average porn-belt stroker.

Friday, November 7, 2008

John Leonard RIP

By Ted Burke

What a sad day to note the passing of critic John Leonard, and what a delight to read Laura Miller's description of the good critic's prose style as "cascades". Indeed, it was his style that brought me to Leonard, the way his sentences would knowingly roam from nominal book or television reviews and would turn into parsings, investigations , deconstructions and re-assemblages of embedded in a given narrative.
Leonard's value as a critic was that he was able to sift through the generic structure of pop culture and find the motivating idea that fired up a writer's passion and informed his cadences, and he was aware as well of how the problematic nature of the venturing hero not just contending with foes and countervailing forces, but with his own vanity and doubt, elements likely as not to distract him and produce an an agonizing, satisfying drama.

He was a master of grasping what novelists were getting at--his writings on DeLillo, particularly his long piece on Underworld gathered in the essay collection When The Kissing Had to Stop , skips the postmodernist lexicon of murk and defeated deferment and instead clearly, precisely, effectively articulates DeLillo's theme and investigation of characters desiring a concrete cosmology and metaphysical certainty who yet have the dreaded sensations that everything they know is shifting, changing in quality , that their storylines now contain voices they cannot understand. Leonard, a poet himself, is among the few who went beyond the typical praise for DeLillo's prose and instead got to the poetry of it; he got to the concentric center of DeLillo's fictions.Don DeLillo benefited greatly by having a reader as probing and brilliant as Leonard, as did the readers of his reviews. I am sad this master of the critical craft is now silent.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Elvis Effect

August 16, 1977, I was in a photo booth at the Stockton Country Fair where I was working on the carnival midway getting my picture taken, four snaps for four quarters, when an announcement came over the fair ground PA that legendary singer Elvis Presley had died that morning. My photos had just then popped out of the machine, and with the news of The King's death still not sinking in, I looked at my poses, pouty-lipped, snarling, curled lip rock star disguises one practices when they wipe away the steam from the bathroom mirror. I had long hair at the time, and I was in my mid-twenties, shuffling self images. Elvis was dead, and these ridiculous poses I'd made for the camera seemed ironic. The King was dead, and it was time to get a life. 

Since then, Elvis has become a permanent icon of American culture and perhaps the most overused punchline in the camp of the Easy Ironist who might want to gift their sagging art a lift with the Neutron Bomb of pop culture references; here, I'm convinced, most of us can cite numerous examples where the Presley references in novels, TV shows, songs, movies have cropped up like thick weed clusters on formerly well manicured lawns. Instant depth, bottomless intertextuality, a dance of unmoored signifiers swirling on strong gusts through the halls of the cultural archive. It got to be just a major riff among the schooled post moderns who were perhaps too well-read in Pop Anthropology and hadn't spent enough time with their thoughts; the fear, perhaps again, might be that they hadn't any ideas to begin with, at least regarding creating art that transcends the need to dismantle artifice or exhume depleted tropes and settle somewhere in a personality that might, by chance, engage the qualities of their experience. Elvis did the best he could with what he had to work with, and that should be honored to the degree that his music was genuinely arresting. 

The least we can do is to stop dropping the poor man's name and his tag lines when we're in need of Fast Literary Effect, the problematic distancing between subject and the reader, who is forced suddenly to interrogate the manner in which a piece is given us and not the ideas." Affect" is the blunter term, an application of something iconic, instantly graspable and nearly perfect in its ability to make a reader pause and wonder why Elvis suddenly makes a cameo in a story line. It's not a bad habit for the reader/viewer to be aware of the style and form of the narrative devices an author (or filmmaker) deploys, since deciphering the mystery of how technique makes a poem's, a novel's or a film's particulars subtler, richer, a more pleasurable thing to consider at length, but with the case of Elvis, or Marylin, or Einstein or Hitler and the others from the 2oth century whose enormity denies appreciation of what they've actually achieved, desirable and dire as the case may be, the dropping of their names and images in our popular arts keeps us fidgety disconnected. One moves along with a reading and up pops Elvis in his sequined jumpsuit and jeweled sunglasses and one thinks, okay, here's Elvis, out of nowhere, to complicate things, I'll just think about this poem much later… Contemplation and examination are deferred, set aside, never gotten back to, which is just as well for many an author who didn't want their tricks examined too closely. But perhaps this is the reader's wish as well. Scary thought, awful thought, especially now that we have all supposedly won the battle against the Bad Guys and duly elected Barack Obama to lead us out of the wilderness; some of us might well long to remain among the devastated trees, making fires out of damp twigs, sleeping in the back seats of rusted out SUVs. Life among the chipped iconography of our fictionalized past is a preferable fate than the real work of creating a Useful Present, a life that is authentic and which works in ways our diseased daydreams could never live up to. Curl a lip around that.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A ribbon around the heart of the world

By Ted Burke
(There is something greater than politics, and that is service, and such is our luck that the service that needs to be provided for an embattled American Public has to be administered through political institutions; I believe in the line that goes that what used to be an occasional (good)hunch or inspiration gradually becomes a working part of the mind, and that we can collectively view what needs to be done and elect a leader who can forge our path through the proverbial dark forest and into the light. Obama, I think, is that man, not to put too partisan a face on the matter. Not that either party is blameless in our national and international pickle; that's besides the point at this juncture. What is obvious is that if Obama gets elected by anything resembling the margins have him at, there will be a mandate (from Heaven?) to change the way things are done in our ostensible democracy. I can't believe that we're just changing seats on the Titantic, since without the hope that things get better after a time of struggle , I'd have no reason to get out of bed, to work, to even bother doing the things I do. Why bother, if all is for naught? Hope is the watchword, and that idea is created by the quality of the acts you perform and the responsibililty you take for your conditions. Achieving that, little by measurable little, is the source of all genuine happinessFor me it comes down to the simple notion that one does the best they can do in the circumstances they find themselves in, making note that what limits their ability to be proactive in specific personal affairs and public doings isn't a dead end of possibility.

Situations vary grately, and one acts in good faith that most others in the world they know are likewise operating under the assumption that it's a better life if we try to improve circumstances, right injustices, provide comfort and crucial help to the needy than it is to shut down, horde, be a mean spirited miser. Disappointment is unavoidable, and I've said for the last two years that I am guardedly optimistic about the eventual revival of both or national spirit and our economy.

I do believe that all boats can rise on a rising tide. I am not a Polly Anna, and cyncism is my native expression and view, but I am aware that I cannot let it overtake what's left of my humanity. The meaning of life , it stands to reason, is what one creates through meaningful actions that one takes responsibility for. I'm not the smartest bear in the woods, but I do think the culture can be made to turn to something fairer, more just , kinder with enough determination and hard work. But that's done a day at a time.


The white people
have gone crazy
in the back seats
of All American cars
looking for the sex life
that fell between the cracks,
meanwhile screaming the rudeness
of Romantic love
that finds them
hung-over in court
too early in the morning
of a business day
where they'll tell the Judge
that it's only rock and roll
and that there was something in the way
the singer dropped his "g's
and a manner
worth noting when the guitarist
grabbed his whammy bar
and that all they did was taking
Creeley freely and pile into
the four-wheeled remains of a rumored prosperity
and drove into
the running gag reflex of the night, down a blvd.
filled brand names and bored cops,
cruising to get "some", to find "it"
and where "it" lived,
a slobbering example
of failed bonding
locked into habits
where even as their language of outrage
is bought
and shredded
in magazines
whose pages stick together
just as they did
in the parking lot after last call,
harassing the cocktail staff
that's going home,
they'll stick to principals
familiar and vague,
like that song whose words you never memorized
but tried to sing anyway, with a hushed secret at the core of the chorus
Saying that love is somewhere
just around one of these thousands
of and that it'll shake your hand
if you drive long and far and often enough,
if you've the gas
to complete the journey, the journey
Celine dreamed of while lying in bed,
staring at ceilings, concluding
that his language of outrage could only
describe the surface details of wrong turns,
that it had been bought and sold in a tradition
of literature that speculates about how wonderful
our lives might have been
if only the dream hadn't ended
when we opened our eyes,

Our eyes are constantly
getting used to the dark
absorbs every inch of brick
in parking lots
behind buildings and under bedrooms
of others who've made
their peace with
the sameness of the night,
the radio blares
more guitar solos
emerging from the
static of stadium
drums and strumming,
crazed cadenzas
whose neurotic notes scurry
and cleave to a neuron receptor
and keys a change
in the brains chemical balance that changes
the language of what the nights' really been about,

But we remain where we are,
white heterosexual males bond
by nothing more than
the chain sawing motion
of jaws lifting and falling
on the pillows and
sofa cushions in
desert motels
in time to the pans of a camera
on the silent television
where it's nothing but a wall full
of clocks telling
the time in
three separate
time zones while
temperatures are mentioned where
anger and rain mix in the fields
and valleys of economies
based on pride,
some abstract grip on selflessness that
needs no sleep
as do the bodies in this room,
dead to the world when the
engine blew, when the gas ran out, when
the last drop in whatever bottle of
cartoon labeled beer vanished on the
buds of a tongue
whose thirst could not be slaked by?
promise of fortune or even
water, pure and free of lies,

We sleep in shifts until
our time here runs
out on us,
until the phone that rings
everyday for twenty minutes on end
stops finally and leaves
the house quiet
from stairway to attic to porch,
with only the whir of the
refrigerator engine
starting up
and filling the stale,
stale air that
used to carry
mean jazz, drum boogie,
scratched riffs of declarative guitars,
the frets of God announcing
a life worth inventing in the notes
that passed through the room,
the boredom,
we realize in frozen moments
that any excuse for getting
out of the house
is a magic trick
that's performed after
they've shown you
where they've hidden the mirror,
"language is the house
where man lives",
let us say
that this life is
like being a fish
that cannot describe the water it swims in,
endlessly at 3AM
when only the coffee at
the 7-11 has the
aroma of anything
real enough to make
us think of getting
out of town
with one suitcase
and a bus fare,
next to a god-damned big car,
five shoulders
to the wheel
and no one able to drive
between towns , from carnival to still spot
where ever we could
pitch tents and trailers
and set up Ferris wheels that
would rattle against a
large scowling moon
hovering over
Modesto and Turlock
on dry August nights
when dollars are
grimy with mung from
many a farmer's and mechanic's hand,
power chords slice through
the speakers, destroy the cracked dashboard,
your face is slapped
with a power
not your own,
it comes down to something
that's a secret
that even The Judge won't cop to it
before he lowers his voice,

"The beat goes on,
the beat goes on,
the beat goes on,
the beat goes on…"

We can do better
this far away
from our past,
we have something
we've turned toward,
a light in eyes, a sun
that shines a light
those blades of
grass and long
stemmed flowers lean toward
even when clouds
and the stammer of fire eating transistors
sizzling from car windows distort the
image in the minds' eye,
I see a city where we come
and plant our feet on lawns
where we can sit
and plant in turn
new seeds, ideas
of a future worth having,

let's lean into the sun,
into the sun,
ride bicycles into the sun
on the road that becomes
a ribbon around the
heart of the world