Thursday, April 30, 2009

Brautigan's catfish

Even the stingiest of our poets seem to work in earnest to make their minor-key efforts seem like treatises about the objects they 've chosen to make their subject. A banal, everyday image to open, a bit of conversation, an incidental gesture, a memory that is generated, some arcane reference to a philosophical truism, freshly lifted from a directory of over used quotes, to make the whole thing resonate with the semblance of larger import, and then a return to the image from which the enterprise started, hopefully altered for the way the poet has talked his idea into submission.

Even in the concise poems of Billy Collins one can sense an autodidact chomping at the bit to unload the sophisticated reading they've done to invest in such slim prophecies. One senses what was left unsaid, and that makes for an unsatisfying work, compromised between desires. And John Koethe strikes you as a junior league
Pound, the last guest to leave the party . But not the late Richard Brautigan--too much of a whimsical clown half the time, given to quick sketches and half-bright paragraphs, Brautigan could still pull perceptual beauty from situations where there was nothing going on. At his most sublime , he was the laureate of what hadn't been thought through. His intention appeared to be to stop writing before intellection kicked in and larded up what was already a choice, uncluttered perception of what he saw, what he felt, what he thought in the instance of perception.

Your Catfish Friend

by Richard Brautigan

If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
one evening
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge of
my affection
and think, "It's beautiful
here by this pond. I wish
somebody loved me,"
I'd love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
at peace,
and ask yourself, "I wonder
if there are any catfish
in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them."

Richard Brautigan--he is happy to remain slight, a poet who can deliver the payload he has without seeming, at his best, to be serving another poet's muse. Zen, I suppose, is the first thing I think of, a what-if scenario that rather joyfully plays with a Muddy Waters catfish metaphor and transforms a blistered, haggard blues trope into a suddenly wonderfully state of being awestruck. One goes along with this and is impressed with the way the narrator can suppose he were a catfish, imagine the thoughts of the woman he is addressing, and land the final perception in some notion that is unrelated to the teller's implied desire and lust but is linked, entirely appropiate, all of a piece"

"I wonder
if there are any catfish
in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them

This pond, as imagined, is the perfect place for these people and their musings--a superb bit of half a notion given a full and complete voice. An awesome thing, this poem.

John Koethe cures reading

In another life I might have the time and inclination to stand up to Koethe's daunting allusions, but after attempting, more than once, to overcome the skim, the glance and the cursory read and engage the poems, I became listless and depressed; it was like one of those odd moments of bleak -yet- hackneyed  literature of the most unremarkable sort  where the hero, me, is alone in some government office waiting my turn to speak to an official about something and discovering that I couldn't understand a word that was being said. Worse yet, though, was the fact that didn't care what anyone was talking about. A book of poems that creates torpor and apathy, the urge to crawl back into bed with pretend flu symptoms, does not encourage a recommendation. I might as well extend the analogy and suggest these poems are without music--inert and supine is their rhythm and position. Maybe I'm just stupid. Or maybe that poems really are that dull and dulling. I suggest that Koethe could not outpace the tendency to ponder and get to the poetry portion of his resume.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A new poem

The talk shows

The talk shows
Lost their spark, hark!
I hear something
Being said
As a lark,
Oh rats, it's
Someone speaking to
Us through the wall,
This won't do at all,
Some one desires a
A voice in the
Air when the airwaves
Short out,
Men and women are mumbling
After their cars stall and they walk
Stumbling into spiked, arched coronas
Of headlights burn in the avenues
On scuffed and dusty designer shoes
Until the batteries die and
Engineers with hard hats
And tool belts climb towers
And dig
For hours
To shed illuminate
The issues of aches and pains
stuck like stains
On the mind of a brooding city,
But let’s be calm
And not get frantic, give into panic,
Have our words get curt and manic,
Let’s cheer together than cry alone
Where all can hear us
Curse the dark
Rather than cheer the
Flashlight’s batteries,
What else is there
To do on
Except wait in line for all entertainment and
Bad service at
Each over rated bistro and café,
It’s about
Getting paid
And paying the rent
On the expectation of
Getting lucky in the
Dark places
Where all those fifty dollar laces
Flow in the night
Which makes it easy
to find you
and yours
when the sirens
and revolving red light
come upon you
in a corner
of an blind alley
with a letter to
someone named
Who is still waiting,
You hear the cops say,
For her husband
To come home from
The war
And meet here
A dark and rusting
In a park somewhere near
This intersection,
Oh yes,

What in the world happens to
The color of desire
In the instance when there’s
A failure in the wire
And transformers?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Settling down with a voice like my own

It's strange to go through old bits of writing and see again what you once thought was simultaneously cutting edge and timeless. This isn't the sort of thing I pursued in my writing life, and have vacillated between degrees of difficulty that at least read well, but I can't quite dismiss my time attempting to write within the self-critical confines of Language poetry as being a waste of time; it was , in fact, terrifically instructive, not least of which was to direct me toward my strengths and away from my weaknesses. I also have a real fondness for some of this enjambed lines and marvel at the language's capacity to snap back into usable form after being tortured and twisted by willfully abusive wunderkind.

But overall, I couldn't see writing a poetry that only a brief coterie of associates and a thin scaffold of masters might appreciate. I read this and recognize that the non-sequitors have there origins in actual conversations in which tempers flared and love affairs commenced, and that the puns are jokes I used to share about texts, authors, gossip, local landmarks, pop culture references, all mixed together in many attempts to dislodge the master/slave relationship we thought existed between writer and reader. The words to describe the appearance of things that compose an imitated world are the subject of the Language poets; the variant commodity fetishism that links a unified idea of poetry to a consumer reality is reduced to non-sequitor, babble, a distracted murmur of people standing in line.

The problem, though, is that that audience for whom the pieces were intended has dispersed, moved on, or died as tends to happen in the unexamined life, and the poems and texts I produced emulating Language poets are homeless, so to speak, sans an audience to confound and taunt. People just stared at me at the readings where I dared trot this creaking experiments and attempt to perform them; imagine a room full of confused dogs staring at you, heads tilted the side, waiting for the biscuit of wit you don't in fact posses.

The problem of my early forays in public forums was my impatient vanity , that of a young man in a hurry who didn't want to learn lessons, emulate those he admired nor apprenticed in some way to a mentor, but desired instead to bump shoulders with the Grown Ups. The verse I managed was odd, choppy, strangely conjoined, and little of it with that element of being "made strange" that inspires a parsing, an inquiry as to origins and strategies. Strange looks and nods were my response, and the harder I tried to be brilliant, the stonier the silence became. It was a sheer cliff of non-response. It would be a few years when I finally happened upon a style , for better or ill, that was my own. Just as a great harmonica player like Sonny Boy Williams wasn't afraid to be simple in his riffs, I in turn had to get beyond my fear of being understood. The densities , layering and sweet pastiche of voices and dictions were the stuff of other, better poets; I was at home, at last , with the sound my own voice made.

Unlike Cage, extended silence bothers me tremendously, and over the years I've opted for a style and strategy that at least invites the reader to interact with. It's not inaccurate to say that I found my subject thirty years ago, but only fifteen or so years ago did I find the consistent, flexible voice to give it life.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A poem I like

We Never Know
by Yusef Komunyakaa

He danced with tall grass
for a moment, like he was swaying
with a woman. Our gun barrels
glowed white-hot.
When I got to him,
a blue halo
of flies had already claimed him.
I pulled the crumbled photograph
from his fingers.
There's no other way
to say this: I fell in love.
The morning cleared again,
except for a distant mortar
& somewhere choppers taking off.
I slid the wallet into his pocket
& turned him over, so he wouldn't be
kissing the ground.

What works in this poem is the dual aspect of feeling that you're the one witnessing something powerful and brutal, and at the same time having your senses dissociated; a soldier who'd just caught several rounds in a fire fight is said to "danced with tall grass" , and then collapses to the ground, dead. Violence is associated with an unexpected bit of grace, the tearing of the bullets through his body making him seem to dance. But there is more; in the jungle , where dead matter quickly decomposes and is returned to the earth from which it originated, the dead soldier is surrounded by "a blue halo of flies (that) had already claimed him". In the jungle foliage their is transcendence symbolized by the lowliest of earth's eternal pests, and the narrator, who'd witnessed the death, takes a photograph from the dead man's hand and insists obliquely

There's no other way
to say this: I fell in love.

There is no back story here, no filling in what is happening between the gasps of this breathless accounting; is the fallen soldier friend or foe, what is the photograph of , with whom or what has the narrator fallen in love with. It's the rush of contradicting reactions of someone caught bluntly of a turmoil that rages around him. My preference is to think that the narrator had fallen in love, in an epiphany, with life itself, and had a revelation that each life is important. We do know, though, that this someone who has a tendency to look for to the lyric turnaround in the ugliest and most brutal subjects he chooses to describe. He turns the over to face the sky, to heaven, so that

so he wouldn't be
kissing the ground.

I like this poem because it denies the reader the d information that would make this narrative whole, immediately comprehensible, and I like as well that parse and scrutinizw as we might, it remains a cryptic, potent response to violent death. Like the senseless act it describes, it's task is to make you feel the loss , the diminishing of the race for a death , and for the sudden feeling that one appreciates the aches and pains and infernal discomforts they have the privilege to still suffer.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A poem and a position by Kenneth Patchen

Patchen was a poet with a thick diction and lead-footed cadence, and his poem "The Artist's Duty" is likewise a wide load and wide of its mark.It's a supreme example of what I've talked about constantly since I've started posting on the internet, the self-important poem-about-poetry. My point, in brief, is that the creation of art that contains it's own form as it's subject matter is evidence of a bored technician who , perhaps suffering from an inferiority complex in a world that they see as being really constructed by workers whose hands are layered in dead skin and scars, have to trumpet their own occupation. The notes are off key and played to o hard, the result being noise, not revelation. The aim , of course, is to convince the many that poetry such as that written by the secretly insecure poet is something no one can surive this life without. Patchen writes with a big, blunted pencil as he
advances his manifesto:

So it is the duty of the artist to discourage all traces of shame
To extend all boundaries
To fog them in right over the plate
To kill only what is ridiculous
To establish problem
To ignore solutions
To listen to no one
To omit nothing
To contradict everything
To generate the free brain
To bear no cross
To take part in no crucifixion
To tinkle a warning when mankind strays
To explode upon all parties
To wound deeper than the soldier
To heal this poor obstinate monkey once and for all

To verify the irrational
To exaggerate all things
To inhibit everyone
To lubricate each proportion
To experience only experience

To set a flame in the high air
To exclaim at the commonplace alone
To cause the unseen eyes to open

To admire only the abrsurd
To be concerned with every profession save his own
To raise a fortuitous stink on the boulevards of truth and beauty
To desire an electrifiable intercourse with a female alligator
To lift the flesh above the suffering
To forgive the beautiful its disconsolate deceit

To flash his vengeful badge at every abyss


It is the artist’s duty to be alive
To drag people into glittering occupations

To blush perpetually in gaping innocence
To drift happily through the ruined race-intelligence
To burrow beneath the subconscious
To defend the unreal at the cost of his reason
To obey each outrageous inpulse
To commit his company to all enchantments

Not graceful by any means--Patchen is an exclaimer, a walker in clown shoes--and his grandiosity of the important and great things he thinks a poet should do is a conceit he appropriated from Pound, one that he does not make any more interesting. Artists making art about their art are spinning their wheels most of the time, seemingly trying to convince themselves that they're geniuses when no inspiration is forthcoming. This is one of those kinds of poems; intriguing for historians, perfect for aspiring and delicate ubermensch, but useless for the poetry reader, or even the poet who has it in mind that a poet should be using poetry to see the world outside and not navel-gaze on it's own imaginary perfection.

Horace and Virgil and Wordsworth were able to turn poems about poetry into literary art because they were that rarest thing , writers of true genius.That's why they are are still read, and likely why the works have been preserved over time; quality does make a difference. I'd wager that they were able to write about anything they wanted to and be able to make it interesting for reasons beyond the ridiculous self-importance that goes on in Patchen's humorless puffery. Patchen is not a genius, and cannot really make his pedanticism rise to the level of being compelling.

Someone who seeks good writing, originality, fresh perception, unencumbered by an author's ham-handed attempts to disguise a lack of grace or power with what becomes a low-grade ideology. The reader is one who seeks a poet ,a writer who can get their ideas across without rhetoric usurping the subject.For the most part, at least this is what I have always assumed to be the case, most readers of poetry are practitioners of the craft. Even so, most poets read as readers, first and foremost, and they (we) in general react badly to writers swaggering around the page wasting their(our) time with hosannas about poetry's higher and grander purpose. There's an impatience with poets who don't sound as though they leave their house to take a meal with friends.

Poetry in particular is and always will be where the depths of soul are plumed, where emotions are bared,and writers will reinvent language again and again to capture the tension between interior sensibility and the harder facts of material life.Poetry is introspection by default; what we're talking about is how well the individual writer creates work that gets that oscillating tension. Navel gazing on poetry itself, though, is a dead giveaway, more often than not, that the writer has little to say and yet must hear his voice. Unfortunately, we get more prate than poetry when this the case. It's a dubious proposition that Patchen wrote these lines intending to be humorous or ironic; he took himself so seriously that a good laugh would crack his mask. As grandaddy to the Beats, heir apparent to Pound, he most likely meant every word he wrote here. Poets are the new priesthood, the antennae of the race, the mystics and fools who have turned their insanity into a virtue and now a weapon to upstage, upset and overthrow the repressed lives that The System gives us. This was revolutionary thinking in the fifties and sixties, when there was only a suburban squareness to rebel against, in addition to an illegal and immoral war in Vietnam.
One can well imagine a generation of poets and readers being wowed by someone insisting that wild and nonsequotor behavior and utterances are in fact a benefit to humanity. It merely seems quaint now, sadly dated. Patchen's certainty here seems ,in retrospect, something you'd see the late Dick Shawn singing in a Mel Brooks parody of counter culture heroes.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Poetry Everywhere is PBS website featuring what we'd call the Usual Suspects whenever a corporation or institution decides to pay tribute to what is generally treated as the bastard child of the arts. Their roster of talent, highlighted across the top of their web site, holds no surprises; there's no one to make you scratch your head and wonder. Sharon Olds, Billy Collins, ark Strand, it's all rather cozy. Videos of over exposed poets reading blandly, bloodlessly. The embalming of the muse continues. I wrote this on their sight when they invited folks to pose some questions the producer. No replies just yet. The remarks, presented below, are cleaned up and expanded from my original thesis, and that's alright--refusing to have one's tastes pickled in aspic should be something all of us should speak at length to. The fate of one's sanity depends on it:

I would say your selections are good for the particular style they represent, an intensely biographical narrative style that continually reveals a life's lesson that generally defeats the narrator's expectations. Monotony is the culminating effect, and poets highlighted here come to resemble the sort of constant whiners and complainers you avoid in everyday life. It would appear American Poetry is a slim side road and not a Great Highway, and that only a very few writers qualify for admission--interestingly enough, it seems a rigged game, with these writers being the same ones who get their books reviewed , win prestigious awards and have their poems anthologized in major collections. We know, in fact, that there is an intensely interesting diversity in American poetic life, and one is left to wonder whether you have the willingness to substantially expand your selection process.

At this point it would seem natural that poetry readers and poets themselves would be bored with recycling the same platitudes and tropes and rusty arguments concerning the post-Confessional defeatism Poetry Everywhere prefers and would prefer, demand even a spicier, more compelling buffet to graze upon. As is, too many of us in positions to actually bring more styles and arguments into the mode instead remain in the old neighborhood of deep sighs, gutless irony and the phonied up zen moments that make starting and ending a poem an easy thing, a formula that becomes disturbingly similar to the perfectly competant writer who can produce column copy by the hour and still manage not to offer a thought that makes you think through an ambiguity's nettlesome challenge to our collective thinking. Why have surprise, goes the assumption, why make things that are nice so unfamiliar, filled with strange perspectives and voices with accents and intonations that are different than our our own? Again, it's remaining stuck in one's location,not moving , not adding a book to the shelf; the upside is that one can always find their way home by the shapes of the old houses and storefronts, the same old landmarks. The downside is that you know how the poems are going to end, more or less, variations on the same scales, played real fast , medium tempo, or death dirge, but the same scales, the same half melody all the same.

The question, I suppose, is whether you intend to become bold and seek to really discover what poets are doing in this country, or if you will continue to highlight the over reviewed, the over praised, the over exposed?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Jack Spicer's Enormous Radio

My Vocabulary Did This to Me
The Collected Poems of Jack Spicer
Edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian

I am just finishing the “must read” poetry volume of the year, My Vocabulary Did this To Me, an anticipated republication of the poems by the late Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, and I have to admit that Spicer’s writing has me momentarily forgetting my prejudice against poems about poetry and poets and allowing myself to be knocked by the author’s third-rail wit. A singular figure who didn't fit in well with the Beats, the New York School, nor the San Francisco Renaissance, Spicer’s poems were a set of marginalia at the edges of the principle discussion as to what poetry was and ought to be, and as becomes clear as we read, his counter assertions, his asides, his declarations had more self contained clarity and vision than much of the stuff he looked askance at.

Interrogation of received notions was his on going theme, and ‘though the practice of making literary practice the unifying metaphor in a body of work tends to seal off poetry from an readership that could benefit from a skewed viewpoint—unlocking a door only to find another locked door, or a brick wall, ceases to be amusing once one begins to read poets for things other than status—Spicer rather positions the whole profession and the art as an item among a range of other activities individuals take on to make their daily life cohere with a faint purpose they might feel welling inside them. Spicer, in matters of money, sexuality, poetry, religion zeros on the neatly paired arrangements our language system indexes our hairiest ideas with and sniffs a rat when the description opts for the easily deployed adjectives, similes and conclusions that make the hours go faster.

Thing Language
By Jack Spicer

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.

There is reservedly antagonistic undercurrent to Spicer’s work, the subtle and ironic derision of the language arts that, as he sees them practiced, is locked up in matters of petty matters of status, property, the ownership of ideas, the expansion of respective egos that mistake their basic cleverness for genius. The world, the external and physical realm that one cannot know but only describe with terms that continually need to be resuscitated, is, as we know, something else altogether that hasn’t the need for elaborate vocabularies that compare Nature and Reality with everything a poet can get his or her hands on. What this proves, Spicer thinks (it seems to me, in any event) is that we know nothing of the material we try to distill in verse; even our language is parted out from other dialogues.

The Sporting Life
By Jack Spicer

The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios
don't develop scar-tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a
transistor, which most souls are, the battery or diagram
burns out replacable or not replacable, but not like that
punchdrunk fighter in a bar. The poet
Takes too many messages. The right to the ear that floored him
in New Jersey. The right to say that he stood six rounds with
a champion.
Then they sell beer or go on sporting commissions, or, if the
scar tissue is too heavy, demonstrate in a bar where the
invisible champions might not have hit him. Too many of
The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
counterpunching radio.
And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even
know they are champions.

Spicer is an interesting poet on several levels, all of them deep and rich with deposits that reward an earnest dig. He is , I think, on a par with Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams with the interest in grilling the elaborative infrastructure of how we draw or are drawn to specialized conclusions with the use of metaphor, and it is to his particular brilliance as a lyric poet, comparable to Frank O’Hara (a poet Spicer declared he didn’t care for, with O’Hara thinking much the same in kind) that the contradictions, competing desires and unexpected conundrums of investigating one’s verbal stream are made comprehensible to the senses, a joy to the ear. No one, really no one wrote as distinctly as the long obscure Spicer did, and editors Gizzi, Killian and publisher Wesleyan Press are to be thanked for restoring a major American voice to our shared canon.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Poems by Alan Shapiro

There are many things that need urgent opining upon that the only thing a hapless re-marker can do is scroll through the poetry archive at Slate and check out poetry editor's past selections. It's disconcerting when your self image as a cynical, brutal and hard-to-please curmudgeon takes a humbling when you come across a poet whose works you've consistently interesting, or enjoyed outright. Alan Shapiro is the poet I'm speaking of, and in his case I think he deserves the four hundred dollar stipend Slate poetry editor Robert Pinsky selections receive. So much bad writing gets obscene amounts of cash that it's refreshing when a good writer toiling in the least profitable of genres gets a little walking around money for his dedication to the art. There are quibbles and complaints, to be sure; vanity won't let get away without making like a junior league authoritarian once or twice. Shapiro, though, is a wonderful writer, worth seeking out.

First, can Microsoft improve on how these poems are recorded, or might the engineer insist on more than one take? Shapiro sounds as if he's just swallowed his own nose. His lack of emphasis, of any sort of dramatic flair does him no favors either.

"This and That" is an intriguing puzzle. This could be a first rate piece of writing, yet it stalls on its own conceit, the repetition of "this and that", which is distracting. Shapiro sounds bored with his details, or impatient to get the poem done, but whatever his state of mind, the continued application, stanza to stanza, with all the attending variation, stalls the work. Some other conceit should be worked out if there's to be some connecting colloquialism uniting the strand, but perhaps its best that the notion be abandoned altogether. There is marvelous, powerful writing here, and it will survive the troublesome T's.

And please, someone ask Mr. Shapiro to rewrite the last three stanzas where his concentration falls on the lone traffic light hovering over an empty town on a winter night. All builds to a power resolution until the last few lines

to recollect only enough
of what they used to mean to sharpen
this feeling of now forgetting it--

This obscures what should have been powerful, visual, final, with a knowing lack of finessed language. Instead, we get this, a cloud bank of frightened introspection, something from a grammarian's notebook. Lost in this gush of uncertain articles and un-anchored verbs is any sense of the physical world, an appealing element that until these last lines was so skillfully outlined with the description of the half-awake children and the splendid use of the objective correlative in having the white, barren town illustrate the narrator's quality of mind and action.

In these instances, the spoiling use of "this and that" aside, there is a skillful linking of an exterior world with an interior existence. The subjective is subtly, gracefully conveyed; Cheever short stories couldn't achieve a finer concision of telling detail.Shapiro needs to rewrite the last image, and pare it down a bit, as the build up borders on being overworked. The traffic light, waving in the snowy wind casting off signifying colors into a black night sky should remain as is, with as spare a remark as the author can manage. The image needs to speak for itself. The situation should be felt, not explained

"Suspension Bridge"is Whitman-like in all the good and bad senses of the term, good in so far that Shapiro gives us a breathless sweep of details, mostly unremarked upon or decorated qualifiers, that themselves form that Biblical rhythm of long lines hypnotic in their names and distinguishing marks, and bad in that at times the lines don't end soon enough as Shapiro finds yet more things to notice, to bring into his creation of this bridge as a center of a kind of combat.

The problem in that sense may be the reading--Shapiro sounds as if he lost his place a couple of times, the pacing tripped over itself. He sounded distracted , he paused too long, may be dropped a page , or had them out of order? No matter, I guess, since the poem is over stuffed to a degree suggesting a too-broad leg trying to cram is itself into a too-small pant leg. But I do like the poem, and there is much to admire here. Shapiro is remarkable with the way he brings elements that create a personality of place from a terrain otherwise seen as inert and coldly utilitarian:

Little lights along the catwalks
and ladders running up and down
the water towers near the shore,
and headlights shining into taillights
flashing on and off as far
as where the lanes converge and branch
off into ramps that cars swerve out
in front of other cars to take,
while other cars swerve out from on-ramps,
speeding or slowing as they merge.
Sensation of war. Of being mobilized.
Each urgent vehicle, each signal
and counter signal, flash of brake
light, finger reaching for the scan,
the tuner—all the too-small-
as-small maneuvers of a massive
operation, effect of orders
being passed down through a steel
chain of command, from car to car

Movements come across as herky-jerky, grinding and stuttering, traffic formatted as divisions of military components merging in some slowly coherent momentum toward a marked set of targets. There is the effect of a panning camera here, from the start describing the suspension bridge over the Mystic River, down to the tail lights of the cars, the lines , the broadening and narrowing traffic lanes and tributaries, all this brings into the heart of a downtown Boston on what feels like a winter day, with a last line that clinches the feeling that all is instinctual movement until the sun shines on the city streets again:

...the headlights
soon will sweep across, sweeping
across like searchlights over
the momentary faces and torsos
of manikins arranged like decoys
in civilian dress, in all
the postures of suspended living.

Beautifully expressed, with a language that's as crisp as the weather the poem evokes.This is about a city in search of a place to stand in it's wait for the center of the day, when the sun is at it's highest , over the bare trees and hard surfaces of the buildings and shines its brightest and warmest for those fleeting moments when one may pause, unfold their arms, move their fingers, take a deep breath, lift their faces as they squint their eyes, a brief moment that life is it's worth and value and that the air carries a whiff of spring scurrying on breezes scurrying around city blocks, the city comes for a time unfrozen that day and for a time it's citizens go back to work, thinking of their lives and homes, perhaps, and not the suspension bridge many of them will soon enough have to drive over again to the homes that wait for them.


This poem reads like John Updike's prose, not a bad thing at all, though it the condition comes with the same objections; the writing is too rich in parts for the subject matter and the idea under it all. The flower, the iris, we address, is being weighed down not just by another blossom coming to life, but by Shapiro's bright, violent eloquence.

"Inter animating pain" is telling and didactic, fine for a prose sequence that are philosophical investigations of a kind, but for what is at heart an imagist-inspired verse, finding significance in the smallest of seemingly small things, the sound this makes is too loud. It's the sound of traffic roaring by the park we imagine this setting to be in, not the park itself.

A softer, less compounded word set is needed, as this confuses and stuns you with its remarkable achievement in phrase making, but makes you forget the poem you were reading. It derails the process. Likewise, a ghostly time lapse in reverse is simply the poet working too hard at being memorable. It's too much verbiage for the length of the line and the images it attempts to give character too. Simpler language would have worked better, I think, and given the lines a faster, surer, rhythmic flow. A lyric poem, which this is essentially is, needs to consider its tempo, its musical meter, and eliminate anything that does not service the sentiment.

All told, though, "Iris" is quite a good love poem, very fine for Valentines Day. Fussy as his diction an be at distinct moments, he organizes his images credibly, beautifully, and draws his comparison between the blossoming iris, with the opening and closing of petals, the way the plant gives grows and changes and modifies its existence with the lovers ever so subtly, gracefully.

It's the second part of the poem I think works most well, where the metaphors are wed, the quick cutting between the flower and the couple, the last statement crystallizing the ideal of being inseparable. On re-write, I'd suggest Shapiro cut the beginning, spending less time setting up the final metaphor, the last very fine set of images.


Shapiro has a feel for the vaguely sad and sullen poem, and he does it well ; "Egg rolls" has the kind of Carveresque undercurrent of percolating anxiety that makes the everyday things we pass through rife with small wars being fought between people whose relations are both the source of their strength and security and the relentless doubt that hovers just over them.

The nice Hitchcockian effect of this wander being started with what ought to have been only a slight disagreement about whether egg rolls should be eaten or passed on by indicts the reader into a curious conspiracy to guess the larger dynamic, the bigger controversy under the passing remarks and criticism. A perfect device for a poem, eavesdropping, wherein only portions of conversation and chatter are heard, mixed and blended and obscured and otherwise enhanced by the incidental noise of a busy restaurant. What Shapiro does well, as he has before in this section, is give detail that is precise, arranged and described in ways avoid the impulse to add ornamentation or irrelevant literary references;

The gregarious babble
muffled the sharp
words the couple
in the next booth
were trying all
through dinner not
to have;
an occasional
No you, you
listen for a change,
or How dare you
or I can't believe this
would rise
above the barely
staccato please
god not now
not here rhythm of
an argument they wanted
both to swallow
and spit out.

Then the pause,
the momentary
silence in which
the whole place
to be listening

What works here is the breathless pacing, the rhythm that reminds you of someone rushing across the street, leaning forward. Noise, motion, psychology are woven together in a mind that is frantic to sort out and make sense of the small disturbances at other tables that make him dread the consequences of those parts of his life he hasn't lived yet. Shapiro is perhaps the best poet I've read so far of the new Urban Nervousness. It's a poetry whose nerves are bad, an over alert and agitated sensibility that is easily set off into a worrying verse.Shapiro makes it a point to have the reader aware that his narrator isn't merely considering the abyss in a gloomy, formlessly downcast mood, but that the unease is triggered from external incidents; noises, things said, the reaction of others.Shapiro makes mention of the reaction of others in the restaurant ; all the changes and intensification of spirit are matters that churn in the author's unrelenting self-analysis, but the linear aspect here is not a separate bit of language considering only it's inability resolve the problematic.

It's an interior life presented as simultaneous with the presentation of self in relative degrees of public performance; first the overheard conversation in the restaurant, and then the more private realm of intimacy where there still remains another person for whose benefit a mask must be maintained, and then the unknown qualities of a wakeful mind constantly processing the effect and intent of its own motions and analyzing each interaction for evidence of something not seen. So linear, yes, but not without recourse to the phenomena outside the mind.And I do think that Shapiro's execution here is masterful, a wonderful blurring of an overly alert consciousness interacting in the otherwise meaningless interactions that make up daily life.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Rock and roll makes you stupid

Like many another clueless air guitar rebel, I sang in a band during the Seventies, a strange assortment of druggies, layabouts, alkies and genius geeks who all loved hard rock. I was the singer, and the songs I sang ranged from Trower to Led Zep to Deep Purple to Mountain--I had a miserable voice but I was the one who could get a raspy tone and volume, so sang I did. No one seemed to mind, most likely because they were usually as drunk as I was. In any case, Dewar and Trower were the perfect combination of singer and guitarist--there likely hasn't been a collaboration this good since Rod Steward and Jeff Beck or Paul Rodgers and Paul Kossoff (in the late, great band Free). Trower, additionally, is about my favorite British blues guitarist--he broke the Clapton mold his fellows got snared by and developed his own sound; I think he's quite distinct from Hendrix, even with the similarities. I've seen him pass through town in the last few years, and the man plays better than he ever has. Yeah. Great stuff. The saddest day of my life , though, was when someone who'd recorded one of my band's kegger gigs played the the gig--we sounded awful. Even the time-honored honored rock and roll aesethetic the favors attitude over expertise, we we sucked,in turn, long, deep and hard. A bag full of agitated electric razors would have sounded better than the clamour we were producing, out of tune, atonal,thumping, with a guitarist who was fried on cocaine and rum who managed to make his guitar sounded worse than car alarms screaming in a West Virginia mall. I , in turn, had the timbre that sounded, to be kind to myself, like someone who was clearing his throat over the loudest microphone on the stage. A crazed dog would have told me to shut the fuck up. I didn't stay quiet, though. That night we had a gig and what I did was to drink more and scream harder. My voice was gone the following morning and I could talk or eat shell fish for a month.

More Bricks To Throw at Metallica

Well, they did, they inducted the mechanical thrashers Metallica into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while my hometown boys, Iggy and the Stooges and the sainted MC5 have yet to be given a serious consideration. As with anything else that begins as a good idea and then lasts a number of years beyond its relevance, the RRHOF seems to have ossified on all the clichés that have ever been written to sell rock and roll as a rebel’s art. Sell indeed; Metallica seemed to have done nothing more with their recorded output except take the ideas of other bands and make them faster, louder, something like a cross between Deep Purple, Lou Reed and Yes in the ways the respective elements of chronic riffing, lower-rung rage and self-loathing, and over busily arrangements and rapid time signatures have been forced together in a shotgun wedding of stale ideas. Of course, we should think them elevated and serious; I find them patently ridiculous. Metallica is perfectly ordinary, and no amount of close inspection to their lyrics or their solos will make these fellas any less pretentious and annoyingly self-important. For guitar work, I'll take anything from Joe Pass, John McLaughlin or Steve Morse over the ostinato-glutted hysteria these guys offer up as expressive breaks in their lumbering arrangements. I will dedicate some time to listening to better music, thank you.

I very much doubt that more orchestration or operatic readings of already histrionic material would change my opinion of Metallica's directionless frenzy. What they do, though, is little more than a synchronized slamming of car doors, and beyond representing all the unspent adrenaline and immature anger that is the province of male brains that haven't reached full maturity, there is nothing beyond their volume and their alacrity. It's a good thing you like the Stooges, but really, they were way ahead of the curve. The Stooges, the MC5, and the Velvet Underground invented punk rock, and all things being equal, these bands are infinitely more interesting than the dunderhead pud-pounding of Metallica and the subculture they claim to represent.

The fact remains, the Stooges and the MC5 (along with the Velvet Underground) created the punk rock aesthetic and formed the first genuinely alternative rock to what the record companies were marketing. Even in an era, the Sixties, whose survivors pride themselves on their musical inclusiveness, the above three bands were the ones you didn’t invite your party; they were anti-consensus, anti-good time, and performed a music that stripped itself of any attempts to be “poetic” or socially redeeming. Instead, their vocabularies were stripped to the bone, expressing the untreatable pain that stabbed you in the heart as the world contradicted itself. Stooges, MC5, Velvets, all were bands that had nothing invested in affirming an audience’s idea of itself. Their fatalism was natural, not acquired, and this is the reason, I think their respective albums still sound fresh and bracing some forty years later. Defenders of Metallica, sure enough, will attack the lack of professional musicianship on the part of the three bands, and emphasize Metallica’s technical prowess on their instruments. This misses the point, and I suspect these guys would make ideal Olympic Event Judges, where speed, accuracy, and agility are everything. This isn’t the case with rock and roll.

If you're going to insist that technical expertise makes for better rock and roll, you've got a severely limited idea of what rock and roll should be. It's a primitive music in essence, and I think it more intriguing and worth dwelling on Iggy's idea of sub-literate anger and joy to be more visceral and convincing than the muscle-car slamming of Metallica's impotent, aged, dented hide. Really, Metallica is Arena Rock, as corporate as Journey ever was. They really and truly suck the Big One, long deep and hard.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

After the Service: Moans of the Embalmed

Clumsy titles don't grab me at, but it's useful to see if the ill-phrases follows suit in the actual work. Fortunately, J.Allyn Rosser's poem After the Service, the Widow Considers the Etymology of the Word Salary transcends the gabby quaintness. For starters, I would have junked the original title of this poem had I written and instead stared at the finished piece for a few moments, finally relying on the old trick of making the last full phrase of the poem the name of the piece. In this case, "Sighs for My Meat". Odd, strange, a communication from someone who can't find the words, this alternate title fits the Eliotesque tone of exhaustion, ennui, boredom that barely conceals the feeling that inevitable death is catching up with them. Private language is not always an element that makes for a good poem-- too many poets, at every level of skill and ineptitude, consider the purposeless disguising of meaning , or worse, clumsy, abstruse phrase-making, as enough to make a poem and to force the reader to commence with the equivalent of an archeology dig for the treasure--but Rosser, like Eliot, doesn't obscure the emotional context of her subject. One is, of course, compelled to fill in the blanks, but we do get the gist, we get a crystallized essence, that of a someone alone, after a service, returning to the daily rituals and routines where the familiar things are made strange, foreboding.

This morning began like anyone's:
coffee. Mine a bitter roast
too weak for the daytime
that keeps me up half the night.

Nothing seems to bring her out the stupor of half-sleep; the coffee, meant to energize and give purpose to one's day, only ruins both one's waking hours and the time of one's slumber and tastes bitter besides. The days ahead are approached with caution, a creeping dread that changes the flavor of what's in the cabinet.

Back home, I liven things up
by microwaving popcorn:
an edible jazz I feed to the trash
for our walk to the curb.

The small matters that might have given a lightness to the day now seem a burden and all one can do is improvise around the rituals that made home life a joy in the recent past, but it is insubstantial, a bit of business that's an attempt to distract one from the core set of anxieties their thoughts keep centering upon. All the things we make become waste, all things of this earth return to the earth.

At the end of the day, one shadow
seems made of a deeper gray:
have I somehow earned this
by refusing for years to fear it?
I was speaking to a friend the other night on the matter of aging and he, a robust 70-year-old, remarked that he is at the point in his life where half the people he's ever known, those his own age, are dead. To combat his despair, he remains active: his hand goes out toward new friendships all the time; at times this seems like a mild mania he suffers from and one wonders how convincingly he can become best friends with a host of associates he's known only scant years and who, generally, are fifteen to twenty years his junior. But he smiles, this man who's been to many funerals, he is gracious, he is engaged with his world and community and he, perhaps, has found something that essence that of attitude, of spirit, that prevents the objects of his world from becoming harbingers, reminders, latent symbols of demise. But Rosser's speaker hasn't this resilience, a creature of habit for whom the familiar items seem merely to taunt and withhold truths. There is a parsing of the words one uses to describe their quality of being--a dissection, in other words, of something that is already dead.

Here at last my martini
embalming its hollowed olive,
and, as apparently originally intended,
salt for my salary, sighs for my meat.

A martini, embalming, a hollowed olive, the price one has paid for their life, salt for the meat, we have a language that finds itself conflated, with meanings and emphasis spilling over one another, a pickled narrator pondering the inevitable from the standpoint of something that is not living in any vital way but merely preserved. Rosser's language is masterfully exact in the sort of round-robin associations these bouts of pronounced foreboding can bring. This flesh is scarred, embattled, without a determining will to make a change this late in life, this flesh is tired, wounded. This is the internal narrative of someone waiting for the other shoe to fall.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Premature Burial: Greil Marcus Mummifies A Great Song

Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the CrossroadsAuthor Greil Marcus made a name as rock critic by insisting that the tide of history is directly mirrored by the pop music of the period. This can make for exhilarating reading, because Marcus is, if nothing else, an elegant stylist given to lyric evocation. But it is that same elegance that disguises the fact that he comes across a middling Hegelian; the author, amid the declarations about Dylan, the Stones, the Band, and their importance to the spontaneous mass revolts of the sixties, never solidifies his points. He has argued , with occasional lucidity, that the intuitive metaphors of the artist/poet/musician diagnose the ills of the culture better than any bus full of sociologists or philosophers, and has intimated further that history is a progression toward a greater day. Marcus suggests through his more ponderous tomes—Lipstick Traces, Invisible Republic, The Dustbin of History—that the arts in general, and rock ‘n’ roll in particular, can direct, in ways of getting to the brighter day, the next stage of our collective being.
Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads is an attempt to assemble a history of the pivotal song, bringing together well-worn facts about dates, names, and incidents that have been amply discussed in many previous studies of Dylan’s life and work. The idea buzzing underneath Marcus’ account of the people, places, and things that led up the creation of “Like a Rolling Stone,” the six-minute transitional masterpiece that made rock and pop musicians do a hard left turn, was that Dylan was the hero in a history and was not aware that he would be a hero. Known and more obscure facts about Dylan’s life and writing are presented breezily. Brought to us are short, sharp glimpses of how Dylan moved from being an imitator of Woody Guthrie and backwoods balladeers to a hero of the civil rights movement. He was fascinated with French Symbolist poets Rimbaud and Verlaine and the Beats (especially the barbed-wire prose of William Burroughs).
The diffusely presented elements eventually lead to Dylan’s controversial decision to abandon folk music and to “go electric.” It’s conceptually intriguing for Marcus to focus on the titular song and the entire album it was drawn from, 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited. The incidents, the details, and the exchanges—real and imagined—of who Dylan was working and socializing with at the time of the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone” are fascinating in themselves, but the elliptical style is frustrating as one finishes one chapter and starts another : you begin to wonder when the data begins to cohere into an argument for what it all means. Marcus prefers a gestalt approach, to have his topic appreciated from the many obscure incidents instead of having everything presented in complex theory. The reader is likely supposed to understand what he’s getting at without the professor’s hand directing him back to the chalk board diagram. An admirable trait in more skillful writers, but Marcus is often gets lost in the smallest implications of any one piece of evidence. The lack of even the slightest thesis statement, the failure to follow through on any intriguing idea that arises from his research is maddening.
Lucky for the reader Marcus is an engaging prose writer, and one can forgive to a degree for not being clearer with what he was getting at. His preferred method seems to be inference rather than careful argument; there is something in his tone that seems to be inspired by the early poems of Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Like them, he seems content to let the “sense-making” to the reader. I suppose everyone knows a character like Marcus, a smart person who makes smart declarations about large, expansive topics but lacks the skills or willingness to make the formal argument.
Marcus, though, isn’t the one to draw us the map. But what has been aggravating with Marcus since he left the employ of Rolling Stone and began writing full-length books and essays for cultural journals is that he chokes when there’s a point to be made—he defers, he sidesteps, he distracts, and he rather gracelessly changes the subject. Again, this can be enthralling, especially in a book like his massive Lipstick Traces the Secret History of the 20th Century where he assumes some of Guy DeBord’s assertions in Society of the Spectacle and situates rock ‘n’ roll musicians in a counter-tradition of groups that spontaneously develop in resistance to a society’s centralized ossification and mounts an attack, through art, on the perceptual filters that blind the masses to their latent genius.
He never quite comes to the part where he satisfyingly resolves all the mounting, swelling, grandly played generalizations that link Elvis, the Sex Pistols, and Cabaret Voltaire as sources of insight geared to undermine an oppressive regime, but the reader has fun along the way. Marcus wants to be a combination of Marcuse and Harold Bloom, and he rarely accomplishes anything, the singular criticism either of them produced in their respective disciplines, political philosophy, and literary criticism, but he does hit the mark often enough to make him a thinker worth coming back to.
Marcus has written so much about Dylan, or has absorbed so much material about him, that he can produce a reed-thin critique on one song and pretend that it is much, much more than what it really is. The problem is a lack of thesis, a conceit Marcus at least pretends to have with his prior volumes; he depends entirely on third-hand anecdotes, half-recollected memories, and a flurry of details gleaned from any one of the several hundred books about Dylan published over the last 30 years. This amounts to little more than what you’d have if you transcribed a recording of the singer’s more intense fans speaking wildly, broadly, intensely amongst themselves, by passing coherence for Sturm and Drang. For the rest of us with a saner appreciation of Dylan’s importance, Like a Rolling Stone is a messily assembled jumble of notes, press clippings, and over-told stories. Marcus, obviously enough, attempts an impressionistic take on the song, but the smell of rehash doesn’t recede, ever.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A poem


You come and stand
in every door
saying that
it is time to get going.
This is before the dew
evaporates from the slats of lawn chairs
baking in the sun all day.

Traffic, always cars,
gets thick as my tongue
at noon, u-hauls
and trailer homes
leaving for cooler towns up North.
Announcers in
steam bath booths
loosen their ties, the grass of the
playing field is brown, balls are
felled in zones of death,
are drunk and lose their tongues
as a lather of news, weather and sports
leaves a trail up I-5, alias North.

You stand in every door,
monotonous as
suburbs choking
the shrubs from
the canyons.
I lose my tongue
thinking how far
I would travel
over how many
state lines
in the grace and chase
after Manifest Destiny
to see you, just a glimpse
from the corner of the eye
that worries
the crow’s feet,
to see how
you come from a neighbor's house
clutching Tupperware
and a deck of cards
both to your breasts.

TV aerials
from the
eaves of patio living
claw the sky,
the feet
of a million dead crows,
winter settles
over the land
like a serving
of cold shoulder
on disrupted kitchen tables,
along the road
poking out from pine tree groves
promise hot meals
at family restaurants
bearing a sidekick’s first name.
Side kicks
always have
only one name,
one syllable whispers
on a road
that stretches
into architectures of high risk investment
where there are no products
any one mentions,
only the promise
of return, life in heaven.

You stand in all doors
and talk to me about the scratches
on record collections
as if the wear of years
had something to
do with the lyric sheets
whose italics express
something to do with feeding
the poor, ending war,
love lasting
until even corner stones
on ugly buildings
are worn away
by weather and wind.
Strangely, I am
in gymnasiums again,
dances, registered
desire, long hair,
wire glasses,
jeans tight as snake's skin,
hips and knees
triangulating new laws of form
and sex to drums and
guitar solos lost
in the rafters and rapture
of feeling, then,
that noise is power
and we would be marching
to live a life
based on album lyric sheets
and scarred records
we play back wards
with a back hand,
the rooms you were already in
reeked of sweet smoke, and hope
for the world
were selling
of underground newspapers
that would sell
us what we believed.

You stand in
doors you choose
because the light of living
room windows
is your idea
of peace in a world
where anyone else
builds walls around the walls
it already has and
thus misses the impossible
things going on
while the audience awaits
more supermarket sales,

I am still thinking
of drinking up what's
left in hours when hands of
the clocks slow down
and kill the last hour
with kindness.

I might ask you
to please move aside,
I think it is my turn
to play with the knob

Until you come and stand
in every door again
on the chance to get my attention,
there is smoke coming from
buildings on the TV set,
Manhattan is clouds and debris
as hand held cameras
show us the steel and
glass that flies endlessly into
the acres of empty air
and then down the street,

Every door is ours only by virtue
of our wanting to be here
when the days of obligation are over
and we live on hours
paid for in full,

I see the images of the sky falling
apart over New York,
you stand in the doorway
leaning against the frame,
only half way in the room
as if in a pose to leave, grab your shoes,
grab your bag,
get a cab at the curb, go home
and moan by yourself
for all the screams which are not heard
on a day when it seems every
lie I ever created and told,
every fiction I have ever constructed
and test drove in crowds
into microphones,
in front of rows of empty chairs
catch up with me,
knocks on the door,

Makes me forget you are there
even as you now stand in
front of the set,

I crane my neck to see
what is happening
but you move as well
and block the view,

I grab you around the waist
where you stand
and ask if you will love
me until the sky falls
and I can hear you breath deep,
my ear against your stomach,
your hand on my head,

forever, you say,
however long it takes.

Monday, April 6, 2009

What's killing bookstores are cheapskates and dead beats

Ron Silliman kindly provides his readers with a frequent list of links to other blogs and online publications that he's found interesting, and part of his dutiful attention is dedicated to bringing us the unfolding stories involved in the demise of independent bookstores. Resilient as these venues are, they seem caught in an inevitable movement of cultural shift-- bookstores are no longer the community centers one would go to purchase books and in turn have purchase in the larger discussion that strengthens a democracy. On line purchases are just cheaper, and in the change of national habit , customers are willing to wait so they can recieve a discount. This is a tide that threatens to swamp the big stores too, with Borders and Barnes and Nobel struggling to keep their cash registers humming. Last week I walked into the downtown Borders in San Diego and wondered if I'd walked into an oversized living room; the cash registers were idle much of the time, but the store was full, seemingly peopled by freeloaders sitting in chairs with stacks of books piled at their feet. What was appearent was that very few of those books would be purchased and the books in turn would be dog eared, bent , battered and otherwise made less than pristine. The staff, in turn, seemed as though they could give a flat fuck about the state of the store; sections were out of order. Vain as I am, I wanted to yell at someone.

Charles Taylor published published an essay in 2005 in The New York Times where he asks , point blank, when did bookstores get turned into “flophouses”. His set of choicely- phrased gripes concern the way in which huge chain stores like Barnes and Noble have created atmospheres that encourage the derelicts in the population to turn bookstores into living rooms, much to the disadvantage of browsers who’d like to find a book to read and, perchance, purchase. I understand Taylor’s misgivings about bookstores being turned into playpens for the lonely, the trendy and the socially inept, and I've seen every sin of self-absorption he's described and decried.

My principle beef is with those who treat the bookstore as if it were a library, a place to either sit and read from the shelf in stages, dog-earing and chafing the item beyond saleability (pages bent down, spines cracked, covers creased and curled), or for those researching whatever complex and vaguely outlined project they've set for themselves. This second example is especially loathsome, since these folks, students with no money more often than not, appear with their backpacks and spend some time in three or four sections, taking books here and there, and then settle in someplace, usually an aisle, sitting on the floor, books open and turned upside down, with the ersatz scholars copying whole paragraphs from texts they have no intention of buying.

I have found more than one person copying pages with their cell phone cameras, an interesting method of shop lifting. We considered banning cell phone use inside the store, but were convinced by the less soured staff that such devices were the sort of thing that had to be tolerated; whine as we might, we're not in the business of telling customers what they can't do. All the same, it grates , and it greys the hair.There is nothing more exasperating than the wounded-animal look these peculiar sorts give you when we remind them (really!) that they're in a bookstore, not a library. One girl who'd been feverishly copying passages from an expensive philosophy book from a pricey university publisher actually asked me this:

"You mean you don't want me to take notes?"
"No. These books are for sale..."

“For sale?”


“Just let me finish this one thing I started to write….” Her voice took on the squeaking whine of noisy plumbing.

“This isn’t a negotiation. Put your pen away. Do you want to buy this book?”

“Do you have it used?”


She was sitting in a graceless lotus position on the floor, holding the book open on her lapso that the binding continued to crack. I leaned over and took the book from her, closing it and smoothing the front and back covers with my hands. I only wish I had a snapshot of the clueless, uncomprehending expression she had on her face as her mouth gaped open and her eyes quite literally filmed over as if trying to grasp something as abstract as the idea that we were a store and needed to sell books. Sell books, not rent them, exchange them, lend them out, let you read them to a grimy pulp, photocopy them, borrow them or any other form of exchange that falls outside the boundary of a simple cash or credit card transaction.

Less attractive are the world travelers who have the money to take vacations in far flung corners and exotic niches of the globe, yet who are so miserly in their preparation that they won't purchase travel guides but will instead spend up to an hour in your store copying airline and hotel information from a current book onto index cards. There is an industry term for this sort of clientele. Here it is in the form of an inside joke. A cranky bookseller goes up to a young wannabe hipster who'd been lingering long and uselessly in the poetry section and say to him

"Young man, you remind me Jack Kerouac....”
The young poser's eyes widen at the apparent praise.
"Really," he says breathlessly.
"Yup," says the cranky bookseller,"you're both dead beats."

Friday, April 3, 2009

A shameless self-promotion: I HAVE A POEM IN DIAGRAM!!

I am pleased to say that the good folks at Diagram magazine have chosen a poem of mine for their new issue and that issue is now online I am in especially strong company in this issue. There isn't a weak page from any contributor

A poem by Jeffrey Yang

There is great appeal in the work of poets who can artfully contain a series of ideas in a brief piece of verse, the goal being to turn philosophical precepts into the glitter surface of a poem’s allure and still address an issue quite beyond the more comfortable subjects of beauty or an aesthetically constrained idea of Truth, capial “T”. Jeffrey Yang’s first collection, An Aquarium (Graywolf Press) is a series of poems that at first seem like they concern themselves exclusively with ocean life; indeed they do, but the author is shrewd in seeing what other areas, outside the aquarium tank, these creatures touch upon. Yang offers up a view on how we think about things. Here, in the poem Parrotfish , the creature is nearly lost as the poems starts like the first sentence of an encyclopedia entry and quickly turns into a bit of cocktail chatter seeming between artists, secret agents and critics, all of whom sacrifice the subject in favor of extending their rhetorical devices.

The life phases of a parrotfish
are expressed in colors.By day,
the parrotfish replenishes coral reef
sands, and by night spins
its mucous cocooned-
room. Is this art's archetype
abstracted from politics?
Picasso thought abstraction a cul-de-
sac. The CIA loved Abstract
Expressionism. Hockney: "I
don't think that there is really such a thing
as abstraction." Langer:"All genuine art
is abstract."
What do you think parrot-

I think the aim is to undermine the insidious intent of rhetorical questions that frame ready made political assumptions. The question in "Is this art's archetype abstracted from politics" forces agreement from the reader though it's disingenuous appeal to a person's vanity, from which an argument may be made for agendas that have little to with art, parrotfish, or life in general. This is the use of language that treats the things in nature as if they were symbols, real or potential, for great oppositions at war in an unseen metaphysical realm.
Yang seems aware that there is a very human tendency to regard the world outside our senses as though it were a linear narrative being played out, with virtues reducible to good v evil, beauty v vulgarity, honesty v criminal intent being the principle extremes in play. The narrative form , the storyline, is a convenient way of making the raw experience comprehensible, but taking a cue from Heidegger's work in phenomenology, Yang would have us be aware that the parrotfish and its environmental niche are not abstractions of anything but rather expressions of their own life. "Back to the data", as the man said and, in the choice phrase of the confounding Ezra Pound ,"the natural object is already the adequate symbol".

He follows the erring assumptions to an unsual but logical conclusion: the symbol of beauty and abstraction must surely be brilliant intellectually, and so must, by default, have an opinion of the matter. He places us in witness to an absurdity: intelligent men, seduced by their nuanced sophistry, asking a fish for an informed opinion.
Yang seems to me to be making fun of the way we call things either "beautiful" or "abstract"; for all the sophisticated and nuanced reasons critics, theologians and agents of intrigue approach the subject, the competing philosophies all fall short, far short of articulating something truly tangible. The irony is that the embodiment of all this speculation, the lexicon-heavy guess work to a thing's essence, is not aware that it is beautiful, abstract, or is somehow an embodiment of a set of ideas that are meant to change the world. The parrotfish isn't even aware that it's a parrotfish, which is entirely the point--it is too busy being part of the the rest of it's underworld. Unlike human beings, who are continually trying to separate themselves from nature so that they may subjugate it a little more.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Don't Be Cruel: Say No to National Poetry Month

Well, yeah, I'm grumpy some of the time, and I've been accused of being a curmudgeon in regards to National Poetry Month, the annual dedication to an elusive art with a small audience that itself is divided among several hundred-seeming schools of thought as to what is genuinely worth reading or promoting. The reservations come chiefly from the attitude that poetry is something pathetic in itself, with Special Needs, and that there is a collective delusion in the publishing world that poetry can be made more popular by hyping the form with the cliched hokum that sounds culled from New Age screeds. It's a little infuriating to witness an art that you believe, at it's best, sparks the unusual idea or the unforeseen connection within a reader be reduced as something that marketers promise to deliver a consumer to an even deeper vat of circumscribed thinking.

I wouldn't say my remarks about National Poetry Month are grumpy, just realistic. On the face of it I welcome a month dedicated to the art , craft and diversity of poets and their work , and even think that the month might well bring new readers to poetry as something they'd read in their leisure time. The problem is that once we give someone or some thing a special day, week, or month for the nominal purpose of increasing awareness, most of the population bothering to observe what the calendar day commemorates will nod their head, bow their head, read a few poems, maybe buy a single volume that will likely wind up half way finished and atop a coffee table, a page bent down to mark a page,not be picked up again, and then be done with it for the year. It certainly gives major publishers significant favorable publicity so they can present themselves as more than bottom-line obsessed subsidiaries of malignant media corporations: look at what we're doing to support the arts, look at our love of poetry!!

There are poets who benefit, many of them I count my favorites, but the fact that poetry in general has a month dedicated to it's supposed welfare seems more to me that the rest of the literary world considers the form a poor, sickly relative; April as poetry month is the metaphorical gulag, a ghetto, a hospice, that space where this art, which no publisher seems to know how to market so it contributes usefully to their bottom line, is allowed to make it's noise, indulge their rhetoric for a short period in the spot light before being ushered from the stage and back to the margins.

Poets, the work they do, the theories they develop regarding their art has been the most rarefied and most diffuse of the arts as it developed since the encroachment of Modernism over turned the conventional thinking about poetry's form and purpose. It's been to poetry's advantage, I think, that the audience has been small, very small, compared to the other genres that help publishers make their payrolls and their dividends, since the relative obscurity has allowed poets of many different styles and concerns, politics and agendas to advance their art and arguments , both Quietist and Post-Avant Gard, unconcerned with a commercial aspect that wasn't theirs to begin with. National Poetry Month is something like a zoo the city folk may visit on their days off , and the poets are the exotic creatures who will perform their tricks, do their dances, take their bows for the smattering of applause and loose coin that might come their way. Generally speaking, poets and their work would be better off, and saner as well, if the illusion that a dedicated month will increase the readership and increase book sales as well.

It would be better for poets to stop behaving like their in need of rehabilitation and went about their business, doing what we're supposed to do to the best our individual and collective abilities. If the work is good, interesting, of quality on it's own terms, the audience , whatever the size, will come.


(A related piece from two years ago, with a link to a useful Charles Bernstein essay.-tb)

We are here in April again, and those of us concerned a little about poetry as art need again accommodate the ludicrous thing called National Poetry Month. The hope is to get folks to change their reading habits to include poetry volumes along with their steady diets of mysteries, romances, celebrity cookbooks and memoirs written by people who will soon to be exposed as liars and cheats. Is there hope for the General Audience? The divisions in the Poetry War are drawn, both sides will wage battle for the soul of the book buyer , but the pathetic truth is that vast promotion and arguments as to the worth of verse are to no avail. Literally, no one is buying it. Or buying too little of it for the fuss and bother of having a month out of the year dedicated to poets and their obscurities.
The General Audience I speak of is vague, purposefully so, as it speaks to anyone who has an amorphous notion of how to generalize about poetry readers share in common. The war between various schools, groups and the like strikes me as more bickering between the professionals, poets, critics and academics (some of whom happen to practice all three occupations) who have status and power on the line as they advance their agenda and create an enemy camp in the interests of bolstering whatever claims can be made for a particular group's alleged superior aesthetics. Some of this ongoing disagreement is fascinating and useful, since the distinctions as they’re clarified can be informative and the criticisms each has of the other’s perceived shortcomings can potentially yield insight on issues a writer might be otherwise be too close to.

I have my preferences, sure, and I subscribe to a particular set of principles, but these rules of poetry are worn like a loose suit, not a straight jacket. Most readers who a general interests in poetry , contemporary and older, will like or dislike a variety of different approaches to verse for an equally varied set of reasons, most of which, if asked, our hypothetical General Reader would be able to explain if asked. The basic question of a poem, whether written for the lyric voice, the vernacular rant, or the experimental rigorist, is whether it works or not, both on its own terms and in terms of whether it gives pleasure or joy. Someone might suggest that teachers could increase the audience for poems if they taught the material better, but this is a strawman.We can't lay this at the teacher's feet because it's my firm conviction that most poetry, ambitious or otherwise, isn't going be the thing the large majority of their students will take after in adulthood, regardless of how good or bad a job the instructor might be. We're talking about adult readers here, those who have reading habits formed and in place for a lifetime; some are more curious about more ambitious forms, most who read poetry prefer the greatest hits of Whitman, Plath or Dickens, if they read poetry at all, and the General Audience, as we've been calling them, has not interest in poetry what so ever, except when they need a quote for a funeral or a wedding.

In other words, people who might buy a book of poems do so for reasons that are the same as they always have been, word of mouth, display, book review, and so on. Things like National Poetry Month do so very little to increase the fraction of the book buying public to have even a casual appreciation of poetry; they simply don't care for those things that are not measurable by generic conventions. Charles Bernstein wrote a cogent, if slightly smug essay in 1999 called "Against National
Poetry Month As Such"
in which he derides the notion that publishers and a clatch of state and federal arts czars can increase interest in and sales of poetry collections by reducing to the level of the contrived New Age/faux mediation group think that would have us read the literature with the hope that stress and pain will go away.(I am thinking myself of Roger Housden's odious collection "Ten Poems To Change Your Life",which abuses the work of good poets by presenting them as accessories one buys on impulse at the cash register).Bernstein's main point is well taken with me, that poetry is being sold as something it isn't, like the volumes poets publish are good for you in the way that pop psych and New Age literature claim to be. What is being sold are the specious promises of poetry, not the poetry itself which, of all the literary arts, should stand alone , unencumbered by political or therapeutic contrivance. National Poetry Month is a hypocritical waste of time, I think, a commercial venture born of the kind of cynicism that enables corporations to manipulate buyers into purchasing things they haven't an honest need for.