Friday, July 31, 2009

WAHRENBROCK'S BOOK HOUSE, RIP: A Letter from Dennis Wills

Wahrenbrock's Book House, a literary resource in San Diego for decades, has suddenly closed it's doors forever. Information about the reason for the abrupt closure is scant, and the loss of this store leaves a significant gap in San Diego's reading and cultural life. Bookseller Dennis Wills, owner of D.G.Wills Books , was a good friend of the esteemed late owner Chuck Valverde and wrote this letter to all who've loved and found solace in Wahrenbrock's crowded stacks, finding the odd, the unusual, the rare, the crucial book they had in mind when they entered the store. Dennis expresses as well as anyone can the gravity of the loss:

To whom it may concern:

I have just learned that Wahrenbrock's Book House will close. While I remain unaware of any pertinent details which may have led to such a decision, I heartily implore any powers that be to reconsider the grave and momentous implications of such a decision. Sylvia Beach, publisher of James Joyce's Ulysses and owner of the renowned Shakespeare and Company in Paris, the most famous bookstore in the world at the time, was compelled to close down the store in the 1940s only because occupying German soldiers threatened to confiscate their inventory.

While Vernon Wahrenbrock may have founded Wahrenbrock's Book House in San Diego in 1935, for two generations booksellers and book buyers from around the world have come to know this flagship bookshop repository in this part of the United States as entirely a reflection of the work and the personality of Chuck Valverde and his very able colleague Jan Tonnesen. While Chuck is no longer with us in person, his legacy continues onward as reflected by the vast holdings of inventory available to the many thousands of gentle book lovers who seek out Wahrenbrock's from throughout the world, but also from the thousands of arcane and unusual items listed on the internet. To deny the book public throughout the world access to these vast holdings would be a terrible tragedy.

I sincerely hope and implore that some transitional equation may be created that will allow the legacy of Chuck Valverde to continue. The loss not only to the world but especially to the countless thousands of San Diegans who frequent Wahrenbrock's constantly is inestimable and unimaginable.


Dennis G. Wills
D.G.Wills Books
La Jolla Cultural Society

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Poetry is what ever gets you to the next page

There is a long history of poets and critics declaring poetry is something completely other than prose, a separate art approximating a form of meta-writing that penetrates the circumscribed certainties of words and makes them work harder, in service to the imagination, to reveal the ambiguity that is at the center of a literate population's perception. An elitist art, in other words, that by the sort of linguistic magic the poet generates sharpens the reader's wits; it would be interesting if someone conducted a study of the spread of manifestos, from competing schools of writing, left and right, over the last couple of hundred of years and see if there is connecting insistence at the heart of the respective arguments. 

 What they'd find among other things, I think, is a general wish to liberate the slumbering population from the doldrums of generic narrative formulation and bring them to a higher, sharper, more crystalline understanding of the elusive quality of Truth; part of what makes poetry appealing is not just the actual verse interesting (and less interesting ) poets produce, but also their rationale as to why they concern themselves with making words do oddly rhythmic things. Each poet who is any good and each poet who is miserable as an artist remains, by nature, didactic, chatty, and narcissistic to the degree that, as a species, they are convinced that their ability to turn a memorable ( or at least striking phrase) is a key with which others may unlock Blake's Doors of Perception. The lecturing component is only as intriguing as good as the individual writer can be--not all word slingers have equal access to solid ideas or an intriguing grasp of innovative language--but the majority of readers don't want to be edified. They prefer entertainment to enlightenment six and half days out of the week, devouring Oprah book club recommendations at an even clip; the impulse with book buyers is a distraction, a diversion from the noise of the world. 

Even the clearest and most conventional of verse, poetry is seen as only putting one deeper into the insoluble tangle of experience. Not that it's a bad thing, by default, to be distracted, as I love my superhero movies and shoot 'em ups rather than movies with subtitles, and I don't think it's an awful thing for poetry to have a small audience. In fact, I wouldn't mind at all if all the money spent on trying to expand the audience was spent on more modest presentations. The audience is small, so what has changed?

notes on poems by Mark Strand and May Swenson

The quiet side appeals to me as well, much as I love abrasive post-bop jazz improvisation ala Cecil Taylor or the raucous cacophony of Charles Ives. Strip-mining the mediums alone won't satisfy what I can at best call a sweet tooth, a need to have pleasure. Sometimes it's instructive to appreciate things that are well made, whole, nicely put together, and to keep the sword in the sheath.There are those moods when what I need from art—and art is something which is a need—is a short harmonica solo, a small water color in a simple frame, or a lyric poem that dwells comfortably, musically on it’s surface qualities. One loves grit, but that doesn’t exclude finess. Mark Strand’s poem here won me over with it’s surely played music.

My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer
by Mark Strand

When the moon appears
and a few wind-stricken barns stand out
in the low-domed hills
and shine with a light
that is veiled and dust-filled
and that floats upon the fields,
my mother, with her hair in a bun,
her face in shadow, and the smoke
from her cigarette coiling close
to the faint yellow sheen of her dress,
stands near the house
and watches the seepage of late light
down through the sedges,
the last gray islands of cloud
taken from view, and the wind
ruffling the moon's ash-colored coat
on the black bay.

Soon the house, with its shades drawn closed, will send
small carpets of lampglow
into the haze and the bay
will begin its loud heaving
and the pines, frayed finials
climbing the hill, will seem to graze
the dim cinders of heaven.
And my mother will stare into the starlanes,
the endless tunnels of nothing,
and as she gazes,
under the hour's spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.

My mother will go indoors
and the fields, the bare stones
will drift in peace, small creatures --
the mouse and the swift -- will sleep
at opposite ends of the house.
Only the cricket will be up,
repeating its one shrill note
to the rotten boards of the porch,
to the rusted screens, to the air, to the rimless dark,
to the sea that keeps to itself.
Why should my mother awake?
The earth is not yet a garden
about to be turned. The stars
are not yet bells that ring
at night for the lost.

Strand is someone who often works overtime to make the small things he chooses to write about into subjects that are poetically overpowering. Though he wouldn't be guilty of some fever pitched overwriting that makes the work of Nobel Prize Winner Derek Walcott seem like a riotous thicket of over -similed commonplaces--it has been said that the prize winner has never met a qualifier he didn't fall in love with and promise a home to--Strand has always seemed to fall just short of adding an item too many to his verses.

He does have a leaner, more genuinely lyric movement than does Walcott, whom I find more ornate than satisfying. Strand , to his credit , doesn't obscure the emotion nor the place from which is figurative language is inspired, arch as it occasionally reads. Walcott the poet, the world traveller, the cultivated Other in the presence of an Imperial Culture, reads like someone how is trying to have an experience. Strand convinces you that he has had one, indeed, but that he over estimates the measure of words to their finessed narrative.

That said, I like this, in that Strand trusts what his eyes sees, a series of things his mother was doing in a wonderfully framed triptych that might have been conveyed by Andrew Wyeth. It is a little idealized--the lyric spirit is not interested in the precise qualifier,but that adjective or verb , that rather, that both makes the image more musical and reveals some commonly felt impression about the objects in the frame--but Strand here has a relaxed confidence that is very effective. Brush strokes, we could say, both impressionistic and yet exact.

And my mother will stare into the starlanes,
the endless tunnels of nothing,
and as she gazes,
under the hour's spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.

This is the image of someone going about there daily chores and fulfilling their obligations thinking they are out anyone else's view, or better, the agenda of someone who hasn't interest in impressing any set of prying eyes. The mother seems less a figure in solitude than she does to contain solitude itself, comfortable and with intimate knowledge of the grain of the wood the floor is made of, the smell of the changing weather, the different pitches of silence and what the nuances of small sounds forecast for that evening and the following day. Most of all, this is about watching the world, the smallest world , both grow up, grow old, become frail and die, finally, aware of the seamlessness of going about one's tasks and the preparation for the end. This is a poem about preparation, I think; we, like the Mother, come to a point in their life when the gravity of things are finally felt through accumulated experience, as one's responsibilities have been added too over the years, and one develops a sense that what one does isn't so much about setting ourselves up for the rest of our lives, but rather in preparing the ground for what comes next, who comes next.

Somewhere in the work , toil , the bothersome details we get to rest and earn an extra couple of hours to keep our eyes close. The change happens slowly, unperceived,but it does happen, and the planet is a constant state of becoming, of change, and what changes too are the metaphors one would use to determine their next indicated jobs.

Why should my mother awake?
The earth is not yet a garden
about to be turned. The stars
are not yet bells that ring
at night for the lost.
It is much too late.

While Strand writes of his mother's preparing the day for the days that will follow,May Swenson finds comedy and tragedy lurking in the same set of skewed images with this poem. It has a fine elegance that nearly obscures the ominous tone that clouds the final lines, an effect that's artfully deferred.

Water Pictures

By May Swenson

In the pond in the park
all things are doubled;
Long buildings hang and
wriggle gently. Chimneys
are bent legs bouncing
on clouds below. A flag
wags like a fishhook
down there in the sky.
The arched stone bridge
is an eye, with underlid
in the water. In its lens
dip crinkled heads with hats
that don’t fall off. Dogs go by,
barking on their backs.
A baby, taken to feed the
ducks, dangles upside-down,
a pink balloon for a buoy.
Treetops deploy a haze of
cherry bloom for roots,
where birds coast belly-up
in the glass bowl of a hill;
from its bottom a bunch
of peanut munching children
is suspended by their sneakers, waveringly.
A swan, with twin necks
forming the figure three,
steers between two dimpled
towers doubled. Fondly
hissing, she kisses herself,
and all the scene is troubled:
water-windows splinter,
tree-limbs tangle, the bridge
folds like a fan.

As with the Mark Strand poem , this is a wonderful piece of writing, a string of inversions and reversals of stance that make the grace and balance of the world seem comical and awkward. Where there is equipoise in the world above the water, the surface of the pond has a universe that appears to constantly teeter for balance and negate the general cheerfulness of the forward-moving world; birds fly upside down, a swan seems to woo it's perfect visage, the sky is a hard ground and cherry blossoms bloom over a bottomless, blue-tinted void. This eases neatly from the comic to the threatening,the foreboding occurs, a warning sounds that one ought not look into a reflective surface too long:

hissing, she kisses herself,
and all the scene is troubled:
water-windows splinter,
tree-limbs tangle, the bridge
folds like a fan.

What was comic rapidly becomes distorted, and the infatuation of one's image, revealed, I think, by the saga of the swan's seeming narcissism; you are sucked into a world of reversals and turn into yourself rather the world outside yourself. "The bridge folds like a fan" , and one's ability to hold their own in a world of appearances is compromised. All may be mere appearence, as Plato maintained, but there are proper dualisms with which we can navigate reality and common to mutual terms on how to cross the street,what restaurant to meet at, or if the parking spot is large enough for what he drive. "Water Picture" is a reminder that we need to turn our gaze from the reflective surface and and set toward the other side of the hill, where we can join the legacy of the bear who went over the mountain, to see what he could see.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A familiar set of reshuffled notes

Critics without a malleable framework are talking only to themselves, finally. The value of criticism is in how it deepens the reading: an ideal criticism, I think, ought to be the sieve through which the variety is taken in and studied. A criticism that counts should, I think, help re-imagine the world and provide us with a plausible, doable, political feasible way of doing just that. Re-imagining the world requires action to effect the change. Re-description is precisely the problem with the Left in this country, which mistook the on-going circle jerk of language theory as a practical substitute for activism. The wan hope might have been that enough people might hack their way through the many books and monographs and learn, as a matter of habit , that their written and spoken responses to the world they navigate would be tempered so as not to privilege anything according to old hierarchies and that the a fairer existence would result. Literal or not, one needs to gauge the words in a sentence against the world the words are assigned to describe. Language, being a living activity that functions with a mind and consciousness that must adapt consciously to the constantly changing state of Nature, cannot contain meaning that is self-disclosing, absent at least a superficial gauging against the world. Even at the " most simple" levels, a reader constantly goes outside the words themselves to judge their veracity, their usefulness, and hence, interprets the words to come to what sentences mean, in their contexts and their subtler permutations. Interpretation isn't always the circuitous method of the academic, or the specialist: the activity is instinctual, I think, as we use language and change language to accommodate changing requirements and conditions.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Writing after drying out

I used to insist that poems that didn't have "dirt under the fingernails" were without value, insisting that live as it's lived by working men and women in America were more interesting , more complex and more important than the dense, academic poems one was made to read in contemporary poetry anthologies. In full disclosure, I was an undergraduate at the time, in the mid to late seventies, an earnest poet trying to be relevant who, incidentally, was having problems in literature courses requiring same said anthologies. There might have been a worthwhile insight somewhere in my whining for a polemic I could write if I cared to take the time, but it suffices to say that I was lazy, too lazy to read the poems, too stoned to go to class, far, far too stoned to read the secondary sources to be prepared for class discussions or for the papers I had to write. I did what anyone genuine undergraduate poet/radical/alkie would do; I blamed the system. So there.

It took a bit of doing--sobering up, bad grades, failed relationships--for me to get wise(r) and actually read the work I thought unworthy, and the remarks of critics who've done their own work considering the aesthetics at length, and I've since backed away from trying to shoe horn all poetry into a tight fitting tuxedo. What was learned was relatively small, a revelation for the truly dense; poetry works in many ways, and the task of the critical reader cannot be merely to attack and opine but to make an effort to weigh a poem's elements on their own merits , studying how effects are accomplished, and then, finally, lastly, to offer a judgement whether the poem works . Not that I adhere to this prolix method--I shoot from the hip and often miss the whole darn target--but I try. Now the issue is whether a poem can work if it lacks the glorious thing called "heart".

Anyone seriously maintaining that a work of art, be it poem, novel or painting is doomed to failure because it lacks this vague quality called "heart" has rocks in their head. Artists are creative people, on that most of us can agree, and by definition artists of narrative arts make stuff up from the resources at hand. Whether the source is actual experience, anecdotal bits from friends or family, novels, biographies, sciences, all these are mere furniture that go into the creation of the poem. The poet's purpose in writing is to produce a text according to some loosely arranged guide lines that distinguish the form from the more discursive prose form and create a poem that arouses any number of responses, IE feelings, from the reader. "Heart", I suppose , would be one of them, but it's ill defined and too vaguely accounted for to be useful in discussing aesthetics. Confessional poetry and the use of poetry books and poetry readings as dump sites for a writer's unresolved issues with their life doesn't impress me generally, as in the ones who do the confessing never seem to acquire the healing they seek and instead stay sick and miserable and keep on confessing the same sins and complains over and over. Journaling would be one practice I would banish from a poetry workshop I might teach. We are writing poems, not an autobiography .

I would say, actually, that one should suspect that poet who claims that every word of their verse is true, based on facts of their lives. I cannot trust the poet who hasn't the willingness to fictionalize or otherwise objectify their subject matter in the service of making their poems more provocative, worth the extra digging and interpreting. Poems and poets come in all shapes and sounds, with varied rationales as to why each of them write the way they do, and it's absurd and not to say dishonest that "heart", by which I mean unfiltered emotionalism, is the determining element as to whether a poem works or not. My goal in reading poems isn't to just feel the full brunt of some one's soggy bag of grief or splendid basket of joy, but to also to think about things differently.

The best relationship between practice and theory , as regards the arts (and poetry in particular) is when one blends with the other in a seamless fashion. It's a process that begins with the work itself, a reading and rereading of the poem, let us say, and then , after some routine reflection, referencing any number of critical schemes I think might work in bringing what's contained in the stanzas out from under the subterfuge. Seamless is the word I'd like to use, and it applies here although the handy term has diminished impact with overuse;all the same, theories of criticism , for me,are a way of extending the poem into general discourse. Poetry works in many ways, but so does criticism, and a pragmatics of interpretation is the most useful way for me to make a poet's work something other than another useless art object whose maker adhered to someone else's rules. My gripe is a constant one, that each succeeding school of thought on what poets should be doing are too often reductionist and dismissive of what has been done prior. This isn't criticism, it's polemics, contrary to my notion that what really matters in close readings is the attempt to determine whether and why poems work succesfully as a way of quantifying experience and perception in a resonating style.


A fellow contributor to an internet forum I frequent presented this quote for general discussion

In "Time Out of Mind," Leonard Michaels wrote: "Courage is continuing to perform your daily tasks, and being hopeful despite the odds; not inflicting your fears on others, and remaining sensitive to their needs and expectations; and also not supposing, because you're dying, nothing matters any more."

My two cents, uncommonly succinct:I agree with the quote to an extent, with the idea that someone with responsibilities and problems should just "man-up" , as the phrase goes, and live up to their end of the bargains they strike. I am taken with Robert Hughes' The Culture of Complaint that cogently described a country where complaining , whining, and victim-hood were taken to be the proper response to one's daily burden. Getting proactive with one's problems and obligations wasn't admirable at all. There are times, though, when there is too much on one's plate--the thinking remains that one should be self-sufficient and handle their affairs without aid, but this is a recipe for disaster, for oneself and those about him. Asking for help when help is required isn't a moral failing.

The other side of it, though, is just as odious; suffering in silence. The Hemingway code of personal stoicism makes for a fine trope filtered through a literature dealing with a male perspective of a post war generation, but one's life isn't a short story with obvious external mechanisms dictating how events and actions lead toward an ironic result. One does need to speak up, voice what it is they find objectionable, correct the record when lies are told by government and cultural elites, we need to critique, we need to debate, we need to keep stay vigilant.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

How God Created the World

I heard during a lecture that Thomas Pynchon had written somewhere that God is the original conspiracy theory; I haven't found the source of the quote, but the saying appears in many places around the Internet, and it seems that the sentiment has resonated loudly with quite a few. Whether there is an all powerful Deity really isn't the topic of the following poem, originating, rather, from a frustration of a good number of folks to invoke his name when the conversation, in print, on a monitor, or in person, touches on the intangible, the unanswerable, the unknowable. It's a mystery, it's god's will, it's part of a plan not revealed to us--all these, in variations both subtle and dumb, emerge when the chasm yawns before the assembled.

I understand the reluctance venture forth into things where there is nothing concrete and all else is supposition--it would be a tacit admission that our daily lives are guided by habits of behavior not directed by natural, embedded imperatives and mandates from heaven, but are rather instinctual/species behavior which we conveniently decorate with a language capable of turning our thoughts into fine arts, culture and technology.

Ours would seem to be a species with an alphabet, nothing more, a variation from the gene pool which, in the meantime, could be developing an even more intriguing species to supplant our loud presence on the planet. who wants to think that they are merely passing through , merely in line on the evolutionary chain of happenstance? Invoking god's name would be the fastest way to block out the sun.

Ah well. I say that we have the capacity to think and may as well do so, chasing every loose thread and inconsistency we happen upon. We can't just call the problems of existence acts of Providence and leave it at there. Thinking, discussion, analysis, poking at eternal mysteries are the Acts of Providence each us are the recipient of. To lie down is to deny a miracle, and that can't be good for anyone.

How God Created The World

No god I know
waits for a chat
as he waits
in a garden ripe
with words that
are first in line.

There is no garden
until he desires fruit
rich in the taste
of particular soils,
there will be no desire
until he creates hunger
and the need to sit down,
there will be no table or chair
to put anything
that belongs on them
until he contrives the
things that go there
and makes it all look
like they've been present
for the ages.

There will be no ages
unless he makes things
with tongues, mouths,
tastes of all sorts,
something alive
with a memory of what's good
in this life they discovered along
the way as they experimented
with ways to talk to a god
who seems so busy
thinking things through,
he realizes
nothing will age
unless there are creatures
that die.

The god I know
thinks of big words
and broad strokes,
he's been asleep
since the beginning
time, which he invented,
he will wake up
and create, I think,
the cell phone, on a lark,
and will notice
at once
that his voice mail is full.

The D chases its tail

 Deconstruction, which arises from a tradition of structuralist and post-structuralist practice, seems a more trivial pursuit these days. So much time was spent belaboring such bromides like "every text contains its counter-argument" and "there is nothing outside the text" (to perhaps crudely paraphrase) are not so revolutionary once you realize that you've come to a blind alley if you've followed the bread crumbs these chatty fellows left for the rest of us. Nothing worthwhile was revealed, and clarity, the essence of criticism in its concentration on how literature works succeed or fail as both art and socially valuable objects, is the thing that gets hidden. There comes a time when the critic, the honest critic unafraid to sidestep cant and convenience and willing to interrogate an author's work, has to decide the emphasis a text, a book, takes, and contrast against other contingent forces. The critic, I'd say, needs to transcend those theories that excited him and decide what an author means by something he wrote and whether, on its terms and in more generalized considerations, that piece of writing works as either an aesthetic or a social object, or whether it succeeds or fails at both. Deconstruction was an attempt to demonstrate that all our judgments are lifted from an archive of binary opposed concepts that form our infinite replenished dualisms; one may say yes, fine, very good, that's very interesting, but this is the world we recognize and that we live in nonetheless. It is possible to make statements about this sphere that creates meaning, context, empathy. Deconstruction was a dead end, really. A bad cold took the American literature departments a few decades to shake. Investigating the style and substance of a writer's ideas was no longer a priority, and critics took this to mean that they were taken apart the clocks and radios apart (figuratively speaking)without a worry about rebuilding them. This was liberating at first, of course, but deconstruction, as it was misread in turn, encouraged academics to not even try to parse a writer's novels or poems. I instead think that deconstruction, as a method of taking apart arguments and reducing them to the rumble of disassembled rhetorical devices, is late in the game.

 I would also consider its alleged intent to debunk the notion of totalizing accounts of human experience and reveal the limits of how far we can assert our ability to make statements about human experience in the world through writing, redundant among the spread of critical approaches. It can, at best, be the particular means by which specific individuals come to realize the limits of their own assumptions and from which one may push their thinking harder. Criticism is the sort of writing that already acknowledges some existing takes on various literary approaches. One is compelled to decide which of the ethical/moral/political outlays are useful to frame their arguments to the greater significances of narrative method, which is to say one decides what is useful among the theories they've investigated in bringing new thinking to bear on texts that, one hopes, makes an ostensibly recognizable set of metaphors of an experience something quirky and quizzical. I prefer a subjective response rather than one that adheres to a systematic checklist. The point of having an ongoing discussion of literature, fiction, drama, poetry, isn't to demonstrate one's recollection of their graduate studies, but how one's reading has blended over time and broadened, broadened to the extent that one finds a cohesion of New Criticism, Marxism, Structuralism, existentialism and classicism providing ones with a habit of mind that is flexible and able to articulate value and beauty.  My own thinking about literature is a mix of the approaches I mentioned, though I am loathed to call myself any one thing; an overabundance of one theory that seems to smooth out all problems and contradictions, which appears poised to explain everything, is a tendency that becomes dogma too quickly. In that case, one finds themselves in a sealed box they cannot see beyond. Indeed, which I think is the irony of deconstruction; a tool meant to expose the allegedly arbitrary criteria used for making our language produce meanings turns out to have been a clustering of prejudices that turned a generation of critics into abstruse sloganeers. 

Derrida himself was reticent to discuss deconstruction , after a point, because he thought focusing too long on on what he considered merely as an effective analytical technique would distract from what he considered the longer, larger ongoing project, which was to realize how power is invested within language . He wanted to defuse the power that provides only a limited variety of templates with which to map our impressions and thinking. His skepticism of given discourses was one that he intended to lead us to a harder way of thinking about the words and their trace meanings. The circular and exclusive thinking of religion, the arts, sciences and hardened ideology (which is ossified political philosophy) he brought an exhaustive critiques to seems to have rusted the very tool intended to scrape away the rust. ... wasn't part of the problem that teachers taught students that deconstruction should be their primary or sole form of exegesis, rather than suggesting that it be merely one of a variety of ways to understand a text? 

One of Derrida's concerns was to invert the hierarchies of writing classes and intended to make criticism not subservient to primary literary writing but rather equal to it. All forms of writing were identical to one another since texts don't actually refer to the external world or real experience but instead solely to other readers, in his idea of intertextuality. This concept does all writings on a par with each other. The trend declared that the task of edifying what an author intended was a dead end, which enabled one critic after another to concentrate on establishing the mastery of their theory rather than the novels, the poems, the plays others of us consider as the real object of study.

Friday, July 24, 2009

a poem from Clive James: those who criticize can also do

Critic Clive James has complained that ours is an age where everyone is writing poetry yet no is able to write a poem. A formalist at heart, we can properly assume that he means that very few have the old graces of scansion, rhyme, meter. It would figure that he decided to write a poem of his own to show the rest of the untrained waifs of modernism just how it's done, as he did in The New Yorker with his ode "Monja Blanca". He shows his technique rather well and, surprisingly, this fellow has an ear.

Well, yes, this is quite lovely, and it rhymes in ways that William Espy's robot rhythms could not, which is smoothly, musically, with the poetic descriptions serving an isolated image instead of weighing it down. James is smart, as well, in that he resists what seems to be the overwhelming temptation for many rhymesters to be cute. He is instead lyrical in a manner that is the hardest essence to convey, the description of a l thing, person, that successfully suggests the author's--or narrator's--psychological engagement without casting his subject matter into an unreal and unreadable muddle. Even in what could be considered an imaginative context, James' tone respects the musicality of his form and correctly treats elegance as that state when technique, emotion and style achieve an exquisite balance. It is not one note too many nor to few, not more embellishment too light nor too little.

As a critic James is a polymath with an impressive range of things he discusses with authority, though given the regularity with which he produces essays, columns, blog entries and books, you can't escape the feeling that he has, over time, solidified a number of finely articulated positions on literature, music, the classics, politics, painting, poetry and films, among other subjects, and has been especially artful in the way he can shuffle his positions, cross reference them, draw them up and deploy them at will. This reiteration of his ideas is noticeable especially in his other wise masterful collection Cultural Anxiety. Coming across an idea you've read elsewhere by this author , though, is hardly a bother--James has a style that is at once informal and approachable and yet demonstrates no laziness in thinking. He is an engaging intellectual who I enjoy as he rummages through the subjects he has mastered, bringing his learning to the present tense, bucking conventional wisdom , discussing what of the ideas we've learned remain vital, and which ones need to be taken off life support.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Poetry about Poetry gets poesied

An associate recently tried to persuade me that rhyming is okay and very modern in our time, and suggested that I read the work of the late William Espy. To appeal to what he assumed was my elitist proclivities, he selected this poem

You'd be a poet, but you hear it's tough?
No problem. Just be strict about one rule:
No high-flown words, unless your aim is fluff;

The hard thought needs the naked syllable.
For giggles, gauds like pseudoantidis-
establishment fulfill the purpose well;
But when you go for guts, the big words miss;
Trade "pandemonic regions" in for "hell".

…Important poems? Oh…excuse the snort…
Sack scansion, then -- and grammar, sense and rhyme.
They only lie around to spoil the sport --
They're potholes on the road to the sublime.

And poets with important things to say
Don't write Important Poems anyway.

Copyright © 1986 Willard R. Espy

I thought my associate might know my tastes better, but no matter.I'm not crazy about the Espy poem for the usual reason, it rhymes , it clanks, it clicks, you can here the parts move as you read it. And, despite the notion that Espy is a public poet, accessible, readable, "gettable", this remains a less-loathsome example of a loathsome narcissism among poets in general, a poem about poetry. It is ironic that a poet who bucked the tendency of Modern Poetry to be abstract, coded , enigmatic and self referential would choose to exercise their whimsy on his own medium. This habit, whether requiring an extreme hermeneutics or graspable after first read, is an elitism that has done much, I think, to keep potential readers away from the investigating the craft. His readership isn't the Ideal reader, the nonspecialist who potentially is interested in poetry and the stylistic perspective the art might bring on how ideas and experience intermingle, but rather other poets , who, as a class of professional, are not likely to change their ways. We have, in essence, something that's more an inter- office memo or motivational talk to boiler room of smile-and-dial telemarketers. It's a clever, wind up contraption that , in it's own way, forsakes the mission of any poet, regardless of aesthetic preference: to be in the world. This is as much an Ivory Tower as anything more elliptical , diffuse.

It might have something to do that poems like these are the ones that become heavily anthologized or reprinted in various places by editors who are attracted to works that would rather gavotte among it's particulars rather than chance a subject matter a reader would recognize and, in turn, interrogate. The potential reader, wondering if poetry has anything to say to them, picks up a volume and comes across like this, and places the volume down again, thinking that the poets are thumbing their collective nose at those unfortunate enough not to have had good English teachers in high school. It doesn't really matter who writes Poems About Poetry--post-avant poet, School of Quietude mood monger, whimisical rhymesters--it's a bad habit.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Writing in the captain's tower

If Pound's poems work for reasons other than how he wanted them work, fine, that can be explicated interestingly enough with entirely new criteria extraneous to the author's aesthetic/political agenda, but it begs the question, really. It confirms my belief that Pound was talking through his hat most of the time. In this case, based admittedly on my learned dislike of his poetry, I think he gussied up his theories in order to usurp the critical commentary he knew would follow his work: no matter what, all critics had to deal with Pound's flummoxing prose before they could render an assessment, a trick he garnered from Poe, and one deployed by Mailer, a somewhat more successful artist/philosopher/critic (though failed poet).

Eliot had better luck combining the two virtues: The Sacred Wood and some of his other critical assessments have merit as purely critical exercises, self-contained arguments that don't require Eliot's work to illustrate the point. The problem with his criticism was that it was less a system of thought than it was a nice articulation of resentments or one liners that weren't further developed. Eliot, the Royalist, the Anglo-Catholic, the anti-modern Modernist, thought himself too busy to explain himself, and reveals the conservative impatience for inclusiveness; things simply have gotten worse in our culture once alien hordes began infiltrating our borders. It seemed to him so obvious a matter of cause and effect that the relative succinctness of his views, articulated in aesthetics, needn't dwell on what everyone already knows. The criticism would be the equivalent of how he described "The Waste Land", a species of rhythmic grumbling.

It's less about what one can call his "despair" than what his operating premise has in common with the post modern aesthetic: Eliot, the Modernist poet extraordinaire, perceives the world the universe has having any sort of definable center, any unifying moral force formally knowable by faith and good works. There is despair in the works, behind the lines--one responds to them emotionally and intellectually--and the power behind the images, the shimmering surfaces the diminished, de-concretized narrator feels estranged from, comes from a felt presence, a real personality. Eliot , though, turns the despair into a series of ideas, and makes the poetry an argument with the presence day.

There is pervasive sense of everything being utterly strange in the streets, bridges over rivers, strangeness at the beach, and we, it sounds, a heightened sense of voices, media, bombs, headlines competing for the attention of some one who realizes that they're no longer a citizen in a culture where connection to a core set of meanings, codes and authority offers them a security, but are instead consumers, buyers, economic in a corrupt system that only exploits and denudes nature, culture, god.

Eliot conveys the sense of disconnection brilliantly, a modernist by his association with the period, though at heart he was very much a Christian romantic seeking to find again some of the Scripture surety to ease his passage through the world of man and his material things. There has always been this yearning for a redemption of purpose in the vaporous sphere, and much of his work, especially in criticism, argued that the metaphysical aspect could be re-established, recreated, re-imagined (the operative word) through the discipline of artistic craft. Modernists, ultimately, shared many of the same views of postmodernism with regards of the world being an clashing, noisy mess of competing, unlinked signifiers, but post modernism has given up the fight of trying to place meaning in the world, and also the idea that the world can be changed for the better. Modernists , as I take them in their shared practice and aesthetic proclamations, are all romantics, though their the angle and color of their stripes may vary. Romanticism, in fact, is an early kind of modernism: the short of it is that there is a final faith in the individual to deign the design of the world, and in turn change its shape by use of his imagination .

Eliot's poems, as well, stand up well enough with out his criticism to contextualize them for a reader who might other wise resist their surface allure. The language in both genres is clear and vivid to their respective purposes. Pound, again, to my maybe tin-ear, really sounded, in his verse, like he were trying to live up to the bright-ideas his theories contained: The Cantos sound desperate in his desire to be a genius.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read 
Pierre Bayard (Bloomsbury) 

 Those among us who struggled with deconstruction, post-structuralism, semiotics, and the like in the seventies and eighties, when we found out that language in general and literary writing in particular couldn't possibly address the world as is will remember the sweetly slippery issue of intertextuality. Promoted by Derrida and deMan, if memory serves me (and it often doesn't), this was the fancy footwork that while books fail to address the nature of things and make them fixed, unchanging situations, texts (meaning books) referred only to other texts, and the coherent systems writers seemed to uncover or create about how things are in practice drawn from a limitless archive of each text that came before the one you might have in your hand and considering it's fidelity to your experience. A futile concern, we find, since everything has already been written, everything has already been said. If this were true, we asked, how can it be that some theorists are using language to precisely describe what language cannot do, i.e., precisely describe things? I never read a response that made sense, as the answers seemed even more steaming heaps of gobbledygook that made the anchored theory before even more impassable. But no matter because at the time one had discovered a nice hedge against having to read a book; I am being grossly unfair to the good critics still taking their cues from Continental thought, but deconstruction and intertextuality were choice methods of not dealing with what a writer was saying, instead giving a jargonized accord of how all writing and discourse cannot get beyond itself and actually touch something that terms try to signify. This is the basic thrust of Pierre Bayard in his book "How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read "

Bayard is both a professor of French literature and a psychoanalyst, and puts forth his statement in a surprisingly breezy account of why one need not have read a book to discuss it in detail and even to have a strong opinion as to a book's success or failure. Intertextuality strikes again, since Bayard spends a good amount of his time emphasizing that what really counts in one's relation to the printed word was the reputation and contexts books have, their relationships to the things they are not. This much of the book was great fun, since it is the bookseller's curse to know a very little about a great many things, and I have had to extemporize opinions and conjecture and create theory on the spot when asked by customers to discuss the merits of books I haven't read, and at times hadn't even heard of. Bayard deals with the same methodology, emphasizing that any of us, so pressed for an unsubstantiated opinion, would make do with what was available to us currently, be that the book's reputation, reviews one might have read. Bayard's assertion, satiric and attractive at the same time, is that discussing books old and new is a game of one-upmanship in how one stays current with an author's buzz factor rather than his content, and there is something gleeful in the way he describes the sort of artful improvisation a spirited raconteur can get away with as he riffs upon a tangential element. 

Tangents, in fact, are almost the real art in the literary community, and the dirty little secret is that a good number of us readers get away with our faux critiques and commentary because our audience is likewise without an idea as a book discusses in detail, in depth, with texture. No one wants to spoil the game, a matter Bayard lampoons with his own strategic deceptions. This is enjoyable to a degree, although the same repetition of his humorous application of post-structuralist residue to a generalized obsession with being well-read is wearying after a bit, even in a book as short as these 182 pages. Still, there is here the spirit of Roland Barthes, specifically in his collection of newspaper columns “Mythologies”; Barthes was that rare thing, playful in is undressing the signifiers and the signified. There is something of the poet in Barthes’ musings, which, I think, was the original intent of this type of criticism. Bayard has some of that instinct, but one cannot escape the feeling that he’s riffing to the only song he knows. This is a joke, perhaps, that is always already told.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

notes on a poem by Sally Ball

Landscape poetry, like landscaping painting, seems more for the interior designer in us rather than the reader wanting a surprise. Broad strokes, lively details, a spiritualization connecting the hard truth of -ceilinged sky and sered, flat land and the allusive calm of emptiness, all of it is in Sally Ball's poem "Visiting the Real Ranch" ;had she managed to give the poetry equivalent of an Edward Ruscha painting and written about that legitimately defies the reader to give it content that reinforces their city lives, fine, nothingness is always a state worth aspiring to, but poems need to use words that create tensions with other words and their meanings, and that tension can wed the contradictions in an intriguing state of undecideability.

Landscape and the things within it in and of themselves, doing nothing except being what they are, isolated from our perception. Ball has a desire to step beyond her perception, the shell of codification and the shield of contextualizing adjectives, and be, so to speak, just another item in and of itself, to enter the plain seen only by God and feel some of what He feels for the world he set in motion, but she is locked within her defining parameters. Language is intended to help us define and mold experience and to create cultures and institutions where perception is given over to producing technology that is both glory and ruin. It exists to empower the species to go forth and multiply, casting the world as something to be conquered, tamed, harvested, mined, exploited for resources; it is not a quality that makes "letting it be" easily accomplished. One can also take a page from Derrida with his remark insisting, to paraphrase the source, that one cannot step outside language to get at those things that language imbues with significance. The attempt to use language to describe what is beyond the hegemonic grip of our refurbished metaphors produces, finally, only more refurbished metaphors. So the narrator sighs after an initial stanza describing high sky, mountains, desert curs marking their territory and plays the god card with a heavy hand, heavy as in clumsy, not profound.

I hope you get to live somewhere like this,
so much yourself you could take charge
of such a solid stand of hills,
you could receive this holy light,
keen and fleeting.

At every moment the valley brimming,
the valley empty.

—Though you are nearly always happy,
and this place does not seem happy.

Happiness is for

******************—what? whom?

The one wish, it is my one wish.

I don't think it's a far reach to speculate as to a narrator wanting to get closer to what God thinks or feels from reading this poem. Ball did use the phrase "... this holy light,keen and fleeting..." and it's clear that there's a spiritual essence she desires for the person she's addressing, that he could in turn acquire bit of that "keen and fleeting" sensation she apparently received through communing with this country side. To her credit, the mention of anything of supernatural origin is brief, but it's there all the same and is worth bringing up in an interpretation.

I'm less concerned with the Biblical insistence that we be guardians, protectors and preservers of the planet than I am with Ball's attempt to describe a situated feeling outside the boundaries of language that are, though malleable , geared to keep our ideas reasonable distanced from anarchic impulse and also to make new contexts cohere with what has gone before. I do think that poets, painters, film makers, maids and all the rest of us are, at times, touched, blessed and moved by something defying our linguistic resources, and at times I think we are convincingly when we attempt to express it. Ball falters, I think, ruined, I think, by the insertion of Oscar, whom she wishes could be in this terrain and witness the fleet, keening holy light she craves; it seems a bit smug to me, and it the problem is that we have yet another poet naming themselves as the center of a poem that would be a stronger work had his or presence not been established.
The actual meaning of Genesis is right and righteous, but that's not what I'm talking about, but rather that language on our species' level of development and subtlety is a tool, and it is the nature of tools to be used to make things happen, to build things, to change , to mold, to spend.

Edward Ruscha contended no less with metaphorical traps than does a poet seeking a fresh perspective or many on an old set of ideas, but he paints images and seems better poised to deal with the zen (or existential) truths of things in existence absent an ego to round them out; his juxtaposition of odd elements that contradiction with one another, such as his series of canvases that feature single words hovering over richly muted colors capes , deflect the claim of obvious intent and successfully give you something to think about; the mind insists on making what it sees make sense,and this the sporting good of any art worth more than mere amusement or cosigning a personal code of empty gestures.
Better, I think, that Ball would have taken something the Imagist book and rid the poem of anything within the lines that acted as a reminder to the reader that this were her exclusive perception. That this is about her presence is implied strongly by the writing , which would have been more evocative and stirring, I think, had she focused on the direct treatment of the thing under inspection, being witnessed, instead of marking the territory around her vision. She could well have included the missive to the absent Oscar without addressing him directly; it makes the piece didactic and not an unblemished expression of an experience. This is a poem, finally, that would likely have benefited from having another watchful eye read; perhaps someone would have remarked on what needed to be trimmed, condensed,made purer.
Better still if Ball said less, implied less, wished less for some other person, as it conveys the impossibility of cataloguing the genuinely indescribable. The urge to tell us what it all should add up to only puts her deeper in the sand trap she was trying to escape from.

Theorized into Submission

We might as well say it, none of the “ism” terms stay in one ideological location—even with a prevailing idea that concepts and their definitions are fixed, there is incredible fluidity in how notions go off the reservation, so to speak “Modernism” proper has it's left and right wings, whether Bauhaus or Albert Speer, and it is important to note that a host of Modernist poetry’s early geniuses, Ezra Pound and Eliot in particular, were notably conservative and pugnaciously anti-Semitic. Part of bringing a revolutionizing the way we saw the world (with it in mind to change the world) meant, in the long wrong, in ridding the planet of particular ethnic groups who only diluted the clarity and brought falseness to the world. As the term "postmodernism" is used, in most instances, as a term meant to describe the clusters of habits that characterize a current age against previous ones, it only makes perverted sense that the polarities intuitively use the same devices to achieve fear-driven agendas, rhetorical tweaking assumed. If I had to clue some one in as to what deconstruction is, I would step back from my usual shuffle about it being a type of extreme investigative process into the reliability of text to contain anything of the phenomenal world, and would instead point to the series of state and federal cases involving election results.

The debacle in the Gore v Bush concern was a genuine Post Modern Moment; Republicans had to temporarily forgo an Absolutist agenda and assume the rhetoric of legalesed deconstruction to confuse, blur and disgorge their oppositions' Grundissian rants. Matters that once seemed clear and fixed in their symbolic authority to a truth we all yield to suddenly seem less firm, in fact wobbly simply because one man wouldn't yield the game. The right isn't afraid to name, nor to advance their cause. There is a living embodiment of political will behind their description the current situation, and it would be Post Modern Tragedy that we've theorized ourselves into submission.

The American Left certainly wasn't afraid of offending political sensibilities while there was a Viet Nam war through which the ultimately unprovable historical determinism could be obscured by a conflict whose obscenity over rode local matters. But with the end of the war, the left here about receded to theory, unwilling, I think , to realize something fundamentally decent about Americans and their sense of fairness to the right cause, and it seemed to matter little to the intellectual elite to deal with practical matters of policy , county, state and federal.

The left, in general, became generalized in theory and law, and reduced everything to an eviscerated discourse of euphemistic speech that was not allowed to defile a sense of neutrality: things ceased to have names, only vague descriptions , and in this atmosphere any talk about identifying problems about what sickens the Nation became impossible . Rather than action to change social relations, real practice, a fight for change was reduced to a ideologically perplexed course in etiquette, the practice of which made humans confront each other in ways that were nervous, nervous, ultimately insane.

Gramsci wound up in prison, but he didn't write manuals for non-offensive language in the work place: he never lost his belief that theory needed to stop somewhere, that abstruse descriptions had to halt at the right juncture and some remedy, based on sane analysis, had to be effected. One's knowledge of what produces alienation and states where exploitation is possible needed to be matched with solutions."Guts" comes to mind, courage, old fashioned and romantic virtues , but still ways to talk about the world, the city where we might live, and within in, a way to imagine and realize the ways to make it maybe make it more workable than it was then when we entered into it, knowing only hunger and the feeling of cold earth. The exact problem with postmodern theory, the intellectual and not the aesthetic texts, is that it's turned into a self-conscious wallow (often disguised under the rubric of being "self-reflective") that brandishes the idea that an awareness of it's own social construction somehow advances bold, better human freedom. As Derrida was obsessed with the undecidablity of texts to crystallize phenomenon external to it’s own system-making tendency, Baudrillard in turn concerned himself with providing a sociology of how our terms of self-empowerment are , in fact, the chains that keep us at our stations, the ugly bottom half of post modernist comes a bit clearer: it’s useless, surrender to the inevitable, every good we might ever had has been tried and failed terribly. Post modernist intent can be a resource hogging neocons best friend, as it offers an enlightened version of apathy. What it does is make the nominal partisans of just causes weak and immobile, ready to have their own conventional wisdom used against them, as they were during The Miami Chad Trials, by a foe that's true to its own cause enough to use any weapon it can lay its hands on in order to make the world theirs and sterile under one Totalizing God, who, I suspect, isn't likely to have much truck with language theory.

Friday, July 17, 2009


Image result for paul auster
An ironic choice, I suppose, since I've spent quite a bit of energy railing against that reflects upon its own processes But  Paul Auster's style is so clear of superfluous adjectives, verbs and dead weight qualifiers that he gets across some of the mystery involved in composing a verse, a quality that eludes other writers. A novelist by trade, Auster's fiction often fashion themselves after mystery novels where every assumption and cover story is questioned, and in which action is moved forward by chance; whole chains of events and consequences in his best fiction-- The New York Trilogy, Book of Illusion, Leviathan-- that depend on the fickle choices of where one desires to place themselves, on impulse, on the spur of the moment. White Nights likewise comes across as a detective novel , combined with a ghost story; within in it are the themes of someone writing something in isolation wondering if anyone will read, how anything will change if a readership is found, how the writing lives on in the writer's words haunting a stranger years later, in another part of the world. I t comes , finally, to that flashing recognition a reader experiences when another's words confirms some nuance of feeling one has felt in their own travels through an amorphous existence. I think the poem is lovely, compelling, and finally undecidable to final meaning. But that is the whole point, I would think.

WHITE NIGHTS / Paul Auster

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

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

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

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

You can never have too much existentialism, French, German or Maynard G.Krebs; the idea that a writer is in his existential moment, stripped of his excuses and wholly dependent on his next action to give his life meaning , purpose. authenticity, is exactly the dilemma we discuss here all the time. It is the issue that all these poems-about-poetry attempt to take on but never grasp because of the intangible nature of the issue and because so many of the poets who attempt the task fumble with their poetics. Auster gets to an emotional core--the loss of self one can experience in writing, the dread that the words might be unheard, ;unread, when the writing is done and one is passed on--by the choice sparseness of his metaphors.I wouldn't disagree with you about the poem attempting to bridge different parts of the body, but I think the particulars aren't that important in so far as the real issue is the author's attempt to make contact to an Other , some essential part of one's sense of them self in this life that is dually absent and yet persistent in one's instinct. The question arises, is the writer talking to himself in an effort to join his separate selves, or is he seeking a common bond with a community he has no evidence actually exists? This is the ambiguity and the beautiful ache in the poem. You can never have too much existentialism, French, German or Maynard G.Krebs; the idea that a writer is in his existential moment, stripped of his excuses and wholly dependent on his next action to give his life meaning , purpose. authenticity, is exactly the dilemma we discuss here all the time. It is the issue that all these poems-about-poetry attempt to take on but never grasp because of the intangible nature of the issue and because so many of the poets who attempt the task fumble with their poetics. Auster gets to an emotional core--the loss of self one can experience in writing, the dread that the words might be unheard, ;unread, when the writing is done and one is passed on--by the choice sparseness of his metaphors.

The poem attempts to bridge different parts of the body, but I think the particulars aren't that important in so far as the real issue is the author's attempt to make contact to an Other , some essential part of one's sense of them self in this life that is dually absent and yet persistent in one's instinct. The question arises, is the writer talking to himself in an effort to join his separate selves, or is he seeking a common bond with a community he has no evidence actually exists? This is the ambiguity and the beautiful ache in the poem. He writes this poem as if hoping that in the written admission that he cannot define what is only a sideways glimpse in his mind's eye , the Other will reveal itself, in full and true form. The consequence is only more distance, more estrangement from what is desired.Writing is one of the recurring tropes in all of Auster's writing, and one of his themes is the problem of the writer who is trying to write the world into being--to establish a psychology that provides narrative continuity to existence that can provide a vague sense of purpose--who confronts what cannot be predicted, only accommodated. 

Strange to think, but the spare, undecorated prose of Paul Auster does achieve a poetic effect of sort, but it's something that comes about because he can create situations and odd scenarios that often times gives us the duplicitous ironies that are a good poem's hall mark. One is not sure where they stand after reading an Auster novel, and his poetry in kind does a trick of seeming like John Ashbery without the prolixity. Ashbery's genius is the concurrent circles of reference his hard objects inspire in his mind; they conflate gracefully, refusing closure. Auster's poems refuse closure as well, but his are stanzas that have a hard glare like black and white streets, no technicolor, just high contrast black and white. The stanzas and images are crystalline, hard, unadorned, and the dreamy language around them, the assumptive tone that starts with a given set of attitudes and finds itself changed or shattered by poem's end, is blurry, confused, and imprecise. An interesting tension results--there is the feeling of someone overwhelmed by the conflations and overlapping demands of events and walking away, blinders on, into a new identity. Here I thought of a piece of typing paper that is blank, waiting for a story to be written on it, the problem being that while the story might be good and entertaining in it's reworking of old tales and morals, it doesn't change the paper it's on, though sullied with words, it remains paper. It is the writing that gives the writer meaning, the constant advancing of his narrative line; existence itself is unchanged in its unknown virtues, if there were any in the first place.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fidelity to Fact or to Art?

It's not uncommon to come across a feverish poetry enthusiast who turns a blacker shade of rage when they discover that a poet they've taken a liking to does not, by default, base every verse they compose on real experience. I've had this situation in several workshops where a participant or two became irate when I let on, during a critique, that some elements in a some poems I submitted for review were not wholly autobiographical. What set off the participants, I guess, was my distrust of poets who insist on full disclosure sharing, as if the slightest ebb and flow of their emotional equilibrium sufficed as finished work. Experience was merely material, I remember saying at one time or another in a dispute over the purpose of writing. Experience was like wood, glass, paper, what have you; the poet, the artist, had to make it into something else , a species of writing not contractually obligated to gets the names and dates correct. This doesn't sit well with a few of my very serious co-work shoppers.

This is , I suppose, part of the long term hang over of Confessional poetry and other styles that choose to make journal entries into the stuff of literary explication. It seems beyond some that poets, if they're any good, are writers all the same and are allowed to make things up , to invent narrative circumstance for the purpose of getting out a good piece of writing. Still, there is the thought that some immorality has taken place. A betrayal of reader trust, perhaps.

This isn't the poet's problem, though, but rather the reader's, who should, by rights, arrive at the idea that the validity of any approach to writing a poem lies in how well it works, on the page. One should think more broadly on the subject; verse plays are fictional, and yet their validity as quotable, meaningful poems isn't questioned at all--virtually no one objects to the stanzas being used to put forth an imaginary activity; this tolerance should be extended to single poems, ones not connected to grander fictional universes. The evolution of poetry into a form thought to be exclusively autobiographical in purpose is a narrowing of what poet should be allowed to do.

I don't think poets are obliged to write solely from their own experience, since we have to remember that poetry is , above all other considerations, an imaginative craft. There are any number of times that I've written pieces of my own that are based more on an idea and inspiration ; although based or premised on some actual fact of in my life, the details are often fictional. It is the rare poet, I think, who rigorously sticks with autobiographical material who doesn't soon writing the same set of poems over and over until they finally stop writing.

The issue, of course, is balance; how much ought to be from real life, and how much should be embroider, enhance, fictionalize?One way or the other in excess can result in dullness or unspeakable bombast. Empathy , I think , is what the poet is after; can he or she write in such as way as to get a reaction from a reader who might empathize?Poets , we must remember as well, are writers, and writers tell stories they want readers to relate to in some capacity. Not all the stories they tell us are true, as in adhering to autobiographical facts; I want something better than vetted facts. What I would expect is something more than Coleridge's tirelessly useful phrase , A "...willing suspension of disbelief"; I like to feel as if the writer had taken some bit of their own experience and considered hard and long enough what they might do with it, to enlarge an incident's potential as a means of having readers made aware of a world that's apart from the comfortable references and homegrown usages.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Wallace Stevens stroll along the shore

It's interesting that some would rather argue with Wallace Stevens rather than grasping what he's writing about.Understandable: fans of Billy Collins , preferring their poems to be neat arrangements of common things highlighted with a smattering of clever learnedness, find Stevens an indefinite perspective. The ask themselves, "where are these places he writes about, and where are all the people who ought be inhabiting this piazzas or strolling these beaches?" It's precisely the lack of those things that intrigues me about Wallace Stevens' problematic take on the tension between mind and spirit. What we have in this world, his poetry informs us constantly, might be a flawed representation of the real thing, but for intents and purposes the inferior idea is all the reality we can handle. Falling short, we try harder to get to an ideal state which is elusive.

Beauty is momentary in the mind--
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

The body dies; the body's beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.

Stevens' work is obsessed with the whole conundrum Plato introduced with the Ideal Forms, perfect in their unknowable terrain, versus the actual thing we see in front of us, aging with time, falling apart and eventually dying. The perfection , the beauty of the body we see, is a construct, a phenomenon we subject to our psychological preferences that make the world tolerable, livable. And when the body dies, it remains beautiful, in memory, in the mind that Stevens addressed in the stanza above it. Stevens , a realist, actually, and not a romantic, would suggest that "beauty" and "spirit" are actual concepts by which we arrange our lives, but that such things only have currency as long as there is someone still alive to remember the particular , place, or thing that embodies the afore mentioned qualities.

Stevens believed language, the vehicle with which we construct our complicated notions of permanence and metaphysical certainty, is finally inadequate to the task of capturing the things of the world as they actually are, in themselves, beyond the assumptiveness of our paradigms and censoring filters. This is what gave his poems their exquisite lyric tension, the pondering of shapes, concepts, places , arranged just so, altering and changing to other versions of "permanent" perfection as the personality changes , however slightly. Our heaven is a malleable place, he considered, eternal and ever lasting , ironically, only as long as their is someone who remembers to hold those thoughts in mind.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Image result for ar ammons

Someone I showed this poem to gave back to me after reading it back the book after a cursory glance up and down the page. She asked: "where's the beef?". Then we had a beef; I liked the poem, she didn't, and we took several hours to smooth out the differences between us.
 Assuredly, more than a difference of view on what constitutes quality in free verse poems was under review , and yes, I realize that recollection resembles a scenario for a minor key spasm of-of "flash fiction" that would be doomed to see print in a small magazine that would reach the hands of  on the chronically poetic.The "beef", is Ammons' details, and the poem works precisely because of his plain speech and the emphasis on his line breaks. Ammons' narrator highlights a more fleshed out version of the same sort of subject, making the point that what comes at you fast in life are marriages, births, and deaths, in that order, in thick, hard clusters; before you know it, you're at the end of it all while the cycle continues for another generation. One descends either into cynicism and despair, or one considers themselves to have been fortunate, blessed, to have lived a life that's endured joy, failure, and every celebration and tragedy in between. Yes, this is a poem, there is no pretense about it, and it works very powerfully because of Ammons' couplet form; the prose reformatting turns this into something anyone converted to paragraph form would be, a series of run-on sentences.I like his language, his ability to keep a topic running through a myriad of associations that wouldn't ordinarily meet in a piece of writing, and I admire his utter lack of pretentiousness. This is quite wonderful.

In View of the Fact 
By A. R. Ammons 

The people of my time are passing away: my
wife is baking for a funeral, a 60-year-old who

died suddenly, when the phone rings, and it's
Ruth we care so much about in intensive care:

it was once weddings that came so thick and
fast, and then, first babies, such a hullabaloo:

now, it's this that and the other and somebody
else gone or on the brink: well, we never

thought we would live forever (although we did)
and now it looks like we won't: some of us

are losing a leg to diabetes, some don't know
what they went downstairs for, some know that

a hired watchful person is around, some like
to touch the cane tip into something steady,

so nice: we have already lost so many,
brushed the loss of ourselves ourselves: our

address books for so long a slow scramble now
are palimpsests, scribbles and scratches: our

index cards for Christmases, birthdays,
Halloweens drop clean away into sympathies:

at the same time we are getting used to so
many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip

to the ones left: we are not giving up on the
congestive heart failure or brain tumors, on

the nice old men left in empty houses or on
the widows who decide to travel a lot: we

think the sun may shine someday when we'll
drink wine together and think of what used to

be: until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every

loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love, love that can grow brighter

and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way. . . . 

In other news,  I've ranted on occasion that there should be no more poems about poetry, I thought why I liked "Called into Play" and not the work of other writers. Attitude is the difference, I guess. My basic gripe is against who regard poetry as a vehicle of relentless self-revelation, the sub-Nerudians and faux Rilkeans who seemed to have skipped the other qualities their inspiring source's poetry had and instead are determined to make a cult from the practice; the poet as priest is not an image that appeals to me and even the most supreme of egoist geniuses, Walt Whitman, would likely find the conceit a bit vain. But there's always exceptions to anyone's "rules" about the proper tone and stance a poet needs to maintain when bringting their stanzas into the world, and Ammons is an exception indeed, a brilliant one , and he's exception who doesn't sound like he intends his poems to please anyone's gilded sense of the proper. He will talk about what he wants to, what he needs to, in whatever manner he deems fit.  Good for him. 

 Called into Play 

A.R. Ammons 

Fall fell: so that's it for the leaf poetry: 
some flurries have whitened the edges of roads 

and lawns: time for that, the snow stuff: & 
turkeys and old St. Nick: where am I going to 

find something to write about I haven't already 
written away: I will have to stop short, look 

down, look up, look close, think, think, think: 
but in what range should I think: should I 

figure colors and outlines, given forms, say 
mailboxes, or should I try to plumb what is 

behind what and what behind that, deep down 
where the surface has lost its semblance: or 

should I think personally, such as, this week 
seems to have been crafted in hell: what: is 

something going on: something besides this 
diddledeediddle everyday matter-of-fact: I 

could draw up an ancient memory which would 
wipe this whole presence away: or I could fill 

out my dreams with high syntheses turned into 
concrete visionary forms: Lucre could lust 

for Luster: bad angels could roar out of perdition 
and kill the AIDS vaccine not quite 

perfected yet: the gods could get down on 
each other; the big gods could fly in from 

nebulae unknown: but I'm only me: I have 4 
interests--money, poetry, sex, death: I guess 

I can jostle those. . . .
 I don't include the Language Poets, as someone had asked me, even though poetic language is at the forefront of their work; the effort there, I think, is an honest and exciting investigation into new ways of thinking about how language can be written to more creatively engage the complexity of experience. Ammons, of course, is much less formal, and has an the appeal of some who'd just gotten out of bed and is trying to get the sleep from his eyes. What he sees is the same old things, only completely different, to paraphrase comedian Steve Wright. I like the way Ammons demystifies the subject by simply talking about search for something to write about. What he mentions here, things like lawns, mail, current events, are brought up as things he might impress into being the details and subject of a poem he wants to write. He might have been talking about a mad search for missing car keys; there's humanity in this momentary frustration.There's the suggestion that Ammons is tired of his old turns of phrase and wants to forge new ones:
...should I try to plumb what is 

behind what and what behind that, deep down 
where the surface has lost its semblance: or 

should I think personally, such as, this week 
seems to have been crafted in hell: what: is 

something going on: something besides this 
diddledeediddle everyday matter-of-fact: I 

could draw up an ancient memory which would 
wipe this whole presence away...

Ammons admits his limits as a seer or oracle and speaks of language as something he works with through the craft of poetry, a practice he works at diligently in an effort to find an expression that transcends mere competence and achieves an artfulness. The poem is funny and moving in it's way, as Ammons' work is constantly aware of death, which makes philosophical certainty a cluster of moot points. This all puts A.R.Ammons' musings on poetry in sharp contrast to a host of others who'll essay forth in verse about poets being the intermediaries of Truths and Principles only a select few are able to deign and decipher for the less gifted. Without repeating my previous misgivings, I'll say that this his Hogwash and Elitism, and these are the sorts of people I imagine Ammons himself asking to go away.