Sunday, November 29, 2009

Burroughs: yeah, thanks...

The alternative view of the holiday should be represented, and there's not a better voice for the embittered, the disenfranchised, the decrepit, the perverse, the sardonic, the brilliant, and the ecstatically marginalized than William Burroughs. While the rest of America, we assume, gives thanks for what they have in a world that demonstrably avails them nothing and is winnowing away any localized genius part to imagine and creatively act toward better, more interesting lives, Burroughs elevates sarcasm to the highest level, beyond nose bleeding to the peak wear strokes occur and tells us some grim truths in reversed salutations. It sticks in the craw, yes, but it ought to. To paraphrase Marx, in an instance where he happened to be right, the task isn't to thank God for the luck we've had, but rather to use the brains he gave us to use in order to change our luck. Happy Holiday. -tb

Thanksgiving Prayer
William S. Burroughs

To John Dillinger and hope he is still alive.
Thanksgiving Day November 28 1986"

Thanks for the wild turkey and
the passenger pigeons, destined
to be shat out through wholesome
American guts.

Thanks for a continent to despoil
and poison.

Thanks for Indians to provide a
modicum of challenge and

Thanks for vast herds of bison to
kill and skin leaving the
carcasses to rot.

Thanks for bounties on wolves
and coyotes.

Thanks for the American dream,
To vulgarize and to falsify until
the bare lies shine through.

Thanks for the KKK.

For nigger-killin' lawmen,
feelin' their notches.

For decent church-goin' women,
with their mean, pinched, bitter,
evil faces.

Thanks for "Kill a Queer for
Christ" stickers.

Thanks for laboratory AIDS.

Thanks for Prohibition and the
war against drugs.

Thanks for a country where
nobody's allowed to mind the
own business.

Thanks for a nation of finks.

Yes, thanks for all the
memories-- all right let's see
your arms!

You always were a headache and
you always were a bore.

Thanks for the last and greatest
betrayal of the last and greatest
of human dreams.

Bad vibe

This is one of those situations where a boss can find fault with your failure for providing "a good vibe" although you may be hitting all the marks for civility.

I was in a job where where a control-freak hotel manager refused to let do the job he was nominally training me to do--he took over tasks I started, reduced the number of things on my checklist--and took me aside to tell me that he didn't like the tone in my voice when I said "Please", "Thank you" or "you're welcome" to our hotel guests. That was exasperating , of course, but I just nodded, contained my impulse to scream, and assured this guy that I would try harder to have less tension. I hadn't a clue to what he was getting at, and nearly quit, thinking I wasn't paid enough to have a moron take a dump on me like that.

The next week , following a nightmarish Sunday morning checkout, the same manager asked me to step inside his office and to close the door behind me. I sat down while he sat on the edge of his desk, looking down at me, his glasses pushed like flight goggles around his forehead.

"Ted, I get the feeling that you're happy working here" he started, but I didn't let him proceed to what he wanted to discuss. He could save the speech for the next wage slave.

"I'm not" I said,"and you can take my name off the schedule right now. I don't work here anymore..."

I punched out and went home and eventually found work as a bookseller, a trade I never strayed from since the mid eighties. I still don't make that much money, but at least it has benefits that pleases the soul, if not the bank account or health plan.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Nabokov gets burned

There was a today about three years ago as to whether the estate of novelist Vladimir Nabokov should publish his last, unfinished novel posthumously. After a bit of hustle and heat in the literary press and blogosphere, the publication of that manuscript,The Original of Laura, has appeared between covers. It's a rare instance where I will skip a new book by a favorite author. From the description supplied by, I have no desire to see this esteemed master of English prose reduced to flash cards. I said three years ago that they should burn the manuscript and be done with it. I wish they had. I’m not a fan of posthumous for the simple reason that most of what surfaces after a famed scribe’s death suffer in the goriest possible terms. 

After the fact manuscripts by Elizabeth Bishop, Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson and (most grotesquely) Ernest Hemingway are less than the respective geniuses. who commanded our attention in the first place. Their genius, that is, and the insistence of English teachers and professors of literature. Rough drafts, juvenilia, awkward early writings where one was working toward a mature style, and copious late-career self-parodies are all things I‘d have preferred to remain in the drawer, or in the box; it’s embarrassing to have a book in your hand who’s publication wasn’t approved by the author in which there’s writing that falls below the superlative standards the author set for himself or herself. 

Hemingway’s reputation as a stylist diminished in the view of critics of critics and readers with the surfeit of previously unpublished manuscripts. Mailer fanatic that I am, there’s no thirst on my part to read incomplete and unpolished prose from the late writer set between book covers; it seems immoral to let the less tidy writings be presented as “unpublished gems” , or “lost masterpieces”. It’s a dishonest cheat, a fraud laid upon the readership. Nabokov was painstaking in his craft, and it’s his judgment I trust if he deemed the manuscript unpublished. Burn it and allow us a genius unspoiled by erring scholars and eager publishers.

What gets me about what's been done with the unpublished work of dead writers is the way in which they're presented; one is nearly always promised that what we have in our hands is a "lost masterpiece" . In any case, the marketing promises writing on a level of these writers’s best work, but this seldom the case. There are exceptions, though, as with the publication of The First Man, the posthumous novel by the brilliant Albert Camus. Critical consensus is it's the equal of his best novels, and I agree. Honesty in these publications would ease by dis-easae with the matter, perhaps, if the emphasis discussed were more historical than aesthetic. The fact remains, though, that there are thousands who want to get a thrill equal to the jag they felt when they read Miller, Thompson, Hemingway, et al, the first time, and it remains a good bet that readers will disguise their disappointment with posthumous efforts with a further elaboration of the mythology--all the cant, clichés and truisms that clog up a cult writer's reputation--which will make this phenomenon a permanent vex.
My  friend Barry Alfonso brought up the pertinent example of Max Brod, who published Kafka's unpublished manuscripts against the author's explicit dying wishes.

It  be a challenge, but I suspect I would have done as Max Brod did and published Kafka's work. Brod claims to have told his dying friend that he would not carryout the last request of publishing the manuscripts. True or not, it is known that Brod had encouraged Kafka to publish during his lifetime, to little avail .Being an editor , publisher, author in his own right, he likely couldn't stand the thought of having what he thought as a major body of writing going up in smoke, unread. It was a matter of establishing a deserved reputation for greatness for a writer who wasn't able to judge his own validity; Nabokov had a major reputation and publications at the time of his death, and was, I think, using sound judgement when he requested the last manucript to be burned. It was a practice run, a series of notes, not a book. I think Nabokov was the best critic of his own work.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Poetry and lying

Some time I posted a poem I wrote concerning a blurry childhood memory of my Mom sobbing over a stove, the conceit being that I'd first give hints that this was going to be a melancholic memoir and then reveal, through a clever alignment of detail, that her tears were not from a spat with Dad. It was revealed by the last stanza that she' chopped raw onions for what the meal . Someone asked in a response how the memory was so clear, and I explained that the story was not wholly true; I manufactured the narrative thread I couldn't recall, and produce an entity that had a punchline, not a grievous irony. The response was fairly psychotic; I was called a liar and worse with my method revealed, and the inconsolable assailant couldn't get it through his (or her) head that not every poem is factual, therapeutic, journalistic. My response was defensive, of course, and typical of the accused bard.It's called imaginative literature, after all.Not a good reading habit for someone who says they love poetry. No, my friend, I didn't lie to the readers, I just told them a story.Poetry is imaginative writing, my brother, and there are those who err in reading this as an attempt at autobiography. The offended party didn't seem to accept any of this and cranked the vitriole higher, at which time I stopped talking to her (or him),You wonder what they missed in grade school when reading and writing was taught ; poets are liars by habit of mind when it comes to their craft; they make stuff up when they feel the need. Critic John Hollander has a useful essay on the matter,The shadow of a lie: poetry, lying, and the truth of fictions. That should give us something to consider.This is a slippery slope, and what it underlines it your unwillingness to admit that poetry is the practice of writing in imaginative, figurative, fictional language. Writers employ metaphors, similes, and varied tropes at times to get to what one can call the "larger" truths,"greater", which is to say that writers, poets especially, try to get at matters a straight forward prose style can't get at. The hidden moral of the story, if you will.Part of this is creating scenarios that are not necessarily factual (autobiographical) or plausible in the conventional sense. Coleridge has a useful principle he calls the suspension of disbelief, which roughly means that a reader needs to leave their suppositions and stipulations at the door as they enter into reading a poem; you need to stop arguing that a poem is obliged to fulfill your personal requirements and instead read it as is, inspect what the writer does. Bandying about words like "lies" blocks us, meaning myself, from the sunshine of the spirit.An impatient man can't possibly get all that poets and their work have to offer. Exactly what they have to offer is debatable, but that's part of the pleasure of reading poetry,or writing it. It's better ,I think, to leave people wondering for themselves than to try to tell them the facts , Joe Friday style.

Thomas Lux, the Poet Laureate of Unintended Results

There are those poets whose mastery is so inspiring that one feels a need to cease writing verse themselves lest the master comes across a slovenly stanza one has written and commence to laugh deeply, richly at the grammatical incompetence. Paranoia, I know, but that's the feeling I get sometimes after reading the poems of Thomas Lux. The ease with which he's able to merge plain speaking with unaffected turns of phrase, dark irony with darker humor, hard realism with lyric sweeps which make me pause in my own work and consider the next line I'll write harder than I normally would. Great poets inspire that. Lux is one of my favorite poets--I can't think of anyone else who crafts a free verse poem with better care and intriguing twists of perception that he does., He is exactly the poet people should read when they want more from comprehensible poems than Billy Collins' unceasing tours of his neighborhood. Lux is the Laureate of Unintended Results. He will show you how matters invade expectation and undermine a grand view of how one's life is working through the weeks.


The high-tension spires spike the sky
beneath which boys bend
to pick from prickly vines
the deep-sopped fruit, the rind's green
a green sunk
in green. They part the plants' leaves,
reach into the nest,
and pull out mother, father, fat Uncle Phil.
The smaller yellow-geren children stay,
for now the fruit goes
in baskets by the side of the row,
every thirty feet or so. By these bushels
the boys get paid, in cash,
at day's end, this summer
of the last days of the empire
that will become known as
the past, adios, then,
the ragged-edged beautiful blink.

An agrarian scene, we assume at first, made dense and surreal with Lux's painterly descriptions, but there is something subtler, deadlier underneath. This poem for me addresses invading armies, albeit disguised in fruity metaphor. Overwhelming forces invade homes, destroy homelands, cart off citizens and vital resources, and then are gone when use is exhausted, in a blink that Lux fuses with Yeat's "terrible beauty". This poem has more to do with the metaphorical devices nations and electorates will use to distance themselves from the real damage their country inflicts for some greater, glorious good. Suffering is discounted, and the blood on one's fingertips is said to taste like honey. This is a provocative poem from Lux. He is so skilled in his language that it gets scary. Of all the poets with a realist bent, Lux I think is the one who is truly subversive of his own and, by extension, his reader's assumptions of the world. It is a neat and meaningful leap for him to go from a narrative that mimics, shall we say parodies Hemingway's hunting persona that reveals , at the end, a bizarre twist in Papa's Romanticism masculinity, equating the resemblance of the monkey's small hands with those of children, and fantasizing in the last instance that monkeys "can be taught to smile."You smile, indeed, you chuckle, you get the joke and wonder how on earth he came up with this unexpected yet fruitful turn, and then there is the additional, delayed realization that what Lux has offered up is a brief and cutting critique of hunter mystique. Rousseau himself would shiver at what comes up with. Lux is one of our best.

Refrigerator, 1957

More like a vault -- you pull the handle out
and on the shelves: not a lot,
and what there is (a boiled potato
in a bag, a chicken carcass
under foil) looking dispirited,
drained, mugged. This is not
a place to go in hope or hunger.
But, just to the right of the middle
of the middle door shelf, on fire, a lit-from-within red,
heart red, sexual red, wet neon red,
shining red in their liquid, exotic,
aloof, slumming
in such company: a jar
of maraschino cherries. Three-quarters
full, fiery globes, like strippers
at a church social. Maraschino cherries, maraschino,
the only foreign word I knew. Not once
did I see these cherries employed: not
in a drink, nor on top
of a glob of ice cream,
or just pop one in your mouth. Not once.
The same jar there through an entire
childhood of dull dinners -- bald meat,
pocked peas and, see above,
boiled potatoes. Maybe
they came over from the old country,
family heirlooms, or were status symbols
bought with a piece of the first paycheck
from a sweatshop,
which beat the pig farm in Bohemia,
handed down from my grandparents
to my parents
to be someday mine,
then my child's?
They were beautiful
and, if I never ate one,
it was because I knew it might be missed
or because I knew it would not be replaced
and because you do not eat
that which rips your heart with joy.

Like Don DeLillo in his novels, Lux gives the history of a consumer culture's love affair with the objects they purchase and attach their happiness to, only to fall out of love when a wire is too frayed, a motor stops running, or a newer, sleeker design replete with more gadgets hits the showroom floor; so much history, family is contained within this refrigerator, memories that grow faint as children grow, parents die, people move to places out of town. A poignant picture this is, a deserted refrigerator on the back porch for years, something you pass daily, perhaps, knowing there are history and stories attached to its existence as a working machine, all of it unknown and unrecoverable like singular drops of rain into a stream."So You Put the Dog to Sleep" is one my incidental favorite poems of the last ten years. In it Lux categorizes within a routine, if excruciating ritual of middle-class life, the skewed habits of mind, suggesting here the weirdness John Cheever could get at with his tragi-comic stories about New York suburbs. He additionally subtly indicates how we handle the minor tragedies in our lives.

Thomas Lux

"I have no dog, but must be
Somewhere there's one belongs to me."
--John Kendrick Bangs

You love your dog and carve his steaks
(marbled, tgender, aged) in the shape of hearts.
You let him on your lap at will

and call him by a lover's name:Liebschen,
pooch-o-mine, lamby, honey tart,
and you fill your voice with tenderness, woo.

He loves you too, that's his only job,
it's how he pays his room and board.
Behind his devotion, though, his dopey looks,

he might be a beast who wants your house,
your wife; who in fact loathes you, his lord.
His jaws snapping while you sleep means dreams

of eating your face: nose, lips, eyebrows, ears...
But soon your dog gets old, his legs
go bad, he's nearly blind, you puree his meat

and feed him with a spoon. It's hard to say
who hates whom more. He will not beg.
So you put the dog to sleep, Bad dog.
Cheever might be the best writer to compare Lux with, as the two of them have established the elegant yet clear-eyed tone of a narrator who can affectionately, intimately describe the conditions and contexts of the scenarios and yet remain seemingly detached , uncommitted, reserved if only to not break into laughter or tears as to the outcome. With "Dog" the situation begins with love, affection, an owner's dutiful care for his pet in exchange for the animal's unqualified love and loyalty. Later, as the dog grows older, his love and loyalty turns into dependence as he ages and becomes infirm, while the owner's affections sour into resentment. It constructs how thinking is geared to allow us to dodge guilt. As with farts, missing homework and soiled carpets, blame the dog for his own demise.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Los Angeles

Los Angeles

Stars glisten over the alley
after we pay the bill,
dim white glow on cracked brick
and every twine of a rainbow.

You say there’s nothing to cry about ever again,you say, I am dry as the gulch
that runs between my heart
and the trembling mouth
I might feed and die
the grievous wounds.

These hands stay
in my pocket,

this wallet is closed,
each old dollar sheds a tear.

I like blues guitar and
walks along the river, I respond,
but only at dusk so the broken windows gleam
like gold teeth under a jeweler’s lens,

static smoke stacks looming
over the oily wakes
freighters leave for
the shoreline rocks
is my idea of perfect harmony
and balance in the cosmos.
Little else feels
as fine as seeing
a planet behind exhausted
one fossil at a time.

In the car
radio voices argue
about stats and gun control,
the skyline recedes,

we’re on the freeway,
concrete corridors
as far as these keys
can take us.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Paul Blackburn and the Hard Gaze

The late poet Paul Blackburn reads at times like a writer who could watch himself in action; he seems enthralled by what is said and the consequences that follow .A good bit of his writing grasps the contradictions of seduction and lust on the male psyche more effectively than most contemporary authors can handle. He didn't, for one, thing , attempt to atone for his lack of basic virtue; the appeal for me is that he isolates the hang up, and arranges the tension as a witnessing of a rationalization that rings tinny, even false. He catches himself in his own lie. In an especially good discussion of his poem "The Once Over" in her book Break, Blow Burn, Camille Paglia , for once not parading her own arrogance, gives an excellent analysis on Blackburn's skill in precisely evoking the Summary Gaze that judges women (or men) as potential sexual partners as they pass by one's view; a predatory behavior that gives into lust, with a guilty pall hanging over the nearly as soon as it passes.
 Blackburn can turn these cruel bits of revelry into hard, sharp lyrics, the theme, perhaps, being a man who desires the right things to do and the decent person to be who , none the less, is driven at odd hours by a leering intent. It is painfully masculine and heterosexual and contradictory in confounding ways, but it is something beautifully, honestly expressed. Like Mailer's obsession with the experience and meaning of male experience, the result is literary art. I might find it unnerving at a moral level, but I suspect I'd be a less interesting had I not discovered Mailer or Blackburn.

Ambivalence is the word for this poem, really, and it's not dated at all, considering that men and women continue to be complicated creatures who continue test given scenarios of gender-interaction and continue, as often as not, to end up with problematic results. Blackburn traces his own thinking on this encounter, attempting to enter into the mind of the woman who is with him, trying to disguise his hubris under some thinly offered assurances of gallantry and caring physicality--the male seems to be offering up some sort of Lawerence/Mellors version of Reichian sex technique the would bring both of them into some heightened awareness and effect a profound change in both of them. Blackburn, though, is too good a poet to take the ideology at face value and recognizes the delusional aspect of addressing a dis-satisfying experience in wholesome, all inclusive terms; depression sets in ,inevitably, and one is left with little else but to self-loathe, rationalize and second guess motives. The real world is what we start with here, setting the scene Blackburn's poem
One Night Stand: An Approach to the Bridge gets even closer to the baser facts of someone who cannot relate to women without a poeticized rationalization to fuel his intentions.
Migod, a picture window,
both of us sitting there
on the too-narrow couch
variously unclothed
watching sky lighten over the city.

This is a quizzical stew of conflict that Blackburn's brooding male attempts to reconstruct the event, his motives, the second-guessed emotions of the unnamed woman. In the replay he minimizes her protests with assurances that the two of them would merge into one another and become one through the coupling. Fine, one would think, if one were in a tightly wound narrative where actions and larger consequences played out against a universe concretely, if discretely determined dramatic principles, but this is scene, for all the male's diffuse philosophizing, is composed of actions, not theories, and the awareness that one has entered into intimacy with improvised passion looms again. One is brought back to the world from which they started, depressed somewhat from the reveries. The world intrudes again, as it always will on the fantasies of otherwise sane people":
The coffee does not warm
there is an orange sun in the river
there are blue lights on the bridge
Animal tenderness and
sadness is all we salvage, is
all the picture window
mirrors and maintains.

This is a brave poem, an unblinking study of one's less-savory motivations and the mental convolutions one would employ to escape the guilt of behaving badly, perhaps criminally. Told sparely, concisely, with a wonderful grasp of how to join a finely honed image and a swift bit of lyric intellection , I enjoy the poem for it's honesty and lack of self pity. The detours Blackburn makes around the verbal equivocations one expects a poet to make use o is refreshing and a large part of why the poem packs the punch it does. There does exist  the wrong headed idea that stalling and expanse are the keys to ensure the impression the writer has sussed through his issues, topical and submerged, for a considered period and comes up, through naked honesty edified by craft, a poem of deep feeling. Poets with decades of favorable from critics who's praise influences the bequeathing of cash rewards do this more often than anyone , it seems, desires to be honest enough to admit. Blackburn here has a poem that casts you into a stammering response, a reaction actually, something akin, it seems, to being caught staring at an attractive too long and having to admit the conflicting tensions of lust and public courtesy. It's a hard jolt, a slap in the face, a pitcher of ice water poured over the head. It's a shock to the system that cannot be ignored , although, realistically, it can be rationalized away after the fact, minimized and justified with the reams of self-vindicating articulation the smartest and eloquent among us have practiced in the bleaker corners of our interior lives. One feels that Blackburn is telling secrets out of turn, revealing those things that is understand in the comfort of other males lusting after the objectified image  of a woman. He seems to be confessing why it is poets in particular read so beautifully on the issues of love, intimacy, great and abounding empathy for human suffering  and who themselves wind up being such emotionally neutral sorts in their waking lives and relationships. It is a brave poem indeed, one that reads as if it's goal is to destroy the disguise that being a poet provides the prowling author of superficially nuanced verse.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Wehle's Tales

by Ellen Wehle takes us, it seems , to the backstage area of our awake personalities, the place where our prop-worthy similes and figures of speech are readied and positioned, the hope being that the word combinations match the shape and tone of what the eyes perceived. Better, it's a spat among the workman to cues and timing of lines; still, the play must go one.The concrete and the abstract meet here, in some figurative back alley, seeming to mime each other's meanings and movements in parallel movement and lexical simulation, like some tense discussion that is all but a yelling match underneath a sighing, impatient surface civility. Representation , simulacra, codes of various types call attention to the events of the real world, and one learns rather quickly that existence , as is, hasn't a storyline it lives up to or a script it follows, but rather goes it's own way. It is our need, among the systems of narrated coping, to give these symbolic virtues to things that happen all of a sudden, or inevitably, but both beyond our expectation and control.

Sack of rocks we drag.
Telescope dish turning.

Engine-hum in back
Alleys where all night

Trucks idle their load,
Whomever the Devil

Would destroy … how
Does that saying go?

Yes, how does that saying go, what was said once by a wise man, where was it that I read...? Narrative , often enough, comes after someone--a writer, poet, a writer of computer games--has had enough life out of their parent's home and has something of their own biography. We have our goals, we have a sense of what we've so far leading up to the current moment, and we expect a certain trajectory for the rest of our being--we expect our lives to have a coherence and a legacy our grandchildren would enjoy hearing. But things go wrong, the material of the planet and the accumulation of forces reach their tipping point and our paradigm is upset; we forget our homilies, who combine our cliches and abandon ourselves to an every-man's fatalism: "such is life". But even with the plot lines we've assigned and assumed for ourselves cracked, stalled or limping, we hold on to the different parts, we adjust, we try to mend and repair the straight road we were on, we carry those things we cannot use. Just when we most need to drop the rock we hang on to it most.

Ellen Wehle's poem confront us with the machinary that gets us through the day, and here rather nicely, sparely, jaggedly reveals something in people who will argue with themselves and those they are close to about why their assumptions hadn't turned out as they thought it would. This, even as they plough ahead, accepting, in some grudging act of survival, that one must press on and linger on dreams that didn't get fulfilled. One does not surrrender to the hard facts of bad weather and no money, one keeps on with whatever sources they have--optimism, hope, anger and spite, different motivations for different people to get to the other side of their despair.

Can we not silence
It even half an hour:

Slip off our headset,
Forget the last ship's

Tinny SOS, break out
Champagne and party.

Palace of a thousand
Lamps left burning

Far below the waves.
… he first makes wise.

Conciousness seems to the result of our need to see ourselves in life as automonous beings making their way through an existence that would otherwise be absent of purpose. Wehle gets to where this connection fragments, and underscores with an interesting filtering of soured sentiments emerging from solid facts one cannot expel from their storyline. Conciousness is more a matter of continually waking from what guiding principle and learning to live life on life 's terms, not on your opinions on how things should go. Conciousness itself isn't a single state of being; it changes constantly, not unlike the mountains and oceans and bad weather it's fluidity of perception tries to help you understand.

What doesn't kill you makes you smaller, and you discover that wisdom is the knowledge of what won't work out. Ellen Wehle is a fine poet of the simply addressed dilemma; her ability to catch the deep, exhausted breathing implied between these sharp, bitter missives demonstrates something that Hemingway understood: an experience worth relating needn't be talked to death.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The urge to convert the unruly undulations of our collectivized speech into a hard, condensed verbal thing that makes the dull, if loud noise of lazy inference has crept it's way into a few poet's habit of phrase. We come to Wyn Cooper's poem in Slate, Daily Threads. I liken this to the way my younger brother treated radios, battery powered toys and alarm clocks when he were both the ages of 7 and 9 respectively. He would take the devices apart, typically toss out those pieces he seemingly didn't like the looks of, and then reassemble , to his own liking, what it was he'd dismantled. It didn't matter the radios or the toys didn't work as their advertising promised, my odd and brilliant brother preferred his own idea of this things in his world. Cooper looks on his narrative stream, in turn, and rids the sentences of any phoneme that doesn't make a grating sound. In surer hands this technique works, if only because the writers I'm thinking of--William Burroughs, WC Williams, Rae Armantrout-- intend their works for audiences who live in this world.

Thepoem, is Twitterdism incarnate, and it's most striking accomplishment is that it's taken brevity beyond the conservative deployment of articles, adjectives and other connecting tissues that made Hemingway the still-pilloried genius and made the style a crabby, grandstanding assemblage of barking alliteration and crash-dummy conceits. Some of this might have been effective had it suggested another medium, a painting in the style of Stuart Davis. In his canvases, a city scape on a typical walk does seem to pile on you, which makes his best work a nicely clustered terrain of icons to walk through. But Davis hasn't the curse of feeling required to be literary. Cooper boils the sentences down to the grunts, but what remains isn't believable as speech

Backstreet barricade, arcane
balustrade, hidden kingdom of wing and prayer,
details too fine to miss or mess with,
skinny escape from a netherhood
of parapets and puddle soaked oaks.

He might have veered closer to the old WC Williams' notion of writing to the rhythm and bluntness of speech as it's actually spoken, without a bookish filter to bring the impressions through. Sonnet like? Maybe, but the best sonnets get to an effect that makes you consider the technique and limitations after the emotional content registers and becomes felt by the reader. I can't get beyond this poem sounding like someone attempting a unique way of expressing itself. That is exactly the problem--it does sound unique, and it's the kind of singularity you hope remains a single instance.

Slaves to do These Things: Amy King

Slaves to do These Things
poems by Amy King

Amy King's writing is at once brainy yet coursing with a perceptible sensuality, are among the best of the post-modernist, post-Language, post-confessional style where we have. She is a writer who has surmounted the collective, generationally situated surprise that our native tongue is, in essence, slippery when it comes to addressing our experience and who has gotten on with an interrogation of both the templates one has absorbed from birth and the ones accrued through living long enough to modify one's narrative.

There is no defeatism here, no smallish voice sighing over disappointments, no staccato -cadenced anger replaying old wounds. Amy King comes through these poems, not as a survivor nor someone inclined to obscure the bare facts of her life and the reading she brought with her, but rather a poet with a firm grip on the co-agitations of joy and subtler anguish.

The wonder is that there not a place one senses that they've come across someone who thinks it's time to address themselves in a disguised past tense; these are the wonderings, inspections, musings of someone too enthralled with the discussion underway to worry what the final word will be. What hasn't been said yet is nothing to worry about, but to anticipate as a hard-verbed, sexily ironic entree to what one doesn't already know.

King's verse is sharp, witty, moving in ways that are made powerful by the emotional nuance her line breaks contain; there is the sense that everything one knew is wrong, after all, and yet it stands as a reasonably reliable filter through which one may continue their negotiation with the metaphysically inclined whispers--the ghostly reminders objects, places, faces can awake and send a chill down your spine. There is an analytical rigor here, but not cerebralization of one's history. One witnesses the sort of appreciation of personal multi-valence; the meaning of King's life has changed due to the texts she's absorbed, and her experience, in turn, has changed the meanings of the books she has been given.

Choice and recommended.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Spirituality after all the hair cuts

There are times in the middle of the afternoon after I've finished what I think is an inspired poem when I have the momentary sensation--fleet! is the world--that all those wonderful metaphors and inverted oppositions were given to me by God Himself. I've been sober for twenty years, though, and I have a strong feeling that if I ever heard God speak, he'd tell me to go ahead and have a shot of hooch. Faith I have, but not to the degree that I think a higher power uses me as a mouthpiece for his left over tropes. The feeling passes, and I disabuse myself that poems and prayer are linked in degrees more bountiful than rare. I think the distinctions between the two things are clear and crucial, as both modes of address are for distinct purposes.

The key distinction between poems and prayers are that poems are almost invariably written from within experience, and as a form, is under no obligation to detail and highlight it's rhetoric toward any obligatory pitch or prejudice. The poet, distinct from the praying person, has the freedom to invoke God or invoke him not at all; the poet might even insist that the wonders he or she comes to write about are phenomena in and of itself, independent of anything divine.

Poetry allows for the religious, the agnostic, the atheist and the indifferent with regards to God. The single requirement is that the poem meet the needs of literature, however the poet lands on the issue of the divine; what constitutes literary value, of course, is subject to a discussion that is nearly as abstruse and premised on unprovable suppositions as theology, Literary criticism might be said to be it's own sort of religious dogma.

Prayers, in contrast, start outside human, terrestrial experience and beseech a higher power to intervene in human affairs. While poetry , in general, glories in all things human and is obsessed with the mystery of perception (finding that miraculous enough ), prayer assumes human experience is flawed, in error, and needs a strong hand to right itself to a greater purpose. Prayer in essence is an admission of powerlessness or one's situation and one's instincts to cope with the difficulties presented; the varieties of spiritual inspiration vary and are nuanced to particular personalities and finer or lesser nuanced readings of guiding sacred texts, but prayers share a default position that human existence sans God is incomplete and in need to surrender itself to the Will of a variously described God.

It is possible to write a poem that addresses god that is not an entreaty, finding His presence in the world as we already have it, not as we think it was."Question" by May Swenson does this.

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will
I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I

It's a fine poem, and Swenson is speaking from within experience, finding something wondrous in the world as it is. Her poem is about finding God in the details of this existence, and does not beseech a higher power for guidelines about how to live a more righteous life according to scripture. Prayer assumes that human life, in essence, is merely an audition for a seat in Heaven. Swenson assumes we already have our seat and seeks God's inspiration in making the place where we live purposeful and fuller.I don't think God ordains prayers,since they commence with the human subject starting a conversation with his maker in the search for guidance, inspiration, hope. Prayers (and poetry writing) are voluntary, as humans always have the choice not to pray at all and to neither seek nor have an interest in spiritual matters. God does not micro manage what human beings do,

Friday, November 13, 2009

Twitter poetry

The commercial has a Twitter addict gleefully thumbing his message, "I am sitting on the porch." It seemed to me, momentarily, we might enter a time of New Brevity, with the language being composed less of phrases that build their way to more complex meanings and more by lexical equivalents of shrugs, sighs, head gestures, rolled eyes. The limits on the number of characters you could use for the tweet you had in mind forced you to boil your idea down to a point where even essence is seared away, and only the proverbial grunts of need remain. It would, it seem, be a potential source of making one's recognizable language do interesting things, the irony being that one begins with a coherent series of things to say but who, made to observe limits they cannot modify, are made to reduce their communications into something akin to tea leaf readings. Read between the lines, fill in the blanks, assume the Tweeter hadn't made a thumb-inclined typo and, in fact, meant something significant with an odd string of visual glottal clicks. Someone came up with the idea here, where an endless stream of Tweets is amassed, stanza style, in what reads like Modernist poetry feeding on its own armor-plated tail. There was a rule applied to the otherwise random nature of the project: each line, from different tweets, had to rhyme. A sample from today
digg this stuck downstairs... at least i have computer, TV, food, and potty!!! Mind pelicans and dropped cell phones when driving your Bugatti... gay fags put it on twilight and changed the whole song in the process. This class is becoming more and more pointless as the weeks progress. I'm about to go to the gym with my sister and brother.. Got lunch on my top so had to nip out and buy another. praising God for my life and the life of others Robin Williams and Bono look like brothers. I have a twin, and she's bad at everything. Just ate breakfast.. and i cant taste anything!! Tim McCarver is making my ears bleed and my brain hurt You might say I'm such a flirt, lipstick on my neck and shirt. you're such a mystery, i just want to stand and stare. i can't wait to go home today and smell some new air. Just woke up and I'm still thinking of you. Fuck my life. Now where did I put my hockey mask and butcher knife? Im so tired. I'll take the walk and clear my head and Star Wars was fun Awesome. I'll budget and rearrange my room and I may get one. is pumped to see what Jesus has in store for my life and my band. Good morning everyone! Got a day of fun and craziness planned!
In The American Grain, the lingua franca William Carlos Williams had faith in the metronome-smashing, multi-headed parlance. Endless lines of concern, emphasis, interest, and obsession coming at us through the air, joining up with other odd phrases and fresh banalities that give everyone who wants one a voice to spend their two cents as they please, the only limit being 140 characters at a time. Our collective conscious, it seems, seems to be something that is now ruled by an impatient twelve-year-old with remote control. Not that this is an original idea for poetry, visual art, or writing in general--William Burroughs did as much with his cut-up method, his slicing up of various texts, his own and others, and reassembling them in striking phrase combinations that would, despite their nonsequitur essence, forced you to consider the implications; it was something of a peek into a hell you denied being afraid of. The Twitter aesthetic, or the lack of it, is that now anyone can play and do so fearlessly, unafraid of the swirling materialistic signifiers that threaten to distract and dilute their ability to ask for a glass of water at the coffee shop and also at what the results of the jerking language combinations suggest. They suggest nothing and only reflect on the emptiness at the heart of a personality that hasn't anything worthwhile to do. Hell has been redefined as a life without Twitter, without Facebook, without a cellphone to broadcast one's face and quirks across the receiving universe,

Thursday, November 12, 2009

From the captain's tower

T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound weren't friends of democracy,but they did their own style of the mash up --classical and pop styles and a preferring a diffusion of coherence rather than writing a series of unifying metaphors--in ways that would better express their idea of the fracturing of reality and the destruction of purpose in culture. Someone had said that poetry was "news that stayed news", and some of us in the later decades saw fit to use that a declaration about the merging of Art and History , in the immediate guise of the New Journalists, our recent examples being Mailer, Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese.The New Journalists weren't really the mob--mobs cannot , by nature, be democratic nor fair nor be able to devise a fair and just politics. I'd say they were more the guys at the end of the bar who stopped opining about the way things ought to be and got off the bar seat to enter an argument that started without them; they were going to straighten folks out. As it goes, they did provide an interesting altnerative narrative line to what gets called the Movement of History, a choice , up close view of the insanity, the ugliness and the egomania that was chewing at the margins of the Great Society and it's aftershock.

Realty is both an indvidual and a collective endeavor, yes; whatever it may in fact be in God's mind, we , as a species, cannot concieve of reality without a narrative line, a script. We are all stars in our own movie and everyone else is from central casting; reality is close to being a multiplex theatre with very thin walls between the auditoriums. Dialogue and sound effects bleed into each other's plot lines. Pound and Eliot are interesting contrasts, one a windbag, a blowhard,a buttinski, a motor-mouthing gab-bag who happened to have some brilliant notions of how poetry can be made aesthetically and personally viable again, the other being a depressed, crabby, self conciously rigid individual who's view of the cracked surface of culture gave us some haunting images that perfectly convey the despair and longing decades after they were written.

Both were closet autocrats, of course, and very conservative--neither was a fan of corporations nor capitalism, and it wouldn't be so hard to imagine the current strains of the right wing characterizing these fellows as left wingers. A strange set of long-view bed fellows; two anti-semetic, totalitarian inclined poets who wind up writing stuff that dovetail comfortably with a Marxist analysis on the effect of capital on human relationships. Everyone brings their own dynamite to this party, blowing up the same thing for the same reason, but with each with a Jesus of a different name.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

a paragraph with general praise for David Lehman

I enjoy David Lehman's mosaics of place names, mad jazz and painterly effect; there is an fabulous improvisation in his lines that performs an activity I think is poetry's core province, which is testing language's ability to accommodate experience and offer up perception in a manner that merits a second, third or a hundredth look at the daily things that surround us.There is what sounds like genuine surprise and glee when his pieces are at their best set of finessed pitches ;the interruptions or clipped notions work as layers of many references Lehman decides to associate; it's a sloppy process, I suppose, but it's one I'm partial too, taking Frank O'Hara as my foil. There is not enough time in this life to bemoan and decry what cannot be undone. You're use of another writer's phrase merely passively agrees with him. Lehman's technique is more adventurous, more artful--he makes his borrowed references perform as he wants them to.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Put out that damned cigarette

I quit smoking eleven years ago, and one of the great things about it is that I am no longer compelled to feign being the ardent sensualist who insists on exploiting every appetite and sensation our nerve endings can stand, and neither is there the need to wallow in libertarian sophistry about my body, might rights, my choice.

I played both these roles when I was up to two packs a day, combining the aesthete with the rugged individualist, and for all the volume I could muster in protest I wanted to quit desperately . Smoking even around other smokers was a drag, to coin a phrase, and as we gasped more the older we became , the old defenses and protests didn't even convince us anymore.

It's not about personal choice versus what a creeping totalitarian state would force us to do, it's a public health issue, a big one. More cities should go smokeless, and more will, I suspect, as more of us get with the idea that someone else's freedom to light up stops any where my lungs are likely to breath in the second hand smoke.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Neruda poem I like

I'm not a Neruda fan, since it seems most of his poems are self-referencing slices of two-faced baloney, but recently a friend posted a small gem he’d written , Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market I was rather taken with. It shines because it is very unlike Neruda’s typical style, a murmuring buzz suggesting revelation but revealing, in fact, mere appetite for more consumption. This poem is splendid, and reads as if it were composed by another poet altogether.Better than most of his work manages to scan; he concentrates on an image out of himself rather than examining his own vanity for a change, and winds up rendering something that seems a true poetic vision, perceptions seeming captured "in themselves", free of an intruding ego. Would that his other poems had these same virtues.

Among the market greens,
a bullet
from the ocean
a swimming
I saw you,

All around you
were lettuces,
sea foam
of the earth,
of the ocean
of the unknown,
of the
shadow, the
of the sea,
the abyss,
only you had survived,
a pitch-black, varnished
to deepest night.

Only you, well-aimed
dark bullet
from the abyss,
at one tip,
but constantly
at anchor in the current,
winged fins
in the swift
a mourning arrow,
dart of the sea,
olive, oily fish.
I saw you dead,
a deceased king
of my own ocean,
assault, silver
submarine fir,
of seaquakes,
only dead remains,
in all the market
was the only
purposeful form
the bewildering rout
of nature;
amid the fragile greens
you were
a solitary ship,
among the vegetables
fin and prow black and oiled,
as if you were still
the vessel of the wind,
the one and only
unflawed, navigating
the waters of death.

Skinny lines or no, the is packed with sudden feints, shifts and sly insinuations; Neruda uses his senses to see and to compare things to other things and so suggest a world large and mysterious and beautiful that exists outside his personality. The modesty is appealing,and the poetry is more potent. Better than most of his work manages to scan; he concentrates on an image out of himself rather than examining his own vanity for a change, and winds up rendering something that seems a true poetic vision, perceptions seeming captured "in themselves", free of an intruding ego. Would that his other poems had these same virtues. Perhaps you do need to be a woman to find a male obsessing over the magnitude of his own responses to the world. He writes as if he's in a constant state of arousal, spurred on by the seamless sensuality that makes up each surface, skin or material, he sets his hands upon. But I find this to be so much hokum and shtick much the same that I find an awful lot of Whitman's poems to be little more than the results of a machine left alone to generate variations of a self enamored template. Whitman, of course, wrote reams of verse, and far enough of it transcends the less convincing echolations of his reverberating self esteem that we may claim him as an unimpeachable genius. Neruda, though, does not write beyond his own skin often or long enough; the world is not something he discovers anew but instead a mirror that returns not himself but his admiring gaze. Too much schtick, too little light.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Distances made swiftly

Philippe Jaccottet

Swifts turn in the heights of the air;
higher still turn the invisible stars.
When day withdraws to the ends of the earth
their fires shine on a dark expanse of sand.

We live in a world of motion and distance.
The heart flies from tree to bird,
from bird to distant star,

from star to love; and love grows
in the quiet house, turning and working,
servant of thought, a lamp held in one hand.

The compactness in "Distances" here serves Jaccottet's purpose elegantly, conveying motion and emotion, a natural phenomenon with an internal stirring with a sweet and , carefully construed twining. The poem works with an analogy that treats us to a moral of the story, normally something that would come off us preachy , didactic, dry in our time of shying away from universal declarations, but the poet doesn't gush, doesn't exclaim or otherwise rattle his cup, Whitman style. The indirect reference to Diogenese, looking for an honest man

The heart flies from tree to bird,
from bird to distant star,

from star to love; and love grows
in the quiet house, turning and working,
servant of thought, a lamp held in one hand.

is swift and firmly applied to the underlying idea that life is a journey for that essence, that ephemeral something in the ether that will it meaning and purpose, a light of hope as our lamp. This is a poem by a writer who had fully gathered his thoughts on that inexpessable thing he wanted to get across.

Hecht's hammer

A little guilt mongering is just what you need to deliver several stanzas of applause ready morality. Anthony Hecht loves to bask in the glow of Points Already Made.The idea seems to be that even with the advance of decades since a horrific event, later generations still bear a moral responsibility for atrocities committed in their country's name; one cannot consider themselves excluded from the fatal commotion that had come before--there is no statute of limitations as to when no longer carries the blood stains and the culturally inscribed rationalizations that made the murder of millions a massive event performed both for the greater good and a fulfillment of an historical inevitability. There is no generational privilege; whatever one tries to do in occupation, hobbies, lifestyle, the routines of contemporary life, on grand and smaller scales, echo the terror, whisper of one's connection to the evil that was perpetuated, implies without subtlety one's responsibility to change the culture to the true nature of a collective personality that made the unthinkable an historical fact we must confront.

Prepare to receive him in your home some day:
Though they killed him in the camp they sent him to,
He will walk in as you’re sitting down to a meal.

This ending is straight from the Twilight Zone, which would have been fine if this were an early sixties television show emphasizing a then-controversial Humanist perspective. Controversial ideas, though, are mainstreamed over time, and this poem seems to occupy a space on the shelve of Subjects No Sane Person Would Argue With.
Hecht, though, is heavy handed in this delivery of what is history lesson and moral that would make for an easy round of applause; one can't argue with his politics or his sense of morality, but the parallelism he uses goes quickly from being an effective device to a trick used a few times too many. As with some other poems of his I've poured over, there is a smugness in his work I find grating, even on points I would otherwise agree without pause or reservation. Hand wringing is what occurs to me, a routinely glum observation that humans are fully capable of being evil , despicable bastards, and that the people who make such monstrosities possible are likewise horrible. This would make a fine speech,but it makes for a poem that wears it's morality like a loud suit of clothes , clashing and garish colors that obscure substance.

There's a clue in the Martin Luther quote Hecht uses as an epigraph, ,Martin Luther’s translation of John 19:7 (“We have a law, and by that law he ought to die.”) 
An ironic counterpoint, I think, given the discussion that's already go on ; Luther believed in a higher order and a Higher Law , and was inspired to disregard Papal rule in pursuit of what he considered God's true nature and calling. Laws are written for the convenience of man's convenience, greed and fouler purpose, and the laws the ancient Jews obeyed to justify Christ's crucifixion, as well as the legal and moral right Nazi's claimed for their genocide were cruel, thin fictions that collapsed under historical weight. Hecht seems to want to set us for how consistently small minded we are in our variety of evasions and excuses for the horror we've done; the poem, obviously, reminds the reader that we cannot escape what we've done to one another; my problem with the poem isn't the moral, but the delivery in general--hammering, heavy, lecturing. It's a message without grace .

A large part of his problem may have been his choice of writing this as a sestina, which limits variety.He's obliged by requirement to repeat phrase and idea in conspicuous variations that extinguish the possibility of surprise. Good poets work through their metaphors and themes so that a premise they begin evolves into something larger later in the work--a reader, when the poems are successful, gets an idea of how ideas are not fixed things, unchanging, but rather change when made to interact with a crucial "otherness" that coincides a verse's codified vernacular. There can be, I think, some playfulness in the language that can make even the most baleful subject stick with you without cramming your face deep into the moralizing. Hecht's choice of sestina, though, coincides with intent. He obviously didn't want his audience to miss his intended ironies and picked a form that would make interesting obfuscation difficult, if not impossible.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The joys of reading Ron Padgett

Ron Padgett is every bit the off hand and fresh-phrasing poet Billy Collins wants to be, and it's his particular genius to write in such a way that he hears what is truly and spontaneously poetic in actual speech and yet has the sense to contain the vernacular with real cadence and rhythm. Only a poet tuned into the weights and varying degrees of gravity a line of phrases and images can sound like if they're managed well can write these types of visual astute poems. His is a poetry of framing a perception at the moment it occurs, a sense of the banal giving rise to new formations of thought; the world is askew despite what appears to be sameness and order, and Padgett's method of ordering it all is askew as well. There is in him a capacity to be surprised without sounding like he's a taffy-headed cretin. There is wonder here, not wondering, which is to say he provides the reader with a clarity that incredibly manages to add to the mystery of the thing or emotion he's trying to contain.


When my mother said Let’s go down to the Rialto
it never occurred to me that the name Rialto

was odd or from anywhere else or meant anything
other than Rialto the theatre in my hometown

like the Orpheum, whose name was only a phoneme
with no trace of the god of Poetry, though

later I would learn about him and about the bridge
and realize that gods and bridges can fly invisibly

across the ocean and change their shapes and land
in one’s hometown and go on living there

until it’s time to fly again and start all over
as a perfectly clean phoneme in the heads

of the innocent and the open
on their way to the Ritz.

Padgett has a contagious high spirit , and a large part of what attracts the reader to him is constant sense of surprise; right at the point when matters of thought, situation and action tend towards a fatal gravity, we come across one of his zany associations. The effect is of driving for a long period while listening to an ernest, or at least a belligerent discussion on talk radio when your passenger suddenly changes the changes; sometimes it’s sudden and hard, like the hard jab of fingertip to radio button, or screeching, chaotic and questing, like someone turning the knob up and down the AM dial. A mixture of different measures and accents of modulated speech covering news, weather and traffic conditions and a class struggle of music zips by you while the world the car barrels through promises only more commotion, kinetics, and, for Padgett, surprise and joy .

FixationIt's not that hard to climb up
on a cross and have nails driven
into your hands and feet.
Of course it would hurt, but
if your mind were strong enough
you wouldn't notice. You
would notice how much farther
you can see up here, how
there's even a breeze
that cools your leaking blood.
The hills with olive groves fold in
to other hills with roads and huts,
flocks of sheep on a distant rise

Padgett’s poems at their heart expose the commotion we set ourselves off on as we struggle with what we think existence is doing to us, leaving the effect of a supremely comic sense that’s been honed, whittled and made coolly efficient by pratfalls and even further extremes of snit-fueling agitation.


Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.

There is in him a capacity to be surprised without sounding like he's a taffy-headed cretin. There is wonder here, not wondering, which is to say he provides the reader with a clarity that incredibly manages to add to the mystery of the thing or emotion he's trying to contain. Padgett is inside his engagement, not separated from it; what works in his poems is his capacity, like Frank O'Hara in his best, unguarded moments, to remained stunned at a flashing perception; a dozen or so combinations of thinking about what's unfolded in front of you rush by like so many film frames even as the phenomenon is still in the process of revealing itself. This is meant as a compliment, as sincere praise; Ron Padgett reminds of someone who is constantly gathering his wits.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Who needs heroes

Allen Ginsberg , as much as anyone, influenced me to get a typewriter and strive to write poems that cut through what I perceived, in teenage fashion, to be the falseness of cultural norms . His counter cultural assimilation of all things that ran contrary to the middle class life I knew was an attractive one, and it seemed, for a summer and an naive spring, that this might be the way the world once the young, the poets, the musicians took the reigns of the culture from an aged one that was sounding a protracted death rattle. He was, once, a good poet who cared how his poems resounded, all this before his full immersion into Spontaneous Bop Prosody ,first thought best thought, and all the rest. Afterwards the poems were transcriptions of journal entries, chatty, repetitive, self absorbed, artless in their flow, although artful in the presentation of Ginsberg as a transparent celebrity who was only what you saw. On balance, Ginsberg has written a handful of the best poems of the later twentieth century, but there is that element in him that makes you cringe, especially his support for NAMBLA. He's someone with a character have to compartmentalize, creating firewalls between his good and his bad writings, and certainly a thick barrier between Allen the artist and Allen the lover of little boys. It's something a great majority of his vast, nominally liberal audience doesn't want to deal with.

Camille Paglia, from who's column the above question was cited some time ago, expressed an overwhelming admiration for the poet for both his work and his support of man-boy love. She connects him (figuratively) with Whitman as an artist of Vast Vision who wouldn't separate their expanding verse styles from their over riding conviction about the power of erotic love. Paglia, of course,is a libertarian in politics and personal choice, and her admiration of Ginsberg's interest in young boys leaves me ill at ease. It seems something those of us who admire Ginsberg's best writings will have to live with and offer up a shrug, a sigh; yes, this writing is great and fantastic, and no, this belief or action is repugnant and horrible. Pound was a fascist supporting anti-Semite, Mailer stabbed a wife, Ginsberg advocated sex between grown men and small boys. It reminds us that audiences are not drawn to writers because they embody ideas of mainstream sanity. Writers bring something extra to the table, and not all of what's in their gift basket is attractive.

It seems something those of us who admire Ginsberg's best writings will have to live with and offer up a shrug, a sigh; yes, this writing is great and fantastic, and no, this belief or action is repugnant and horrible. Pound was a fascist supporting anti-Semite, Mailer stabbed a wife, Ginsberg advocated sex between grown men and small boys. It reminds us that audiences are not drawn to writers because they embody ideas of mainstream sanity. Writers bring something extra to the table, and not all of what's in their gift basket is attractive.What shouldn't the two things be brought up in the same sentence as examples of famed author behaviors that are morally reprehensible? Mailer had a life-long interest in exploring the nature of violence, and even hypothesized in his famous essay "The White Negro" that acts of violence might work as a curative to help people, men especially, to lead more authentic lives. Mailer has modified his take on violence, but the fact that he wrote romantically of violence and of "encouraging the psychopath within oneself" (to slightly paraphrase from the essay) and ends up in that tragic episode merits comment , and it's not beyond the pale to consider the act a culmination of a major part of his thinking; his idealization of personal violence, I think , can be very much be considered a "lifestyle" choice. That Mailer, my favorite writer , expressed regret for his violence is well and good, but it doesn't change my point, that the stabbing, like Ginsberg's desire to legitimize his attraction to young boys, is a nasty fact of the respective artist's lives an admirer has to come to terms with. The point is that heroes have clay feet. Heroes exist to inspire you to do as they have done, and then inspire you in different ways when their actions or words clash with your expectations. The anxiety of influence continues apace—you move on, you do better, until someone else notices you, admires you, does as you have done, and then comes to despise you for daring a human quirk rather than a godly gesture.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Big Idea, or a bunch of small ones hidden in the details?

Steinbeck is of the generation that arrives just after the Muckrakers,Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris, Sinclair Lewis, who thought that fiction was something of a sociological/anthropological tool in getting at the skewed relations between races and classes in a capitalist economy. Some larger truth, discovered by a focus imagination, could get beyond supposition and provide the correct vision for reform. Steinbeck had the spirit of reformer as well and sought to give an unsentimental account of the working poor in this country; but sentimental he remained, a quality that mired much of his other work besides Grapes of Wrath.

His drive to give the truth in story form needed to be fueled by tangible emotion, and so his tales take on familiar rise-and-fall themes we find in conventional tragedy.Thomas Pynchon is perhaps the novelist version of Chaos Theory, which is to say that all is not chaos at all but rather that the relationships between all narrative angles, as in the relationships between all biological systems, are far more intricate and intertwined than a conventional accounting would have us know. Pynchon steps back several yards from his subject and masters the rhetoric of any style he fancies to pay attention too, and is able to grasp the eternal absurdities of plot lines are made to perform. His aim, I guess, is to the notion of Grand Narrative is actually too modest a term; the tale that's told has multitudeVery post-modern, I'd say, but it's disturbing to think that men and women who are nominally good writers can fill up pages and bandwidth with a tweaked yammering that exists only to avoid the ideas they begin with in the subject line. This is very much like Samuel Beckett's novels, Malloy, Malone, The Lost Ones, More Pricks than Kicks, and here we have the link with the Late Modernism that had the creator (author) and subject (novel) rising , in their unperishable need to produce, from the noisy clash and clutter of an aesthetic philosophy that demanded new ways of putting the world together, of making the world non-liner and multi-valent, sufficiently prepared to be remade with technology and criteria. The point for many is that bleeding-edge writing has been around long enough -- since after WWll, I believe-- for a useful literary criteria to arise around it. The re-making and the re-re-making of those values are generally extensions, elaborations or, more radically, severe disagreements with standards that formed around a work while in nascent form. Modernism, as an aesthetic movement, among scads of others in history, had it's propagandists in it's early time, critics whose views remain bed rock, the base from which reformations are made.

Sadly typing

The death of a loved one is not something that one just "gets over", as if there were an expiration date on grief.Yes, one moves on with their life and tries to have new experiences and adventures, but poets, like anyone else, get older, and the longer view on their life and relations comes to the for. Poetry will tend to cease being the bright and chatty record of one's impulses, leavened with fast wit and snappy references, and will become more meditative, slower, a more considered rumination on those who've are gone yet whose presence remains felt and which influences the tone and direction of the living.

It's hardly a matter of getting mileage from a tragedy as it is a species of thinking-out-loud. We speak ourselves into being with others around us to confirm our life in the physical world as well to confront the inescapable knowledge of our end, and poets are the ones writing their testaments that they were here once and that they lived and mattered in a world that is soon enough over run with another generation impatient to destroy or ignore what was here only scant years before so they may erect their premature monuments to themselves and their cuteness.

We survived our foolishness and quick readings, a poet writes, we lived here and mattered to a community of friends and enemies in ways that no novel or epic production can capture, and we wish you the same luck, the chance to live long enough in this world you seek to fashion after your own image so you may write about your regrets, your failures, the things you didn't get around to doing.

Despair isn't the default position for poets to take as they get older; as I think is plain here, poets will in general treat their subject matter with more consideration, more nuance, more acuity as they age. The host of emotions, whether despair, elation, sadness, celebration, aren't likely to alter, but the treatments are bound to be richer, deeper, darker. One has aged and one has experienced many more things since they were in their twenties, and convincingly casting off the same flippant riffs one did in their fifties as they had while a college freshman is a hard act to pull off, emphasis on "act". One grows up, if they're lucky, and acts their age. Acting one's age doesn't necessarily mean one becomes a crotchety old geezer yelling at kids to get off his (or her) lawn; those character traits are formed long before the onset of old age. But what I think is a given is that an aging poet would be inclined to be more thoughtful as he or she writes. And why shouldn't they be. They have more experience to write about and to make sense of.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Some prose on not writing

So many would be poets, critics and furiously scribbling visionaries and spell-check philosophers are, at this minute, this very second that you take to read this sentence, gnashing their teeth, cracking their knuckles, running their fingertips over the surface of their keyboard as if to start a cadenza of rhytmic assault that would split the room in angry, splintering halves, all this as the cyclopean computer stares unblinkingly at them, revealing a characterless word document in the center of it's digial iris, and nothing comes to these poets desperate to make art, to sock it to their internet pals and enemies that theirs is still the words that come with the ceaseless flow of a muse that's fallen in love with a mind that cannot be contained, damnitallagain!, the words do not come this time like a lover who told the truth when he or she said they were leaving for good, the words don't come, the stream is dry, there is only the room and a man dying on the vine, jacked up on coffee with nothing to say except goddamitallagain!

Picture, if you will, a poet sitting at their desk, drumming their fingertips (if they're inclined to drum) on the mouse pad, taking long and (always) furtive drags from a cigarette (if they smoke), staring through the window into a distance where we they hope to see the returning silhouette of inspiration getting off at the bus stop, suitcase, back from travels hither and yon, trudging up the street, smiling, waving, delirious to be back on the block with a fresh cache of first lines and snappy endings and clever slant rhymes to fuel another half-collection of poems. Only there is no bus stop pulling away, no lone inspiration repatriated with the homeland, no life at all in the distance no matter how hard, how furtively the poet stares to where the horizon meets the last grove of trees and house. The poets stopped drumming their finger, crushes a cigarette (if they were smoking) and sits upright in their chair, they begin to type, they type anything at all, they must fill up the monitor with sentences with broken right margins that don't lend themselves to immediate sense, the piece under construction seems to be one set up after another, a series of private rituals that are as quaint as the writer's concerns with ordering the world in a sing-song rhyme scheme, the fingers rattle on, they pause, the monitor fills with words, something seems at last to be gelling, but no, it got away, the idea, the pay off for the relentless set ups, the description of each minute ritual, all the stalling statics that come to mind only when there is writing to be done, are met only with frustrated expectation because the world the poet tries to traverse and transgress is too damn slow. The writer has their ideas of each thing he or she knows in community where they ply their craft, and he or she has done a psychic mapping of where the objects-- each animal, tree, billboard, car, television antenna--will reside and how they will resound, but the world of it's own accord isn't as fast as the writer's wit, nor has the shabbiest idea of irony or other literary effect.

More panic, maybe another hypothetical cigarette is lit, smoke inhaled, a thought, another thought, the same thought: am I writing the script for the planet, or am I trying to remember what's already happened?I've nothing to write about, the poet sighs, but keeps on, the boulder is being shoved up the mountain, here we go again the poet complains, and what had been a late after noon growing serenely dark in a wrap of inactivity , small breaths , becomes instead an agitated wrap of stalled desire, a membrane one cannot get to the other side of fast enough. The sky darkens further, there is only a slight rime of orange-gold light remaining of the sun as it falls behind the line of trees and slides the other side of the earth where there may well be someone in a room at a desk hovering over a keyboard inscribed in the characters of another language, watching the sun rise as odd birds start to sing before the first light breaks on their street, staring at the corner where they hope public transportation might bring back an inspiration which has eluded them on too many wordless mornings.