Tuesday, December 29, 2009

David Levine, RIP

David Levine,very likey the most important caricaturists of the 20Th century, has passed away at the age of 83. Whether his target was Lyndon Johnson,Richard Nixon , Henry Kissinger or Bill Clinton, Levine took an unkind eye to the liars, scallywags and overachieving glory seekers who managed to make the world into a trash-strewn playpen. He showed them them not as extraordinary personalities but rather as chronic sufferers of delusion. Bad haircuts, unshaven jowls, necks that couldn't quite fit into the necks of their assigned shirts, Levine saw these power elitists as strange and difficult creatures who looked and sounded sane , but who seemed malformed and amoral on closer inspection. His acid-etched pen and inks were long a tonic in the middle of many a meandering political controversy,and one wonders where such clarity and moral outrage might come from next. Let's hope we get luck.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Holmes gets all twisted

I haven't seen the new version of Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson, respectively, but I have come across some whining from some reviewers about this film not treating the Conan Doyle creation with a sacrosant deference. It's a good time to insert the well worn notion from poet / esthetician Samuel Taylor Coleridge about the "willing suspension of disbelief"; as one enters into a relationship with a work that is an act of the imagination, one must relinquish their insistence that narratives be realistic, factual, or adhere to signifiers that merely reiterate the appearance of a world one already knows. The imaginative work should be judged on it's own terms, and from there one is in a better position to judge the relative success of the venture. The should go, of course, for those fictional figures, such as Sherlock Holmes , who's presence in in the culture seems known to us since before birth and who's exacting particulars needn't be , I don't think, cemented in place. The reputation, context and many particulars of Doyle's creation are not about to vanish from the earth; elaborations, embellishments,improvements, extensions, elisions, diminutions, and exacerbations of the character, are, in fact, what keeps us coming back to him; we have , in any event, seen quite a bit of Holmes as the pensive, reserved scientist thinking his way through a baffling series of murderous events, and it may be time,indeed, to see some bring the genius into the arena to bash the ruffians as well as baffle them. I would also like to see a Holmes/Batman team up movie , with the the two of them attempting to deal with a time warp crisis brought on by The Borg , who intended to infiltrate earth culture by assimilating a generation of Swiss watches. All this , of course, gets hopelessly complicated and lost until Thomas Dunson (John Wayne's character from Red River) appears on his horse and bitch slaps everyone into a stunned submission. After that, the sun will explode and there will no need to worry about the purity of any character, we needn't concern ourselves with the integrity of the text or author intentions, we can stop sniveling about canons and auteurs and Nobel Prizes and perhaps read books again, novels and poetry, and listen to albums again, all the way through, and perhaps take in a concert of music composed for instruments that don't required a power source to be heard. Wouldn't that be nice.

Monday, December 21, 2009

More notes on Charlotte Boulay's "planting daffodils"

(I wrote about Charlotte Boulay's wonderful poem "planting daffodils" in 2008. I've re-read it recently, and lo, more remarks, not quite connected.--tb)
The larger evils are evident in the poem, yes, and the narrator does speak of them in the middle passage, preparing the bulbs for planting. The irony the poem contains is that despite the seeming devastation nature foists upon us and, seemingly, itself, is that new life is nearly always the result; volcano explosions, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods. What existed before is tossed aside, displaced,destroyed, but not discarded, as their seeming waste become the materials that make a new life possible. A diminished note in the poem is the suggestion that the vanity that we can control nature and change its function is an illusion that we have continually smashed. It is a lesson we refuse to learn, however, precisely because we have the curse of turning our strong feelings into world views and applied philosophies that often as not result in ironic ruin.

This is a strong poem, I think, and I don't think there's a false or strained remark or move anywhere in it. The language is unpretentious without being self-consciously barren as, say, David Mamet's or Paul Auster's poems can be, and her elisions , the pause and unspoken link between the imaginative (Juliet) and the material (the garden in fall) is done with just enough spacing to surprise a reader with the association. The connections between them are presented well--there's no sense in the images being overdressed for the occasion, so to speak--and I rather like the darker implication about human vanity being under-addressed, almost not at all, but implicit all the same. It gives you the effect of a delayed shock of recognition.It's wise of her to avoid as well the mention of Easter.This poem within the scope of what man imagines and what man must actually contend with. The context is broader and the inference is wider as a result, and the reader not interested in particular religious references aren't excluded . Boulay seeks a wider empathy.

The whole issue as to what makes for a "moving poem" is as subjective as what the best ice cream flavor is. The distinguishing these differences in taste are what makes discussing poems , at times, a great pleasure. As a poem, "planting daffodils" is a lyric , analogous to music, and there is something in the sound of the words and the spaces between the images they've formed that gives me a clue to several ideas that are tangible yet beneath the surface of what the poem describes; the art of what was almost said. This poem is a useful illustration of how our concepts of life and death are layered in sets of metaphors and analogies that contrast our routine lives with our idealizations, and warns, at the margins, that we will be surprised, shocked and saddened at the end if we think we've gained control of our fate beyond our final day.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


So many poems have come our way concerning people who are dead, dying , grievously ill or otherwise three-sheeted to states that lack a pulse. This would be depressing normally, but it 's interesting to witness how the writers manage to obfuscate , obscure and botch a subject. A sudden death is confusing and I understand the attempt to write one's way from a mire conflicting emotion, but there is , often times, only more confusion. Rather than being made aware of the experience in phrases that can unmistakeably convey emotion and irony that can occur in the midst of the psychic turmoil, we are only witnesses to someone's inarticulate graspings towards a verbal effect. It's wearying to come away from a poem convinced not by the by the sentiment , but only by certainity that the writer couldn't get across a difficult set of ideas. The problem maybe , at times, that the notions were still forming; even in an art where obvious meanings are not required, there still needs to be a tangible set of figures one has considered and crafted with which a plausible surrendering of disbelief is possible.As with the fallen who are being addressed, directly or by way of intensely crowded example, the poets who've braved the page and revealed their dedications don't appear eager to really discuss anything; imagery,allusion, archaic and grating coinages emerge and make the subject disappear under the weight of description, which may be the hidden strategy after all. There is nothing less than the creation of distance from the heated stew of unresolved tension; compare this event to other things and eventually the original idea is lost , not to return to our mind. For the time being at least...

Rosenthal's "Morophine", while not dealing with a fatality, prefers jumping from one image, metaphor, simile to the other instead of establishing a series of ideas through the imagery to bring us to a perception a reader would not otherwise have had. It begins nicely enough, concretely, but quickly and seeming to plan it is lost in a parade that seems less a poem than devices gone amok:

The window to this world opened again
as the drips slowed, and she became
whippy as a sheet of glass improperly
annealed, ready to smash at any
indefinite touch in a whining matrix
of stresses,the bed frame a museum box
where she lay, encased as a mummified
kestrel tailed with a fleece of fetid cloth
laid out by the mongoose (pharaoh's rat)
cradled in the nook of a dead arm,
and her eyes were intensified as soup
with beef bouillon and parsnip, potato,
celery ends, the candor of bread and butter
to swallow the fact of what happened.

Different ideas come to me, none related to what Rosenthal had in mind; I am thinking more of the Clampitts arriving in Beverly Hills in an old truck crammed with every gougedand dented piece of property they ever bought through the Sears Roebuck catalogue, the toys in many an old cartoon who come alive when the shopkeeper leaves for the night, a bargain table full of sundry used merchandise, slightly worn, marked down . The succession of metaphors is overdone, and the idea --that there is a human need,it appears, to numb and distance ourselves from the unfiltered sensations of both the worlds we have both in and outside our head, and that one desires to be delivered by means greater than themselves to an plateau where the material stuff matters not--is ironically mummified by Rosenthal's desire to make this brief verse vivid. This is a baroque diorama, a box of strained effects, without the lyric imperative. It's a noise maker only, static and crackle.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Artificial, yes. Intelligent, no.

Salon has started a rather fine film section in it's redesign, and it was a surprise to see Chicago Reader movie critic Jonathan Rosenbaum highlighted in a brief piece defending Steven Spielberg's maligned sci-fi meditation on the human soul, A.I.Artificial Intelligence. His defense of the feature , brave as it is, has the benefit of being a pithy:

Reading it simply as a Spielberg film, as most detractors do, or even trying to read it simply as a Kubrick film, is a pretty futile exercise with limited rewards, even though the fingerprints of both directors are all over it. Seeing it as a perpetually unresolved dialectic between Kubrick and Spielberg starts to yield a complicated kind of sense -- an ambiguity where the bleakest pessimism and the most ecstatic kind of feel-good enchantment swiftly alternate and even occasionally blend, not to mention a far more enriching experience, however troubling and unresolved. As a profound meditation on the difference between what's human and what isn't, it also constitutes one of the best allegories about cinema that I know.

I am glad someone thought this was a good movie. I had the good fortune to take a couple film courses with Jonathan Rosenbaum in the seventies when he was a visiting film lecturer in UC San Diego's Visual Arts Department. The topic of one class, Paranoia in Films, was an especially engaging, if diffusely defined course, and it was of particular interest that the required text for the course was Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, from which Mr. Rosenbaum would bestow cryptic quotes from the book like "God is the original conspiracy theory" while showing acutely observed studies in monomania such as Nick Ray's Bigger than Life. That film in particular was apt for a course in paranoia on film, as it dealt with a meek school teacher's growing dependence of a mood altering medicine (cortisone) that converted into an arrogant, edgy, lunatic who needed eventually to be placed in a straight jacket. The print Rosenbaum received for the class wasn't the theatrical print he expected, but rather the cropped version, intended for television screens, where much of the image was cut away and the focus was on the talking heads. Viewing a tightly contained James Mason screaming larger than life on a large auditorium screen made you feel like you were watching someone trying to escape from a shrinking glass box. Paranoid indeed.

It's with this back story that I understand his appreciation of A.I.:Artificial Intelligence, but where he sees a brave vision from Steven Spielberg in the way he attempts to sort through the ways technology threatens to blur and eventually erase the distinctions between human and android programming--the eventual point was that both these creations are subject to a hard wiring that needs to bond with others as a defense against the lurking solitude--but it remains for me a vague, grandstanding mess. The buzz was that this was intended as the last film Stanley Kubrick was to make but never got to, and that Spielberg had gained access to the notes and developed his own ideas about how to flesh out, so to speak, the bare premise. Kubrick , is not the best person to pick if you're in the market for a useful idea for a film; more than a few of us have felt that the late director's reputation was inflated beyond sane justification, a man who could indeed shoot an engrossing sequence but was ill at ease to explain what thinking lay behind his imagery. It was a matter of monumental style in Kubrick's films, and he's lucky enough to make a hand ful of movies that haven't had their reputations collapse after their initial release and the wave of awestruck reviews.

His final movie, Eyes Wide Shut, was as pompous and preposterous a botched project as anything Ed Wood had made; you suspect that he had actually died before he had a chance to repair the raw feed in post production. Even the director's skill for making capable actors appear like sleepwalkers wasn't enough to calm the antsy Tom Cruise; he remains within his emotional range as an over-eyed wind-up toy. AI,in kind, was a half a bad idea from Kubrick's mind, was was reason enough for Spielberg to pour on the effects, flash the lights, go crazy with the colors, with abrupt and unconsidered cuts between broad humor, family hour sweetness and uncorked violence and villainy. The last set of clauses sound like a Coen Brothers movie, sure, but the Coens have a tone that runs through through their vexing genre variations and character studies; there are links, there are connections, there are matters in the frames that can be discussed, debated, but which are very tangibly present in the movie. Spielberg is muscle, flash, loud noises; his idea of subtext is a Cliffs Notes of discussion points--what morality play that can be discerned operates only on the surface, and it is when this happens--as it does all though this messy, ill-lit narrative--that you realize what button-pushing schlock meister the director really is. The whole A.I. enterprise comes off like that horribly cropped scene of James Mason yelling on an auditorium screen. Nothing at all fits the slim premise.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Best Books of the Decade

Strange, it seems, that this December we must consider not only the best books of 2009 , but the best books of the decade, and shudder at the thought that the last ten years have gone by so quickly. Or have they? Thinking back on the events gone by, personal, political, economic, literary, through each bit of bad news, good news and indifferent reports, one does realize, finally,that it's been a full decade in the passing. It's as though one had fallen asleep in the backseat during a long, tedious trip , only to be woken up with a start when the car finally stops. Coming out of the fog, one hazily asks "Here already?"

But we are here, ready or not for the next decade, ready or not in one's attempts to secure a sound employment ( too much detail, perhaps, but I was laid off my job last week, but I'm in noble company). My best guess to that matter is that we are ready; there have been some terrific books written over the last ten years , some brilliant writing, intriguing tales, illuminating accounts of emotion and fancy, all of which serves the central purpose of literature, to help us think about ourselves in the world.

These books have kept me out of the vacuum of merely sitting in front of a computer grazing off the headlines --they have kept me engaged with the world for the last ten years and have given me ample reason to talk to old friends and make new ones. We have something to talk about, and that seems to be the point of reading books and sharing what one enjoys with others; books are the grounds through which our different lives find a common set of metaphors , through which we can discuss surmount of differences and frame our similarities.

My best books of the Last Decade. These remarks, of course, are culled from previously posted reviews.

My Vocabulary Did this To Me

poems by Jack Spicer

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

Bear v. Shark
a novel by Chris Batchelder

Bear V. Shark
by Chris Bachelder is post-modern hoot. Don't let the tag "post modern" put you off, because Bachelder gets it exactly right as he skews his target, television and the culture of Total Media Saturation. Bear V.Shark is a great, wild read for anyone who enjoyed Pastoralia or the work of Mark Leyner. There is a vaguely described though loudly trumpeted Big Event forthcoming that's precisely what the title suggests, in a future time when TVs have no off switches and whose soft ware can sense a viewers boredom and flip the channels for them: TVs are everywhere in this world, in the kitchen, the furniture, bus stops, train stations, and in such a society, the idiom of everyday language is subverted by commercial patois and jingles. America, here, is subtly insane and in a constant state of distraction.This is the America that Baudrillard absent mindedly ruminated about, only much funnier, edgier, and smarter in the evisceration


a novel by Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo again shows that he's our best novelist of American absurdity with this strange off-kilter comedy that centers around the events of an eventful day in Manhattan. Against a backdrop of raves, a Presidential motorcade, a rock star's funeral, mysterious street demonstrations and the constant, ghostly electronic feed of news of pending financial disaster, a young billionaire asset manager limousines uptown to get a haircut in order to embrace his sense of inevitable, personal apocalypse. DeLillo's writing is outstanding, funny with a cool lyricism, poetic when you least expect it. The brillance here, as with White Noise and especially Mao ll is the way characters seek to reconfigure their metaphors, their assuring base of references , once their world view is rattled and made less authortative by unexplainable events and human quirks. This is semiotics at its best, an erotic activity where DeLillo probes and glides over the surfaces of ideas , notions, theories and their artifacts, things intellectual and material emptied of meaning, purpose. It's a hallmark of DeLillo's mastery of language that he gets that psychic activity that constantly tries to reinfuse the world with meaning and purpose after the constructions are laid bare; Eric, here in this world of commodity trading, which he regards as natural force that he's mastered and control, attempts to reintroduce mystery into the world he is trapped in. He is bored beyond the grave with the results of his luck. His efforts to live dangerously , spontaneously and thus get a perception he hadn't had and perhaps secure a hint of a metaphysical infrastructure that eludes, all turn badly, but for DeLillo's art it's not what is found , discovered, or resolved through the extensions of language, but rather the journey itself, the constant connecting of things with other things in the world; this is the poetry of the human need to make sense of things in the great , invisible state beyond the senses, a negoiation with death. His imagistic tilling of the semiotic field yields the sort of endless irony that makes for the kind of truly subversive comedy, a sort of satire that contains the straining cadences of prophecy. The city, the place where the the hydra-headed strands of commerce, history, technology and government merge in startling combinations of applied power, becomes an amorphous cluster of symbols whose life and vitality come to seem as fragile and short-lived as living matter itself.

The Time of Our Singing
a novel by Richard Powers

This amazing novel by Richard Powers. an ambitious generational tale of an American family with a mixed heritage of African-American and German Jew, and covers the travails, triumphs and tragedies of this family. There are three children, one with a beautiful singing voice who opts for a classical music career, a daughter who becomes involved with the civil rights struggle,and a second brother who, though gifted as well, buries his ambition to bridge the gap between his siblings. Not a perfect novel--sometimes Powers' superb style turns into a list of historical events as a means to convey the sweep of time-- but the central issues of race, identity, culture are handled well within the story. The writing is generous and frequently beautiful, especially at the moments when the description turns to the music. Powers, as well as any one, describes how notes played the right way can make one believe in heaven and the angels who live there.

Frantic Transmissions to and From Los Angeles
a memoir by Kate Braverman

Frantic Transmissions to and From Los Angeles is a memoir, of sorts, about growing up in Los Angeles, and then the eventual moving away from that famously center-less city. Writing in a high poetic and semiotically engaged style that recalls the best writing of Don DeLillo (Mao ll) and Norman Mailer (Miami and the Seize of Chicago), Braverman deftly defines isolated Los Angeles sprawl and puts you in those cloistered, cul-de-sac'd neighborhoods that you drive by on the freeway or pass on the commuter train, those squalid, dissociated blocks of undifferentiated houses and strip malls and store front churches; the prose gets the personal struggle to escape through any means , through art and rage, and this makes Frantic Transmissions not unlike Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wherein the prodigal son or daughter deigns to move up and away from a home that cannot keep them, with only raw nerve and the transforming elements of art to guide them. What Braverman confronts and writes about with a subtly discerning wit is the struggle of defining the place one calls home, and what roles one is obliged to assume as they continually define their space, their refuge. All through this particularly gripping memoir there is the sheer magic and engulfing power of Braverman's writing; I was fortunate to receive an uncorrected proof of Frantic Transmissions a couple of months ago, and I was knocked out by what I beheld. Sentence upon sentence, metaphor upon simile, analogy upon anecdote, this writing is rhythmic and full of stirring music. There is poetry here that does not overwhelm nor over reach; this is an amazing book, and it is one of the best books about life in Los Angeles , quite easily in the ranks of Nathaniel West, Joan Didion, and John Fante.

HIP:The History

non fiction by John Leland

John Leland's Hip:The History is the sort of book I like to read on the bus, the portentous social study of an indefinite essence that makes the reader of the book appear, well, hip. This is the perfect book for the pop culture obsessive who wonders, indeed worries and frets over the issue as to whether white musicians can become real blues musicians or whether Caucasian jazz musicians have added anything of value to the the jazz canon besides gimmick.

Leland, a reporter for the New York Times, has done his research and brings together the expected doses of cultural anthropology, literature and, of course, music to bear on this sweeping, if unsettled account as to what "hip" is and how it appears to have developed over time. Most importantly he concentrates on the lopsided relationship between black and white, each group borrowing each other's culture and suiting them for their respective needs; in the case of black Americans, rising from a slavery as free people in a racist environment, hip was an an ironic manner, a mode of regarding their existence on the offbeat, a way to keep the put upon psyche within a measure of equilibrium. For the younger white hipsters, in love black music and style, it was an attempt to gain knowledge, authenticity and personal legitimacy through a source that was Other than what a generation felt was their over-privileged and pampered class. Leland's range is admirable and does a remarkable job of advancing his thesis--that the framework of what we consider hip is a way in which both races eye other warily--and is sensitive to the fact that for all the attempts of white artists and their followers to cultivate their own good style from their black influences, the white hipsters is never far from black face minstrelsy. For all the appropriation,experimentation, and varied perversions of black art that has emerged over the decades, there are only a few men and women who've attained the stature of their African American heroes, people who, themselves, were the few among the many.

The Silver Dazzle of the Sun
poems by Paul Dresman

The speakers are shaped by language that accommodates the vastness of region, The West, both as a physical place and collective social construction, looms large in a good deal of the present poems(as it is in Dorn's long lines), and it is the marriage of voice and location that gives the poetry in The Silver Dazzle of the Sun a life that is absent from too much published poetry. The world climbs through the language and appears through deft description fresh as a moment of first perception; style is content, to beg an old question, but it's a worthwhile distinction to make clear. Dresman's work brings us a world of felt experience that can be addressed in useful ways. There are no epistemological quandaries here, no rueful mediations on malformed vowels. There is , though, plenty of wit, anger, flights of lyric speculation, writ with a sure composing hand.There is something of a medley of voices at play in these works, where a terrain on which innumerable generations of have written on emerge in a layered and subtly orchestrated music. The poetics of wonder, rage, joy and sorrow are harnessed with extraordinary skill. Above all else, the poems come from a voice that is speaking to you;
there are moments when the candor and unreticent wit of the writing makes you ponder again the incidents in your own experience that you might not have regarded for years. The poetry is that good.

Big If
a novel by Mark Costello

This is a superb comedy of contemporary American life involving a low-level Secret Service agent who finds she must get reacquainted with her computer-genius brother when she takes a respite from the paranoid turns and twists of her job. This is a book of richly skewed characters doing their best to make sense of their lives. Costello's prose is alive with the things of our life, and is superb at demonstrating the clash between happiness material items promise and the world that denies such rewards. He is the master of setting forth a metaphor and letting it travel through a storyline just beneath the surface, operating silently, almost invisibly, always effectively.

Their father, in the first portion of the book , is a moderate Republican insurance investigator of scholarly reading habits who happens to be a principled atheist. You cannot have both insurance, the practice of placing a monetary remuneration on unavoidable disaster, and assurance, which has religion promising protection from evil and disaster. The children, in turn, assume careers that seem to typify the dualism their father opposed, son Jens becoming a programmer for the Big If on line game for which he writes "monster behavior code" that attempts to outsmart human players and have them meet a hypothetical destruction. Daughter Vi, conversely, becomes a Secret Service agent, schooled in the theory encoded in The Certainties, a set of writings that lays out the details, nuances and psychology of extreme protection. These are world views in collision, and Costellos' prose is quick with the telling detail,the flashing insight, the cutting remark. On view in Big If are different models on which characters try to contain , control, or explain the relentless capriciousness of Life as it unfolds, constructs through which characters and the country and culture they serve can feel empowered to control their fate in a meaningful universe. The punchline is that Life goes on anyway, with it's fluctuating, undulating, chaotic dynamics that only occasionally seem to fall into place. Costello wrests a subtle comedy of manners from the small failures of anyone's world view to suitably make their existence unproblematic. This is a family comedy on a par with The Wapshot Chronicle, but in an America that is suddenly global, an air that makes even the most familiar things seem alien and fantastic. Costello is a modern master, and fans of White Noise and The Corrections will enjoy the emergence of a master.

It's Go In Horizontal: Selected Poems 1974-2006
poems by Leslie Scalapino

Laying out a poem like it were a trail of bread crumbs a reader would to the bigger feast of The Point Being Made is not how writer Leslie Scalapino writes. As we find ourselves in a time when the popular idea of the poet and their work they compose seems slanted toward the lightly likable Billy Collins and others witing poems that can be grasped, shared, written out in a fine hand on perfumed paper and preserved between the leaves of a dictionary of quotations. Scalapino requires not the casual gaze but the harder view, the more inquisitive eye. Scalapino brings a refreshing complexity to her work, a sanguine yet inquisitive intelligence that is restless and dissatisfied with the seemingly authorized narrative styles poets are expected to frame their ideas with. The framing, so to speak, is as much the subject in her poems and prose, and the attending effort to interrogate the methods one codifies perception to the exclusion of details not fitting a convenient structure, Leslie Scalapino has produced a body of work of rare and admirable discipline; the writing is a test of the limits of generic representation.Her work as well is an inquiry in how we might exist without them. In as series of over nineteen books over published since the seventies, she has been one of the most interesting poets working , an earnest inquisitor of consciousness and form blurring and distorting the boundaries that keep poetry, prose, fiction and auto biography apart.It's Go in Horizontal is a cogent selection from three decades of writing. The distinction blurring is not a project originating with her, but there is in Scalapino's work the sense of a single voice rather than expected "car radio effect", the audio equivalent of Burrough's cut up method that would make a piece resemble an AM dial being moved up and down a distorted, static-laden frequency. Leslie Scalapino's writing is one voice at different pitches responding to an intelligence aware of how it codes and decodes an object of perception. The work is fascinating , interrogations that wrestle with the act of witnessing.

The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan
poems by Ted Berrigan

It's not enough that we have the same first name and the same Irish second initial, my attraction to Berrigan's poems was the rather unbelligerent way he ignored the constricting formalities in poetry and rendered something of a record of his thoughts unspooling as he walked through the neighborhood or went about his tasks. "Where Will I Wander" is the title of a recent John Ashbery volume, and it might well be an apt description of Berrigan's style; shambling, personal, messy, yet able to draw out the sublime phrase or the extended insight from the myriad places his stanzas and line shifts would land on. The world radiated a magic and energy well enough without the poet's talents for making essences clear to an audience needing to know something more about what lies behind the veil, and Berrigan's gift were his personable conflations of cartoon logic, antic flights of lyric waxing, and darkest hour reflection , a poetry which, at it's best, seemed less a poem than it did a monologue from someone already aware that their world was extraordinary and that their task was to record one's ongoing incomprehension of the why of the invisible world.

The Age of Huts
poems by Ron Silliman

The Age of Huts brings together several books he's published as a long standing project. It makes for alternately exhilarating and exasperating reading. Those who stay with Silliman and his task are rewarded with what is really the most thorough on going examination of the American vernacular since William Carlos Williams composed and assembled his central epic poem Paterson in 1963. Silliman’s is the language of a place, and there is a logic as the streams and eddies of unassigned sentences the blended variations at once rich, dissonant.

The Time of Our Singing
a novel by Richard Powers

This is an amazing novel byRichard Powers. an ambitious generational tale of an American family with a mixed heritage of African-American and German Jew, and covers the travails, triumphs and tragedies of this family. There are three children, one with a beautiful singing voice who opts for a classical music career, a daughter who becomes involved with the civil rights struggle,and a second brother who, though gifted as well, buries his ambition to bridge the gap between his siblings. Not a perfect novel--sometimes Powers' superb style turns into a list of historical events as a means to convey the sweep of time-- but the central issues of race, identity, culture are handled well within the story. The writing is generous and frequently beautiful, especially at the moments when the description turns to the music. Powers, as well as any one, describes how notes played the right way can make one believe in heaven and the angels who live there. 

The Plot Against America
a novel by Philip Roth

Novelist Philip Roth, always a spiky and unpredictable story teller, creates an alternative history for America, a fascinating and troubling fantasy of "what if": Charles Lindbergh, aviation hero and Nazi-sympathetic isolationist, is nominated by the Republican Party in the 1940 presidential election, and handily defeats FDR. Using his own family as the center of this fable, Roth has written a novel with the impact of a memoir of hard and terrible times,speaking to how easily a homegrown fascism could take root and grow. The power of Roth's novel lies not only in the impressive historical research he brings to the novel, but especially in how creeping Totalitarian persecution effects the lives of characters who are complex, sympathetic, argumentative. This is not a dry recital of dates, events, names from fading ledgers and indexes, because the novel is a family saga among its several formations, and what Roth has done is highlight a family's struggle between each other and their inner lives while the nation prepares to give in to its worse fears and lay the land for fascism. Several instances -- the family listening the radio during the convention, a hapless father become less powerful in the children's eyes as political forces move against American Jews, the subtly advanced symbolism of the fictional Philip Roth's stamp collection-- gives a reader an vivid accounting of the things that disrupted, destroyed, lost by systematized evil.

The Plot Against America is a masterpiece of the first rank, as relevant as morning headlines, timeless as great literature, qualities that place him, unexpectedly, in the same league with Sinclair Lewis.This is art as a form of truth-telling, of an acute paranoia made comprehensible through a focus of literary skill that gives voice to the unspeakable. Roth was obliviously raised to revere democracy , and this work, tempered by experience and the history of human kind to go wrong and become complicit in evil, sounds off a warning for the reader that is hardly an original thought but meaningful resounds even still: the price of freedom is constant vigilance because the enemies of our rights as citizens are snakes sleeping with one eye open.

The Body Artist
a novel by Don DeLillo

DeLillo is perhaps the best literary novelist we have at this time, which the career-defining masterwork Underworld made clear to his largest readership yet: at the end of all those perfect sentences , sallow images and and long, winding, aching paragraphs is a narrative voice whose intelligence engages the fractured nature of identity in a media-glutted age. The Body Artist has him contracting the narrative concerns to a tight, elliptical 128 pages, where the Joycean impulse to have a private art furnish meaning to grievous experience is preferred over the dead promises of religion and philosophy. What exactly the woman character does with her performance body art, what the point is of her ritualized , obsessed cleansing of her body, is a mystery of DeLilloian cast, but it's evident that we're witnessing to a private ritual whose codes won't reveal themselves, but are intended as a way for the woman to again have a psychic terrain she can inhabit following the sudden and devastating death of her film maker husband. The entrance of the stranger in the cottage turns her aesthetic self-absorption , slowly but inevitably, into a search into her past in order to give her experience meaning, resonance, a project she quite handily ignores until then. The sure unveiling of her psychic life is a haunting literary event. DeLillo's language is crisp, evocative, precise to the mood and his ideas: you envy his flawless grasp of rhythm and diction as these traits simultaneously make the cottage on the cold , lonely coast seem sharp as snap shot, but blurred like old memory, roads and forests in a foggy shroud. A short, haunted masterwork.

a novel by Sara Pritchard

Brief, beautifully written book about an awkward young girl being raised by an eccentric family. Note that there is no child abuse or other hot button stuff engineered in to make the book appeal to the Oprah book clubs, just a humorous and bittersweet novel of a girl, beset with any number of glum circumstances and embarrassments, maturing to a resilient adult with soft irony that gets her through the day. Pritchard is especially fine as prose stylist.

Half Life:Poems
poems by Meghan O'Rourke

Meghan O'Rourke,poetry editor for The Paris Review and a cultural editor for Slate,is also a poet with unique ability to get a nearly intangible notion, an inexlicapable sensation into words. Giving voice to hunch, making the half-idea a textured, tangible thing, hers is a poetry that completes sentences we cannot finish ourselves. Precision and morphological accuracy aren't the point, and the words themselves, the images they create or suggest, are more like strands of half remembered music that is heard and triggers an intense rush of association; any number of image fragments, sounds, scents, bits of sentences, suggestions of seasonal light in a certain place, race and parade through the mind as fast as memory can dredge up the shards and let them loose. Just as fast, they are gone again, the source of quick elation or profound sadness gone; one can quite nearly sense that streaming cluster of associations that make up a large part of your existence rush onward, going around a psychic bend, scattering like blown dust in the larger universes of limitless life. All one is left with is memory of the sudden rush, the flash of clarity, and the rapid loss, the denaturing of one's sense of self in a community where one might have assumed they were solid and autonomous in their style of being, that nothing can upset the steady rhythm of a realized life.

Dry and Brittle Poem: stale toast?

Intertextuality , the notion that text, whether poem, novel, third grade reader or medical textbook, can refer only to other text gets an awkward expression with Linda Gregerson's poem "At The Window" ,a poem published in Slate in December of 2006. selection. The reader, it seems, finds themselves locked inside the gloomy room of perception, wishing there were a window. And some air. It fits the would-be verse, a writerly and clustered screed on religion, death, the purpose of events and the objects within those experience. It's more a theory of a poem, really. Dry. Brittle.

This is a dreary reconfiguration of Augustine's
stalled obsession over the
state of his body's
peculiar refusal to adhere to God's all inclusive
bitcheness, and the use of a substantial quote (to be polite) from the sainted
theologian against a
memoir of personal loss, the death of a parent, is
stretch and a strain.

It's pretentious and dishonest, I think.The intoning of the successive suppositions, each intended to make us pause and consider the limitless minutiae in which God's animating force resides, becomes, as both reading and writing, a grind.What works well for a rapturing Confession does not make for a poem of the sort Gregorson attempted here; giving the section eccentric line breaks, to suggest rhythm to which the conditional phrases might hint at swaths of thick , slow liturgical musical will not give the borrowed writing a lift. Gregorson should have better paraphrased what she borrowed and have it better mirror the deferred narrator's sad recollection of his (or her) mother passing away at an early age.

There was an opportunity for a revelation, when words written in complete abandon in an effort to sense a deity's essence and purpose for the world slam up against real feelings from actual experience, with the glory of the literature is found wanting. Perhaps the transition from the uncited Augustine usage to the parallel scene where the dying mother announces "I do not know why I am here" less jarring. This is film school stuff, a quick cutting between past and current scenarios, and while the method is sometimes effective in the right writer's hands, it is ineffective here.

The stitches from joining these uneven parts together show. You realize that the author has a time of it reconciling losss in clear language; the generous use of of cumbersome syntax with the high-falutin' references and rhetoric sounds unnatural . What we have are strange sounds rather than feeling at all. Gregerson attempts is a pastiche between an t established text and and a recent memory, with an unsuccessful result. It would effective if , perhaps, if there were a suggestion of unexpected continuity between the past and present, and that there is a reason why we use similar narrative schemes through the periods to account for our interior experience. There can be something provocative in such a blur, with poetic resonance being a result.

We get instead a theory of a poem, an outline. The flaw here seems to be that Gregerson chose erudition for it's own sake rather than use her reading as an enhancement to her senses, creating distance between her and the subject she sought to explore; the poem is self-reflexive in an uninteresting way, waxing on about literature's limits. It's a tired trope, really, and it's time that more poets realize that most of us realize that literature is, of course, imperfect in getting to the distilled reality of experience. Perfection is not and should never be the intent in writing about something , just as literature ought to avoid itself as subject. It is the attempt to get to the heart of things that interests us.That is the essential goal of poetry, the expression of the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable (to borrow from critic John Ciardi).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

More on "Dead Mother"

I talked to someone earlier today about the Henri Cole poem "Dead Mother", and it was remarked that the poem read more like a rehearsal of a response rather than a gathering of the conflicting emotions a parent's death unleashes on you. It was remarked that that his may be the reason for the seeming foliage Cole circles his subject with.I agree that Cole is attempting to inoculate this poem against criticism by making the language abstruse, as opposed to abstract.

Abstruse , for me, means clutter, vagueness, a grandly arranged set of unconventionally phrased ideas that have the sound of a hollow tin can once their noise is made. Abstract language, in contrast, leads back to a referents, and everything can be discerned in an intricate network of relationships; the associations, obvious and less obvious, emerge from a careful reading of how unexpected things become analogies for unstated irresolution , or as metaphors for a larger theme the specific topic is only a symbol of.

Even in the tight reins of a sonnet, I suspect Cole sometimes lets his imagination get the better of him and leaves a personal association, a private pun , linger quizzically in a line on the pretext that a scholarly critic might catch it, inspect it, run a gamut of philological tests on the wording, and uncover a deep vein of insight and erudition that would make some latter day jaws hit the floor. It's laziness, I think. The poem seems not an account of viewing a dead mother and experiencing a traumatic reaction than it is the work of someone trying to perfect their reaction; this seems about grief as gristle for the literary art , and that I think is this poem's downfall. It's over-thought, and not thought through.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Flanders in the dark

Night never seemed the time to get sentimental about the way the world never becoming what it was you wanted it to be when you were young, so thought Flanders, but this night, this very night, the lights on the wet streets making slurred rainbows and hissing sounds as the tires rolled over the pot holes in the asphalt, he thought, why not, this night of endless dreaming when there is only he and his cigarettes, the bottle of hooch in his back pocket, the clubs along the avenue up to the old water tower where he’d been in trouble on nights like this years earlier, earlier, faster as the rush of speed hit the brain and the tongue swelled and dried as ideas and impulse came into their own just then, this night of cigarette smoke in is lungs, a dry and parched pinch of burning charcoal filtered blackness that roasted the pink design of nature’s idea of breathing, Flanders took a drink, he wanted to talk he fingered his change and lounged against the wall of the door way he was in, cracking his knuckles, rattling the coins in his pocket, thinking he’d love a blues jam to break out in front of him right now, a long and searing guitar solo ala Alvin Lee or Johnny Winter, none of this po’ sharecroppin’ Negro shit where the notes were all wrong, the coarseness of the singing too beat up, chafed, scuffed up , none of that at all, he wished it would rain, he thinks that would help the way he isn’t feeling about this world and how it never comes around to his way of thinking, anyone’s thinking when there was a time for him to be alert enough to ask someone, why couldn’t he just drink like the other guys, just be like the other guys, just drink and sit in a bar and smoke the cigarettes, endless butts crammed in an ashtray, get drunk, pick up on some swing shift cootie cutie and fuck his brains out, be in some place warm, worn out, fucked up, fucked and asleep, oh yeah, not outside on a rainy night, looking at the traffic, all his teeth grinding something fierce, molars going like trains passing each other in mountain towns where the coal and the axel grease comes from, to the shelves of California, Flanders took a drag off his smoke and felt his back pocket for the bottle, wanting to slow down, the cars came to the intersection and just roared by when the lights changed, when the lights changed, the cars just roared by, big radio speakers cracking the promise of dawn and early returns of bus lines up and at ‘em and really alert to the cause of what the fuck am I doing here, oh pleaseeeeeeeeeeesssee man oh god in heaven this is such a bad bad badddddddddddd buzz, fucking A man, bad bad bad, Flanders was awake enough for an invading battalion, the white crosses had him marching, ready for anything, just alert, nothing moving but notions about what he might have done in former times, the chances he passed up , the chances, man that guitar solo smoked!!! I went down to the cross road, to hack a ride , oh yeah..

What we talked about

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.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dead Poem

There are some poems make you want to scratch an itch that isn't there.Henri Cole's Dead Mother reads like an attempt to garner a bit of that mausoleum erotica Edgar Allen Poe so masterfully spread across the pages of our national anthologies, the distinction being in Henri Cole's effusion is that he cannot resist inserting the surreal. It's not an unusual tact to assume, as gazing upon one's dead mother, laid out in an unusual pose that is unread precisely because an earnest mortician attempted to make her appear "natural", is not a daily practice; excluding the intervention of the bangs, clicks and rumbles of alive things to bring you back to a presence of mind, one's thinking will guide you through an odd narrative of what the eyes reveal.He sounds uncertain whether the dead mother is indeed a corpse, and projects, it reads to me, a wish that something tangible about her regrets be revealed, five or six tears—profound, unflinching, humane—ran out of her skull, This quickly takes on a tone of an old EC Comics stories as the long dead citizens of a town, victims of foul deeds and anonymous murders, arise from their crypts , rotting flesh and bulging eyeballs dripping from their skeletal frames, march to the home of their betrayer to administer a delayed justice. It gets a little much , and Cole speeds up the narrative with crazier associations, .

and tenderness (massaging the arms, sponging the lips) morphed into a dog howling under the bed, the bruised body that had carried us, splaying itself now, not abstract but symbolic, like the hot water bottle, the plastic rosaries

I like associative leaps , the abrupt insertion of an image that although seeming unlike the conversation that preceded it will, on review, suggest a larger emotion, or a larger set of conditions a narrator has yet to realize. This would be the shadow poem, the text of what the writer hasn't said or referred to, the unspoken thing, names, that demands an airing. Cole's dog image is doubly hindered,though, first the near comic placement of the dog under the bed--these are the bits of country songs and stale jokes--the next being that it's a cliche. Anthropomorphising an animal to convey complex emotion is a trick that's been used up in contemporary literature--although the poems of Ted Hughes and some of John Hawk's novels are notable exceptions-- that has become an animator's tool. Unreality isn't a sin in poetry--we insist on it, generally--but a poet's lack of conviction is. The rhetoric swells, the sentences turn into an unemphatic stream :

like the hot water bottle, the plastic rosaries, the shoes in the wheelchair ("I'm ready to stretch out"), as dents and punctures of the flesh—those gruesome flowers—a macabre tumor, and surreal pain, changed into hallowed marble, a lens was cleared, a coffer penetrated.
It seems sometimes that a poet realizes he starts out with one idea and realizes the punched up ending they envisioned won't be plausible given the arrangement of items he's already written, and that they are too lazy, too much of a hurry to start over and make their conflicting ideas cohere. This last stretch is an effusion without a destination, a string of odd combinations of qualifier and noun --"macabre tumor:, "surreal pain", "hallowed marble"-- that, as such, is meant to give a sense of closure through implication, reinforced with reportage of acts that rely more on the whispered hush of that suggestion than on something more concrete. What lens had cleared? What coffer was penetrated? Cole closed the door and forgot to turn off the lights behind him. "Dead Mother" reads more like a rehearsal of a response rather than a gathering of the conflicting emotions a parent's death unleashes on you. It was remarked that that his may be the reason for the seeming foliage Cole circles his subject with.I agree that Cole is attempting to inoculate this poem against criticism by making the language abstruse, as opposed to abstract.

Abstruse , for me, means clutter, vagueness, a grandly arranged set of unconventionally phrased ideas that have the sound of a hollow tin can once their noise is made. Abstract language, in contrast, leads back to a referents, and everything can be discerned in an intricate network of relationships; the associations, obvious and less obvious, emerge from a careful reading of how unexpected things become analogies for unstated irresolution , or as metaphors for a larger theme the specific topic is only a symbol of. Even in the tight reins of a sonnet, I suspect Cole sometimes lets his imagination get the better of him and leaves a personal association, a private pun , linger quizzically in a line on the pretext that a scholarly critic might catch it, inspect it, run a gamut of philological tests on the wording, and uncover a deep vein of insight and erudition that would make some latter day jaws hit the floor. It's laziness, I think. The poem seems not an account of viewing a dead mother and experiencing a traumatic reaction than it is the work of someone trying to perfect their reaction; this seems about grief as gristle for the literary art , and that I think is this poem's downfall. It's over-thought, and not thought through.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


D.G.Wills Books in LaJolla, California is a long time mecca for book lovers who crave a shop with a varied and deep selection literature, poetry and philosophy sections .Owner Dennis Wills, whom I've known (in full disclosure) since he opened his shop in 1979, has besides keeping his doors open , presented San Diego with an impressive roster of world-class literary events over the last few decades. Lucky for the rest of us that some of the most notable personalities were taped for future reference and are now available on D.G. Wills Books' own YouTube Channel, thanks to the curatorial efforts of bookstore associate and media specialist Bill Perrine. More of these remarkable events are being added. Meanwhile, enjoy the plenitude of what Wills hath wrought:Norman Mailer ,Allen Ginsberg,Oliver Stone, Billy Collins, Gore Vidal, Lawerence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder. I recommend checking back with channel from time to see who else has been added to this amazing and important archive of literary figures.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Pound or Frost?

I'm not a fan of either poet, but of Pound intrigues especially me . His fabled difficulty seems more willful than inspired , more determined than originating from a flash of an idea that would spark a firestorm in how poetry is read. His theories, his proclamations as to the duty of the writer to lead the race to a higher standard of perception, were the writings that galvanized and polarized a generation or so of writers who followed or argued with his lead; his poems, though, were stuck in an abstruse inertia. This is distinct from abstract, a quality where there is an actual idea being deployed and which, in turn, can be parsed by a reader with due diligence. There is no argument with how important Pound is to the reformation of literature and advancing the Modernist aesthetic, but some one who was so obsessed, in theory, with reconfiguring language arts so that a new generation of readers can have fresh perceptions of reality and discover means with which to change it, Pound seemed seduced by the legend he was making for himself and delved headlong into his admixture of projects without a sense of how his materials and sources would come to make a generalized sense of themselves.

It seems obvious to me that he reveled in the difficulty of his work. His innovations as poet, for me, are worth studying in line with his critical pieces, but beyond their importance in establishing a time line, the language , the style, the attitude has not traveled well through the decades. He seemed like the brilliant critic and tireless promoter of new talent who put himself in competition with his fellows, IE Joyce, Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Williams, et al. Pound believed art was the process through which a substitute priesthood of painters and poets can perceive the world, and it was the artist who could correctly provide the inspiration and spiritual means to change the way reality was constructed and lived in. He was attracted to strong leaders with pronounced visions of a Better Future, was attracted to the notion of violently blowing up the artifacts of the past in order to forge a new order from the ground up, and it was apparent to everyone that he aligned himself with such leaders. He desired to be considered among the scarce select who would show the way to the new dawn, whether they wanted to or not. Pound was fascinated by chaos, turbulence, severe intrusions of alien forms usurping dictions and definitions of older ideological husks and having them be transformed to some strange array of notions that are a vision of a Future not all of us will be able to live in. Frost , although over- estimated, is an acceptable minor poet and a canny careerist, neither of which are offensive to anyone who understands the need to make a living. He was content to be a passive witness to the state of things built by hand running down, subsuming a cynicism in a lyric version of sparely detailed plain-talk that could, at times,produce a stunning insight into the feeling of how the body aches as it ages.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sourpuss Virtuosity

This week, Robert Pinsky's monthly discussion poem in Slate is Ben Jonson's poem "Ode to Himself," wherein we are to consider the artful side of complaining. Kvetching, though, is a limited art, and one who thinks they might wish to make a career of being the nag-as-truth teller should think of the monotony of the guise promises. There comes a time when you can no longer notice any shortcomings you haven't already mentioned in previous columns, plays, novels, essays, poems even, and the things you come to critique fall into template mode.

 You notice this quality sneaking into your writing. I call it" hearing yourself talk."That means that you find saying things you've said many times with utmost conviction, but now have noticed that your verve and sureness of position are badly flagging of late. You can predict the following clause and condition in a review you're composing--and the understandable is to make your language more elaborate, that Bloomian anxiety that makes one try harder to make their ideas unique. The uniqueness that a reader will notice, though, particularly readers a generation or so removed from your aspiring lifetime, will be the structure, the style, the antiquated rhetorical and vocabulary of your complaints against the way things happened in your period. All else become a matter of explication, a humbling thought when one considers that our quest to obey the critical rule of writing--be straightforward--will not likely withstand a few decades of changing lexical usage. For the Jonson poem, we have a reverse Whitman here, a savaging self-appraisal that might provoke you to punch another man had these exact words been spoken by him. 

The problem, though, is that these words aren't told but written, and they rhyme. They clamor and clash and ring in harmony when the author's skill is so determined. They are an elaborate construction whose rhetorical infrastructure has traveled, to my ear, not well at all. The saying goes that no one can insult us to the diminishing degree that we're able to run the same number on our egos, as our own stories are the ones we needn't research; it's an intimacy with which one can elaborate upon at length, with examples of personal unworth becoming expressed in evermore clever disguises and unexpected twists in one's trail of self-criticism. What is left, through the decades, through the revolutions, assassinations, changes in convention and tastes, is a museum piece, a textbook example, an intricate, well preserved yet lifeless husk whose meaning has to be explicated, which is to say that it cannot be felt due to the brilliant configuration Jonson brought to bear on his attempt to lower his ego's profile.

 The poem is more evidence of the playwright's fabled assholism. It does much the same thing as the title character in Edmond Rostand's Cyrano De Bergerac, when the hero, blessed with a big nose, responds to a weak insult to his beak with a series of sweetly stinging jabs of his own, at his own expense. This is a particularly effective little device of plain-spoken, self-directed invective that reveals a purposeful defense. If you're going to insult my nose, your barbs had better be this sharp... One might also consider that Rostand's story gets underway without a conceit-cluttered obstacle course slowing the traction and that the bittersweet ironies surrounding De Bergerac's temperamental genius--poet, wit, swordsman--doesn't get caged inside a fanciful virtuosity of the tongue. This is something akin to a grand statue one sees erected in town squares all over America and Europe, baroque creations that are admirable for their scale and technique, but whose existence is faintly ridiculous given that the passion of the inspiring event as ebbed from the collective memory. 

It's not just yesterday's Avant-Garde that ages poorly, but also proficiency that, in time, only outsmarts its topic. Jonson's ode is like those statues, grand, impressive against history's stacked bulwark, but tarnished, battered, dinged, and leaving you what audiences saw in work that was so busy trying to provide its own musical score as well as idea that could spark a debate among the readership (amongst themselves or with the author) that was beyond the vain convolutions.