Thursday, January 28, 2010


Not many authors have one or two of their books become a voluntary right of passage among the moody and quixotic generations of teens and young adults, but J.D.Salinger was such a writer, the author of  Catcher in the Rye, the singular book about growing up while dissatisfied. Holden Caufield, the book's narrator protagonist , is a moody youth , prematurely cynical, impatient with the ways of adults and their habits and institutions . The book has been discussed, analysed , inspected and interpreted over the decades that one wonders whether it can still be read as a fresh experience, and I would say yes, yes. Caufield is cynical with a acute bullshit detector, but he is not wise beyond his years; Salinger's particular gift was for to inhabit the skin of a young man masking his confusion with a collection of fiercely protected mannerisms and borrowed attitudes. He was, though, coming to the moment when more was revealed and his life was transformed, and his perspective altered far beyond his tight little world made visible. Attitude, awkwardness, good humor laced with a handily sense of melancholy, it was the work of a master regarding the slogging progress toward an adult sensibility.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Michelangelo's complaint

My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

Michelangelo was a sculptor and a poet, and Robert Pinsky has posted a poem of his regarding the aches and pains he experienced as he undertook the challenge of painting the Sistine Chapel.The sonnet is less interesting as poetry than it is a document of how Michelangelo felt about his labor over the commission he didn't want, the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. No offense to Gail Mazur's translations, but the fleshy descriptions that inform us of what appendages and what internal organs ache likely read better in the Master's original Italian, the advantage of the original tongue being that one could better ear the innate musicality of the nouns and their near rhymes. This seems just a tad strained, and reads as though Mazur had to create phrases of her own when some word clusters couldn't be clearly conveyed into English. This raises the question as to how much of Michelangelo we were actually reading. Or perhaps I'm just tone deaf to the whole matter. What do believe, though, is that we are getting an accurate reading of the great artist's pains and frustrations; what is flat as poetry is fascinating as document. This is a another cranky, self-lampooning poem from a genius who finds that possessing over-sized talent can be a large cross to bear, being, in this case, a great physical pain. I did enjoy the way in which Michelangelo described the way his body has been twisted and reconfigured in the pursuit of filling up an unlikely surface ; the canvas, as it were, and the artist's body , were in the least likely of locations. The poem is the venting of a man who angry with the moral and social authority of the Pope who is preventing him from working in what he feels is his true medium, sculpture; painting is a curse that visits a stream of punishments upon. It's as if an interloper is being punished :

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine's
all knotted from folding over itself.
I'm bent taut as a Syrian bow.

There's not the remotest suggestion of joy in this passage. Rather than being in the moment with the object he's fashioning, gather inspiration as he goes along and reaching a point where mere technical mastery comes to the service of actual genius, what is described here is someone trying to remember formalities of something he wasn't comfortable doing, guessing around the edges of the tableau as to where colors and their textures out to go. He is "blind and aimless" , unable to see the work in whole, unable to envision it as finished, save for scaled down drawings outlining the work in progress. Interestingly, this isn't the voice of the supremely confident artist we read about, but rather the self-denigrating venting of a trainee in a new job. The feeling of doing this job wrong comes across as a palpable fatalism.The poem that surpasses mere complaint, it reveals the acute pain that accompanies the unwanted commission. But for all the discomfort and twisting and bending and otherwise unnatural distensions and compressions his body must absorb during the work, a clenched teeth determination comes across; as much as I feel pain and degradation, as great as this ceiling will be. We've come to admire the spectacle of the ceiling, the detail, the ingenious solutions to problems that arose, but for the artist it seems merely something to be endured, gotten over with. The ceiling appeared masterful as if composed from a resentment; Michelangelo sounds as if he regards this as mere professionalism.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.
The sculptor feels abused, made to perform an unnatural function for a client whom he couldn't refuse. His body and his art were prostituted in the service of another man's egomania, and so he calls for his honor to be defended. He is not a painter, he assures us, and the irony of it all is that it is the painting on the Sistine Chapel for which he best known. Likely he would've loathed the recognition and seethe mightily that the masses who adore the painting are fools and simpletons.He was not a painter. Frank O'Hara wasn't a painter either. But he was an excellent poet.
A discussion at Slate's Poems Fray forum, where this post originally appeared.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Faith of Graffiti: a brief exchange

I've been re-reading Norman Mailer's "The Faith of Graffiti" , and it seems astounding Mailer grasped a street aesthetic born of marginalized , nonwhite urban youth. This is an important essay I suspect Eric Michael Dyson or Cornell West would come to admire. Mailer is susceptible to the charges of depicting these artists as noble savages, but he does make the connections between the impulse to transform the environment by adding a bit of one's personality upon it with the shattered reconstructions of Picasso's vision. Nice polemic, this. What impresses me is that he refined the existential-criminal-at-the-margins tact he controversially asserted in his essay "The White Negro", backing away from the idea that violence could direct one to knew kinds of perception and knowledge, and emphasized an aesthetic response to a crushing , systematized oppression. Living long enough ,I suppose, made Mailer aware of strong trend in urban style that added value to circumstances and individual growth that didn't involve a fist, a gun or a knife.

BARRY ALFONSO:Some would argue, of course, that graffiti IS a form of violence against society: specifically, the aggressive territorial pissing of one segment of the population upon the sense of order of another segment. This is less an act of sticking it to The Man than dominating the sensibilities of the meeker, more sedate urban population, a transgressive act akin to screaming into the face of someone who will not (or cannot) raise their voice. It’s hard to see this as heroic, and I suspect that the artistic component – especially when we are talking about that lovely habit called “tagging” – is of less importance here than the sheer thrill of breaking the rules. I think even Mailer would agree that the upholding of SOME kind of rules is the only way to improve American society, particularly in the face of the corporate lawbreaking and governmental malfeasance he so often condemned. It may not be Mailer’s job to iron out the contradiction in this thought. But suppose a team of grafittitistas broke into his home and spray painted their art all over his face? This might prove instructive to his family and friends to see. It might even be a blow against some sort of oppression. But I don’t think Norman would’ve liked it very much.

Mailer would argue that modern architecture and the corporate power it represent is violence againsts them and their right to exist, and that graffiti is an aesthetic response to an economic reality that wants nothing to with individuals or their dreams or their latent talents. It creates an intimate relationship with the surroundings that other wise seem designed to urge one to end their lives anonymously. Mailer, though, was talking about a particular quality of prolific taggers , "writers" as they called themselves, and rather rightly discussed them that they were artists no less than the gallery variety. Without patrons, easels, formal training, their walls of the city became their canvas--in those canyons, in those tunnels, on those billboards, all things that hover over them and diminish them in stature, there is an opportunity to declare "I Exist".
(Barry Alfonso, writer, critic, and storyteller and long time friend, weighs in):

BARRY ALFONSO:If this was indeed Mailer’s position, then it is the sort of elitist pseudo-primitivism that win followers for George Wallace, Glenn Beck and other champions of populist fascism. To say it plain, ordinary working folks think that scribbling your name all over the city they have to live and work in is just a form of childish eye pollution committed by bums who have nothing better to do. Apparently, Mailer would have us think that the proper way to protest urban ugliness is to make things MORE ugly, which is akin to making satirizing executions by chopping people’s heads off. (Any allusions made to Picasso is a red herring, with two eyes on the same side of the fish head.) It further appears that for all his later maturity of outlook Mailer never dropped his sweaty-palmed worship of anarchy that he glorified in “The White Negro.” Mailer the Liberal would cringe at the thought, but the tagger is just an Ayn Rand hero with a spray can and without the discipline, a rampant ego who celebrates nothing more his need to be noticed. Such activities give birth to firing squads.

The irony of it all, I guess, is that Mailer can be said to tread on the Noble Savage sentiment, but what he asserts in both "White Negro" and "The Faith of Graffiti" is there is a need, nay, a requirement for self-definition among those who are denied the means to do so for reasons of race, gender, economics, and that the form these taggers have taken is a way of making something that resonates. What he argues , essentially, is that the impulse, inspiration and discipline of committing yourself to unsullied artistic expression is the same , whether it happens to be in European salons, SoHo Art Galleries, Museum Walls, or on the side of a Brooklyn water tower; he rejects art as the domain of the white culture the final aim of which is a fat commission and corporate sponsorship and college courses and brings it again to something that is human in it's dimension. As it regards black American culture, the likes of Amiri Baraka, Cornell West and Eric Michael Dyson would find quite a bit to agree with about Mailer's treatise. Urban culture is now the stuff of dissertations, has been codified as an aesthetic with it's own critical parlance, and is now a legitimate part of the larger cultural landscape of America, and Graffiti, like it or not, is an essential element of this mid 20th century development. Mailer was the first one to write seriously , on his own terms , about this. One can argue with Mailer's tone, his arch style and his interest in neo-primitivism, but I think his interest in the young men he interviewed and spent weeks with as a writer was honest and his ideas about their work were sincere. In a forward to the book, he reveals that the title was given to him by an artist who was seriously injured from a steep fall that happened when he was tagging a structure from on high. He was talking about having faith in something, an ideal, that motivated you beyond your limits. I can only paraphrase, but it came down to him telling Mailer that the name of the book that would come out of this would be "The Faith of Graffiti".

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Terry Gilliam Gets it Right

I liked the Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, although Terry Gilliam is far from my favorite director; for all his general flash and opulent imagery, he cannot tell a story, really, and he likes to crowd the frame. His movies tend be like a shut-in's apartment, cluttered with piles of undifferentiated stuff.Many appreciate his willingness to toss in everybit of historical aracana into his heaping constructions of detail, but this the very thing that stops me, nearly every moment , from appreciating the absurdity he purports to advance. Sticking through the impressive messes that are Brazil or Baron Van Munchhausen aren't without their rewards, but Gilliam's desire to fill each inch of his frames with his patisches is ,to use the former analogy, like making a nervous path through so much precariously balanced deitritus in order to get to the kitchen, or the bathroom. Simply stated, you get impatient for the payoff, if not the point. Heath Ledger's death, though, had an upside side, since it seemed to force Gilliam to stream line his storyline and create a structure justifying the additions of Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Collin Farrell to replace the sadly departed Ledger. Without giving too much away, it works more often than not. And, as usual, there is plenty of cool imagery to wrap your senses in.

I equate clutter with flash, and it's the case that Gilliam really does not allow us much time in his films to allow his designs to register or resonate. It's the kind of flash one means when they discuss carnival game decoration--lots of cheap prizes dressing up a joint (I am an ex-carnie, after all) meant to attract attention, not intelligence. I... See More often wished there was less ebullience and more discretion in his designs; his best visual ideas goto waste. In "Imaginarium", they do not, as the tragedy with Ledger forced Gilliam to limit his range and so lend his story a logic that made sense in the terms of the fantasy he was operating within; he paid attention to his idea and didn't overshoot it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Last Resort

A poem from Rafael Campo lights up the current issue of slate, "Resort" finds a son watching the aged father sun himself while on holiday, staring at a visage that is already wonderful, and yet with a fixity that causes one to think he may be peering beyond the veneer of appearance. One wonders as well if his mind, at this stage of life, is acting as an editor of and is leeching meaning and associations from the activity that happens the old man's eyes . In some ironic way there seems to be a serenity that one wishes for when they get older, an acceptance that life will become an even playing field and that wisdom will inform the brain and the heart to remain calm, to breathe deep, and appreciate the moment one is ; the fear is that acceptance has nothing to do with the calm, the unnerving serenity, as that applies an application of will. It is, rather, age, a fading memory, the world becoming something like a Wallace Stevens terrain, pure , perfect shapes and arrangements, with the father being only one element an assortment of other things.

No one
is poor. Like lions caged too long, the waves
loll lazily along the beach. He stares
out at the bright horizon, lost in thought.
I wonder if his memories might hurt.
Tonight, beneath a moon as clear and plain
as need, we'll drink banana daiquiris.
He'll ask the mariachi band to play
a Cuban song, which they'll almost get right.
But in the morning, he must realize,
we'll still awaken here. Same sun, same sea:
the simulation, if more dream than real,
is close enough...

The son wonders what his father is thinking about and wonders if the quiet state is either a profound contemplation of things , or the consequence of lack of thought. Campo doesn't belabor the point or lard up this lyric with a routine confession or lacerating self-examination, but achieves instead a nearly perfect three way balance between a beautiful location, a qualified projection of another's thoughts, and the narrator's own undecidedness about his father's state of mind and comfort; it's a skillfully arranged scenario where a complex interaction of detail and perception are conveyed in language that presents the dueling impressions of exterior beauty and psychic restlessness.

Beyond that, of course, is the perennial mind/body split, voiced in terms of whether a person of diminished capacity is getting the most for their money as they are situated in a beautiful clime, during a perfect day. Nature, though, cares nothing of our aesthetic situation, in fact does not think at all and merely exists as ceaseless churning process, a notion that comes back to us at the end of our contemplation that despite our desires that our mothers, fathers, sons and daughters and, perhaps ourselves, live forever, in memory if not monument, we are mortal and part of the natural process we want to tame with vacation and leisure time, and that the clock is always running out.

The birds-of-paradise,
though mute and flightless, still preen in the breeze.
And even as the clock runs out for all of us, the perfect arrangements of the Wallace Stevens landscape remains, and assortment of objects and natural things gathered in a space as perfected forms, each placed where roots might grow or dust may gather, silent, unmoving, in place, balancing a frame so it does not topple over. There is the old distinction between phenomena, those things of the world that are perceived through the senses, and noumenon , things that independent of the senses , things in-and-of-themsleves. The first would describe that which man can know, an environment he can define and outline in terms of his own senses and biography, and the second , those things that are knowable only to God. I don't know how religious Wallace Stevens might have been, but he loved being in the second terrain, among those objects that are seen from a point of view that is free of the inevitable subjective filters , a dimension where what we think or what we've experienced matters not at all and the forms are just forms, beautiful in their purity, unsullied by experience.
The son, the old man, the resort, the birds-of-paradise are elements to some design that is unrevealed. Campo, I think, could be making the suggestion that the aesthetic rigor to isolate these scenes from autobiographically inclined interpretation is part of an attempt to grasp the larger mysteries of existence we would otherwise go to religion or philosophy for. Life, whatever it's means, goes on. The beauty that one had beheld with their senses will not vanish once one has departed their flesh; the beautiful things remain, other sensibilities will argue their qualities. And when they are gone, birds-of-paradise and like things will still preen in the wind.The point seems that the frame remains, nature is constant and self correcting , that our imaginative alignments of what actually exists beyond our senses go with us when we go

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


NBC seems to be the F Troop of television networks, first allowing a prize like David Letterman to profitably embed himself over at CBS, and now all but destroying the luster that was formerly the Tonight Show with the contretemps regarding Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. Of the two unfunniest comedian-talk hosts in history, the Peacock Network gets to keep the schmoozing Lantern of Obvious Punchlines Leno, while having to pay O'Brien a cool forty million dollars to take a hike. That's not a bad payday for someone who never improved his delivery, timing or punchlines in the decade plus he hosted Late Night; there was an unsettling, not endearing nervousness about the man's manner (as opposed to style) in front of an audience, and he always made think of the one funny friend you have who thinks he can be a comedian. Yes, you know the punchline, the night your friend signs up at local comedy club amateur night, he breaks out in flop sweat, his topics conflate with one another like unruly schools of fish, his tongue seems to swell, his twitchy delivery is one click away from a sobbing breakdown.

At his best, he seemed like he was rehearsing his ad libs in front of the bathroom mirror; at his worst he looked painfully ill-at-ease, often times casting a sidelong glance that made him appear like a rushing pedestrian trying to catch his profile in a store window. I would say good riddance, of course, but it's only a matter of time before Conan O'Brien sets up shot on another outlet, Fox most likely, and the likes of us looking for something to gaze upon while sleep descends on not quickly enough will have to rush past this over paid stiff's limp humor. To make matters less appealing, we'll have to pass the crusty walls of Lenoland on the way to catch Letterman's usually sprite monologue. One may avoid the whole ordeal, to be sure,by going to bed early; sleep has never seemed more attractive.

Monday, January 18, 2010


There was a suggestion by one of the posters responding to the poem "Mummies to Burn"
that poet Charles Harper Webb seemed to be on a creaky anti-West riff, using the anecdote
as reason enough to rehash a favorite harangue. There was a further suggestion that since the poem is a critique of Western technology strip-mining a culture for the sake of economic expansion, Webb wouldn't be inclined to criticize Egyptian history. Their record, it was asserted, wasn't Edenic and absent of cruel events. Had I came across the sentence that he had, I too would have been struck, surely, but the irony of the fact--white people converting human corpses into fossil fuel--and would have been motivated to write my own mediation on the severely negative side of Imperialism. His concern wasn't whether Egyptian history was noble or ignoble, but that European exploration into the area was intended not to learn but to discover exploitable resources. What he gets at, his intent and success, I think,is that the mentality is a pervasive attitude in the invading culture, and that the psychology extends to a narrowly set pragmatism; short of coal and timber, need to save money. Blimey, burn these bandaged cadavers, there not doing any good just laying around as they are. The fault with Cameron's visually magnificent Avatar , is that it relies on tropes that are too obvious, especially on the Pocahontas / John Smith tale. Webb, on the other hand, is riffing on an historical fact, and provides a provocative argument that it's not an isolated instance. I don't think he's anymore anti-West than , say, Jonathan Swift or , say, H.L.Mencken, two writers we praise for their critical eye and caustic wit, as well as their willingness to speak an unruly version of Truth to whatever gathered assemblage of thugs happen, at the moment, to constitute Power. You could say that Webb is a satirist in someway, a wiseacre, but whatever he is in spirit, he still notices how things that are said clash with things that are done, and that, like George Carlin, he has a willingness to push codified interpretations to the point where they become absurd. He is a poet, I think, who is keen on exposing contradictions and revealing the lies and embedded evasions we use to ease ourselves through the daily dose of cognitive dissonance.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Poems by Galway Kinnell and Larry Leavis

Galway Kinnell is as free as verse might get, and it's a wonder that his poems contain so many memorable lines when considering that one might at first mistake him for prating rather than poeticizing. Kinnell does have a habit of elaborating longer than a detail requires, a habit he shares with novelist Russell Banks;word choice ceases to be a criteria for slicing beyond the phenomenological divide and capturing a sense of an experience, replaced with the conceit that an overspoken eloguence, of a sort, makes a culminating narrative more real. I see it as a stalling action, personally, and I often think that the overwriting is some hedge against death or, at least, a buffer against the fear that one has reached the end of their word rope. One might add, though, the same might be supposed of those writers who specialize in composing dozens of short lyrics at a time, continuously ,over the years. The dread that equates long silence with being finished, as well as the idea that if one isn't writing, one isn't a poet after all. It goes on, and one wishes we had editors who were more discerning , let us say demanding, when it came to putting together major collections of a poet's work. Still, in all that mass one finds fine works, and Kinnell , again, surprises you with poems that exactly right in length, tone, confession, and insight that doesn't conclude but properly defers a closing on the author's emotional conflation.

The difference is that his poems have a mood and a destination he seeks in his inclusion of every day things and events and his self-conscious interactions with them. All the choice ironies he writes in this poem, poem are fluid and presented with a rhythm that combines of someone recalling a recent set of experiences and sensing the arrangement of the details. It's not unlike watching someone unpack boxes in a room of empty shelves, arranging the books and bric a brac in positions that highlight priority of detail. --

A tractor-trailer carrying two dozen crushed automobiles overtakes a tractor-trailer carrying a dozen new.
Oil is a form of waiting.
The internal combustion engine converts the stasis of millennia into motion.
Cars howl on rain-wetted roads.
Airplanes rise through the downpour and throw us through the blue sky.
The idea of the airplane subverts earthly life.
Computers can deliver nuclear explosions to precisely anywhere on earth.
A lightning bolt is made entirely of error.
Erratic Mercurys and errant Cavaliers roam the highways.
A girl puts her head on a boy's shoulder; they are driving west.
The windshield wipers wipe, homesickness one way, wanderlust the other, back and forth.
This happened to your father and to you, Galway -- sick to stay, longing to come up against the ends of the earth, and climb over.

All speak of the contradictions of travel and the false hopes that lie in the speed and distance one can personally attain. As with his father, Kinnell finds he can not travel out of his own skin or his awareness of who he is and suggests that his attempts to out pace his demons merely fed their flame.


Normally I dislike poems that use poetry or the fact that the writer is a poet as their subject matter because it smacks of a chronic elitism that kills the urge to read poetry at all, but Larry Levis in the poem below attends to the task with humor and a willingness to let the air of out of the practitioner;s inflated sense of importance. He is of the mind that poems have to "hit the bricks", get road tested where people live and work. What makes his writing remarkable is his ability to be straight forward without being literal minded.

The Poem You Asked For
by Larry Levis
My poem would eat nothing.
I tried giving it water
but it said no,

worrying me.
Day after day,
I held it up to the llight,

turning it over,
but it only pressed its lips
more tightly together.

It grew sullen, like a toad
through with being teased.
I offered it money,

my clothes, my car with a full tank.
But the poem stared at the floor.
Finally I cupped it in

my hands, and carried it gently
out into the soft air, into the
evening traffic, wondering how

to end things between us.
For now it had begun breathing,
putting on more and

more hard rings of flesh.
And the poem demanded the food,
it drank up all the water,

beat me and took my money,
tore the faded clothes
off my back,

said Shit,
and walked slowly away,
slicking its hair down.

Said it was going
over to your place.

Poets often enough try to use idiomatic language with the intention of using the vernacular to suggest dimensions of significance only a select priesthood of poets can decipher, if only barely; too often all the reader gets is a lugubrious meandering in the mother tongue of something that cannot decide what it wants to be. I suspect many take themselves to be latter day Ashberys or keepers of the Language Poetry practical/critical attack, but this would a defensive reflex, I think, a wall around an ego that cannot concede that it's owner has written a body of poems that mistake being dense with density. Dense merely means impenetrable, which means nothing , ideas in this case, get or get out. Density is somewhat more of a compliment, implying, as I sense it, that there lies therein a series of perception and interestingly worded ideas that cling to solid images in a lean, subtle, nearly invisible way--intellection and detail find a perfect fit--that one can draw series of readings from the work, if not a final verdict. Leavis shows that it's possible to elude having to explain yourself and be suggetively vague to intent without sacrificing the illuminated surface of the poem.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rock and Roll

Truthfully, I had to walk away from a conversation in late December that rock and roll is was dead as a boot; Fifty somethings like myself have the feeling that last bit of authenticity ended as we came into our late twenties and had replaced avocations with careers. I’m just tired of anyone declaring whole art forms as “deceased” merely because they’ve gotten older; rock and roll seems healthy to me, as it goes, and however large a segment of the marketplace it holds , those who play it and those who listen to it, young and not so young, think the music is alive and, well, kicking ass. The complaints come down to this, The Fall from Grace; the Garden of Eden was so much nicer before the corporate snakes moved in and loused it up for everyone. Regardless of musical terms and pseudo terms that are tossed about like throw rugs over a lumpy assertion, is the kind of junior-college cafeteria table thumping that is demonstrably empty of content. Reading any good history of rock and roll music will have the music develop along side the growth of an industry that started recording and distributing increasingly diverse kinds of music in order to widen market shares. The hand of the business man, the soul of the capitalist machine has always been in and around the heart of rock and roll: every great rock and roll genius, every jazz master, each blues innovator has the basic human desire to get paid. Suffice to say that some we see as suffering poets whose travails avail them of images that deepen our sense of shared humanity see themselves still as human beings who require the means to pay for their needs and finance their wants, like the rest of us. There has always been a market place where the music is played, heard, bought and sold--and like everything in these last months, the marketplace has changed, become bigger, more diffuse with new music, and new technologies. Some of us are vaguely, and snottily mournful for an era when only the music mattered, and something inside me pines for that innocence as well, but innocence is the same currency as naïveté, and consciously arguing that the way I formerly perceived the world was the way it actually worked would be an exorcise in ignorance, as in the willful choice to ignore available facts that are contrary to a paradigm that's sinking into its loosely packed foundation. Again, it's hard to discern the line naysayers want to peruse, other than prove that he's an amateur Mencken, a pundit without platform, sans portfolio. It's my suspicion that for the typical young music listener now, this is the Eden they expect never to end, which means that it’s the best time in the world for rock and roll for some mass of folks out there.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Against Rhyme 2

Artemesia, a contributor to Slate's on line Poetry Forum, responded to my post arguing against the contemporary application of metered verse with the observation
"Isn't it interesting that so much instantly forgettable poetry is written by poets who disparage any form of rhyme!" I am vain enough to assume she meant me in her offering, to which I was also vain enough to respond to. Likely her response will mention that she didn't name me at all, add a couple of more indirect digs, after which we can expect that conversation to become stony silence or snarky round robin. All the same, here's my response, and the last I'll bother this blog with on this subject.

Much of my poetry is forgettable , yes, but much of it is good, I think, as I've been at this craft, free-verse style, for a very long time. The quality of my output, I believe , is on a par with any other good yet minor (league) poet with an ear for music who continues to hone their skills, is mostly in relative anonymity; grand slams, hits, near misses, strike outs, belabored performances, all of them in mostly equal abundance. My poetry, if I happen to be your unnamed example, isn't the point of comparison, though, and is largely irrelevant to what I was addressing. I would challenge anyone to produce something I've written, here or elsewhere, where I insisted my writing in general as an example anyone should follow; my claims for my style are modest. Let us just say that I like the way I write prose and that my style in poetry has evolved over some 40 plus years and that I believe there's been some improvement in quality. The point in the original was, and remains, that rhyming in the current time is archaic technique that is at odds with the zeitgeist and expressed the idea that it too often sounds strained, false and little more than a demonstration of one's facility with a technique that calls attention to itself rather too much.

Eliot, of course, could compose rhymes (as opposed to "construct") that were fluid and musical and never far from the sound of the spoken voice. For all his erudition , he could write an abstract, fragmented verse in a clear and plain vernacular, and was able, as well, to extend his phrase of the voice , not of the metronome, a guiding aesthetic during his period. Masterful as his rhyme schemes were, however, Eliot is generally regarded as someone who could mix his techniques, balancing free verse and the metered form.

This was part of his genius, and that sort of genius , in the twentieth century as regards an exclusive rhyming technique, is rare, rare, rare. None of this, though, is to insist that there is no place for rhyming--the skilled hand can employ it when it makes musical sense, when it is effective service to a perception and does not announce itself , as so many latter day New Formalist poets do when they write their elaborations. The great poems in English of the 20Th century are not rhymed; the poets of the last hundred years or so have sought less to mimic the argued perfections of ancient standards and sought rather to seek individual accommodation with a general conception of the human voice as it speaks. The heavens and the earth are less the things to be pondered through rhetorical skeins that imply an extra-human dimension than the are things we see and speak of in terms of our own experience, the subjective passing through the general conception of everyday life.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Against Rhyme

Just because something rhymes and has regimented meter doesn't, by default, make it a poem. We would generally think agree that a poem is , in some sense , a heightened speech that seeks to get at perception, sensation, and psychological states that are problematic for standard prose writing, and that , broadly speaking, the writing that qualifies for those qualities, vague as they are, ought not to be sentimental, conventional, sing-songy, prone to cliche, platitude , scoldings, lectures, or inanely obvious moralizing.

Rhyming, a condition that about dominated all poetic technique until relatively recently in written history, has about been exploited to the degree that it is nearly exhausted . A contemporary audience, desiring a more intriguing vocabulary to discuss and describe the experience of the individual in a culture that is accelerated and quantified and subdivided among a host of meaningless disciplines, wants that discussion to be in a parlance, a rhythm, a cadence and verve that is recognizably of the modern time that typifies the way we address our experiences, and yet has the embedded genius to last decades beyond it's writing.

The art continues as it always has, it changes as the language has, it's pitches and dictions have taken on the twists of the spoken language and forges a unique set of voices that keep the language fresh, relevant, alive. It might well have to do with the fact that the feeling of experience can no longer be contained and convincingly resolved with the now-formula ironies a precise formula compels you to reach; two world wars and the use of nuclear weapons has pretty much undercut the chiming resonance formalistic poems present us; they sound false and eager to smooth away the tragic, the gritty, the sad, the plainly inexplicable conditions of everyday life with a grandiose , over determined orchestration of sounds that are meant, I suppose, to convince you that beauty is most important overall and that petty miseries and small joys are of no consequence. It seems nothing less than a mirror of the conceit of organized Christianity that God has a purpose for this world and that we must accept his will, as small laces in a complex weave. It's about surrender, actually, but it would be the case, rather, that enough history has culminated so recently regarding the disasters of absolutist philosophies that the taste, collectively, has preferred the colloquial to the grand, the open ended to the determined resolution, being-in-the-moment rather than controlling the agenda.Syllabic convolutions, pretty as they sound, are just that, pretty sounds, not the voice of Higher Authority.

The language changes; that's how it stays viable as way of making ourselves understood. Poetry changes; that's the way we keep ourselves interested in testing the limits of our imaginations. Poetry is an active thing, done in real time, in the present period. It is not an art consigned to being little more than duplications of what was done before, endlessly before, forms leeched of all vitality and allure.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

This tug has a kick

Tuggin' by Matt Miller goes for the second person voice, the use of you to indicate the protagonist, the effect being something like the over rated promise of 3D movies: you the reader are in the action, in the thick of things, all this swerving and snowing and wheezing about is you in action! The effect of 3D movies, in my experience, are headaches and nausea, and in the case of second person, at sustained length, monotony comes easily, a colorless, blurred, accelerated condition where the inability to get away from the skin of the re-surging "you" gives you the feeling of a first-person shooter video game.

Nothing comes into being until "you" see it and confront it, do something with it, and then walk away from it, with a narrator trying just a bit too hard to convince the reader that "you" have been changed, or encountered an irony that is , for the moment, invisible and not felt.

Tuggin' has the good graces of being short and not epic , and what we get is a breathless stream that has the magical , exhilarating feel of an excited witness recounting to the the protagonist just how incredible the previous adventure was.

Miller does interesting things with letting things bump into one another, step on each other's toes, of allowing one idea to intrude upon the other; there is the the feeling that there is only so much time to set the seen, establish the winter game in the cold snow, and to emphasise how fast the fun comes at you and how abruptly a tragedy can occur.

Then the steel-
hearted tug as the truck started up
again, as your shoulders yanked
to just short of snapping. And if
you held on, your time was up
as the driver fishtailed and cast
you across the covered concrete
to bury you in a six foot bank
of snow, everyone cackling, blood
electric, all the pieces of your face
inches away from the hydrant
you wouldn't see till spring.

Action, jerks of a truck, rules of the game, landing in a snow bank , just missing the unforgiving fire hydrant that other wise might have been unseen and out of mind until the spring thaw; this is a a lot of information to get across, and Miller writing seems something like a vivid slide show with quick witted captions underscoring both fun and the danger.

He does something else as well, with the simple mention of the fire hydrant, evoked in a Frost-like terseness; it's a perfect image to end on, some still life that's seasonal and scenic, suitable for a greeting card, but which also reflects back to the "you" that dominates the action; I sense a stunned realization that someone could have been seriously hurt, perhaps killed. Nicely done, effective, fast, visual.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A meditation for the New Year

There's nothing like getting laid off before Christmas and then mounting a job search shortly thereafter to dampen the desire to opine, criticize, and other wise act the smarty pants on one's favorite subjects. It is a situation I hope to reverse by dedicating an hour a day, God willing, to writing about something other than a cover letter to attach to an online resume submission. There are some books I want to write about, some poems I want to subject to my post-Bangs
harangues. I have no intention of becoming divorced from the one thing, writing, that has been the only thing that I've continually well. I might plug my other hobby that I've gotten more involved with , an activity that fills the time various searches and scannings from different job sites , playing blues harmonica. I video taped myself improvising over instrumental blues tracks, and I have to say, nearly blushing, that I've gotten pretty good. You can find those bits of funky squawking on YouTube, under the user name TheoBurke. There is a link in the blogroll . But the issue at hand is getting into the writing groove again, to keep my mind alive and to perhaps gain a sliver of self esteem and relief, if only to believe that my brain isn't dead and that I will be employed again, in a job I like, and that things all around, for all people, will get better by measurable , noticeable degrees. Well yeah, you guessed it by this point, I am writing this just to see the page fill up with words, and there is a measure of trying to hype myself to the tasks at hand. About being laid off, it must said that I am in good company. There's an understandable tendency to allow one's psyche move toward the dangerous intersection of Fear and Dread, but all things being equal in this world, there is the faith that we will all come through these strange days more or less in one piece. The family, friends, and general fellowship have reminded me when I needed to hear it that there somethings worth pushing on for, that there are things in this life that make life a joyous thing despite the recent set backs many of us have encountered. We will endure, we will thrive, we will go through the changes. Yes, I know, it's all that strained optimistic that clouds many a forecast for the New Year. I look at this way, it can't help but be better than what we've had before. One day at a time, I do the thing that's in front of me, I do the next indicated thing. I type, I write, I live, and that's a good thing, an irreplaceable thing.

Friday, January 1, 2010

second notes for the new decade

I tend to think that the best relationship between practice and theory , as regards the arts (and poetry in particular) is when one blends with the other in a seamless fashion. It's a process that begins with the work itself, a reading and rereading of the poem, let us say, and then , after some routine reflection, referencing any number of critical schemes I think might work in bringing what's contained in the stanzas out from under the subterfuge. Seamless is the word I'd like to use, and it applies here although the handy term has diminished impact with overuse;all the same, theories of criticism , for me,are a way of extending the poem into general discourse.

Poetry works in many ways, but so does criticism, and a pragmatics of interpretation is the most useful way for me to make a poet's work something other than another useless art object whose maker adhered to someone else's rules. My gripe is a constant one, that each succeeding school of thought on what poets should be doing are too often reductionist and dismissive of what has been done prior. This isn't criticism, it's polemics, contrary to my notion that what really matters in close readings is the attempt to determine whether and why poems work successfully as a way of quantifying experience and perception in a resonating style.

First notes for the decade

Ron Silliman greeted the new year and the new decade with a reminder that we're living in interesting times and that the concerned should remember " there's no reason Sarah Palin, Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck or even Ted Nugent could not become president." Some of those who responded poo-poo'd the notion and mildly chastised Silliman for seeming a shade paranoid. Those folks, after all, were cartoon characters. Ah, but the enemies of the common good love to be discounted; they are well aware that we love to be entertained while we have our hot buttons pushed, and that there far too many Americans with the right to vote who love nothing better than taking conspicuous buffoons seriously.We shouldn't dismiss the idea that Palin, Limbaugh , Beck or, choke, Ted Nugent can become President. The electorate twice elected GW Bush and a host of other fringe-clinging hard righters, a combination that has done the country no good favor.The GOP and the like understand how to work The Big Lie, and have shown a genius at manipulating a general discontent among voters, convincing them again and yet again to vote against their interest. We would do well not to dismiss the above list and stay hard at the fight. The thousands who've shown up at Tea Bag rallies convinces me that there's still a festering, hateful insanity out there; it is no longer at the fringe and has, in fact, metastasized to the center. The Right Wing Noise Machine is louder than it's ever been. We have to make noise of our own and take over the conversation.

Philanthropist Ruth Lilly has passed away, and there's an increase in the rumbling and grousing about the $100,000,000 endowment she gifted the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation with.It seems that if you want to kill an art form you truly love, give it's practitioners a lot of money to make sense out of. Poetry is such a fractured terrain in terms of techniques, schools, aesthetics and, shall we say, severe differences as to how to see life , that Ruth Lilly's gift was bound to create controversy and resentment; poets are picayune as it is with the meager resources available to them. I'm half way surprised that there hasn't been a blood letting over the funds.Still, I have to say that the Poetry Foundation were as deserving as anything in existence; I was fairly impressed by the fact that they never lowered their editorial standards by publishing one of Lilly's allegedly substandard submissions to Poetry Magazine. Whoring for an endowment they were not.

I took a Facebook quiz that would tell me what famous film director I would be, and the answer, revealed after answer some insipid movie related multiple choice questions, was that I was Stanley Kubrick.I have never liked this man's movies. Impressive, yes, but for the most part I think he's all gesture, no story. He was more in love with the allegory than with the story the device was supposed to serve.I might add that Martin Scorsese shares many of the flaws with Kubrick, the bulk be of them preferring spectacle to a plausible and compelling narrative line. The difference, I think, is that Scorsese doesn't take a long time between pestering the world with his lack taste. The would have been one attribute from Kubrick he could have benefited both him and ourselves. I suspect there were nothing but superstar names in the roster of results the quiz created bothered to assemble; obvious choices, me thinks. Clint Eastwood, The Coen Brothers, Michael Mann, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, Ridley Scott, Chris Nolan, Walter Hill, Sam Rami, Guillermo Del Torro, John Huston, Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmasch, Quinten Tarantino, Sam Fuller, Don Siegel, now there are some names I wouldn't mind being my "inner director".