Saturday, February 27, 2010

Too smart to be read?

Some readers think of them as too thick headed to enjoy reading a novel by Don DeLillo; it’s a case where a writer’s reputation for heady lyricism repulses rather than attracts. The author’s difficulty, though, is overstated. You’re not a drone for not being drawn to Delilah; he either appeals to you or he doesn't, as is the case with any other serious (or less serious) writer who wants to get your attention. The charges that DeLillo is tedious, wordy and pretentious, not necessarily in that order, are they tedious and, it seems, levied by a folks who either haven't read much of the author, more likely, put forward by a host of soreheads who use DeLillo as a representative of a kind of fiction writing they dismiss wholesale.
I'm not an easy sell when it comes to being seduced by writer's reputations--my friends accuse me of being too picky, too "critical"--but I've read most of DeLillo's fifteen novels since I discovered him in the early Seventies; if I didn't find his writing brilliant and vibrant or found his narrative ruminations on the frayed American spirit engaging, I'd not have bothered with him. DeLillo is a serious writer, but he is not pompous. Not in my estimation, anyway.

There is a block of otherwise smart people who distrust and actively dislike anything that suggests elegant or lyric prose writing. John Updike, who I think was perhaps the most consistently brilliant and resourceful American novelists up until his death, was routinely pilloried for the seamless flow of his perfectly telling details. If one cares to do a survey, I suspect they'd find the same caustic template levied at other writers who are noted for their ability to detail the worlds they imagine in ways that make the mundane take on a new resonance. Nabokov, DeLillo, Henry James, Richard Powers have all been assessed by a noisy few as being "too wordy". The sourpusses seem to forget that this fiction, not journalism, that this literature, no police reports. The secret, I think, is that a writer possessed of a fluid style manages to link their mastery of the language with the firm outlining of the collective personalities of the characters, both major and minor. The elegance is in service to a psychological dimension that otherwise might not be available. The thinking among the anti-elegance crowd is that writing must be grunts, groans and monosyllabic bleats, a perversion of the modernist notion that words are objects to use as materials to get to the essential nature of the material world. Lucky for us that no one convincingly defined what "essential nature" was, leaving those readers who love a run on sentence with more recent examples of the word drunk in progress.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Natural Style?

"Easy to read and melodious prose" has been the ideal since the creation of the professional writer: it's not far a field to say that humans generally prefer clarity over confusion, and to develop methods, developed through experimentation, to achieve those goals. Because we are a species that's smart enough to demonstrably learn new habits through different kinds of training or learning--whether mechanical or in the acquisition of cultural topsoil-- my thinking is that that a clear style is really a natural expression of human habit, determined however that habit might be.

Culture ,the abstract idea condensed histories gathered along a relentlessly twined strands, is indeed artifice on the face of it, but the formation of culture and its aesthetic distinctions is hardly unnatural to anything one might think is alien to some wordy definition of man's "natural" state. It's all natural, in other words: most everything we do, whatever our convolutions as a species carry us to on whatever tide of rhetoric, ideology and religious infamy, is the result behavior that is , of course, animal, species related, but also quite human, quite "natural" .

We are not outside of nature, but rather our expressions are quite natural within an all encompassing sphere, and the development of a musical style in order to express some sense of an individual experience of one's environment, the poetry of the moment, falls handily into the categories of "natural" acts. More useful, perhaps, might be to consider the word "natural" with regards as to how a writer can create a plausible, believable voice within and without their narrative technique: DeLillo and Hemingway, stylized as they are, created powerful voices that compel response. The styles are connected to ideologies that themselves define a poetic/philosophical superstructures that lay final claim to the progress of history, and it is here where discussion as to the use of the voice becomes "natural" in sound and tone, in it's as it outlines a world view. "Natural" ought to mean an idiom that's believable for narrators and characters to be speaking in, an idiom whose success depends on how well the author constructs the fictional world they're entertain.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Poetry" by Marianne Moore: the craft for the Sisyphus in all of us

Slate poetry editor Robert Pinsky gives readers Marianne Moore's widely anthologized "Poetry" as a topic discussion a few months ago. It was a a joy to read again/It shouldn't be a mystery as to why this poem among the hundreds she wrote is the one that an otherwise indifferent audience remembers: it's a poem about poetry. She rather handily summarizes an array of cliches, stereotypes and received misgivings about poetry a literalistic readership might have ,feigns empathy with the complaints, and then introduces one crafty oh-by-the-way after another until the opposite is better presented than the resolution under discussion.

This is not a subject I warm up to in most circumstances--poets, of their accord, have demonstrated the sort of self-infatuation that many of them, left to their means-to-an-end, would remove themselves from the human scale and assume the ranks of the divine, the oracular, the life giving, IE, develop themselves into a priesthood, the guardians of perception.

Moore's poem, though, presents itself as a contracting string of epigrams that seem to quarrel, a disagreement between head and mind, body and spirit, and a larger part of her lines, as they seemingly across the page away from the statements preceding the line before it, is that no really knows what to make of poetry as a form, as a means of communication, as a way of identifying oneself in the world. It frustrates the fast answer, it squelches the obvious point, poetry adds an ambiguity that would rile many because of lines that start off making obvious sense but which leave the reader in a space that isn't so cocksure. Little seems definite anymore once a poem has passed through the world, and the reassembling of perception required of the reader to understand a bit of the verse (the alternative being merely to quit and admit defeat) is bound to give a resentment. It's a headache one would rather not have. Moore's poem seems to be a response to Dorothy Parker's ironic declaration declaration "I hate writing. I love having written". The reader may hate not understanding what they've read, but love the rewards of sussing through a poem's blind alleys and distracting side streets.

Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
"literalists of
the imagination"—above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

The agony, the contradictions, the dishonest sleights of hand that deceive you in the service of delivering a surprise, an irony, an unexpected image , all of this is worth resentments a readers suffers through. One is , after all , made better, made stronger by the exercise of the will to read and confront the poem on it's own terms. Moore is a shrewd rhetorician as well as gracefully subtle poet.Clever, witty, sharp and acidic when she needs me, Moore is clever at playing the Devil's Advocate in nominally negative guise, saying she dislikes it but mounting one exception to the rule after another until we have an overwhelming tide of reasons about why we as citizens can't exist without it's application.

It works as polemic, indeed, crafted as she alone knows how, and it adds yet another well-phrased set of stanzas that want to turn poets into more than mortal artists, but into a priesthood, a race of scribes attuned to secret meanings of invisible movements within human existence. It sort of stops being a poet after the first jagged stanza, not unlike all those pledge breaks on PBS that tirelessly affirm that network's quality programming while showing little of it during their pleas for viewer money. It's not that I would argue too dramatically against the notion that poets and artists in general are those who've the sensitivity and the skills to turn perception at an instinctual level into a material form through which what was formally unaddressable can now find a shared vocabulary in the world-- egalitarian though I am, there are geniuses in the world , and those who are smarter and more adept than others in various occupations and callings--but I do argue against the self-flattery that poems like Moore's promotes and propagates.I wouldn't regard this as a polemic of any sort, nor a manifesto as to what the writer ought to do or what the reader should demand. Reading it over again, and again after that makes me think that Moore was addressing her own ambivalence toward the form. After one finishes some stanzas and feels contented that they've done justice to their object of concentration, some lines appear contrived, other words are dull and dead sounding aligned with more colorful, more chiming ones,an image seems strained and unnatural, an analogy no longer seems like the perfect fit.

She too dislikes it, I think, because poetry will always come up short of getting to the world without our censoring buffers; Wallace Stevens solved the problem of cutting himself from the gravity of his real life by no attempting to launch his persona , via metaphor, through the imagined barrier between our perception of events and what is there, sans a mediating ego, and landed himself among his Ideal Types, his Perfect Forms and Arrangements, but the strength of his language. The metaphor he would have used to address qualities otherwise unseen of a thing her perceived became, in his method, the thing itself, a part of his Supreme Fiction. William Stevens voided the decorative phrases and qualifiers that he felt only added business to the world a poem tried to talk about and made a verse of hard , sharp, angular objects. Moore, though, seems to insist in Poetry that however grand , beautiful and insightful the resulting poems are in a host of poetic attempts to resolve the problem the distance between the thing perceived and the thing itself, we still have only poems, words arranged to produce effects that would appeal to our senses that are aligned with this world and not the invisible republic just beyond our senses. Poetry is a frustrating and irritating process because it no matter how close one thinks they've come to a breakthrough, there is the eventual realization of far one remains from it. Poetry as Sisyphean task; one is compelled to repeat the effort, and not without the feeling that they've done this before.

The commotion of the animals, the pushing elephants, the rolling horses, the tireless yet immobile Wolf, seem like analogues to restless mind Moore at one time might have desired to have calmed by the writing of poetry. There is the prevailing myth, still fixed in a good number of people who go through various self help groups, that the writing of things down--poetry, journaling, blogging, writing plays or memoirs--is a process that, in itself , will reveal truthful things one needs to know and thereby settle the issues. Writing, though, doesn't "settle", finalize or cement anything in place, it does to set the world straight , nor does it resolve anything it was addressing once the writing is done with. It is, though, a useful process, a tool, one may use as a means to get one out of the chair, away from the keyboard, and become proactive in some positive way.

The expectations of what poetry was supposed to do--create something about the world that is permanent, ever lasting, reveal a truth who's veracity does not pale with time, whether a century or hour-- are crushed and a resentment when realizes that the world they're attempting to conquer, in a manner of speaking , will not bow to one's perception, one's carefully constructed stage set where the material things of this earth are props to be arranged on a whim, and that the mind that creates the metaphors, the similes, the skilled couplets and ingenious rhyme strategies is not calmed, soothed, serene.

The world continues to move and change, language itself changes the meaning of the words it contains, the mind continues to tick away, untrammeled. Moore's animals, in the restless paradise , are themselves restless, non contemplative, instinct driven toward species behavior that is about propagation and survival, creatures distinct from the contemplative conceit of the poet who thinks he or she is able to sift through the underbrush for secret significance. I've always heard a weary tone in Moore's poem; a mind that in turn wrestles with matters where poetry doesn't reveal what's disguised but only what the poet can never get to. Her poem echos Macbeth's famous speech rather nicely:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

She seems not a little dismayed that poetry is only part of our restless species behavior and that the language we write and expound to bring coherence to the waking life are only more sounds being made in an already noisy existence.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Choosing your parents wisely

A sweeping statement from an old conversation, followed by more sweeping states from myself:

Writers do not decided who their influences are, scholars do, and scholars have to come to a consensus as to how to go about doing that and a consensus as to who influences whom.

This statement is too thin a blanket to be spread so broadly:it's backwards. Writers do decide who their influences are. The act of preferring one writer over another with regard to value , style and impact constitutes a choice, choice being a decision. This personal canon-formation, a nascent writers' set of examples of what writing can be, ought to be, and where writing ought to grow from, is obviously a set of choices, albeit convoluted. Likewise, I doubt that there's a moment in a writer's activity when they are not aware of the shadow of past genius that is cast over them, the Greats--however defined--that they aim their work away from, toward an originality, and maybe genius,that is their own. The anxiety of influence, courtesy of Harold Bloom, is almost an observable dynamic in sensible study.

The scholar, in turn, only uncovers who the influences are in the course of credible research, but does not choose them. The temptation may be great, but the theorist/scholar/critic can speculate only so much in their interpretation of real data. Writers begin with private views and prejudices about the given world, perceived through their eyes, their sets of experience, but an aim of writing to begin with is too seek consensus: it's the shock of recognition, among other things, that gives the aesthetic satisfaction with a narrative that's rendered well. Private projects don't stay private: they enter into the reading world in an attempt to give us more ideas, fixtures, metaphors to help us think about ourselves .

That is all, I think, that literature can ever promise, the work itself. Criticism , like literature proper, is hardly a fixed set of standards, a Biblical claim of absolute, final totality. It's an activity that's adjacent, secondary to, literature, and at best can act as an aid to the reader seeking to underline salient elements that dovetail, enlarge, or illuminate the problematic nature of experience that won't, and cannot, tell you what it means.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Shot with his own gun

Andrew Hudgins wants to read peace marchers the Riot Act, as his poem "Summer of '09" makes clear enough. One assumes the narrator, a peace marcher himself, has ,by the time he comes to narrate this laundry list of  fascist ills, had a conversion experience. It is less bitter than it sarcastic, though, less a poem than an excuse to make another list of data he's gathered about an oppressive government's brutal crushing of dissent. Hudgins narrator is the idealist, a citizen mounting a symbolic protest against war as an institution who, as he details in negative integers, the painful terrors those citizens locked in country are subjected to in very material ways. Self criticism is a fine activity as far as it goes, but for all the absurdity he casts the laughing protesters at the peace rally in their being grossly removed from the horror they seek to vanish, Hudgins insulates the terror even more with the typical poet's mistake, IE trying to make the subject more convincing with an over blown language. He pulls out the megaphone, ramps up the language, and addresses the troops from the other side of the field.


implacable penitentiary memes

of sadism and certitude.

Hudgins intends to indict the naive here, but editorializing with Marxist Study Group about the awful ways of repressive regimes makes their sins more unreal , not more believable. Hudgins' All-Thumbs projection of his disgust with the self importance of protesters who know nothing of the real situation would be comical if it weren't for what I take to be factual basis of the did-not examples he peppers this squib with. From interviews, perhaps, biographies he's read, things he's actually seen, it's all very real and horrible, and perhaps Hudgins might appear somewhere in print and online to lay out his sources, undisguised by the burden of poetic art. Hudgins might not have intended to criticize the protesters, but that is what came across, although he tried to phrase his misgivings as self-criticisms. Something is lost in the stream of negative did-nots that highlight the horror of the State where the war is fought. He ends up speaking for all the protesters and implies the privileged position with which to protest is a universal characterization. Liberal guilt, perhaps, intense self consciousness, the inner turmoil of having so theoretical filters choking off one's moral instinct. Hudgins is tending to wander into Susan Sontag/ John Berger territory. He might have been trying to get across Foucault's point that pain and punishment become a part of a victim's body awareness that in turns defines a system of repression that operates invisibly and , perhaps, as an expression of those impulses within nature that determine a species' ability to thrive or tendency to die off. The metaphysics is fine stuff for a poem, I suppose, but the discourse ought not come in the guise of a missing index card from a lecture. I am more convinced each time I look at this that Hudgins didn't know what he was trying to do here; this is one of those things that begs for a reworking.

in their views that photograph or depiction of any sort insulates the actuality of what's being dipicted and winds up being less real, thus hampering or preventing outright the potential for any real change to take place. Hudgins' variation would be that the act of protest against an unjust war turns into a spectacle, a collective diversion where the issues are carnivalized, a citizenry's outrage is diffused , and the original horror goes on, unabated. This intriguing Marcusean insight, which he addressed as "repressive tolerance"(simply the idea that the State's allowing dissent to occur unmolested saps revolutionary impulses among the oppressed) is a handy trap, however, as many otherwise insightful Marxist insights are; a symptom is described, but no way out save for a rapture-like attaining of Revolutionary Perspective and focus will make the malaise go away. One winds up, per Sontag and Berger, having a troublesome relationship with Beauty , as in the finding of something as attractive, in itself, contributes to the greater evils of capitalism. Hudgins finds himself in self-doubt, a questioning of his motives, with the implication that it might have been more useful thing had he kept his hands and pockets and remained a tourist while in Washington. This is not a revelation of Hamlet -themed irresolution as to what do about a variety of problems, it is merely paralysis.

Hamlet finally took an action and accepted the consequence of his action , his goal, finally, to reveal the truth that had poisoned his Kingdom. Hudgins sounds like he intended to be on the side of the angels but walked away from the whole thing. There is something wrong with a perspective that at a righteous cause, a protest against a war waged against a country that never attacked the United States, is just another materialist indulgence, a fashionable pretense of concern. This is the kind of thinking that keeps people from showing up at the voting polls.

 Hudgins winds up being shot with his own gun. He wants to criticize the idealists who have their heads in the clouds with the fatal facts of the matter, and yet he can't shake the impulse to allow his language to get in the way of his point. Hudgins' clouds may be dark, but clouds they remain.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Brow Beat : Can New Yorker Poets Write About Anything Besides Poetry?


Slate's Browbeat section does a telling survey of the New Yorker's habit of publishing poems that are about poetry, about reading, about writing, in one fashion or another. I read with particular interest, as poems about poetry has been one of my specialized gripes for years. At this point , a blogger focusing on covering the rants on poetry blogs might write a screed against rants-against-poems-about-poetry, citing a series of links to my repetitive missives as especially grouchy examples. I've tempered my protests lately, though, as it the the tendency for poets to reflect upon their own form and their relevance to the world they live in is firmly established in world literary history; although it bugs me still, I have to admit that I am subject to slipping under the conceits of earlier Modernist manifestos that appointed their authors as those who would erase history and recreate the way we see the world. I would hope most of us have learned some bitter lessons about ignoring history, even at this level. You can attempt to persuade folks, yes, but you really can't force them to like something they're not inclined by personality to enjoy, and you can't force the correctness of your opinion on them. Anyway, my grievances are a matter of record on this blog, and I invite you to enjoy the article and the ensuing discussion stream.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Point Omega by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo's novels have been remarkably strong given the length of his career, and the only one I think is subpar is his 9/11 novel; nicely fitted, of course, with some of the author's famed verbal brilliance, but it seemed more per-formative than anything else, with the estranged characters and their respective stages of psychic exile twined in pro forma fashion around that date's catastrophe. The novel seemed to have been written out of sense of obligation, that the author who had made a career out of writing about a world that fits the 9/11 cliche "everything has changed" felt compelled to give his remarks in fictional form. It alone among his books was a labor to read, as it seems to have been a labor to write.

Otherwise, I salute his post-Underworld writings The Body Artist and Cosmopolis, a delicately etched character study and a black comedy respectively who's central characters, a performance artist and a digital guru commodities broker, reach the end of the belief systems that filled in the interior absence of purpose and commitment to the world.In this instance I find much to like about "Point Omega", although I think it helps if you've read several of his books , are aware of his larger themes and appreciate the way he has condensed and concentrated his themes into a hard,splendidly spare narrative line. It is, I think, a continuation of DeLillo's examination of a culture that has had the mystery and mythology stripped from it by the harsher trends in Modernism, replaced with various wrap around belief systems ranging from political ideology, art-for-art's sake, technology and assorted other absolutist-tending habits of mass-think that each attempt to replace what had been the spiritual, the religious, the intuitive.

Our character Elster, here, is a polymath, a genius versed in a seeming unlimited variety of cross-indexed disciplines, someone whom the intelligence and defense apparatus of the State brought on as someone who's musings about their agendas and techniques might somehow give them an advantage over opponents both current and future. Elster,though, is someone who finds his learning, the knowledge and he garnered in an effort to weave his way through an infinitely complex network of warring belief systems, collapsing upon itself. Now he considers the finite essence of all things, stripped of meaning as he has been stripped of his inner life;he watches an endless artful deconstruction of an iconic movie, he prefers the limitless waste of the desert, he desires an existence that can be mute, meaningless, flat and precisely without resonance. I think this is powerful stuff, really, a lyric poem.

Tough Guys Don't Write Sissy Poems

Someone mailed me a poem by poetaster William Espy as their way of saying that poems are, by default, a pompous, elitist and obnoxious breed of ineffectual human; I assume the sender was tired of reading my posts on matters large and small. They thought they could put me in my place, a deed for which I'd be obliged to have them accomplish. Often enough I have no idea if I'm coming or going, or whether I'm advancing an argument, or retreating from something I've already said. If someone asked me where I was coming from, I'd have to answer that I didn't know; I misplaced my map of misreading. But enough of that here is the Espy verse I was sent:


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

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

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

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

Copyright © 1986 Willard R. Espy

I'm not crazy about the Espy poem for the usual reason, it rhymes, it clanks, it clicks, you can hear the parts move as you read it. And, despite the notion that Espy is a public poet, accessible, readable, "gettable", this remains a less-loathsome example of a loathsome narcissism among poets in general, a poem about poetry. It is ironic that a poet who bucked the tendency of Modern Poetry to be abstract, coded, enigmatic and self-referential would choose to exercise their whimsy on his own medium. This habit, whether requiring an extreme hermeneutics or graspable after the first read, is an elitism that has done much, I think, to keep potential readers away from investigating the craft.

It might have something to do with poems like these are the ones that become heavily anthologized or reprinted in various places by editors who are attracted to works that would rather gavotte among its particulars rather than chance a subject matter a reader would recognize and, in turn, interrogate. The potential reader, wondering if poetry has anything to say to them, picks up a volume and comes across like this, and places the volume down again, thinking that the poets are thumbing their collective nose at those unfortunate enough not to have had good English teachers in high school.

It doesn't really matter who writes Poems About Poetry--Language poets, School of Quietude, whimsical rhymesters--it's a sad, involute habit. His readership, though, is not the Ideal reader, the nonspecialist who potentially is interested in poetry and the stylistic perspective the art might bring on how ideas and experience intermingle, but rather other poets, who, as a class of professional, are not likely to change their ways. We have, in essence, something that's more an interoffice memo or motivational talk to the boiler room of smile-and-dial telemarketers. It's clever, wind up a contraption that, in its own way, forsakes the mission of any poet, regardless of aesthetic preference: to be in the world. This is as much an Ivory Tower as anything more elliptical, diffuse. What distinguishes it is the noise all it's moving parts make in their scraping attempt to achieve an effect.

 I overstate, perhaps, but my gripe against Espy is that he attempts to put "difficult" and "academic" (both terms meant as pejoratives) poets in their place by writing A Poem About Poetry; I am not against difficulty, I am not in favor of dumbing down poems in order to attract larger readerships, and I don't think the non-specialist reader insists, as a class, that poets have their wear as unadorned as sports writing. The gripe is against the poet who cannot get away from making Poetry their principal subject matter, by name. Not that each poem about poetry is, by default, wretched; there are bright and amazing reflexive verses indeed, but they are the exception to the rule, the rule being that a medium that ponders it's own form and techniques and ideological nuances too long becomes tediously generic. The problem, it seems to me, is that some writers who haven't the experiences or materials to bring to draw from will wax on poetry and its slippery tones as a way of coming to an instant complexity. Rather than process a subject through whatever filters and tropes they choose to use and arrive at a complexity that embraces the tangible and the insoluble, one instead decides to study the sidewalk they're walking on rather on where it is they were going in the first place. I rather love ambiguity, the indefinite, the oblique, the elusive, and I do think poetry can be ruthlessly extended in its rhetorical configuration to encompass each poet's voice and unique experience; the complexity I like, though, has to be earned. Subjectively, I prefer poets who engage, interrogate the ambivalence and incongruity in a sphere recognizable as the world they live in. The internal battle is what interests me at the bottom of the at long barrel of concerns, the personal narrative individuals can't seem to help constructing about the direction and implied purpose of their life, and Life Itself, a larger and dispute plain that does not fall prey to the limitations of our best designs and metaphysics attempt to impose. First, there was the word, we might agree. But those words helped us construct a reality that has a reality of its own, and I am more attracted to the writer who has tired of spinning their self-reflexing tires and goes into that already-strange world and field test their language skills.

When Narratives Shrink

I find myself again leafing through the brown  pages of college texts, most having to do with the string of Gordian knots called Contemporary Literary Criticism, the variety that infiltrated American English Departments in the Sixties and drove out the last vestiges of Romanticism and killed whatever taste their was for New Criticism. These are things I've pondered on the run since getting my degree in 1981, riffing on matters reducible to Lyotard's book The Post Modern Condition.

Do postmodern writers avoid grand narratives? Hardly, as the point of post modern writing was to confront the formerly dominant notion of master narrative and investigate the inconsistencies in the conceits, and to devise alternative ways of telling big stories and conveying big ideas. The doings of Pynchon, DeLillo and Barth seem not to want to destroy the grand narratives as such, but instead to re-tool it, re-build, tweak and switch-and-swap styles, one for the other, in the practice of pastiche and parody, in order to extend the potential of fiction with interesting accounts of either Historical processes, or the banality of daily life. The points posted about Pynchon being particularly strong with knowledge of history are well taken, since his fictional project is to imagine and elaborate on the gaps and alienated niches left out of an allegedly all- encompassing narrative sweep, the events and personalities otherwise that reside at the margins of, the periphery of the storyline. A task of postmodern fiction, among other ploys, is to bring the trivialized and the ignored to the center of the action, and weave them into the structure as elements no less essential to what ever conclusion a novelist might come to than are the efforts of Presidents, Kings, or Philosophers directing hypothetical History to some final, defining resolution.

The narrative is not made less grand, but bigger, denser, more intriguing to suss out. It's not that either Pynchon or DeLillo had set out to debunk the notion of that fiction can give a reliable accounting of history or the resonance of real-life; it would seem that both remembered that what they want to do is write fiction, after all, and that neither they, nor their fellows, are required to produce work that attempts verisimilitude. Grand narratives aren't shunned by post modern writers, but are played with, expanded, adapted to new shapes and intentions; this demonstrates resilience, not exhaustion, and the undertaking is more interesting for the fiction-writing post modernist. I am of a mind that philosophers of post modernism have different sympathies than postmodern novelists. It's not as though all postmodern writers are set on debunking or re-tooling grand narratives. Quite the opposite. Other writers, arguably post-modern, settle on smaller realities, dioramas of kind, worlds self-contained within their own subset: Burroughs, Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, Kathy Acker, Ron Sukineck, among others of more recent vintage do their work at the borders, creating a vivid narrative sense with their particular experiments that mirrors, I think, a tradition of short stories and novellas, life in obscured corners brought to light. Skewed, though, skewed and wacky, a post modernist signature.

Why then would you think of Pynchon at all as a PM while Steinbeck is considered the quintessential Modern? There seems to be no difference. Pynchon would be postmodern because there is a knowingness about his virtuoso use of myth: besides the fact that he mixes his cultural dictions, high to low and middle brow in the center, he's aware of the ultimate transparency of myth as being just another good yarn one may play with however one decides. Steinbeck, in his faith in the final truth of narrative function, sees myth as containing symbolic Truth about human nature that resists critique. Pynchon’s' use is playfully skeptical, though Steinbeck’s' best work is no less compelling for his use of archetypes.

Richard Rorty, in "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity" defines an "ironist" as someone who realizes "that anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed" Are postmodern writers this kind of "ironist"? No more, it would seem, than any other writer scribing under the modernist tenet of "making it new", or to another extreme, 'defamiliarizing" (from Bahktin) recognizable settings, characters and schemes in a language that's meant to provoke readers to see their world in new ways. This is a modernist habit that the new, cubist, cut-up, stream-of-conscious takes on the world will sweep away past aesthetic interpretative models and lead one to a the correct formation of the world-- there remains a faith that language and other senses can apprehend and describe a tangible, material world and capture its complex composition, a "metaphysics of presence" that art can unearth. Irony, in this sense, is usually contained within the story, a result of several kinds of narrative operations coming to a crucial moment of ironic intensity that then drives the story into directions one , with hope, didn't anticipate.

Post modern writers start off with the intent of being post modern from the start, and rather than have their inventions gear us for a challenge to see the world in a truer light (contrasted against previous schools of lovely language but false conclusions), the project is to debunk the idea of narrative style all together. Irony is intended to demonstrate some flaws in character's assumptions about the world, a description of the world that emerges contrarily after we've been introduced to the zeitgeist of the fictionalized terrain. Post modern writers are ironists of a different sort, decidedly more acidic and cynical about whether narrative in any form can hone our instincts. A professor I saw in a lecture point out that something becomes art once it is framed, no matter what that object may be .This Marcel Duchamp’s' idea, a classic dada gesture he offered with his ready-mades, such as urinals hoisted upon gallery walls, and snow shovels on pedestals. The point, though, was that the object became an aesthetic object, denatured, in a manner of speaking, from its natural context and forced, suddenly, to be discussed in its very "thingness". The object becomes art by the lexicon we wrap around it, a linguistic default.Whether the object is art as most understand art to be--the result of an inner expressive need to mold , shape and hone materials and forms into an a medium that engages a set of ideas about the world, or unearths some fleeting sense of human experience -- isn't the point here. Ironically, art, generally defined as something that is absent all utility, any definable function, is suddenly given a use that is sufficiently economic, which is to keep an art industry in motion; it is the sound of money. Duchamp, and other Dadaists who sought to undermine this idea of art and its supposed spiritual epiphanies for the privileged few, instead furnished a whole new rational for art vending.

King Crimson, the Kings of Prog Rock

Absent Lovers-- King Crimson

Adrien Belew and Robert Fripp

Double cd set of a 1984 concert in Montreal, during their Beat, Discipline, & Three of a Perfect Pair period. This grouping is one of Fripp's best line ups, with Adrian Belew , Tony Levin on bass and stick, and Bill Bruford on drums, and what we have is something sounding no less than a more muscular Talking Heads (check out "Man with an Open Heart"). One needn't choke on that if Heads aren't their idea of heaven, because the abrasive textures, the angular riffing, gamelon rhythms and swarming-bees improvisations abound aplenty here. Tasty. Crankier, spookier, harder, this is the goth side of Crimson, though there is little in the alternately playful/deadpan visage of the band's characters that gives you any hint of just how serious you need to take them. Hint: just seriously enough. Belew is one of the great rock guitarists, for sheer whammy bar genius-- no one does six-string torture bends like him, save the sainted and departed Jimi-and I admit, I'm a sucker for his Kerouacian lyrics. I'm hardly the biggest Kerouac fan ever--in fact, I think he's an absolutely horrible novelist-- but Belew is someone who picked up on what was trying to be done and made art out of it. Choppy rhythms and jerky pops and beeps; truly a band of great surprise. Fripp is the great Bringer of Chaos, and what's impressive is that he's been able to provide an art-context for his unique music and incoherent aesthetics quite apart of the usual lockstep spheres and institutions that crush true innovation with the same avant gard template. Note: this is a 1998 release that Fripp and his DMG company have been sitting on for years. Somethings are worth waiting for. Another note: disc one is a cd-rom that is clunky and hard to navigate. There is a video, appearently, that comes among its features, but I've skipped it after trying too long to access it, and landed straight on the audio portion of the show, which, I hope I've made clear, is wonderful and wild.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Valentine's Day Poem

Those Goddamned Roses

They are talking with all
the fingers on their hands,

he motions down, finger
to the ground,

circles a finger at his
left temple,

he seems to say that
there is something

crazy about where
both of them are standing.
The woman pulls back,
I pass as he glares  up the alley,

scanning creeping vines that
festoon high cyclone fences.

I don't like the look of that
he says, his head vanishing
in the corona of a cold sun
coming between buildings,

what are you looking at? she asks,

he grunts, he coughs, my light
turns green, he says

those goddamned roses
are the wrong color
for that kitchen window's brown trim.

I cross with the light,
I mind my own business.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Ozzy Osbourne

James Parker has a fine appreciation of Ozzy Osbourne in Slate, inspired by Osbourne's new book I Am Ozzy. Less a review of the memoir than contained think piece that contemplates the essence of Osbourne's former band, Black Sabbath, and Osbourne's peculiar form of haplass genius, Parker does a good job of revealing why this pioneer of fuzztoned dystopia is the enduring guilty pleasure he is. Regardless of what one has read about him with regards to communing with Satan and the dark side in general, Ozzy is likable. Very likable.I interviewed Ozzy for my college paper in the 70s, and he was actually one decent guy, a decent sort and all.

It was the week of the mass cult suicide of Jonestown, and as I and the photographer asked Osbourne the usual questions about life on the road, groupies, drugs and guitar strings, the television in Ozzy's hotel room was blaring an update on the unspeakable tragedy. Ozzy turned to look at the screen where a news film clip showed a jittery scan of the bodies lying over one another in the fatal compound.

"How can anybody do such a fucking awful thing" he said, "forcing little kids to drink cyanide. You know what that does to your insides? It eats at you, it's a terrible way to die, fucking sadists..." His gaze drifted off for a few seconds and then he returned to the interview when his manager knocked on the hotel door to remind him that there were other media folks waiting to talk to him. We spoke some more about rock and roll in general, and when the photographer and I rose to leave at the end of our interview, a "Star Trek" episode came on. I forget which episode it happened to be, but what was certain was that the special effects were cheap and cheesy even then.

"Oh, man, this is the greatest fucking show" said Ozzy as we left, and that's where we left him, at the extreme ends of things, Jonestown and "Star Trek". Fucking Awful or Fucking Great. And that's how he remains.

Stress: a prose poem, sort of

There's nothing to say at the moment about which trends in popular media or literature please me or offer me a prickly kiss, but I did come across an old sociology book, from the fifties, called "The Stress of Everyday Life" at D.G.Wills Books . It was less the subject matter that made me pick up the used book than it was the title's type style; blocky, bold,all capitalized, one word up upon the other like a tottering tower about to give way to lethal gravity. The Word "stress", as you see it here, was askew, cracking under strain , as if , well, under stress.Suitably, I grabbed it and virtually yelled "STRESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS" to ride the rest of the a-ha! wave. I bought the book, scanned the cover, and cropped the single word you see above. It's become a seasonal mantra, a one-syllable password to a fellow human being likewise feeling pressed upon by the Holidays and news events that have no real bearing on their life.

Now, stress is the operative term in this tanking culture of theoretical money and jobs that low dividends to one's self esteem. On a head set, taking calls from all over the country, hundreds of people call hundreds of customer service representatives trying to order gift arrangements at the best price, both client and representative aware of the need to save money and show a seasonal kindness to wives, kids and sick friends, hourly negotiations between common courtesties, polite refusals of service, a plea for some more room to move around in as the final costs are calculated , a poetically phrased paragraph denying service uttered by a voice that shows empathy but gives no promise of compromise, and then a silence, deadly , chronic silence that makes one think they here locusts in the background, swarms of obnoxious things come to feed on the leaves and the books and the last dollars in your billfold.

Everyone, of course, says thank you and forget about it or, biting the leather strap, let's go for it, and either hangs up the phone or offers up a charge card. One wants to conserve, withdraw, pull the sheets and electric blankets over their head on the worst weather of the month, but one goes on, one does not want this to be the day they die , alone, without having said a personal thing to a loved one, touched another's arm, sat in living room with friends watching football or a DVD cursed with swear words and explosions. The sword is over our collective heads, we check the ads, file our applications, we talk in falsely warm voices in temporary spots of commerce, the days drag on when the buses are late and the nights are crowded with rain. In the background, under the babble of the feuding dualism of isolation vs venturing further from the nest, we here the eternal grind, the phrase that equals the electronic chirp of igniting circuits, the buzzing SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSttttttttttttttttttreeeeSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSssss

that remains the soundtrack of the century. An infernal machine that does not go off.

Friday, February 5, 2010


Literature, by whatever definition we use, is the body of writing intended to deal with more complex storytelling in order to produce a response that can be articulated in a way that's as nuanced as the primary work, the factors that make for the "literary" we expect cannot be reducible to a single, intangible supposition. Use is a valuable defining factor, but the use of literature varies wildly reader-to-reader, group-to-group, culture-to-culture, and what it is within the work that resonates loudly as the extraordinary center that furnishes ultimate worth, varies wildly too; there are things that instigate this use, and they aren't one determinant, but several, I suspect. Literature happens to be those stories that are written that do something no more and no less crucial than helping us think about ourselves. The goal of literary criticism, ultimately, is not to create the terms that define greatness but to examine and understand what's already there, and to devise a useful, flexible framework for discussion. Ultimately, the interest in useful criticism is in how and why a body of work succeeds or fails in their operation, not establishing conditions that would exist before a book is written. One can find a respite from interpretation with a long vacation in the archive of post-structural hideaways from comprehension if one were a lazy academic belatedly coming to the discussion with more cant than enthusiasm.B ut laziness is a choice enforced by a trend, and trends fade, ultimately, leaving the task of real interpretative work still to be done.
 Poststructuralism denies the ability of any language used to address the world before us: bluntly, that is the sum of their position. I think language, and literature by extension, does have the capacity to say authoritative things about phenomena, hence my emphasis in the how and why this form of language, books, works in giving us representations of the experience of the world, psychological, spiritual, and material, that have a corresponding effect on a broad, generalized readership over time. This is not skittering into structuralism; this is seeking further comprehension of the human experience. This project originates with a bed-rock faith that language contains an absolute ability to make accurate statements about the world and life in it. There are many things that make language produce it's communicating effects, gestures, and nuances, none of it so supremely simple, none of it arbitrary. I tend to think that these things are innate, by the best arguments, and that the language attached to them is geared to cross-platform expression. The task in criticism is to comprehend how these matters work in their use, and from there devise a workable aesthetic that's meaningful beyond the current moment.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Gail Mazur: a tourist at the Canyons of Your Mind

This seems a plain old case of someone falling into the mind/body divide, that time in any competent poet's career where they consider the intractable vagueness of the world their senses reveal to them, a cosmology tempered and flavored with the nuance of personal history and association, and the world as it is. Gail Mazur , with her poem "Figures in a Landscape", wandered too close to that precipice and falls straight to the bottomless bottom, perhaps stupefied by what amounts to the poem's punchline; our perception of a scene being beautiful and arranged in pleasing "natural" alignments are a frame we impose on the raw phenomenon, a meaning we assign it from our collective troves of useful metaphors and purposes. The scenery, though, is unmindful of our presence, has no use for our notions of beauty, harmony, or the disguised meanings our desperate symbolism creates. Nature merely is, constant, churning, violent in its cycles of destruction and creation. We are only elements among other elements, subject to the same conditions of survival and extinction as are forests, oceans, diminishing species. My principle concern here isn't the subject matter, relentlessly pursued as it has been and continues to be, but with Mazur's admittedly fine tone and style. Graceful and as carefully selected as her phrases are, something does not ring true:

We were made things, deftly assembled
but beginning to show wear—
you, muscular, sculptural,
and I was I, we were different, we had a story.
On good days we found comedy in that,
pratfalls and also great sadness.
Sun moved across the sky and lowered
until you, then I, were in shadow, bereft.
She describes the experience of what she witnesses from a distance,as if standing on a sidewalk and describing a store's displays through the display window, with some creative and overly acute details and glaringly "literary" words to shore up what the limited visage can furnish. This thinking, of making this phenomenological befuddlement make sense in a short verse, comes through a few stops along the familiar template, first with a not unexpected epiphany ("we were made things, deftly assembled..") that sets us up for the finalizing grand slam, that the scenery is real and not dependent on our scenario's to make them mean anything.

If no one looks at us, do we or don't we disappear?
The landscape would survive without us.

When you're in it, it's not landscape
any more than the horizon's a line you can stand on.

All well and good, I guess, but Mazur has belabored the obvious point that we cannot set aside our framing devices and see the world in-and-of-itself; as creatures of a culture through which we are compelled to achieve things with the knowledge of our own death, we need structure, continuity, community and the attendant virtues of purpose,love, unity of being. We create meanings that make the hardships worth the struggle; in short, we create of meaning-giving fictions to alleviate the constant dread that there is nothing beyond the biological imperative to eat, procreate, and die. Mazur , grace notes and all, reads more like a product tester's report. A brave face, perhaps, but this poem is territory others have been in as poets, with more interesting , intriguing revelations.

Would that more people read John Ashbery and ceased with demands that he make sense; the beauty of Ashbery's method of engaging the mind/body division is that immerses himself in, allowing his mind to navigate, with frequent brilliance, in the harbors and along the shorelines of Wallace Steven's world of Supreme Fiction. There are those stretches when the good Mr.Ashbery does not connect with an interesting line or a maddened mix of idiomatic and learned allusion--he does seem like he's treading water too often--but I more attracted to his willingness to explore the structures of the tropes he imposes on phenomena and the contingent wonder at how far his words fail to get to a mythical center of things. There is no "there", of course, but for Ashbery, if not Mazur, it's the journey that energizes the poems.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Are Americans Afraid of Poetry?

Kim Rosen of the Huffington Post wondered in a 2010 post if Americans are afraid of poetry; some of the essays is a warmed over a collection of the usual symptoms, and some of it is intriguing, worth a gander. I don't think Americans are afraid of poetry; rather it's a matter of not many Americans, comparatively, think of poetry as a resource since we, as a culture, are not an introspective culture, but instead, one that continuously looks forward to a future to be created. Poetry, so far as the general reader is concerned, is a matter of one being alone with their thoughts and structuring their experience in a narrative form, a narrative that not only chronicles events along a timeline, but also the nuance of experience, the fleeting sensation of something changing in their psyche. This requires making the language do extraordinary things to accommodate an uncommon interpretation of experience, and Americans, a people reared on the ideology of what can be done in the face of adversity, have no expansive desire to do something so impractical. Language is a thing meant to help us solve material problems, to achieve material goals, and poetry, a strange extension of linguistic twists and shadings, does nothing to put food on the table, put money in the bank, to further the quest to cure an endless variety of incurable diseases. 

Poetry is immaterial to purpose, function, policy; the absence of larger audiences for poetry isn't about fear from a perception that it's a mode of expression that is the least useful among several the lot of us might select on a given day. There are those of us who would argue that poetry's lack of identifiable utility is exactly what attracts us to the form--I happen to think that, like Wilde, that all art is quite useless in practical application (save for the fact that I believe humans crave beauty in form and in expression) and adhere to Harold Bloom's running definition of what literature, in general, avails the reader: to paraphrase, literature (poetry) helps us think about ourselves. Americans, I think it's safe to say in the broadest sense, have no real desire to reside individually and psychically work their way to an "aha" experience with poetry as a conduit.

Americans are not introspective people, a national habit that infects all of us; it seems, regardless of race, skin color, religious choice, cultural formation or any number of things. I might suggest prevailing conditions of isolation, anomie, alienation and a host of other diagnostic words that have lost their punch and are now mostly free of meaning, but what it comes down to, basically, is that it seems most of us in this stew, within these borders don't like to think any harder than it does to make a peanut butter sandwich; we want things given to us in images, sound bites, we want things "broken down" into simple parts and not actually explained. Our psychic well being depends on how the world affects our material status; that is the equation we prefer, with a massively huge collective case of denial that there is any need to plumb the depths of the soul, those elements of imagination, spiritual worth, of being willing to consider one's place in the universe and how they might better live in it. Poetry, when the desire for poetry arises, is not the "aha" experience, but for the blandishments of "there, there", the mother or the nurse stroking your hair, feeding you chocolate, assuring you things will balance out and that one's bad dream will soon be over. It's not surprising the poetry that is the most popular, while routinely competent as crafted compositions and generically clever with insights and surprises you sense coming as one does traffic lights are therapy rather than art. We like the illusion of being deep while continuing to view the universe we are in as no complex than a daily comic strip. This is a bad thing, absolutely horrible.

We do think about ourselves, but more in terms of accumulation rather than an inner equilibrium. The measure of a man is his wallet, not the subtlety of his thoughts, and this a form of fearlessness that borders on insanity.