Thursday, September 30, 2010

Doggy Downer

Colin Pope wants us to regard our pets differently , in his poem "Doggy Heaven".The intent is less satiric than ironic, I think, and it's irony that that's too easily arrived at. It's the equivalent of someone putting on their cleanest dirty shirt and thinking that they've truly dressed their best.Despite a plenitude of qualifiers that attempt to make the details resonant in dimensions broader than the thrilling conclusion poet Colin Pope has in store ("empty storefronts","All the rows of 10-penny teeth /gleaming in the forever sunshine, /latching onto slow and ghostly bumpers",) the sweetened descriptions of everything things are unconvincing as the sort of poetry that catches you by surprise. The issue is that Pope didn't frame his argument as indirectly as he needed to: for all the quaintly outlined affections of man for his dog given here, you know you're being set up for a punchline. Expectation of a surprise ruins the surprise itself, with the last bit being an anticlimactic bit of noise , a dissenting against the original conceit--life is better with dogs-- that's more irritated contrarianism than it is a revelation of an otherwise obscured truth.

That given the gift of love and companionship
we soldier through our lives feeling heroic

turning back to see them following, and then
outside the pearly gates, nothing
but an unanchored line of people

that goes on forever. –
Colin Pope seems to enjoy the work of Billy Collins and here, at least, tries to for the compressed , phrase-making lyric that makes the former Poet Laureate's alternately memorable and predictable. Collins, though, has a superior sense of balance between the lightly described particulars in his poems, the everything things he mentions, and the erudition that frequently emerges; he has the gift of making it seem that his tone is conversational, and the easing from household chores to eastern philosophy is a natural habit of mind. Pope's poem is brief, but it still borders on being a lecture on what is false in our emotional lives; 'Doggie Heaven" is, perhaps, a general indictment just this side of seeming bitter.

The delicate and problematic issue of humans and their pets, particularly the issue of how we project our unresolved issues upon them, is better addressed by poet Thomas Lux, in this poem:


Thomas Lux

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

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

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

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

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

of eating your face: nose, lips, eyebrows, ears...
But soon your dog gets old, his legs
go bad, he's nearly blind, you puree his meat
and feed him with a spoon. It's hard to say
who hates whom more. He will not beg.
So you put the dog to sleep, Bad dog.

There is much to discuss here, but I think it suffices to say that Lux lets the details he arranges bring you the twisted irony of the last couple of lines. He gives you a definite a character in the second person and sticks with him, a handy way to engage our curiosity, and presents a swift, pithy history of the owner's affections with his pet and, in doing so, subtly reveals our culture's collective problem with aging and it's refusal to realistically confront the issue of death. Unexpectedly, from seeming nowhere, we find that Lux is really talking about Blaming the Victim. This is the kind of poem Pope may have wanted to write

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Heaven Will Wait

My life ends in the curves
of parenthetical Edens

because the sands and not the sins
of the shoreline are all that washes away.

My life under manna trees is endless peering into the frayed cotton balls
that look like clouds stuck in the fronds scratching the air

and leave the claw marks of jets in the sunset writing a single,
swirling line that loops in the wind coming off the desert,

Manna falls from the sky and not from trees,
and wise pearls do not drop from any pair of lips in the distance,

This is to say my life is a pain in the neck
when there is no television reception and the sky at night is
all there is to find some sign,

Signs that mark the road up the highway ,
 a ribbon vanishing into the perspective of  neat, uncrowned hills,

 it’s never a sunset I seek,

rather a sunrise over water that makes music
and the sight of women playing chess.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

some notes on Allen Ginsberg's "HOWL"

Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" is over a half century old now, and it will do us no harm to review the first stanzas yet again, for the are as vatic, volcanic and visionary as they were when they first saw print in 1955.The transcendent beauty of a inflamed mind that's suddenly and completely found an articulation for the unspeakable has never been captured better. "Howl" was the perfect bit of literary insanity to appear in a decade where America had collectively laid down and played dead:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves
through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York.
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after nigh twith dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,

incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between,
Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,
who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,

who sank, all night in submarine light of Bickford's floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi's, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox...
(c)Copyright 2005 The Estate of Allen Ginsberg.

"Howl" is one of the most important and influential poems of the 20th century, and it simultaneously invigorated free verse with the range of its rage and honesty, and spawned a generation of imitators who composed indulgent and lazy lines that were more pose than poetry. This is a poem that speaks from the middle of the century with a voice gorged with collective anxiety and spiritual hunger for an element that would counter technologized conformity and the loss of authenticity. Its long, Bible-cadenced lines have resonated into the century following its debut, and it's likely that succeeding generations of disaffected yearners will find the poem's scalar cry appealing for the way it touches on those soul-demolishing duties that are difficult to identify, impossible to purge yourself of. The real paradox of "Howl" is that it's a poem, a great poem that addressed the great unwashed elements of American culture and their plight outside the mainstream which is now very much part of the Establishment it railed against and, in some sense, sought to disassemble. Only truly great pieces of writing do that, and regardless of what one thinks of the later Ginsberg work where he abandoned Blake an visions and allegory in favor of a relentless and largely inane species of self-reporting, "Howl" is the inspired and wonderfully sustained work of a young in full control of the language and rhetoric he was using. It's a masterpiece by every criteria, and it remains a powerful indictment against repression, censorship, the closing off of the soul against experience and vision. Even as its been absorbed into the American canon, it continues to transgress against expectations of conservative decorum and other constructions of serene and apathetic community relations; it continues to howl, quite literally, over the fifty years since it's publications. In the increasingly control-freak environment of that pits paranoid nationalism against civil liberties , "Howl" and it's piercing message is perhaps more relevant than ever.The fact that one still finds room to discuss the poem's politics and philosophical biases seriously attests to the quality and originality of Ginsberg's writing; mere political tracts, like Baraka's "Someone Blew Up America", will grind you down with polemic and are rapidly, gratefully forgotten.

Ginsberg was among the very few American poets who broke through the larger culture because he was, to coin a phrase, the right man at the right time. The conformity of the fifties, the anti-communist paranoia was sufficiently alienating enough for enough citizens to rebel and push against the barriers of a socially enforced tranquility. The fact that he was, at the time, especially potent in is writing (as well as being a brilliant self-promoter of himself and his friends) doubtlessly aided him in the ascendancy. These days, it's Billy Collins who has the amazing fame and fortune, writing smaller, more conventional, masterfully composed epiphanies of an everyday America that may exists only in the imagination; he is exactly the right poet to come along at time when millions of citizens are weary of nonconformists and their rights. This isn't to suggest a cyclical theory of recent history, but I do find the positions of both poets ironic, if unintentionally polar."Howl", poem, vision, political screed, confession and testament in one, is read and debated over and over again, its choicest lines cited, each quote resonating and stinging as great work ought to. A great poem.

There is an unfortunate hip cache that has formed around this poem and all things Beat in general--needless to say, both he and Kerouac became iconic and brand names, products to be sold with other units from the store shelves of corporate America these once-young men belittled and disowned--but a reading of "Howl", a verbal exclaiming of it's wonderfully and brilliantly reaching imagery makes all such commercial aberrations vanish from our concern. The integrity of Ginsberg’s masterpiece is intact, and it still manages to strike a center in the soul that avoids the intellect all together and makes one wish to take a deeper breath and blow a long, bopping solo on the first saxophone some angel hipster might hand them.

Oops, there I go again, seduced by Ginsberg's muse and speaking in images that cannot be verified or affirmed by proper critical tools. Just as well, for "Howl" is anything but proper. It is rude, joyous, rambunctious, and full of itself and in love with the world that seeks to shun its premises and assumptions. Much of great American poetry is like that, and Ginsberg's poem is still with us, an exhortation to not let the dull grind of conformity murder the spirit by the inch.Allen Ginsberg himself succumbed a little to his reputation and began to consider his every journal entry, seemingly, as credible poems in their own write, with the reader interested in the crafted music of words brought together left out in the cold as the poet's late publications concentrated more on the accumulated inanity of relentless self reporting. But he did write "Howl", and for this poem, along with "Kaddish" and "Super Market in California" (among others) his greatness is assured. 

The real paradox of "Howl" is that it's a poem, a great poem that addressed the great unwashed elements of American culture and their plight outside the mainstream which is now very much part of the Establishment it railed against and, in some sense, sought to disassemble.Only truly great pieces of writing do that, and regardless of what one thinks of the later Ginsberg work where he abandoned Blakean visions and allegory in favor of a relentless and largely inane species of self-reporting , "Howl" is the inspired, sustained work of a young in full control of the language and rhetoric he was using. It's a masterpiece by every criteria, and it remains a powerful indictment of repression, censorship, the closing off of the soul against experience and vision. ven as its been absorbed into the American canon, it continues to transgress against expectations of conservative decorum and other constructions of serene and apathetic community relations; it continues to howl, quite literally, over the fifty years since it's publications.

In the increasingly control-freak environment of that pits paranoid nationalism against civil liberties , "Howl" and it's piercing message is perhaps more relevant than ever.The fact that one still finds room to discuss the poem's politics and philosophical biases seriously attests to the quality and originality of Ginsberg's writing; mere political tracts, like Baraka's "Someone Blew Up America", will grind you down with polemic and are rapidly, gratefully forgotten. "Howl", poem, vision, political screed, confession and testament in one, is read and debated over and over again, its choicest lines cited, each quote resonating and stinging as great work ought to. A great poem.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Poets and Readability

Charles Bukowski is a poet of whom very little of his work goes a very long way. I admire the absence of all unneeded images, and do place somewhere in the Hemingway league as a writer who can be spare without being chintzy. That said, his minimalism gets monotonous after awhile, and his lonely-old-drunk persona, declaring over again and again to speak for the dispossessed and the marginal, becomes its own sort of sentimentality: the fact that Bukowski became aware, early on, that his constituency expected certain types of poems from him forced him, I think, to stylize himself into a corner he never managed to get out of. Not availing him of different kinds of writing made him, finally, a bore. The truth of his loneliness, of his drunkenness, made him into a patsy for an audience that was too young, by and large, to have enough life to write their own stories. Buk became a one trick pony: his best material is his earliest, like Henry Miller, and like Miller as well, became a self parody without knowing it, Ezra Pound is some one who has given me eyestrain and head aches in college, something I can't forgive him for. He didn't give me anything that was remotely connected to the idiomatic language he idealized, the truly modern voice that was to be of its own time, a period sans history. It's a totalitarian impulse to try to live outside history, or to lay claim to it's reducible meaning, both matters Pound thought he adequately limned, but the problem was that his verse is leaden, dressed up in frankly prissy notions of what The Ancients had been up to aesthetically. The effect was perhaps a million dollars of rhetoric lavished on ten cents of inspiration. I didn't like him, I'm afraid. If Pound's poems work for reasons other than how he wanted them work, fine, which can be explicated interestingly enough with entirely new criteria extraneous to the author's aesthetic/political agenda, but it begs the question, really. It confirms my belief that Pound was talking through his hat most of the time. In this case, based admittedly on my learned dislike of his poetry, I think he gussied up his theories in order to usurp the critical commentary he knew would follow his work: no matter what, all critics had to deal with Pound's flummoxing prose before they could render an assessment, a trick he garnered from Poe, and one deployed by Mailer, a somewhat more successful artist/philosopher/critic (though failed poet).

T.S. Eliot had better luck combining the two virtues: The Sacred Wood and some of his other critical assessments have merit as purely critical exercises, self-contained arguments that don't require Eliot's work to illustrate the point. Eliot's poems, as well, stand up well enough with out his criticism to contextualize them for a reader who might other wise resist their surface allure. The language in both genres is clear and vivid to their respective purposes. Pound, again, to my maybe tin-ear, really sounded, in his verse, like he was trying to live up to the bright-ideas his theories contained: The Cantos sound desperate in his desire to be a genius. Pound seemed to me to have the instincts of a good talent scout. I'm grateful for his remarks to his fellows, but I wish reading his work wasn't a path I had to go through in order to find the better poets.

Unlike Frank O'Hara, dead too young, but with such a large and full body of brilliant--yes, brilliant--lyric poetry left in his wake. O'Hara, influenced by some ideas of modernists, got what Pound tried to do exactly right: he mixed the dictions of High and Low culture in the same stanzas with an ease that seemed seamless, he juggled references of Art, TV, movies, jazz , theater along with the zanily euphemized gossip of his love life, and was able to render complex responses to irresolvable pains of the heart--and heartbreak is always a close kin to his rapture--in lines that were swimming in irony, melancholy, crazy humor. This is poet as eroticized intelligence.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ken Schoppmeyer, San Diego Blues Harmonica Genius, 1942-2010

There are those who know me principally as a harmonica player, and some folks have asked how I  learned to make actual music from an instrument that resembles nothing so much as a toy. Practice, I would answer, practice, practice, practice, and listen, listen , listen, a condition just as important. I listened to harmonica genius Ken Schoppmeyer  through the Seventies and in the Eighties, when  he played locally, and the fact of the matter that it was outright envy of his style, expertise, his easing finesse that compelled me to keep playing, playing, playing. It was a shock to hear the other day that Ken Schoppmeyer was found dead at the start of  Septemeber in an Oceanside hotel room,  an apparent suicide .Like so many others, I used to go see Ken Schoppmeyer and his King Biscuit Blues band play at the Mandolin Wind in Hillcrest during the '70s, and to this day I have never heard a better blues harmonica than he. He had the unique combination of grit and elegance, able to perform a sweet, melodic slow blues and wail on an uptempo shuffle; his tone was warm and well rounded, his choice of notes were inspired, his solos were sublime. He was an inspiration to my own harmonica playing; though I never came close to sounding like him, Kenny Schoppmeyer certainly inspired me to keep playing all these forty or so years later. God speed , Mr. Schoppmeyer.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Waking up to the cruel coffee

Innocence, it seems, is a nice way of saying ignorance, which would imply that the gaining of wisdom is a hard process, full of rude awakenings, startling revelations, melodramatic shifts in cosmology as one continually learns that the neat scenario one had while younger , with their neat and simple relationships predicated on convenient cause and effect, is grossly inadequate. 

God gave us senses so we may learn from our experience and cobble together as we go along, a practical philosophy of everyday life. Wisdom, if you like. It seems that one is likely to realize that they are a victim whether they like it or not, and that the blissful sleep of ignorance of one's state of being exploited and abused is illusory at best. Norman Mailer had once said that he thought stupidity was a choice people make , and ignorance, likewise, often enough seems a willful defense mechanism that relieves one of their obligation to use their senses to grow and work within the world as an active, creative agent. This is the crucial issue for Blake, to believe in a God will intercede and make everything okay with a kiss and a feather or a promise of endless bounty on the other side of this life, or that one is here with the senses a Creator gave him or her, with a brain that can process and organize experience into a framework, narrative perhaps, the keeps the world that is both fluid and coherent. 

The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly. --Wallace Stevens

 The belief in a fiction, I assume, is that one believes less in the fiction's generic outline of the relationships between personality and the delicate details of the atmosphere , and more that the fiction works as a means that enables individual and collective imaginations to commit themselves creatively to what other wise would raw, unknowable data. We are the author of our own book, so to speak, we are all writers of a particular fiction that enthralls us, and the key to a belief in an operative narrative form is to realize that we can change, alter and modify the fiction as needed. Not that it's an easy thing to toss off, as an after thought. But we make our narratives from the things we do , and this reminds me of the oft-quoted line from Vico, paraphrased here: Only that  which man makes can man know.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fuzzy thinking

Nothing lasts forever, we can agree, as we realize anything made by man falls apart in time, but there remains the question as to what sort of art, the vainest of ways to make a living, will last a generation or so beyond the artist's dying day. I'd say the artists whose work lasts are those whose obsessions are about their process, their art-making, not their notices, their contracts, or the amount of air kisses and flattery one of their shows inspires. History, however it comes to be made, and who ever writes it, is a metaphysical dead end the better art makers side step, and instead make the punch and panache of their invigorated wits count in the strokes of the brush, the curl of the paint scudding over the surface, the blurring and clarifying of forms, shapes, colors and its lack: painting, coming from the modernist angle that still seems a sound and malleable way of handling the hairier knots on the chain, comes as where the world ends, the limit of what the eye can see, the forms the eye is blind to but the mind, muddle that it is, tries to imagine in a sheer swirl of perception. It is about the essaying forth of projects that strive for a moment of perfection that suddenly dies with the slightest re-cue of temperature, it is always about the attempt to convey a new idea. The articulation of the perception may end in inevitable failure, but the connections made along the way, the bringing together of contrary energies made the attempt and its result worth the experience.  This seems to be the material that the shrouded groves of History recalls, the earnest and frenzied striving of artists who are too busy with their work to realize that history may, or may not, finally absolve them of strange rage for paints and brushes.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Things die, and no one knows why

It's September 11th, around 6:30 in the morning, and MSNBC is rebroadcasting it's real time coverage of the terrorist attack on New York's World Trade Center that killed 3000 people nine years ago. It's dramatic footage, the emotions start up again, the rationalizations commence anew about what the world has come to, the chatter of news reporters, camera men, politicians, witnesses  fill the room. Nine years ago the air was composed of equal amounts of horror and incomprehension, so much death and destruction for reasons as yet unknown. No one knows why this happened.  A fatal guesswork became our national past time.

It's suitable , I suppose, that what Robert Pinsky has chosen to share with the poetry readers of Slate Magazine this week deals with the passing of people, places and things from our lives, suddenly, abruptly, without explanation. The poem has it's charms, although it dwells too much on how it sounds rather than what it conveys: it's a trifle too well made to be wholly convincing for a topic we are warned has no satisfying resolution.

Bats Perish, and No One Knows Why
Reeves Keyworth

Secluded in their cold arcades of rock,
embraced by a thousand reverberating kin,
bats have perished and are perishing.
The plowboy in the field, dreaming of love,
perishes, and the scorched grub,
disclosed in the moist earth.
Spiders and the spiders' children perish:
the hawk, the stylish dragonfly, the trout.
A beetle cocks its blurred eye
at the underside of a leaf and perishes.
The lizard perishes, and the famished fox.
The mule's body subsides and sours on a riverbank.
The worshipers perish and the mourners:
the strenuous celebrants, the terrier with his grin,
the best-loved child, the browsing herd of pigs.
The tongue perishes, and the eye.
Lamentation and praise, incantation, song,
the resolve of the wolf, and the wolf's prey—perish.
The grassland perishes in fire;
the ant drowns in a waterspout.
The bear, the bat, the water rat,
the woman leaning on her windowsill,
the protozoa sunning in their sluggish green:
perished and perishing. No one knows why.

People and things are essentially viewed here as leaving this life doing what it is they do on a daily basis; these are rituals, poems, prayers, beseechments and be-ratings that bring the collective voices to the highest pitch of vocabulary , these are raptures and negotiations and plans laid out and explained that clarify the meaning of specific actions , and yet there is intervention over all. For all the songs, odes, rants, rages and contract law , for all the daydreaming and scheming, for all the knowledge of the world and survival skills man and animal alike have respectively accrued, there is intervention, interruption, that point in existence when existence ends and whatever strategies that have been devised with the language of social and legal interaction no longer apply.
One's declarations , combined with the last set of gestures and positions one happened to be in, are instantaneously ironic as soon as one keels over, drops dead, grasps the chest, croons the rhythm of the death rattle; but why is it ironic? That's always the curious element of  things in this world, constructions of language that are intended to be blue prints for what it is we're supposed to build  in the community of men are turned into fancies and fantasies as soon as one reaches their expiration date. It is a moment of  terror, that microsecond when you realize that you've been negotiating and and auditioning for entrance to Heaven after the lights go out; death is a dark room we all enter . No one comes out the other way to tell us how good the party is, if there's an open bar, if your aunts and uncles are there with a list of things you never did for them. Terrifying stuff.
Keyworth's poem crystallizes the situation as we uses a rich language that skillfully describes the generalized world of everyday people  and creatures in the field dropping dead amid their daily rounds, but a language that cannot penetrate the last barrier between the world of appearances and reveal those things only God has an inkling of. And so it is with the commentators, Couric, Brokaw, the whole lot, talking to witnesses, experts on terrorism, first responders:  whatever the rhetoric happens to be, all they can really talk about is what they saw , how they reacted. Our life , Keyworth implies, is an attempt to create narrative that accommodates each instance, every contingent. That narrative is always destroyed.

And no one knows why

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

96 Tears

It is sometimes the case that what you used to make cruel fun of when you were young emerges, years later, as a classic of the form. This is the case with "96 Tears", a strange mash up of rhythm and blues and Tex-Mex crossover. The lyrics are simple and straight forward, no ponderous analogies, no naive pronouncements about subtler states of consciousness, but they are mysterious, a little threatening. Why precisely 96 tears, and doesn't the middle section, with the beat and organ momentarily locked on meditative drone, seem a chilly dishevelment as vocalist Question Mark, nee Rudy Martinez, veers from acknowledging the source of his heartbreak and plunges into a revenge fantasy? ?'s vocals are archetypically nasal, juvenile, utterly teenage in it's flattened iteration of the world as being composed solely of black and white extremes. It's an especially young male cosmology, not unlike the quintessential revenge fantasy "Hey Joe", or, for that matter, John Lennon's alarmingly bilious "Run for Your Life". 96 Tears is a masterpiece of the sub genre and the mindset, an example where the most intense young desire becomes, quickly, a hunger for revenge.
We should also take note with the version done by fellow Michigander Aretha Franklin, who's hot, soul-motivated version of the song is something of a proto-feminist anthem; her protagonist acknowledges what wasn't working out, cuts her loses, and moves on, on her own terms.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Two notes

e.e. cummings had a way of putting back in the politician's faces with their own politicized babble, but only after taking a hammer to it. Under all the huff and puff about God, glory and country stands revealed forces that would have us all fearful, in debt and apathetic to calls for change. How appropiate for the current climate; the poem, though, does not let us off the hook; we are complacent with the fools for letting them have their way. The shock of this poem is that there are many of us, these days, decades after this was written, who recognize our own voices saying moronic things like this.

“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

ee cummings

The benefits of our culture is that we can read, view or listen to anything that appeals to our  particularized sense of quality, and that as consumers we've the right to say what think about what it is we've bothered to invest time in investigating.  There are occasions, though, when who you're talking to isn't interested in the legendary exchange of contrasting opinions. Rather, some react as if you've insulted their personal Jesus. Worse is when  you find yourself accused of being jealous of what the truly gifted are capable of. My friend Jon used to say that you pay your money, you take your chances. Accusing a critic of a favorite writer's work of being "jealous" is cheap, dishonest, and a dodge from the issue that's raised in the first place, that some writers have books that sell more based on cults of personality than  merit above  personal confessions of blissfully indulged fuck ups.

 I say that  if you think the man is a great writer, there's the expectation that his rumored genius would inspire to describe , in his defense, how his writing clicked with you and opened up a world you previously knew nothing about.Not jealous  merely and profoundly fed up with several decades worth of cant and babble attesting to unsubstantiated claim to  greatness , a marketing campaign aimed not at perpetuating counter culture values and spiritual individualism, but to make his publishers and the owners of his estate more money.. We have, in many ways, a mechanism that is manufacturing consensus on the man's life and work, and those opposing the view constantly being shamed into submission.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Notes on "The Corrections"

It's not a book I hate, but it is one that I'm tired of reader’s reference as a "masterpiece": The Corrections, by the currently over exposed Jonathan Franzen. It was a padded family tragi-comedy that would sit well next to John Cheever’s two Wapshot books and John Updike's quartet of Rabbit novels without embarrassment, but there is something worked over in the writing.

Franzen, for all his long, virtuoso sentences connecting the minutiae and detritus of this miserable family reunion into a readable prose, the shadow of William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon loom over his shoulder; the paragraphs are rather too packed, too often, with every scrap he can remember to put in, and there is, fatally, that hint of delirium that made the both the Gaddis and Pynchon use of the insignificant so alluring. The Corrections falls short of the masterpiece its admirers want it to be because an editor wasn't brave enough or assertive enough, to force Franzen to downsize his landscape. It became a trod, and what might have been a powerful and painful comedy became instead a blunt and painful to endure. I suspected Franzen had somewhere in the writing crossed a line and had begun confessing a host of his own traumas , with other names attached to the recounted deeds and results; the novel has that seamless, unstoppable quality of a monologue professed by traumatized sole who keeps on naming names of those who've slighted him , regardless of the topic under discussion, who will only incidentally, mechanically distance themselves from the details with a passing qualification of "I'm just saying" , or "maybe I'm wrong". And yet the recounting continues, recollected again, and yet again when a new analog occurs, until your consciousness shuts down like a machine responding to symptoms of over heating.

I had read How to Be Alone a few years later, his memoir/ essay collection where he writes movingly of the passing of his parents and the clash of his youthful idealism becoming tempered by the undisclosed facts of Life; but the poignancy seemed a matter of effect, of a certain manipulation of the narrative points; his telling in the memoir read as if this were one of his novels. The bleakness was too literary for comfort; not that I think Franzen dressed up his own memories, but it occurs to me that he has made a decision to treat his life like it were bleak comedy whose last chapter had yet to be written. I understand this, somewhat. I used to wallow in my depressions and despairs and exaggerate the hurts and aches that befell me, knowing this gave me ample material to write about. I lucked out, however, as even I became bored with the style and tone I inflicted on countless pieces of typing paper. Franzen has lucked out as well; he managed to get paid.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Twitter replaces literary criticism

Jonathan Franzen's problem is that he's been typecast as Jonathan Franzen, Serious Novelist, and the burden of having that media-installed millstone around your neck is that discussions about you generally cease to be about your actual work , nor even about your reputation. Rather, what people will talk about is your celebrity and whether you're worthy of possessing this dubious gift. Jodi Picoult has a real beef about the media's slant toward white male writers, but her response to the focus on Franzen is sour grapes --she , already a famous, best selling novelist-- is essentially complaining that  she is not famous enough.

One wonders how egregious Picoult considers the over-estimation of Franzen to be. In the not so distant past, critics and novelists between projects would vent their gripes against their fellow fabulators in long, detailed essays and cranky squibs--Mailer, Vidal, Dale Peck , et al, named names, staked their territory, and at least provided readers with a series of elegant resentments they could argue with.

 Picoult hadn't the time for a major essay , nor the patience  to write a half way literate blog post. Instead, she succumbed to instant gratification and communicated her resentment on Twitter. While she did create a buzz, her argument exists as a bumper sticker , not an indictment. It's a midcult expression of a very real inequity. She comes off as someone who is not so much against Franzen and male writers as much as books where the prose is a step above the diffuse, swooning  romances she prefers to construct. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Brimhall's brimstone

"Through A Glass Darkly"  is a title suggeting a tour of dark, depressed places is upon you, and poet Traci Brimhall does an effective job of bringing on the bleakness.This poem is effectively hermetic, an evocation of a consciousness that is incapable of dealing with the external world. The world is treated as if were nothing but a continuing series of loud, violent sounds coming from the other side of a lock, if infirm door; there is nothing described here that is actually seen or observed, with Traci Brimhall's slippery similes giving evidence to a mind that cannot stop processing the sounds it hears, the odors it detects, the shadows it forces into murky configurations. We might say this brain cannot turn itself off, to cease speculating and reinterpretation the world beyond practicality and arrive at the common agreement we collectively and loosely refer to as "reality". As the world does not settle in and reveal itself, the paranoia rises. Brimhall does a quite a good job of making this seem as if the universe this person habit-ates is in continuing conspiracy, constructing a plot that is infinitely complex and geared to singularly sinister purpose.

The last time I visited, said you trapped a dead woman in your room

who told you to starve yourself to make room for God, I let them give your body enough electricity

to calm it. Don't be afraid. The future is not disguised sleep. It is a tango. It is a waterfall between

two countries, the river that tried to drown you.
............It is a city where men speak a language

you can fake if you must. It's the hands of children
............thieving your empty pockets. It's bicycles
with bells ringing through the streets at midnight.

You could say that Brimhall goes a simile too far to invoke this series of nightmare, similar to an old comedians adage not to do three jokes in a row on the same subject. Twice is placing a stressing emphasis on a conceit, an idea that might otherwise get lost, three times becomes a lecture; in this sense, the final analogy Brimhall deploys, the bicycle bells chiming through the streets at midnight, nearly derails the poem's half-awake surrealism. Beware the additional flourish, the needless decoration, the detail too many, especially if your writing prior to that moment was tight, concise, effective. Quite beyond the readership getting the point, one risks revealing a straining for effect.

Still, what the poet does here is admirable and there's much to be said for the decision to tell the patient's tale through the accounting of a witness who themselves can only relate the narrative scheme based on what they've seen, what they've heard, what they've been told by the patient. The narrator can only relate with the information that is at hand, the intimate details that have had time to play on the senses and resonate in larger pools of association; there is a sense of the narrator attempting to comprehend the interior life of the patient being visited, as if a key will appear if the imagination cleaves with the right set of references and provides a clarity that would other wise not be known. The tragedy of the poem, though, is that language itself , alone , cannot provide clarity, liberty, the full balance of self-actualized well being, as there are those things and issues, schizophrenia among them, that cannot be changed by linguistic wit. Metaphors only generate more metaphors, and the only thing that changes are the nature of the metaphors themselves.