Thursday, December 30, 2010

On long windedness

I don't mind long sentences as long as their is some kind of mastery of the voice a writer might attempt at length; I am fond of Whitman, Henry James, Norman Mailer, David Foster Wallace and Joyce Carole Oates, writers who manage poetry in their long winded ways. That is to say, they didn't sound phony and the rhythms sounded like genuine expressions of personalities given to subtle word choice. Kerouac, though, struck me as tone deaf. After all these years of complaining about his style, or his attempts at style, the issue may be no more than a matter of taste. Jack Kerouac is nearly in our American Canon, and one must remember that the sort of idiom that constitutes literary language constantly changes over the centuries; language is a living thing, as it must be for literature to remain relevant as a practice and preference generation to generation.

Left over props

Carl Phillips is blessed with a light touch when it comes to arranging slight phrases to get across an inspiration that is soon to evaporate; "Silverchest" is like the decaying strains of music that one hears coming from a a neighbor's window on a hot day, an undertone you detect under the gasoline cough of leaf blowers and the louder commotion of what passes on the street. But was it music at all? Melodic tones , connected in fractions of a larger, fuller musical drama, somewhat heard and then wiped from memory; all that remains is the sensation trying to remember what the song might have been. It is not an experience that creates a string of associations a writer or a reader can turn into material that will eventually suggest something profound about the folly of our ideas of what our experience mean.  

Phillips' poem is slight the extent that what we witness are not items that trigger something in our own experience, a poem that draws out the memories and compels us to deal with them, contextualize them, find the ironic counterpart. our assumption slammed against the actual fact. The poem's phrases merely lie there, obvious in their slant and sleights. This is not a revelation, not a simple melody revealing a larger emotional complex that defies the dimensions of a free verse poem; I take it as a collection of signifiers or props left lying around. One asks if this a poem at all, like that suggestion of music previously mentioned. The experience here is more of searching for a poem, the hard, flinty part of metaphor that might ignite the associative string of fire crackers. There are no explosions, however, only a window display. All this is more a practice run than a journey, a rehearsal rather than performance.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Deliver This From Evil

Sometimes I wonder if I was born or merely set aside in another dimension of newspaper grey and was launched into this world because what ever the case was running low on the premium designs. 

It's a habitual thought, a shudder of doubt when staking hands or crossing streets or visiting people who and which are so familiar, 
so complete in intimate nuances and shared knowledge that they seem alien and strange, like specimens under glass in a museum I keep visiting for a lesson that just keeps turning the corner to the next gallery when my hard shoes hit the tile. Everything I look for is just out of focus, short of the designs I see and have drawn. 

Believing the world is seeing beyond the box scores and trusting what it says on the certificate; the biography has already been started, a page of facts that have gotten absurdly complicated, in love their own inventory of details that are pressed now in their uniqueness, creased and pleated, ready for rough waters I imagine await at the end of the map, where boats fall off and drift with sails full of solar wind until I wake up and yawn and scan the items on the table, the newspaper, the dirty bowls, someone else's pack of Marlboro 100s. The universe is reassembled, seamless as death itself. 

Years ago I wondered if there was life on other planets precisely at the time when she left me, or asked me to leave, I wondered who else in this darkness knows this hurt as well as I?, and I stared for hours at her apartment as if trying to make the walls fly away, to lift her off the sofa, away from her meal , and bring her into my arms where I stood in the dark, next to a payphone, with out change to call out far enough to the wilderness where there is only wind and tall grass, maybe houses at the bottom of canyons that you see from jets leaving your home town before you enter the clouds that will drag on the wingspan, I would stare and the walls would stay where the carpenters intended them to remain, there was nothing to see, but I stared harder, right through the building, to the stars I knew were there, receiving radio waves, TV shows, thoughts of strong desire translatable only by action, hear me, hear me, who else shivers in a dark corner in unique misery, genius of articulated regret, who else speaks when no language gets the purity of the idea right, just right, thus forcing one to live in craziness, at the end of the alley, drinking from bottles I've pealed the labels from? 
As usual, the stars don't answer, they don't say a word.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Tron Legacy

Tron Legacy was better than I thought it might be; the film makers follow up the original film with a plot that is as just as  sketchy as the  first film's, and offer up an atmosphere and special effects that are, to be sure,  better than before, but also in a tolerable scale. One is relieved that no one decided to pause, linger or dwell on a multitude of thyroidal spectacle and one appreciates the smartness to have the action move on,  without a hitch or a distraction. The shallow characterizations are not to be sniffed at--this is a fantasy  and pretensions of Siddartha would have sank this project, just as it did the last two films in the  Matrix  trilogy, both of which sounded like nothing so much as the most jargon-choked undergraduate papers from a class in post modern theory as enacted by kitchen appliances.

Was I the only one who was overwhelmed with the feeling of someone who'd been sitting in the same room for hours suffering the unceasing prate of  a handful of dull and dulling monologists who haven't a worthy anecdote for all their volumes of talk who had to resort to some sort of violent act in order to feel something again?  Boredom is a major cause of revolutions and and riots; ennui is the ultimate social injustice, and mindless , jacked-up , effects-glutted spasms in other wise very talky, snail-paced , portentous narratives is a bad way to make a series of action thrillers.The old joke that Kenau Reeves was safely in his expressive range as his cast members, who were robots.

If nothing else, the viewer  of  TL gets to relish Jeff Bridges reprising his persona as Dude from Big Lebowski   as he allows his computer program embedded hippie to emerge in the high contrast, glow in the dark worked that his Tron Legacy's terrain: "you're messing with my Zen thing, man."One appreciates as well the elegance that comes through what is an engaging if ultimately forgettable entertainment. It is refreshing when a competent entertainment is willing to let itself be forgotten

Monday, December 20, 2010

Pledge Night

I turned on PBS the other night, discovered it was a fund raising night, and witnessed the  creased likes of  Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly performing truncated versions of their respective hits.The judgement of history is that the Vanilla Fudge's hit version of the Supremes standard "You Keep Me Hanging On", with it's  slowed, grinding pace and well selected bits of bombast, holds up after the decades have rolled beyond the band's better days. Their arrangement , it seems, has become the standard, as seen with Rod Stewart's mastering of the song from his otherwise negligible Footloose and Fancy Free album. This was a case where the song found a singer, and hopes arose for a revitalization of Stewart's skills as a singer; a promise deferred.  The verdict on Iron Butterfly's ironically iconic ditty "Inna Gadda Da Vidda" is harsher, a tragic rendition of  a song that was tragic, awful, banal, grinding, monotonous, pretentious, stupid and obnoxious when it was first unveiled. Remember that attention grabbing egocentric in high school who dominated the social scene in class, assemblies, parties, dances and the like but sheer force of an overbearing and under talented personality? Remembering running into that guy in a store or a reunion and experiencing the shock of seeing the fool aged thirty or forty years and yet remaining the same grim slice of unjustified self-confidence? This song is that guy.
 It reminded me why I've come to prefer straight ahead jazz in my later life.-tb

Pledge Night

Let’s remember that 
we’re strangers here ourselves
as we consider the years 
we’ve had the same phone number,
the answering machine
is full of salesmen 
stumbling over their scripts
and toll free exchanges,
get an extra room cleaned
for free and God, do I want a smoke.
None of us
who still have hair
believed our music would age as badly 
as an ice cream flavor
involving spinach and Brussels sprouts, 
all the guitar licks
leave an after taste 
of hashish, a stench of love beads
doused in petuli oil, 
what was sleek and smooth
is now grey and creased
like paper that’s been
folded and unfolded over many years,
yes, I tell my barber,
roll down my ears; 
give me a buzz
the equal of a shot and a beer.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Captain Beefheart, RIP: Absorbine Jr. for President

The good Captain was someone I struggled with for decades, as  his music kept me guessing whether he was putting me on with the trash compactor surrealism of the lyrics, the swooping, howling, icon-smashing bark that constituted his singing, or the time signatures, which seemed a rhythmic approximation of what traffic might like in a universe that had a trillion miles of road , an equal number of cars but no traffic lights or stop signs. or if he was indeed the genius his supporters claimed he was, a self-starting savant who employed every tic, gesture, sound, click, rattle and hum that caught his attention and assembled them in ways that amounted to a careening challenge to a listener expecting something more down home.

 He resembled no one so much as Ornette Coleman, the jazz player, and composer who kept people guessing through his long decades as a music maker, and in the case of both artists, I am leaning toward the side that consider them major musical forces of the 20Th century. What likely confounded the music fans of the time, perhaps, was the lack of obvious virtuosity in the playing--no extended guitar solos, no unpunctuated drum essays--and the lack of straightforward beginning, middle, and structure on which a band's gratuitous catalog of chops can be displayed. His music was about sound, about the layering of tones and textures, sweet blues juxtaposed against inverted jitterbug temps and "free jazz" dissonances ala Albert Ayler and the lithe,  sliding alienation of a single blues note resonating from a cheap amplifier under one of the Captain's (nee Don Van Vliet) aqua-urban night scapes.All ths in service to a man who was truly one of the very few poets to lead a rock band; while the notable likes of contemporaries Joni Mitchell,  Paul Simon, Tim Buckley or even the Beatles never quite transcended the sense that there was some serious contemplation to the words they would employ to render their "poetic" effects, The Captain was a natural word drunk, a cross between Tristan Tzara, Kurt Schwitters and Howlin' Wolf; a prankster, a conjurer of mood, an organically generated under miner of literal meaning.

Three Months in the Mirror

Three months in the mirror
burning hip
- let's go to the kennel honey
and get one of those cute little moth pups
they flap their little wings
and fly around a light globe
and you can keep 'em in the closet
and feed 'em socks -
six months in the mirror
burning hip
- honey let's go out naked tonight
with our moth puppy
don't forget the socks and the light bulbs
make sure it's not too warm
you don't want to burn his lttle wings -

the lights are soft, streets soft, skies soft,
the mirrors soft
the smell of burnt powder
the moth flies through the mirror
powder falls lightly around around around
and around the sun .
One reads this, finds themselves arguing with the words and the fractured adjectives, the quirky signifiers and surrenders to it, finally, ceasing to ask   "what is he talking about" and asking, instead "what is he saying?". The Captain would answer only in ways that were just as products of inspired c as the poem/lyric he'd just written. As a guess, I would say a momentarily less zany Captain might offer the advice that a listener should take off the headphones, go outside and trust the authority of their senses if they wanted an answer that helped. The beauty of the Captain's music was that he made you figure it out for yourself--these are your senses, build something! Hearing him over time, decades in fact, brought me to one of those low-calorie epiphanies that comes to you while daydreaming at taxi-stand or the bankline in 1976, that what the Captain impresses on my psyche was the sense that I had just  woken up after a long lucid dream during an equally elongated street walk and I  was suddenly, brutally, incomprehensible in a world of familiar things that now seemed alien, detached from the very space they occupied, removed from all function or purpose other than to be played with, reconfigured, reinvented endlessly , constantly evolving in the way that children spontaneously create games and rules and  are away modifying the rules to accompanying new items to add to the play, to accommodate mistakes, to create fairness or give the short shrift to any idea of fairness. To create something and to let those things morph of their own accord by whatever invisible forces brought them to my liberated senses. In a major sense I've to believe Captain Beefheart was a witness to beauty that was fatal to the population's collective sense of pleasure, decorum and social duty; all he could do     was report and to keep us guessing, guessing, one would imagine, until our own sense of a better, achievable reality formed and allowed us to move forward as better citizens without the saber, the gun and the prisonhouse to keep us on the road to deferred bliss.

Barry Alfonso comments:

Like you, I feel a great vacuum-space with the departure of The Captain from this planet. What a rare and exalted being. I had the pleasure of interviewing him back in 1982, when he was hanging out by the La Brea Tar Pits (near his good friends, Smilodon and the Ground Sloth) doing press for his last album, Ice Cream for Crow. There was a lot of wonderful blarney slung by CB that day – I especially treasure his description of the music-consuming public as “fish in a fishbowl eating their own excretum.” But he also said some things that confirm your instincts about what he was up to creatively. Beefheart definitely saw himself as a COMPOSER, akin to Igor Stravinski. In his mind, everything in a song was a part, a movement, not the expression of an individual player – in fact, his guitarist Gary Lucas later told me that after Gary played a part in the studio, Beefheart said to him, “Thanks for the use of your fingers, man.” His musicians were his paintbrushes, his tools. This doesn’t sound very nice or respectful and Beefheart admitted as much. (His musicians – especially those who played during his Trout Mask period – insisted they had more to do with shaping the intricate song-parts than Beefheart gave them credit for. This is probably true. Yet I suspect CB so penetrated their psyches that they didn’t always realize when they were doing his will.) During our interview, Beefheart said that he got his songs whole, in a flash, and that the length of the song was how long it took to describe that single burst. That may account for the odd sense of movement and form in his songs. It also relates to his intense visual sense – CB was a painter and he thought like one when he was creating songs. Everything from “Ella Guru” to “Ice Cream for Crow” can be approached as still-life paintings seen from various angles through the course of the song. You are given a weird scene or portrait and you walk around it, poke at it, sniff it, taste it. As you said, there’s a heavy prankster element in CB. He liked to mess with people’s minds – he gave them a good fluffing, as if he was thwacking a pillow. He re-booted your cerebellum and made the world look cockeyed – or maybe right for the first time.

HIp album collections and the pecking order therein

The reasons Beatle fans in general (rather than only) "hipsters" prefer Revolver to Sgt.Pepper is for the only reason that really matters when one is alone with their iPOD; the songwriter is consistently better, the production crisper, the lyrics are effectively "poetic"  without the florid excess that capsized about half of Sgt.Pepper's songs. Perhaps most important, though, is that  you could still listen to Revolver and still regard the Beatles as a working band . It might be a better bet that musicologist would be a better choice to pick apart what made the musicianship on this record so alive and cogent, but a big attraction in my life is that these guys still sound like a band showing up for a gig, setting up their own gear, and ready to play . It may be nostalgia, but something was lost when Sgt. Pepper became the standard by which most  Beatles records after it would be judged, two sides of special effects, guest shots and  flailing ambition toward the Art Gesture. Revolver was the band still in work shirts.

It might be compared to Miles Davis when he was performing with his classic bands--John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock,Tony Williams, Ron Carter, et al-- with a long string of releases like Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue (name your favorite here)and when he turned to the jazz rock fusion of Bitch's Brew and On the Corner, which featured the endeavors of Chick Corea, and John McLaughlin . The first mentioned releases are conspicuous examples of bands sensitive to each members nuances, strengths and weaknesses, quirks and signatures, combing with the material to offer adventurous improvisations as part of an ensemble effort, while with Bitch;s Brew Davis and his producers culled performances from hours of taped jam sessions where ideas and motifs were explored to produce albums that are, in effect, mosaics. The general tone of the later releases was less the sparks that occur between musicians confronting each other in performance but rather something more theatrical; thought the musicianship is rather magnificent and often times bracing on the later electric releases,they seem more in service to Davis' cantankerous muse , performing as directed. As much as I admire and respect the accomplishment of both the Beatles and Davis in their late work, studio craft and all, a larger part of me would have preferred if the musicians had found a way to expand their horizons without abandoning their identities as bands. The Rolling Stones sought to produce their own version of Sgt.Pepper with the releases of the bloated and wasted Satanic Requests, and it's a fine thing to appreciate the Stones self critical response to bad notices (and perhaps some sober listening to the record, after the fact); they abandoned their attempts to compete with the Beatles on their new turf and returned  to riffy, R&B inflected rock and roll.

What hasn't been mentioned here is that Frank Zappa released his first Mothers of Invention album Freak Out on June 27, 1966, a full month before the Beatles released Revolver in August of that year. Zappa was an erratic, quizzical, quarrelsome presence, but he achieved things with that album that neither the Beatles nor the Stones came close to; both those bands were more influential in the pop music sphere, where their separate approaches to including cross genre and avant gard gestures made for pleasant and easily appreciated (and imitated)music for a large record buying public. Zappa, though, with his solid chops as composer, producer, guitarist, satirist and multi media maven, was miles further up the road and around the bend with respect to advancing the primitive ways of rock and roll into an art form. A good amount of Zappa's early music remains challenging to comprehend, which is another way of saying that it's hard to sit through and that it's downright ugly. The ugliness, though, wasn't merely my limited aesthetic; Zappa cultivated it, advanced it, gloried in it. Now that's integrity.  But the stuff that sounded ugly decades ago still kills small animals today.

Monday, December 13, 2010

On Writer's Block

Picture, if you will, a poet sitting at their desk, drumming their fingertips (if they're inclined to drum) on the mouse pad, taking long and (always) furtive drags from a cigarette (if they smoke), staring through the window into a distance where we they hope to see the returning silhouette of inspiration getting off at the bus stop, suitcase, back from travels hither and yon, trudging up the street, smiling, waving, delirious to be back on the block with a fresh cache of first lines and snappy endings and clever slant rhymes to fuel another half-collection of poems.
But there is no bus stop pulling away, no lone inspiration repatriated with the homeland, no life at all in the distance no matter how hard, how furtively the poet stares to where the horizon meets the last grove of trees and house. The poets stopped drumming their fingers, crushes their cigarette (if they were smoking) and sit upright in their chair, they begin to type, they type anything at all, they must fill up the monitor with sentences with broken right margins that don't lend themselves to immediate sense, the piece under construction seems to be one set up after another, a series of private rituals that are as quaint as the writer's concerns with ordering the world in a sing-song rhyme scheme, the fingers rattle on, they pause, the monitor fills with words, something seems at last to be gelling, but no, it got away, the idea, the pay off for the relentless set ups, the description of each minute ritual, all the stalling statics that come to mind only when there is writing to be done, are met only with frustrated expectation because the world the poet tries to traverse and transgress istoo damn slow.
The writer has their ideas of each thing he or she knows in community where they ply their craft, and he or she has done a psychic mapping of where the objects-- each animal, tree, billboard, car, television antenna--will reside and how they will resound, but the world of it's own accord isn't as fast as the writer's wit, nor has the shabbiest idea of irony or other literary effect. More panic, maybe another hypothetical cigarette is lit, smoke inhaled, a thought, another thought, the same thought: am I writing the script for the planet, or am I trying to remember what's already happened?
I’ve nothing to write about, the poet sighs, but keeps on, the boulder is being shoved up the mountain, here we go again the poet complains, and what had been a late after noon growing serenely dark in a wrap of inactivity, small breaths, becomes instead an agitated wrap of stalled desire, a membrane one cannot get to the other side of fast enough.
The sky darkens further, there is only a slight rime of orange-gold light remaining of the sun as it falls behind the line of trees and slides the other side of the earth where there may well be someone in a room at a desk hovering over a keyboard inscribed in the characters of another language, watching the sun rise as odd birds start to sing before the first light breaks on their street, staring at the corner where they hope public transportation might bring back an inspiration which has eluded them on too many wordless mornings.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cannot see the poem for the trees

"The Man Tree", a poem by Stanley Moss recently published at Slate, tackles the problem of human beings imagining themselves in Nature. That is , not as a part of Nature, but as Nature Itself. This an interesting premise, a philosophical trench war in the making, but Moss can't seem to step back far enough to see the essentials ; he cannot see the poem for the trees.Stanley Moss is a man late for a train, grabbing a suitcase at random from a closet in disarray and then grabbing clothes and travel accessories at random, cramming them into each surviving crevice and cranny of the luggage piece's cramped capacity. 

The point he seems to be driving away with this serial pictogram, that Humans have the conceit that they are Nature, that Nature's assets exist to make them healthier, stronger, happier, that Nature itself, divorced of Human vanity, is only an eternal process of birth and death that belongs to no single one of it's creatures--is obscured and , buried , smothered by an overdone analogy.

Moss loses clarity in this general scheme of associations; the shift from third person to first person voice is jarring rather than expansive. This might have been an attempt to introduce another voice or subtly introduce another voice into this mixture, but without a cue , like italics or at least quotation marks to indicate that there another layer of significance is being introduce and that we're to read longer, deeper into the talk of trees, branches, mountains and conditions of ownership, this poem lapses not into obscurity (a curse as well as a compliment for a poet) but rather into incoherence.

The first person voice also works against the poem's initial quality, which is oracular, sage , an old teacher telling lessons in parable form.Might the Sage suddenly be pointing a staff at a rapt listener while he raised his point, personalizing the lesson? Could he suddenly be addressing himself in a third person fashion after Caesar, Henry Adams and Norman Mailer in order to address his own failings against the lessons he's trying to get across? Perhaps, but given the busily poeticized incidentals we have--more special effects than writing that's especially effective --the interpretation becomes more interesting, more poetic than the poem itself. Returning to this poem after a moment to ponder what isn't provided makes this work's vacuity more obvious. It's an empty box, really, and it's not zen thing at all. 

What Moss attempted was to isolate a fleeting perception, I think, but rather than convey in briefer, sharper images, he instead talks it too death by mounting an argument. So this poem suffers for the comprimise--to exclamatory to be a thing convincingly seen or felt, too brief to be compelling or even interesting as an philosophical insight.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tears in the Landscape (a poem)

There are smiles for days when the road just drags on in front of us, a continent framed by a steering wheel, there are tears in the landscape, every farm is selling soap. Turlock is rumored to be good money, Stockton a joke, and everyone in Berkeley was dropping money because the jokes of the night were between the legs of make believe boyfriends.

I long for the psychedelic dungeons when smoking was as much as ritual as a right hand over the heart for a flag while a brass band played a song with nothing but hard left turns, hands raised in stadiums, fists clenched in sports arenas, communities of guitars and baseball bats. Like, she was looking at me like I had something she wanted, I was looking at her amazed that I was seeing her again for the first time. Under the bridge we played rape, where we both lost, thinking that there was a bed room here once. All that there was left to do was make money.

At fifteen, I grew a beard and thought it would be cool to be on the side of a turn pike, next to the tollbooth on the worst winter Ohio could imagine, sticking my thumb out with no luggage whatsoever, going somewhere, a blank stare at the driver. At eleven, the 7-11 clerk goes to the bathroom with a titty mag. He said the Frankenstein mask was welded to his face, and the clerk laughed at this, knowing it was Halloween and most people had one joke they would tell all night about the costume they wore, and he laughed even harder when he tore the ID in half and told the asshole to get lost before he got his ass kicked.

She was an art student who spoke with lots of dots and silences when ever she came to a point, but her hand drove me mad, and I drove her insane, the crash of tidal basin waves like some continuous unwrapping of gifts while we exchanged submissions, legs over the balcony, ass grabbing on the museum fire escape, walls holding assemblages of attenuated thinking that would never as concrete as the slabs we wrestled on, rashes and red roses for the love of art and body parts. I grew up in a town where you could see the mayor of San Diego a block from his condo at a summer night in a pay phone next to a donut shop.

He complained that the planet was doing jumping jacks, but all I could sense was stillness that more than things not moving, it was as though we passed through membrane in a rent of our thinking and now breathed along side a world our blood no longer pulsed with, all I saw were work benches, tool boxes, different sized wrenches, disassembled engines, sun coming through windows painted black, "It was a dumb idea to do acid in winter in a garage so no one sees us," I said.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

John Lennon

Today is December 8th, the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's assassination by that ignoble cipher Mark David Chapman, and as much as one wants to deny that they remain obsessed with the great glory of their fiery youth, a day of this kind makes me nonetheless want to meander around the old and overgrown ground of the past and wonder how things might have been different.But the motives are selfish, as they always have been with me, and I am less concerned with the winsome utopia Lennon wanted to bring us to had Chapman not found his gun and his target, but rather with the decline of Lennon's music, post-Beatles. My position is simple and probably simple-minded; Lennon was a pop music genius during his time with the Beatles, collaborating or competing with Paul McCartney, definitely at the top of his songwriting and performer game, and with the introduction of Yoko Ono into his life, we see a lapse into the banal, the trivial, the pretentiously bone-headed.

Yoko Ono did much to make Lennon the worst example of wasted genius imaginable. Though he did make some great rock and roll during his post-Beatle time, and wrote and recorded a handful of decent ballads, his artistry took a nose dive he never had a chance to pull out of. He was monumentally pretentious, head-line hungry, and cursed with an ego mania that overrode is talent. He stopped being an artist, and a rock and roller, and became the dread species of creature called celebrity; the great work that made is reputation was behind him, and there was nothing in front of him except brittle rock music with soft-headed lyrics, empty art stunts, and drugs, drugs, drugs. A sad legacy for a great man. The fact of the matter is that Lennon's greatness was possible in large part because of his collaborations, full or partial, with Paul McCartney. Both had native musical instincts that balanced each other: the proximity of one to the other kept them on their best game.

The genius of the  Beatles' body of work versus the sketchy efforts from both Lennon and McCartney under their own steam bears this out. Lennon never found anyone to replace McCartney, and certainly never had anyone who challenged to do better, smarter work. Yoko certainly didn't give him anything that improved his music, and her lasting contribution to his career is to give him the errant idea that performing under your ability equals sincerity. It equaled excruciatingly inadequate music.What's amazing for an anniversary as seemingly monumental as this is the paucity of new insights, previously unavailable information, or especially interesting critical estimations of their estimable body of work. It's an exhausted topic. Scrutiny on all matters and personalities pertaining to the Beatles has been unceasing since their demise. We have, essentially, is reruns of our memories, repackaged, remodeled, sold to us again, and endless of things we already know intimately and yet consume compulsively because we cannot help ourselves.It cheapens the term, but “addiction” comes to mind.

There is nothing to add to the Beatles' legacy except perhaps add our anecdotes to the ceaseless stream of words that seek to define their existence and importance even today. It's no longer about what the Beatles meant and accomplished in altering the course of history or manipulating the fragile metaphysical assumptions we harbor, for good or ill;we've exhausted our best and largest generalities in that regard, and the task will fall to historians, philosophers, and marketers after most of us are dead as to what The Beatles and their songs are worth as art and commercially exploitable assets. For us, there remains only a further dive into autobiography, where we might yet find some clue and excitement as to how these guys became an informing influence on our individual personalities. John Lennon and the Beatles changed my life in a major and unalterable way during their existence, and this was something I came aware of only after watching two hours of CNN wall-to-wall coverage of the assassination. I broke down, tears came, I was a senseless, doom-stricken mess, even though at the time I loudly bad-mouthed the pasty, hippie-flake dilettantism of his later work.

None of what I thought I mattered in that instance.John Lennon was dead, and it was like losing some essential part of myself whose loss would never be filled with anything even half as good or worthy.He still mattered to me in my life quite even though I'd had what amounted to an argument with him over is politics and his music during the length of his solo career, but despite my best efforts to break off into new sounds and ideas and leave Lennon and the Beatles behind, his death hit as would the death of a family member. For good or ill, his work and the crude course of his ideas helped in the formation of values and attitudes that still inform my response to celebrity and events, no less than Dylan, and no less than reading Faulkner, Joyce , or viewing Godard films. The deification that he's had since the killing is the kind of sick, fetish culture nostalgia that illustrates the evils of unalloyed hero worship, a need to have a God who once walked in our midst. 
This bad habit turns dead artists who were marginally interesting into Brand Name , icons whose mention confers the acquisition of class and culture without the nuisance of having to practice credible discernment: every weak and egocentric manuscript Kerouac and Hemingway, among others, has been published, and the initial reason for their reputations, graspable works you can point to, read and parse, become obscured as a result. Lennon, in turn, becomes less the musician he was and becomes, in death, just another snapshot to be re-marketed at various times, complete with booklets containing hyperbole-glutted prose that , in essence, attempts to instruct me that my response through a period I lived in is meaningless.

The hype utterly refuses to let newer listeners come to their terms with the body of work. It is no longer about Lennon's music, it's about the promotion machine that keeps selling him. This is evil. Lennon, honest as he was most of the time when he had sufficient distance from his antics, would have told us to get honest as well and admit that much of his later music was half-baked and was released solely because of the power of his celebrity. This may well be the time for an honest appraisal of his work, from the Beatles forward, so that his strongest work can stand separate from things that have a lesser claim to posterity.  It's only business, nothing personal, and that is precisely the problem. Risky to assume what Lennon might ultimately have sounded like had he not been killed, since he could switch games suddenly and quickly so far as his musical thinking went. This was a constant quality that kept him interesting, if not always inspiring: there as always a real hope that he would recover inspiration, as Dylan had after some weak work, or as Elvis Costello had after the soggy offerings of Trust or Goodbye Cruel World. Even the weaker efforts of Lennon's' late period marked by his idiosyncratic restlessness, and the songs on Double Fantasy, domesticated that they are, might well have been transitional work, a faltering start, toward new territory.

It's laughable that Lennon might ever have become as lugubriously solemn as Don Henley, but there's merit in saying that Lennon's work might become on par with Paul Simon's: Simon's work is certainly more than screeds praising the domesticated life, and he is one of the few songwriters from the Sixties whose work has substantially improved over the forty years or so. If Lennon's work had become that good, on his terms, it would have been a good thing, though it'd be more realistic to say that a make believe Lennon rebirth of great work would be closer in attitude and grit to Lou Reed and Neil Young, two other geezers whose work remains cranky and unsatisfied at heart. Since his death, it'd been my thinking that Lennon would have transcended his cliches as some contemporaries had.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Unearned Irony

“Unearned irony" is the deployment of a dominant narrative line that is the nominal subject of the story, while at the same time winking and whispering and nudging the reader that it's ,like, so weird. This eye-rolling irony dominates the book , and avoids the work needed to make real irony work, which is that real irony is the result of several situations in the narrative being developed, over time short or long, that result in nuanced epiphany where a character in the story is at odds with the "real world" he inhabits.

The power resides in the not knowing when the effect takes place: the point is that you're not supposed to see the irony approaching, best shown in The Recognitions by William Gaddis, or The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Carey. The effects here are worked for artfully. Eggers stops just short of announcing that he's being ironic.

A magician who shows how their tricks are done perhaps ought not to be a magician: maybe an editor. Or a literary critic. Now that would be ironic. For editors, it is precisely the job of an editor to make manuscripts into books, to eliminate the fat, to blue pencil digressions and areas of receding interest and, believe, send pages back for rewrite. The tendency is to let manuscripts, "experimental" or otherwise, get sent to the press without editorial oversight. It's a waste of perfectly good forest.

Wisdom needn't be the censor that kicks in after a certain age, but it can have the effect of giving one a sense of how an interesting life can be told in an interesting way, ironic or otherwise. Best of all, though, an acquired wisdom ought to avail one with a self-editing instinct and to realize the difference telling a story and committing coffee talk to paper.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Robert Penn Warren embraces his limitations

I came across a poem by Robert Penn Warren today, a writer I've read very little of since college; I was missing the voice of a teffific American poet. The poem was "To A Face in the Crowd".

This is a good selection from the cogent Robert Penn Warren, who was always leagues ahead of his rhyming peers in having the disciplining techniques work under his lines; with many a twentieth century poet unwilling to give up the ghost of rhyme, the effect was more special effects than expression. It sounded unnatural, at odds with a contemporary sensibility  who's collective idea of  poetic value wasn't in the martial law organization of words and their sound alike twins, but instead found the music in a vernacular , looser limbed speech. This is the sensibility I developed since I swapped out Bob Dylan for TS Eliot decades ago.

Warren, though, has a verbal since,a "flow", that wants to deliver the idea from murky origin somewhere in the rapidly firing imagination and the final , crystalized expression. There is no padding in this poem; it has a lean quality that brings out the emotional quality, the weariness of the speaker who is dually giving warning of one's idea of what one may accomplish in the world and the the bemoaning of a personal history of lessons learned the hard way.

....That shore of your decision 
Awaits beyond this street where in the crowd
Your face is blown, an apparition, past.
Renounce the night as I, and we must meet
As weary nomads in this desert at last,
Borne in the lost procession of these feet.

Warren speaks of , I think, along the lines of a cliche often attributed to John Lennon, as in "Life is what happens while you're making other plans." This is the theme I find in much poetry that appeals to me, the major or minor revelation that the author's scheme of things, his abstractions as to how the world functions and how he or she was going to navigate the currents they thought predictable and manageable, are themselves a comfortable fiction imposed on a phenomenon that is hard, unyielding to individual expenditures of will power. Warren says here that at the end of it all we all meet not as brothers and sisters victorious in transforming  history (in significant but more often trivial matters) but rather as veterans of the daily grind who have endured and survived daily rigors for no reason other than they had to. At this point, speaking to the moment of waking up from one's dream, one might finally make use of their imagination as it engages the world as it reveals itself, moment to moment. This is the point when life gets interesting.

Gagged on a clothesline

There is a bit of a buzz by  Tony Hoagland's commentary  in the September Poetry Magazine where he opines, in part,  that contemporary poetry is divided  into two types, the bong and the gong categories .The first  is the sort of poem that rings the bell, gonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnggg!!!­, with a clarity of perception that is exacting, photographic. There is no mistaking what the writer is talking about, no ambiguity in the details, and one is surprised how a surprise ending arises from otherwise banal details .The latter being a diffuse, abstract, expressionist kind of ode that emphasizes the inexpressibility of the moment a poet might decide to write about, the escalating, entropy -bound speculation that comes after a deep bong hit or two. There are pleasures to be had in both approaches, of course, as those who are chronically clear and the others who prefer an obscurantist veil over their stanzas are actually are a varied lot, with their own ideas about how language needs to be subjugated to best reflect the author's quirky habit of mind. We the reader ought not be ashamed to have both Billy Collins and Louis Zukofsky on our shelves; what makes either of these poets, or the poets that come between them (assuming said shelf is alphabetized by author) interesting, intriguing, worth reading for whatever pleasures they can deliver are unique. We know the universal aesthetic produces a poetry that becomes nothing more than talking points and marching orders, don't we?  "Clothesline", though, seems to have been knocked out before it had a chance to get going and wound up unconscious on the permeable border between gong and bong poetics. The title, in fact, is ironic, as it is also the name of a notorious move in professional wrestling, where one fighter bounces an opponent off the ropes and catches with a fore arm to the throat to the rebound.

Poet Bohince is attempting to dredge up memories from a time in her life when what is revealed are only scattered images of places and time-bound details; In this case there is the association of safety, her mother's womb, of tight, warm, snug places where one felt secure and protected against an incoherent , violent, noisy commotion in the near distance, but what this poem lacks is the emotional cohesion that would make this associative pastiche compelling. This has the feeling of something that has been rewritten and revised continuously, starting at first as something of epic length, eventually whittled away to a skeleton of it's former verbosity, with vain attempts to flesh out the bare bones with imagery to make these meager lines become somehow evocative. Rather, it reads like some one who is attempting to accommodate suggestions from a poetry workshop:

Though I sloshed inside the machine
of her body, as our whites swam in a soft boil,
were wrung, hung,
then flew,

or tried to,into the pain and ultimate

forgiveness of pines. …

I realize that one can't really depend on a poem to make sense in ways those in supermarket lines might mean the term, but there is a logic, an intuitive sense that we demand; these opening lines are less organic than they might be, seeming instead to be the result of an edit that rid this sentence of a qualifying phrase in the center of the expression, conflating washing machines, wombs and clotheslines in one gamy sequence. Not that the clause would have fared better with an explication, short or expansive; it was bad writing to begin with, a clumsy entrance into a badly decored room.

Paula Bohince, in fact, seems the voice of the workshop, with the sort of inarticulate , choppy cadences that are intended to duplicate the moment of realization, the epiphany,

The Y branch hoisting the heaving line,
spiders who'd snooze
in undershirts. Shook awake,
would climb air.

My mother
who was there
in every crevice.

There is a built-in halting here, a manufactured pause that does not convince you that the speaker is holding their breath; even in print you can feel the technique being worked on you, you can sense the writer counting the beats between what passes for stanzas, one , two, three...line!, and then reading the succeeding sentences in a whispery croak, anticipating the appreciative sighs. Bohince straddles that ground between catering to audience expectations of what a poem should be and a cartoonish version of abstraction, in an effort to leave something for would-be critics to rave about . It fails at both, and it is an intensely unsatisfying poem. It's like tossing stones and twigs into a bowl of hot tap water and calling it soup.

"Salt Walter" by Peter Campion

Peter Campion has a  poem I enjoyed  posted recently in Slate, a lyric called "Salt Water" , a tract in which he does a skilled job of combing a number of different elements--a personal relationship, a landscape, an abstracted terrain-- and  persuasively reveals what the elements have in common without seeming even to try. It is the sort of effortlessness that tells you that this was something considered and redrafted a number of times--I can imagine Campion not writing a word for long stretches until the right one finally  came to him. That I admire, as one does come across a good many poems in a good many volume of poets who write things that make them sound as if they are still trying to get to the poem they imagined they had  in their possession. The result of that is a lot of  subdivided autobiography that amounts to only so much clutter--think of someone you know who talks too much of themselves trying to get along in the world.

As with the idea of sea air the title suggest, I find something unusually relaxed in Peter Campion's poem "Salt Water"; it is airy, not in the sense of being breezy or light headed, but rather in the sense one gets of going for a walk along a beach or perhaps being close to a coast line on a spring day. The world seems to assemble itself at will, spontaneously, the scents of the daily things--salt air, incidental gasoline aromas, meals on stoves --mingle with the bits of conversation , garish radio music, the slapping of waves against rocks adding a counter point to the persistent hiss of traffic that always closer than we want them to be in our perfect moments.

Campion allows this poem to breathe , providing space for his details, described in ways that are unusual but not grudgingly opaque ; there is the sense of something Suddenly Realized, a Wonder Beheld. It is a poem composed not unlike a classic Miles Davis improvisation over an old song that has been reduced to it's basic components that both solo and foundational melody seem an organic unity, moving in unison, perceived for a moment in its essence, in itself. An epiphany, perhaps, a string of relationships of oneself and another against a larger framework, composing a counter narrative than the practical instructions one might tell his or herself about getting from point A to B; Campion selects his words, his phrases the way the improviser selects his notes and assembles his phrases, with the effect being delayed somewhat, not immediate, gestating in memory until the stealthy metaphors or musical units recombine in memory with other sensory recollection. This is the poetry of surprise.


A Slate reader who'd listened to the audio version of the poem (featuring Campion reciting his own work) asked the question about who started the trend of writers reading their stanzas in a series of stylized moans instead of letting the rhythms of the work direct the style of recitation. Indeed, Campion on the recording sounds like he's coming out of a very bad sleep.

I suspect it's an MFA program thing, beholden to what Ron Silliman calls the School of Quietude; roughly speaking, that would a school of poetry that places the extremely sensitive personal of the author in the center of the poem who acts as a passive conduit through which all the universe's particulars must flow. The poems of this style vary incredibly, from amazing to god awful, but the default style for reading the poems aloud is passive, as if the poet is overwhelmed by the sensation and is about to pass out. In some cases it seems the writers are trying to pass an extremely contentious turd. This is quite the opposite of Campion's poem: though hardly requiring an Al Pacino type of exclamation, one can, I think, up the energy and highlight the rhythm and music of the the work. A reader ought not sound as if sounding out their work is a burden. It makes the reading of the poem a burden in turn, for the reader.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"Skyline": helping Roger Corman improve with age

Skyline had an impressive trailer, but once you pay for you ticket, you realize that every bit of impressive imagery and special effect was in the ad. The movie , a bone bare variation of The War of the Worlds, has the most flat-line scripts of the year; the dialogue lacks even the campy elan of a choice Roger Corman picture.
Corman , King of the B Movies when he was the lead exploitation director and producer for American International Pictures, at least winked to the audience about how silly his horror and science fiction plots were; one need only remember the serial coffee house bus buy / Beat artist wanna be /serial killer in the director's goony masterpiece Bucket of Blood as he keeps uttering "Art is a hitchhiker catching a ride on the omnibus of art". This is said by the schlep several times, adding a comic jargon to the bizarre series of murders that occur through the movie. Corman's signature in his minimalist absurdities was his willingness to dive without flinching straight into the grungy strands and strains of pop culture without flinching, concieve  a rickety plot  device concerning Aliens, Alienated Teens, marginalized personalities a mere nervous laugh away from a kitchen knife homicide, a monster in a hairy mask going crazy in the halls of an unmonitored girl's dormiotory--and make a fast bit of   oddness that both amused amd distrubed; I always had the feeling that I was both the sophisticated viewer laughing at what was conspicuously idiotic, and that I was additionally the one with the abbrevidated interests that made exploitaters like Corman a success. This is to say  that his movies remain compelling after the shock value has worn off; Corman may well have been the premiere  American  Film Expressionist. After a time YOU get the feeling of what phrases and rationalizations might be cycling through the mind of a psychopath as he or she attempts to complete their obsessed missions in the world. The special effects, of course, are impressive to a degree, but you realize before long that that was the film maker's highest priority. "Skyline" has an an attractive veneer and can boasts some artfully composed images, but it is a sober minded, without a relief laugh, a monotonous series of sudden stops and starts meant to startle. We are merely annoyed.
The most glaring consequence in emphasising a few well tweaked effects is that the characters remain in a static situation--trapped in a pricey high rise condominium by convincingly repulsive aliens-- and that characters remain static as well. There are some attempts to bring some complexity to the character lives, with issues of infidelity and love vs individual survival filtered lightly through the inane banter , but none of this adds dramatic tension; all there is left to do is observe one character after another get gobbled up by alien creatures, watch the population of Los Angeles get lifted , Rapture like, to a serrated edged alien vessel, to wait for a surprise ending that's more dead end than brutal revelation.