Monday, February 28, 2011


There were no surprises at the Oscars, and I have to go along with the consensus that "The King's Speech" deserved Best Picture; in a year where there was some strong competition, the "The King's Speech" was seamless perfection in film narrative, from the script, cast, and direction. As much as I enjoyed "True Grit", and admit that I am a Coen Brothers partisan who will find genius more often than not in any of the films they make, there were times in their otherwise inspired remake where their energy, which is to suggest their enthusiasm, flagged. This, I think, was their downfall in the Best Picture category. Also, I was heartened to see Christian Bale get his Oscar for best supporting actor for "The Fighter"; he stole the movie and was blessed with a role that allowed him to show off his considerable acting chops. As with Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman", the role justified the scene chewing; I do hope, though, that Bale doesn't repeat the riff ; it didn't do Pacino that much good in his subsequent films; save for a movie or three since his Oscar win, his RANDOM VOLUME!!!  the method has become a means of self-parody. Give that man a Soma soaked Twinkie. I was especially warmed by Melissa Leo's winning best-supporting actor as the domineering mother in "The Fighter"--I've been a fan of hers since she portrayed detective Kay Howard in the television show "Homicide: Life on the Street"; she was terrific, nuanced, crabby, an emotionally pinched person slow to change her distorted worldview, and Leo played it wonderfully.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The good graces of Mary Karr

I haven’t been to church in decades as a matter of habit, and confess the only time I set foot in a pew is for either funerals or weddings. One will have to take it on faith that while I haven’t renounced God nor made statements to the effect that ours is a reality without a spiritual r recourse, my ideas of spirituality have changed over the last forty years; it just seems to strange to think of God as being willing to be a bully demanding ritualized acts of devotion and loyality while a fate he won’t reveal , the “meaning of life” we drink too much booze and coffee to discern, unravels. Is the All Powerful a vain micro-manager? I don’t think so, and entreaties to Him can be done, I think, without wishing for more for oneself, or wishing harm to befall those who we think smited us. Yes, I turned my back and have little interest in investigating the religion of my youth, but surprise again, sometimes my curiosity is aroused, as it was when I happened across this fine poem by Mary Karr in online version of Poetry Magazine, a sly hymn called “Disgraceland”/Strange and wonderful; I am a lapsed Catholic at best (a curious agnostic, perhaps?), but I recognize the parallels Karr draws here with her truly ethereal poem.
Christ was of this earth and of the human race because his task was to suffer various degradations for preaching a moral philosophy that would, after all, deliver humanity from its base motives and actions, all this so he might transcend and come into that state of grace that is tempered, conditioned by experience. We come to know what it is we are being delivered from, the sins, their consequences, and their horrible toll. Karr's narrator, born into a Christian life, goes her own way, feeling each pain, pleasure, the exact quality of being human:
Eventually, I lurched out to kiss the wrong mouths,
get stewed, and sulk around. Christ always stood
to one side with a glass of water.
I swatted the sap away.

Christ was always there with the glass of water, that thing that refreshes and gives life to tired limbs, but he would not intervene to make Karr's wayward soul come into the house of his father; she must know her own experience, have her own narrative to fasten a merging faith upon, and come of her own accord to another way of being;
When my thirst got great enough
to ask, a stream welled up inside;
some jade wave buoyed me forward;
and I found myself upright
in the instant, with a garden
inside my own ribs aflourish. There, the arbor leafs.
The vines push out plump grapes.
You are loved, someone said. Take that
and eat it.

A phrase you might have heard of; she had to get sick and tired of being sick and tired. This has all the trappings of things I hear at AA meetings, yes, but AA shares are either drunkalogues or hard-core sales pitches that will speak of an intervening Higher Power in Street terms. The quality of a good AA share is that one This poem is jargon free, as I read it, and the mention of Jesus and references to spiritual things are voiced in a tongue that is plain but not dull; her rhythm is sure.
It has been remarked that this poem isn't much more than what you'd get in a better class of women's magazines and that what delivers is a rather conventional story, but I think there are crucial distinctions to be made.This is quite a bit different than what you'd find in women's magazines, in that the ground covered in those articles are tear jerkers, better class or no, and there's an inescapable residue of self pity/self congratulation through out these publications that creates a particular consumer mind set that is perfect for delivering an audience an empathetic audience to corporate advertisers. The swings of the downbeat and the upbeat do not go against the not so subtle requirements of the revenue stream. Karr's poem is somewhat different, and she tells the tale differently as well; it is the form of testimony, of confession and reclamation, and there is no wallowing in the details of a wasted past; as per the requirements of contemporary poetry, pace Pound, Eliot and Yeats, there are associative leaps in the narrative, elisions, ideas contained in images that convincingly, for me, convey the more abstract notions of life with and without grace. Poetry isn't required to dramatically thrust a reader into areas of consideration they wouldn't have thought of or might have been too lazy to explore, but rather work well on its own terms, within its particular structure, congruent with its unique ambition.
This needn't be the grand entrance of Christ as one can read in Flaubert's tale "The Legend of St. Julian Hospitator" from his book Three Tales. Karr , in her own fashion, speaks of the Personal Jesus much is made of these days and finds Him in an unconventional, almost banal manner, after a life that, while not chaste nor righteous, isn't portrayed as especially heinous or glutted with evil deeds. What takes me my surprise is Karr's conception of a savior who speaks not to saving one's soul for eternal salvation but instead a Christ who can help her appreciate the life she has and make something useful of. This is a Christ who wants her to live fully on this earth, not to treat her religious experience like it were an audition for American Idol. Surprise, this is a Jesus who wants us to live as adults, not pavlov'd dolts who drool when a bell rings.
What I especially appreciate here is that Karr
 This is quite a bit different than what you'd find in women's magazines, in that the ground covered in those articles are tear jerkers, better class or no, and there's an inescapable residue of self pity/self congratulation through out these publications that creates a particular consumer mind set that is perfect for delivering an audience an empathetic audience to corporate advertisers. The swings of the downbeat and the upbeat do not go against the not so subtle requirements of the revenue stream. Karr's poem is somewhat different, and she tells the tale differently as well; it is the form of testimony, of confession and reclamation, and there is no wallowing in the details of a wasted past; as per the requirements of contemporary poetry, pace Pound, Eliot and Yeats, there are associative leaps in the narrative, elisions, ideas contained in images that convincingly, for me, convey the more abstract notions of life with and without grace.
Poetry isn't required to  violently thrust a reader into areas of consideration they wouldn't have thought of or might have been too lazy to explore, but rather work well on its own terms, within its particular structure, congruent with its unique ambition. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Used Books: "Pastoralia" by George Saunders

A funny book

Author George Saunders is a crazed ,surrealist comedian who , in his tales of conflated literary genres and cultural traits defying any personalized sense of proportion  you might have and cherish, reminds you in moments of  the three year old for whom there is no required separation between ideas, things and the places where they may belong.  That is to say what ever makes sense in the telling of a tale is okay, is alright, is perfectly natural, "natural", that is , because it occurred to the three year old while his mind gathered it's narrative materials. Nothing is excluded, no matter how out of wac. So it is with Saunders, who's 2001 story collection Pastoralia is simply an inspired and condensed can of insanity.

Something about this world reminds me, fleetingly, of The Bed Sitting Room, a film directed by Richard Lester, where addled Brits go about their business after a three-second nuclear war, as if nothing had happened, unaware that their actions are very odd permutations of old habits. This , along with the fact that some characters are morphing into inanimate objects.

What's similiar is that they way you, like Lester, treat your inventions less as weirdness for it's own sake--Tom Robbins when he's boiling over--but how you keep the descriptions and the details of your character's lives in scale; your tone has the unfoldings and detail bask in the light of their own skewed logic: the details relate to one another. "Sea Oak" , with all it's reversals and inversions , pretty much gets the internalized logic of diminishing returns in strip clubs. The returned aunt from the dead, pissed an aggressive economic agenda for a family of whiners, was genius.His use of brief sentences and jerky dialogue makes this skewed universe clang and clack with a sound and feel not so removed from the actual world: his attention to the banal, and his twisting the items just so, makes this a wonderful set of satires. "Sea Oak" is particularly brilliant.

A basic and important strength in your writing is the spare style you prefer to use, as it allows you, it seems to be, to accumulate the carnivalized strangeness and build on it credibly, if that's the word to use. It gives your zaniness a subtle, additional dimensionality that makes this series of tales read like descriptions of a fully realized universe.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Monkee Grip Glue

 The Monkees are evidently reformed and touring to cash in the 45th Anniversary of their being manufactured by Hollywood producer Don Kirshner and his cronies. An item in The Telegraph would have us believe that the fellows overcame the general scorn heaped upon them and ascended into what there was of the hallowed Rock Pantheon.  At best, the article was a vital piece of nonsense. 

Author, please pick up your last check on the way out, as this is the worst sort of puffery one could imagine. Precisely no one took the Monkees seriously as a band, and their chops as comedians were not held in high regard. Yes, they sold... millions of units, but so has Kraft Cheese, a product whose popularity reveals how scarce good taste actually is. The Monkees were a band for teenyboppers with allowance money to burn. It is possible to compare them to the Beatles or the Marx Brothers, but this only demonstrates their lack. They might have been pioneers of a sort, but they were and remain a fancy you grow out of as your tastes mature; there is the hope that a music fan discovers the excellent stuff. Theirs was music glutted by fads, gimmicks, and tricks heaped on albums of songs that were at best cast-offs from professional songwriters; it sounded corny back in the day, and the Monkees has aged poorly. It sounds pretentious, inane, flimsy constructions gussied up with every studio trick available. The Monkees problem is worse because, 45 years later, they haven't their youthful cuteness to help get away with the slithering saliva trail they called rock and roll. They are bound to look pathetic. Is this what fans really want to see? 
The Monkees are not remembered for their songs but rather more like a disease a generation of love-sick tweeners shared; it was some overwhelming fever whose recollection involves the heat, not the melodies. I still run into people bringing them up in music discussions except as a bad example, and the book on the day-to-day mechanics of this money machine seems geared at a niche market, small but profitable. This just reinforces that they were musically mediocre and sub-minor in importance. I don't blame the band for going after a payday; after all, the Sex Pistols did precisely the same thing in the Nineties. However, the Pistols were at least honest about and called their trek the Filthy Lucre tour. What irritates me, among other things, about these hired hands as they still act as if they were involved in something that mattered. 

I should say that the mini-rant was not about these guys individually; Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork have chops, to be sure. But the distinction is that they were members of a combine that was a commercial venture... that was disguised as a rock band, and as far as rock bands go, they were lacking in whatever good graces it takes to be actual pantheon members. As an entity, the Monkees were a disgrace. The same may be said of the Sex Pistols Brit wastrels Malcolm McLaren hired to fulfill his fashion sense. The difference is that the Pistols had the integrity to break up unceremoniously. To paraphrase, Johnny Rotten asked the audience if they ever felt they'd been cheated at their last US gig. The Monkees, collectively or individually, never had the honesty to admit that they were a money-making fraud.

Of course, it complicated their eventual desire to be taken seriously. On the one hand, you had critics in the serious journals arguing that rock had become an art and whose collective preference was for bands and songwriters who had an organic quality to their music; music as authentic expression, experimental, poetic, reflective. How many artists actually made music that achieved these vague standards or created a piece worth listening to after the craze had passed is a matter of debate. The Monkees, to those writers, were a corporate monster, a Frankenstein's monster of borrowed parts taking bits and pieces of whatever was popular at the time--heavy rock, folk-rock, psychedelia, youth-quake lyrics, and so on--and slickly fused everything together in album packages geared to a teenybopper's desire to be both enthralled and convinced that they were "hip" despite being too young to go to nightclubs where the actual music was being played. Mike Nesmith turned out to be a fine songwriter and an influential singer and had an estimable if obscure solo career post Monkees, but his signing on with the Monkees was his Faustian pact. It doesn't seem that he ever quite lived down the fact that he was in a very popular and very profitable entity created by management to cash in. It's an unpleasant fact that the sense of irony in the Music Press hadn't yet increased to the degree as it had when Malcolm McLaren assembled the respective members of the Sex Pistols in 1975. McLaren's intention was to disrupt the music biz, being the Situationist he was, but also to make a bit of coin in doing so. The fact that the Pistols were thrown together, a contrived unit if one ever existed, only enhanced their authenticity as punk rock instigators. They got a very different result in the long run through what became one of the decade's central postmodern gestures.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Art and anger

Anger as artistic virtue is short-lived and becomes, too often, monotony. The idea that the artist must get himself into a full , frothing lather, burst out of his clothes while his engorged (and enraged) muscles morph to sizes beyond a believable scale is absurd on the face of it; the writer, the poet, the painter, the sculptor, the photographer,  the artist, whatever the medium, would be too intent on screaming "Hulk Smash Puny Critics" rather than focus their energy on the literal and metaphorical canvas in front of them. 

The artist, if nothing else,is that person who occupies themselves with expressing their sense of things in an externalized manner after  the things that they've taken in--a heartbreak, being fired, a wedding, good sex, a death, a disease, a visit from the In Laws--has gestated for a period, has been assimilated, so to speak, into one's being and the artist can attain equilibrium, for a while at least, through the  artistic act. 

The experience, that is, becomes the raw material the artist will use after  the rage has subsided and the painter, the poet, the  novelist has had their offended ego return to human proportions. Passion will remain, to be sure, but the anger, well...I would venture that the anger is an impediment and needs to cool to something that one can pick up and examine and , eventually,  use as something that motivates one to make reconfiguration, not commit homicide. This has presented a credibility problem for both aging punters and wrinkled heavy metalheads who find themselves trying to live up to a past decade's reputation with a gasping exaggeration. 

I find Chrissie Hinde attractive because she never lost her sense of humor or irony. Interestingly enough, she didn't market herself as an angry punk woman; the tone is bitter at times, more often bittersweet, and the attitude of her lyrics is that she pushes on toward the goal of making her life a good fit for the reality she's found herself in.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Target Practice

White European Americans are the only ethnic assortment someone can make fun of with impunity; it's now beyond whatever value it as irony or poetic justice and now exists as a bad habit for taking cheap shots.
A laugh and a good wicked snort can be had making fun of the habits of poets, but limiting the odd ways to white folks alone amounts to taking the easy way out no less than some of the poems that appear on Slate.

 Everyone is in a hurry to get to an easy punchline, not in the interest of having an audience see their own foilbes but rather so the motor mouthing wise guying can jet through another batch of sarcasms so lame that one wouldn't even dare utter them at 1am on a Comedy Store Amatuer Night.

Is someone brave enough to investigate the wierdness that besets ethnic groups in particular once they become infected by the poetry flu? Not really, it seems, and white people remain the easy target one may mock with out the slightest fear of being called to the carpet for the stereotyping disrespect. It's a sorry, lame ass practice.
 I don't think Americans are afraid of poetry;  that, I think, is an easy  way of explaining why poetr books don't sell and why it's difficult for a poet without reputation to get  himself or herself by wider audiences. Rather it's a matter of not many Americans, comparatively, think of poetry as a resource since we, as a culture, are not an introspective culture, but instead one that continuously looks forward to a future to be created.

Poetry, so far as the general reader is concerned, is a matter of one being alone with their thoughts and structuring their experience in a narrative form, a narrative that not only chronicles events along a time line, but also the nuance of experience, the fleeting sensation of something changing in their psyche. This requires making the language do extraordinary things to accommodate an uncommon interpretation of experience, and Americans, a people reared on the ideology of what can be done in the face of adversity, have no expansive desire to do something so impractical. Language is a thing meant to help us solve material problems, to achieve material goals, and poetry, a strange extension of linguistic twists and glottal clicks, clearings of the throat, a nasty cough, does nothing to put food on the table, put money in the bank, to further the quest to cure an endless variety of incurable diseases.

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

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

Friday, February 18, 2011

What I Thought, What I Stole

A professor once point out that something becomes art once it is framed, no matter what that object may be. That was great, I thought, and spent the next couple of semesters elaborating on this notion over hot cups of coffee, pitchers of beer, book and record reviews I wrote for the college newspaper, and certainly, most certainly, on term papers I was required to write in my humanities classes. I was a smart cookie, indeed, smart enough to recycle someone else's solid point over and again in pursuit of status and good grades. The odd thing, though, is that whereas the bullshit that I produced as a young has been exposed as being dually pompous and naive, the idea of the frame is a solid one; it has the added benefit of being     true.
This idea originated with Marcel Duchamp as he exhibited his readymades, a classic dada gesture he offered with his ready mades, such as urinals hoisted upon gallery walls, and snow shovels on pedastals. The point , though, was that the object became an aesthetic object,denatured, in a manner of speaking , from its natural context and forced , suddenly, to be discussed in its very "thingness". The object becomes art by the lexicon we wrap around it, a linguistic default.  Duchamp intended a guerrilla action against the bourgeoisie and their monied, status  focus on works of art  with the hope of returning the population to  a state where perception hadn't been codified with price tag and a standing army. The notion, however, became the market standard, however, with Pop Art : art was free to wander around it's own forms and materials without having to address anything so  trivial as why we love Jesus or bother to own pets instead of raise children.

Whether the object is art as most understand art to be--the result of an inner expressive need to mold , shape and hone materials and forms into an a medium that engages a set of ideas about the world, or unearths some fleeting sense of human experience -- isn't the point here. Ironically, art, generally defined as something that is absent all utility, any defineable function, is suddenly given a use that is sufficiently economic, which is to keep an art industry in motion; it is the sound of money. DuChamp, and other dadaists who sought to undermine this idea of art and its supposed spiritual epiphanies for the priviledged few, instead furnished a whole new rational for art vending. 


No fan of corporate America here, but I am sorry to see that Borders, the second largest book store chain in America , has filed for bankruptcy protection. While various press releases and emails from company flack catchers assure investors, creditors and customers that stores will remain open and that Borders will remain a presence nationally as both booksellers and community gathering places, the company has also released a list of stores it intends to close as part of their restructuring. That includes two in San Diego, including the one Downtown, where it's been my habit to shop or browse after a movie or dinner. I noticed that the store was getting over the last three years--the store seemed understaffed, sections were getting skimpier in their selection and were ill kept, and the  contrast between the number of people sitting on the floor with a stack of books they were reading to the amount of activity at the cashier station was striking. The cashiers were rarely busy simply because people were not buying. Borders had turned itself into something of a flop house, a deadbeat central, ground zero for broke layabouts. And now downtown San Diego is about to lose it's one major large bookstore; even with the assorted things that was irritating about Borders, it was still a place where you could get lost in the stacks and find something to engage the mind above and beyond the streaming banality that passes as culture. And now that is about to be removed. It might be said that DG Wills Books and Warwick's are my bookshops of first resort; the last ten books I've purchased during 2010 were at one or the other of these fine stores. But there was a time in recent memory where there were bookstores and record store...s you could shop as a means of balancing out the sheer accumulation of material goods. The point is that communities in a city are impoverished and are made less interesting because they lack bookstores, even corporate ones. One less bookstore to browse in means more time of a corporately enforced isolation, IE, more time in front of the computer ordering things on line, removed from the hubbub and clamour that makes a community more than a collection of houses built between intersections and strip malls.

Monday, February 14, 2011

These poems by Gail Mazur

Gail Mazur
Gail Mazur loves the telling detail in her poetry, a quality that can make for an intense reading of somone linking  the fluidity of experience with the  silent witness of inanimate things that happen to trigger an associating spree. She fares less well with  "Hermit". One of her shortcomings as a writer is a tendency to prattle; we witness a strenuous comparison of human habits and the observed , repetitive activities of species of crab in their natural environment. It's been remarked too many times that the act of perceiving something changes the nature of the thing being studied, and here I'd had have to reason that the intent hasn't anything to do with the crabs and more do with the convenient wallow that are the poet's projected short comings. 
The title is the tip off, and the punch line comes at you too soon, too often, over to great a length.One might note the digressions and find wonder in how she deliberates on Aristotle and the ancient Greeks who first syllogized about their place in the world of appearances but the effect here is drift. There is awareness that the poet tends to imbue the natural realm with characteristics mirroring concepts one identifies human activity with, but this stepping back from the metaphorical apparatus originally mounted in place serves only, I think, to introduce more intellectual clutter, that crabs are actually subject to Darwin's terms of natural selection.The irony is something you see coming right at you, conspicuous as a Barnum and Baily clown on a Wall Street trading floor; it is not the hermit crab that resembles human, but the rather the reverse. All of the things like emotion, poetry, philosophical speculation might merely be expressions of species behavior who's base motives are to feed, propagate, survive. Arriving at this point is not unlike listening to a bad joke a hundredth time from a friend who can't remember that you've already heard it, a hundred times.But we arrive at punchlines again; they ought to be efficient, quick, punchy. The good poet knows when to stop. 
 One elaboration is too many , and a thousand is not enough.This seems a plain old case of someone falling into the mind/body divide, that time in any competent poet's career where they consider the intractable vagueness of the world their senses reveal to them, a cosmology tempered and flavored with the nuance of personal history and association, and the world as it is. Gail Mazur , with her poem "Figures in a Landscape", wandered too close to that precipice and falls straight to the bottomless bottom, perhaps stupefied by what amounts to the poem's punchline; our perception of a scene being beautiful and arranged in pleasing "natural" alignments are a frame we impose on the raw phenomenon, a meaning we assign it from our collective troves of useful metaphors and purposes. The scenery, though, is unmindful of our presence, has no use for our notions of beauty, harmony, or the disguised meanings our desperate symbolism creates. Nature merely is, constant, churning, violent in its cycles of destruction and creation. We are only elements among other elements, subject to the same conditions of survival and extinction as are forests, oceans, diminishing species. My principle concern here isn't the subject matter, relentlessly pursued as it has been and continues to be, but with Mazur's admittedly fine tone and style. Graceful and as carefully selected as her phrases are, something does not ring true:
We were made things, deftly assembled
but beginning to show wear—
you, muscular, sculptural,
and I was I, we were different, we had a story.
On good days we found comedy in that,
pratfalls and also great sadness.
Sun moved across the sky and lowered
until you, then I, were in shadow, bereft.
She describes the experience of what she witnesses from a distance,as if standing on a sidewalk and describing a store's displays through the display window, with some creative and overly acute details and glaringly "literary" words to shore up what the limited visage can furnish. This thinking, of making this phenomenological befuddlement make sense in a short verse, comes through a few stops along the familiar template, first with a not unexpected epiphany ("we were made things, deftly assembled..") that sets us up for the finalizing grand slam, that the scenery is real and not dependent on our scenario's to make them mean anything.
If no one looks at us, do we or don't we disappear?
The landscape would survive without us.
When you're in it, it's not landscape
any more than the horizon's a line you can stand on.
All well and good, I guess, but Mazur has belabored the obvious point that we cannot set aside our framing devices and see the world in-and-of-itself; as creatures of a culture through which we are compelled to achieve things with the knowledge of our own death, we need structure, continuity, community and the attendant virtues of purpose,love, unity of being. We create meanings that make the hardships worth the struggle; in short, we create of meaning-giving fictions to alleviate the constant dread that there is nothing beyond the biological imperative to eat, procreate, and die. Mazur , grace notes and all, reads more like a product tester's report. A brave face, perhaps, but this poem is territory others have been in as poets, with more interesting , intriguing revelations.
Would that more people read John Ashbery and ceased with demands that he make sense; the beauty of Ashbery's method of engaging the mind/body division is that immerses himself in, allowing his mind to navigate, with frequent brilliance, in the harbors and along the shorelines of Wallace Steven's world of Supreme Fiction. There are those stretches when the good Mr.AshberyAshbery, if not Mazur, it's the journey that energizes the poems.
Gail Mazur's poems have an easy elegance that can , in their best renderings, bring a number of heady matters into the same conversation without a sign of the stanzas tearing at the seams.Apparent one can read in a previous selection published on Slate,In Another Country, she has the ability to give form to a sense of sensations that you'd think would remain inarticulate and exist only as vaguely felt sensations: happy, sad, despairing, hopeful, what? She gives these sensations voice, a monologue. But as well as she brings her equivalent phrases for unnameable notions together in a smooth transition to a page , the transition is too pat, too eager for prime time. The conceits that drag her work down is the continued sense that the insoluble conditions she enjoys digging through for material find resolution in her over worked ironies."The Age" shows no shift in strategy and no modesty in the size of the unmentionables she tries to place a sign on; no more odes for an empty house, bring on the Temper of the Times!!!This would be fine, of course, but what irritates me is the implied exclusivity , the book cliquishness of this bit of zeitgeist mongering. You feel like a friend you came to a party with abandoned you with a group of others , none of whom you know, who are enthralled by a lone speaker who seems to be synthesizing everyone else's input into a discussion you know nothing about, touching on each tidbit and making them fit some clever if predictable irony grid work.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Title Bout

This was taken with a cell phone camera.
Which comes first,the title or the poem?  SometimPublish Postes I like to contrive a striking phrase  that sounds potentially ironic  in contrast to the poem it sits on top of, and  I would dutifully  construct some lines I thought hit all the marks that were spoken of in the string of writing workshops I attended or crashed in college. The preference was and remains a  title that describes s job title or a personification of disgusting habits, ending in "er";  the title might double as  the name of a super hero. Here is something I came across yesterday, written in the early Eighties on an old Underwood 5 typewriter. First came the title, then the poem to illustrate the power and punch of the heading:

Brick Layer

So full of words
that are thick with
abstracted lust
that buildings could be erected
composed of verbose skulls
with windows
that oversee the world
to the edge of  the map
and yet
the love that was
there all the time,
appreciative of curved air,
lost in a  four o'clock shadow.
I 'll pass on defending  the poem; it's awful, it stinks. It's  more an enthused gushing  than a composition ; I am not even sure what it means, and it scares me to attempt an interpretation of how these elements could work together to produce something comprehensible. It occurs to me that I might come up with some matters I'd rather not think about. A therapist might find something  useful in the reading, but not a readers themselves, as  most of  us have better things to do than reconcile an odd title with a smirking block of  private  punch lines.No matter, though, What I remember was becoming momentarily fixed on the idea of writing a title first and then composing a verse to go along with it and decided , finally, that my then-preference for elliptical, vague, surreal and punning verse would only become altogether unintelligible and dull if I continued.
This poem found it's way to the bottom of my desk drawer and remained there for thirty five years , until yesterday, and the lesson, I suppose, is that poetry isn't the sort of assignment writing or occasional writing I can do; like it or not, I am restricted to when the mood hits me, when the muse decides to visit and have a cup of coffee, and after the writing, if the poem has any merit, it gets fitted for a title.

The trend is for poets to name poets with phrases that have virtually nothing to do with the subjects the poem actually take on. The trend is also to write poems where each line is suitable for a title; this gives the reader an interesting mixture of captivating indirection or smashingly inane cliches and truisms. Titles should read like description of the last thing in this world you expect to see before you die and cease caring about poetry or the braying arrogance of the boneheaded and tin-eared.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Dead on the Page

I used to dash off fast poems from an Underwood 5 manual typewriter and then quickly show them or read them indulgent friends who were kind enough to put with my assumptions about how flawless my  writing talent was. The response wasn't always pleasant;  one friend told me that the quick verse I had him read made him think that I spent no more than ten minutes writing it. 
 "Slow down" he said, and handed me back the sheet of paper .
Pain I Did Not by Sharon Olds has that ten minute feeling to it, something produced in a hurry, not an inspired hurry.
I've read this a few times and sought out some of the subtler virtues, but nothing I could come up with got beyond the gut feeling that this is an awful poem. It is awkward in the first sentence, yes, but it is awkward through out the paragraph--I can't bring myself to dignify this piece as anything other than a botched diary entry. It has the dull , familiar echo of a traumatic experience one has pondered and talked about for an inordinate amount of time that has lost its resonance ; rather than helping to recognize the variables involved in a recent history of erring assumptions , disappointment and bad guesses, the grim sequence of words and deeds said and done as people grow apart, and then move forward with the next chapter of one's life, it instead becomes standard operating procedure.

When my husband left, there was pain I did not
feel, which those who lose the one
who loves them feel. I was not driven
against the grate of a mortal life, but
just the slowly shut gate
of preference.

Olds perhaps wants to suggest  the stammer of someone reaching within themselves to find phrase formations to give voice to things she’d rather not talk about, a sidelong approach to the sensitive  parts of the living memory,  but there is a stumble here;  she gives us  fog when a clear situation should be visible. The summation comes first of all instead of developing organically from a sequencing of  events and words—the concrete is subjugated to a murky tone that is announced instead of presented. Olds evinces a conceit that  mental construct precedes materiality; there are no things  but in ideas.

And so he went
into another world—this
world, where I do not see or hear him—
and my job is to eat the whole car
of my anger...

There is the attempt to add a mystifying layer over banal detail , the effort just goes slack. It is the same as the mumbling teenager who can’t explain why he or she lied to their parents ; the poem , like the teen,cannot look straight in the eye.  There is a sense that this abstruse memory of dissolution has something to do with a car that was a potent sticking point between her and her ex husband, and that the car here should operate as a metaphor for the narrator having to accept what has happened, to stuff her resentment, to  regret the emotional qualities she invested in this thing that’s come to symbolize their life together. Bad writing wins out, though, as the phrase “ eat the whole car of my anger” is comically overwrought  and resolutely imbalanced; it is not a phrase that comes off the tongue without the reader sounding as if they’re prone to emotional bombast. It also provides misdirection that undermines any potential effect—one can’t help but make light of  phrase that invites snickering  remarks auto-eroticism or, more cleverly, whether the poet’s imagined meal  was an Oldsmobile. The last item, to be sure, suggest  a self-consuming obsession with what went wrong, but that suggestion lacks power due, sadly, to  ill-fated wording. What you end up discussing here is what Sharon Olds meant to say . This is poem requires not an interpretation, but an autopsy.

The poem hasn't a clear insight or a perspective altering metaphor or image in it; the inclination here is not clarity but rather obfuscation. The rationale,perhaps, may have been to give this wedge of irritating syntax an air of abstraction, the hope being that the unmoored and imprecise metaphors might add mystery to this misery and hint at larger traumas within the family, the neighborhood, the culture at large.
 Credible abstraction,though, evokes at things larger than the concrete particulars on the page; Olds simply had nothing to say and appears guilty of padding this poem with the extraneous , the gratuitously odd. It is pretentious and dishonest , from the readings. Something leaner, starker, more skeletal would have suited the topic; a marginal wave of regret , post-marriage, needn't be propped up with a writing style that only buries whatever idea might have been worth a poem of its own.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Billy Collins' Neighborhood

Former U..S.Poet Laureate Billy Collins has made a career wrenching irony from the small things and people that occupy his corner of the world, something akin to Fred Rogers trudging into his apartment, talking to his unseen friend, and then revealing the unique wonders of the banal things that one might find in a single, middle-aged man's drab apartment. Collins' narrating presence booms all over his verses, soft, pleasant, melodious voice over a moderately amplified microphone, complete with windscreen, characterizing the houses, the workmen, the rote tedium of daily tasks done in homes and in small-town business districts.  It is not long, of course, before something makes the narrator expand this universe with an intervening sigh, a deep, worldly intake and release of air containing both stress and relief, like someone taking a bong hit, proceeding then to speak of those human conundrums that refuse to allow our lives to remain restful and fulfilling without interruption.  This neighborhood is a ganglion of bittersweet recollections, unpronounced love affairs, deferred passion, a corresponding universe of small matters, petty concerns twined together with a writer's straining sense of whimsy. I imagine this world as similar to a perverse Twilight Zone episode where the residents of a nostalgically named small town --Willoughby, anyone--live in knowing the terror of the Writer who lives down the street who stares out the window, lurks in coffee shops and public parks, observing, jotting notes into a notebook or typing them into a laptop, returning to his study by mid-afternoon and composing his scenarios based on what he has seen; inevitably, the procedures, made up of minor tragedies, crashing irony, practical jokes, or static sadness, materialize in the town, among the residents, a citizenry compelled to enact and fulfill the musings of a writer who is incapable of doing anything else other than reshuffling his templates, mix-and-match his scenarios. My problem with Billy Collins and this poem is that his pieces and t his poem end with a "characteristic Billy Collins twist," which is another way of saying that it reads like dozens of professionally constructed verses he has produced. In theory, a twist in a story is a turn that we didn't see coming, but if the twist is "characteristic," it stops being a surprise. The trick of anthropomorphizing nonhuman things--and that is precisely what it is, a joke--is ultimately a tedious way of talking about human vanity as age encroaches and one's last days near. It is the kind of poem that Collins dispatches with the uniform alacrity and craft a thrice-weekly op-ed columnist produces a quickly drawn essay; the repeated tropes, the favored conceits, the reiterations øf conventional cleverness --are soon enough revealed. I admire Collins the way I admire grade B film directors, who can produce endless fare with slight variation in quality. He is a poet who is vigorously the same after all this time.

 A vision of hell, I imagine, with the neighborhood transforming with new poetic unfoldings that are, in fact, a punning variation of jokes and anecdotes that have already been told. For the residents, I imagine living in the town of Billy Collins' evil twin controls. What began as a refreshing change from their daily lives has become a bother, a terror of mediocre surprise, the case when the Unexpected becomes the norm. For the reader, it is the kind of thing that makes you want to have been over the poet's shoulder while he wrote the poem in question and told him to stop.  "I've heard this joke before," you would say, "you need to write food reviews rather than poems. Please stop."

"Make it stop," a voice chimes in from the poem being written.