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Friday, April 29, 2011

A poem

Part of me thinks the best part of this poem is the portion I didn't write, the epigraph by John Ashbery from an essay of his about avant-gard art.  We seem to have  collective wish to have the art of our understanding flirt, skirt and play footsie with grave and fatal matters, to ponder the eternal beyond, to take the reader/viewer/listener on a vicarious trip to the edge of whatever rim of existence and extinction our imaginations can conjure and set within us some sense of the urgent need for us to live fully, purposefully, creatively. We want our art to be dangerous, in other words, and force to understand what life is after we garner a strong, vibrant sense of what it is not. Ashbery, though, takes a another stance and dares the Wildean notion that Art has no use other than entertainment; presented wth with nothing but abstruse guesswork and blank slates in response to the Big Question, we busy ourselves with our designs and find ourselves by what we now recognize as religion, philosophy, busy systems of supposition to distract from the groaning emptiness threatening to appear should the props collapse in mid sentence. Not to have fun is to face the crushing truth that all  is likely without purpose or any sort of intelligent predestination, but we can't consider that a sure bet.

Another Side of Long Distance Calls

"...religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing. We would all believe in God if we knew he He existed, but would this be much fun?..."
-- John Ashbery

Somewhere along the line
something was said
that made
an awful lot of sense.
an utterance so
stable in verb and stance
that my head jerked up
as if on a string
moved about
by a cruel master.
The guy who said
was smiles
for miles his white
teeth could blind.

William had his glass at the tip
of his lip
as though a toast
were to emerge from
his studied gestures,
he repeated
his wisdom,

"Jesus lives in a house on
the moon
and he can't go outside
because there is no air..."

The table spun just then,
three fast fandangos,
and in the swirl
three thousand or so years of
thinking came undone like
badly sewn stitches across
the seams of thin, historical clothing,
every fig leaf has fallen
from our shoulders and

Philosophy and faith
are seen finally
for what they are
through the bottom of
the bar glass,

a little man in a corner
holding a wet paint brush.

I used to have the idea that being vague and indistinct in your writing was the best way to achieve poetic effect and labored, or rather scribbled a good ten years with that thinking as my working principle. Clarity be damned, it was all about striking images and bizarre juxtapositions of styles, images, concepts that were the important factors in making writing achieve what was truly inexpressible in everyday language. The conceit, as you may guess, was the confidence that I had transcended the ordinary arrangements our lingua franca imposed on us and that I had , by romantic right and personal inclination, was provoking a conversation about earthly affairs in terms only God could create; the more complex approach to the common place was too much for mere linear progression--heaping leaps of faith aplenty were required of the reader, who would, ideally, "complete" the poem with the missing details of their own lives. It was the poet's version of Method Acting, raw and unpolished responses to intricate and emotional situations .

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Contriving Issues

Michael Ryan admires Emily Dickens, it appears, but there’s nothing in his poem“My Young Mother” that comes near the compressed internalization the Amherst mistress created with her jump-cut , cat- footed leaps between ideas. Dickens, for sure, was a writer one stayed with, labored over, argued with in terms of the uncompromising nature of the style and then and only then grasped her cadences and the burrowing revelations they contained; one was rewarded as well with a stinging wit that was properly lacerating once it was released from it’s coded sheath.

There are, to say the least, considerable rewards for the close inspection of her unusual diction and involuted construction. Ryan fares much less trying to write with a suggestion of her style—it’s the subject for emulation that is the least likely to produce interesting results—and where Dickens had the skill to keep one guess, unsure, strung along as to what her point would be or what it was that might be revealed (the peculiar joy of Dickens is the teasing, the delayed gratification), Ryan’s poem confesses his meanings and intents readily. There is no suspense in the game here, nothing that caste a different light on memories that are clear but clouded somehow with intervening events. There is, instead, a mannered and stiff rendering of a childhood memory I can’t help but think unfolds from Ryan with too much detail,

What she couldn't give me
she gave me those long nights
she sat up with me feverish
and sweating in my sleep
when I had no idea whatsoever
what she had to do to suffer
the pain her body dealt her
to assuage the pain in mine.

The writing is too fussed-over, the particulars too polished, the narrative constructed in such a way that one knows that there is a punch line coming by the usual literary routes.Ryan continues an argument he seems to have been having with his mother over the years and finds himself in the grasp of swooning revelation that a handy device has landed at his feet to aid him in bringing a coherent (if game footed) line to his left over recollection. He senses his mother resents her requirement to remain with her sick child but remains so through an instilled sense of obligation and duty, instincts she likewise resents.

That was a noble privacy—
her mothering as a practice of patience—
how deeply it must have stretched her
to watch me all night with her nerves
crying for rest while my fever
spiked under the washcloths
she passed between my forehead
and her dishpan filled with ice.

Ryan attempts a feint her with the last stanza, doing as Dickens does by at first seeming to address a subject in a way that suggests a praising tone , and then , against expectation,turn to the other extreme , although in Dickens case, the “other extreme” wasn’t extreme in the writing, but rather swiftly, deftly, ingeniously offered. The effect was of someone changing their mind about someone or something, but credibly so, with some evidence visible from the argument the speaker had advanced in their initial praise of the subject. Ryan’s attempt to address a darker side of what he’s set up in the previous stanza , the conspicuously moldy conceit of the Sainted Mother, is ham handed at best, and bizarre.

That was a noble privacy,
but even then there was so much
unsayable between us,
and why this was now looks so
ludicrous in its old costume of shame
that I wish not that she had just
said it but that I hadn't been
so furious she couldn't.

We find now that he resents his mother because she was putting her child before her own needs and desires and that she did so without protest, but that the child Michael was sensitive enough, aware enough at the time that she was disguising her true feelings, was, in a sense, being false with him and now he has the lingering simmer of a resentment that she couldn’t speak to him , mother to child. There are those folks in various twelve step programs who “get stuck at the fourth step”, the writing of a fearless and searching moral inventory of themselves where one’s foul deeds, resentments, traumas and what have you are written out with a brutal honesty , the goal being that one may face their demons (to risk a cliché) and work through those matters that impede their progress.

The goal is progress, to move on and make a life for oneself that’s worth living, not to assign blame to those who’ve beset you with life-hobbling “issues”. But there are those many who continue to dig for bones in the backyard and continue to contrive new odious scenarios from scant fragments; it basically turns these people’s lives into conspiracy theories where forces have aligned to make one’s life a punishment. Ryan sounds like he’s stuck on some matters that he would have been better ridding himself of once and for all; the point of an inventory is for an enterprise to rid itself of goods that cannot be sold if it is to remain a going concernExaggeration often times benefits a poem , and in fact that is often the point of engaging in this peculiar form, but Ryan doesn't make me want to suspend my disbelief or to dissociate my sensibilities precisely because the thinly constructed and blatantly contrived nature of the punchline,which was the supposedly stultifying effects of his mother's care for him. The poem is whining, really, the sort of who can't help but feel ennobled by their self-diagnosed dysfunction. It's an easy way to give your life a narrative arc, an originally source, from which a limitless flow of causes and effects can be writ, most of pat and phony. “My Young Mother” seems to be an example of someone inventing evidence that he’d been done a foul deed; the result is an awkward and ludicrously reasoned poem. Some things can only be written off when all is done , and as someone who manages bookstores, the ridding oneself finally of what cannot be made good use is a relief.the tone of Ryan's poem is weepy and woe-is-me, and my experience in the programs I alluded to in my initial post has presented me with those for whom their issues, whether alcoholism, drug addiction, codependency or child abuse, is a form of identity politics. There is a power in the brand, as it gives one a world view and provides license for one to rummage through their past and invent further originating sources of their dismaying existence. It might well be that Ryan intended anaha! in all this, that something is revealed, but what I take to be an unsettled issue keeps him on the fence in the form of the equivocating language he selects. It remains in dysfunction; if the matter here was settled Ryan would have the instinct to offer up a portrait of a "fully formed man" that would have resulted from his struggles. But he doesn't, and the poem ends only with the feeling that this is a man who can become weepy because he chooses to be so.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Our punk, our genius

Bob Dylan, strictly speaking, is pop. He was pop by the definitions of pop music holding sway in the mid to late Sixties when the word became associated with experimentation, the avant-guard. "Pop" and "Rock" were interchangeable terms. Peter Townsend was the one who coined the term "power pop", in an interview I read in the old Hit Parader music journal,  and used the phrase to describe the Who. It was a term he used to define the Beach Boys, a band he admired quite a bit Definitions of terms change, of course, and with the re-emergence of conspicuously commercial tunes in a post-punk era came a new pop music that was heavy on irony and purely obsessed with its hook value. The Beach Boys were an extension of the harmony prone Four Freshmen, a vocal style overlaid upon a Chuck Berry chord progression with lyrics addressing concerns not of the 40s or 50s, surfing and souped cars. The who borrowed the Beach Boys'  vocalese and used it in conjunction with a musical style premised on power chords and snarling teen hooliganism. Dylan, though, was the one who broke from the pack, taking his inspiration from the nominally "pure"  genres contained in the folk music revival.  The good man, though, had something larger to  do rather than adhere to principles; fame was his goal, and fortune;  he walked backward into genius,  into the backwoods with this nasal, grunting vocals and lyrics that blended  an idealized  proletariat idiom with  great heaping doses of  Verlaine and Eliot: he brought literary Modernism to the jukebox. He also understood the dynamics of being a teen ideal. If he couldn't be sexy/dangerous like  Elvis, he could at least be vague, mysterious, "poetic".The "dignity" and" integrity" that Dylan refused to be marginalized by--ie, made quaint and neutered as a revolutionary force of any definition--were those notions codified by the lefty Folk Revival he eventually abandoned. Their idea of those qualities had little to do with Polonius's greatest platitude--" thine own self-be true..." --and everything to do with conformity to a vaguely held consensus.  I would only insist that the means of Dylan following his muse amounts to deftly selected instances of opportunism. Had Dylan been less inspired in his mashing together of his unlike influences, we likely would have regarded him as a pretentious fool trying to beserk himself into genius. Dylan, though, was a genius, and his careerism is mitigated in the music and lyrics that resulted from it. The work is everything. It took rock and roll by surprise. Someone like Dylan from the Sixties wouldn't be considered pop at all. He had singles that found chart positions, he earned gold albums, he toured internationally, gave interviews and signed autographs. He was a pop star, a pop artist, a contradiction that refused to be marginalized by unprofitable consolations such as dignity or integrity. He was going to be famous and get rich; he was a pop star and a punk. Our punk, our genius.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


 Jill McDonough's poem,  "December 12, 1884: George Cooke", from a series of sonnets she's been writing drawn from actual events in American history,  appeared in Slate's poetry section a few years ago. It did me a great and gracious favor, that of being so recognizably inane that it spared me the purchase of the book.

This reads as if it were a combination of dry facts from a history book blended with a student's marginalia. Scissors, paste and yellow highlighter are all over this assemblage, which indeed seems more assembled than composed. There is a punchline McDonough wants to land on, an example of Fate's anonymous wit, but there is not enough here to make us, meaning me, the reader, care enough to interpret the poem so that it becomes whole and coherent. It would be easy enough to dwell on issues such as how a sensationalist media twists historical fact into personality driven events and fictionalizes the record with romantic constructions in the interest of selling papers, but that would be too much weight to lay upon such a slight and underfed piece of writing. Such speculation would be more than the critic's invention than the author's intent.The mistake was to approach this set of information as a poem, as this is a clear case where an unambiguous prose format would have achieved what resonance McDonough wanted to have us experience; prose seems better suited for such terseness.

'm thinking of Ernest Hemingway, who's masterly avoidance of qualifiers still provides a powerful kick, particularly his short story collection In Our Time.The collection is a masterpiece of what wasn't said. The italicized sketches between the longer stories are what McDonough should pay attention to, as they show how only a few facts conveyed in a paucity of words can still pull at your heart the way she wanted with "George Cooke" .

Don't Name The Chickens, a poem by Charles Simic


Don't name the chickens, says poet Charles Simic, because doing so is to find yourself leaning  into  a perceptual left hook. . As the poem details, in  details inspired by the spare , weathered cadences of WC Williams, chickens in the barnyard are not really the kings of their domain as folk tales and cartoons would suggest, but merely a creature inhabiting a niche on which some things depend on; lording or majesty have nothing to do with it.  We have the terrain Simic sets up  beautifully, a small niche in the natural order  that is overlaid with expectations that suit the man or woman gazing from a window, from the porch, on their way to the barn to repair  a machine.

Don't Name the Chickens

Let them peck in the yard
As they please
Or walk over to stand
By the edge of the road.

The rooster strutting about
Will keep an eye on them,
Till it's time for them
To step under a tree

And wait for the heat
To pass and the children
To return to their toys
Left lying in the dust.

For, come Sunday,
One of the chickens may lose its head
And hang by its feet
From a peg in the barn.

This is beautifully done, I believe, a  cold and crackling laugh coming from the throat, and winding up echoing through the nose, a  combination of  bemusement and revulsion with  the vanities  citizens dress themselves in, the  idea that persists even on the most micro level, that the events of the day revolve around them.
Naming creatures implies ownership, that the animal given  a Christian assignation is now part of the family, like the dog or the cat, embedded in the good graces of human social structure until death , a natural death. But again, the power to name things and bestow upon them the complexities of far reaching relationships with kindred human significants are projections of  our collective ego, personalized, brought down from the global to the specific, the back yard, the barnyard.

Friday, April 22, 2011


A New Yorker cartoon shows two dogs in a den, one on chair, in front of a computer monitor , talking to another dog seated on the floor. The dog in the chair tells his friend "No one knows you're a dog on the Internet."

Exactly, and I suppose that's the appeal of forums and blogs; one is at liberty to represent themselves as having some competence and insight on a subject. One might even convince readers, or some of them at least, that one has professional expertise;one might even have something interesting to say. I don't know if the words that following are interesting beyond coffeehouse chatter--I think the points are sound enough--but here they are. Judge them as you will, and call me a jerk if you think I'm a deluded dealer in obvious asides.-tb

He was typing furiously to get a response to me before I shut off the computer, and sure enough, after refreshing the computer monitor, there was his nic name on a new post, attempting a counter argument in a protracted discussion (or competing rants, if you will) about the uses and role of art and poetry in this world. He wrote “ART used to create a response in LIFE. “

It's the other way around, replied, and continued; Art is a response TO life, a creative way for us to find new ways of experiencing what otherwise an incoherent flux of activity that only bullied us about with out any of us having the vaguest idea of how to better our lot. Life, as sheer process and force of nature, cannot be swayed by pure acts of will or bold imagination; art, besides leaving civilization with personal expressions of who we are and how we felt while we were alive, is also a engagement of our senses and skills that empower us to solve problems, to maintain a sense of humor, faith in something greater than our lone human selves, and provide with a means to live better lives. Art is a means for us to bring our imagination to bear on this planet, to create something for our selves that make this existence bearable, and at times joyous.

One discussion I had recently was interesting in that the person I was spoke with insisted that technique was over rated and that “…form is immaterial... so long as it creates the desired effect”. I scratched my chin and offered that one can usually have an effect of any sort only if the form is effective in getting across the intangible things you want your poems to address. One may effuse and rhapsodize all they want, but beyond a certain readership already inclined toward sentimental barbarity (the breathless pursuit of trite expression and banal conclusion, a defense mechanism, I believe, that shields the nervous from thinking bolder, or at least clearer about the larger implications of their actions in a world beyond themselves), the larger readership, small though it may be, will gain nothing, remember nothing from odd lines that exclaim obvious annoyances and joys. War is bad. Love hurts. Babies area cute. Mean people suck.

Millions of poems written by thousands of furious scribblers don’t get much further than these belated realizations, and it is understandable while yet millions more walk away from poems that are uniformly unmemorable, with hardly a quotable line or pithy adage to be drawn from them. This is all very sad because what comes forth in these untidy ossifications are notions that are revelatory and previously unrevealed to the writers themselves but which otherwise rest on the bottom of the fish tank like so much glass seashells.

Form matters because it means that one has learned their lessons about writing—poetry, though expressive of the soul’s yearnings and all, is writing, remember, subject to rules of clarity, precision, diction. One may do what one wants to do with language only after the lessons are learned, which is to say internalized. Form does matter, as in grammar, language skill, syntax, et al. A writer is more or less required to know the mechanics of writing and something about poetry before their efforts reach the level of art of any consideration. One cannot break the rules unless one knows the rules. The poet ought to desire the effect, but the insistence that a work have the "desired effect" is a slippery bit of business. Individual readers will bring their own experience to bear when they read and interpret the work; a bit of themselves will color how they recognize the particular ideas and instances the poet writes of. The poets' task, better said, is to write their material in a way that it elicits a response in the first place. For the most part, the dimensions of response are none of the writers' business.

Poetry... without effect... is meaningless babble.

Too broad a statement, covering as it does too many centuries of poetry, ideas about poetry, cultures in which poetry is written, et al. "Effect" is another slippery word; what one doesn't personally respond to may well be and probably is someone else’s' core moral truth. There is also the reasonable possibility that the reader finding something foul in a style of writing is unaware of the standards and requirements the style needs. What isn’t understood straight away is often condemned out of hand, without inspection, and it’s not unlike many to be willful in their refusing to learn something about writing aesthetics they didn’t know before. This fact doesn’t lessen the quality of the complainer’s preferred bards, periods and dictions; indeed, some of the poets might be embarrassed at the use of their name for cultural intolerance. Still others, like Eliot or Pound, would join a chorus of condemnation in short order, as long as the controversy involved further vilification of Jews.

That said, let us conclude that no one reading this the Ideal Reader, earnestly reading literature without preconceptions as to an art’s need to bolster unchanging certainties, and that we do the best we do to understand how something works on its own terms. It’s the cliché we hear from time to time, the search for similarities among ourselves rather than the concentration on obvious differences. We can reject the similarities if we like, but it helps to have a humane preference as to what one leans toward in the service of creating a life worth living rather than merely wallowing in the bitter juice of sour grapes

My adversary changes the subject, a dig at the universities and their secular relativism: At worst it is pseudo-intellectual drivel indented to impress Academic pundits. Take that!! Have at you!!!

You're writing about a particular KIND of academic poetry, I wrote back, and went off on another riff; this is suspect, and here condemn hundreds of poets and their work without a fair reading. It's hard work, I know, trying to keep abreast of what's available, what's being written, and a lot of it is bad, stale, calcified on the page, but a good amount of it is daring and fresh, contains verve, engages ideas and the real world at the same time, and otherwise performs what has always been the principle mission of the poet, to find new ways of experiencing the world, and inspiring new ways of living within it in a larger sense of community.

Poetry, at core, is about ideas and intellectual concepts as much as it is about feelings, and far less about sentiment. Without the kind of rigor these "intellectual" poets bring to bear on their work, there'd be nothing but a dull gallery of old and brittle styles for us to choose from, a juke box full of scratchy records, rhymes of old dead men that we ceaselessly imitate without a wit about why these old lyrics were written in the first place. I would say these old tunes were first written to bring some NEW IDEAS to our consciousness, some new perceptions to fire our sense of a larger and more interesting life. This is something we can’t afford to stop doing. At best it elevates the spirit or creates deep emotional response. Life, I believe, is something whose final, "fixed" meaning is unknowable, and is, really, something we bring "meaning" to by dint of our actions.What we have done, said, written will speak for us when we aren't able to rant, cajole, seduce and wave our arms as we attempt to persuade others that we're a benefit to the race. This, of course, makes life neither inherently good nor bad, though we do have it in our power to agree on acceptable, workable, flexible definitions of what constitutes the "good life" and what actions make for the ill. Life, though, is more than just "mankind". It is EVERYTHING, and we are just here visiting. The quality of the visit, though, is entirely within our grasps.

He didn’t answer and I was tired, and it was then I noticed the neighbor’s television was on, and loud. David Letterman was barking his quips about Regis Philbin, his voice muffled as it filtered through my radiator. It was time to shut things down and go to sleep.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Escape from New Criticism

Someone I know posed the question "what else is there?" in response to a past diatribe I posted here , "No More Poems About Poetry". I replied, in a hurry, I admit, that
not everything spoken of in poetry need be funneled through a filter that refers to poetry .Poetry is meant to produce an experience through a heightened language that should,all the same,be plausible as speech.The reader should be brought inside the poet's discourse and convinced the experience was real,honest.Dependence on self awareness of form for ironic effect is,I think,a form of cheating.true,there are brilliant poets and poems about gripe resides with the abuse of the ploy,which is pervasive and dulling. 

The point of writing poetry and of reading poetry was to see to what extent language can be extended to include those perceptions and fleeting rushes of emotion and sensation that might otherwise elude our capacity to express; it is a way of knowing ourselves in a world of others. If poetry as subject matter needed to be an issue within a poem, a problematic quirk that needed to be contended with in the expression, I had always thought it should be in the struggle for a narrator to get beyond their own contingencies and possibly experience something that was not formed on them since before birth, Stopping the discussion with poetry as the subject with little effort to poke through the veil, or faith that this can even be done, is to allow oneself to remain chained to the cave wall.

No one and nothing escapes the history of the form which born them, but what's interesting in literature, poetry in particular, are the results from those daring to dream beyond their confines in what they write . Even if the matter concludes that no one gets out of here alive, so to speak, it remains that a consequence none the less that one , writer and reader, are made a little larger, are made a little braver for the experience of realizing lies beyond the mere sensation of what our skin receives. The reflexive thing, the pondering the very form one uses to create their tales, the structuralist take down of all narrative, poetry, play or novel, being the mere result of economic determinism, is something that charged a generation or two of poets toward some inspired work , but what it has turned into, I'm afraid, is something of a wallow; it lets the poet coast on the easy excuse that there really isn't anything outside the box after all and that we might as all stay home, watch porn or baseball and discuss the impossibility of sensing anything beyond the walls. 

Even if it were true that poetry is implicitly connected to all other poems and poets, something I wouldn't dispute beyond a certain point, I find it ridiculous for poets to carpet bomb their poems with untoward, unprompted and needless mentions of other poets, of the form poetry itself, or that the writer is a poet in the company of other poets; while we may treat the whole issue of poems about poetry as an issue that is hopelessly meta, there remains a need, I think, for the poet to artfully tamp down his intellectual preferences and give his attention to what is job number one, of coming out of the clouds and presenting us with a perception that is unclouded by the overnight bags of history.

The lay of the Zoomba

Art is art because it's an expressive mission in constant flux, which means that the definitions are of what a lyric or a poem happen to be are slippery suckers indeed. Fact is, though ,is that Poe was a mediocre poet , an arch romantic rhymester given to obsessive surface effects because, I believe, he realized the vacuity of his content. One never responds emotionally to Poe's cadences; rather we appreciate them for their scansion, which is a distinction as banal as his best rhyming work. For all the talk of poems and lyrics being arbitrary distinctions at best, one needs to admit that the aesthetic of poetry has changed dramatically since the days of yore; reciting rhymed verse is more likely to seem affected and goonishly cute than stirring; there is always the genius who will rhyme brilliantly and with emotional power , but said poets are rare things. The upshot is that rhymes sound stilted, mannered, over thought to the contemporary ear. Recited sans music, one is greeted with the feeling of a peg legged man pacing a creaky wood floor. As awful as so much free poetry can be, the poets do not, by default, sound ridiculous reading their work. Theirs is a different kind of banality altogether, starting with the waste of their parent's money to send them to a writing program.

All the same, the criteria of what makes for credible poems has evolved along with the style in which poems have written; although one may take from the past and revolutionize it to some degree, it's a new set of idioms that make up the current sensibility. Dylan and others may also be the inheritors of what Poe, Crane and still others have done, but they do so in the practice in another art, related to but distinct from poetry, which is songwriting. Dylan is a songwriter, not a poet. Some would point out that Dylan did produce a book of poetry, "Tarantula", a surreal stretch of William Burroughs insomnia that suggested, yes, but had little in the way of poetic achievement, He was merely typing madly, as Capote said of Kerouac. Leonard Cohen, of course, is the logical example of someone who can both be a published poet, novelist and songwriter and achieve remarkable success in each of those forms. One does need to remind the earnest that Cohen the songwriter was not working as Cohen the poet who, in turn, was not operating under the mistaken diversion of writing a novel while thinking he was in a rehearsal for Sid Caesar  beatnik sketch, 

The lyrics to Leonard Cohen's song "Sisters of Mercy", written as lyrics , remain lyrics. In that case, Mr.Cohen is a lyricist, a songwriter. As the author of the haunting poetry sequence "Flowers for Hitler", he is a poet. He is a poet and a songwriter, and we appreciate what he does in either in both fields by related, but finely distinct standards. Poetry, written for the page, in a tone closer to vernacular speech, has greater range and may make use of more literary devices and is, as a result, capable of greater depth of feeling , allusion, association. Given the skill of the page poet, the poems have a life , a musicality when they are read aloud. Song lyrics, no matter how "poetic" they sound (or indeed, how actually brilliant they may be) , are confined to the contours of the melody they accompany. Cohen songs, Costello Songs, Dylan Songs, Mitchell songs, Hendrix songs sound stiff, silly and vaguely pretentious when read aloud, as speech, sans melody. Ours is not an age of great rhymed poetry.

The lay of the Zoomba

Art is art because it's an expressive mission in constant flux, which means that the definitions are of what a lyric or a poem happen to be are slippery suckers indeed. Fact is, though ,is that Poe was a mediocre poet , an arch romantic rhymester given to obsessive surface effects because, I believe, he realized the vacuity of his content. One never responds emotionally to Poe's cadences; rather we appreciate them for their scansion, which is a distinction as banal as his best rhyming work. For all the talk of poems and lyrics being arbitrary distinctions at best, one needs to admit that the aesthetic of poetry has changed dramatically since the days of yore; reciting rhymed verse is more likely to seem affected and goonishly cute than stirring; there is always the genius who will rhyme brilliantly and with emotional power , but said poets are rare things. The upshot is that rhymes sound stilted, mannered, over thought to the contemporary ear. Recited sans music, one is greeted with the feeling of a peg legged man pacing a creaky wood floor. As awful as so much free poetry can be, the poets do not, by default, sound ridiculous reading their work. Theirs is a different kind of banality altogether, starting with the waste of their parent's money to send them to a writing program.

All the same, the criteria of what makes for credible poems has evolved along with the style in which poems have written; although one may take from the past and revolutionize it to some degree, it's a new set of idioms that make up the current sensibility. Dylan and others may also be the inheritors of what Poe, Crane and still others have done, but they do so in the practice in another art, related to but distinct from poetry, which is songwriting. Dylan is a songwriter, not a poet. Some would point out that Dylan did produce a book of poetry, "Tarantula", a surreal stretch of William Burroughs insomnia that suggested, yes, but had little in the way of poetic achievement, He was merely typing madly, as Capote said of Kerouac. Leonard Cohen, of course, is the logical example of someone who can both be a published poet, novelist and songwriter and achieve remarkable success in each of those forms. One does need to remind the earnest that Cohen the songwriter was not working as Cohen the poet who, in turn, was not operating under the mistaken diversion of writing a novel while thinking he was in a rehearsal for Sid Caesar  beatnik sketch, 

The lyrics to Leonard Cohen's song "Sisters of Mercy", written as lyrics , remain lyrics. In that case, Mr.Cohen is a lyricist, a songwriter. As the author of the haunting poetry sequence "Flowers for Hitler", he is a poet. He is a poet and a songwriter, and we appreciate what he does in either in both fields by related, but finely distinct standards. Poetry, written for the page, in a tone closer to vernacular speech, has greater range and may make use of more literary devices and is, as a result, capable of greater depth of feeling , allusion, association. Given the skill of the page poet, the poems have a life , a musicality when they are read aloud. Song lyrics, no matter how "poetic" they sound (or indeed, how actually brilliant they may be) , are confined to the contours of the melody they accompany. Cohen songs, Costello Songs, Dylan Songs, Mitchell songs, Hendrix songs sound stiff, silly and vaguely pretentious when read aloud, as speech, sans melody. Ours is not an age of great rhymed poetry.

sometimes even the professionals need the rejection slip

 I haven't read a poem as lazily conceived as Mark Strand's "Ever So Many Hundred Years Hence" in years. Honestly, considering Strand's reputation as one of the best lyric poets still trying to make the unremarkable events in life truly memorable, this poem comes off as a middling sham. A poetry workshop would take an axe and a red pencil to it's corrosively cliched form.
A poet as acclaimed as Mark Strand should know better than to offer a paragraph so riddled with the hackneyed, the mundane and the hastily written. "Corridors of fog" would have sufficed by itself, a tangible image rarely encountered in poems, but which is ruined with the goofy adjective "milky". This is precisely the needless word a good workshop teacher would have pointedly crossed out, explaining, I think, that it's better to not over describe a situation for which the simplest, clearest , freshest image offers up the highest yield to the reader for their own associations.

 It turns a line that was okay to begin with into the tritest, laziest presentation, written by a writer who cannot trust his own instinct as to when he his done finessing a line. Worst of all, though, this paragraph is evidence of the worst quality a poet can exhibit, that of being tone deaf. Strand has strived to be a lyric poet during his published life and his work, I'm afraid, have nearly always had the quality of being self conscious aware of their own sensitivity. His language has always sounded borrowed, bound to a convenient template of convenient situations, emotions and perspective.

 This poem just boils it down to a hard, seared piece of drift wood , a dead branch of indistinguishable poesy; he is only a couple of steps removed from a greeting card sentimentality that offers, at best, in most situations, the easily grasped perspective Rod McKuen, an insufferable cartoon of would be wisdom. There might have been something spectacular in a poem that compresses decades of a man's life in only a few lines and winds up with with a plausible reunion with a long lost nephew, but even for an art as promiscuous with premise as poetry this strains credulity. This isn't a poem, it's a country western song, it's an agent's desperate for a movie he'd like to make, it's shaggy dog store sans the dog or the hair.

It is a boneyard of cliche.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Why Are Republicans So Mean?

There's a latent worship of power , stamina and absurdly skewed masculinity , and the party of Lincoln, so called, more often than not likes to think of themselves as rugged sorts for whom any helping hand from a state agency is sure weakness, moral slack and despicable. Though a good many of them will scorch the earth in their creationist ways and continue to demonize Evolution, the irony rests in the facts that there’s a strong, rancid tendency toward Social Darwinism in their thinking. It’s not that do the Christian thing and be kind to one another, cloth and feed the poor, and in general err on the side of decency, but rather that the strong need to subjugate the poor and powerless and in turn carve up the earth’s resources .

Anyone who hasn’t power or money or status is , by default, a wretch who cannot survive the rigors of living in the real world; they and society would be better off if they died off, disappeared , vanished into the thin, fetid air that surrounds their corporate towers.

I can’t say that all Republicans are bastards—I have anecdotal evidence that a few of them have principles not linked to serving the already rich and powerful—but I’m never shocked when ever the Republicans come into power and proceed to slash funding for helpful federal programs with ease and without a pause in their stride. It’s a determinist imperative, perhaps, a hard wiring of specific genes that cannot be untwined; Republicans cannot help but be hard-throbbing assholes.

Two poems by Mark Conway

 "Vertigo" ,Mark Conway's poem published in Slate in 2005, has the definite problem of a poet who tries so hard to avoid cliche that he mistakes clown-shoed phrasing for original style. The poem reads like a man who keeps trying to say something important or intimate but is stymied ,stalled or otherwise silenced by memory lapse, fear, or head injury. The opening stanza, composed of unassigned similes and indefinite articles like "antidote", "fear" or "refined",lacks even the dignity of grandiose throat clearing; it's an open field of nagging doubt . This is the kind of
speech habit I would walk away from, and it's a writing habit that would cause me to not seek out any other poems by Mark Conway.It does not improve as the poem progresses to other stanzas, since Conway seemingly abhors clear language and chooses instead to give us the most awkward syntax he can contrive:

Wanting it, teetering
on the edge,
between falling
and crawling, back taut
against the arc
of the almost-fallen object,
backwards against
the need just
to get it
over, the wind
forced against your nostrils
as breath

One can well understand the desire to express everyday things in interesting phrases, but this is not phrasing at all, just clubfooted diction. Whatever it is he wants to talk about is deferred until the last possible moment, in an unmistakable effort to create tension and provide the poem with
momentum, but this all seems so arty, and yet there is no art. The problem, it seems, is that Conway tried to make every instance in this poem
a twisting road that was full of surprises. Simpler
sentences would help this mass of knots perfectly well, with the fancier diction cut way, way back.The payday of this poem for me is the first genuinely bad line of poetry from a Pinsky selection for the summer:

This is what fathers do
I say in the empty
tunnel of my body(!!!!!!)

(Exclamation points are mine).

The Empty Tunnel of My Body. I just want to say that phrase over and over, up and down the street, yelling it through a bullhorn. It has that acid-casualty odor that comes from old Strawberry Alarm Clock albums, or happens to the name of one of the local lunatics who shows up at open readings and whom everyone is too scared of to tell him that he's done way over his five minutes.

Another of his poems,"The First Body" ,argues that we love this life because we have craving,a fatal attraction for the afterlife where there is no labor, no exhaustion, no gravity at all. He wonders, in tight, ridiculously compressed and conditional sentences, about the struggle creatures have in order to survive in real terms.

In the morning, bowed
under blue rain, geese beat
their heavy way back
to the city-state
of mud. Rising, the wings groan,
trying to fly away
from the body.

was hard, the cold broke
weak and strong, together. Stay
and watch the robins scream
over scattered barley.

This is not a Peaceable Kingdom or a green world, but a series of struggles, striving and hard-nosed facts that are about the privations of
biological life. At first read, this makes you think of what a nature poem written by the gloomiest
Schopenhauerian a cruel world can yield. The
facts of nature are described in terms not of grace or transcendence but of pain, discomfort, death,
the slow and inevitable progress of cyclical existence.

May and the great trees rage,
white sap burned up
into leaves. Turn
and beneath the branches see
the actual air
moving, hesitant, green.
This is when the soul knows
it has a body,
by wanting
to leave it.

Trees rage, white sap makes leaves burn, the air turns hard. Images of things slowing down, of an ice age approaching.

was hard, the cold broke
weak and strong, together. Stay
and watch the robins scream
over scattered barley.

And still the suffering of living flora and fauna does not stop, and very soon we get this labored point,especially if we've been fortunate enough to have read and discussed Eliot's "The Wasteland" with an accompanying volume of Fraser's "Golden Bough" as a secondary source. There comes a time in many a poet's career where they feel they must attempt their own discourse on the cyclical nature of life, comparing geese in their "city states of mud" with a humanity that is mired in place, dreaming of great deeds and meanings while getting exactly nowhere. What delusional fools we mortals be. But again, this is a theme writ beyond redemption, and there remains a question about what Conway thought he could ad to the endlessly iterated subject.

An annoying habit of contemporary poets is the catchy ending, the sudden left turn to another idea that catches you by surprise, the last minute set of grace notes that are to bring previous stanzas which might have seemed like dissociated taxonomies into a sudden sharpness. The hope is a virtuoso turn of phrase that handsomely threads a number of beads together, and which is intended to leave us breathless. Or exasperated , if the trick doesn't work, which it doesn't here:

This is how we came to
love this life—
by wanting
the next.

This has all the makings of a young man intent on making a big statement and comes up with only

some meaning-giving statement. Here it stops being poetry and becomes naught but rhetoric, unconvincing and unfelt, conveniently all inclusive and "big" in its generality that a reader is virtually instructed to nod their head in a passive pose.

Big statements sink poems, especially poems that are situated in the junkyard of exhausted tropes. Conway the poet was less interested in waxing something profound about the ferocity with which nature and its creatures cling to life than he was in depicting the cyclical notion of life as being closer to a Beckettesque diorama of monotonous inevitability.

"I can't go on, I go on...". Life , nature, and all, are predictable, harsh and drudging things we go through against our will until death, where our reward isn't heaven or insight or superior forms of knowledge but instead just an escape from an unstamped existence to a permanent , dreamless sleep. This is what I think Conway tried to do, and he has not fully appreciated the "anxiety of influence" cast by the looming shadow of Eliot, who's genius none of us can compete with, not on his terms.Conway ought to have stepped back from his best thinking on this one and allowed the images to speak for themselves, something he could have done with a substantial rethinking and rewrite of the piece.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Beautiful and Useless

Beautiful & Pointless: a Guide to Modern Poetry
By David Orr

David Orr is a smart writer and poet who has taken on the task to add yet another apology regarding poetry and its under the radar status with most readers, yet another attempt to make the craft less off-putting to a larger audience. It is an enjoyable book , with some pleasantly worded suggestions to poet and reader that they two groups need to  meet somewhere in the middle of this battle over who is failing who in the relationship and simply share a cup of coffee. But the joining of poet and readership is not something that can be accomplished by easy suggestions ; as usual, I adhere to the pragmatist dictum that the value of any theory is in how it works, which means, to paraphrase, the allure of any poem, in any style, of any theory, of any agenda composed in English, resides mostly with the talent of the individual poet. We get into matters about how well the poet has absorbed and assimilated their readings, ie, "made them his/her own", how broadly they've outgrown their influences and progressed toward their own version of originality and genius, of course.

At the end of the day and long into the night and the following morning, what draws a reader to a poet again after a first reading was the quality of the stanzas, the line breaks, the stylization of the verbs and the spare placement of the adjectives, the use of imagery that seemed both unique and yet plausible, the use of metaphor that is delivered smoothly, invisibly, musically.

It is, I think, less a matter on whether a poet opts for simpler diction and terse couplets in regimented rhyme schemes, or a shambling flow that winds through so many associative canyon highways before coming to something resembling a poetic effect; poets are not unlike jazz improvisers of the language, which is to say that how ever they choose to address a problem they've assigned themselves, it comes down to if the writer has developed as style that has an elegance that adheres to and extends the dictates of their chosen form, if the poems in question have their activity placed in the world the poet is nominally apart of, and if this is accomplished with the least amount of pretentious self-awareness.

This is to say that what makes a poem an attractive item to return to again and to ruminate about depends on the skill the poet can forget the prevailing nonsense that "poems are always read in the context of other poems" and get on with their task of fathoming more interesting mysteries, oddities, paradoxes and alluvial epiphanies the experience of being alive, breathing and seeing brings us. There is nothing wrong with living in your head, per se, but even poets need to stop watching the dust gather on the furniture and go for a walk, a drive, a movie, a date. The modernist agenda still applies, to forge a style that meets the challenge of increasingly pervasive and insurmountable corporate speak.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Alan Shapiro tries to drop us in some one's thoughts midstream in  his poem Wherever My Dead Go When I'm Not Remembering Them , an attempt, I gather , to show us what a mind doing casual housekeeping when the ruling personality isn't focused observing himself being poetic. There is impatience here, the anxiety of the wait : the narrator cannot be engage the world as he would wish, to exert a measure of will on to his stage. The imperatives of free will, imagination, self-definition , following of one's bliss are for a time suspended, or at least irrelevant because our figure is here waiting for a train that will take him some other place he needs to be; this is a schedule not his own and this leaves him virtually nothing to engage but his own thoughts , inspired by the scene of the wait, the grind and mechanized stutter of the city the whirrs  determinedly past him. The idea is an attractive one, I guess, the conceit of what a personality, normally fitted for turning their life's experience into miniaturized melodramas, would do in the off hours, when the mind is "off duty". 

Impatience , though, implies something  like  film maker jump cuts, the jagged, abrupt , yammering intrusion of one thought upon another, the overlay of images and opinions, the irrational mixing of personal history and visual detail from the present moment: the effect should be one similar to walking into a room where radio, CD players, televisions, Internet and cell phones are all blaring at once, at full volume, with the same shrill , monotonous insistence. Shapiro's poem sags under the weight of a conventional narrative construction, weighed down with a string of specifics that kill the sensation:
He is , as a poet, by turns clever, subtle, able to bridge vague quandaries with concrete emotion . At other times he will become parochial, stale, a self- aware mess who too often mistakes an examination of his own powerlessness as a fit subject , of itself, for a poem. This is the case with prolific poets; there’s so much dedication to producing the work that one hasn’t the time, nor the inclination, to give the newer material the disinterested editor’s scan and detect where one’s worst tendencies surface.“Triumph” is one of the lesser poems Shapiro has had published here, an attempt to write a poem about a homeless person the narrator, the poet most likely, he sees daily. There are telling details Shapiro picks out and presents with a journalistic precision, especially in the clean way in which he describes the homeless man’s bedding ritual:


saw him as I drove by—
I don't have to tell you what he looked like—
Spreading a plastic sheet out
As for a picnic
Except he wasn't picnicking;
He was lying down to sleep
In the middle of the sidewalk
In the middle of the day
On a busy street,
The spoils of him lying there
For everyone to gawk at
Or step around.

There’s nothing here that would open the

I would suppose that Shapiro intended this little tour of his psyche’s interior decoration to operate as a criticism of how literary types allow their infatuation with metaphors, tropes, generic conventions and relativizing their reactions to real events, but what his results are less effective as commentary on alienation than it is a specimen of narcissistic self-regard.

Yes, even measures of negative self-estimation are narcissistic and are evidence of larger vanity since they remain instances in which the author becomes the subject of what’s been written. The homeless man is made less real, and is no more than the misery idex’s equivalent of a nice sunset inspiring a poet to rhapsodize about their frolic under clear skies on a warm day. The poet here ignores an obligation to frame the world he witnesses and to offer an image that would help us think differently about circumstances separate from our set attitudes. This is a formula confession from Shapiro, a poet who should know better ; the easy slide into self-dramatization is galling. It’s offensive.
But whatever I did or didn't do
 I did it to forget that
 Either way
 He was the one asleep on the sidewalk,
 I was the one borne along in the car
 That may as well have been a chariot
 Of empathy, a chariot
 The crowd cheers
 Even as it weeps
 For the captured elephant too wide
 To squeeze through
 The triumphal arch
 And draw home
earth and the skies of our awareness of the hard facts of this man’s life, but there is a hint given to a witness’s arsenal of associations that try to comfort the leery from too much bad news. Shapiro’s narrator thinks of picnics at first instead of realizing that the destitute man was carving a space out for himself for a night against the elements, both weather and human. The problem with the poem comes when Shapiro, the poet, tries to figure out what to do with the scene he has just established; it wouldn’t be enough to allow these circumstances speak plainly and loudly for themselves, sans a lecture or the slippery rationalization of why one does nothing. Shapiro reveals his real intention of the poem, which wasn’t to establish empathy with a fellow human’s struggle but rather to examine his own apathy and his desire to remain in his head, piling metaphor upon upon metaphor as he processes the unruly sights he repeatedly sees and repeatedly drives away from;

Not gone, not here, a fern trace in the stone
of living tissue it can quicken from;
or the dried–up channel and the absent current;
or maybe it's like a subway passenger
on a platform in a dim lit station late
at night between trains, after the trains have stopped—
ahead only the faintest rumbling of
the last one disappearing, and behind
the dark you're looking down for any hint
of light—where is it? why won't it come? You
wandering now along the yellow line,
restless, not knowing who you are, or where,
until you see it; there it is, at last
approaching, and you hurry to the spot
you don't know how you know is marked
for you, and you alone, as the door slides open
into your being once again my father,
my sister or brother, as if nothing's changed,
as if to be known were the destination.
Where are we going? What are we doing here?
You don't ask, you don't notice the blur of stations
we're racing past, the others out there watching
in the dim light, baffled,
who for a moment thought the train was theirs.

This is more an impatient explanation by the poet of what he was trying to do with the poem than it is an a particular set of impressions of standing alone on a train station platform as thoughts invade awareness and then recede. The not so faint shadow of Hamlet attempting to speak to the ghost of his slain father isn't far off, and the poem suggests that a good many of us have incomplete conversations with our dead parents or spouses that we find ourselves conducting when the real world obligations are, for the moment, done with. But for all the emphasis on what rattles in the brain when it's tired and feeling rushed, the poem doesn't convince me. The writing sounds rushed, though, and in fact feels more like a convenient and easy to contrive self-dramatization than anything composed with assurance. 

Where is the feeling of the world falling in? The nausea of the ground giving way under your feet? The lightheadedness when , in public, a host of repressed emotion and unresolved issues press upon you suddenly, severely, mercilessly? What's missing is the alienation effect, the familiar "made strange", in Bakhtin's phrase; the trains, the buildings, the cars passing by should be bereft of their normal assurances, including the easily conveyed sense of melancholy; this is a world that should seem, at least for the moment, possessed and defined by the dead. Shapiro, however, uses them as props instead to reinforce a conventional poetic sensibility, and misses a chance to write something genuinely strange and memorable.

This and That" is an intriguing puzzle. This could be a first rate piece of writing, yet it stalls on its own conceit, the repetition of "this and that", which is distracting. Shapiro sounds bored with his details, or impatient to get the poem done, but whatever his state of mind, the continued application, stanza to stanza, with all the attending variation, stalls the work. Some other conceit should be worked out if there's to be some connecting colloquialism uniting the strand, but perhaps its best that the notion be abandoned altogether. There is marvelous, powerful writing here, and it will survive the troublesome T's.

And please, someone ask Mr. Shapiro to rewrite the last three stanzas where his concentration falls on the lone traffic light hovering over an empty town on a winter night. All builds to a power resolution until the last few lines

to recollect only enoughof what they used to mean to sharpenthis feeling of now forgetting it--

This obscures what should have been powerful, visual, final, with a knowing lack of finessed language. Instead, we get this, a cloud bank of frightened introspection, something from a grammarian's notebook. Lost in this gush of uncertain articles and un-anchored verbs is any sense of the physical world, an appealing element that until these last lines was so skillfully outlined with the description of the half-awake children and the splendid use of the objective correlative in having the white, barren town illustrate the narrator's quality of mind and action.

In these instances, the spoiling use of "this and that" aside, there is a skillful linking of an exterior world with an interior existence. The subjective is subtly, gracefully conveyed; Cheever short stories couldn't achieve a finer concision of telling detail.Shapiro needs to rewrite the last image, and pare it down a bit, as the build up borders on being overworked. The traffic light, waving in the snowy wind casting off signifying colors into a black night sky should remain as is, with as spare a remark as the author can manage. The image needs to speak for itself. The situation should be felt, not explained

"Suspension Bridge"is Whitman-like in all the good and bad senses of the term, good in so far that Shapiro gives us a breathless sweep of details, mostly unremarked upon or decorated qualifiers, that themselves form that Biblical rhythm of long lines hypnotic in their names and distinguishing marks, and bad in that at times the lines don't end soon enough as Shapiro finds yet more things to notice, to bring into his creation of this bridge as a center of a kind of combat.

The problem in that sense may be the reading--Shapiro sounds as if he lost his place a couple of times, the pacing tripped over itself. He sounded distracted , he paused too long, may be dropped a page , or had them out of order? No matter, I guess, since the poem is over stuffed to a degree suggesting a too-broad leg trying to cram is itself into a too-small pant leg. But I do like the poem, and there is much to admire here. Shapiro is remarkable with the way he brings elements that create a personality of place from a terrain otherwise seen as inert and coldly utilitarian:

Little lights along the catwalksand ladders running up and downthe water towers near the shore,and headlights shining into taillightsflashing on and off as faras where the lanes converge and branchoff into ramps that cars swerve outin front of other cars to take,while other cars swerve out from on-ramps,speeding or slowing as they merge.Sensation of war. Of being mobilized.Each urgent vehicle, each signaland counter signal, flash of brakelight, finger reaching for the scan,the tuner—all the too-small-even-to-be-recognized-as-small maneuvers of a massiveoperation, effect of ordersbeing passed down through a steelchain of command, from car to car

Movements come across as herky-jerky, grinding and stuttering, traffic formatted as divisions of military components merging in some slowly coherent momentum toward a marked set of targets. There is the effect of a panning camera here, from the start describing the suspension bridge over the Mystic River, down to the tail lights of the cars, the lines , the broadening and narrowing traffic lanes and tributaries, all this brings into the heart of a downtown Boston on what feels like a winter day, with a last line that clinches the feeling that all is instinctual movement until the sun shines on the city streets again:

...the headlightssoon will sweep across, sweepingacross like searchlights overthe momentary faces and torsosof manikins arranged like decoysin civilian dress, in allthe postures of suspended living. 

Beautifully expressed, with a language that's as crisp as the weather the poem evokes.This is about a city in search of a place to stand in it's wait for the center of the day, when the sun is at it's highest , over the bare trees and hard surfaces of the buildings and shines its brightest and warmest for those fleeting moments when one may pause, unfold their arms, move their fingers, take a deep breath, lift their faces as they squint their eyes, a brief moment that life is it's worth and value and that the air carries a whiff of spring scurrying on breezes scurrying around city blocks, the city comes for a time unfrozen that day and for a time it's citizens go back to work, thinking of their lives and homes, perhaps, and not the suspension bridge many of them will soon enough have to drive over again to the homes that wait for them.


This poem reads like John Updike's prose, not a bad thing at all, though it the condition comes with the same objections; the writing is too rich in parts for the subject matter and the idea under it all. The flower, the iris, we address, is being weighed down not just by another blossom coming to life, but by Shapiro's bright, violent eloquence.

"Inter animating pain" is telling and didactic, fine for a prose sequence that are philosophical investigations of a kind, but for what is at heart an imagist-inspired verse, finding significance in the smallest of seemingly small things, the sound this makes is too loud. It's the sound of traffic roaring by the park we imagine this setting to be in, not the park itself.

A softer, less compounded word set is needed, as this confuses and stuns you with its remarkable achievement in phrase making, but makes you forget the poem you were reading. It derails the process. Likewise, a ghostly time lapse in reverse is simply the poet working too hard at being memorable. It's too much verbiage for the length of the line and the images it attempts to give character too. Simpler language would have worked better, I think, and given the lines a faster, surer, rhythmic flow. A lyric poem, which this is essentially is, needs to consider its tempo, its musical meter, and eliminate anything that does not service the sentiment.

All told, though, "Iris" is quite a good love poem, very fine for Valentines Day. Fussy as his diction an be at distinct moments, he organizes his images credibly, beautifully, and draws his comparison between the blossoming iris, with the opening and closing of petals, the way the plant gives grows and changes and modifies its existence with the lovers ever so subtly, gracefully.

It's the second part of the poem I think works most well, where the metaphors are wed, the quick cutting between the flower and the couple, the last statement crystallizing the ideal of being inseparable. On re-write, I'd suggest Shapiro cut the beginning, spending less time setting up the final metaphor, the last very fine set of images.


Shapiro has a feel for the vaguely sad and sullen poem, and he does it well ; "Egg rolls" has the kind of Carveresque undercurrent of percolating anxiety that makes the everyday things we pass through rife with small wars being fought between people whose relations are both the source of their strength and security and the relentless doubt that hovers just over them.

The nice Hitchcockian effect of this wander being started with what ought to have been only a slight disagreement about whether egg rolls should be eaten or passed on by indicts the reader into a curious conspiracy to guess the larger dynamic, the bigger controversy under the passing remarks and criticism. A perfect device for a poem, eavesdropping, wherein only portions of conversation and chatter are heard, mixed and blended and obscured and otherwise enhanced by the incidental noise of a busy restaurant. What Shapiro does well, as he has before in this section, is give detail that is precise, arranged and described in ways avoid the impulse to add ornamentation or irrelevant literary references;

The gregarious babblemuffled the sharpwords the couplein the next boothwere trying allthrough dinner notto have;onlyan occasionalNo you, youlisten for a change,or How dare youor I can't believe thiswould riseabove the barelysuppressedstaccato pleasegod not nownot here rhythm ofan argument they wantedboth to swallowand spit out.
Then the pause,the momentarysilence in whichthe whole placeseemedto be listening

What works here is the breathless pacing, the rhythm that reminds you of someone rushing across the street, leaning forward. Noise, motion, psychology are woven together in a mind that is frantic to sort out and make sense of the small disturbances at other tables that make him dread the consequences of those parts of his life he hasn't lived yet. Shapiro is perhaps the best poet I've read so far of the new Urban Nervousness. It's a poetry whose nerves are bad, an over alert and agitated sensibility that is easily set off into a worrying verse.Shapiro makes it a point to have the reader aware that his narrator isn't merely considering the abyss in a gloomy, formlessly downcast mood, but that the unease is triggered from external incidents; noises, things said, the reaction of others.Shapiro makes mention of the reaction of others in the restaurant ; all the changes and intensification of spirit are matters that churn in the author's unrelenting self-analysis, but the linear aspect here is not a separate bit of language considering only it's inability resolve the problematic.

It's an interior life presented as simultaneous with the presentation of self in relative degrees of public performance; first the overheard conversation in the restaurant, and then the more private realm of intimacy where there still remains another person for whose benefit a mask must be maintained, and then the unknown qualities of a wakeful mind constantly processing the effect and intent of its own motions and analyzing each interaction for evidence of something not seen. So linear, yes, but not without recourse to the phenomena outside the mind.And I do think that Shapiro's execution here is masterful, a wonderful blurring of an overly alert consciousness interacting in the otherwise meaningless interactions that make up daily life.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


Marjorie Garber's The Use and Abuse of Literature: Why does she ask all the wrong questions? - By William Deresiewicz - Slate Magazine
The central conceit of a much contemporary criticism has been to raise the critic's musings on literature to the same level as the literature these folks intensely scrutinize. This seems a ploy to have literary critics form a new priesthood, an authoritative to be sought out no less than that of the poet, the novelist, the playwright, even the philosopher. Marjorie Garber is fairly typical of the academic who feels the need to produce a tract, composed almost entirely of weathered , rusty post-modernist adages, that demands that the reader requires the professional critic to open up the text for them and so facilitate a new rigor in how those so blessed think about the world. "The Use and Abuse of Literature", a manifesto intended to convince the readership she condescends to that their particular takes on books they've read and lived with are woefully incomplete, even shallow. We need to stop asking what things mean and investigate instead how they mean. If you labored for some years with attempts to grasp recent critical trends, you no doubt realize this is something that creates topic drift. Garber gives us permission to not debate ideas put forth through narrative conflict and metaphor and instead insists on turning us into mechanics. It's a messy and pointless labor, I think.

Anyone who knows me realizes that  I am not anti-critic--my chief concern is that the profession and the practice resist the codification of  closed-system terms that want to seal literature from the rest of the universe the art is assigned to engage and to prevent the interested reader from having a nuanced take on a writer's work that can stand beside the effusions of the doctors of literary chatter.  True enough, the critic ought to guide, poke, prod and urge a reader to think outside the conventional , freeze-dried frameworks an entertainment media foists upon us; the activity , though , ought be a temporary thing, as the  theoretical reader we're addressing should cease turning critics for clarification and  consider them, instead, as a means to heighten their own insight. Critics , ultimately, should be a short-lived thing. Garber writes as if she thinks the assignation should be permanent. This is hubris made worse by her habit of asking continuous strings of rhetorical questions about the whys and wherefores of  what creative writers do and then slipping away from  her implied assertions as she glides to the next issue . It makes for a splendid bit of dancing had one the elegance of a Nabokov or a James to pronounce their vagueness with the sweetest and most distracting of verb al music. Garber plays no music whatsoever; this book is a consistent paraphrase of  old notions presented in a droning monotone.

Even a critic I happen to enjoy, Harold Bloom, wrote a little instruction Manuel called "How to Read and Why", a grandiose albeit slight volume where the good critic plagiarized himself from other of his books about and offered up an inconsequential mumbling about reading in a correctly guided manner. Oh well, even smart people with insight and several levels of wit and discernment can be subject to a brief bits of blow-hardism. Though I do think that the there is a variety of "truth" that literature is best suited to reveal and bring forth for discussion, I am not taken with the idea that fiction and poetry and plays are intended to reveal facts. I have no objection to the questions that Garber wants to ask; the reservations comes with Garber's seeming need to rush past those questions and hurry instead to the next set of wonderings. She brings forth a continuous stream of inquiries and then defers, delays, goes diffuse at the edges. What this book lacks is a genuine discussion of any number issues, contradictions, controversies the task criticism contains. She resembles the critic Fred Jamison in this respect; there is a concentrated period of throat clearing and har-rumphing, followed by what can best be described as a gutless strategy of deferral. It makes you want to re-read Terry Eagleton's books on the critical arts, like "Literary Theory", "Problems of Post Modernism" or "After Theory"; background, thesis, argument. In general, I am interested in how literature works , indeed I am obsessed by it, but I am not willing to settle for the Professional Critic to be the priestly arbiter of what needs to be noticed, inspected, discussed; her insistence that the general reader's response is useless with out a Critic's watermark is implicit in this cozy apology.

In any case, Garber's insistence that the task of the critic isn't to discern what a book means but rather how it comes to mean is a handy method to avoid the harder answers a roving pundit might ask of an author's work; she seems very close to insisting that criticism defer a discussion of meaning produced by the form the author chose and instead shine the big lights on the forces contemporary criticism would insist the author is unaware of and beyond his control. This leaves little room for imagination as subject; it is a word many critics seem to fear. You wonder why, after all this time.