Friday, September 30, 2011

K and K

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times reviews books like the smartest kid for a junior college bi-weekly student newspaper, which is to say that her insights, her scorn, her depth of field would be amazing for an eighteen year old in any decade. What is amazing for an eighteen year old, though, seldom amazes anyone when the same level of aptitude and attitude are displayed in mature adults; you think  experience along the way to one's thirties and beyond would have seasoned the fact-obsessed certitude with a personality and a weariness of making statements that are applied like nails to a coffin.  This, of course, sets up those who continue to read her to have expectations that she will someday come into her own and develop the qualities one desires in a critic--real passion, a lively, unstrained prose style reflective of a personality that wants to talk to you, and, if it's not asking too much, insights, conclusions and judgments that break away from the clichés and tropes that often, too often pass for commentary. This blossoming is not forthcoming for Kakutani, who remains an underachiever  in the assessment of of other people's work. Her views are so frail in presentation,so inch-deep in investigation that she does not seem that could withstand a conversation with someone wo politely disagreed with. Kakutani seems like she would sulk, cast her eyes down, puzzled about why she is being attacked. She does not sound as if she cares about the books she's tasked with giving an opinion on, and there is mechanical movement to her columns, a method she's seemingly developed in order to dispatch her obligations as soon as possible.She gives you the feeling that she looks forward to getting away from the computer and easing into bunny slippers , cocoa and a dvd she is finally getting around to watching. Pauline Kael cared about the movies she wrote about, and though she faltered toward career's end with messy pronouncements and idol worship, at her best she convinced you that movies were important and had you talking about the issues she's raised.Hers was a passion that would bring you to a tavern after a movie where you would argue with her until the late night about the merits or demerits of a particular director's work. Kael was the sort you thought would continue the argument you just hung up with the first person to come to her door--the mailman,the landlord, homicide detectives--or with whoever chanced to give call at home; her engine was always goined, revving itself for another contest of who had the quickest wit.  Kakutani  just makes you wonder again and again how any reviewer could make reading books or writing reviews about them seem like such a joyless way to spend one's time.

2 poems by Bei Dao

Bei Dao is an especially fine and brilliant poet , and I thought it would be a relief to read some work from a contemporary Chinese poet who better brings together a modern diction with the tradition of image clarity found in traditional Chinese verse. Pound's translations are so loose in their relation to the original tongue and intent that many who know of such matters consider them to be not translations at all but wholly original poems instead. 

This perspective makes the poems a bit more approachable, and presents us with the idea that Pound's misreading of Chinese aesthetic led him, all the same, to develop his notions of a twentieth century poetry where the image prevails over sentiment and empty rhetoric. Bei Dao, of course, has the sure-footedness I don't think Pound ever achieved in this area. While Pound was busy mimicking an old old style (or what he took to be what an older style would sound like) ,Bei Dao neatly builds surely, delicately, all things in balance, indeed, not an idea but in the thing.
Branch roads appear and disappearin the hands of trees.Where did the fawns go?Only cemeteries could assuagethis desolation, like tiny cities.
The thinking comes after the poem, for the reading to resonate with. Our fine poet here performs his art beautifully, the presentation of the perception. 
Translated by Eliot Weinberger
Wind at the ear says June
June a blacklist I slipped
in time
note this way to say goodbye
the sighs within these words
note these annotations:
unending plastic flowers
on the dead left bank
the cement square extending
from writing to
I run from writing
as dawn is hammered out
a flag covers the sea
and loudspeakers loyal to the sea's
deep bass say June
Teacher's Manual
A school still in session
irritable restless but exercising restraint
I sleep beside it
my breath just reaching the next
lesson in the textbook: how to fly
when the arrogance of strangers
sends down March snow
a tree takes root in the sky
a pen to paper breaks the siege
the river declines the bridge invites
the moon takes the bait
turning the familiar corner
of the stairs, pollen and viruses
damage my lungs damage
an alarm clock
to be let out of school is a revolution
kids jump over the railings of light
and turn to the underground
other parents and I
watch the stars rise.

Monday, September 26, 2011


The dress I bought you was a bad guess at what you wanted for a birthday or Holiday
when I take an unjustified sleep. I thought white polka dots against Communist red
would make you think of white flags and equality, that you’d stop asking me who I voted for or what I wanted for dinner if our lives were meatless from now on, that you’d let it go at that…:That” turned out to be a hanger in the front hall closet where you put the dress for future reference every time we came home. I remember you looking at it after a month, holding at arm’s length, you were shaking your head just slightly, a downward glance at white polka dots against a fire engine red material that made the air grow heavy with aromas that hadn’t been invented. Lately I’ve dreamed about climbing telephone poles. There are so many lines voices crossing one another across static and bad words, words and their inflection a sparking, electronic snarl. I knew one of those voices was asking me who I wanted for mayor, what I wanted for dinner, that’s all they wanted to know and more than I knew how to answer.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A sharp stick in the eye

Ezra Pound is some one who has given me eyestrain and head aches in college, something I can't forgive him for. He didn't give me anything that was remotely connected to the idiomatic language he idealized, the truly modern voice that was to be of its own time, a period sans history. It's a totalitarian impulse to try to live outside history, or to lay claim to it's reducible meaning, both matters Pound thought he adequately limned, but the problem was that his verse is leaden, dressed up in frankly prissy notions of what The Ancients had been up to aesthetically. The effect was perhaps a million dollars of rhetoric lavished on ten cents of inspiration. I didn't like him, I'm afraid.

Unlike Frank O'Hara, dead too young, but with such a large and full body of brilliant--yes, brilliant--lyric poetry left in his wake. O'Hara, influenced by some ideas of modernists, got what Pound tried to do exactly right: he mixed the  vernaculars of High and Low culture in the same stanzas with an ease that seemed seamless, he juggled references of Art, TV, movies, jazz , theater along with the zanily euphemized gossip of his love life, and was able to render complex responses to irresolvable pains of the heart--and heartbreak is always a close kin to his rapture--in lines that were swimming in irony, melancholy, crazy humor. This is poet as eroticized intelligence.
A reader should care if a poet's work adds up to the sum of their theories because it's a difference between talking a good game and playing one. Pound seemed to me to have the instincts of a good talent scout. I'm grateful for his remarks to his fellows, but I wish reading his work wasn't a path I had to go through in order to find the better poets.
If Pound's poems work for reasons other than how he wanted them work, fine that can be explicated interestingly enough with entirely new criteria extraneous to the author's aesthetic/political agenda, but it begs the question, really. It confirms my belief that Pound was talking through his hat most of the time. In this case, based admittedly on my learned dislike of his poetry, I think he gussied up his theories in order to usurp the critical commentary he knew would follow his work: no matter what, all critics had to deal with Pound's flummoxing prose before they could render an assessment, a trick he garnered from Poe, and one deployed by Mailer, a somewhat more successful artist/philosopher/critic (though failed poet).

Eliot had better luck combining the two virtues: The Sacred Wood and some of his other critical assessments have merit as purely critical exercises, self-contained arguments that don't require Eliot's work to illustrate the point. Eliot's poems, as well, stand up well enough with out his criticism to contextualize them for a reader who might other wise resist their surface allure. The language in both genres is clear and vivid to their respective purposes. It can be said of Eliot, though, that he was attempting to run interference with the critical reception of his own poetry by supplying a good amount of writing dedicated to form, or seeming to form, a substantial theory of his. A neat trick, this, since the popular critics and attending academics cannot begin their post mortems on  Eliot's verse without first engaging what he had to say about the practice and purpose of poetry; in some sense he swayed opinion to regard his work favorably. The point, though, is that one is required to deal with Eliot first on his own terms; his ideas color your findings regardless of the position you take.

Pound, again, to my maybe tin-ear, really sounded, in his verse, like he was trying to live up to the bright-ideas his theories contained: The Cantos sound desperate in his desire to be a genius.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

David Ferry scratches his head

I remember reading David Ferry's poem The Intention of Things online and was somewhat bemused when other readers commented that the piece reminded them of Wallace Stevens'  wondering of what it must be l pass through the membrane separating our existence of mere representation and enter into the realm of Platonic Ideas, where the real things actually exist. Heady stuff for a poem to plow its way through, but there is at least an elegance in Stevens' ruminations on these fixed landscapes, things-in-themselves-unsullied or spoiled by human vanities.I had concluded some years ago that Stevens had stopped his search for intrinsic and immutable meaning in the nature of things and concluded that his imagination and his gift for scrupulous composition would be put to better use re-framing the texture and position of things among those palm-lined shores abutting the fabulous terraces and columned cabanas, thus investing his language with a further power to evoke the mystery of things that seem, to him, to collude amongst themselves to keep us guessing to what end our days serves. For most, this results in periodic bouts of being dumbfounded, a chronic state of WTF; the pratfalls we have at the point when we assume we've discovered our path results in arguments with the results. Stevens fairly much admits that he'd be baffled if he thought he could define anything in this world of appearances and realized he would be guessing. Fortunately,  the guesses were inspirations in themselves and that he had the genius to transform his speculative method into poems that would inspire the intrigued reader to ask better questions. Ferry, though, hasn't the elegance or eloquence Stevens, and his poem The Intention of Things is a rudderless mess. One might have fun chasing pronouns and such things as they try to follow these elliptical couplets, but this reminds not so much as a poem of phenomenological speculation linked with the secret purpose of objects than it resembles a stoned rap a group of dopers would wander into once the smoke took hold and the world around them became an unreal cartoon they'd been dropped into. The worse part of it is that it reads further as if one of the zonked participants actually remembered the disparate topics of the ganja fueled rap and wrote it all down, trying attempting to make it a serious inquiry into the sequestered nature of things and events. It is humorless, it is overdone, it is sophomore metaphysics, it is dull and very pretentious; the narrator seems to think he's Hamlet, standing apart and on high, ruminating on human folly, the inevitability of death despite all in-genius plots. But that's a speech that's already been delivered, an unsurpassed achievement. David Ferry's dry verse here seems more a typing exercise committed while he paraphrased a seeming half dozen ideas already infinitely paraphrased.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Some years back I was in a coffee house thoroughly caffeinated into a babbling blend of erudition and nonsequitor overkill , arguing with someone , a young man dressed in black and brandishing a dogfaced copy of Ecce Homo that life had no meaning because it had no real structure, no arguable basis for being something other than an accident of molecules colliding at precisely the right point and time. Whew, I offered, that is the best Dime Store nihilism I've come across in a long time, and recommended that he put it on his blog, ;under a pilfered photograph of Richard Nixon. I went further and remarked that I had to disagree on the matter of life having no structure. Then the coffee really kicked in. 

Life, actually , does have structure, in the communities we create and the institutions we formulate to hold them together,and in the culture that is shared that provides a diverse citizenry with a sense that there is a purpose to where and the way we live, and that there are the means to improve, correct, or change the conditions of our lives. This is structure. While life has no narrative arc, per se, literature certainly does, and it is in the art of that narrative that the contingencies of life, all those things that one cannot predict (let alone prevent from happening) are contained in fictive form and which can be appreciated as drama, comedy, moral instruction, what have you. Literature is a means to make sense of life, to provide resolutions to brief joys and large traumas, and it is a way to prepare a reader for what ever strange turn one's life might come to.

What it be like

A poem should not mean
But be.
That said by poet Archibald MacLeish, in his piece "Ars Poetica". That thrust of that poem, in essence, was that poetry was no longer the central domain in which speculations about the nature of reality , beauty, and the pursuit of the Good Life were discussed and debated, and that it was , in modern times, not the friendliest grounds for
discussions about God and his purpose for us on earth. Other, prose dominated disciplines had quite handily usurped those topics as science handily dislodged, diminished and debunked the mystery and mythology the general consensus used to apply to the material world. A poem should not "mean" anything, as in questing for the precise definition of things and thereby making fixed, general statements about them. A poem should "be" as a thing itself, a material item true to its own nature, a construction of words, considered by MacLeish, WC Williams and Stevens (among the poets of that generation) to be malleable no less than clay, glass or steel. 

The aim of the poem was not to reinforce the materiality of the world and the given political and economic realities that relied on perception that markets could define, exploit and profit from, but rather that poetry should tend to perception, free of the filters we've been indoctrinated into. These poets were not especially overjoyed with capitalism (although one would be hard pressed to call them leftists in any sense) and it's propensity to smash and upset the unannounced world. Williams wrote (and I paraphrase) that the thing itself was it's own adequate symbol,which , considered closely, stated that there is no God and that human personality could and needed to see the things in the world on their own terms, in and of themselves.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

God and the empty nest

The   difference in God's persona between the  Old and New Testaments, from that of grim, avenging  tyrant to a loving father trying to save His children from their  worst instincts, may be due to no more than He had changed his mind as to what to do with the world He created. It's reasonable to think of him as a deity who is constantly changing, evolving. Otherwise we'd have a God who is static and incapable of changing; he'd be someone who'd be incapable of dealing with a continually unfolding cosmos which he put in motion in the first place. The God of the Old Testament was a bitter, cranky, vengeful deity, a bully in other words, and the message of the God we discover in the New Testament essentially demands that we serve his purpose and plans for Humankind lest we be judged and condemned to horrible, eternal punishment. He makes threats, in other words, and this is bullying behavior however you dress it up with transparent words like “love” and “sacrifice”.

 The Prime Mover, I'd think, must by definition be able to move again, and yet again, as needed, as his vast mind assesses, discerns and decides. Process Theology, put forth by Alfred North Whitehead and others, deals with a bit of this, as does Norman Mailer in most of his writings, most recently in his dialogue with Michael Lennon, On God.    It may be a mistake to think of God as omnipotent; if we are made in his likeness then our weaknesses are his as well, and this gives a vital clue that God is less than all-powerful and that he doesn't know the outcome of each and every matter before him. It's an attractive notion that God remains teachable by the very things he creates. There's a reason that it's written that God blessed/cursed man with Free Will; I actually believe that FW is central to his Divinity, in the sense that he could choose to battle his creative power and simply do nothing. The popularized conception of in mass-culture is that God is in Heaven, and Heaven is in the sky, i.e., the clouds. It’s an image and an idea that is inseparable from the way we think, in the short form, of He who we call Lord. It’s in our literature, our poems, paintings, cartoons, and our movies. Ever see “The Horn Blows at Midnight” starring Jack Benny as an earth-locked angel? Rent it, since it is an amusing comedy utilizing the popular notion that Heaven, with God in it, is in the clouds.

 The existential nature of God, though, would become bored and ill-tempered simply existing in a vacuum, and so he decided to create meaning for himself, much as we do in this realm. Free will is that thing that allows us to associate together and determine and define right and wrong, good and evil, and it is also that inspire given instinct, I believe, to empower us to fight the baser desires and instincts. Christian by birth and culture, interested skeptic by choice. God gave us minds to use, and it’s my guess that He , being God, isn’t in need of his self-esteem reinforced with coerced praise, and isn’t the sort of deity to threaten us with eternal damnation unless we play His grubby game of Theological Monopoly. My guess would further to say that this God of my understanding is likely bored with that whole business and thinks there more useful, creative ways to fill eternity . These are my views, but the ideas aren’t new. Inspiration comes by way of Soren Kierkegaard , Paul Tillich, Thomas Merton, Bill Wilson and Norman Mailer. The way the ideas are expressed are my words, though, based on my experience.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Laura Miller, Salon's sharp book critic, had a column in the Open.Salon blog  back in 2008 about the current crop of sad young literary writers. Progressing to the point where our inner lives are the principle subject matter for the middlebrow " serious novel", she wonders aloud how is that we've come up with so many novelists and short story writers who write novels about people unable to transcend their grieving. There is no "getting over" the depression that follows the death of a loved one, or the break up with a wife or girl friend. A generation prior would find no end of fiction writers who could lighten their meloncholy and despair with choice bits of humor, wit, absurd comedy, notable in work like that of John Cheever or John Updike; no matter how grim the action or limitless the poetry once could extract from the misery might be, their instincts were to undercut the mourner and push him or her toward the larger task of reentering the world where they live; sorrow is a neighborhood one ought not reside in too long.

 With time, you become a bore entrenched on your own box of miserable experience. Much of the cause for the rise of these dour, all-is-ashen scribes has been the emphasis in recent decades on the journey within rather the adventure without; characters confront a rough patch in their life and spend the course of many chapters studying their feelings and second guessing their reactions to further circumstances beyond control, resulting in some eventual metaphor about powerlessness. 

Occasionally  in a while this can be a moving saga, but there is less than there used to be about what people do in the world and how their actions effect communities and neighborhoods they might pass though. It would seem that someone had uttered once that having your characters merely think about world suffices for momentum, but that is hardly enough. There is a tedium in the results, a monotony self awareness that is depressing for all the depressed people these plots deal with. Blame therapy, twelve step movements, the 60s? It hardly matters now. 

Once we read stories of women and (mostly) men who wanted to engage their universe and change it somewhat, a situation where introspection, if any, was predicated on actual turns of events; tension was created, resolution came finally,and we had dramatic action. Even the great soliloquist Shakespeare knew that Hamlet's navel gazing had to be juxtaposed against more turbulent events around him. It's a shame that our better prose stylists have largely forgotten that lesson.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

the failure of some 9-11 literature

A week ago, after work, on a crosstown bus, and all I wanted for the half-hour ride was to read the galley of  Don DeLillo's novel, Falling Man, a ruminative narrative highlighting the lives of New Yorkers on the day of the attacks, 9/11. Finally, a novel about the attack that matters, not to give too much away, but this is prime DeLillo, exploring the sober side of what was White Noise's premise for a postmodern comedy, the disruption of fixed and certain lives by the intrusion of an event beyond imagination.
In White Noise, the effect was comic, funny, and all ironies laid in the day were comedies of the clueless trying to make peace with the nagging changes that cause everyone to avoid the void as they try to retool old habits with new explanations, theories, contrived proofs that the world will return to normal. Now it's a tragedy, and the quality of irony finds itself made ironical. The attack on the World Trade Center puts us beyond abstractions like comedy or tragedy, on which one can grasp onto something fixed in their minds as a normality they can get back to. All is muted, rendered mute. Rationalization is deferred. And our expectations of what DeLillo would make of the penultimate attack on America's symbolic sense of being the world's best asset mounted to levels that were nearly toxic with glee.

DeLillo, however, is a writer who might have played out his themes and investigations of a hyper-technological democracy whose inhabitants are searching for a useful past as a way to make the fractured, reshuffled, and decentered present at least seem to have thematic continuity. "Falling Man," the 9/11 novel, strikes me as a book of riffs from a musician who can barely muster the energy to run through his songbook one more time. In the odd sense, in the cruelly ironic sense, it's a tragedy that the attack on the World Trade Center attack happened after DeLillo hit his peak with "Underworld," as masterful of the novel of America our propensity for distracting ourselves in ritual, obsessions, insane hobbies and esoteric systems of knowledge--performance art, baseball history, high finances, unrepentant consumerism, ceaseless works of charity--to keep the suspicion that all our material gains and assumptions are based on no fixed moral platform.

There are some fine sentences here, some splendid descriptions, but there is listlessness as well. "Falling Man" is finally dull, and even DeLillo's prose mastery can't make this alternating saga of survivor despair and terrorist preparation rise above the merely serviceable. DeLillo is overwhelmed by the topic, not so much for the impossibility of writing a brilliant novel in the post-attack atmosphere, but because all the themes he has relevant to the present condition are expressed more powerfully, poetically, with larger and surer measures of canon-making genius than the comparatively provincial exercise the author has issued here. It’s also a matter of whether beautiful writing is appropriate for a novel specifically concerning itself with the physical and psychic costs of 9-11; folks like Laura Miller, Meghan O’Rourke, and Frank Rich have wrestled with the issue of whether drawing metaphors and similes for larger contemplation is somehow immoral when addressing the events so catastrophic and fatal. Art, in the uppercase, means framing the materials and objectifying them, taking them from their contexts and positioning them in ways that will force a deliberation over their existence; this is the aesthetic distance, beauty removed from our hands and set aside so we can contemplate some feelings in the absence of real-world distraction. 9-11 is thought by many to be above such contemplation that this date cannot be abstracted as material for art-making, literary reflection.

Brat Pack novelist Manhattanite extraordinaire Jay McInerney got the urge to step up to the plate and write a Great American Novel, a work that would raise him finally from the middle rungs of the literary ladder and allow him to reach the top shelf where only the best scribes--Hemingway! Fitzgerald! Thomas Wolfe!-- sit and cast their long collective shadow over the fields of aspiring geniuses, furious scribblers all. McInerney has selected a large subject to make his reputation, the catastrophe that was and remains 9/11. Acutely aware that the minor league satires and soft coming of age stories that made his name were fewer commandings than they had been because "9/11 changed everything" (a phrase destined to be the characterizing cliche of this age), he offers us The Good Life, a mixed bag of satiric thrusts, acute social observation, two-dimensional characterizations and wooden generalizations about the sagging state of society, of culture, of our ability to understand one another, locally and globally.

I agree that Jay McInerney is a better writer than he's been credit, but history will judge his novels as minor efforts at best. Witty and observant, yes he is, but how he conveys his best lines, his choicest bon mots have the thumbed-through feeling of a style borrowed. Fitzgerald, Capote, and John Cheever are his heroes, true. Still, there's nothing in McInerney's writing that honors his influences with the achievement of a tone and personality that is entirely his own, an original knack of phrase-making that makes a reader wonder aloud how such wonderful combinations of words are possible. His influences, alas, are visible and seem to be peering over his shoulder. Even what one would praise as sharp and elegant observations from his keyboard creaks not a little. The style sounds borrowed, and our author sounds much, much too dainty to make it really cling to the memory: "The hairstylist was aiming a huge blow-dryer at his wife's skull, which was somewhat disconcertingly exposed and pink--memento mori--in the jet of hot air ... "

McInerney is compared to Fitzgerald relentlessly since his career as a professional writer began, in so much he, like F.Scott, was bearing witness to a generation of conspicuous consumption and waste. Still, one notices that any random paragraph from The Great Gatsby contains more melody by far. The writing genius of Fitzgerald, when he was writing at his absolute best, was his ability to make you forget the fact that you're reading elegant prose and have you become entranced by it. It was a means to put you in a different world altogether. It's this simple, really; you didn't see him writing, you didn't see him sweat. Able craftsman and a peerless stylist when he was performing best, Fitzgerald's prose seemed natural, buoyant, unstrained. McInerney's writing reveals that strain, that slaving over phrase and clever remark, and often the effect seems calculated. In his best moments, he rarely sheds the sophomore flash; after all these years, our Manhattan golden boy still writes like the most gifted student in a Kansas City composition class. After all these years, he is still trying to outrace the long shadows of those who brought him reading pleasure.

This is a wandering and traipsing along with the subject matter like a drunk tourist gawking at the bizarre ways of the big city, a laughable and loathsome tour of Corn's intellectual baggage.   "Windows on the World," a poem written by Alfred Corn and published in Slate on September 11, 2003, is an ill-conceived poem commemorating the attack on the World Trade Center that would seem to confirm the skeptic's view that poets are willfully suffering narcissists who think everything in the world is in play to disturb their peace. In other words, to fuck with them. It's strange, odd, perverse, and somewhat immoral to write a poem using the 9/11 attack as a pretext to write another self-infatuated poem that really is more about how much the writer thinks about himself and his assignation as a "poet"; whatever the god damned what Corn puts on his tax return as "occupation" has to do with the still barely speakable horror this day has come to mean is beyond any sense I can find. Worse, it is beyond anything useful to others. 

Connecting the attack with the crashing of the Windows operating system is a ploy for him to remain a thousand miles from any connection with real emotion; it is relentlessly ironic and snobby in its form as a poem. The subject matter, the real horror, is aestheticized out of mind the way a narcotic lulls one into a stupor and then a nod against a world that still must be faced and made sense of. Corn does none of that at all, but what he does do is give us a long, wavering, and arrogantly ambivalent stretch of muddled semiotics where everything is a straining reach, a forced association, a willful perversion of real imagist reach. Had the subject not been so grim and disheartening, this would seem more parody than anything else. This poem angers me to no end. If Corn was paid for this piece, he should feel honor-bound to donate the sum to a cause that gives hope to others in the human community. Following that, he might quit whatever teaching job he has in writing and get a job in the receiving area of a Salvation Army Thrift Store.

Friday, September 9, 2011


Classical allusions  are enough to drive a good man to drink a dozen soda pops and belch until the sun comes again to the garden of night with a rosy fingered dawn. That is to say that a smart allusion  might, just might make a poem snappy and perhaps provide a deeper echo of  response after an attentive reader finishes a third or fourth reading. But you need to choose your references smartly, and be smarter about where you  position them. Otherwise it becomes comic opera, over dramatic, crucified by self-importance.  
Most days that summer your old dog came up,
in the searing heat, with a failing heart,
from your place, the half-mile uphill to mine―

up the steep rise, past the pastured goats, on
the buggy trail that swerves through blueberries.

As you pointed out, The Odyssey
is full of tears, everyone weeping
to find and lose and find each other again.

Spent, he struggled the last two hundred yards,
ears low, chest heaving. Hearing
the jangling of his tags I knew the gods

had chosen me to praise him for his journey,
offer food and water, a place to sleep.

I would admit that it's not an uncommon to have the incidentally tragic in your life to remind you of something that you read years before, but you have to ask the question as to why the poets needs to bring it up at all. It becomes an offhand way of name dropping the title of a canonical text into a poem that attempts the small significance of a dog growing old and eventually passing on. Perhaps there is no credible way of writing about something this minute without coming across as pretentious, sentimental or pompous. Becker does us a service by avoiding a deep wade through the bristling thicket of obtuse reference, but even this light toe-in-the -water approach, to mix metaphors, is off putting for the reason I object to poets habitually referencing that they are poets, poetry in general, or titles from their private library. It has them thinking about what they've read rather than ponder an experience they are having and, for me, that is a tendency that entirely misses the point of this kind of small commemoration.

The prospect of reading someone who is self-critical enough to doubt that they are genuinely generous and giving with their fellow citizens and creatures is seductive enough as is, as this kind of reflection can indeed go to the general notion of the alienated individual in communities that are becoming increasingly fragmented, complex; one comes to wonder whether the virtues or those about them seem to have are genuine and without affect, or if they're mostly performative, ie, good manners and thoughtfulness put forth merely as a means of easing through a day with the least social friction. This reflection, though, is very expressible without the insertion of The Odyssey or the use of an obscure word for the title. I venture to say that what Becker's poem accomplishes is not clarity, the isolation of a fleeting sensation in original, fresh language, or revealing a world view different from the reader's own. It comes across as rote behavior seen in far too many poets who cannot step outside their conceit that they bear the title of "poet" or worse, "intellectual" and refrain from making their subject matter dreadfully , boringly entombed in literary reference. I would be impressed if someone could ponder this self-doubting in a way that makes you think of someone actually in the world, pausing due to a strong and almost overwhelming rush of feeling that defy book marking. Becker had the reference to the Odyssey at the ready prior to this poem being written, and this, in effect, makes this poem dishonest.

The basic problem is the sheer absurdity of this enhanced recollection--someone feeling the pain of self-recrimination because they didn't accord an old dog the same dignity as a friend or relative who, quite suddenly, ascends to nuanced and footnoted heights of existential despair. Becker manages to serve the stereotypes of poets as people who are so improbably sensitive to the capriciousness of existence that their sadness exceeds mere suffering and instead becomes epic. This is the poet immobilized by their grand response to situations, feeling deeper, harder, more elegantly than do non-poets; this makes the poem practically useless as a vehicle to jolt a reader into thinking about experience in another way.

On the same subject, Michael Collier takes the same tale in his poem “Argos” and smartly deals with the story itself; the tale is made fresh,lively, without being subjugated to the service of  a trivial whimsy.

If you think Odysseus too strong and brave to cry, 
that the god-loved, god-protected hero 
when he returned to Ithaka disguised,  intent to check up on his wife 

and candidly apprize the condition of his kingdom, 
steeled himself resolutely against surprise 
and came into his land cold-hearted, clear-eyed, 
ready for revenge – then you read Homer as I did,   
too fast, knowing you’d be tested for plot 

and major happenings, skimming forward to the massacre, 
the shambles engineered with Telemakhos 
by turning beggar and taking up the challenge of the bow. 

Reading this way you probably missed the tear 

Odysseus shed for his decrepit dog, Argos, 

who’s nothing but a bag of bones asleep atop 

a refuse pile outside the palace gates. The dog is not 

a god in earthly clothes, but in its own disguise 

of death and destitution, is more like Ithaka itself. 

And if you returned home after twenty years 

you might weep for the hunting dog 

you long ago abandoned, rising from the garbage 
of its bed, its instinct of recognition still intact, 
enough will to wag its tail, lift its head, but little more. 
Years ago you had the chance to read that page more closely 

but instead you raced ahead, like Odysseus, cocksure 
with your plan. Now the past is what you study, 
where guile and speed give over to grief so you might stop, 
and desiring to weep, weep more deeply.
I much prefer the Collier poem, and thanks for posting it here for contrast. It works wonderfully, it flows, it achieves a wallop in a flowing, unpretentious language due to, I believe, Collier's decision to deal with the tale and it's moral ambiguity directly, in a contemporary tongue. Rather than treat  the tale as a gratuitous texture to some small event that cannot sustain the allusion, Collier's narrative world is whole and integregated. He assumes the logic of the standard tale and provides it a lightly applied modern dimension of articulated alienation, in scale, never dwarfing the dynamics with a blundering reference to other literary adventures; the tale and its already problematic contents are left intact.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Poetry mongering

Poetry without strict meter or rhyme is hardly formless if it is done well, since I think the aesthetic of the early modernists, from Whitman through Eliot, Pound WC Williams and up through the present day was to model cadences on the inflections of real speech. Idealized speech, of course, but speech all the same as the inspiration for jettisoning the mathematical formulations that dominated serious poetry.

There is something in the best of lines of non-rhyming, unmetered poems that gets at a number of verbal nuances that might otherwise not be available to a poet concerned with adhering to a conventional approach. 

As with metered verse, we have concern ourselves over which poets have an ear, a musical sensibility that can select the right words for a difficult perception to get across, and who know when to pause, to construct a high, frantic rhetoric, when to calm down, when to stop talking. Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara , Thomas Lux, masters of free verse, geniuses even, are every bit important to the history and extension of poetry and poetic gesture as were the usual suspects lurking in the ranks of the older dead white males.

We do have blather, of course we do, we have pompous and amorphous spewings of pretentious , slender lined tripe that is hideously dreadful, but this, I think, is the case for poetry in general, regardless of era, style, aesthetic, politics; most poets are awful and what they write deserves a can of gasoline and a match. The point of it all, among other points to consider and define, is discussing what makes for a good unrhymed poem. I would present Creeley and Thomas Lux as examples, and I would go as far to maintain that John Ashbery, Ron Silliman and Ishmael Reed are no less perfect examples, though of a more expansive, abstract leaning. It's a big subject within a bigger tent.

Critics and philosophers have debated the utility of art since The Republic and before , and aside from some inspired manifestos about how the surest art will revolutionize and utterly transform the human experience with the material and spiritual realms, the general consensus, so far as my academic and independent readings, is that art's basic function is to create joy, IE, pleasure, entertainment by any other term. In those terms, art is hedonistic by default, created and sought out because it pleases the creator and the observer. What moral/philosophical/sociological/political insight or "lessons" the art conveys or that one discerns is merely incidental. Aesthetics ,of course, is not a philosophy, but merely a kind of inquiry--it is a practice that can be attached to virtually any moral or philosophical undertaking. Hedonism , though, is not a philosophy at all, and I don't recall reading any serious defense or affirmative presentation of the "do your own thing' approach in over four decades.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Stooges

No band embraced nihilism with more profound off-handedness than The Stooges. Part of their genius lies in t their lyrics, hardly cliché but not conventionally poetic, these were rhymes that were spare and simple, and powerfully to the point, talking about the small matters of frustration that send the young mind into paroxysms of rage and self-recrimination. Ever say something or overheard a phrase from someone else uttered in exasperation or another kind of brain locking state where what is said is so starkly simple and clear and unadorned by apology or other sorts of mental equivocation that it resembles brilliance? That’s my take on the collective lyrics of the Stooges, words as an instinctive reflex, Nor was their music dependent on the trivial concern of instrumental virtuosity. 

This was the sticking point with a majority of critics at the time when their first album, The Stooges, was released in  1969. In a counter-culture that was ironically putting premiums on the extreme professionalism of well-trained musicians who could hit notes precisely and improvise at length over increasingly tricky time signatures, the Stooges were the textbook example of the anathema, an insult to the taste-maker elite. Reviews were generally insulting to the band’s repetitive slam and clang approach, and it is one of the wonders of staying alive long enough to see a groundbreaking band, unfiltered from the start, outlast the negativity and change the critical consensus. The intelligentsia had to catch up with them.  The Stooges rejected formal instruction on their musicianship and, in turn, weren’t about to suffer the instructions the snoots, snobs and snoids demanded they follow.

What’s ironic is that Rolling Stone, the arbiter of quality in matters of the New Rock, still had integrity in their record reviews at the time and allowed one of their original rock  critics, Ed Ward, to let the air out of the inflated importance of over-serious rock music and the earnest critiques they inspired with his review of the album.  The first two paragraphs have Ward offering a thumbnail sketch of the band’s background, quickly followed the expected litany of sins, that Iggy is a bad Jim Morrison imitator, the lyrics are sub-literate, the guitar and drum work is lifeless and lacking even the dignity of being mechanical. The something wonderful happened halfway through. He summarized his feelings thusly Their music is loud, boring, tasteless, unimaginative and childish.  Then something wonderful happened.

With the grievances listed and the verdict delivered,Ward added, in a single sentence, standing alone , unencumbered by other sentences, “I kind of like it”,  Ward performed an endearing bit of proto-deconstruction, using the aforementioned deficiencies in the music as examples of  virtue, value, honesty, artistic vision. It was one of the great pieces of rock  criticism because here Ward created the basis of real aesthetic argument that maintained, essentially, that the Stooges were the true face and sound of a rock and roll that was relevant to life as it was being lived by millions, a voice, sound and poetry from the curb, alley and shuttered doorway that wanted nothing to do with millionaire musicians with long hair striving to achieve legitimacy by mimicking and misreading the most superficial elements of High Culture.  Ed Ward established the concerns that Lester Bangs soon picked up and turned into a masterful argument with the dying of the light. We can thank Ed Ward and the Stooges for that relief.

This was a band that went in the other direction when they began their quest to find what lay beyond avant-garde posturing in Music during the 60s away from trudging drum solos and long-form guitar essays. Iggy and the Stooges were primitive, out of tune, irritated and irritating in turn. It was a matter where the band and their front man, Iggy Pop (nee Stooge) blended perfectly, given their ability to turn something that sounds horrible and repetitive into a crashing, sustained drone of attitude, and Iggy's serpentine stage presence and clipped verbal dexterity. He was the guy who couldn't sit stand and would stand for nothing less than what he wanted in full, and they were the grind of the city turned into a droning inner voice prodding him to smash down whatever walls came before him. It wasn’t that he was a bad boy going contrarily to the niceties of all things middle class and calcified, it wasn’t that he as a sentient being had identified an artifice he disliked and defined himself in opposition to it; it was more like Iggy Stooge was unaware of the feelings of others, greater ramifications of dangerous self-gratification, or any code of behavior the rest of us depend to keep drivers and pedestrians, for example, on the streets and the sidewalks, respectively. He was unadulterated id, a squirming mass of impulse that transgressed boundaries, mashed together poetry and porn, and displayed no interest in theorizing about what he had done or about what he was thinking of doing.  His was the case of living in the present tense solely, and whatever sensation at the moment was utmost. Let us not be mistaken about this, as Iggy Stooge’s persona and psyche had the virtue of being monochromatic; his immediate impulse was not the only thing that mattered. There simply wasn’t anything else.  All this play against the quarrelsome insomniac raunch of Ron Ashton’s guitar work, very simple, rudimentary, undeniable effective, endlessly influential. What he lacked in technique he made up for in essence, a counterpoint to the corrosive thrills of Iggy’s distilled juvenile delinquency; his guitar work might be politely described as “steady”,  but this a dodge against the annoyance factor this band turned into a new aesthetic. “Persistent” is more apt, like a dislodged bit of a fender dragging along the highway, kicking up sparks near the gas tank, or a door slamming for hours in a strong wind, or jackhammers at night carving up your street at precisely the moment your brain demands you sleep or die inanely. Obnoxious,  profound without knowing. We should all be grateful these guys wielded musical instruments, not guns. Or worse.