Saturday, October 29, 2011

A GOOD HEART ( for Tom Marshall)

Handy in a fix I dash off
 and join a legion of honor 
divine of dishes served on spreads of bread best toasted

in a heat of passion locking

the jaws and ambient teeth
 squirreling away better roots for the future.

Yet the filial rifle I was given jams 
and again the walls are raging 
with the threat of new cracks upcoming, 
but there! those were not the remarks I was making.

The sands of tine clog my crank case,
anger rears its rumored beef, 
what was said gets twisted, 
and honor rolls over and plays dead.

Better I should have an oily complexion
 to ward off a future so rank, given the weather; 
I’d be busted for sure if my left boot knew 
where my right boot was tromping.


There are only the branches
I tore from my hair to give you
when the night goes churlish
and retires in whispers cluttered as vapor.

Our lives as something resembling
ice packs on a bad knee scraped and
scratched with branches bearing
reasonable wounds for part time warfare.

This is a hat trick I pulled in a carnival game, a stick joint hawking English pool shots to nit wits groaning with local beer, the dime toss across the way was knock about and the flattest store I ever saw, some guy, old and gnomey in his money belt and raincoat, bellow to the moon, drowning out the gasoline purr of the generators before and after the flash goes on and off the fish net.

I lived around here
when there was a barber shop
with magazines that hadn't been
changed since the switch from daylight
savings time some thirty years earlier.

The Beach Boys - I Just Wasn't Made for These Times - YouTube

The Beach Boys - I Just Wasn't Made for These Times - YouTube: ""

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The old and admittedly stale joke about the positive side of having Alzheimer's is that you're always meeting new people. Too often it seems I have forgotten the old joys of tunes that lie in my record collection , only to have a pleasurable re-aquaintence with the music decades later, out of now where.

This Beach Boy tune, from their landmark album Pet Sounds , is one of those songs, significant because principle songwriter Brian Wilson had begun to wander from the teen beach-babes-cars-surfing tropes that endeared he and the Beach Boys to the world and began to write material that contained a telling element of introspection. This melody is gorgeous, the peerless harmonies gliding along like light feathers on the breeze of a tentative and ascending melody, the odd intervals combing for an effect of naive plain speak, a young person aware that there is something more to this world than distractions.

What is one supposed to be in this world? What others expect him to be? Or to be his own person, ignoring advice, constraints, societal mores and laws? Or a combination of all these things, somewhere in the middle, defined, distinct, whole, happy, productive, creative? The song is not profound in message, it is not even poetic or artful in any way rock critics would desire,but it is beautiful in terms of being that moment when the music softens,the drummer lays out, and someone removes them self form where the action is to some other space inside their soul, reflective for a moment, perhaps indicating a prelude to a searching, innovative life. Nice jam/

Friday, October 28, 2011

Paranormal Light-Painting Activity

Paranormal Light-Painting Activity:

'via Blog this'

An interesting piece in Slate tells us of an emerging photographic art called Light Painting; the appeal , I suppose, is that the photographers eschew computers for the most part and create their effects "in the camera". There is the thrill of zen purity and existential exactness of the manipulated image being formed at the precise moment a shutter opens and shuts. Heather Murphy describes the process rather well and enthuses over the results to the extent that she and other fans of the form have witnessed mountains being moved and skies being opened.

Hyperbole, of course, gets you only so far and the article reminds of the times that I've read brilliant , favorable reviews of novels, movies, albums only to be let dramatically disappointed when the item itself is presented, either through purchase or as a gift. Prose sounds mannered and unnatural in their literary styling, movies drag or become helplessly vague in their attempts at atmosphere and suggested emotion, the music on the record albums makes you think alternately of different kinds of cream, too thick or too thin, neither of them satisfying.

Murphy's article didn't sink me into one of those minor-depressions-bordering-on-untoward rage, but there was the let down all the same. The slide show of the light paintings described were nifty indeed, strange swirls and circles of light suggesting sorcerer's light or neon lights enacting their own form of back lit mitosis, but there seems to be a limit to what you can achieve here. The accumulated effect is something like coming to an end of view of a grand son's collected finger paints; so many bold swirls, splashes, dashes in so many rich, crashing colors. Your jaw begins to hurt from all the polite smiles and a bad taste develops in the back of your throat, something acid and burning like a coarse guilt over telling even polite lies about how wonderful something is when it is, in fact, awful and killing you by the inch.

I hope Heather Murphy actually likes this kind of thing, because I would rather not think that professional writers of any sort can in good faith string so many rosy descriptions over what appears to be junior league surrealism.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Don't bank on this poem

Ed Hirsch is one of those poets who runs hot and cold; when his idea is served by fresh language that eschews  cheap irony, is develop with restraint and is not burden with the crushing , arbitrary banality of social significance,  we get some real lyric verse. This is a set of instincts I wish he would take better care of, because when his bad , the birds fall of the powerlines His poem "Lottery" is a lead weight all around; it is a premise strong enough for a short story or a sequence in a longer novel, perhaps by the likes of Russell Banks, who's books are full of sad men at some post-crisis point in their life, recollecting over drinks, lots of drinks, about the intensity of a youth that is invariably squandered in is depressed tales. The failure of the poet, perhaps, is that Ed Hirsch isn't a good enough writer of fiction to have plots points segue into revelations of character, the revelation of a world view that has the grit of felt experience.
This might as well be a TV Guide synopsis of a movie being broadcast after hours when the house is quiet and each incidental sound due to sagging wood beams or running water are too loud, prohibitive of serenity or self-reflection. Banks, not the perfect narrative artist, was convincing in the worlds he chose to bring to book length;his types of tale, with narrators bordering on suicidal depression, are not the things that make for a lyric poem. This poem is blunted by the fact that Hirsch stops himself from using his prerogative and writing longer; he wants the pathos to be suggested, whispered behind the collective reticence to show emotion. The poem instead just lays there like a dead wife .This poem is nothing but lead weight all around; it is a premise strong enough for a short story or a sequence in a longer novel, perhaps by the likes of Russell Banks, whose books are full of sad men at some post-crisis point in their life, recollecting over drinks, lots of drinks, about the intensity of a youth that is invariably squandered in is depressing tales. The poet's failure, perhaps, is that Ed Hirsch isn't a good enough writer of fiction to have plots points segue into revelations of character, the revelation of a world view that has the grit of felt experience. This might as well be a TV Guide synopsis of a movie broadcast after hours when the house is quiet, and each incidental sound due to sagging wood beams or running water is too loud, prohibitive of serenity or self-reflection. Banks, not the perfect narrative artist, was convincing in the worlds he chose to bring to book-length; his type of tale, with narrators bordering on suicidal depression, is not the thing that makes for a lyric poem. This poem is blunted by the fact that Hirsch stops himself from using his prerogative and writing longer; he wants the pathos to be suggested, whispered behind the collective reticence to show emotion. The poem instead just lays there like a dead wife.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Dreams for Barking Dogs

The thought of barking dogs
at the center
of the intersection,
doing what they do
when the tires
are turned to the curb,
blunts the pure memory
of having hands to
direct populations to
matters clean in
their marrow,
in the middle of a man-made lake
as the boat drifts without oars
to a shore
on a tide even the
scars of the moon
cannot disrupt,
it's pay day all over the globe.

It's dogs that bark
all night
on the way home from
a friend's apartment,
how the tires
sing on the wet
My name cruising like a hiss of a low leak that starts loud as a squeal yet fades as the words find their form and meaning from a dead language that was killed with a stick, dogs who've heard me thinking in musical alphabets behind each utility pole in the city, howling at jokes I didn't know I was telling, it's yelps and nips at the heals of enterprise, love comes undone like cheap sandals, grace is rubbing the feet where all the dog days have been lived.
I should say that I still love every excuse I've ever worn, all the women's eyes
show green flecks and blue radiances of dances dogs could bark to when I brought scissors and carpet rolls to the prom, long limbs and tips of index fingers dotting eyes on
soft shoulders begging for cuts in line for school meals that are dead on arrival on paper plates and plastic forks, I love every eyes I fell into not knowing either the dead man's float or the breast stroke, I am still in love with faces I can't see yet whose profiles I trace with tips of all fingers while hands find populations that always need a chaperon, a mysterious other,
punk dogs
at the side of the pools
and sleeping on
the beach on the clean towels
I brought,

Some one I love is leaving town,
some one I love has left the
some one I love has left the planet,
some one I love has left the earth,
some one I love is with the earth,
some one I love is adding to the future,
some one I love
hears dogs at her feet
and dances despite corners
and wet paint ,
dogs who smile
insanely bright
starry night
or halo or a phone call away,
some one comes home whose feet are too heavy,
the night caps are loose,
the bottles clink together
but no lights come on,
is everyone still asleep,
are you
awake dreaming of me dogging it again
or are asleep seeing me crawl
through the window
under the grace of
stars and head lights
and spill on to the
rug like molasses
from bottles?

The dogs
are barking
and trees
are their address.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Dreams of Milk and Honey

Image result for LESLIE WEST

What song is going through my head? An old one, really old, "Dreams of Milk and Honey" by Leslie West and Mountain, from the second side of their album Flowers of Evil, recorded at the Fillmore East in NYC in 1971. It is one of the great moments of Hard Rock guitar, with a great, lumbering riff that distorts and buzzes on the low strings with crushing bends and harmonics squealing at some raging pitch that might make one think of natural calamity, a force that cannot be withstood. West, never the most fluid guitarist, had, all the same, a touch, a feel, a sense of how to mix the sweet obbligato figures he specialized in with the more brutal affront of power chords and critically nasty riffing. The smarter among us can theorize about the virtues of amplified instrumentation attaining a threshold of sweetness after the sheer volume wraps you in a numbing cacophony, but for purposes here it suffices to say, with a wink, that is a kind of music you get and accept on its own truncated terms, or ignore outright. There is an aesthetic at work here, but it might as well come to saying that you had to be me, at my age, in 1971 when I was struck by this performance to understand a little of why I haven't tossed the disc into the dustbin. He is in absolute control of his Les Paul Jr., and here he combines with bassist Felix Pappalardi and drummer Corky Laing in some theme and variation that accomplishes what critic Robert Christgau has suggested is the secret of great rock and roll music, repetition without tedium. There are no thousand-note blitzkriegs, no tricky time signatures, just tight playing, a riffy, catchy, power-chording wonder of rock guitar essential-ism. I've been listening to this track on and off since I graduated from high school, and it cracks me up that my obsession with this particular masterpiece of rock guitar minimalism caused a number of my friends to refer to me listening yet again to my personal "national anthem." I might have even lit a Bic lighter for this tune.

Innocence, in a sense

Innocence, it seems, is a nice way of saying ignorance, which would imply that the gaining of wisdom is a hard process, full of rude awakenings, startling revelations, melodramatic shifts in cosmology as one continually learns that the neat scenario one had while younger , with their neat and simple relationships predicated on convenient cause and effect, is grossly inadequate. God gave us senses so we may learn from our experience and cobble together as we go along, a practical philosophy of everyday life. Wisdom, if you like.

It seems that one is likely to realize that they are a victim whether they like it or not, and that the blissful sleep of ignorance of one's state of being exploited and abused is illusory at best. Norman Mailer had once said that he thought stupidity was a choice people make , and ignorance, likewise, often enough seems a willful defense mechanism that relieves one of their obligation to use their senses to grow and work within the world as an active, creative agent. This is the crucial issue for William Blake, to believe in a God will intercede and make everything okay with a kiss and a feather or a promise of endless bounty on the other side of this life, or that one is here with the senses a Creator gave him or her, with a brain that can process and organize experience into a framework, narrative perhaps, the keeps the world that is both fluid and coherent. The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else.

The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly. --Wallace Stevens

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

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dry City

Only sometimes the city  fails to amuse
strangers just off trains with the hard recesses
of its skyline, a profile of brow, nose, jaw
on a pillowed mesa staring up toward
radio waves the million eyes of open windows
cannot view but which can be heard as songs
by regular citizens driving cars or else walking to work,

Every corner seems empty for mere minutes
before lunch and after the whistle blows again,
factory life and gleaming towers amuse strangers
just off trains that there are the remains of decent seats
where band stands stood inside auditoriums composed of bricks,
for mere minutes only the leaf blowers and the radios of the hired help
fill those gaps in the recesses between the buildings and factory vents
while most everyone else hunker in their cubicles dialing clients
and crunching numbers like ice cubes under tenderizing mallets,
everyone else, mostly, unless it's their day off
or they died trying to have one,

On occasion there is no last bus
which means you stand  there
on the corner next to the bridge
and Marine Recruitment Depot
until the end of time because
this day cannot end
and no  one goes home
because the whistle
will not blow
and the elevators do not work
yet there is talk of angels in the machinary
who will turn off the lights
and make the engines steam up again,
the strangers will take their leave,
and from the corner of your eye
you think you
saw horses
crossing the tracks
horses stubborn in their equine poise
rearing a head, eyes insane
and on fire, a train approaches,
one air blast, now two,
citizens in parked cars cheer and unwrap candy bars,
nay, nay,
this all ends tonight,
the way out   of town
is on our backs
if you can catch us,
nay , you can't
and we are gone

And gone
too are the last bits of rubber
yet to fall off your tires,
you look about
and let loose a long held breath,

the traffic lights
continue to change
red to green to yell and back
all night
and forever
when no one else is looking.

Monday, October 17, 2011


 one:Nothing yet to be made of the day but some wet hair clinging to the nape of the neck, coffee that's too hot to power down, a groaning neighbor regretting last night's play-making. I type a bit, reach into my pocket and come upon a to-do list of things to finish. It was folded a dozen times, it seems, each crease deep as wrinkles in an experienced skin.
I made the list a week ago.
Every deadline has lapsed, every task is incomplete. I hate myself for some minutes, sip at the coffee, cringe at the cold hair teasing the wet locks adhering to the back of my neck.
Time to go.
 two:Hair cut, short, bristles. Cold wind cuts through the spiky clump like a lawn mower taking out a large section of unruly grass. Chill of the night as the night sky falls over a line of roofs that vanishes against a black tarp of starless sky, replaced with strings of lights that burn like the head lamps of stalled cars on a strange road that curls around a mountain range no one has seen from the air.
Why did I get a haircut. Yeah, that's right. That woman on the bus asked me if I watched Jerry Springer.
No, I said, I don't.
Well, she said, breathless, breathless, you look just like Jerry Springer, and I got on the bus and you were sitting there looking out the window and then you turned around and I said Oh My God, there's Jerry Springer.
I'm better looking, I said.
And my god, she continued, you look just like Jerry Springer, and I'm looking for cameras and a microphone, but you said you don't watch Jerry Springer...
I've seen it once or twice, I said, but no, I don't watch Jerry Springer...
But I said, Oh My God there's Jerry Springer, but you said...
And so the woman who cut the hair wrapped the towel around my neck and asked me what she could do for me.
You know the kind of hair cut middle aged guys get when they're trying to hold on their fleeing sense of youth? Short and spiky, almost punk rock...
So you don't mind if it sticks up?
Nope, I said, let's bring it on home.
Number three clippers?
And a fine hair cut it is, I thought outside the store, feeling the bristles with the tips of my fingers. Strange to the touch, soft, and grey. Grey as the sky was that day. Wet. Drops. Rain. A downpour. Rain.
 three:Tapping a finger on a hard counter top does make time move faster, nor convinces others in line that your cause is greater than the needs of the others in line. He looks at his watch, the third time in under three minutes and ponders what is at stake as the bank line crawls, inch by aggravating inch, toward an open window. Everyone seems calm, collected, even the children hanging on to their mother's hands are quiet , eyes wide and seemingly transfixed on a puppet show that is playing for them in a dimension on their eyes uncover. Tapping the folded paycheck and deposit slip against the watch he just looked at makes matters worse; now he knows what time it is, too late to ditch the line in order to be in the office on time, too late to even call a taxi , too late to do anything but wait.
 four:Down time, and she thinks of the city that unfolds before her from the hotel window, and thinks of all the people and all their histories in the buildings she can spy from the writing table she sits at, people with families sitting at desks of their own or standing, running between rooms with important papers or calling some one with news of either business or of home life or maybe even plans to be made for when ever leisure time evinces itself, she thinks of lives trapped in jobs in careers or marriages or cars on the freeway going to the suburbs after five or to the center of the insanity near the break of day, when the sun is still cold and the coffee is too hot to sip without a burn on the tender upper or lower lip that quiver at the thought of another day smiling to clienteles that are themselves people trapped in their concentric circles of routine, longing for a time when they might only have to stare from hotel windows in a city not of their residence, abstracting the lives of residents and keeping them at bay, at once, in the distance of a long fog that circles around the end of an imagined peer while small white and yellow lights illumine what remains of a visible coast line, vanishing toward Mexico, ah , she thinks, it's time to leave, ah, she thinks again, adieu, farewell...
 five:On most nights after most days I stay sober long enough to make it without a drop to midnight, when the whole thing starts again, though I might nap for three or four hours about things that fill the emails and answering machines with an unaddressable fear of what waits beyond the next recognizable landmark, a school or burger franchise, a dread that creeps up behind the words and sends a tremble through the hand either holding a pen or motioning over a keyboard, a panic takes invades the language we use to tell the world, our friends, our bosses and lovers that we are ready, that I am ready for what  intensity this day and this day alone brings me,

"This machine never sleeps, it's all waiting, again, the sadness and stresses of the bad coffee and miscounted change for the pastry, the news about all the missing children after bombs change the face of cities that don't have a chance against the results of advertising, there is no sleep, I think I would be thirsty but for..."
But for other dreams, perhaps, that I have where I am drinking all the time from endless streams from silver faucets, and I only become thirstier, hungrier, more aware of a world that still spins and complicates itself."
I don't know what any of that means, but this is another morning, it seems a good time to put on a shirt, clean socks, pants that still have a crease, thinking through the shave and the ride to work and the endless faces with an infinite selection of expressions to match the bottomless contents of their respective packaged miseries, of your face alone at home in a light that makes your entire head a sphere of such cloud-clearing joy that all such hours of slog and trod are worth the hassles with price checks, gift certificates, phone calls from amnesia victims , you offer me a soda and a steak, a kiss, something like that, that's what I think when I don't drink,
 and I find that I miss you all the more.
  six:Joe Lavano and company are playing a sweet set of notes on the player, linked saxophone choruses that skip beats and chase rhythms that crack and break and then regroup in a wonderful, witty, winsome apparatus that configures each grunt and growl through the reeds into a continent of pitches, dialects, musical communities that keep their accents while the borders stretch and the dialogue gets more exciting, profound, the differences falling aside like clothes that are useless in the hot climate, where only similarities are noticed, distinct, memorable, a democracy of crazy time keeping.
 seven:I like my coffee in the morning with a newspaper from a work before. It's so stimulating to be always catching up with the news, to stroll up to head line rather than have it run me over with an urgency only neurosis can sustain. I drink the coffee, I rustle the pages, and find something satisfying that what I'm reading is no longer news, but history, over long enough to make sense in a world where mornings are an hour of warning shots saying beware of the day ahead, go back to bed, go back, go back…
 eight:Good morning, good morning, ah silly me, yes, a newspaper that is a week old, how quickly, how fast the days are enshrined in foot notes and commentary, our Instant Boswells have entombed is in print that is already fading and turned brittle to the touch, the microfilm is cracking as I turn the wheel in my memory of the graduate library looking up the major incidents of Bernard Shaw's great New York City adventure, I was yearning for coffee while in the stacks, a newspaper that at the time would have been one from the same day I woke up, that, a cup, a paper , and table on a patio to read and sip and opine into a nearby wood on a vacation that doesn't have a calendar to contain it, no work, no phones, just me and a cup, a paper and clear skies, and I might as well say, some birds to fly over head to cry out and leave their mark as my mind attempts to unmoor itself and drift with the eddies of current events, I wake up, yes, startled, an electric jolt, and shake my fists at the birds, five clenched fingers against the clouds, no good, I wish she were here, I look for a phone book, a phone, I wonder how it is she can get on with her life after the history we've had...
    nine:Sometimes I wonder if I was born or merely set aside in another dimension of newspaper grey and was launched into this world because what ever the case was running low on the premium designs.
Its a habitual thought, a shudder of doubt when staking hands or crossing streets or visiting people who and which are so familiar, so complete in intimate nuances and shared knowledge that they seem alien and strange, like specimens under glass in a museum I keep visiting for a lesson that just keeps turning the corner to the next gallery when my hard shoes hit the tile. Everything I looking for is just out of focus, short of the designs I see and have drawn.
Believing the world is seeing beyond the box scores and trusting what it says on the certificate; the biography has already been started, a page of facts that have gotten absurdly complicated, in love their own inventory of details that are pressed now in their uniqueness, creased and pleated, ready for rough waters I imagine await at the end of the map, where boats fall off and drift with sails full of solar wind until I wake up and yawn and scan the items on the table, the newspaper, the dirty bowls, someone else's pack of Marlboro 100s. The universe is reassembled, seamless as death itself.
Years ago I wondered if there was life on other planets precisely at the time when she left me, or asked me to leave, I wondered who else in this darkness knows this hurt as well as I?, and I stared for hours at her apartment\ as if trying to make the walls fly away, to lift her off the sofa, away from her meal , and bring her into my arms where I stood in the dark, next to a payphone, with out change to call out far enough to the wilderness where there is only wind and tall grass, maybe houses at the bottom of canyons that you see from jets leaving your home town before you enter the clouds that will drag on the wingspan, I would stare and the walls would stay where the carpenters intended them to remain, there was nothing to see, but I stared harder, right through the building, to the stars I knew were there, receiving radio waves, TV shows, thoughts of strong desire translatable only by action, hear me, hear me, who else shivers in a dark corner in unique misery, genius of articulated regret, who else speaks when no language gets the purity of the idea right, just right, thus forcing one to live in craziness, at the end of the alley, drinking from bottles I've pealed the labels from?
As usual , the stars don't answer, they don't say a word
 ten:In front of things adorning the lawns of our town, I abjure to squint of cranes and deers, jockeys with faces white as the walls of empty gallery stoic as they are in their enameled resolve,
Not here or there nor on any brush in sight can relief be spelled in a flick of the wrist , a motion that captures the tone and twist of a minute in this day when all the frustrations seemed they might just dissolve like thin sheets of sugar under warm tap water and just wash away, there is not a gesture that lets me let go of things short of releasing all fingers from around the neck of the idea that is old, inert, unable to be redefined or made new by new paint on old boards.
The doors of the houses are wide open , dogs whimper and yelp their routine protest about weekends out of the town, in the back of the truck, it’s broad daylight, the sunlight is spread like miles of smiling bed covers over the happenstance of my moods in this moment, the newsboy pitches my newspaper to the roof, again, it’s business as usual, a full schedule of things to do or lie about doing.
Should I continue with my walk to the beach in a constricted stride, suffering the thoughts of phone calls that seemed to be about everything that was never said until the night past and hysteria goes back to sleep, my mind seems a cave with deep, blurred echoes of what we talked about, the impossibility of the desire, the attraction to fires, bright lights at the end of cigarettes?
Damn these animals and doors, damn this daylight, damn the world and it’s orderly progression.
 eleven:Not here or there nor on any brush in sight can relief be spelled in a flick of the wrist , a motion that captures the tone and twist of a minute in this day when all the frustrations seemed they might just dissolve like thin sheets of sugar under warm tap water and just wash away, there is not a gesture that lets me let go of things short of releasing all fingers from around the neck of the idea that is old, inert, unable to be redefined or made new by new paint on old boards.
  twelve:My tie cuts off the blood to my head and my socks have holes in them that are as old as toe nails that continue to grow years after clipper ships found new shores to set foot on, you imagine water everywhere along with the music of pipes ringing during hot showers, you hear the streaming sirens of lost songs glide along your body, slide down your breasts, your hands find a motion that is fine for trilling along the unsaid syllables that fill the room with steam and then you discover and are dumbfounded by the fact that your panty hose vanished during the night and there's no telling where it went, now there is steam coming out of your ears, come, I say, and let's have our usual breakfast, black coffee and two cigarettes, any style.
thirteen:Morning light crawls over the street as the fog recedes back to the corners of the earth that are invisible in the glare of spring and summer days.
"It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood" is song I hear coming from the next room.
A devastated newspaper is spread over the breakfast table.
"Nothing beats a great pair of legs" I say, and this gets your attention. You're walking around in your underwear, toothbrush in your mouth, feeling around the lunch counter for a pen so you can write a check to the School District to cover the cost of a class field trip to the Zoo. You tilt your head, and try to grin around the tooth brush.
"Nothing beats a great pair of legs except maybe a full house" and you laugh; grab the first pen that appears from a layered surface of bills and memos, and then yell "Emily, turn off the TV and put on your shoes, I have the check and I'll be ready in a minute."
The TV doesn't go off, and you go into the other room, and the yelling commences again, more threats, tears, the beams of the pitched roof raised with threats of no desert, movie or field trip if Mr. Rogers doesn't vanish from the TV screen, Emily stands her ground and you pull on a skirt, a hand made shirt, two shoes from the prop department, you're ready to go.
"Won't you be my neighbor...?"
Emily turns off the TV and sings to herself as she readies herself for school from a time zone only six year olds live in, she sings lyrics that have never been written and won't be sung again, she abides by rules that are correct, substantial and relevant only to this instance and then no more and never again, I can hear you drumming your fingers on the door, I can almost hear you tap your toes in those drama department shoes that are too small even for your ballerina feet.
I'll be at the hotel all day, answering phone calls from all over a shrinking world where everyone says hello and good bye in accents that sound like their ducking gun fire in towns baking under cruel desert suns or from penthouses or office towers that try to reach the sun and conquer it with incredible piles of theoretical money that catch fire in the glow of hubris,
All I can say is "One moment please" and connect everyone to Room Service, House Keeping, The Bar on the Roof, rooms where the guest hasn't emerged from for three days, or, sadly, tell everyone who wants to stay that we are sold out, every room has a paying customer, so sorry, no please don't threaten me, sorry, I cannot take your money, please understand, the rooms are all occupied, so sorry, please don't threaten me, lower your voice, sir and madam, please stop screaming,
I realize my joke has it wrong, so wrong, a full house never beats a great pair of legs.
 fourteen:Too many minutes have dropped off my watch in line at the movies buying tickets.
So many minutes are lost as the microwave beeps along it's growling, turning, chirping away, turning the food inside into something that's hot as guns in Duck season but unrecognizable as anything I'd want to put in my mouth.
The library shelves bear their spines with titles that allure and beckon from under their fine dust patina, but all I can do is wave them on, bid them goodbye, there is not enough time left in the week after all that fast food and instant coffee, so many rapid distractions keep me on my feet, spinning in the spot where I ought to be sitting, passing out when I ought to be absorbed in small print, foot notes, facts that didn't exist until I read them, but there is no time left after doing all the things that save us time, This is an affliction I don't have time for.
Could I have THE 24-hour flu instead?
 fifteen:The lust of italics is obvious, the wake of roses taken seriously, off-kilter are the fingers making a path through your hair, a new part where a comb finds the soul under the brain that keeps you wondering about the world,
Those nights, half asleep, a small fist raps your back, you say it wasn't you, but floorboards groaning the way they do in old houses that sag in fall, swell in summer, contract in winter, and all that's left for spring is laughter and fear when everyone goes out doors again after dark, testing door knobs, it wasn't you , you say, only the house or some such thing,
Shared chills or beads of sweat, the double “s” molding prevailed, every position and posture on the mattress a buried language of what wasn't said any of those times when working was more heartache to keep for an idea of love that seems to choke because nothing seems funny anymore, nothing weighs less than an unwanted ton, we change positions as if speaking too fast for court reporters,
"I hope I don't dream" you say. " or if I do, let it be of a big black wall with nothing on it, just blackness, blackness..."
The apartment is so quiet that it is the refrigerator that sings us to sleep, a high and ghostly whistle coming from it's deep frozen stillness. We drift off as headlights flash across the ceiling and car radios play music pulled from the air from other states, we drift off while the house sinks deeper into an earth that wants it all back.
 sixteen:She crosses the street after standing at the corner for minutes that seemed nothing less than hours. He watched ,thinking of lyrics to write. She stood at the corner, jabbing the button of the pedestrian signal box, looking across the street as if to see if perhaps a store she wanted to get to before they closed might have flipped the sign over in the door, from "open" to "closed". As if she could see through all that traffic.
I know, he thought, a song about a guy watching a woman trying to cross the street while he tries to imagine a lyric he might or might not write. The irony, he thought, or was it just laziness? All these bagels are cold and hard as tile. He lights a cigarette, dumps the match in his ash tray. The woman is across the street, and vanished into a parking structure.
"May I have another Latte?" he asks a passing woman carrying a tray to the cafe service station.
"I don't work here" she says without breaking her stride.
seventeen: Your tastes are sweet and deep in the dish of everything a library shelf can give you, yet there are no poems nor pieces of prose that tell you the elusive truth that someone else has walked over that same patch of ground, that same square of cement where you felt the ache of falling in love quite literally, off a cliff and into a void that seemed a swarming mass of mist moving in gyrating tirades of insanity as your head just spins with a name and the blurred countenance of hair, lips, eyes, pouting lips streaking by like finger paints left in a drizzle, your heart just fizzles and calms down, it rests a beat after so much running up and down the same stairs where to visit and leave the footprints of where you've been, yes, it seems no  else has walked in shoes quite your size nor entered the stream in precisely the same spot where you might have slipped on the rocks and seen death in a flash of melodrama that the same cartoon we remember seeing when mornings were merely black and white TV and screaming clowns pouring glasses of milk for a silent, frightened room of children who were mystified why anything like this was happening to them. 
eighteen:You and I have watched lightning exploding silently behind the dress grays of twilight and we’ve kept on saying that the world just doesn’t work anymore and then laughed, drank more rum, sang an atonal riff before a garbled, tongue clucking solo, and then watched the lightning again for hours while it lime—lighted the small patch of trees and the few blocks of curving intersections you and I called home and thought diseased when we had a good buzz while walking past displays windows in shops we couldn’t afford to browse in on the blocks getting torn down, buildings coming down and nothing left standing but firewalls and brick chimneys, the world didn’t work anymore around the sidewalks we walked, you and have stood in the rain nursing paper cups full of Pepsi and Meyers, sad to see the neighborhood go because some one was getting rich while we were getting drunker luxuriating in the melancholy that the turf no longer reminded us of why we were angry about being cheated and being different from the rest, our misery was a shadow that followed us that even the lightning couldn’t cut through and remind us again what it was we were drinking to forget.
 nineteen:There is only the other side of the road when you come over, the other side of the tracks even though we live no where near a train yard.
I bow to your good looks and great legs and the meals you’ll make before you even notice that You’re tired of the sound of my voice on the voice getting real close to the speaker, becoming a grainy whisper alone the wireless sky,  “Maybe we should keep our apartments” you say, “just so that both of us have some place to go, you know, if all this turns out be only a mess, a mess...”
You drop a fork in the kitchen sink as the water runs over the lettuce, birds alight and fly toward the sun that is going away, “I give in to you’re wisdom” I tell you, “Whatever you think is the right thing to do...”
Across the street is a million miles away and the bedroom doesn’t exist at this precise minute, my magazines stack higher than any man’s ever seen,
But not every night is heaven when there some things missing from around the house when I look around,
This side of the street seems to be sliding off the face of a cliff that is losing the earth that gives in a severe inch with each storms that comes from the south or the north, each blast of electric guitar, every plane you took up to know when there is only me in an empty room older than I planned on being, more alone than what the law allows.
 twenty:What I’m not saying is that you ought to park campers on your front lawn, tire tracks deep in the mud that is slowly becoming merely mire with each rain that happens by.
Nor do I endorse leaving old couches and refrigerators in the alley three garage doors down or dumping in on empty lot where combinations of abandoned furniture and appliances can stare at the world that passes by them, mute as if in unending astonishment that anything comes to a finish..
What I am saying is that you don’t have to give away all your clothes because churches don’t fill the pews as do movie theatres or ball games during a series where so much depends on ball being hit by a stick that might fly over the cheap seats and into a window, into history that is.
Religion hasn’t been as good as the movies in decades anyway, and those kinds of ball games are rare , being , as it were, miracles true and factual, the only place where prayer makes sense and the game is more important than what any man or woman wants to with their appetites.
Find yourself a face to kiss and leave the Laundry undone just for day, wait until the net day off to sharpen the knives for battle (while I pray that day never arrives for that reason), stop for a moment and think about what you’ve been thinking about.
and when you’re confused enough, come see me, when I’ll put on some coffee and we can read each other from any book the house, my treat.
Twenty one: Lawn
It is just another day of lawn mowing in lethargic shoves, sweating under the arms under the sun's smarmy glare while the blades stroke and grab and cajole armies of sodden leaves to relinquish their height, their standing, their destiny for the good of the land, the glory of the hedges.The smell of cut grass piled up becomes the legacy of the day, futures are based on what aromas filter from the back of the garage where blades of another kind turn to compost, break down into their essentials compounds and trace results, energy dons a new suit of clothes and leaves a trail for more life to come.
I stop pushing the lawn mower, lean on the handle. Pretty girls in summer dresses of bright, corpulent patterns walk by, hand bags and head phones waving free.
Part of me wants to wave back; part of me wants to be left alone.
The kid next door works on his car in the driveway. Engine parts are strewn about his feet.
The oil stains soak the cement. The leaves on my crescent hedge are turning brown as mud.My mouth is dry and I crave water.It's astounding what can happen when nothing is going on.
That's why I am not a painter; I never developed the art of not-getting-it-right. Rather, I'm still amazed of things in and of themselves, doing nothing, undressed of human perception or ideas, things just falling apart of their own accord unburdened with conceits of glory, glee or horrible, terrible, inconsolable sadness and terror.An uncle of mine worked a farm his entire life and all I remember were several generations of farm machines left out in fields or behind sheds, rusted out and useless years after they rolled from the factory, and when I asked him about what he was going to do about them, he just laughed and said he planned to do exactly nothing because there was nothing to be done, no emergency to attend to."Those parts aren't hurting anything where they are" he said," I have a farm to run, not a garage.
My job is to make things grow, not go..."
Our fathers and their fathers knew something about things in this life running down, new things appearing as if out of the ether.
Swallowing hard, I push the mower onward in the path we've been blazing through the deep, molding grass. Onward, says the general, to where the sky kisses the edge of the earth/
twenty two:Just tell the band to strike up a song that blends well with the color of a crowd whose faces blur in swirls across a whirling ballroom floor, high hats and tom-tom drums and cowbells filling the city blocks with locomotion that doesn’t stop until the clock hits the last minute of the last hour.
Everyone stops swirling to get their coats and then their cars to return to their homes and apartments that stopped seeming so extraordinarily alive with the things they brought to the rooms and hung up on the walls.
The music stops at midnight and the only thing you can think of now is how your feet hurt, how many hours to sunrise and the start of your term on the clock and in the customer’s face with service you know you wouldn’t hand your dog after the biggest mess he could produce on the rug you brought home from an enclosed mall.
But it’s late on the road, rain falls with an even temper, small fists bang the roof since the start of history, there are fields of applause your going through in the city on this drive, you drum the steering wheel as she leans against the glass, humming lightly, racing drums and quicksilver trumpets grow winged feet and chase one another from station to station to station on the AM dial.
She starts to sing something you don’t understand as the wheels seem to hydroplane over the asphalt, saxophone blasts a whole in the clouds and the moon is on you as you slow down the car coming to the apartment house,
Love seems to lasts forever in ash-silver light, you think, coming to the garage, the music cutting out and static going off like firecrackers on a string under the stars of a night full of train wheels singing along the rails with steel wheels
Clouds meander over the moon once more, the light is gone, there is only a garage full of tools and dirty boxes of unpacked stuff you never want to find.
Her eyes are closed, her head against the door, oh, to dance across the city in top hats, long sideburns, and long white gloves like we used to dream it would be always, this is what you’re thinking,
She sings a song without the words, nonsense syllables filling in spaces where lyrics used to be crooned,
“Do you know the words”, she asks, “do you know the name of the song?”
“Sure do” you said, switching off the ignition and tapping your forehead, “it’s up here somewhere, lost forever.”

Saturday, October 15, 2011

poetry , with prayer and without

Rapture or rupture?
There are times in the middle of the afternoon after I've finished what I think is an inspired poem when I have the momentary sensation--fleet! is the world--that all those wonderful metaphors and inverted oppositions were given to me by God Himself. I've sober nearly twenty years, though, and I have a strong feeling that if I ever heard God speak, he'd tell me to go ahead and have a shot of hooch. Faith I have, but not to the degree that I think a higher power uses me as a mouthpiece for his left over tropes. The feeling passes, and I disabuse myself that poems and prayer are linked in degrees more bountiful than rare. I think the distinctions between the two things are clear and crucial, as both modes of address are for distinct purposes.

The  distinction between poems and prayers are that poems are almost invariably written from within experience, and as a form, is under no obligation to detail and highlight it's rhetoric toward any obligatory pitch or prejudice. The poet, distinct from the praying person, has the freedom to invoke God or invoke him not at all; the poet might even insist that the wonders he or she comes to write about are phenomena in and of itself, independent of anything divine.

Poetry allows for the religious, the agnostic, the atheist and the indifferent with regards to God. The single requirement is that the poem meet the needs of literature, however the poet lands on the issue of the divine; what constitutes literary value, of course, is subject to a discussion that is nearly as abstruse and premised on unprovable suppositions as theology, Literary criticism might be said to be it's own sort of religious dogma.

Prayers, in contrast, start outside human, terrestrial experience and beseech a higher power to intervene in human affairs. While poetry , in general, glories in all things human and is obsessed with the mystery of perception (finding that miraculous enough ), prayer assumes human experience is flawed, in error, and needs a strong hand to right itself to a greater purpose. Prayer in essence is an admission of powerlessness or one's situation and one's instincts to cope with the difficulties presented; the varieties of spiritual inspiration vary and are nuanced to particular personalities and finer or lesser nuanced readings of guiding sacred texts, but prayers share a default position that human existence sans God is incomplete and in need to surrender itself to the Will of a variously described God.

It is possible to write a poem that addresses god that is not an entreaty, finding His presence in the world as we already have it, not as we think it was.
"Question" by May Swenson does this.

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?
It's a fine poem, and Swenson is speaks from  experience, finding something wondrous in the world as it is. Her poem is about finding God in the details of this existence, and does not beseech a higher power for guidelines about how to live a more righteous life according to
scripture. Prayer assumes that human life, in essence, is merely an audition for a seat in Heaven. Swenson assumes we already have our seat and seeks God's inspiration in making the place where we live purposeful and fuller.

poetry leaves its sleeves rolled down

Basil Bunting's poem below follows up on Oscar Wilde's assertion that "All art is quite useless". But where Wilde would decree that that was the glory and significance of art--that humans have a need for beauty and harmony in order to engage the sense that would other would be limited to the drudgery of foraging and merely getting by--Bunting plants us smack in the middle of a rant by corporate head for whom profit is the end all and be all. Bunting's little survey of the others in the room outlines their hobbies as well as their useful , real world skills, with the emphasis being toward those paper shuffling tasks that can bring a pay check. 
The one being addressed, the poet, Bunting himself we imagine, is seen as having no marketable abilities, nothing that can benefit an employer, nothing that can make a dollar in the marketplace. Poetry is confusing, nasty, incoherent, a self indulgence, and the poet who takes himself or herself seriously is an unfinished citizen, barely human to any niche-ready degree. Bunting's satire is full of the harrumphing wind-baggism of the Babbits of the world who, again in Wilde's phrasing, "know the cost of everything and the value of nothing".

What The Chairman Told Tom
by Basil Bunting
Poetry? It's a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr Shaw there breeds pigeons.

It's not work. You dont sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
 could advertise soap. 

Art, that's opera; or repertory -
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.

But to ask for twelve pounds a week -
married, aren't you? -
you've got a nerve.

How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?

Who says it's poetry, anyhow?
My ten year old
can do it
 and rhyme. 

I get three thousand and expenses,
a car, vouchers,
but I'm an accountant.

They do what I tell them,
my company.
What do
 you do? 

Nasty little words, nasty long words,
it's unhealthy.
I want to wash when I meet a poet.

They're Reds, addicts,
all delinquents.
What you write is rot.

Mr Hines says so, and he's a shcoolteacher,
he ought to know.
Go and find

Friday, October 14, 2011

David Lehman's New Barbaric Yawp

David Lehman gets a tip of this writer's hat if I wore a hat. Poet, critic, biographer and an editor who has done more good work in bringing the problematic pleasures to a wider audience than anyone I can think of. Among the things I respect about is his refusal, as an erstwhile popularizer of art the public steadfastly resists (and one who's poets resist being corrupted by something as defiling as popularity) for refusing to write consumer -friendly verse.
His work is not the work of a Billy Collins, who composes one masterful bit of middle brow irony after another. Lehman rather likes the idea of using words as if they were things, malleable and ready to be shaped in mode and manner that makes the interested reader do a little bit of their own work. He gets respect for not dumbing down the poetry he writes, or the poets he presents in the anthologies he brings to the world annually.
David Lehman’s poem “November 18”, from his collection Evening Sun, was the subject of a dispute among some fellow poetry readers, half of whom liked the poet’s disjointed connections, and others who thought the poem was dated because of a seeming lack of unity and the use of dead American artisan’s names. The conversation became rather steamy. All the same, the poem is hardly dated.

Because it mentions people, places and things that are equated with the '50's? An arbitrary habit of thinking, I think. Lehman essentially creates a medley of voices, different streams of language that melt into one another, and with he balances the texture of associations the references bring; this is very much in the modernist mode, especially as practiced by The New York School, who, through the work of O'Hara and Ron Padgett, made a city poetry from an everyday language of the noise of the city, it's billboards, magazine stands, grand hotels, loud radios, and sports extravaganzas.
November 18 By David Lehman
It's Johnny Mercer's birthdayfrom Natchez to Mobilein the cool cool cool of the eveningvery cool with Barbara Leesinging Marian McPartland playingthe greatest revenge songs of all timehooray and hallelujahyou had it comin' to yaand a bottle of RodenbachAlexander red ale from Belgiumwith cherries and "Tangerine" inthe background in Double Indemnityhe had a feel for the lingo, "Jeepers Creepers"as Bing Crosby sang it on my birthdayin 1956 I just played it three straight timesand an all-American sense of humor what doesJonah say in the belly of the whale he says manwe better accentuate the positive that's ithappy birthday and thanks for the cheerI hope you didn't mind my bending your ear

It is a particularly American sound that Lehman lays claim to here, starting with Whitman's barbaric yawp, coming up through William Carlos Williams, and finding itself resting next to other high art forms that found much to use, exploit and find glory in from popular culture. It had been mentioned that Langston Hughes did this sort of thing” infinitely better”, but that’s an assertion meant to distract. Hughes never did anything remotely like what Lehman succeeds in doing here, I'm afraid. He sought a blues cadence, a gospel resonance, and a voice based on an idealized African American idiom, but what his brilliance is a separate set of accomplishments. They are simpatico on a number of points, but to weigh over the other on the merits of a fictitious objective standard is spurious. The terrains are different -- Hughes rural and black, Lehman white and urban -- and the motivations behind the experiments vary dramatically. Lehman is an inspired heir to the mood and tact of the New York poets, and what he is able to do he does cogently, with humor and a love of making language behave in ways that are poetic for the sheer ingenuity that cogent barbarism can bring.

Hughes was quite a different case. the poem can't make up its mind as to whether it wants to be urban jazz or rural blues. The poem is about, among other things, the thriving, buzzing, and churning diversity of noise and music and tempos that one finds spread out across the American landscape, and what happens is a nice medley of musical emulations. If you've driven across country with the radio on all the way, you'll have an idea what the poem manages, the layering of music, voices, references all on top of one another, some fading to the background, others picking up as you near the transmitters, everyone in competition to be heard on the limited bandwidth. Charles Ives once hired two brass bands to march into the center of a town square from different directions, both playing entirely different pieces of music, just so he could sit there and find out what it all sounded like. You pick up this curious, adventurous, experimental verve in his brilliant music. Lehman is in much the same American Grain.

Have you been there? Now, Natchez to Mobile certainly gives us a slice, but few would say that it's a particularly urban slice. Yes, I've been there, and as I've said prior the poem is about creating a feeling of the vastness of America; part of the way you create that feeling is with place names, time-honored and effective. One has the feeling of pointing at a map, seeing an odd sounding name that has native-sounding exotica, and telling your traveling companion "let’s go there." It's texture, and it adds this pieces city/country/city layout. The poem I argue is not outdated because it deals with the '50s (a straw man argument you create for me - and by the way, I wish there were more historical poetry), it is outdated in style and tone. Hardly outdated, I think, since lyricism in any guise that effectively makes a reader forgo reason and engage emotionally, more "felt" associations from what the language highlights cannot be said to be antiquated; it is always timeless. This poem is perfectly comprehensible to anyone who cares to read it with open ears. The language school you reference is petering out - Ashbery and Graham, the two best-known poets to emerge from the school, no longer associate themselves with it - Ashbery always (wisely) kept a careful distance from the label.

Well, I didn't reference the Language Poets in reference to this poem , because it adheres to the New York School of Poets, a group of poets known for their friendships and alliances with painters during the late fifties and early sixties, a food decade and a half prior to the emergence of the Language Poets. John Ashbery is not a language poet, as he believes, however obscure and private may be, that there is a core personality at the center of his poems, a diffuse "I" perhaps, but an "I" none the less. The Language Poets, many of whom are cursed with theoretical baggage they've borrowed from Marxist criticism and French structuralist linguistics, deny the capacity of language to accurately present the world through an egocentric notion of "the author". Some of this work and theory is interesting and brilliant, but Ashbery isn't in their company. He's an aesthete and has produced a brilliant body of work in his lifetime. Not for the last ten years, perhaps, but his strong work is plentiful. Jorie Graham, I find just abstract and dull and unable to write an interesting line or image. There is perhaps some hope for it in a handful of figures, some of which you've noted in a previous post. You left out there the individual who I think holds the most promise - Lyn Hejinian. Last point - The point on the contrast between Hughes and Lehman is that both have the similarity in wanting to use an idea spoken cadence and musical phrasing of a sort in their writing, areas where they are simpatico in the abstract. What each poet has produced, practically, as writing, is vastly different, in style, range, notions of place. All one need do is read them side by side and become aware that each are doing different things, and that a qualitative comparison is tenuous. Better you match Lehman against O'Hara or Kerouac, two poets who are stylistically coherent with Lehman for the purpose of critical contrast. The Langston Hughes option is merely strained, and requires too much fancy footwork to make an argument stick even loosely. The fact remains that Hughes and Lehman are miles and miles apart in their approaches toward what one might call common goals; theirs are different methods to similar, but not identical ends. Belaboring similarities or the lack of them as a way of attempting to hoist one over the other simply accentuates the meaningless of the comparison in an attempt to discover which poet has more merit. Both got to what where they wanted to go, accomplished what they wanted to accomplish in decisively different ways.

Another, better poet ought to be mentioned before this aspect of the conversation goes anywhere useful. What Lehman does in the spirit of Whitman, and there is traceable stylistics in this and other poems he's written. Loose-limbed, ready to take a barbarism and make it poetic in spite of its vulgar intent, colliding impulses, drives, ego, instincts, pleasure zones. The poem has the senses reeling, on the kind of overload that Whitman neared and reached in the few truly amazing works he composed. This a poem about spreading oneself over the map, to assume the personality and vibration of all that makes up the world one is surrounded by; it is an impulsive bit of lyric acceleration of the spirit that strives to know things in a hurry, to understand the life and style of the obscure corners of America in a manic flurry of celebration that life itself is vital and finite and cannot be curtailed or compromised by form or structure. One can argue if they wish with the irrationality of this idea, with the informing subtext that drives the glancing mentions and riffs drawn from the music of place names and advertising coinages, but this is a universal spirit none the less and well worth expressing because it is a poem, ultimately, of witness. Whitman claimed he contained multitudes, Lehman's smaller set of provisions asserts that he is multitudes.

This is a fine, concise and swift waxing on the fury and rapidly changing shape of our National Self Image. Everything here comes together in one gasping, groaning, singing, chanting, snare drum rattling orgasm that says everything in this life, the only thing we can be certain, is needed and wonderful and full of lessons we've barely the time to learn. It's a textured and rushing chorus that says that all we hear is music, and all music is beautiful if our ears are open enough to allow the notes to hit the heart and revive the memory of all the things that make life worth living, which might be songs of love, lyrics of love, choruses about love found, lost or broken, but it is these thoughts that however perfect or malformed our notions of affection, belonging, attraction, love finally have come to be, it is the final idea that it is love in any way that makes life worth living, and that it's the lack of love that kills it. Lehman chooses to remember and to love and live in the sunshine of the moments that pass and will never be again. There is music in every crowded line, there is music in every broken rhythm, and there is music in every car alarm and train whistle and a blast of radio static. There is music everywhere. do believe that music exists in ways we've yet to discover, but I’m speaking of Lehman's intent with the poem, not my personal and unbending view of the world. Poetry can be written in many ways, in my many styles, with many different criteria for successful work; it's a versatile medium, yes? Criticism needs to also be as flexible in how work is read, in order to make a coherent statement about them. I am not hard-and-fast in any regard about how I want poems to work, just as long as they are successful in their uniqueness and provide a sense of the predicaments they might be addressing. My critical practice is pragmatic and my ears are wide open to the sorts of sounds a manipulated rhetoric can make. The validity of any idea is in how it works, to crib an idea from William James. I can like the idea that "music is everywhere" - but I cannot live it and so cannot truly hold on to it as a valid tenet in my own critical approach.

I believe that a good critic ought to be willing to suspend their disbelief ala Coleridge and expose themselves to some forms they might not otherwise be prepared to have a truck with. As an argument for the musicality of November 18, you essentially claim that everything is musical. Sorry, I made no such claim. Rather, I was talking about the operating psychology I sensed in the poem, a Cage /O'Hara/Mingus/Ives stream of ideas that finds tonalities, timbres, pitches, and harmonies in city and country, and what I further described was that there is beauty in the clashing, contrasting sounds; composer, improviser and poet can find the music in it all and place it on paper, and can further exclaim their work into the air as a celebration of the amazing forms available in the 20th century.
The same amazement, as typified by the poem, is no less contagious for many readers in the early part of the 21st century. In any case, my remarks were poem/poet/styles specific, and I've already made clear that although I think this is a naive way for one to approach the practicalities of life as we must live it, it remains a successful tact to lure the lush and lyric from our ambiguous language. The claims for what is, after all, a very modest piece, might seem hyperbolic and grandiose.
So be it, guilty. I'll accept sounding momentarily grandiose and perhaps hyperbolic; under the overstated is the truth about Lehman's poem, which is that it's good, successful, and works in its neatly modest way. It's that odd layering of references, one on top the other, like shards of per of varying colors, shapes, and grades of translucence, that gives me the Aha! sensation, something accidental in its arrangement but stunning in how the plain and inane is made into a configuration that stops you, makes you turn your head and requires you process what's been seen/written.I think Lehman himself would blush as the poet deliberately eschews that high prophetic voice of poets like Whitman and Ginsberg. My guess is that Lehman would appreciate the fact that I picked up on the poets who've influenced him and continue to motivate his best work. I thought it was about Johnny Mercer - more a tip of the hat than anything else - a brief acknowledgment of a musician who "had a feel for the lingo,” and who was therefore simpatico with the poet. Mercer is the starting point, but the poem moves on, along the roads, through the towns, the meals, the intriguing place names. Lehman addresses Mercer's lyrical, vagabond spirit. In doing so, the poem, like travel itself, moves from where it starts and becomes about something much larger, and harder to define. The final definition is impossible, more than likely, but what we have is the realization of one of my favorite clichés, it's about the journey, not the destination.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Who else ?

Add caption
In line with his discussion of Edgar Guest under way in his current column in Slate, Robert Pinsky asked the question about who  we think among  currently popular poets might suffer a similar diminishment in estimation  , say, forty years from now. It would be a long list, but some things have to gotten to first off, pronto.

There remains a respectful silence on the matter of quality, but I think in a few years readers of poetry will gain enough spine and admit that the poems of the late and truly tragic Mattie Stepaneck were spectacularly wretched. I well understand a dying young man's desire to remain optimistic and strong and courageous and to show all this is some painfully earnest poems of faith, sunshine, flowers, spiriituality and such, but Stepaneck's fatal malaise made him immune to criticism.

The media, with its instincts for human interest stories that can be exploited indefinitely, turned the boy into a poster child for All Our Lost Innocence, and made it possible for the woefully amateurish and sub-literate cracker barrelisms of his poems to be published and become best sellers.
 There was stony silence as to how dreadful the work was; no one said a thing. You bit your tongue and didn't argue the idea that Stepaneck's popularity would fade soon after he passed away. No one wanted to be accused of saying mean things about the poems of a young boy dying from a fatal condition.

 Still, someone with no dog in the fight , with no emotional ties to the increasingly distant recollection of Stepaneck and the context of his verse, will come across his collected poems and become numb with incomprehension as to why anyone, anyone at all thought that such a specimen of slithering sentimentalism qualified as something worth publishing.  The future critics of poetry will regard poetry fans of this day, as we regard poetry readers of Edgar Guest, as rubes for making the relentlessly mundane a highlight of our aesthetic experience.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Edgar Guest and Marianne Moore: the task of the modernist poet

There's a smart,concise essay by Robert Pinsky contrasting the styles of poets Edgar Guest and Marianne Moore  in the current edition of Slate online. It is of value because he more or less isolates the reasons why no reads Guest these days, the poet who was once the most famous poet in America, and why the formerly obscure Moore continues to gain readers the many decades since her first publication.
Edgar Guest was not an incompetent writer, of course, but that does make him a good one. As with the faded phenomenon of Rod McKuen in the Sixties, Guest's singular ability was to take on a persona that reduced a great heap of cracker barrel wisdom, cliché and hick town wisdom into an attractive speaker who would seem to come along an endless string of life's events just after they happened and reveal the moral that only required a clear sighted commoner to brush the trail dust from.

By the time McKuen emerged during the Sixties a perhaps more poet archetype had filtered through mass culture and, abetted with the then current notion that rock-lyrics-were-poetry-- was able to take the idea of Poet as Tragically Solitary Romantic Hero and reduce it to appealingly two dimensional depiction of a Man Too Sensitive for Life's Many cruelties who was consigning himself to travels far and away, usually on boats , usually arriving at coastal cities in deepest mist to choruses of foghorns and sea gull cries. His universe , with all it's references to anonymous and genderless others in the form of the familiar sounding  yet effectively distancing pronoun "you", was solipsism with the worst social implication; although others in McKuen's imagined travels and romances are indeed present, although they have names and histories unique to them if one chose to investigate the sources of McKuen's muse, it is only McKuen's emotional state that matters. The essence of Hemingway's code --live by your own rules, do not impose your pains, wound and heartbreaks on to others , and seek experiences that are vital and apt to increase your appreciation of the Life You Have--is boiled down to a shriveled, grayish root . Where Hemingway's thinking was that one had to be prepared for others to follow their own consul as well and and summarily at conclusions and actions that are likely contrary to one's internalized philosophy, McKuen's premise is merely a set up for failure; the man's poetry leaves you with a feeling of unearned fatalism and acting out. This is a middle aged man writing as a sensitive teenager  who desires experiences his body has yet to know.  McKuen equates defeatism with the poetic spirit; Hemingway, in a manner of speaking, tried to show us how to take a punch and then get back into whatever game it is we've decided to take part in.This was perfect material for the teen ager who wanted to graduate from Bob Dylan records. The irony is that it is the lyrics of a songwriter that have survived the decades better than the generically defined page poetry of either Guest or McKuen.

Guest, it should be remarked, made a living cleverly rearranging, rephrasing, re- branding what it was his audience already believed in; there was nothing of surprise in his work, but rather a steady path toward a conspicuous set of resolutions. He was, in practice, a propagandist for the Way Things Ought to Be, a softly reactionary set of ideas that were not, in his writings, revealed as remarkable realizations as the result of following a string of contrary ideas to their metaphorical commonality, not a perception that is caught in composition and shared, indeed, his ideas are not even personal statements of any faith-based belief; they were, flat out, something akin to marching orders, talking points, instructions to a readership to take comfort in their reticence to challenge conventional wisdom , to resist straying from the compound, to be suspicious of education and nuance. Comic and technically skilled as Edgar Guest's pieces might have been his poems were by and large the disguised dictates of what Nietzsche referred to as "slave morality".

In essence, Guest is instructing his audience not to budge and to instead on a collective memory of a past that never quite existed, certainly not in the static , perfected, perfect balanced paradigm where a man,his family, his neighbors and the world about all of them existed in a common sense, "natural" harmony. He does this to nearly toxic degree with his homily "Home" , where the corniest of cornball American dialects informs the presumably willing readership a set of conditions , drawn from the baldest and least convincing of  stereotypes about rural life, that are required for a house for a house to gain the legitimizing and ennobling essence of being a "home". Pain, suffering , catastrophe are suggested as those things that make you part of an Order of Things that cannot be dismantled; new ideas, new technologies, new kinds of neighbors from different ethnic groups are not just suspect, they are wrong to be. Guest's hackneyed verse, filtered a meticulously contrived speech of common man wisdom, was contemptuous of modern ways, of being seemingly cut off at the root from a past that was, until then, continuous , coherent and seamless, generation to generation. There is something to be argued for  learning lessons through our own history as a people, but Guest turns into gummed up rhymes seeking easy places to land to launch a sinister agenda of mediocrity:

Ye've got t' sing an' dance fer years, ye've got t' romp an' play,
An' learn t' love the things ye have by usin' 'em each day;
Even the roses 'round the porch must blossom year by year
Afore they 'come a part o' ye, suggestin' someone dear
Who used t' love 'em long ago, an' trained 'em jes t' run
The way they do, so's they would get the early mornin' sun;
Ye've got t' love each brick an' stone from cellar up t' dome:
It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home.

Simply, Guest discouraged the impressionistic view of the world, detested the subjective, was annoyed to great extent at those poets who decided that their responsibility was not to their audience's need for walled-off security but rather to their own sensibilities as they sought to gauge the interaction of their personalities with the flux and flow of a world outside themselves, entirely separate from their wishes. Moore rather brilliantly had the quality of actual thought in her poems, and the best poems, such as her most famous "Poetry" or this poem "Silence", read as skillfully, artfully distilled notions, half thoughts, material items, memories that are tracked as they culminate into an eventual perception. Something other than what the writer wanted to see or say is revealed; the recollection of her father's speech about the virtues of short visits contrasted against his final offer of "make my house your inn" bring us neatly to Moore's terse knockout punch:" Inns are not a residences".

 In the brief span she brings together a father's personality where he was at a remove from those he ought to be close to, that he would preface his desire to have little to with others with the flattering comparison with great poets and their stoic virtues, that he would open up his house to his daughter merely as a place to stay temporarily, not as a home. There is quite a bit here, voiced in simple language, linked implication, not rhetorical gestures. Where readers had read Guest, quickly understood what he had to offer and soon enough boxed up his volumes as attitudes in American culture began to change, Moore and others of her like remain the ones we can re-read and discuss without embarrassment .The best poems remain relevant, and it might be said here that a truly modernist work remains modern long, long after it first finds the light of day.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Cootie farm

If on a winter's night a traveler...
Italo Calvino

Calvino can be an intriguing fabulist, but there is a limit to how often one can keep  interrogating the very medium<br/>they are writing in before one drops the book and fixes themself a strong drink. Self-reflective art in excessive doses and abusive combinations with other dislocating devices of retired experiments makes you complacent about the value of literary writing itself; what Calvino has going for him is an elegant style that engages you even as he performs the old tricks of revealing what's behind the curtain. For my taste, one should investigate the more recent novels of Paul Auster, especially his New York Trilogy. He essentially manages to have us step back from the linguistic artifice of fiction just enough to makes us aware of just how arbitrary the beginnings, middles and ends of plot outlines are when they are confronted by the irritable unpredictability of  reall events; and yet even with this conceit going for him, he does not lose connection with his stories. These are characters who suffer, laugh, revenge, connive in all their circumstances, quirky and believeable, like we the readers, trying to make sense of situations that defy every template we can attempt to tame them with.

The Lottery by Edward Hirsch

This poem is nothing but lead weight all around; it is a premise strong enough for a short story or a sequence in a longer novel, perhaps by the likes of Russell Banks, who's books are full of sad men at some post-crisis point in their life, recollecting over drinks, lots of drinks, about the intensity of a youth that is invariably squandered in is depressed tales.
Hundreds of us pressed tightly together 

In the south lounge of the Forum 
To watch the lottery on a giant TV screen.
The failure of the poem, perhaps, is that Ed Hirsch isn't a good enough writer of fiction to have plots points segue into revelations of character, the revelation of a world view that has the grit of felt experience.

We were stuck in the heart of the country,
But in Washington, the men in sober suits                         
Stood together on the bright stage

And faced the rolling cameras
For the invocation blessing our country,
Which would be a blessing to the world,

And the roll call of birth dates.
The mood among our motley seemed
Festive and fearful, seething, curious. 

This might as well be a TV Guide synopsis of a movie being broadcast after hours when the house is quiet and each incidental sound due to sagging wood beams or running water are too loud, prohibitive of serenity or self-reflection.
 Banks, not the perfect narrative artist, was convincing in the worlds he chose to bring to book length; his types of tale, with narrators bordering on suicidal depression, are not the things that make for a lyric poem.

The selection: a random sequence 
Of blue capsules mixed in a shoe box
And pulled out of a glass bowl.

September 14thwas the first date
Pasted onto an enormous white board
With 365 more empty slots.
April 24th: the lucky second.

Someone muttered, "I'm fucked";  
Someone lit a joint, as at a concert;

And the girl next to me began to sob
For her high-school boyfriend in Cedar Falls
Whose birthday was December 30th.
History existed only in textbooks, 

But it arrived for us on December 1st, 1969,
With the Selective Service System.
Those blue plastic capsules opened,

And people drifted away when their days
Were called to call their parents

Or get drunk or pack for Saskatchewan—
Where was it, anyway?—or muse over

The randomness of dying in Vietnam.
Might we have lingered longer  after all the birthdays were called off and had some details , in miniature, of how the incredibly lucky and the fairly damned responded to their fates being given a tangible timeline? But the poet is in a hurry, his concentration on a series of tasks he has yet to begin. There is a punch line coming up somewhere, some dated moral disguised, perhaps , as an irony that only know reveals itself now that the narrator has lived long enough to see the finite perspective he forced his experiences to fit into: The randomness of dying in Vietnam.  This is the kind of poem that would get a young poet at an anti war rally in the Sixties totally and completed laid by someone else who heard him or him read ,convinced as they might have been that these were lines that explained the natures of right and wrong and pleasure and denial. Today it sounds inane and dated. It is a last line that sounds like so many other last lines that strike you as having been composed before the rest of the preceding poem; it’s  a suit that was tailored just to accommodate the existence  of fairly spectacular zipper.
This poem is blunted by the fact that Hirsch stops himself from using his prerogative and writing longer; he wants the pathos to be suggested, whispered behind the collective reticence to show emotion.
The poem instead just lays there like a dead wife. There is a species of permanent mourning in Hirsch’s poems , as there is Bank’s novels and short stories; this seems to be an extreme latter day variation  of Hemingway’s idea that a real man should live by a personal  code to which only he is privy to and for which  only he can gauge a fidelity to the finer points  of a Technicolor set  of undisclosed do’s and don’ts.