Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Dolly wants to kill you

"The Home" by Kathryn Levy. - Slate Magazine:

This poem attempts to tell its tale from within a nightmare in progress, the effect being that the verse here, with its rococo imagery and colliding associations between abuse, violence and gossip among dolls and a government's unjustified , illegal, irrational war of choice, is itself incoherent.  

For rhythm and sound and general imprecision , Kathryn Levy's poem resembles the worst traits of the otherwise redoubtable Joyce Carol Oates; this is the say that there is an overwhelming strain of professional victimhood, that those harmed in violent communities, whether doll or actual, or who suffer due to occupying armies, drone strikes, destruction of destruction of infra structure and the local economy, have in some sense volunteered for their pathetic stations, that the unstable social forces around them have conjured up a seductive, pervasive and persuasive rhetoric with art, news coverage, entertainment, class envy and saturation advertising that great sacrifices are required for the righteousness of our way of life to survive and to again flourish mightily as it is claimed it had in some hazily described Golden Age. 
I am not a fan of the poem--again, Levy's tone is neither rhythmic or smooth nor effectively jagged as, say, Robert Creely's "I Know a Man" turns out to be.  There is no entry way into this poem; while there is an attraction for works that do not announce their meanings,are opaque and obscure, one would usually prefer the works to have a style and and arrangement of contradictory elements that would create atmosphere, at least. One would expect a poem trying to suggest a set of ideas that it doesn't want to say outright to be suggestive.

 This would be a means with which the central themes of useless sacrifice and petty rationalization of torture to be connect with a larger pathology in the culture. I do like the presentation of dolls as something on which the nascent characterization of adult behavior by young children are projected upon, and I like the underdeveloped link with war and wanton, rationalized destruction; this is a world where metaphysical certainty, the argument that there is an immutable meaning to our visible world and events in them, are instead improvised, variations on a theme that is less melody than slippery rules in a children's game. The best we can do is read this and admire what seems to be the author's thinking and wonder how a better poem would have done with this insights.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Fuhgeddaboutit - Oy vey! - Salon.com

Fuhgeddaboutit - Oy vey! - Salon.com:

Chris Matthews, chief bullhorn at MSNBC, is a pundit who has his faults, but even at his worst moments serving up bombast and belligerence he remains a better man that Salon's video commentator Frank Conniff. Conniff is billed as a comedy writer. Fine. But beyond the fact that he appears to be a cheeseburger shy of a heart attack, he is remarkably unfunny, at least as far as his performance . Watch this video and determine if this guy, a paid professional, is actually any funnier than you and your buddies when you're on your second  twelve pack cracking wise during an interminable half time act during the Super Bowl.  His face seems wedged into the camera lense, stuck by way of cheese fries and fattened, sagging flesh. There is a reason comedy writers ought to remain in the conference room,  trolling porn sites and rubbing one out on an old copy of Vogue.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

You can say that again, but louder

David Vann, Wes Anderson, Philip Glass: In defense of artists who always return to the same themes. - Slate Magazine:

There has been something suspect and cheap shot about critics who dismiss a new work by an established novelist/poet/film maker/playwright as merely a product of an imagination of someone who was "starting to repeat themselves." The gripe, understand, wasn't that the artist's work wasn't , to some degree, repetitive--any artist worth paying attention , I think, will repeat themselves in theme, technique, flourishes, psychological texture--but rather that the naysayers assumed the charge alone sufficed as criticism.

Well, it  doesn't suffice at all, not hardly. It seemed the reasonable and obvious thing for the would be critic to discuss how a particular work falls short of  the best art the supposed artist can make--usually a reviewer, in this regard, would begin a review with praise for earlier novels, poems, plays, films, et al--and proceed through a discussion of what the artist has done with the standards he or she  has established for themselves:  has the fictional universe expanded or contracted to effective or defective degrees, has any trope been reworked or modified or needlessly included in such a way that it adds only noise and clutter to the work, is the work under consideration not varied enough from previous novels, poems, plays, films et al to not seem like anything more than an exercise?

 All these are matters of discussion and all these require a bit of digging through the text and investigating the metaphors , similes and associated language constructions for what's coming undone structurally and what contained therein is putting the consumer to sleep. Joyce Carol Oates and Paul Auster, two writers who are maddeningly repetitive in their themes as they are prolific in their issuing of new novels , have both established respective clusters of author habits, narrative schematics and verbal habits--Oates loose limned, italicized and frantic in a series of meditations on how violence becomes an ingrained element in complex emotional dynamics , Auster terse, enigmatic, sparing with qualifiers, calm in tone amid an ongoing dissolution of a main character's metaphysical surety--and each has produced more than a few books that ought to have been remained in the drawer of their writing desks, in my view. Yet each also publish, with some frequency, books of particular brilliance, expressions of a peculiar genius that comes only through an obsessive working and reworking of a set of narrative devices, tones and voices .

 One could say, of course, that worthy publishers and good editors of days gone by could have spared us the mediocre work and provided with us only with the masterpieces, such as they are, that we needn't have had to withstand those novels that seemed more like warm up exercises.Perhaps. But the responsibility of criticism,  at least the criticism that appears in newspapers, magazines and on popular internet books and arts sites, is to interrogate the style, substance and argument of a particular book and to judge it against other work, both by the author and his  contemporaries. Review the book, in other words, and be thankful that we have writers who have things interesting enough to read and debate.

Friday, May 25, 2012

On Longwindness

 "I can assure you, sir, that these things really suck!" -- Don Van Vliet,when selling a vacuum cleaner to Aldous Huxley

You're not a drone for not being drawn to Don DeLillo; he either appeals to you or he doesn't, as is the case with any other serious (or less serious) writer who wants to get your attention.
The charges that DeLillo is tedious, wordy and pretentious, not necessarily in that order, are themselves tedious and , it seems, levied by a folks who either haven't read much of the author, more likely, put forward by a host of soreheads who use DeLillo as a representative of a kind of fiction writing they dismiss wholesale. I'm not an easy sell when it comes to be seduced by writer's reputations--my friends accuse me of being too picky, too "critical"--but I've read most of DeLillo's fifteen novels since I discovered him in the early Seventies; if I didn't find his writing brilliant and vibrant or found his narrative ruminations on the frayed American spirit engaging, I'd not have bothered with him. DeLillo is a serious writer,  sober as a brick, but he is not pompous.I always marvelled at the economy of his writing. 
He does write long sentences in parts of his novels, but they are so precisely presented they seem positively succinct. And that, I think, is a large part of their power.
Power and purpose are the things that make a long sentence of fiction a thing of wonder;good sentences are like pieces of great music that you read again, listen to again. The Godfather of the terse, abrupt phrase, Hemingway could, when he chose to , compose a long sentence that had the advantage of serpentine rhythms snaking their way around a nettlesome gather of conflicting emotions and sentiments, but still had a wallop of an adroitly worded police report. The longest sentence he ever wrote, 424 words in his story
"The Green Hills of Africa" is cinematic in its sweep:

That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student's exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer-distinguished cat; all this well shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing---the stream.

I think there's a clutch of  otherwise smart people who distrust and actively dislike anything that suggests elegant or lyric prose writing. John Updike, who I think was perhaps the most consistently brilliant and resourceful American novelists up until his death,was routinely pilloried for the seamless flow of his perfectly telling details. If one cares to do a survey, I suspect they'd find the same caustic template levied at other writers who are noted for their ability to detail the worlds they imagine in ways that make the mundane take on a new resonance. Nabokov, DeLillo, Henry James,  Richard Powers have all been assessed by a noisy few as being  "too wordy". The sourpusses seem to forget that this fiction, not journalism, that this literature, no police reports.
The secret, I think, is that a writer possessed of a fluid style manages to link their  mastery of the language with the firm outlining of  the collective personalities of the characters , both major and minor. The elegance is in service to a psychological dimension that otherwise might not be available. The thinking among among the anti-elegance crowd is that writing must be grunts, groans and monosyllabic bleats, a perversion of the modernist notion that words are objects to used as materials to get to the essential nature of the material world. Lucky for us that no one convincingly defined what "essential nature" was, leaving those readers who love a run on sentence with more recent examples of the word drunk in progress. I don't mind long sentences as long as their is some kind of mastery of the voice a writer might attempt at length; I am fond of Whitman, Henry James, Norman Mailer, David Foster Wallace and Joyce Carole Oates, writers who manage poetry in their long winded ways. That is to say, they didn't sound phony and the rhythms sounded like genuine expressions of personalities given to subtle word choice. Kerouac, though, struck me as tone deaf. After all these years of complaining about his style, or his attempts at style, the issue may be no more than a matter of taste. Jack Kerouac is nearly in our American Canon, and one must remember that the sort of idiom that constitutes literary language constantly changes over the centuries; language is a living thing, as it must be for literature to remain relevant as a practice and preference generation to generation.

A poem about baseball in Detroit, yay!

I do not follow sports, cannot sit through series undertaken by home teams against enemy ensembles, will not memorize stats regarding any player's historical record of success or failure in their professional game playing. I did, though, take great joy in sometimes watching the Detroit Tigers.  The D is my home town, and home towns rule, no matter the logic. A poem:

D- Town after the '06 Series
No one saws that we must
stay here , grasping at empty, reedy straws
for something to talk about
when another ball hits the glove's webbing
and hops defeated to the trampled,red grass.

We should move to the exits
and back to the hotel
and go back to the arenas
where we don't wave blankets
but do toss octopus filets on the ice
we hope will gum up the blades
of visitors to our berg
and tell them that
all we do is puck around.

The last Taurus
rolls off the line
and into the street
in hopes a buyer
will drive it into the sunset,
flipping the bird in the rear view
as wheels come off each parked car
under the shadows of these
tall, empty buildings,

We say yeah, we lost,
and we can't afford
to give a flat tire
about it,
we make sure it gets shouted
that that's all
in the game
as we measure our pain
and relish plain facts
that bad news and broken bones
are as constant
as the weather,
our newspaper is printed on leather
and we'll huddle
in old Cork Town Taverns
over Strohs and
black and white photos
of dead Irish mayors
when oh when it was ever good
as they say it used to be.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Suck Hard For Best Results

Classical allusions in modern poems 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, overdramatic, 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 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 need 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 effect, or if they're mostly performative, i.e., 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 worldview 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 bookmarking. 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 its moral ambiguity directly, in a contemporary tongue. Rather than treating the tale as gratuitous texture to some small event that cannot sustain the allusion, Collier's narrative world is whole and integrated. 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.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


When I was done clearing my throat
hit and runs ceased being daily activities
and bullets left their chambers
to slide back into the box that borne them.

After the end of the world
home sales picked up
as if everyone desired a roof
that kept out rain 
and false advertising.

 Each time the flag waves in slow motion
while an unknown orchestra
strangles the national anthem,
I stand tall where ever I happen to be
and salute whatever floats just 
above my head;

Tonight it is ceiling fan
that hasn't had a spin
since two and half car wrecks ago.

Ape shit

There is no place
for the books you purchased
with the last of your change
and remaining pocket lint,
you've sent your last dime
to a cause since drifting toward a cliff
where white caps break
below on a beach
of black sand that glistens
like diamonds under the moon,
all that remains of your wits
are the shavings
on the table
next to the coffee cup
and pencil sharpener.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Myth as theory

Myths, as well anyone can describe them, are working elements of our personal and social psychology, and whose elements are "modernized"-- better to say updated -- as a matter of course. Declaring a goal to make them relevant to the slippery degree of modernist convention sounds is an insight best suited for a Sunday book review. Jung and Campbell are ahead on that score, and Eliade certainly stresses the relevance of mythic iconography strongly enough: current gasbag extraordinaire Harold Bloom advances the case for mythic narrative ,-- borrowed in part from Northrop Frye (my guess anyway) -- in the guise of literature, constructs the psychic architecture that composes our interior life, individually and as member of a greater set of links: the stuff helps us think ourselves, personalities with an unsettled and unfastened need for a center aware of its adventures in a what comes to be , finally, an unpredictable universe.

Bloom argues, somberly, that Shakespeare is the fount from which mythic forms find a contemporary set of metaphors that in turn became the basis for our modern notion of dramatic conflict, and argues that Freud's genius lies not in his scientific discoveries, but for the creation of another complex of metaphors that rival Shakespeare's for dealing with the mind's nuanced and  curious  assimilation of experience, the anxiety of influence in action, as process, and not an intellectually determined goal to navigate toward.

The point is that modernization of myth is something that is that is already being done, a continuous activity as long as there are people on this planet...

An associate was recently doing his best to demean and diminish the status of literary critics at recent pot lock I happened upon. He pointed me towards a computer monitor and told me the address of his book blog. His most recent post was basically the same rant he was delivering at the party I quote him thus:

Academics determine what is taught, but they do not determine what is "literary". Literary, like language, is determined by use.
Use by critics among others, I think, not the general readership alone. Books can have an extraordinary appeal to a vast public, and it is among the critics tasks to study what the basis of the appeal might be, and then to make distinctions among the elements, to give or detract value to specific works, their genre, and techniques. A concept of "literature", a kind of writing that does the reader a tangible good with a malleable knowledge that can be applied to one's life with good effect, is a creation of a university system where critics had to justify the systematic study of poetry, fiction and drama. The literary criteria have since trickled down to the larger, popular discussions among the public, not the other way around.

Academics hardly try to eliminate works from the ranks of literature: more often than not, the aim is to bring works into the fold, though no one, whatever degrees they do or do not hold, will ever be convinced that the mass and popular use of Danielle Steele will confer upon her literary qualities that will have her stock rise amongst academics, critics, what have you. This is an activity that comes from a critical discourse that makes such a conversation possible beyond a popularity contest. It’s not that the best criticism claims to create the things that makes writing ascend to greatness, but only that it gives those things names that make them comprehensible to a larger, curious audience. But the terms are not locked, not fixed: literature changes given the changes in the world its writers confront, and so the terms of discussion change to, lagging, perhaps, a bit behind the curve. It's less that descriptions of literature fail, but instead are forever incomplete.

Literature, by whatever definition we use, is a body of writing intended to deal with more complex story telling in order to produce a response that can be articulated in a way that's as nuanced as the primary work, the factors that make for the "literary" we expect cannot be reducible to a single , intangible supposition. Use is a valuable defining factor, but the use of literature varies wildly reader-to-reader, group-to-group, culture-to-culture, and what it is within the work that is resonates loudly as the extraordinary center that furnishes ultimate worth, varies wildly too; there are things that instigate this use, and they aren't one determinant, but several, I suspect.  A goal of criticism, ultimately, is not to create the terms that define greatness, but to examine and understand what's already there, and to devise a useful, flexible framework for discussion. Ultimately, the interest in useful criticism is in how and why a body of work succeeds or fails in their operation, not establishing conditions that would exist before a book is written.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Language of Joy

Speaking of times in twangs of alien regions
Which share memories of months and distant smells of dust
and oil rising from the black asphalt hours before the rains

California is the vat of raw alloys where grand children
Meet each other in jobs that make no sense and compare notes
Over black, tasteless coffee about what it was their grand
Parents were saying, something in code that firmed up their back
Bone and brought mists to their eyes.

We are too many years past the expiration dates of our lives
To think of parachutes when it's autumn by the Pacific Ocean
In a city whose best boasts are sand gun boats, warm air and
Cool breezes turns into a generation of rasping sighs in lawn
Chairs nursing drinks under tourist’s umbrellas in the neighbor
Hoods we moved into three decades earlier in expectation of
Making a mark on a locale of fronds that was as unknown as
Anything we wanted to do with our lives.

It's about gloom and rain and love of defeated weather that
Is a tempest we brave going out the doors of our homes.

It's about being sorry for the rich for being so pathetically
Well off when integrity is the only thing on the menu.

In coffee houses in motels near county fairgrounds, dealing
With degrees of English and slants of the camera's eye.
It’s about the loneliness of standing in the same place
Long enough to see prodigal sons and daughters come home
With news of the war, a sinking feeling that gun boats
Are not enough.

Wondering what in the universe makes sense when you're
Bored beyond despair and philosophy is now a cable channel
Broadcasting into the clouds until everyone returns from
The beach, from the water of laughter from rivulets that
Comes in many streams, the language of joy.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

I saw the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band in Detroit, 1966 or 67 at a no age limit folk and blues club called the Chessmate in Detroit Michigan, and this was an event that changed my life forever. I bought my first harmonica soon afterward and have been playing ever since. Detroit is a fantastic town for Black music, with lots of soul, blues, jazz and rock and roll, and the exposure to these kinds of music at an early age influenced my harmonica playing. I listened to saxophone players like Coltrane and Sonny Stitt and Coleman Hawkins, I listened to guitarists like Johnny Winter, Clapton, John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell, I listened to harmonica players like Butterfield, Musselwhite, James Cotton, Sonny Boy Williams, Norton Buffalo, but mostly I just played all the time, all the time, with bands, played to records, played alone, all the time. I played until my lips bled, literally. My parents thought I was eccentrc . I didn't care. I play everyday.

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I played even at my worst drinking; i have been sober now nearly t wenty five years. I am now trying to figure out the way I play so i can do some instruction videos. I play entirely by ear and really have no idea how to convey my style to others. I would love to read or hear someone describe what is I do. I thank all of you for listening to me and your kind words. he only harmonica players I studied closely and made a concentrated attempt to sound like, ie copy, are Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite. Butterfield and Musselwhite were the first guys to introduce me to blues harmonica playing and elements of their respective styles remain in my own style 46 years later. What really helped me, though, was just listening to virtually anything I could get my hands on; in my case it was an ongoing obsession with guitar players. In fact, I picked up harmonica because I couldn;t learn how to play fast like Alvin Lee or Johnny Winter fast enough--I was just all thumbs and no patience. But it was with the harmonica that I found a voice, my voice, and it was with the harmonica that I found myself being able to duplicate riffs and effects from harmonica players and from a good number of guitarists and, especially, many, many jazz musicians, like Coltrane, Bird, Coleman Hawkins. This is not to say that I sound anything like the jazz musicians I just mentioned--their techniques and their vocabulary are certainly more sophisticated than what I currently have--but the point is that giving these guys hard, concentrated listens influenced my sense of phrasing, gave me ideas and notions as to how to skip around during an improvisation and not merely rattle off scales, how to be precise in executing my ideas, in how and where to bend, to slur, to insert chord textures, trills, triplets, octaves. I do tell others who are learning their craft to listen to as much music as they possibly can and to learn as many different styles as possible, to learn riffs from blues, country, swing, classical and to mix them all up, and to practice, practice, practice and after that, practice some more. And more after that. I place maximum emphasis on  practice and playing in live situations because for me this is the most effective means of sloughing the most copy-cat aspects of your influences and moves you toward your own style.Having never had a lesson, having never learned music theory, having never learned to read nor write music,  how I learned was by an obsessive preoccupation with listening closely to harmonica players, rock guitarists and jazz improvisors by the score and woodshedding for hours for decades on end. It's always been a one day at a time thing.  Everyday in every way I get just a little bit better. On good days I even myself when I say it.

Friday, May 11, 2012

late in this life

late in this life
in the night that surrounds me,
I check my email
and find you speaking
in italicized fonts,
asking me what time it is
and when does
life begin, after the sheets slide to the floor
or is after the
leave blowers heave wind and fumes
to no good purpose?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


The poets I like have to be good writers, first and foremost, no matter what their work looks like on the page. There are many writers whose works are stunning to look at as a kind of typographical art, but reading them winds up being an insufferable experience, unpleasant not so much because the poems are difficult but  because the writing is just plain awful, being either willfully obscure to disguise a lack of  real feeling toward their experience, or, most typically , for exhibiting an inane, unoriginal and cliché choked sensibility that would never have gotten out of a junior college poetry workshop. In either case, the visual look of a poem is a distraction from the mediocrity of the piece being read. Good writing always matters, and there are many, many wonderful poets whose works have an originality achieved through a mastery of language that fortunately leads us away from the nagging dread that a tactless and unschooled savant garde has completely overtaken the conversation. Good poets must be concerned with language, I think, since that is the stock and trade of the art. Language made fresh, reinvigorated, reinvented-- I have no arguments with anyone who earnestly attempts to make language convey experience, ideas, emotion, or even the lack of emotion, in ways and with techniques that keeps poetry and poetic language relevant to the contemporary world, the one that's currently lived in, but there is a tendency for a good many young poets , fresh from writing programs, to repeat the least interesting ideas and execution of their professors and to make their work obsess about language itself, as a subject.The concern, boiled down crudely, is that language is exhausted in its ability to express something fresh from a imperialist/patriarchal/racist/individualist perspective, and the only thing that earnest writers can do is to foreground language as their subject matter and investigate the ways in which proscribed rhetoric has seduced us and made our work only reinforce the machinery that enslaves us.

This kind of stuff appeals to the idealist who hasn't had enough living, not enough bad luck, not enough frustration or joy to really have anything to write about, in large part (an grotesque generalization, I know), and it's easy for someone to eschew the work of absorbing good poetry -- Shakespeare, Stevens, Whitman, Milton, Blake, O'Hara-- or learning something of the craft and instead poise their work in non sequiters , fragments,clichés, sparsely buttressed inanities, framed , usually, in typographical eccentricities that are supposed to make us aware of the horrific truth of language's ability to enslave us to perceptions that serve capitalist and like minded pigs.More often, this sort of meta-poetry, this experimental notion that makes a grinding self-reflexivity the point of the work, reveals laziness and sloth and basic ignorance of the notion of inspiration-- the moment when one's perceptions and one's techniques merge and result in some lines, some honest work that cuts through the static thinking and makes us see the world in way we hadn't before.
I speak, of course, of only a certain kind of avant garde; one I endured in college and have since survived when I found my own voice and began to write what I think is an honest poetry. With any luck, some of these writers will stop insisting on trying to be smarter and more sensitive than their readership and begin to write something that comes to resemble a real poetry that's fresh and alluring for its lack of airs. Others might do us a favor and get real jobs. Others, I think, will continue to be professional poets as long as there  is grant money to be had, and will continue in their own destruction of forest land.


                                                                            —~---                                                                                                                            —----

What kills me
aren’t the guns
you tote but your thinking
that’s  in the chambers
and clips, the magazines
no one else can read
but still dread on hearing
what they report.

Language created the world
where tools can be made,
and now language lives inside
the spare parts
whose instruction manuals
are a poetry of rage and revenge
translated into an idiom of
technology that surveys the
outcome of another
kind of  Big Bang Theory..

It’s not about being
left alone any longer,
your message, inscribed
in manufacturer’s short hand
on casings spent  faster than
a drunk’s last dollar,

Bullets whistle
the language
of your rights
as they pass though
the skulls of anyone
who happens to be there,
expecting nothing but
the  light to change
and cold meal
warmed later in a microwa

Sunday, May 6, 2012

“Watching the Telly With Nietzsche” by C.K. Williams. - Slate Magazine

A sad fact is that we are a nations of shut ins, finally, no matter how much our media informs us that we love to go places and see things and get to know the doings of the indigenous in neighborhoods not our own. Perhaps we are, to a large extent, desperate for vacation and the illusion of having enough walking around money to spend some days in a generic hotel room, visiting corporate water parks in all fifty states. Millions  are the sort who just channel surf until the end of the day, from time we get out of bed to the conclusion of all things concerning the twenty four hours that has just ebbed away like so many dust motes floating half seen on a breeze in a darkening twilight.

This where millions of us have our discussions of things going on, things that have happened, the political low down, the double crosses,the trends and the fads that make us stupider and less likely to call bullshit when bullshit is served. This is , perhaps ,a rich source for monologues among discontents who are on their  way out the door to the Big Room, and it has been explored to wonderful results in the work of Beckett--he had the genius to verbalize the death rattle in which the significant parts of a man's life is reduced to a repetitive , percussive stammer that never articulates as a memory truly forged.

C.K .Williams , though,in the grouchy poem linked to in the post title, merely seems in a hurry to deliver caustic comment on everything his gaze glazes over; everything is a target, nothing is sacred, nothing is revealed but a crank with a remote control and a room full of books. I imagine the cliched image of someone in a study full of books , piles of them, and and unsorted papers, unfinished writing assignments. The windows all have the shades drawn, save a tear or too that allows a thin beam to play intensely on a picture of an insane German philosopher who could never quite make himself understood.

Friday, May 4, 2012

"Variations (for Three Old Saws)" by Stephen Yenser - Slate Magazine

"Variations (for Three Old Saws)" by Stephen Yenser - Slate Magazine:

Poetry makes nothing happen, of course, but that this the point of it all, to have a medium that is the verbal concentration of the human mind struggling along in the world outside an individual's innate sense of exclusivity. Stumbling, bumbling, jaw dropping in amazement or reacting in horrified disgust, poetry in the modern sense isn't a means of argument, the vehicle for proving yourself right about how existence should be arranged and what those results would be. 

Poetry undermines the permanent hubris that is humanity's great curse and introduces again to the grain of the cement that meets us when we fall.  

It makes nothing happens--planes still fall from the sky, celebrities commit suicide, genocide rages everywhere, babies are born with or without soft music playing--but it does stake the sting from the Sucker Punch of Irony we meet when we turn the corner while looking other direction.

Poems about poetry making nothing happen, though, are nothing to be proud of; clever poems about being clever and concluding, outright or by implication , that one's verbal brilliance is inevitable, instinctual, an unstoppable music we make in-spite of group consensus or occasion, is the lamest, shallowest of vanities. It is, so this poem subtly implies, the condition of being human. No. It is the condition of having a bankrupt imagination.

If there are no ideas in things you can find, don't write.


"All poems are about poetry," or so the claim goes, but that has never been a convincing line of defense. In that sense, poetry is always about poetry the way all writing is about writing, in that a writer cannot advance the form unless he actively works against the standards and practices--even the theory of practice--that came before him. This view is deconstructionist, an old hat evasion that use to sufficed when a critic didn't want to discuss author intention nor technique. But poetry is a writing above all else and writing in general has the purpose of communicating something that regular discursive writing cannot--to take in the world and describe experiences in, whatever that happens to be. I think that we have a good many poets who would rather preen on the page than write something memorable. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The ticket is punched and you're leaving, goodbye

The death of a loved one is not something that one just "gets over", as if there were an expiration date on grief.Yes, one moves on with their life and tries to have new experiences and adventures, but poets, like anyone else, get older, and the longer view on their life and relations comes to the for. Poetry will tend to cease being the bright and chatty record of one's impulses, leavened with fast wit and snappy references, and will become more meditative, slower, a more considered rumination on those who've are gone yet whose presence remains felt and which influences the tone and direction of the living. It's hardly a matter of getting mileage from a tragedy as it is a species of thinking-out-loud. We speak ourselves into being with others around us to confirm our life in the physical world as well to confront the inescapable knowledge of our end, and poets are the ones writing their testaments that they were here once and that they lived and mattered in a world that is soon enough over run with another generation impatient to destroy or ignore what was here only scant years before so they may erect their premature monuments to themselves and their cuteness.We survived our foolishness and quick readings, a poet writes, we lived here and mattered to a community of friends and enemies in ways that no novel or epic production can capture, and we wish you the same luck, the chance to live long enough in this world you seek to fashion after your own image so you may write about your regrets, your failures, the things you didn't get around to doing.