Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Say what you see

The meaning of a representation can be nothing but a representation. In fact, it is nothing but the representation itself conceived as stripped of irrelevant clothing. But this clothing can never be completely stripped off; it is only changed for something more diaphanous. So there is an infinite regression here. --Umberto Eco, The Limites of Interpretation

Umberto Eco some essays, and a book on the matter of over-interpretation, that argue, crudely paraphrased, that observers who've divorced themselves from a need to act upon their judgments on things and events have no recourse but to keep discoursing, interpreting, giving things and events even newer, subtler descriptions until the chatter isn't about what ought to be done in order to effect the way we live but rather about how can we continue to contrive more speech for its own sake.

There was an idea, formerly, that critical theory would describe and diagnose a particular set of problems, and then would prescribe a slate of actions that ought to be done to rid the world of the defined problems: there was a tacit agreement to stop theorizing and to start implementing the radical remedies. Revolutions do not happen by those who hover over the water cooler or  yell at their unblinking tv sets.

Praxis, theory into practice, from Gramsci. Praxis, though, is something the left has forgotten about, gun shy perhaps with advancing any set of ideas that might somehow be construed by the politically sensitive as racist, ageist, sexist, and so on. The ability to name the world in front of us contained the possibility to rename it as well, and then change it. Our theoretical left has taken refuge in poetry and novels and refuses even to discuss what their objects are talking about in the author's terms, exhibiting a convenient nihilism.  

The right isn't afraid to name, nor to advance their cause. There is a living embodiment of political will behind their description of the current situation, and it would be Post Modern Tragedy that we've theorized ourselves into submission.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sons of the Pioneers

Another in the long series of abbreviated versions of Dylan songs that each contained the by-then formula Byrds/Sonny and Cher arrangement of jingle jangly guitars, over-stated drumming and , just for kicks, a chorus coooing an off key "ahhhhhhhh" in the background. Harrison's talk-singing is impeccably British, charming as a generic trait of Carnaby era artifact, but toothless as an interpreter of one of Dylan's finest, most acidic song-poems. Whatever his technical limits as a singer, Dylan 's nasalisms conveyed attitude, unwavering its combination of exhasustion and disgust. The small talk between Harrison, son of acting stalwart Rex, and  Gary Lewis, son of spastic comedy icon Jerry, is typically lame reparte. It's lameness is the funniest thing about it.

Met a Dude

Met a dude on the Boardwalk in 1973. He had long hair and wore jeans, as did I.
I leaned against the sea wall and played few gasping notes on a harmonica I pulled from my back pocket. It had candy wrappers and clods of hair crammed all through the reeds, and the metal cover plates were crushed. It sounded like a robot death rattle.

"Bad shit, bro" said this dude, "I mean, Paul Fucking Butterfie
ld gonna shit his pants when you step up."
"Thanks" I said, "smoke a joint?"

"Fuckin A right on with your shit".

Without a word we ducked into an alley and fired up a doobie. It was a rainy day, the sky was grey and two story apartment houses in Mission Beach seemed to sag like wet bags of French bread left on a back porch in the dampest days of April.

We never saw each other again. I never thought it worth mentioning.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Philip Roth calls it a day

  1. I developed a bad habit of announcing that Philip Roth was not my favorite novelist before offering a considered opinion on particulars of his that I had just read, opinions, oddly enough, that were generally favorable to the work. Despite my protests , there were times I argued that what Roth was doing as a novelist was singularly brilliant, obsessed and varied; Roth might have had just a few themes and, but unlike a good many serious writers his age, he continued to find new ways of invading old ideas. Above all else, he favored story over fashioning a glittering prose style to reinforce old prejudices. Roth is not my favorite writer, as his prose style isn't as graceful or elegant as others of his generation--not Cheever, not Mailer, not Updike, not Didion, not DeLillo.

     As stylists, writers of breathtaking prose, they are Roth's superior, but there is in each of them a theory of the novel that they are bringing forth in their respective bodies of work. Although I have gotten more  sportsman like thrills from  Mailer and had my heart torn   out  by the ongoing heartbreak of Cheever's tales of sad, alcoholic men, it was Philip Roth, who superior novelist in many respects .

     The particular theoretical prejudice about what the novel needs to be, the obligation to make a story perform in a manner that is determined by intellectual conceit even without the author's awareness, is all but missing in Roth's prickly collection of novels. Anger, lust, rage, hatred, jealousy, self loathing and grotesque self-infatuation are the hot button emotions in his acidic comedies and tightly coiled melodramas. Roth is a combination of craftsman, inventor and moral interrogator, showing a series of characters in bad situations who are forced to make decisions that result only in more misery an recrimination, un-buffered by the convenient cushion of irony. 

    There are no neutral corners in Roth's fiction, even to the extent that the author, who has a readable if decidedly poetic method of getting his thorny characaters and terrains into the world, of not offering the reader the distancing , ease giving relief of a simile burdened style. His punchlines and catharses have the effect of body blows.   I realize that I have read about ten of his books over the years, a goody amount I thin, and I realize belatedly that I been reading books by an American  Master. Regardless of ethnicity  or creed, Roth is the master  showing his following how human beings create their own customized versions of Hell by doing nothing more than following their bliss.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Elvis : Poet/Destroyer

It's been argued by rock and roll philosophers for some time that Elvis Presley was everything truly rock and roll are supposed to be, a cross-pollination of gross historical contradictions that meet, fuse and give rise to an expressive result that is fundamentally insane. In this instance, it is the mythological fusing of what is said to be the innate sexuality and vitality in African American blues and the slave culture that created it, and the inbred, Christian determinism that filters through the racist and goony backwaters of the American south, a strand vaguely disguised by the soft soaping pathos and lilt of Country Music. Elvis wrote this poem, a klutzy bit of doggerel, and gives us a clear example when these combating buts of cultural DNA find a place in the same utterance:


"As I awoke one morning 
when all sweet things are born, 
a Robin perched upon my sill 
to hail the coming dawn. 
It was fragile, young and gay 
and sweetly did it sing,  
and thoughts of happiness and joy 
into my head did bring. 
I listened softly to his song 
and paused beside my bed, 
then gently closed the window 
and crushed it's  fucking  head."
A recording of Elvis reading the poem to some friends can be heard here. 

 The result is a volatile example of pure ID, an insatiable appetite, a force so uncontainable that when left alone without the pieties of Church hymns and the sleepwalking good manners evinced in most public moments, the urge is to destroy the world, kill what is delicate, turn what is held as beautiful and permanent into a smashed, crushed, trashed path of rubble and bloody guts. Elvis is said to be the Ur Punk, a barely contained insanity that will inevitably find freedom and its full expression in demolishing the house of excuses we pass off as firmly planted foundation of moral certitude. ““The pure products of America / go crazy," wrote William Carlos Williams. Elvis, among others, fulfills the prophecy.

Little Killing Ditty: a poem by Christian Wiman

An honest poem we find, a portrait of a minor league serial killer who sings a song celebrating a fellowship of sports personalities preferring live and unsuspecting targets, a song that not so much helps ease a personal sense of guilt and remorse so much as it aids the gun holder to bypass compunction junction altogether.  There is in the tone a feeling of recollection in photographic recall, and yet none of the detail is characterized by regret; the narrator merely describes what had happened clinically, almost aesthetically. What is provided here is the poet as gun man studying target and terrain as if it were a landscape not to be lived in but merely converted into something approaching an aesthetic experience; the thing his eyes show him are not things in themselves but rather phenomena upon which he is to exercise his whims and will upon.

 In the guise of honesty the narrator admits that he will not feign regret, sadness, will not practice a false self-recrimination, but will rather honor the moment and the buffering code of the hunt that shields him from any sense of connection to the living things he killed in the pursuit of the hunt and its lethal consequence. 

This reads not so much as a warning to readers about the seduction of weapons and their purpose or even a portrait of a personality warped beyond redemption. It reads almost as a boast, a wallow in one's moral numbness toward the pointless kill.

I wouldn't disagree with that. In fact, the poem seems to be a recollection of formative experiences rather than a telling of what one's current hobby happens to be. The details have that feeling of someone describing details that are only just then revealed to the narrator as they rummage through their memories for parts of a their history. The telling, however, has a flat affect, with empathy being all but nonexistent; the sequence makes me think of someone with a blunted sensibility that assumes that things in the world are problems to be solved, goals to be attained. It is a bloodless equation where the birds represent nothing other than targets to be brought down with the right tool, the gun he holds.

 He will not betray this moment with false regret; he will not compromise the perfection of his achievement. In the in long backward glance we are supposed to imagine what the adult sensibility might be--bloodless, non pragmatic, rigid, cold, and detached. This may be the poem's one failure, the lack of an ironic turn to humanize the suffocating narrowness of this world view. It is hard to read something with a narrator who seems more than satisfied with such a joyless existence. But sympathy is not the poet's task here, I suppose. The main purpose is to make us uncomfortable. To that end, it is a smashing success.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


"Richard Noel" is Harry Thomas' slap at obscurantist modernism in all its forms, resisting the lure of diffuse and the oblique for the clipped, staccato version of Rudyard Kipling. The British Poet would have furnished the fife and brass to accentuate and enliven the rattatatat of the military drums. Thomas' poem is a rhythmic straight jacket, the confined emotionalism of someone trying to keep their bleeding heart to a steady, unexcited beat. If only if he'd actually let it all go to provide us with something fiercer, more explosive than this soggy parody of Hemingway's latherings about a Personal Code.

To finish the long profile**his grade depended on,the afternoon before**the surgery, alone,he worked late in the library.**I saw him typing away.On my desk were his ten pages**the first thing the next day.  Over the years I, too,**have had hard things to face.But when did I once summon**such fortitude and grace. 
It is admirable, one supposes, that a student gets their homework turned in on time despite an affliction, but this tribute , with the hushed bathos , seems very, very silly indeed. But there's that element of "Gunga Din" that valorizes situations one does not know intimately although one fees they should, and so attempt to compensate by inserting themselves uselessly into the narrative, flagellating themselves for theoretical cowardice in the face of someone who is merely doing the best they can with the hand they've been dealt. Contra Susan Sontag, Thomas exoticizes the sick, the afflicted with this sappy rhyme. There is something remarkable in the attempt to overstate a point using such a crabbed rhetoric; the clichés and the conventional wisdom toward the sick and the afflicted area boiled , chipped and chiseled to their irreducible essences, leaving only a salty residue of uninteresting thinking. There is ossification here, there is poet tasting, but there is no poetry, such as we understand it. So what does one do to mend this tendency of amateurs to compose and distribute these stanza'd insults to the eyes? Exactly nothing. Nothing can be done to cure the lagging tastes of the naive.

There is that large faction of the otherwise diminutive poetry audience that likes its verse rhyming, rocking in a cadence that suggests a three-legged clogging competition, stanzas that are morally coherent and as comprehensible as a stack of pancakes, and the seldom discussed aspect among the rest of us self-declared elites fighting back gag reflexes is that this more or less a permanent state of affairs in this odd and contentious corner of the literary world. For all the chatter some of us offer up about being ecumenical. inclusive and appreciative of the broadness contemporary contains with regards to style, aesthetics, and the subtly differentiated concerns each of the coexisting schools collectively undertake to have their respective poems achieve their results, many of us choke with contempt and despair over the obvious if unacknowledged truth that doggerel, poesy, poet tasting and all the loutish rest are permanent fixtures in the literary culture that thrives beyond the ramparts. There are no mass conversions forthcoming when it comes to convincing the rest of the poetry world that they’d be better off reading the stronger stuff. Consumers know what they want to read, and the amateur poet, not beholden to particular school of poetics or allegiances formed while they were a graduate student, will write exactly how they see fit, daring, strange enough, to write poems that make sense.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Cream's usual suspects

Jack Bruce is not the stuff that harmonica heroes are made of, but his playing on "Train Time" from the Wheels of Fire album live sides was a big motivator for me to pick up the harmonica. That, along with seeing the original Butterfield Blues Band in a no age limit Detroit folk club called the Chessmate in the same period, the late Sixties. Bruce, while lacking chops as we currently define them, had tone, energy, drive, and soul. What he was doing with the harmonica was a mystery to me then, a mystery I had to solve. I am still playing harmonica 46 years later. I am still trying to solve that mystery
The Cream reunion was a significant disappointment; in the day they were hungry and ambitious and arrogant enough to think that they were the best on their respective instruments. This certainly fueled the long jams they embarked on. There were energy and an interplay that is still palpable in their live recordings from their period. Clapton was certainly a much more aggressive guitarist than he is now. The reunion was weak tea compared with the old days. Although everyone played well, generally, the performances were lifeless and make work. No one seemed into the performances.
This is a world away from jazz musicians who, as they get older, generally remained determined to play near the top of their game, that each performance of something from their repertoire was a unique and original artistic experience. This marks the difference between genuine improvisation and merely competent riffing.
Ginger Baker’s lugubrious drum solo, “Toad” by name, was the only percussion piece that I could fall asleep to; it wasn’t unlike getting used to the screaming and the crashing dishes in the apartment next door and falling asleep. That’s sad. The principle thing he did for me was to motivate me to discover the glories of other drummers, jazz drummers mainly. Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, Buddy Rich, Billy  Cobham,  Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones. Jones and Baker had a drum battle decades ago in New York City, with Baker and his ramped up drum set and Jones himself, the master behind the fury and pulse of John Coltrane’s finest improvisational extravaganzas, setting up a small kit. From what I read in Rolling Stone, Jones gave Baker several lessons in drumming that evening, proving that is not how many dream heads and cymbals you have, but what you do with them.
Eric Clapton has earned the right to be called a blues guitarist—no one sounds like him when it comes to this basic and beautiful musical style. He does, though, have a history of going through bands the way gluttons plow through pastries. A few years ago he did a series of concerts with fellow Blind  Faith member  Steve Winwood, with whom he performed a smart cross-section from their respective bands. It was a great combination, Winwood ’s and Clapton ’s singing a perfect blend of blues brine, and Clapton playing some the best guitar he has ever done in his career. Really, he makes much of his previous live guitar work sound workmanlike and perfunctory—on this session, he came alive.  The problem is having to wait decades for him to get inspired to play with feeling and conviction results in many other things not getting attended to.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Dylan and Genius: A Long Goodbye Kiss

Bob Dylan, I think, is a class of artist who had an enormous, galvanizing, revolutionizing style for a period of his career, years in which he released an impressive series of albums, from Another Side of Bob Dylan up to Blood on the Tracks, that is one of those bodies of work that are untouchable works of genius . Fitting perfectly well within his interesting notion of the Anxiety of Influence, Dylan's songs and lyrics in that period so profoundly changed the nature of what popular songwriting can be that all songwriters, regardless of style, write in the shadow of that genius.

Younger writers can write further into the direction they believe Dylan was headed, taking further risks, bigger chances, or they can go in the other extreme, writing away from the pull of Dylan's gravity, writing in a way no less risky and perplexing as those who become Dylan apostles. Dylan's case, within that of songwriting, is comparable to that of Shakespeare's, an influence so vast that no artist, even those who intensely dislike the work, can ignore the artist; lesser writers, "weaker” writers as Bloom would put, cannot help but be influenced by the profundity of the work that has gone before. Like it or not, it is a standard that compels you to make a stylistic choice. Genius, though, is fleeting, and Dylan's ability as such was that it came out of him in a flow that was, I believe, effortless, nearly savant-like, requiring less craft than a brain that was firing on all cylinders and producing a language that seemed to compose itself. But genius leaves a good many of our great artists--it is a spirit, perhaps, that takes residence in a person's personality long enough to get the work done and then leaves, sometimes quickly, sometimes gradually.

Other things come into play as well, such as a change in why one engages in the kind of self-interrogation that writing essentially is; Mailer dropped his high style, my favorite style when he came across the Gary Gilmore story and wrote in simpler terms as his fiction become more nuanced and rich. This is was a plus. Allen Ginsberg became a Buddhist and fell in love with the notion of "first thought, best thought" and essentially transcribed his continuous notes to himself, unedited, unmediated by literary qualification, in the effort to present a truer, constantly evolving face to the public in his books of poetry. Much as I like the reasoning and dedication, AG's poetry became far, far less exciting, interesting, became far less good. For Dylan, after his motorcycle accident, he has taken up with simpler more vernacular language, and we see the good it offered he and the listener, with John Wesley Harding and  Nashville Skyline. The language was simpler, and the sources from which Dylan took his inspiration, folk tales, old songs, country western bathos, navigated closely to the banal and hackneyed, but we must admit that Dylan had the skill, the instinct, to manage his language no less artfully than Hemingway would have done at his prime and kept matters enticingly elliptical at the heart of things: there are ways to create a sense of what you're getting at without too much artifice and pretension, useless . He was masterful in creating simpler lyrics that still drew you in and still kept you making intelligent guesses. Hemingway, this virtue wouldn't last, in my view; Hemingway fell prey to depression and concerns of his virility and sought to write his way out of his depression, the result is a series of late-career books that lack the grace or conviction or the brilliance of insinuation of his great work; he veered toward self-parody. Dylan's work, post Blood on the Tracks, became alarmingly prolix and parochial in ideas and a contrived rural diction that sounds completely false, the phoniest I've heard since the quaint southern tales of Erskine Caldwell.

I know that Dylan has always trafficked in clichés, but what he did previously with stale phrases was to subvert them, place them in unexpected juxtapositions, and cleverly invert their meanings to expose their shortcomings. He is not doing that these days--rather I think the good man just starts writing something without an inherent sense of where to go or when to stop or where to edit and seems to write in an attempt to maintain equilibrium. He seems to need to hear himself write; it is more the process than the result that matters. His use of clichés or banal phrases seems more stitchery than rehabilitating the language; they are means that he can connect his stanzas, do patchwork on an incomplete idea.