Sunday, January 19, 2014

Dickinson and Pound: the long and short of it

A major movement in the creation of a modernist poetry was the effort to slough off the well-worn devices of  the last  three hundred years of poetic devices and the creaking, rusting, swerving structures that gave them purchase and replace them with a more direct address of things. One could also maintain that there was a concentrated effort to make the idea behind poems and their subjects clearer and less abstract as well. What was once useful in a world where God was the prime mover and quite nearly each thing and event that was beheld was the result of His good graces and undisclosed Plan was now a quaint murmur of suffocating cliches and half-hearted apologies that obscured the actual world; the phenomenal world was hidden from view , what was considered wisdom was only a means to contain the masses. Robert Pinsky, in an intriguing blog entry, brings to our attention the two poets , Emily Dickinson and Ezra Pound, who had done more than any other in creating the style and means of a  very succinct, blunt modernist verse. One wanted to maintain an internal equilibrium with what she wrote on paper, the other wanted to change the world in something very much like his own image.

This is an interesting connection  Dickinson and Pound, with two unlike personalities. Dickinson didn't care to make her thoughts clear for public consumption or to see the world differently; what she poems were notes to herself , where the solitary but active mind's penchant for irony, contradiction and a changing personal outlook on mortality, over time, were all the mattered to her. This was the poetry of a mind that, by need for personal preference, was solitary much of the time, dwelling, thinking, abstracting on much of the insoluble vicissitudes of life, those matters being nothing less than the self in the world and arguing whether one were merely existing or if the fact of one's flesh and blood constituted a benefit to the world.  

This is the unending introspection that is seamless, without end or beginning, a stream, and her writing, I believe, was a project to pare the  overlapping ontologies that might have driven lesser minds to variations of unhinged utterances and present them as clear perceptions, jewels of irony and reductionist wit. Hers was a desire to make her own notions clear, concise, beyond the confusion a studied rhetoric brings. She was so direct that hers was an abstract art that rejected Abstraction for its own sake. I've always thought of her poems as akin to a view through a microscope, or at least an intense focused  magnifying glass. 

She suggests, I think, the writings of Wallace Stevens decades later, and John Ashbery more decades later still, with her world so closely observed and tersely addressed that her estimations constitute a category of Ideal Types ; certainly her work seems dedicated to the short summations of proposed notions and how those notions come up short;  the elision in her  work , for me, is an absent middle section where the theory was applied and  where it had failed. The third part of the poems are the results, the moral, the larger irony of expectation meeting the unfathomable truth that is existence, replete with a result quite unexpected.  I don't think Dickinson's poems were mere jottings; they are, I believe , products of hard, concentrated reflection and it is the poet's genius that made those leaps of perception into the dense, difficult poems that are her legacy. Hers was a clarity meant for her self alone, a method of reaching conclusions on matters her imagination would not leave alone. Her short hand taught contemporary, by direct readings or the influence of other poets who arrived in Dickinson's wake, how to  turn introspection into an enticingly evocative sort of poetry , a system of insight that challenges philosophy as the best method as to why life is so difficult and why we make ourselves so unhappy with the given strata of existence.
Pound, to the other extreme, was very public , dynamic, restless with his notions and had a life long desire Pound, to the other extreme, was very public , dynamic, restless with his notions and had a life long desire to change the manner in which the masses saw the world. Rid of the culture of outmoded, old, obsolete, incorrect and purposefully deceitful cosmologies and you will improve our collective. His inventions took much from the Chinese poets he admired and claimed to have translated--whether he really understood what they were doing or saying or whether he did any actual translation is another matter. Pound wanted poems to have the ability to get things exactly; there was the appealing idea in the kind of Modernism he proposed that we have to shed the baggage of the past, the useless and irrelevant inventions of antique times and make for ourselves a new way of using language that can pierce the  veil between us and the actual world; he wanted to break the shackles of the overly -referenced Plato's Cave  so we can enter the light, figuratively (I suppose) with a native language that was means of witnessing , defining and molding reality, not masking it in excuses and daydreams.
“Society for me my misery
Since Gift of Thee—”

Dickinson, as I understand her, was not a fan humanity , and preferred her thoughts and her privately considered things to the clamor and debate of the many who would battle over the right to name the world and its contents as they think it should be. She kept her own consul and had no patience for what others thought or thought of her. Being public was a burden beyond what her personality desired; in this couplet, which I suspect is indeed a couplet, she considers the state of being noted, notable, famous for any reason a misery that she ought not suffer . Being known beyond Amherst was an undeserved gift to the world, as reputation that accompanies fame presents the world with a ready made narrative of someone’s life and presented her with the problem of having to live up to a plot line that she felt had nothing to do with her. Being comprehended or understood by the masses was a useless option for her. While Dickinson wanted to everyone to mind their own set of affairs while she tended her own piece of the earth, Pound, again, wanted to have language be capable of getting an image exactly, as would a photograph; the thinking , I think, is that he wanted to get beyond the metaphysical conceits that an older poetics contained. On the face of it this seems admirable, but what he wanted to do was to have the world see the world as he saw it, precisely, without romantic resonance and the nuanced variations that come with the habit (and the political tumult as well). He wanted to settle matters quickly and have folks move into a new, dynamic direction. Essentially, I believe his basic goal with his project of boiling down the language was an effort to turn whole populations into cattle.

This was, more or less, the intention of the Imagists from the start, to write manifestos, to argue actively and loudly against older literary conceits and decadent cultures, to purify the senses and the words used to define the world and to remake  a world for the future.  This is an attractive pitch on the face of it, that art must create new ways of seeing the world, but Pound's poetics were mixed up with his politics which were, we remember , racist, anti-Semitic, and was attractive to various avant gard movements that were obsessed with machines, speed, destruction; the world must be destroyed by virtually any means and available technology so that new ideas of how society is to be structured can arise. 'Structured" is the operative word, as Pound wanted power over people more than control of his own writing;  Imagism, it seems to me, was only a start of growing set of ideas that the world could only be changed through violent dynamics. 

He blamed a lot of groups for what he considered to be the decline of Western culture and it's not surprising that he found a patron in the Italian Fascists , for whom he made propaganda broadcasts during WW2.   Brief, clear, concise descriptions of objects , the hall marks of Imagist poetry, remain in strong evidence in more contemporary work by younger poets.  He had an agenda, though, and his is the case where we can give thanks that poets are not the literal legislators of the world.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Dylan's Greatest Lyrics (in small caps)

1.just like a woman
2.desolation row
3.memphis blues again's all over now baby blue
5.girl from the north country
6.positively 4th street
7.i want you
8.ballad of a thin man
9.chimes of freedom
10.visions of johanna a rolling stone
12.sooner or later (one of must know)
13.crawl out your window
14.too much of nothing
15.tears of rage
16.all along the watchtower aint goin nowhere
18.the mighty quinn man
20.drifter's escape
21.farewell , angelina
22.gates of eden
23.simple twist of fate
24.just like tom thumb's blues minus/no limit
26.queen jane approximately
27.spanish harlem incident
28.when i paint my masterpiece
29.maggie's farm's alright man, i'm only bleeding
31.i shall be released
32.high 61 revisited
33.a hard rain's a gonna fall
34.absolutely sweet marie
35.i dreamed i saw saint Augustine

I do admire the work of artists who remain interesting as they get older, but it is a fact that many writers, poets, songwriters do their best , most compelling work in their early years. Dylan is one of these--the greatest songs , in my view, were those that combined equal elements of Surrealism, Burroughs inspired language cut ups, blues and rural south music vernaculars, and heady doses of French Symbolism by way of Rimbaud and Mallarme. This gave his stanzas a heightened, alienated feeling of sensory overload, making him  principle Lyricist of the bare existential absurdity that life happens to be. No one got to the infuriating heart of the sensation that life had ceased to mean anything after those matters that "mean" the most to us--marriages, friendships, tastes, financial security, spiritual or religious certainity--were changed, destoryed or simply vanished. Dylan's writing was of the individual suddenly in the choking throes of uncertainty , batting back encroaching gloom with the kind of swinging, poetic wit that reassembles existence. It is stance, a state,an aesthetic state of being that made it possible for him to fire on all cylinders for a good run of time. Generally, the poetic quality and intensity that Dylan produced in the longs on the list I made are substantial body of work that lines up perfectly with and matches the strongest work by Eliot, Pound, WC Williams, Burroughs, Ginsberg. It is also not the kind of work you can keep doing for a life time; like Miles Davis, he had to . His mature work has quite often hits the mark and offers the long view of experience in an especially moving way. Just as often, I think he misses the mark and overwrites or is prone to hackneyed phrasing. There is much quality to the later songs, but as a body of lyrics, they are not among Dylan's greatest.

Dylan is called more often than not a poet because of the unique genius of his best lyrics; I don't think he's a poet, but a songwriter with an original talent strong enough to change that particular art forever. I do understand , though, why a host of critics through the decades would consider him a poet in the first place. My list are the songs I think that justifies any sort of reputation Dylan has a poetic genius. I like most of the songs mentioned above for various reasons other than the ones on my initial 35 choices; the longs there manage an affinity for evoking the ambiguities and sharp perceptions of an acutely aware personality who is using poetic devices to achieve more abstract and suggestive effects and still manage to be wonderfully tuneful. No one else in rock and roll , really , was doing that before Dylan was. On those terms, nothing he's written is quite at the level of where he was with the songs on my list; this list consists of the body of work that substantiate Dylan's claim to genus.

"Just Like a Woman" is one of the finest character sketches I've ever heard in a song. What's remarkable is the brevity of the whole, how much history is suggested, inferred, insinuated in spare yet arresting imagery. I rather like that Dylan allows the mystery of this character to linger, to not let the fog settle. It is the ambiguity that gives it's suggestive power and there is the whole element of whether the person addressed is a woman at all, but rather a drag queen . It's an open question, it's a brilliant lyric.

"Drifter's Escape "was on twice and is now a single entry. There is a concentration of detail in the lyric, a compression of Biblical cadence and sequence that makes the song telling and vivid not in it's piling on of stanzas , but in its brevity. He does the same for "All along the Watchtower", which i regard as a condensed "Desolation Row," a commentary , perhaps, from the tour bus just passing through; the tour guide finally tells the driver "there must be some kinda way outta here." What I regard as the true "poetry" of Dylan's music is in the earlier music, where he is spectacularly original in how he forced his influences to take new shapes and to create new perspectives. Post JWH, I just find too much of his lyric writing prolix and meandering, time-filling rather than revealing; the surreal, fresh, colloquial snap of his language has gone and is replaced with turns of phrase that are trite , hackneyed, ineffective;' they strike my ear as false. Even "Blind Willie McTell" , a song  that has been persuasively  defended by intelligent fans of Dylan's later work, strikes too many false notes for my tastes  Musically it  drags  and philosophically seems a victim of convenient  thinking,  a PC version of Song of the South; some of the imagery is simply cloying and seems more suitable more for Gone with the Wind than a poet of arguable worth
...See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell...

Really, that is awful, a dreadful presentation of atmospheric detail meant to create historical context and mood, but it trades on so many received ideas of slavery, racism,the south, et al, that the intent no longer matters. It strikes as more minstrel show than tribute. Had anyone submitted this to a serious  poetry (or lyric) writing workshop, it would have been handed back to us for revision, with the advice that we rid the narrative of the creaky, questionable window dressing. "When I Paint My Masterpiece", in contrast, works wonderfully because of its lack of any messages about social justice. It works because it is a sharp, terse, vivid travelogue, vague and evocative in equal measure. The ambiguity and absence of relevance to anything other than Dylan's need to speak off handedly about a in interesting time in the life of a particular character is what makes this song memorable.

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece
She promised that she’d be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece

Perfectly natural language here, good and unexpected rhymes, telling use of local detail that give us color and history without sagging qualifiers to make it more "authentic", the lyrics are recollection of a trip, of places visited, of perspectives changing, a nice string of incidents in a language that sounds like a real voice telling real things, with genuine bemusement .
Well, I had a feeling that the general good feeling this album conveys is that Dylan wasn't trying too hard to prove he's a genius. The record is straight forward and the language is remarkable free of affectation , a tendency that has plagued him, post JWH. I especially like "Sign in the Window"; it has the sincerity an actual and momentary acceptance of where one happens to be in a certain part of life, and offers a new set of expectations.  

Thursday, January 16, 2014


I’m a sex writer with a secret shame — hoarding -

Salon has always been editorially obsessed with sex-talk, convinced, perhaps, that the prosaic writings of those engaged in the continual grinding of genitalia constitutes a literary form who's time has come. It is , of course, porn for the nervously middlebrow, a poor sister to travel writing. 

Now we have a sex writer who is more interested in doing field research than keeping a clean household. Salon, we thought, was supposed to be covering the culture in a smart and literate way, but these stories are tiresomely shallow beyond a certain point, being neither things we can relate nor shocking nor insightful . I am not , of course, a mental health expert, but I find it ironic that someone who is interested in lifestyles that push back the boundaries of sexual expression , so to speak, has come up against a literal wall in their real   world domicile. There is , in fact, scarcely any more room  for clutter in the space provided. 

Our writer, seeking to cram as much life into the years she has on the planet, perhaps has used up her psychic space allowance for ignoring larger issues both the clutter and the sex drive might be symptoms of. Again, I am not a mental health expert, but I can sling a metaphor or two.

 Sometimes the metaphors are apt.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Black people and white people are different -

Black people and white people are different -

Elon James White is trying to be the Supreme Irony Monger of America's racial divide, but he spends so much time stopping, digressing, changing gears and repeating some rather obvious insights, borrowed from decades of past comments on matters ethnic and bitter, that it's near impossible to know if there's any real point he's trying to make. Does anyone really think that his take on Haley Barbour's selective recollection of his college days is fresh, insightful or expressing a bottom line no knew was there? Doubtful. 

This smug  rant is a trite  wallow in what's already been said in work places, bus stops, cable tv talk shows, newspaper columns , and certainly on innumerable blog entries. It's not that the topic, the differences in perspective between white and black people, is tired or solved or without urgent need of honest discussion. White isn't the one to lead anyone out of the forest, though, as he's too busy strutting in front of the peanut gallery playing that only tune he knows on that banged up trumpet he carries around.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Bunk rock

I gave up hope for rock criticism developing into a respectable form of criticism when I realized that it was, for the most part, a pissing contest for most of the guys who decided to try their hand at it. For every Bangs and Young, there were dozens of lesser lights who proved, at length, that they could make noise aplenty but offer little or no light on the subject. Much of it has to do with how well the current state of the music happens to be, of course, but pop music criticism did come to the point where everyone was recycling what everyone had already written, and the two trajectories  offered readers by the end of the seventies was incomprehensible Greil Marcus/Dave Marsh obscurantism, which insisted that the music they listened to in college dorms was the Spenglarian peak of civilization and that every note played afterward was an inferior facsimile of the authentic, or the knee jerk Bangs imitations where wave after wave of typing nitwits missed out on Lester's capacity for feeling deep emotion and his brand of self-criticism and instead freight us with jabbering sarcasm by the carload. Jim DeRogatis , rock critic for various outlets , author of the Lester Bangs biography "Let It Blurt", rounded up a slew of younger, Generation X pop writers and invited them to select a classic rock album, an album, by consensus, considered to be Canonical and there for inarguably great and then to debunk an older generation of critics' claim for the lasting greatness of those records. It's an interesting idea, I admit, but the result, an anthology called "Kill Your Idols" is a miserably strident, one-note mass of pages dedicated to puerile dismissals of a lot of good, honest music. "Snotty" doesn't do that particular disaster justice.

The problem with the generation of rock critics who followed the late Lester Bangs was that too many of them were attempting to duplicate Bangs' signature and singular ability to write movingly about why rock and roll stars make terrible heroes. Like many of us, Bangs became disillusioned with rock and roll when he discovered that those he admired and was obsessed by--Lou Reed, Miles Davis, and Black Sabbath--were not saints. The discovery of their clay feet, their egos, and the realization that rock and roll culture was a thick cluster of bullshit and pretentiousness didn't stymie Bangs' writing. It, in fact, was the basis of Bangs transcending his limits and finding something new to consider in this. Sadly, he died before he could enter another great period of prose writing. "Kill Your Idols", edited by Jim DeRogatis, is an anthology that is intended, I suspect to be the Ant- “Stranded”, the Greil Marcus edited collection where he commissioned a number of leading pop music writers and asked them to write at length about what one rock and roll album they would want to be left on a desert island with; it's not a perfect record--then New York Times rock critic John Rockwell chose "Back in the USA" by Linda Ronstadt and couldn't mount a persuasive defense of the disc--but it did contain a masterpiece by Bangs, his write-up of Van Morrison's album “Astral Weeks”. His reading of the tune “Madame George” is a staggering example of lyric empathy, a truly heroic form of criticism. "Kill Your Idols", in reverse emulation, assigns a group of younger reviewers who are tasked with debunking the sacred cows of the rock and roll generation before them; we have, in effect, pages full of deadening sarcasm from a crew who show none of the humor or sympathy that were Bangs best qualities. Bangs, of course, was smart enough not to take himself too seriously; he knew he was as absurd as the musicians he scrutinized.

"Kill Your Idols" seemed like a good idea when I bought the book, offering up the chance for a younger set of rock critics to give a counterargument to the well-made assertions of the essayists from the early Rolling Stone/Crawdaddy/Village Voice days who are finely tuned critiques gave us what we consider now to be the Rock Canon. The problem, though, is that editor Jim Derogatis didn't have that in mind when he gathered this assortment of Angry Young Critics and changed them with disassembling the likes of Pink Floyd, The Beatles, the MC5; countering a well phrased and keenly argued position requires an equally well phrased alternative view and one may go so far as to suggest the fresher viewpoint needs to be keener, finer, sharper. Derogatis, pop and rock music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, author of the estimable Lester Bangs biography Let It Blurt, had worked years ago as record review editor of Rolling Stone and found himself getting fired when he couldn't abide by publisher Jan Wenner's policy of not giving unfavorable reviews to his favorite musicians.

His resentment toward Wenner and Rolling Stone's institutional claims of being a power broker as far as band reputations  is understandable, but his motivation is more payback than a substantial refutation of conventional wisdom. The Angry Young Critics were too fast out of the starting gate and in collective haste to bring down the walls of the Rock Establishment wind up being less the Buckley or the Vidal piercing pomposity and pretension than, say, a pack of small yapping dogs barking at anything passing by the backyard fence. The likes of Christgau, Marcus, and Marsh provoke you easily enough to formulate responses of your own, but none of the reviews have the makings of being set aside as a classic of a landmark debunking; there is not a choice paragraph or phrase one comes away with.

Even on albums that, I think, are over-rated, such as John Lennon's Double Fantasy, you think they're hedging their bets; a writer wanting to bring Lennon's post-Beatles reputation down a notch would have selected the iconic primal scream album Plastic Ono Band (to slice and dice. But the writers here never bite off more than they can chew; sarcasm, confessions of boredom and flagging attempts at devil's advocacy make this a noisy, nit picky book whose conceit at offering another view of Rock and Roll legacy contains the sort of hubris these guys and gals claim sickens them. This is a collection of useless nastiness, a knee-jerk contrarianism of the sort that one overhears in bookstores between knuckle dragging dilettantes who cannot stand being alive if they can't hear themselves bray. Yes, "Kill Your Idols" is that annoying, an irritation worsened but what could have been a fine idea.

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Man oh man, what a band. They were a band of technically competent musicians who came up with one good production, their inspired production of "You Keep Me Hanging On". It was an inspired move to slow down the Supremes' most jacked-up hit . Instead of the ringing -telephone shrillness of the original, this became instead a mock-fugue, building tension and releasing it effectively erotic explosions. Sometimes I still thrash around the living room with this song in my head, miming Vince Martel's clanging power chords with broad sweeps of my hand. VF's arrangement of this song became the standard approach for the most part; Rod Stewart did a credible take of his that borrowed heavily from the Fudge's initial recasting. Sadly, though, the band relied too much on that one idea, too often. 
Their songs, original or reinterpretations, tended to be dirge like and down right pompous, dullsville, a drag. And their album "The Beat Goes On" beat Yes to the punch , producing the single most pretentious and bombastic concept album years before the British band mustered up that three disc Hindenburg they titled "Tales from Topographic Ocean." Vanilla Fudge has a mixed legacy, but the one thing they did well, the storm and thunder that comprises their version of "You Keep Me Hanging On", they did brilliantly. It is a thing forever and so few of us accomplish that even in our most inflated fantasies.