Thursday, February 27, 2014

Every Bad Guy Wore a White Hat

On a level more reptile than it is Descartes, I agree with the idea that experience was more nuanced and greater meaning in other years before technology encroached on that private psychic space we and made our pleasures less joyful, cheaper, less resonating, but that level would be emotional, not really sociological. It would be a space where we would subjective to the point that there was only one subject, each of us individually isolated with our harvested anxieties and carpentered neurosis. As metaphor, our existence would be akin to a many storied flop house where you don't see the residents , but you are a witness to other evidence of great minds turning on themselves, mostly with aromas of burnt food, unflushed toilets and what sounds like several people rocking back and forth continuously on noisy bed springs, all night, all day, until the end of time or sleep overcomes  you at last.

History, in a very strong sense, has been technology and capitalism 's constant debasement and de-centering of the personal, the meaningful, the authentic; gadgets of all sorts, whether the printing press, radio, movies, television, public universities, have reduced previous centers of cosmology-cohering , rearranged social arrangements between classes and institutions and made everyone with half a wit rethink what they thought they knew and construct their own version of being thrown out of Eden. And the same naysayers to progress--progress in this sense being neither positive nor negative but rather being inevitable, unavoidable despite the appearance of resistance-- that what was in place was better because things were slower, richer, more nuanced.
Yes, quantity changes quality, but Engels, credited with coining that pert phrase, neglected to add that change needn't be for the worse; in many cases it can be argued that technology , with its capacity to create new kinds of contexts in which experience is had, registered and expressed, has improved quality. More often than not, though, my guess is that what Engels and Franzen miss is that things change because they have to--change is the only constant--and that however much we want to regard ourselves as a culture of educated , discerning individuals, we have a herd mentality; men and women are species being who behave as such.
Our principle difference with other animals in regard to our basic responses and reactions are that we language skills that helps create the philosophy and art that helps us believe that we make everyone of our decisions through the choice use of free will. Some of us are smarter than others, though (yes, I believe that) and one is tasked with making the best choices about what to WITH the new technologies rather than grouse and complain that something need to be done ABOUT the new world that is constantly unfolding. Franzen is not a moralist about good virtues and a better life that is now gone, he is an obsessive crybaby who trades in nostalgia as a means of making himself distinct from other literary sorts who want to be cultural critics . His mourning over an idealized past isn't a moving paean at this point, its shtick.

Finding Corn in the Pone

"Sewage Has It's Say", a poem by Steven Cramer, stinks to the highest reaches of irony, and it's a fine thing too.A monologue in essence, the essence of which is the voice of what we consume processed and reduced to it's fouler essences in turn. This is the food we eat and the drinks we imbibe with all the cosmetics of preparation removed, after all the benefits (nutrition, energy) and debits ( obesity, high blood pressure) have been had. Insulted, railed against, invariably used as a pejorative, equated with the foulest intents and deeds a race is capable of, sewage finds it's voice, it talks back to the world that is other wise obliged to consume and make crap and crud an unavoidable consequence; there is hypocrisy here, the fetid mess proclaims, everything winds up in this repulsive stew:

Give me roots prying into the joints
of your main waste line, Charmin
thickening her web first to a nest,
then to a dam, and I'll sluice in reverse,

top the basement tub and spill
into a poem! Damn! I've sunken
to new heights! Will you take
a hint and stomach your disgust?

What does The Thinker look like
he's doing? How come Luther heard
God's thunderclap of justice via faith
whilst sitting on the privy?

Steven Cramer has an especially acute wit to imagine a dark mass taking on a voice one could imagine being intoned by a hammy Shakespearean actor intent on over-emoting the lines, a misunderstood and maligned end product talking shop with a product , Charmin, that's ostensibly dedicated to wiping it out. But wipe as much you can, the stinking sludge maintains, you will become part of this flushed proletariat, these breakdowns of food stuffs, fecal encrusted tissues, diapers, sanitary napkins, condoms, illegal drugs and syringes.

At the heart of the matter is that is we really are what we eat, echoing an otherwise stale counter culture cliche, and regardless of how we gussy up the chambers with spray-can aroma, disinfectants , no matter how much art and artifice we set around our dinner table preparations, regardless to what extreme we pervert language to raise our collective self image and have our race be at the top of the food chain, we are in the food chain none the less, inseparable, consuming vast amounts of products to keep the mortal body a going concern, producing waste in all varieties, forms.

You know...where love's pitched his mansion, so
don't shower so much. Squeaky clean's
for mice. No soap's got enough tallow
to wash out the mouth mouthing off.

What made you so ... nice? Polite's
kind of like death, isn't it? Okay, not
quite. But consider this, my sweet kin
in excretion: to flies we taste like candy.

Whether it's The Thinker or Theologians considering the feasibility of a personal God, everything resembles the process of taking a dump, a long and ponderous crap, the moment when every idea one has absorbed in passing finally passes through us, if we're lucky enough , leaving only that bit of nutritional purity that has helped us grow, come up with an idea, an invention, a poem that is truly our own. Steven Cramer's personification of an unspeakable and limitless mass of stinking waste as having a voice to raise in it's irony-citing defense is an excellent bit of wit.

The literary references are less self conscious than such citations usually are since his point is to reduce the space between humanity's greatest conceit as an elevated species and the inevitability of it's least appealing biological requirements. Everything is shit, like it or not, all is waste, the finest poems become sludge. One needs to embrace the fact, if not the cistern that contains the messenger.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Perfect Pitch

The similarities between William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost there , indeed, in the sense that we have two poets who have created a style of plain writing–writing, not speech, as neither poets are poets who attempt idiomatic epics– that want to get something of the grit, grime and grumble of life that previous generations of poets had theorized out of countenance, For myself, it is Williams who is the better and more bracing the two scribes, as I remember a passing remark from WCW suggesting (I paraphrase) that the thing itself is its own adequate symbol. Where systems of metaphor, allusion and simile were busy comparing this existence to more perfect orders and had essentially argued that real objects in the material world were irrelevant to the poet’s task of constructing arguments for a more perfect union of elements , Williams and his fellow travelers in Pound, Eliot, HD , Amy Lowell and a host of other nascent modernist bringing their own experience and idiosyncratic notions to the discussion, mutually agreed that metaphysics was suffocating poetry, robbing it all worth and potential to create beauty from freshly expressed perceptions; the perfect world of Ideal Types needed to be forgotten about, at least for a while, while the language poets used was reinvigorated , reapplied, basically reinvented as a creative force. The thing itself is its own adequate symbol.

Yes indeed, and this was a declaration that for the purpose of writing a poem that addresses the actuality of a scene, the phenomenological exactitude of objects and their situations, God was dead and it was the job of the new poet to get it right. Much of this imagism, a splendid but blessedly short-lived movement in modern poetry that wanted to excise extraneous words and metaphors and gutless qualifiers from poems that are tasked with getting this world and its things correctly expressed in unforgettable ways. No ideas but in things was a battle cry they might all have heard in their subconscious at one time; it rang loud, in any case.

in the fleckless light
separately in unison

like the sacks
of sifted stone stacked
regularly by twos

about the flat roof
ready after lunch
to be opened and strewn

The copper in eight
foot strips has been
beaten lengthwise

down the center at right
angles and lies ready
to edge the coping

One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it.

Williams was a superb, brilliant exponent of this pared-down approach; his sentences are prickly, full of splinters, a description of action that contains rhythm , movement, precise descriptions of things that give a strong suggestion that the arrangements of the things in the world are extraordinary as they are, even when they unseen by human eyes and egos that translate the experience into easy narrative tropes; what is splendid about this poem, “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” is the lean and lyrical economy with which Williams gives us a good amount of detail; workmen on a break, the materials, and tools they are working with laying to the side, the light and time of day, the return to work, the steady hand of the workman who lifts a piece of the thing he is working on:
“One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it.”
Without fuss, commotion or straining rhetoric, Williams achieves a stark beauty, with his notion of taking his sentences and breaking them into smaller units of clear signification working subtly and directly to bring us to the startling last lines, “picks up a copper strip/and runs his eye along it.” That, for me, was a dicey image, since it suggests the grim prospect of having an eye poked out with hard, sharp, unyielding thing. But without the blathering on about courage, craft or anything else left and right intellectuals have romanticized about for decades before, Williams accomplishes one small thing that, in turn, went a long way in revolutionizing how poems come to be conceptualized. He achieves that fine balance between hard and soft things, he makes it tactile, he delivers his poem with such skilled brilliance that most readers miss it even after multiple readings.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Ballad of a thin man

The greatest gift the internet has given us is that it has made the stuff of our collective teen years, our conquer-the-world years into the stuff that is retrieved from that attics, basements and from the garages of  memory and posted on the social media one a user’s choice. We get to oohh and ahh   or groan with embarrassment over how wonderful or, on reflection, how preposterous the playthings our younger selves are in retrospect.  Barry Alfonso, writer, journalist and cultural historian par excellence, posted this on a site. I laughed when I witnessed this items reappearance, an album of Sebastian Cabot, gentlemanly English actor best known for his work as Mr. French on the hokey sitcom “Family Affair”, reciting the lyrics of Bob Dylan. This was, of course, intended as an inspired jam session in which Dylan’s worth as a poet was established without equivocation. The equivocation remains, though, as the results are a classic case of belated comedy. That accent and that acting style can't help but sound incurably absurd considering the kind of poetic vernacular Dylan, an idealized form of street jive. 

The problem is made worse in that Cabot's actorly dramatic pauses, his stressing of certain syllables over others in a line, the rising and falling of his voice as though in actual conversation, is just the sort of thing if you're dealing with the multi-rhythmic beats of Shakespeare, Marlowe or, say, Elmore Leonard; there is more for a man with a trained voice to work with. A parallel example would be that it is more interesting to hear Miles Davis improvise on "My Funny Valentine" or "Someday My Prince Will Come" rather than "Time After Time" or "Human Nature." Genius lyricist as he has been over the decades, Dylan’s lyrics is not stand-alone poems, as they require the melodies to achieve their full power. Cabot is game in trying to make these words seem larger than they are, but it is a ridiculous combination. 

The comedy is as unintentional here as it was in "Plan 9 from Outer Space"; since it was a "hip" thing at the time this record was made to insist that Dylan was a poet, first and foremost. Since this was the conventional wisdom at the time, it was also a selling point and doubtlessly some record exec had an idea that they should get a "real”, i.e. British actor to recite Dylan's words. Sebastian did what did best; apply his voice of refined elocution, to what Dylan did best. The results are a conspicuous mismatch, I think, and don't sense anything purposefully subversive, intentionally comic, or post-modernly ironic about this. It is funny in the way the pursuit of an innocently bad idea is funny--the awfulness is obvious to everyone but the participants, who've been seduced by their expectations.

Enigmas don't shop in their pajamas

There is an ongoing project among a current generation of critics and poets to make the ever baffling , provocative and incontestably brilliant poet Emily Dickinson a less problematic figure in the American literary terrain. Famous for her reclusive lifestyle and extremely selective preferences as to who she had personal contact and communication with,  some effort has been made to make  her a more human, more public figure. The publication of the handwritten "envelope poems" is the latest in the trend to bring her into the sunshine. I welcome the addition of more , previously unknown verse to her body of work, but the insistence on publishing them with careful rendered photos of the actual pieces of paper to be evidence of a growing fetishism; it seems less an effort to bring more insight into the words than it is , say, for an obsessed reader to imagine a real person who might have written these things in states of meditative reflection. That makes the book more stunt than an essential unveiling of  unknown poems. I wish there was a book merely with the poems printed, without the clutter. Here the result, for this   reader, is that the more I find out about her, the less is revealed. 

 Emily Dickinson was cryptic for reasons known only to herself, I’m afraid, but I am of the mind that she intended her compact lyrics to be interpreted any number of ways. Irony, contradiction, revelation; her poems move along general the general theme that one’s thinking, Dickinson’s, evolves with time, gently or brutally, and that the time to be a witness is finite. Nuances and whispered implications abound in her work and, beyond a loosely gathered bit of conventional wisdom about ED’s general themes and concerns; there is plenty in her work to warrant continued, fascinating and inconclusive opinions about where the center of the poem, its motivating core and precise particulars lie. But what is also fascinating and important to speculate is what’s not included in the poem; what is outside the text is a worthy subject of investigation/speculation.

 It is an element that makes ED contemporary to this day, as a body of work that still resonates with a modern readership discovering a wit, an insight, a corresponding feeling in her splendidly fragmented manner. My information is nothing else but my own reading gauged against my own experience, both as citizen and poet. What I’ve said I have found in the text, really. Literary commentary, of course, is not science and it is particularly pointless to insist on anything like “back to the data”. Historical context for poems is fine for perspective, but language is a living thing, not stagnate, as you know, and ED’s word choices. I am convinced that there are meanings in great poems that those most great poets were entirely unaware; poetry is an intuitive process however much a crafted discipline comes into play. There is the superficial element, the glitter, the dazzle, the alluring set of phrases that seem to say one thing, and then there are things that combined suggest and point toward matters perhaps the author might not have been aware of, let alone the reader. That is the joy of criticism, a rage of interpretative opinions based on the text. I fairly much reject definitive, “authoritative” interpretations of works of art. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Wings of Desire by Amy King

Wings of Desire  / BY AMY KING

This is what it sounds like outside,
fat geese and guinea hens holding hands.
I am 31, which is very young for my age.
That is enough to realize I’m a pencil that has learned
how to draw the Internet. I explain squiggles
diagramming exactly how I feel and you are drawn to read
in ways you cannot yet. Slow goes the drag
of creation, how what’s within comes to be without,
which is the rhythmic erection of essence.
Life’s little deaths, petite orgasms, as the French nearly said
but never came to. Feathers outstrip the weather
as we stand with binoculars inquiring how
winged creatures can hold their blood to warmth
without a proper insulation system overlaying circulation.
That is, sans fat and simple wooden bones with hair glued on.
Mostly though they pulsate on the horizons of backlit vision,
where we only meet the subways with handshakes,
the rainbow filters of downloaded electronica,
the telephone poles as archaic checkpoints to past cultures.
They don’t have screens to seek their cues in.
We drift from one culture to another and fight
the stitcheries of racism, classism,
anti-Muslim terrorists among us,
with overlaps in the complete dis-ease our bodies
settle into for next to no resistance.
So we create something else.
As in, roughshod moments of fake hate
will position a fluid hello of death rattles
that settle for the injunction of existence and state:
Here am I made manifest by not being you,
by not going in the same unsteady destination,
by not asking the questions or repeating
the paintings that came before me,
by not singing in the register of  your bubble baths
as you hug that person close in a wish to outlast
bullets, even as the light leaves your eyes
just a little next time we overlap paths.
So the hens and geese make us think in terms of help
outside, how they flap and move with fat ease in front of trains,
across the chopping block, to the hungry winters of final leviathans,
even as they land just so on the wires above us,
and we go on complaining, murderous, too far out, unspoken.

Like the man said and the woman toasted, this poem is a stream of hot verbs, adjectives and metaphors that link the perennial  quest for self-definition with the blunt truths about realizing that the world is merely a unsolvable phenomena that cares less of our unique personalities and exists only as a plain where other self-defined entities meet and learn to get along and love or to further dig in their teeth , gnash their respective rows of teeth and fight, with bricks, with bottles, with sex, with words. It is a struggle either as negotiation or war sans army  or navy, the playthings of the interior world come into the waking life and those of us with the habit of insisting that first thoughts are the best and most accurate find out rapidly or in drawn-out decades that it is not enough to express yourself or exclaim your philosophy of the moment to an existence that is abstract and other, it is more a matter of being yourself in  the midst of circumstances that don't know your name, of relating less theory to the community around you and more of the insight of lived experience , of  having been wrong and right in equal measures over the years and finding a true irony that allows you and the world to lean closer together, as if to kiss, to hug, to rejoice in the presence of people and places that don't repel you with secret identities and unspoken alternate plans. Amy King is a fevered search not for the absolute, for the genuine.

 What I love about Amy King's poems is the collisions she sets forth, the speed of her connections, how often her observance of the commonplace strikes a target, how fluidly accurate her remarks are, how truthfully dumbfounding the ironies are.  "Wings of Desire" is all of this, of course, a debate those parts of the self that want to rule an interior perfection where it is always elegance at a whim, and the those other elements of personality that look out the window of the soul to world that it wants to be a part of, to be in love with, to conquer, to change and to merge as one with. Hers is a detailed Baedeker guide at a little over the legendary 45 RPM; it's hardly a matter of noticing telling details of the constructions, social and material, that form the resemblances between our Ideal Types and their expression on the Physical Plain, this is also a series of voices from inside the perception that sees the flaws in the design, the dysfunction of the results, the turmoil the best intentions create. Here is poetry about shaking your head, running your hands through your hair, gathering your wits and deciding, after road-testing your theories for decades, to be yourself, finally, unashamed of your talent, unembarrassed by your desires. You cease to be a problem to solve. Like a poem, you do not mean. You be.

 Amy King is fast and blunt and writes in lovely, magnificently fast lines that are something like the quicksilver bebop of Parker, the modal transformations of Coltrane, the hard-shovel digging of a McLaughlin; in all this accelerated, excited revelation, though, is tenderness, the center of the heart that is at war with its own contrary impulses, a consciousness that seeks the true center of being in the eyes of others it seeks to be connected to. King's is a poetry of that desire and those mad flights. Her poems are about love and touching, groping, kissing, caring, finding a truth beyond words that cures the senses. Her poems are manic and magic and the sort of thing that gets me thinking and back to the keyboard, writing my own crazy language.

Friday, February 7, 2014

At risk

Culture is worth a little risk, as Norman Mailer would have it, but we should add that that we need to skeptical of anyone's say-so and disdain any set of world-shrinking absolutes. Cultural pontiffs often enough start off as punks in the alley hanging out by the stage door and wind up giving us revised histories of their salad day heroes by arguing at length that the music, the novels, the plays and the poetry they liked in college and early professional life didn't try to smash rules, break forms or set fire to the palace , but rather tried to return art and aesthetics to principles that have been dormant, abandoned, forgotten.

 Culture is worth a little risk, of course, but there are times when culture is the risk.Mailer's quote, originating in his seemingly glib response to convict /  author's Jack Henry Abbott's murder of a waiter not long after he'd been paroled on the Authorities belief that he had rehabilitated himself by becoming an author. Mailer, we remember, had stabbed his wife Adele and nearly killed her. The books he wrote following this heinous incident were in large measure sincere and often brilliant mixtures of existentialist self-definition, mysticism and imaginative takes on the psychology of violence, of how it is often the result of the lone m person without means who attempt to berserk themselves into transcendance. He had given us one  fantastically problematic novel, An American Dream, in which his hero defies the combined forces he imagines have conspired against him and aspires to become a "new kind of man". The  consequences of that saga are anything but reassuring , especially for Mailer himself.  One of Mailer's heroes, William S.Burroughs, drunkenly shot and killed his wife Joan i when trying to shoot a glass off her head with a pistol. There have been times, more often than not, that I  wish the pontiffs , the pundits and the writerly men of action had stayed with their pens and pages and left the guns for the truly deranged who didn't care a wit about art or a nuanced philosophy behind their violence. Here we pause and wrestle with our conscious  and ponder if we can compartmentalize our horror for the acts these writers commit and still esteem the  brilliance their writing has challenged our bed rock assumptions with. In either case, these patently evil and insane events were motivations for the future prose of both writers--Mailer commenced on a life long inquiry into the spiritual malady that makes violence the preferred means to move events along in society , and Burroughs, not the most expansively regretful man in show business, as much said that the accidental murder of his wife Joan was the reason why he wrote from that point forward. Wrote Burroughs:

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out..
Both men seemed to continue writing in order to buffer themselves against acts that were  irrefutably ugly, evil, foul; the sheer process of making the world a  new, over and over, with their fiction, of combining different elements, subverting some genres and extending others, of making the fact of existence a cruel and painful process through which we conduct ourselves with some modicum of grace and invention, or relinquish our wits and allow strange and  powerful forces to manipulate our lives and  make a a mockery of what intellectual integrety we thought we possessed. the respective bodies of work of Mailer and Burroughs seem, to me, a heads up to the reader that they are at risk for merely being born, univited, in the middle of someone else's agenda. And the critic, the pundit, the explainers of art that offers no solace nor comfort, make a career practicing an extemporized philosophy that translate the literary horror and bludgeoning poetry of writing that seeks to make the fairy tales and their tragic ends palatable by acting as if there is a lesson to be learned. A doomed practice, I suspect, as I see day when we will have no real use for priests, film reviewers and reviewers who think they are priests . Eloquent apologies for one's formative taste, though, does not constitute a defense of the starker, more brittle frameworks that have dissolved like so much sugar in the guise of avant gard impulse; I am all for risk taking and rule breaking, but even the nastiest, least comprehensible bodies of work created by suitably sociopath  experimenters there are things that catch your ear, your eye, your fancy as you read what's in front of you, there are measures of genius that find that one thing in experience, that issue that no one had engaged, that combination of forms, ideas and attitude that had yet to be combined that strikes you a get level as real genius.

 I think these elements are genetic, organic, a hard to phrase dimension of human experience that transcends , easily , the problematics of social construction and canon making. The secret history of art history, the  secret history of artistic expression, is how much social misery the creative impulse has caused. This is why I tend to support subjective or heroic criticism--the critic less as taste maker than as someone who gathers their responses, knee jerk and reasoned both, and conducts an inquiry to his own first-person criteria as to what constitutes failure or success in a frame, in a line, in a string of musical notes.