Monday, March 31, 2014

National Poetry Month MUST BE DESTROYED so we can love reading and writing poetry again

Well, yeah, I'm grumpy some of the time, and I've been accused of being a curmudgeon in regards to National Poetry Month, the annual  dedication to an elusive art with a small audience that itself is divided among several hundred-seeming schools of thought as to what is genuinely worth reading or promoting. The reservations come chiefly from the attitude that poetry is something pathetic in itself, with Special Needs, and that there is a collective delusion in the publishing world that poetry can be made more popular by hyping the form with the cliched hokum that sounds culled from New Age screeds. It's a little infuriating to witness an art that you believe, at it's best, sparks the unusual idea or the unforeseen connection within a reader be reduced as something that marketers promise to deliver a consumer to an even deeper vat of circumscribed thinking.

I wouldn't say my remarks about National Poetry Month are grumpy, just realistic. On the face of it I welcome a month dedicated to the art , craft and diversity of poets and their work , and even think that the month might well bring new readers to poetry as something they'd read in their leisure time. The problem is that once we give someone or some thing a special day, week, or month for the nominal purpose of increasing awareness, most of the population bothering to observe what the calendar day commemorates will nod their head, bow their head, read a few poems, maybe buy a single volume that will likely wind up half way finished and atop a coffee table, a page bent down to mark a page,not be picked up again, and then be done with it for the year. It certainly gives major publishers significant favorable publicity so they can present themselves as more than bottom-line obsessed subsidiaries of malignant media corporations: look at what we're doing to support the arts, look at our love of poetry!!

There are poets who benefit, many of them I count my favorites, but the fact that poetry in general has a month dedicated to it's supposed welfare seems more to me that the rest of the literary world considers the form a poor, sickly relative; April as poetry month is the metaphorical gulag, a ghetto, a hospice, that space where this art, which no publisher seems to know how to market so it contributes usefully to their bottom line, is allowed to make it's noise, indulge their rhetoric for a short period in the spot light before being ushered from the stage and back to the margins.

Poets, the work they do, the theories they develop regarding their art has been the most rarefied and most diffuse of the arts as it developed since the encroachment of Modernism over turned the conventional thinking about poetry's form and purpose. It's been to poetry's advantage, I think, that the audience has been small, very small, compared to the other genres that help publishers make their payrolls and their dividends, since the relative obscurity has allowed poets of many different styles and concerns, politics and agendas to advance their art and arguments , both Quietist and Post-Avant Gard, unconcerned with a commercial aspect that wasn't theirs to begin with. National Poetry Month is something like a zoo the city folk may visit on their days off , and the poets are the exotic creatures who will perform their tricks, do their dances, take their bows for the smattering of applause and loose coin that might come their way. Generally speaking, poets and their work would be better off, and saner as well, if the illusion that a dedicated month will increase the readership and increase book sales as well.

It would be better for poets to stop behaving like their in need of rehabilitation and went about their business, doing what we're supposed to do to the best our individual and collective abilities. If the work is good, interesting, of quality on it's own terms, the audience , whatever the size, will come.

We are here in April again, and those of us concerned a little about poetry as art need again accommodate the ludicrous thing called National Poetry Month. The hope is to get folks to change their reading habits to include poetry volumes along with their steady diets of mysteries, romances, celebrity cookbooks and memoirs written by people who will soon to be exposed as liars and cheats. Is there hope for the General Audience? The divisions in the Poetry War are drawn, both sides will wage battle for the soul of the book buyer , but the pathetic truth is that vast promotion and arguments as to the worth of verse are to no avail. Literally, no one is buying it. Or buying too little of it for the fuss and bother of having a month out of the year dedicated to poets and their obscurities.

The General Audience I speak of is vague, purposefully so, as it speaks to anyone who has an amorphous notion of how to generalize about poetry readers share in common. The war between various schools, groups and the like strikes me as more bickering between the professionals, poets, critics and academics (some of whom happen to practice all three occupations) who have status and power on the line as they advance their agenda and create an enemy camp in the interests of bolstering whatever claims can be made for a particular group's alleged superior aesthetics. Some of this ongoing disagreement is fascinating and useful, since the distinctions as they’re clarified can be informative and the criticisms each has of the other’s perceived shortcomings can potentially yield insight on issues a writer might be otherwise be too close to.

I have my preferences, sure, and I subscribe to a particular set of principles, but these rules of poetry are worn like a loose suit, not a straight jacket. Most readers who a general interests in poetry , contemporary and older, will like or dislike a variety of different approaches to verse for an equally varied set of reasons, most of which, if asked, our hypothetical General Reader would be able to explain if asked. The basic question of a poem, whether written for the lyric voice, the vernacular rant, or the experimental rigorist, is whether it works or not, both on its own terms and in terms of whether it gives pleasure or joy. Someone might suggest that teachers could increase the audience for poems if they taught the material better, but this is a straw man.We can't lay this at the teacher's feet because it's my firm conviction that most poetry, ambitious or otherwise, isn't going be the thing the large majority of their students will take after in adulthood, regardless of how good or bad a job the instructor might be. We're talking about adult readers here, those who have reading habits formed and in place for a lifetime; some are more curious about more ambitious forms, most who read poetry prefer the greatest hits of Whitman, Plath or Dickens, if they read poetry at all, and the General Audience, as we've been calling them, has not interest in poetry what so ever, except when they need a quote for a funeral or a wedding.

In other words, people who might buy a book of poems do so for reasons that are the same as they always have been, word of mouth, display, book review, and so on. Things like National Poetry Month do so very little to increase the fraction of the book buying public to have even a casual appreciation of poetry; they simply don't care for those things that are not measurable by generic conventions. Charles Bernstein wrote a cogent, if slightly smug essay in 1999 called "Against National

Poetry Month As Such" in which he derides the notion that publishers and a clatch of state and federal arts czars can increase interest in and sales of poetry collections by reducing to the level of the contrived New Age/faux mediation group think that would have us read the literature with the hope that stress and pain will go away.(I am thinking myself of Roger Housden's odious collection "Ten Poems To Change Your Life",which abuses the work of good poets by presenting them as accessories one buys on impulse at the cash register).Bernstein's main point is well taken with me, that poetry is being sold as something it isn't, like the volumes poets publish are good for you in the way that pop psych and New Age literature claim to be. What is being sold are the specious promises of poetry, not the poetry itself which, of all the literary arts, should stand alone , unencumbered by political or therapeutic contrivance. National Poetry Month is a hypocritical waste of time, I think, a commercial venture born of the kind of cynicism that enables corporations to manipulate buyers into purchasing things they haven't an honest need for.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Colbert will irritate your gums

In the Seventies , Carroll O'Connor created the character Archie Bunker for the situation comedy All in the Family, a role that was a caricature of working class conservatism; pro-war, pro-gun, anti-civil rights, conspicuously  bigoted, the point of the show each week was to have this cartoon Neanderthal  confront an issue that raised his hackles and provoked him to say some offensive, outlandish things. The point of all this was to make what the producers thought was their mostly liberal audience to laugh. Someone where in this mess real blue collar conservatives, rock ribbed Republicans, took on Archie Bunker as a hero. O'Connor played role a bit too convincingly. Likewise, Stephen Colbert, who has made a brilliant career portraying a conservative pundit  modeled after the amazingly thick-skulled Bill  O'Reilly, has , it seems, convinced a few folks that he , Colbert, in fact, an insensitive, self-seeking conservative mouth piece. Christ.This whole issue is so inane that the only I can think of is that the woman behind #cancelcolbert was looking to be offended by Colbert's satiric (though admittedly lame) stab at racism. Is Mick Jagger the only one who can get away with saying "fuck 'em if they can't take a joke"? This begs the question though: could Jagger get away with saying that in our current climate, which is as irritated as an allergic rash?  Not likely, as the Internets propensity for Twitterizing the language into something that sputters , stammers and grinds with the sparking impatience of a dying Disney android ,  and which seems to be seducing  people to speak and  think in incomplete sentences, makes the formally expected comprehension of context , irony and nuance too much for one fretting mind to handle. It's a problem that's been with us since we've had something we could call "media", mass or social; more of us are in too much of hurry to know it all to take the time to understand something.Colbert misses the mark a good amount of the time, but really, lets do as he suggests and get rid of the torches and pitchforks. There are real things to debate and act on.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

No Fun: the vacant genius of the Stooges

Iggy Pop was a drummer in blues bands before he and his fellows formed the Stooges in the 60s, and as this song demonstrates, the experience wasn't wasted. Iggy and his mates understood that is to say, felt the vaguely described but conspicuous force that blues had, simple, sonic, repetitive and impolite to any standard measure of tempo. This was the kind of music that was the blend of instinct and wits, a boxer's set of reflexes to things that get in your way. Guitar, drums and are a distorted grind and the tempo of nails hammered. The Ashtons smashed mightily. Iggy, of course, was the man alone, a three-semester course of unreconstructed Id that inhabiting the center of every ganglion of nerves the brain tried to lay claim to;  the superego to twitch and become more reptilian by the second. He was that kid in drainpipe jeans who carried a sharp stick with a brown, mung encrusted nail through it, waiting on the corner for someone as yet unknown to walk by and get poked with it. There was no fun, so you made your own, just to see what happens. These were Mailer's White Negros for a fact, except they shivved me a man who was tailing them and talking too much in the other muse mute streets of two-story burn pads and deserted storefronts that had their front windows sealed with concrete and layers of old concert posters and spray paint exclaiming gang signs and Jesus. Anyone daring to talk past this kid deserved to be whacked with the rusty nail. It was cruel and pointless until something genuine happened to change everything; the bit that everyone knows in the world of the Stooges is that transcendence is not on the agenda, ever.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Donovan was good, Donovan was great

 To a large extent, I think Donovan's work needs an honest reappraisal. He did, at one point, go off the rails and became such a hippie and an apparent adherent all things transcendental that he was ruthlessly mocked. Consideration of his good work suffered, sadly, and like Melanie, a good songwriter with an interesting ear for poetic and nuanced lyrics, a developed sense of melody and an expressive singing voice is unfairly set aside. Three  songs bear out the more problematic, less anthemic quality of Donovan's writing."Sunny Goodge Street", "Epistle to Dippy" and "Young Girl Blues" are quite a bit more cynical and knowing that his subsequent reputation suggests.

 "Sunny Goodge Street" is a panorama, obviously, of a particular urban hip scene so commonly portrayed in flashy and groovy terms in the 60s, but Donovan's version of it makes it seem unpredictable, violent, utterly paranoid and incoherent. It is closer to Burroughs than to Scott McKenzie's saccharine rendering of John Phillip's saccharine to hippiedom "San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair"). Donovan seemed to understand that the counterculture was as much as a creep scene as it was a gathering moment for truth seekers, poets and sincere sensualists who desire both sex and innocence. While the cost of attaining the sorts of forbidden knowledge drugs and the attending hype was unknown, Donovan, last named Leitch by the way, had a foreboding that was rarely expressed by a generation of musicians that was fatally self-infatuated.
 "Epistle to Dippy" is nothing less than a direct address of a try-anything scene maker who dashes from drug to scene to fad in an irrational attempt to oust run their own vacuity, their utter lack of soul or genuine sensibility. This is as acidic a portrayal of the poseur as has been written, more potent than the Beatles' politely poo-poohing tune along the same theme, "Nowhere Man". The difference is that D.Leitch is in the trenches, an intrepid reporter perhaps,a Norman Mailer who dared to take the same drugs as those he observed and had enough wits afterward to recall the excruciating banality of a prismatic perspective.


"Young Girl Blues", in turn, is marvelously turned by Marianne Faithful into a bittersweet recollection of an ingenue who had gotten tired of her own hipness and the chronic scene-making; the lyrics are an acute portrait the raging banality of such an ostentatiously noisy and hip scene. Donovan senses, I think, the isolation none of the scene makers can break away from or cure with brand names, loud music, and chemicals. A fair amount of his songwriting holds up, I think, and it holds up for the same reason Norman Mailer's "Armies of the Night" or Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" hold up; they are all , in their own respective ways, exquisitely etched portraits of the Sixties that bypassed the mass-mediated brainwashing fostered by Time and Life magazines and presented the whole notion of Youth Culture and revolution as something that was no less problematic than the  Establishment that the ragtag gaggle of miscreants, socialists, opportunistic gurus, draft dodgers, ersatz feminists and the usual assortment of authentic bums and layabouts claimed needed to be changed. Details, blisters, resentment, a sharpened sense for sensing out the fake, the harmful, the mendacious.


Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting - The Daily Beast:

Ted Gioia is a jazz critic , music historian and journalist who's become provocatively concerned with the seeming devolving status of that of his occupation, music criticism.His commentary, linked above, caused to choke with the shock of recognition, as it appears that the coverage of music, old and new, fresh , middling and downright putrid, are accorded the same rhetorical standbys when they are covered on arts pages, in print or posted to lifestyle websites. It's been as though that no one among an invisible, snarky and uncommitted ranks of entertainment writers have a passion for music as such; critical estimations in so many record reviews I've come across over the last ten years have skewed toward the lazy reshuffling of conventional wisdom a 60s Old Guard of music judges managed to  render into meaningless pulp by the end of the 70s. Musicians, bands, their music  seem more fetish items, articles of acquisition that would reinforce a sophisticated listener's idea of themselves as Hipsters keeping a faith with some forgotten notion of living by values that transcend the merely material.

 But it is materialism we're addressing here, and music is less, much less the vehicle for any kind of new poetry, the space where what can't be said or explained about an existence who's purpose and meaning behind the flesh and blood circumstances of our routine gets expressed in a manner unforgettable and which provokes more earnest self examination, and instead makes all the sweet music into tones that compliment the carpets, the view of the ocean from the top of the hill, the selection of unread books on sparsely occupied shelves.  In fact, it's not that music criticism has devolved  down to lifestyle reporting, it is merely being replaced by  editors and publishers by a species of celebrity journalism.  Musicians  replaced Hollywood movie stars in large part as famous and rich folks that fans of popular culture obsess about and, as it goes,  in a world where media is now a  24-hour concern, filling up those column inches online and online and , for the love of god, all over those cable shows, the fastest and most ready  bit of material for reporters to bring to a drooling public's attention are the trivial doings of what these people do in their daily lives. 

In an atmosphere where everything is up-to-the-minute, the second, the nanosecond, music criticism only takes you so far. I was a music editor for several years and I know the dread of having holes in your section layout--that is , no stories, no reviews, no ads to fill up a gaping white space on the page you're trying to ready for publication. As much as I wanted to maintain my integrity and reserve my editorial  copy to matters of considered cultural criticism and the arguing  for the greater good of all, as a practical matter my standards had to be modified when I decided to run a substandard, gossipy,  trivial bit of celebrity worship on my pages. Nature abhors a vacuum  and so do editors. The Village Voice, Down Beat, Rolling Stone, Filter, Pitch Fork, Jazz Is, all present straightforward criticism of musicians and their work, and the quality varies publication to publication, of course. A basic consideration, though, is that back in the day, when  music, basically rock and roll, was considered a force for change by the media that tried to understand it, we saw a rise in earnest young intellectuals--Paul Williams, Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Jon Landau, later Lester Bangs--who took the music seriously and attempted to essay forth the underlying movement of history in the notes played and the rhymes sung. This gave us a particularly potent kind of literary commentary; there was a lot of good writing that came out of that. Moreover, though, much more nonsense written for music criticism, and  it appears that readerships no longer believe that music, as such, represents a Hegelian transformation of History; it meant a good time, period.  The basic message is that cultural commentary of the highest regard will dominate the arts pages of general interest publications, online and off, only when the zeitgeist has us believe that music and art in general have a meaning and direction that is more, much more than the technical achievements . I think we need critics, informed , passionate and committed critics, to discuss and eventually provide readers with articulate view of works of fiction, drama, movies, visual arts to give one context, stylistic analysis, author /musician/poet/playwright (etc) theme tics and development there of, and how well the current subject of review stands up , merit-wise, with the best of the artist's body of work so far. This is more academic, I suppose, than merely "reviewing", which tends to be terse consumer guides that opine on much bang for the buck a consumer gets. I've gravitated toward more long form, deep dive opionists--Kael, Christgau, Greg Tate,Walcott, Stanley Crouch, Sarris , LeRoi Jones--who incite disagreement but who , nonetheless, provide the basis of conversation and points where informed dissent can expand the conversation. I buy music, books, go to films and attend poetry readings (and the like) because I enjoy having my assumptions of form and coherence tweaked. And I enjoy good writing about such matters as well. It's a cliche, yes, but a good critic, a great critic can make the art experience more meaningful.

 It makes for a dull time generally , I suppose, and limits nuanced discussions and general intellection on guitar solos and the genius of lyrics to a smaller, shriller, more adenoidal crowd of folks, but that is the spirit of the time we live in.The element of discovery is out of the equation, since no one has to look neither long nor far for music that  might interest them, the new sounds, the new vibe. Critics are no longer the explorers or explainers of new sounds . Everything is already found, and the smaller circles of pundits , it seems, find themselves aggressively agreeing with one  another, give or take an instance of ritual snark.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why Alain de Botton is a moron » Spectator Blogs

Why Alain de Botton is a moron » Spectator Blogs:
Mde Botton as an "egghead", the sort of person who can "beat you in a pub quiz" with their eidetic propensity of remembering every detail they've ever read, but who has a personality that is all but lacking in true intellectual force.That is to say that for all the lifetime of reading across a wide swath of literature, art, philosophy, history, the savant doesn't seem to have synthesized anything resembling an interesting interpretation of what they've gorged themselves on. The knowledge seems only to have made the dull even duller, made their inanities even more colossally vapid. The aggravation among readers who have both read much of  the primary sources that a professional smarty pants like de Botton uses and who obsessively, even excessively aerobicise their grey matter by presenting their store of knowledge through an Olympic-quality regimen of speculation, elaboration and just good old fashioned bullshitting, is that the career labors of poets, philosophers , novelists and seers of all sorts is reduced to the trite, the tired, the tragically dopey. Their is an industry in all this reductionist activity; it provides a means for the lazy and the hurried and harried browser to believe that they've been exposed to Proust, to Sartre, to Homer, to Joyce, to Thomas Pynchon without having to actually read them. Roger Housden's poetry collection Ten Poems to Change Your Life .  is a gross vulgarization of an otherwise sweet set of poets whose authors were going for effects more nuanced than a reassurances that takinga  sick day when you're not actually ailing is okay. Literatureseems to have come under the sway of Stuart Swalley. Alain de Botton is a business man who has found out that there are larger paychecks for dispensing bumper sticker adages and homilies than there are in reams of abstraction. Which is fine, I suppose, he has the right to make the best living he can from the materials he chose to master.Funny thing is that this article reminds me of the notorious critic John Simon, a polymath of a nasty-assed reviewer who has an enviable erudition that has, none the less, failed to inspire him to a higher level of negative reviewing; his put downs are cheap, vulgar, sarcastic , mean for reasons that are more venal than they are descriptive of art that fails to measure up. Another "egghead", a large  set of references to underscore a resolutely  idiotic set of responses.
y favorite line in this piece describes

Monday, March 17, 2014

Snakes on a plain

I wrote this back in  2009 and it merits reprinting again, since it is St.Patrick's Day and my sour  views on the occasion haven't changed. Nor are they less valid. --tb

It's March 17th again, and it's time to say again that I don't like being Irish on St.Patrick's Day. Being of Irish descent those who know my last name and aware as well that some consider me a poet, a lover of words used fully, have started to ask me what my plans were. Who’s party are you going to, what Irish Pub will you be drinking at, what Irish poet will you recite at the Open Reading of Irish Poetry?

Attending the idea that you would want to celebrate a culture rich in the greatest ringing glories of the English language comes the question about how drunk you intend to get, and will you remember the way back to your bedroom at your mother's house if you become unable to utter a comprehensible sentence. There are times I hate being Irish; the jokes at the expense of this culture make it obvious that White European Americans are the only ethnic group one can offend with impunity. The Holiday is a match to conspicuously open can of gasoline.

On The Day itself, many will inquire “Where’s your green?” All these questions on the single topic becomes nagging of a kind, the persistent inquiry into what someone else takes as an imperfection. My imperfection seemed to be that I didn't feel Irish enough. I don’t wear green on any day, it’s not my favorite color, and there’s a deep resentment at others who expect me and any other Irish American to play the shaleighlei -stroking trick monkey with green paper hats, green beads and affecting brogues as bogus as paper forks.

There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s movie “Annie Hall” when his character Alvy Singer berates a woman’s Jewishness with a number of wisecracks at the expense of the ethnic heritage he imagines her identifying with. The woman says nothing and Singer, feeling he’d crossed the line, gives a half-hearted apology for his jokes, to which she replies (and I paraphrase here) “No, it’s alright, I don’t mind being reduced to a cultural stereotype”

This was a “eureka” moment , since it articulated a foul mood I’d been in for years each time St.Patrick’s Day rolled around and Americans, of Irish Lineage and otherwise, rolled out their boxes of stereotypes: green beer, whiskey, green beads, glittered cardboard shamrocks, the whole disgusting offensive lot.St.Patrick's is a day on which those of us with family connections to the Emerald Isle are to relish the contributions of Ireland to the world by way of it;s poets and dramatists and novelists, whether Joyce, Yeats, John Millington Synge or Roddy Doyle and Seamus Heaney, an activity of worth if the proceedings were low key and attentive to what Irish writing sounded like and what cluster of emotions and experience it collectively expressed; it's a literature at war with itself and, as such, conflicts and tensions such as that results in a major poetry. Bombast, bottles and bullshit about all things Irish follow the lip service to the Literature, and St.Patrick's Day becomes no more than respectful of it's cultural name sake than does Cinco de Mayo or Halloween. It's an excuse to drink to excess and behave badly and be a lout. It was assumed that because of my last name and that I made a living both writing and selling books that I would be all over the Holiday and partake in the lugubrious, drunken wallow. I remember yelling at some partying moron with an Italian last name who was doing a miserable Barry Fitzgerald impersonation that I had it in mind to come to his house late at night and do some patently offensive immigrant through a bullhorn if he kept up with what I thought was a cultural slander. Of course he didn’t get what I was getting at, and I never showed up in his driveway to deliver on my promise, but the upshot is that he's never forced his face into mine after that with that wavering brogue.

I resisted the temptation to ask if he did Minstrel Show impersonations for black people on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, as the point was both overkill and would be lost on him.Say what you might about me, but I pride myself on the quality of issues I waste my breath on, a perverse pleasure that might reaffirm the cliche of the Irish being masters of futile eloquence. Doubtful; I just love the sound of my own voice and don't compelled to credit cultural determinism for what is either a gift or a curse( depending on circumstance, inspiration, and the quality of the coffee I might have been drinking when inspired to place a few words on the page, in rhythmic order, declaring war on a latest peeve or pestering pustule of aggravation). It must be said that despite that small country’s amazing contributions to World Literature, I’ve never felt much kinship with Ireland, nor with the native Irish I’ve met. What I've felt like through my life is a middle class white guy, Irish American, emphasis on the American. Irish-American.It's a different tribe.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Headaches and Head Butts

There was an amusing story in Slate some time ago where the editors queried several noted critics about what they individually considered the most over -rated novels they had the misfortune to struggle with; the responses from a group including Amy Bloom, Stephen Burt, Tom Perrotta among others presented some dour words over a fine selection of iconic texts. The idea was like that of the collection edited by rock critic Jim DeRogatis, Kill Your Idols, where he asked a significantly younger generation of pop music critics to write devastating reviews of what was basically the Rolling Stone magazine canon of the Greatest Rock-and-roll Albums ever made.

Without going into detail, I will say that the anthology was a great idea that landed on the sharp rocks by one negative review after another;  virtually no musician or band was as good as older scribes had claimed, a conclusion  you expected given the title of the collection, but the sensibility was put down and sarcasm, cheap insults, a strained irreverence that , with the repetition of one review after the other, sounded practiced, more inauthentic than the alleged phoniness of the albums under review. It was a bad writing contest; the contestants vying to produce the most wretched Lester Bangs impersonation.

Bangs, though, would have none of this; he bared his soul; he argued his reasons, absurd or irrational they might have been. He was a great writer, a first rate wit and good critical thinker who was fast to notice when artists, whether musicians or writers , where getting by on the reputation more than the quality of their. The writers in the Slate feature are likewise cracking good wordsmiths; what makes their grim reminiscences memorable was the snappy, stylish economy of their stated misgivings, quick blends of anecdote, revelation, critical assessment, clear and damning. The point is that the Slate article is merely a chance for some payback:  tired of the praise Joyce receives, have you had it with Salinger’s name sucking the air from the room, do you think Pynchon is all sizzle and no steak? Here is your chance to put these elevated middlebrows in their place. What we get are smart people, good critics, staying in the shallow end of the pool.

It's interesting that  any highly touted book that doesn't  hold my attention 
gets reassigned to the 'over -rated" section of my book table, that stack of tomes I will give away, donate, sell as the opportunities arise. "overrated", though, is as overused a term as, say, "brilliant", "masterpiece" or "ground breaking"; hasty dismissals and instant praise without a cant-free discussion about why these judgments were rendered exposes the opinions as being as inflated as the book one seeks to bury . Or to rise. Time was when book reviews, even the reviews available in middlebrow magazines like Time, made you believe, even feel, the sluggish pacing and torpor a bad stretch of prose could have on a writer. These days the field dominated by wise cracks suitable for photo captions. 

Remarks are fine for the chitchat that comes with book group debates about the relative merits of emerging authors or the swan songs of authors who have died are seem about to; to disguise a selection of rhythmic grumbling as an article is something else. Our critical discourse is reduced to something you can read while going to the refrigerator for another O’Doul’s. Gertrude Stein told Hemingway that "remarks are not literature", and I agree, literature is writing at length and writing that seeks to achieve something more remarkable than what the water cooler/coffee pot/ Good Reads cabal of laconic pedants offer as commentary

Even criticism that takes literature apart and inspects the workings of fevered personality taken to extreme graphomania ought to aspire to the level of the best books it takes under consideration. As it goes, though, remarks and not essays are the preferred method of judging new books, old and older. Remarks are not literature, nor are they criticism, but it is what people seem to read as the computers become repulsively more portable. It's a bad cafe drink: just a rumor of coffee, lots of cream, sugar by the serving spoonful.

Sonnets for loose shoes and baggy jeans

I thought this small verse I wrote  was a decent attempt at the loose-fitting sonnet form, as practiced by Ted Berrigan and featured in Gerald Stern’s engagingly gangly book American Sonnets. The distinction between these efforts and the Elizabethan sonnets one parses in college courses is that the “loose-fitting” form (my phrase) is an attempt to bring the particularly American instinct to confess and promote one’s idealized personality in free verse, ala Whitman and Charles Olson , with the limits a more formal structure. The results satisfy nearly no one but those who appreciate perversions of form, with the hope something new emerges. Sometimes something does.  A side comment, the phrase “loose fitting” comes from  the last time I bought a near pair of jeans, forty bucks  worth for one pair, a cut of denim termed as such, looser than what you  would normally purchase I suppose. It maybe a euphemism  for sizes intended for those recently widened in the     waist line and who tip the scale more than they had. None of this, though, ads gravit y to the sonnet, which is precisely what it is, nearly weightless, but nice all the same.
Sonnet 16

A sign of the cross and a sign on the door or just sign
yourself out if it’s a weekend pass you’re dealing with,  

sign yourself up for a moment in the sun when you
have your tax refund check in hand, give us some cash for 

the diversions that approach the distraction level
of morons who get their exercise reading the labels

on records as they go ‘round and ‘round on the
phonograph, signs of life in a living room, your parents

house and sofa, I am hiding behind a chair before the light
switch is flipped and a panic like business plans that come

undone where you signed a dotted line that ends up
being a perforations around your wrists, like you see

on butcher’s charts, you know, under the sign that reads

Interesting, and as often happens on the forums, the first response to the poem brought something else in the poem to think about other than how well it works as an amateurs attempt at  more structured verse.  It’s a relevant to ask   how many people understand what’s  meant by an oblique reference  to phonograph record labels spinning around as they play. Good question. Who would have thought that LP's would be something that reveals your generation? I remember years ago talking to a young man , twenty years younger than I at least, about various matters. When it came time to say goodbye, I said "I'll see you on the flip side".

 He looked puzzled as we shook hands as asked me what I meant by "flip side". In an instant I realized that he was too young to remember long playing albums, vinyl, and briefly explained that before CDs records had two sides, side A and side B, and that the phrase meant the other side of the record. The long and short of his wasn’t crucial to anything at hand, nor was it that interesting to anyone, but it was informative that I was now old enough that some of the cultural references I'd been using for decades were now potentially incomprehensible to younger adults.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

What the Huh?

Honestly, I Never Want To Hear The Word 'Huh?' Again | Claire Fallon:

'Being a columnist , a featured writer for a publication with the task of writing snappy, readable copy against often steep deadlines on what seems a ceaseless treadmill of contracted phrase making, is fraught with many casual terrors, those dreads that aren't life threatening but sleep disrupting all the same. The worst of these minor-yet-crucifying dreads is being bereft of anything interesting to say, not an insight,not a bit of wit, not an valid exception to an exclaimed rule. What to do? Complain about the chump change , the seemingly insignificant gaffs and quirks that irritate you without let up in your capacity as a literary(of a sort) professional . Witness the woes of Claire Fallon, a book editor for the Huffington Post, who recently found time (or had no recourse but )to write a snippy, windy squib against the word "huh".

It is an old formula for a writer who's obligated to churn out copy , to pick a verbal habit that annoys them and essay forth with how it violates the innumerable of correct and truly clever use of english, providing an anecdote or two , a recollection, fictionalized no doubt, about her assumptions from college days, and then to provide a number of preferable and , well, elegant substitutions than the crudity that is the word "huh".  You get the picture, it's a gimmee, as they call it, a fairly easy way to feel better than the rabble ; enter the readership into a conspiratorial attitude that makes you believe that you're more intelligent than the fellows and fellowettes around you. At least smarter about this insular bit of grammatical police work.

 I would have respected Fallon's effort more if she chastised user of truly egregious barbarisms, such as anyone saying or writing "uncomfortability" when they mean "discomfort" or utters "potentiality" when the unqualified "potential" suffices. There were so many other awful usages to get her dander up. Perhaps she was irritated because "you know" has been done to death as a subject of articulate complaint , and "WTF" is obviously not going to vanish because she chooses to vent. Best of all possible language tics to complain about would be, hands down, the uncontrollable urge of easily impressed crowds who shriek "OHHHHH.MY.GOD!!" seemingly everytime a new variation on otherwise routine widgets come out in a new color . It's not that I am religious--far from it, I am skeptical in most things, and classify myself as "curious agnostic", since aethieism is an arrogant pose at best--but "God" , conceptually, does require abstract thought and an grasp of a philosophy of  what the Greater and Greatest Good are in this life. If there is a God, why would you invoke his name in the order to announce that shiny things attract you and that there is no better way to dedicate your life other than yelping like a battered hound. In any event, I am hoping that Fallon's muse returns soon from vacation and  gets the cogs of  her imagination cranking again, full steam.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

‘Detroit - An American Autopsy,’ by Charlie LeDuff -

Detroit:An American Autopsy
by Charles LeDuff

I read this a year ago, and as a Detroit native I have to say that LeDuff's Hemingway-inspired , virtually verbless  prose style suits the ongoing heartache that is the Motor City.  it is a relief that the author refrains from being the  amatuer urban planner or statistic-infected wonk in order to project dismal futures or to propose expensive , long term solutions predicated on someone's willingness to raise taxes. That is another conversation and debate that would distract from LeDuff's strong points as a writer,which are an attention to detail, unspoken nuance, the voice of the people he talks to and the grinding despair of a seemingly doomed city. 

This reads like a novel, more or less, a writer's journey through a city that once thrived and was respected and now, due to basic and fatal human flaws of greed, racism, and generations of indescribably awful economic and political decisions, has diminished in all respects. Will  Detroit recover? LeDuff leaves that question alone; what he does is provide vivid portraits of some of its citizens who share an remarkable resilience to their collective hardship.  

The question "Detroit: An American Autopsy" is whether politicians, city, state and  federal, can look this cit in the eye and muster the political will to do something about it. This a gruff, bracing read, powerfully presented.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Google your face

The ripped-seam relativism of Post modernism is evident in the work of so-called New Journalists, whose cultural reporting used fictional techniques to tell fact-based stories, writers such as Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Peter Matthiessen. The school, if there ever was one, has faded as something one claims as current, but the flashy prose style and application of novel-like strategies remains influential. The method has left a trace that seeps upward through the soil and is absorbed, as an influence, by a generation of journalists nee bloggers, historians and social loud mouths who may well be unaware that loud mouthed application of fictional narrative structure to actual events isn’t something that was always with us.

The New Journalist were  post modern in their coverage of events-- whether the writers themselves were modernists in sensibility is irrelevant to work they did. The style defined, in the usual quarters, as the eclectic jumbling of categories and styles, the blurring of distinctions of generic distinctions, and transgressive of boundaries that were formerly considered sacrosanct, immutable, unyielding.  Some years ago that sounded revolutionary and seemed a lethal theoretical blow to the constructs of the vaguely described ruling class controlling the conversation and the terms.  There are masterpieces in the genre, yes, but a good amount of it reads agitated and shrill, written by writers drunk on adjectives and cheesy effects who tried mightily to goose a number of ordinary stories.

The work evident in Armies of the Night, The White Album, In Cold Blood, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, and other sublime and less-sublime examples of the approach fulfill what's come to be the givens, and even clichés of post-modern writing. It's not unreasonable to think that writers normally considered Modernists would take what's thought to be a post modern strategy in order to achieve perspective that normally form would make more difficult. Carrying about the matters involved in a story hardly disqualifies a work, or a writer, from being a post modernists. The cool, ironic stance that is supposed to problematize the conditions of narrative formation seems more as a pose critics who have a curious aversion for writing that is meant to illicit a galvanizing reader response: it sounds more like a good rap than good reasoning. The conflation of the irrational of fictional dynamics and the reasonable presentation of vetted facts is exactly the kind of writing literature ought to be engaged in, whatever slippery pronoun you desire to append it with. Being neither philosophy, nor science of any stripe, fiction is perfectly suited for writers to mix and match their tones, their attitudes, their angles of attack on a narrative schema in order to pursue as broad, or as narrow, as maximal or minimal a story they think needs to be accomplished.  New Journalism seemed, for many, not just history in a hurry but Philosophy on the fly. The attack on modernisms' arrogance that it was the light to the "real" beneath the fabrications that compose our cosmology, is grossly over stated, it seems, vastly over regarded: Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Stein, arguably literary modernism's Gang-Of-Four, did not, I think, tell us in any specified terms exactly what that true reality was, or what it was supposed to be, but only that the by dicing up, challenging, making it strange and making it new could we challenge ourselves, as artists, and as readers that new perceptions, and new ideas about the nature of the world could be had. 

Individually , each writer had a different idea of heaven that they wanted the world to become--Pound was ultimately a befuddled, albeit fascist sympathizer, and Eliot became a conservative Royalist (and their anti-Semitism is problematic for anyone looking for real-time heroes)-- but so far as the principle thrust of their work, which was away from the straight jacket of accumulated literary history and toward something new and different that renewed the possibility of art to engage the times in an aesthetically relevant manner, is scarcely diminished in power merely because it came before.

In any event, New Journalists never as a group never referred to themselves as "post modernists", and the style, now faded some what, has been absorbed by the culture as an accepted style for very mainstream consumption. The news story-literary-narrative scarcely raises an eyebrow today. But the judgment of history has these writers, nominal modernists perhaps, performing the limpest of avant gard  gestures, interrogating the margins of genre definitions, and making impossible to regard news reporting quite the same again. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014


Rock and roll is all about professionalism , which is to say that some of the alienated and consequently alienating species trying to make their way in the world subsisting on the seeming authenticity of their anger, ire, and anxiety has to make sure that they take care of their talent, respect their audience's expectations even as they try to make the curdled masses learn something new, and to makes sure that what they are writing about /singing about/yammering about is framed in choice riffs and frenzied backbeat. It is always about professionalism; the MC5 used to have manager John Sinclair, the story goes, turn off the power in the middle of one of their teen club gigs in Detroit to make it seem that the Man was trying to shut down their revolutionary oooopha. The 5 would get the crowd into a frenzy, making noise on the dark stage until the crowd was in a sufficient ranting lather. At that point, Sinclair would switch the power back on and the band would continue, praising the crowd for sticking it to the Pigs. This was pure show business, not actual revolutionary fervor inspired by acne scars and blue balls; I would dare say that it had its own bizarre integrity, and was legitimate on terms we are too embarrassed to discuss. In a way, one needs to admire bands like the Stones or Aerosmith for remembering what it was that excited them when they were younger, and what kept their fan base loyal.

It's not a matter of rock and roll ceasing to be an authentic trumpet of the troubled young soul once it became a brand; rather, rock and roll has always been a brand once white producers, record company owners, and music publishers got a hold of it early on and geared a greatly tamed version of it to a wide and profitable audience of white teenagers. In any event, whether most of the music being made by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others was a weaker version of what was done originally by Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters et al is beside the point. It coalesced, all the same, into a style that perfectly framed an attitude of restlessness among mostly middle-class white teenagers who were excited by the sheer exotica, daring and the sense of the verboten the music radiated. It got named, it got classified, the conventions of its style were defined, and over time, through both record company hype and the endless stream of Consciousness that most white rock critics produced, rock and roll became a brand. It was always a brand once it was removed from the black communities and poor Southern white districts from which it originated. I have no doubt that the artist's intention, in the intervening years, was to produce a revolution in the conscious of their time with the music they wrote and performed, but the decision to be a musician was a career choice at the most rudimentary level, a means to make a living or, better yet , to get rich. It is that rare to a non-existent musician who prefers to remain true to whatever vaporous sense of integrity and poor. Even Chuck Berry, in my opinion, the most important singer-songwriter musician to work in rock and roll--Berry, I believe, created the template with which all other rock and rollers made their careers in music--has described his songwriting style as geared for young white audiences. Berry was a man raised on the music of Ellington and Louie Jardin, strictly old school stuff, and who considered himself a contemporary of Muddy Waters, but he was an entrepreneur as well as an artist. He was a working artist who rethought his brand and created a new one; he created something wholly new, a combination of rhythm and blues, country guitar phrasing and narratives that wittily, cleverly, indelibly spoke to a collective experience that had not been previously served. Critics and historians have been correct in callings this music Revolutionary, in that it changed the course of music, but it was also a Career change. All this, though, does not make what the power of Berry's music--or the music of Dylan, Beatles, Stones, MC5, Bruce or The High Fiving White Guys -- false, dishonest, sans value altogether. What I concern myself with is how well the musicians are writing, playing, singing on their albums, with whether they are inspired, being fair to middlin', or seem out of ideas, out of breath; it is a useless and vain activity to judge musicians, or whole genres of music by how well they/it align themselves with a metaphysical standard of genuine, real, vital art making. That standard is unknowable and those putting themselves of pretending they know what it is are improvising at best. This is not a coherent way to enjoy music. One is assuming that one does, or at one time did, enjoy music.

All entrepreneurs are risk takers, for that matters, so that remains a distinction without a difference. What matters are the products--sorry, even art pieces, visual, musical, dramatic, poetic, are "product" in the strictest sense of the word--from the artists successful in what they set out to do. The results are subjective, of course, but art is nothing else than means to provoke a response, gentle or strongly and all grades in between, and critics are useful in that they can make the discussion of artistic efforts interesting. The only criticism that interests are responses from reviewers that are more than consumer guides-- criticism, on its own terms in within its limits, can be as brilliant and enthralling as the art itself. And like the art itself, it can also be dull, boring, stupid, pedestrian. The quality of the critics vary; their function in relation to art, however, is valid. It is a legitimate enterprise. Otherwise, we'd be treating artists like they were priests. God forbid.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

short exchange

My friend Burt,whose real name is something else, wrote me this:
Talent is something of a cultural construct, is it not? There are times when those who constructed the Western Canon would not allow a work to be entered because of its subject matter and the disreputable pedigree of its author. Standards of talent are hinged to artistic value, which must speak to the concerns of the moment.

The condemnation of risk-takers and canonical violators of all types is as old as written civilization. I have no doubt that the elites of Sumeria smashed any tablets that attempted to challenge the supremacy of Gilgamesh.

True, there is a lot of trivia and self-indulgence clogging up the taste-filters of today.  But the enemy has NEVER been from the outpourings of unfiltered individuals. Those who uphold the rigid standards of the past – whether set by Tender Buttons or the King James Bible – are the foes of a vital cultural life. It's the cultural pontiffs -- not the punks -- who deserve our skepticism and often our disdain. 
I responeded thusly, if not promptly:

I agree with your general assessment of the risk/talent dynamic, but I would venture further and argue that we need to skeptical of anyone's say-so and disdain any set of world-shrinking absolutes. Cultural pontiffs--choice phrase, Ace--often enough start off as punks and wind up giving us revised histories of their salad day heros 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.

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 sociopathetic 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 problematic situation  of social construction and canon making. 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.Delete