Sunday, April 27, 2014

The reviewer at the All Music website opines that premiere genius Duke Ellington rose to the occasion when he had the chance to compose a total movie score for Otto Preminger's film "Anatomy of a Murder." This was not a case of saying that Ellington sustains his brilliance as a composer solely already established criteria, the implication that Ellington not just rose to the challenge of writing music for the moves, but showed himself to be the equal of forthcoming film composing giants, bumping shoulders with Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman. Insert your favorite composer and trust that the music Ellington wrote or laid around does not further the story. 

What bothered me especially was the claim that Ellington composed his music that served the scene. It was discreet, unobtrusive, intuitively supportive of the narrative and the emotional dynamics under view. I disagree; I consider Ellington to be America's greatest musical gift to the world in the  20th Century and consider him an American Master of his art. The sound maestro doesn't seem to have had any idea of composing something that was meant to augment a filmed story. All the classic touches, color, impressionistic sweeps, and slyly insinuated improvisations are here--as an album, this is a fine work of ensemble concert jazz composition--but they don't just intrude on the scenes and sequences; they stomp on them. There is a struggle for attention. 

The final effect is being in a crappy hotel room where the neighbors are playing the radio too loud for too long. It would be nice if this resourceful innovator could claim with pride that he had artistic success in the movies besides all the other forms he greeted and seduced into becoming his very own expression. Some shoulders remain could to the seduction. Remember that the name of his memoir is "Music is My Mistress." In the movies, Mistresses have minds of their own and will keep their own counsel.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Now that National Poetry Month Fever has broken...

Poetry is about saying it as it seems. Saying it "like it is" assumes the Romantic trap of thinking that the final state of things can be deigned by the poet's imagination. The permanent significance some poets attempt to capture is an illusion: word meanings change, cultural habits change, reading habits change, world views change, the meanings of what was formally thought to be a settled affair changes as well. Or rather our attitudes change to the subject changes, which means the object itself is inert, bereft of meaning. The poet, attempting a verse that reaches years , decades beyond it's time, is better served getting his her own properly and artfully qualified perception of events and ideas right. One might not trust meta narratives anymore, but brilliant individual responses are always illuminating.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Fish in the driveway

One of my favorite photographs, a snap I took one night in La Jolla on  a muggy July night on a residential street behind a popular Chinese restaurant . From appearances it looked as if some one were painting some fish-shaped  figurines on their driveway, leaving behind these ethereal traces of what they did. The objects that were painted were, I suspect, the kind of kind of bric a brac one observes in suburban enclaves, waiting rooms and dead gardens, which is to say , tacky. This ghost school, forever in place and swimming against grainy, cracked cement tide,  justifies the probable kitsch from which this resulted.  It made a pleasant summer evening a minor adventure.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Something's happening here...

It's often argued that  Americans are afraid of poetry; a dramatic overstatement, one things, but not without credible residue. Rather it's a matter of not many Americans, comparatively, think of poetry as a resource since we, as a culture, are not an introspective culture, but instead one that continuously looks forward to a future to be created.
Poetry, so far as the general reader is concerned, is a matter of one being alone with their thoughts and structuring their experience in a narrative form, a narrative that not only chronicles events along a time line, but also the nuance of experience, the fleeting sensation of something changing in their psyche. This requires making the language do extraordinary things to accommodate an uncommon interpretation of experience, and Americans, a people reared on the ideology of what can be done in the face of adversity, have no expansive desire to do something so impractical. Language is a thing meant to help us solve material problems, to achieve material goals, and poetry, a strange extension of linguistic twists and shadings, does nothing to put food on the table, put money in the bank, to further the quest to cure an endless variety of incurable diseases.
"Poetry makes nothing happen" is what W.H.Auden wrote as of way of saying that verse is a means of expression that resists attempts to use in the the gaining of power, wealth, prestige. It's use is more intangible and essential and yet it resists the conventional definitions of use. The poem from which the quote is derived reads thusly, partially :

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
This is a war poem, of a kind, and was written at time when much of the avant gard, left and right, were obsessed with how art in all mediums could be used to forcefully change the world and how powerfully, how rapidly we could change the way populations can have the way they see and think and act in the world change permanently. But Auden declares that the poet and his work survives the agendas and the manifestos and that it while it makes nothing happen, it is something that happens, as an inevitable event of nature.Poetry is immaterial to purpose, function, policy; the absence of larger audiences for poetry isn't about fear from a perception that it's a mode of expression that is the least useful among several the lot of us might select on a given day. There are those of us who would argue that poetry's lack of identifiable utility is exactly what attracts us to the form--I happen to think that , like Wilde, that all art is quite useless in practical application (save for the fact that I believe humans crave beauty in form and in expression) and adhere to Harold Bloom's running definition of what literature , in general, avails the reader : to paraphrase, literature (poetry) helps us think about ourselves. Americans , I think it's safe to say in the broadest sense, have no real desire to reside individually and psychically work their way to an "aha" experience with poetry as a conduit. We do think about ourselves, but more in terms of accumulation rather than an inner equilibrium. The measure of a man is his wallet, not the subtlety of his thoughts, and this a form of fearlessness that borders on insanity.

Monday, April 21, 2014

I remain, humbly, a jerk

The "I am a jerk" trope is one I've been using for years , the intention being to remind me that lurking under my heavily worded pronouncements is an otherwise sensibly guy who can indeed take himself too seriously. It's my way , I suppose, of interpreting the admonishments of the 12 Step program I'm a member of that I ought to exhibit a genuine humility. It's a grounding principal, I suppose. I am a writer/bookseller living in San Diego. 

I was a literature major at the University of California, San Diego where I met, took classes from with a good number of poets and writers, Jerome Rothenberg, Michael Davidson, Paul Dresman and Rae Armantrout among them. I had the stupid good fortune of collaborating with some of them, and fell into a great fellowship and larger community of  writers that included Steve Farmer, Shelley White, Richard Astle, Melanie Nielson, David Sternbach, Tom Marshall, the list is long and filled with  amazingly diverse and brillant men and women. Butterfield Blues Band (featuring Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, Mark Natfalin and Sam Lay) at the Chessmate folk and blues club in Detroit , Michigan sometime in the late sixties. 

The club had no age limit, and I consider that one of the luckiest breaks I've ever had.Personally, I think I'm an affable sort, with a clear head most of the time, a good heart, not entirely modest, with a good sense of my talents and my deficiencies. My on going project is to continue to learn how to write and to become a better harmonica player. Over all, I would like to remain engaged with the world I am blessed to be alive in. I wrote music reviews for a number of years for the San Diego Reader, The Door, Revolt in Style, Kicks , I was the arts editor for the UCSD Daily Guardian, I've been active in various poetry and prose projects locally, and I have worked as a bookseller around the San Diego area for the last thirty three years. I have written reviews, short stories and poetry since making the decision to be a writer of some sort in high school and I have, I think, managed to compose a few decent pages since those fateful days of 1969. I am also a musician,a blues harmonica player of forty years experience, having been inspired by the original Paul

Some of my favorite poets were assholes

Ezra Pound,  was a politically reprehensible and one of the worst major poets of the 20th century. Traitor, reactionary, race-baiter, I have no sympathy for a man who's ambition had more to do with having power and influence over whole populations rather than poetry itself.

 He was, though, an idea man about the craft and art of the poem, and some of his criticism remains relevant. The way we discuss the quality and function of the image and the modifiers that do and do not attend it in context draw heavily from his notions about ridding ourselves of the weight of literary history and devising a poetics that can can help the reader perceive the world in new ways.  Pound didn't wan to stop there, of course, he desired to rule the world and aspired to be The Boss. Bully and self-aggrandizing creep he may have been (and traitor) but some of ideas, at least, had value. He wanted poets to have the trifecta of  prestige items with power, the pen, the scepter, the   sword.

 Eliot , Thomas Stearnes, was  in league with Pound as anti-semite and race baiting neurotic who disguised his bigotry in a tradition of genteel Classicism, but I will defend him as a poet; too much of his images, his cadences, his drifting allusions hit the mark ; he is one of those writers who had an especially strong gift for getting the elusive essence of alienation , dread, spiritual desolation in a dehumanizing culture in his poems without turning them into padded, freighted dissertations. It is one of the tragedies of contemporary literature that Eliot, whom I think is one of the strongest poets of the last century, should happen to be, politically,a callous and malicious monster. Even dried up white guys who are lousy with non whites and are barely able to conceal their frothing anti-antisemitism can, at times, describe a mood or provide nuance to  circumstances that transcend their repulsive politics and personalities. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014


I saw the late Lou Reed at the San Diego Civic Theater shortly after the release of his  1974 live album Rock and Roll Animal at a  moment in his career where he was trading on his reputation, getting himself a payday . It was an understandable situation, since other artists, notably David Bowie and Alice Cooper,built large audiences, critical praise and (presumably) fat bank accounts making music that owed nearly everything to the work created by Reed, with the Velvet Underground and in his solo releases, a  decade earlier. 

Rock and Roll Animal was a essential a revved up Greatest Hits album, a collection of in- concert renditions of some  of  Reed's best known and regarded , ably spearheaded by the flashy and elegant dual lead guitar ministrations of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter.  The difference between the original versions of the Velvet Underground songs, which were spare and harshly  textured with the flickering light bulb quality that exemplified much art produced by East Coast weather conditions and critical amounts of meth-amphetamines( and which adroitly  framed the catatonic intensity of Reed's lyrics ), and those of  Rock and Roll Animal. which were rearranged into some of the most elegantly arranged double hard rock guitar this side of the early Allman Brothers, indicated that Reed was ready for his mainstream success. 

He arrived ready to give the audience what he thought they were expecting: a rock and roll show relying on superb guitar work from someone named Danny Weise (ably replacing Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter from the the RR Animal album), and Reed, amped up on ego or something more chemical camping it up mightily, singing his "hits", so to speak, in a voice that resembled the scrape of tail pipe dragged over Manhattan asphalt,  moving about in a twitchy coochie dance that resembled every bathroom mirror rehearsal of Jagger dance moves you or I ever attempted. He was living  up to his perceived reputation as a decadent, near death bad boy that when it came time to perform his masterpiece "Heroin", he wrapped the microphone cord around his arm oh-so-coyly, slowly,  teasing out audience expectations. "He's gonna slam some geeze" someone shouted and the band  ripped into a scalding ten minute bout of riff-mongering while Reed pranced , lit cigarettes and flicked them, one after another, to the  side stage after a drag or two. Reed was cashing in, cashing in on what was left of the charisma he had left, and it took a while to take him seriously again through his stretch of subsequent solo albums. hat turned my mind around concerning Lou Reed was the 1991 publication of the book "Between Thought and Expression", a selection of  of his song lyrics up to that time. 

Yes, the title is as pretentious as anything you can think of--Reed , always an intuitive artist and poet, was not the autodidact (and bore) David Bowie turned out to be--but this collection shows you what a brilliant lyricist/poet he was . Hard life, slums, drug addiction, sexual escapades at the margin, the stretching of consciousness until it was ragged and rusty and ready to break , Reed was a vivid scenarist who wrote lovely images without grandstanding clutter. He was blunt as Herbert Selby, funny as  William Burroughs, succinct as Elmore Leonard; his stanzas got to an emotional center of situations and dealt with the narrator's ability or inability to cope, to hope or give into fatalism and silence. He was a major, major artist in rock and roll,  the latest loss among the diminishing ranks of Rock Musicians  Who Mattered.   There hasn't been an area of  what we lazily refer to as "alternative" rock that hasn't been predated by  the antics,  experiments and bad diets and odd, minimalist tunings that Reed attached himself too; noise rock, punk rock, new wave, grunge, confessional elaborationist. There is not a younger rock and roll musician of any serious intent or reputation who has not fallen under his influence, his long, wide and profound shadow.

In defense of the semicolon - The Week

In defense of the semicolon - The Week:
I use the semi colon quite a bit and I find it quite useful; it gives sentences a sense of rhythm and flow as a new idea develops from another one has already articulated. Sometimes starting a new sentence for the supposed sake of clarity seems arbitrary and makes the reading experience choppy. A well placed semicolon creates a pause in an explication, like an intake of breath, and allows an idea to flow forth rather than come into the world herky - jerky like a driver's ed student learning the difference between the gas pedal and the break. It can get gratuitous, yes, but the semicolon is a device that has particular and desirable uses. 

Kurt Vonnegut, a semicolon naysayer who's dismissal of the punctuation mark inspired the defense linked to here, wasn't a verbose writer and could get across a series of well developed points , in both the plots of his fiction and the substance of his occasional essays, in clear, straight forward language. That was a genius he shared with another Titan of Terse Testifying , the recently departed Elmore Leonard. Leonard had as a goal to not write  prose he would skip over if  he were reading another man's novel.  Semicolons for both writers would have been absurd and pretentious; their prose would have been substantially  over dressed.  It's a matter of what sort of flow and cadence one is going for; without elaborating too much, I will suggest that Vonnegut or Leonard tale set loose into the world with a style more suitable for John Updike or  David Foster Wallace would be, I believe the complete and utter demolition of everything worth waking up to.

No  fun.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Don't ya think?

Salon has in recent years become a shrill, humorless repository of articles by straight-lipped ninnies who try to impress us with how they've dealt with injustice and bad body image. The magazine, a pioneer in online journalism, used to have something on the ball .

 I do a recent article,  which credits the late David Foster Wallace with giving  us advance warning on how irony has evolved from being an effective literary effect in one's reading life to being an empty cultural gesture, less meaningful than a shrug, less committed than snore. Ut is an honest -to -god piece of thinking rather than a become a knee jerk response to situations that won't allowed themselves to be resolved with wishful thinking. It's now a means to distance ourselves from what needs to be addressed politically, socially, emotionally. We are emotionally neutered with all this "distancing" from problematic issues and entities and situations, and hence we become divorced form one another and ourselves. 

The question that is raised is how is art going to respond to this coarsening of our senses and collective personalty and provide a tangible sense that aesthetic thinking isn't just thinking of new ways of expressing how stupid things are and can be; art is also the means of constructing something worth staying alive for, for having purpose. It's a good piece of writing,this piece, and you wish Salon's editors would cease their grimacing and lay off the make believe outrage and publish some more longer-form  essays like this one.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

I own you, don't leave me.

Two sonnets in tribute to ladies the respective poets have taken a fancy two are the subject of Robert  Pinsky's current poetry discussion site. As usual, the discussion that follows Pinsky's remarks and recitations of the works (read in fine manner by Pinsky) is subtle, lively, cordial.  I rather like the wit and spare and adroit verbal sharpness that mark both of these poems; graceful, preening, softly boasting and flattering the women to whom they are addressed in terms that bestow qualities exceptional , unique, miraculous to behold, these are the testimonies of horn dogs working their way into a woman’s favor. And, perhaps, the respective beds they sleep in.
Rather classically, both these quick witted sonnets display less the feeling of spontaneity , of genuine play, than they do the feeling of a well constructed presentation, an argument mulled over, finessed and converted into a poeticized template intended for the means of endearing oneself to women by appealing to their perceived vanity. This makes you consider the old cartoon line when Olive Oyl says to Popeye and Bluto , as they try to woo her , “I bet you say that to all the girls.” The speakers, the wooers, the orators that profess the unqualified beauty , brilliance, charm, grace and sublimity of their objects of affection , deliver their testimonies with it in mind to present themselves in an exceptional light; the sonnets are, in essence, sales pitches, imbuing the speakers with qualities compatible with the ones they’ve ascribed to their ladies dearest without so much as one self-glorified personal pronoun being used in either of these artfully cantilevered proclamations. It’s a subtle argument to be made that requires the most skillful of tongues, that the qualities, the talents that are being attached to the would be betrothed have not been noticed by the rabble, the masses, those who live a penuric existence, and that only the men who have broached and spoke to the subject of the ladies beauty are intelligent, sensitive, caring, dynamic enough to speak these truths. It is artful indeed, requiring a fine a balance, of knowing when to let one’s voice trail off, to end on a soft syllable, awaiting a response. This is bragging through the flattering of another.
(Michael Drayton, 1563-1631)

How many paltry foolish painted things, That now in coaches trouble every street, Shall be forgotten, whom no poet sings, Ere they be well wrapped in their winding-sheet! Where I to thee eternity shall give, When nothing else remaineth of these days, And queens hereafter shall be glad to live Upon the alms of thy superfluous praise. Virgins and matrons, reading these my rhymes, Shall be so much delighted with thy story That they shall grieve they lived not in these times, To have seen thee, their sex’s only glory: So shalt thou fly above the vulgar throng, Still to survive in my immortal song.
Michael Drayton’s ode speaks to posterity, speaking to what he believes is the likelihood that this fair woman will be remembered, gloried and virtually worshipped as womanly perfection in ages yet to come by virtue of his poem. The ladies who now clutter the streets “shall be forgotten” by poets and this miss will be the envy of women of future elegant pretense because Drayton’s directly addressed ideal is “their sex’s only glory”. A harsh judgement, but it plays to vanity and a person’s feeling of being unjustly ignored. There is resentment here to be exploited and Drayton’s technique, effective or not, is a masterful piece of exploitation. It takes a man, after all, to make the world aware of the genius of the woman who has taken his arm in companionship, in romance, in matrimony. The woman is anonymous, a cipher without the right man to make the powers that are innate in her bosom radiate fiercely, proudly, for the world to praise and to cater to. “So shalt thou fly above the vulgar throng,/Still to survive in my immortal song.” This is to cleverly say that the woman will be remembered forever because of the man’s immortal song, which is also to say that only a man, this man, could have written. Without the man’s words, his voice, the woman being seduced is unknown, without the power he extols in the lyric, which is to say that she is without her own voice, bereft of even a language to command.
The intended audience, I’m sure, is for an audience that considers itself literate and therefore possessed of an elevated sensibility regarding what I think both these verses are about, really, seduction. But we do have the experience, as readers, of getting a vicarious thrill and find ourselves imagining being the speaker in either poem, no less than small boys imagine themselves to be a super hero with great powers in the fight against immediate evil. The works seduction both ways, upon the women who are listening and to the readers who are literate and, we might assume, a tad shy and less quicksilver in their effusions of love, honor, and grace. It is a way of being that readers, male overall, can fancy themselves as possessing their object of desire (“object” being the operative term) taking ownership of a would-be lover’s (sexual or courtly) self esteem because the virtues outlined in these cleanly articulated metaphors and allusions would not have come to mind and, further, would not have existed had not been for the innately superior senses of the male. Even the women in the poems, the ones who stand apart from others of their own gender, are chattel nonetheless. While I think the function of the sonnets are morally insidious–this is a world where women are lesser beings and have no selfhood, no definition in the absence of men who control them–it is a kick to realize that it is the male of the readership who is also being played with the sweetness of these words, in the words of internet, “owned”.
By chattel, I mean to say that the women of this historical period, even the ones singled out for plain-though-generous praise in verse, are considered property. From Merriam Webster’s On Line dictionary” something (such as a slave, piece of furniture, tool, etc.) that a person owns other than land or buildings.” While I do believe that the real world sensibilities were a saner as regards the treatment of women, but there is the tendency in cultures dominated by the will, wishes, wiles and whining of men to treat women as if they were accessories, an extension of a man’s personality and little else. In the grander rhetoric of love poems and protestations of virtues bordering on sheer virtuosity, we realize that that the man who seeks to woo may as well be talking to a car salesman as he describes the vehicle he’d like to drive off the lot and bring home where he keeps his other stuff. On occasion I am of the mind that love poems of the period were, in essence, projections of fragile egos confronting a Hobbesian universe where life was nasty, brutish and short. Again, this is a seduction that works in two different directions, to an audience that wishes to think well of itself and the ability of their cultivated readings and wit to make disruptive realities remain at bay, or at least out of mind, and, of course, for the women addressed directly, bluntly and yet with a spare poetry that resembles a truth the subject has denied.