Sunday, April 29, 2018


Once upon a time, by which I mean 2006 , when I was habitual lurker and part time scold on Slate's now defunct poetry forum Poems Fray there was an especially obtuse and truth-challenged participant  who persisted in saying naive and empty headed things about poets and their poems no matter how severely he's ridiculed, corrected, verbally stomped. I won't go into details as to what this person did that was dishonest, incorrect,disingenuous or otherwise offensive . We would be here all day. Not actually , mind you, but let us say that the memory of what this fellow said and presented himself as, under the flimsiest of online disguises, makes my capacity for a catchier metaphor presently nonexistent. But first I might want to own my own conceits and venture a guess to this fellow's motivation to remain in the company of other poetasters who couldn't stand his presence; we were a smug bunch, in fact, despite no lack of brains or wit. Being intelligent is not an automatic gateway to a winning,accepting personality. Perhaps that was this creature's motivation to keep burrowing in under the self satisfying veneer of our discussions.  You know the sort, the little man with the steroid ego who for reasons only God or Homeland Security understand has a habit of internalizing every truism, cliche and new age adage they come across, creating a moldy stew of babble they might think they can get loose women with. It's crazy making.  He added this at an especially exasperating point:

To be a Poet, you must be a Dreamer, for Poetry is the product of our hopes and aspirations.

To be a poet, it helps if one stops making Absolute Statements about what a poet must be or what one thinks is required for a poem to be valid. Above remarks like that make you sorry that anyone spoke highly of Universal Literacy.All a poet needs is a talent for the craft, an interesting way wit the language, and an openness to let the poem they're writing assume a form that is not strained, or made to conform to some specious and dubious requisites ; poetry made to do so is often turgid, vapid, bombastic, myopic and finally gutless when it comes to delivering the goods that the results of good poetic art should, that sound of surprise, the unexpected perception, that inexpressible feeling caught in terms of the unforgettable.It helps as well if one who desires to write good poet not address themselves as Poets, with a capital "P",lest they mistake themselves for priests, seers, mystics, oracles and all other manor of shaman whose existence is of use only to comic book writers or fakes and layabouts who find the personage a handy way to circulate their malarkey for yet another go around.

Finally, it 's useful for a poet to remember that what one has actually experienced in the world and how one brings order, sense, and irony to their stories is better grounds for poetic inspiration than "hopes and aspirations alone" which, truth be told, tend to be more or less the same, with minor variations . The real work of poets is to bring their skill as writers to work through the contradictions, u-turns, diversions and unexpected changes they experience while on their way to achieve their ideal circumstances. Life is what happens when you're making other plans. The poet who wishes to be good needs to slough off dubious advice from poetasters and instead improve their writing. Otherwise, there poetry is more message than message, more arch than artful, a string of cliches executed with the precision only the dull witted and easily trained can manage.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Meanest Things Vladimir Nabokov Said About Other Writers | Literary Hub

Book reader website Literary Hub has a recent article that is a generous sampling of the awful things master novelist Vladimir Nabokov has written about other renowned writers.  Interesting and intriguing, as the man, an entitled misanthrope who's lack of empathy for any of  characters turned his wicked tongue into a writerly geiger counter that could capture the damning detail as his myriad of obsessed sycophants , witless housewives and firmly addled head Wasps and create a damning, hilarious, unexpectedly acute tragedies and comedies ; he was a witness to characters of no particular charm engineering the means of their eventual dissolution. But this article is weak in its examples, whcih is to say they suggest Nabokov to be more vain that on target.            One of the best stylist in the English language with regard to his novels is merely chatty and a hazelnut shade prolix in his under-seasoned dismissals of other writers held in critical high regard. The remarks are mean, of course, but lacking is the conspicuous example that exposes the supposed fraudulence. His thrusts do not stab, his parries do not cut , his volleys neither detonate nor decimate. He does not leave the wounds he intended to. This reduces Nabokov's stature, in my judgement. Still, VN remains a splendid , brilliant novelist.

Sunday, April 15, 2018


An admirable facet of Greil Marcus's digressive form of criticism is that he's always attempting--essaying forth, essentially--to demonstrate the unities between the high, low, and middle portions of culture, insisting, with an impressive range of references and reading that the separations between are more argumentative than substantial. Linking mountain and southern music with Dadaism and neo-Marxist student rebellions with Religious bliss with rock and roll and performance art--an exciting project to stake one's career on, which is precisely what Marcus has done. Famously, though, Marcus, one of the first rock critics for the Rolling Stone publication, the author is given digression and historical anecdote, musing and abusing the privilege of making metaphor when proofs of his theory are required. Assuming that he had a theory, to begin with. Marcuse is clearly moving in the dialectical mode, maintaining that opposing forces arise in history that then clash inevitably in the violent synthesis and create a new period of existence with new rules and cultural distinctions, all of which create its opposite and will again clash in violent synthesis. 

But instead of a theory that one can read and argue with, I suppose, a script one can comprehend and modify as new evidence comes to light, Marcus is a more impulsive notion than theoretical rigor. It is the joy of reading him, as he seems to relish the chance to recreate some blessed moment in music history--the Sex Pistols rehearsing "Johnny B. Goode" (in his book Lipstick Traces)  or the tension on the stage at the Newport Fok Festival when Dylan, assuming the stage with an electric band, was booed and called names by a crowd of stalwart folkies. Just when you think he's ready to provide the skeleton key to his musings, the punchline, the point he's taking a good while to get to, Marcus recedes into the mystified murk of his own grandiloquence. That is the joy and the aggravation of reading this writer.   I read Greil Marcus because I love the way he writes and admits that his prose has influenced the way I take fingertips to the keyboard. This is a problematic love of the man's love for five decades. Lately, though, it's been more prolix than persuasion, as his ongoing effort to make Bob Dylan the central factor of the 20th century hasn't struck a believable insightful note in decades. 

The Old Weird America is an extended reflection on the songs on Dylan's famous 'Basement Tapes", which strives to provide the secret history behind the songs. In matters of the cross-pollination of cultures, racial justice, the mashing together of folk authenticity, rock and roll, and Symbolist poetry, Marcus essentially argues that all roads lead to Dylan and lead through him as well. As criticism, it is more an act of imagination than a weighing of elements; Well read and as well listened to as he is across a great spectrum of literature and music types, what is lacking here are the dual duties of establishing how the songs and artists within the folk tradition influenced Dylan and how Dylan assimilated the music who's expressive brilliance he could never equal and yet was motivated by to create his own means and create new criteria by which to discuss the success or failure of the work. Dylan is less the artist to Marcus than a saint or something greater, and, even though there is a pleasure to ride the waves, cadences and well-crafted metaphors and similes of the writer's prose, The Old Weird America is a shaggy dog story at heart. Marcus began this habit of epic digression with Lipstick Traces, a tome not without its pleasures--his connection thereof the efforts of Cabaret Voltaire, the Dadaists, Punk Rock and the Situationist provocations of Guy Debord was especially tightly argued-- but now it seems little else than a practiced spiel that's trotted out and exclaimed, regardless of the topic, not unlike an old timer's AA share that is memorized not just by them but by the entire meeting that has heard them deliver for decades. I am saying that Marcus is writing the same book with diminishing degrees of enthusiasm. His fascination with the idea that there is a Secret History of American culture, where ideas High, Middle, and Low meet and create odd examples of genius and odd, clarifying perceptions to the exact set of ironies that both inspire and hobble us as a collective society striving for imperfectly stated Ideals has gone from an intriguing and seductive conceit where equally obsessed readers, hoping there is more to rock and roll and blues and country music than guitar chords and drunken hard times, can share the idea that there is a metaphysical aspect to the lovingly embraced sounds that defined the childhood of millions of citizens. 

This makes for the diffusion of argument on Marcus's case and leaves us more with the bold assertion that is no longer the poetic effusions of a critic inspired toward a degree of inspiring interpretation; this is the point where the eloquence no longer rings, soars, or makes you want to turn up the volume and study a lyric sheet while scrutinizing the tunes of Dylan, the Stones or the century's end disruptions of Hip Artists and those after them. Rock has its own Harold Bloom, likewise an esteemed critic of literary works who, of late, is an admitted Bardolator who has written some books concerning the essential genius of Shakespeare as being something much more vast and profound and, shall we say, "world creating" than even the wildest essayists have claimed in the centuries previously. Shakespeare, says Bloom, asserts Bloom, proclaims Bloom, created the Modern World, every inch of it, every concept, every psychological profile and alienated nuance we can think of. You can argue with his sweeping conclusions, but the book I'm thinking of, "Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human," is a critical delight. It may be that Bloom is luxuriating in the laziness of a higher caliber. The difference between them is that Bloom has a thesis that he's worked with for decades, a set of subtle arguments crystallized in his landmark book "The Anxiety of Influence," a brief but trenchant discussion where the Professor posits that Shakespeare is the premier genius who casts a long and permanent shadow over the rest of world literature that came before him and that his influence is so pervasive that no poet or other literary artists cannot help but be influenced by him. Those great geniuses who've emerged after Bard's time have either engaged their influence from him and written great works extending, modifying, and altering the system of metaphor Shakespeare changed our collective consciousness with, or there is another genius who've emerged over the centuries who, being painfully aware of the Bard's embedded influence on how sentences about human experience have come to be written, write furiously in the other direction, against his style, assumptions, and rhetoric, experimenting, taking political risks, deconstructing, inverting, abstracting and de-familiarizing the artful language in ways only a new kind of genius would conceive and execute. 

But here's the rub: even for those great writers who've made great art with language that artfully contains the human impulse to go beyond mere descriptions of the world and peer at what is behind the veil of enumerated appearances, Shakespeare is present, his aesthetic, his metaphors, his language influencing new writers in one direction or the other. That is a rather crude summary of Bloom's basic premise, and there are dozens of other notions woven through his life's work. Still, the point is that his a set of ideas that make the ideas tangible and convincing once the initial "aha!"  of flashing insight wears off. It's not science, of course, but it is a craft, a profession, this kind of thinking, and what we have in Bloom who has taken his working theory and tested it against new ideas, new writers who write literature in cultures other than what is routinely aligned in the Western Canon. Bloom, who defended the existence of the canon and wrote a book on the issue, believes that there are permanent genius and masterpieces of Western Literature,  as he is a man who has made a career judging books with imposing standards. The standards are not fixed, though, and Bloom further asserts Test the Canon is a living thing, like the   American Constitution, a category of books and authors that must be continually revised as matters with human existence come to mean something different. 

 Marcus and impressionistic hot takes on matters of music, and culture, in general, have been brilliant at times. Still, the later work is regressive without a central premise or premises. Marcus hasn't put forth a thesis from which his notions can find a more compelling form of argument, a form that would aid others to avoid the frequent bush and thorny bramble that spreads in Marcus's many books and subject his scheme of rock music's claim to art to some respectful but rigorous interrogation. I frankly think he's lost in his thoughts but without a map. The point here isn't to go over Bloom's declarations in, say, Shakespeare and the Invention of Human or Hamlet: Endless Poem, but rather to mention that as in the case of Greil Marcus, we have a critic who has stared too long at the page, listened too long to the same old songs, two critics fixed on their respective catalog of ideas and conceits which are now not speaking to a readership, or at least no readership other than themselves. A pity, of course, since criticism, as practice, is to assert, offer proof of argument from the text scrutiny, and provoke discussion or at least some element of invigorated intellectualizing. 

I don't want to think about anything larger than what's for dinner after reading Bloom murmur through layers of verbal phlegm about the Absolute Appetites of Falstaff, nor do I desire to play air guitar or consider the sweet surrealist mannerisms of Tom Waits after Marcus intones multitudes of repetitively presented riffs, paragraph after paragraph. Instead, possibilities are exhausted in the critic's terms, not those of the book or the disc; I find that this kills enthusiasm for the art itself. Those familiar with how the author thinks on the page will note, also, the lack of real verve in the writing, skilled and flowing as it may be.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

HOT TAKE!!Xiaolu Guo: ‘Dickens is sentimental, clumsy and lacks poetry’ | Books | The Guardian

Xiaolu Guo: ‘Dickens is sentimental, clumsy and lacks poetry’ | Books | The Guardian:

The Guardian posed as series of fast questions to writer Xiaolu Guo, and her answers result in harsh hot take on the writings of Charles Dickens. You can read the answers in full here .Her views on Dickens are so uninformed that I cannot take her seriously as a literary thinker. There is nothing in the article that makes me think that she is subtle and thorough writer, let alone possessing anything like the grace and poetry she maintains Dickens lack. This has nothing to do with gender preference: Dickens is simply a superb writer , a keen observer, a wonderful social critic, an amazing, astounding creator of complex characters from all the tiers of society. Dickens is the kind of social novelist that prolix neocon and former writerly whiz-kid Tom Wolfe extols as the kind of practitioner of the art that younger writers ought to be emulating. Wolfe, of course, goes on to , in his own fiction, imitate Dickens blatantly in several of his baggy monster novels, to paraphrase Henry James, and demonstrates the difficulty in doing what Dickens did with apparent ease; keen eye, sharp, character revealing dialogue, the skill and tact to characterize the privileged and the powerless humanely and fully without a (conspicuous) set of moral/political concerns undercutting the natural seeming flow of the author's many narrative strands.

 Dickens was an observer, which means he took in context, situations, conditions, and he listened as well, closely and intently no doubt, which seems a good way to make your characters complex, , believable and, to use a dread word, relevant. Of course Dickens wrote well and was capable of some the most immaculate and stirring lyric sentences written in English--does anyone doubt a 20th century maestro like William Gaddis didn't pay close attention to the Dickensian cadences as he aligned the many details we gather in Great Expectations, David Coppefield, Bleak House? As a matter of course, not uncommon for a professional, serializing writer like Dickens who wrote many novels and stories over many years, not everything he did was a home-run--neither is everything by Updike or Joyce Carol Oates for that matter. But let us end this rant by completing the metaphor and conclude that his lifetime batting average would make the other would be geniuses of the writerly sort seem farm league , forever up and coming, never arriving .

Friday, April 6, 2018

Smart's Cat, My Mantis

I love cats as much as the next premature curmudgeon, and I can't help but think that Christopher Smart is half pulling our collective leg with his poem, which is rock-slapping waves of adulation for his cat. Years ago I wrote a poem called "The Praying Mantis" that was a list of self-contained sentences, each beginning with the title phrase and then completing itself with some qualitative non sequitur; the point was, of course, was to lampoon the baroquely-phrased claims you come across in self-penned biographies, press releases or eulogies that overshoot the commemorative mark. The challenge was to see how many fresh takes I could get starting from the same premise and at what point would I sense that I was done, winding up the sequence on a diminished, perhaps exasperated note.

The praying mantis returns no phone calls,
The praying mantis will not shake your hand,
The praying mantis does not pay sales tax,
The praying mantis had been to the moon and found it drab and without a bar,
The praying mantis ignores streetlights and no smoking signs,
The praying mantis does not hear what you have to say,
The praying mantis is the other side of the story,
The praying mantis loves a hammer with sturdy, curved claw,
The praying mantis will have lunch when he's done with you,
The praying mantis is a close, personal friend of Sammy Davis Jr.,
The praying mantis directs traffic until it's an atonal film score,
The praying mantis says nothing but means volumes,
The praying mantis cured cooties and shared it with no one...

The litany went on another sixty lines until the absurdity grew tiresome, or my imagination failed, or both, but the point is that it was interesting to witness the momentum one could get attributing huge potential to things of seeming small consequence. I was interested in how the praying mantis could, by his lack of interaction with the larger human world, could seem, given the colliding box car cadence, seem a larger, more powerful force, one mere mortal should respect lest his restraint fall and said insect really show us what for. I had been thinking of every cliche portrayal of hip and badass cool I had come across, from junkie jazz geniuses, the Beats, white Negros and tortured renditions of existential cool; the sort of man who is so in tune with himself-in-the-world that he is privy to great amounts of power, but that power is withheld because there is no need for an ostentatious display. In other words, a state so slippery that attempts to describe it accurately result in growing amounts of absurdity, some of it baffling. Smart, it seems, wants the habits of his cuddly kitty to embody something purposeful with the divine, to reveal a connection with a heavenly agenda that our intellect prevents us from sensing much of the time but which a cat, with senses tuned like delicate instruments, can pick up on and be affected by.

For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon
**his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.

There is a belief that there are absolutely no coincidences in God's Universe, that nothing, nothing at all happens my mistake, that what people and creatures do is, to a greater or lesser degree, the result of a divine intervention against our baser natures. One can see why Smart was inspired by his cat, cats being a creature that, while domesticated, still seem independent, engaged with invisible forces, acting in accordance to stimulus humans have little or no capacity to discern.

Smart injects so much purposefulness and subtle intent in his cat's movements that assuming that he's using the creature to mirror his own self-image is unavoidable. Or at least something to consider as one pursues alternative readings. He seems to be writing about his own lazing about, it seems, his own time eating, musing, writing, taking walks, talking, just being rather than doing something more active, productive and profitable. His cat is connected to a spiritual path, or at least he sees hints of it with each lick, purr, furball and odd reclining angle, and mounts an indirect argument that his very being, those times when he is thinking of the connections between stationary objects, the contemplative mode, is precisely how his God intended him to be in this life. Arguing that God didn't want me to work is something I've never had the nerve to try.

Some had commented elsewhere that these might be called "attention poems", something I like the sound of.I like "attention poem", as in a particular thing--creature, object--getting an unusual and, I think, unexpected focus. I'm one of those who thinks that citizens come to know the world through addressing it formally, "knowing", in this sense, being more than a formal recognition of origins, functions, and utility; imbuing a mantis, a cat, a building with qualities alien to them is a way of developing an intimate relationship with those things that might otherwise be problematic. We give them extraordinary qualities through fanciful rhetoric, itself distorted and careening along the tracks, so that they may become ordinary to us. It may be a shamanistic ritual transposed to the written word, an exercise of the will to imagine a realm of metaphysical propositions in an effort to assimilate a bit of the virtue and power the tropes would imply. It would seem a way of making that which is ultimately unknowable--the thing in itself--less of a concern and more an asset in our way through the day, the weeks, the months, the years.

Thinking again, the use of the word "ordinary" doesn't do justice to Smart's evocation. Nothing in the way Smart describes his cat seems an attempt to reduce something in size. A better phrase would have served the point better, which is my feeling that Smart, on some level, was trying to associate himself with the subtle and sublime qualities he attributes to his dear cat and, perhaps, have those same graces become a part of himself. You could also assert that the very act of sensing these things in his pet and having the language mastery to sufficiently align the motion with the spiritual nuance and attending effect comes from an innate quality, that these conditions already exist within Smart. He would be, then, be in the act of recognizing what he already knows, that part of the shared condition within his God's universe that is within himself and the living things around him. Not that the poem is meant to be the beginning of a campaign toward universal spiritual suffrage for all creatures great and small, but his close reading of Jeoffry's manner offers an enticing clue to his greater cosmological sense.