Monday, January 28, 2019

SYLVIA PLATH:The Worship of the Dead

There was a bit of commotion concerning the cover of the 50th-anniversary edition of the late Sylvia Plath's touchstone novel, The Bell Jar, an understandable misgiving on the part of the book's loyalists. The book, a wrenching, semi-autobiographical narrative about a young woman's slide into mental illness, is a serious, unfunny, poetic evocation of female insanity and is a hallmark of a good amount of Feminist literary criticism. it is not a laughing matter, but publishers, like other media corporations with long term holdings, at times feel compelled to update a commodity's image for a younger crowd that has yet to read a masterpiece of misery. Presto, the 50th Anniversary Edition features a woman's profile gazing into a compact mirror, applying to make up; Plath's attempt to write her demons out of commission is made to resemble the worst version of Chic Lit. Plath deserves better. It's a good book and it requires an honest presentation.

Has anyone said that they are exhausted by the relentless attention accorded the late and legendary Sylvia Plath? Am I the only one who thinks that we ought to stop metaphorically digging up Sylvia Plath's body so we may once again gawk at her bony remains through a lens of deferred yearning? Generation after generation discovers and rediscovers her work, which is fine, but the grave robbing worship that goes on here elevates her literary worth beyond sane judgment. There is a death cult within the legions of her admirers whose applied aesthetic insists that the extreme personalist poets achieve greatness only when they perform their final and greatest act, their suicide. It's disgusting stuff, and it's perverse to think that there was once an active set of famous poets whose art could be deemed successful if their lives ended under odious circumstances.

I'm not averse to regarding Plath as a major American poet--she showed a compelling, surreal, tortured brilliance that was fully realized although her time was brief. What concerns me is the virtual cult of Plath who mistake her tragedy as having something to do with her art, and regard her writing as perfect precisely because committed suicide. This has more do with martyr making and nothing to do with her powerful, sometimes brilliant writing. The cultist obsession with her brief life causes many to miss the fact that she was a poet to be considered as an artist, not an example of the skewed notion of beauty. There seems to be an addiction to a what many of created as a figure of Mythic Suffering, another Jesus stand-in, upon whose rumored visage and back story one may read their own sufferings and take solace that their shared misery's finest expression was from a victim who never overcame their ills, travails and psychic deterioration. It stops being about poetry and the empathy it creates, the connection it brings the reader with larger experience; the poems become stations of the cross, with each wound ogled and slathered upon. It is messy.

One wonders what it would have been like had Plath found sufficient reason to live on, and what sort of writing she might have done with all the years she might have had. Might she become a depressed dowager internalizing each private grief to the extent that her dry skin might literally crack under pressure. Would she have abandoned poetry altogether and found religion, spending her remaining years and charisma attacking the secularist tradition? Written a cookbook? Or might she have developed a sense of humor and dismissed her early work as her own form of "rhythmic grumbling"?

The problem with short artist lives is that they usually leave behind a brief body of work, which prevents us from speculating where she might have gone with her work, or the kind of person she may have evolved into. As such, her poems and her novel are lyric agitations, occasionally brilliant, often hysterical and shrill, always at the pitch of a clenched fist pounding a trash can or a car horn stuck on it's one long, loathsome note. It's a vicarious thrill thing, I suppose, a loose-fitting necrophilia. Those sensitive souls who died young also died perfect, cut down in their prime, never given the chance to grow old, to fail at something or to betray anyone's expectations by maturing. This, I guess, is unavoidable and there's not much one can do except perhaps reacting to four decades worth of repeated hype and hoopla about Plath. What is especially aggravating has been the seduction of many a otherwise fine reviewers who've embroidered the allure of her suicide into their evaluation of her standing as a poet; it's a bizarre kind of affirmative action, in which her death and her gender and her craziness entitle her to a pass on an analysis based solely on her writing. She is, in fact, an unfinished talent, and how good she might have become is an aspect that's unknowable. Better poets have died young who haven't garnered a scintilla of posthumous adoration as Plath has. It's marketing, I think. Ted Hughes and literary agents knew they had an exploitable commodity with the deceased Sylvia Plath, and sustaining the myth around her certainly has kept the holders of her literary rights flush with money from fans who are attracted to Plath for all the reasons except the right one, a love of good work.

The Plath we know was a tragedy in one and a half acts. Enough. Put her back in the coffin, lower it into the grave, and throw on the dirt. Life isn't for everyone, and she made her choice. It is to her enduring credit that she wrote some brilliant poems despite her encroaching instability; we should read and discuss her poems and stop valorizing the condition that compelled her to leave this world. 

Friday, January 25, 2019


Image result for mao 11 delillo

Don DeLillo's novel Mao ll shows the writer at the height of his powers, a novel that highlights an individuals experience of seeing the coherence of his belief system erode and chip apart as forces, historical and economic, invade that area of life that had seemed safe for so long. Potent writing, one of those characters is a reclusive Pynchon (or DeLillo) stand -in whose absence of new work or public appearance has created a presence larger than literary reputation alone could manage: if we talk about the speed at which disparate events suddenly seem to converge and become linked through the slimmest of resemblances, this is the novel to start with. This DeLillo at his championship best--he is superb at amassing the telling details his characters surround themselves in a secure themselves with. Likewise, he effectively conveys how intervening events readily dismantle a homemade cosmology.

The novel's fabled author, sensing that he is nearing the end of his creative potency, agrees to come is seclusion to participate in a large public reading to support an obscure poet who has been abducted by terrorists ; he emerges from the world of the secluded artist who has control of his creativity and the consequences of his choices and reenters the world he withdrew from, the world he nominal takes his inspiration from, and is subject again to the ebb and flow of events he assumed he finally understood through a career of fictionalizing it. DeLillo here does some of the best writing I've come across about the practice of writing, or rather, the rituals of writing; the novelist is working on an eagerly anticipated novel that will place his long career in perspective, but the reader witnesses isn't a conclusion being achieved, but rather stalling.

There are revisions, a retyping of notes, editorial changes, alterations of format, more research to do, more cross-indexing to be done before the manuscript can be submitted to the publisher and the judgment of history. Death, of course, is easily detected presence here, hanging over the composing and collating procedures like some cloud threatening to rain, but DeLillo defers reference to the inevitability and concentrates instead on the intensity of the busy work the novelist and his assistant engage in during their work sessions; there is a focus on the details of narrative and the word choices that serve as background noise, a loud music of a kind that keeps the lurking notion that there are no more words to come after this book is completed and out of his hands. Getting started again, becoming interested in a new idea to the degree that one is willing to subject themselves to another span of time of research, writing, and revision. Mailer had commented while he was writing his final novel The Castle in the Forest that he was "...going to finish this novel, or it's going to finish me," summarizing perfectly the process of writing as an activity that requires every resource one has to commit to a book they think needs to be written.

One does feel used up and empty after the last correction is made and the manuscript is shipped out; the prospect of starting over again for the next book is daunting, and the idea of starting a new work late in life, admitting the possibility that one might die before the work is done is a frightening prospect. One does not want to be found in the midst of their unfinished business, whatever it might be. The stalling tactics of DeLillo's fictional novelist become understandable: delay the completion of the book, extend the length of one's life. The question, though, is whether the quality of life, on those conditions, rises above being a kind of stasis-defined Limbo. Is a life predicated on the non-engagement of one's creative instinct worth sticking around for?

Sunday, January 20, 2019


Image may contain: 2 people
Watched "Murder My Sweet" (1944) on TCM last night, starring Dick Powell and directed with artful craft by Edward Dmytryk. This is an inspired and fairly taut adaptation of Raymond Chandler's "Farewell My Lovely", and Powell, who we usually think of as a song-and-dance man, makes for an engaging Philip Marlowe, a cynical private eye, not-so-tough, wisecracking and whiskey drinking, a man who, once hired for a job, goes to the cruel truth at the heart of all the enterprises he finds himself embroiled in. Marlowe is a knight errant, in many ways, bound by a personal code me manages not to compromise in a city that is dark, full of sharp black corners and a population ruled by Bad Faith. Everyone lies to Marlowe, and they lie about everything--in this word, everyone has secrets they want to keep hidden, but coming up against Marlowe the protagonist, with his skewed virtue, hard truths and foul intents are revealed. Beautiful black and white here, a solid, even essential example of the film-noir style. The angles of the camera shots, the hard corners, the mastery of b&w and the various, shaded tones in between the extremes are nothing less than sculptural. Co-stars Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley are well-chosen to enact the High Society citizens of dubious intent, but it's actor Mike Mazurki, a recognizable character from the period, who makes an impression as Moose Malloy, a man-mountain of a thug just released from an eight years prison stretch who hires the detective Marlowe to find his one true love, Velma. She was the one thing that touched the soft spot in this dim- monster's heart-of-hearts and, true to what he knows, is willing to break as many legs and backs necessary to find his Velma and get that feeling back. Powell has everything needed for a perfect Marlowe, cynicism, fast wit, a sentimental streak that gets him knocked over the head, and an understated dedication to trusting his evolving sense of situational ethics.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

LeRoi Jones: life against death

Amiri Baraka, nee  LeRoi Jones, is a primary influence in my decision to be a poet; his earlier works were an odd and rhythmic mix of black speech, violent surrealism and slow-burning rage that would erupt, sure enough, into a vicious pyrotechnical beauty. It was the perfect voice for a white kid living in Detroit who was growing up surrounded by Motown, free-jazz saxophone improvisation and the MC5. Something more severe and actual had to supplant to Dylan's scintillating but apolitical surrealism or the  West Coast counter culture's belief in a spontaneous Utopia. Jones could set dual-isms against each other, reveal the clashes of political hegemony and emasculation, reach into the tradition of blues and jazz and reveal the music and the accompanying vernacular as idioms, political and spiritual, that black Americans needed to love and harness as  an expression of what made them uniquely American and permanently Other.

His vision was the surface of the barriers black men came up against, social and psychic, his poetry was the conversion of his anger into a stylized voice that could improvise perception and strip away cracking veneers on institutionalized lies. He had his problems, yes, but he was an impressive force, a majestic presence of the lyric and the abrasive. Anomie was the key element here that got me, the crushing self-consciousness that one's life measures up to exactly nothing and that suicide were a perfectly sane answer. Jones, always angry, was indebted to Franz Fanon's text The Wretched of the Earth, arguing (in a cramped nutshell) about the psychological effects of the colonization of their cultures. Fanon didn't argue for suicide as a solution but rather supported liberation movements across the globe to overturn the oppression. Jones is taken with the notion of one being made to feel listless and without worth sans real evidence--the source of the decrepit psychology comes from without, not within, he would later argue--and here isolates the malaise in snapshots, images, everyday activities that become brittle and poorly constructed. He feels enfeebled, quite unable to change his circumstances. Jones would evolve into Amiri Baraka as he broke with the Beats and embraced various forms of Black Nationalism, writing poems and plays and essays that were deliberately problematic for white critics--he refused to be defined and contained by a white culture's linguistic agenda. But he did write some brutally beautiful and stark poems early on, and this is one of them.

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
(For Kellie Jones, Born 16 May 1959)
By LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)

Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelops me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad-edged silly music the win
Makes when I run for the bus...

Things have come to that.

And now, each night I count the stars,
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night, I tiptoed up
To my daughter's room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there...
Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands.
Nicely phrased here, a wonderful inversion of a horrible cliche: And now, each night I count the stars,/ And each night I get the same number/And when they will not come to be counted,/I count the holes they leave.  What would make us normally expect the poet to finally declare his awe at the thought that the infinitude of the cosmos makes his woes trivial in perspective, Jones' narrator counts only what's missing. The stars are not far-flung suns with their own solar systems and probably life forms on many of them. The light is instead of being an invading illumination seeping through pinpricks in a tarp that covers this man's sense of himself in the world. Everywhere he looks he sees only more things missing. We read this and marvel at Jones' skill at bringing a lyric beauty from such an accumulated woe, but we remember as we read on that the white culture's tradition of depressed and suicidal romanticism was soon to be renounced by the emergent persona form of Amiri Barka, who would deny the death culture and turn his despair into a motivating anger. Think about how you will, but he is a poet who acted to get out his funk, to counteract the thinking that was killing him.

Friday, January 18, 2019


Gillette, makers of razors supreme for the delicate male face, has released an add that amounts to a short, punchy lecture in responsibility to its customers in this age of MeToo and TimesUp, declaring that its time for the normative men in the audience to help end the scourge of toxic masculinity.  Essentially, it powerfully argues through some well-crafted images that men need to step up and say something, do something, intervene if need be and not allow other men to harass, bully, intimidate, assault women specifically and everyone else on the planet in general. Predictably, this video went viral and broke  the internet and brought all social media to a standstill while alt-right warriors moaned, groaned and whined that their favorite hobbies are being laid bare and revealed to be the go-to moves of parts of the male population who define their sense of place in the world by how thick they can create fear and terror among the weakest members of the population. Turns out those folks are not so weak, having served a well-placed succession of knees to the nuts to the emotionally arrested oafs, thugs, and goons that make up the ranks of so-called Real Men. 

The ad is beautifully done and serves the purpose of forcing the matter of toxic assholism, bullying and such into an open and heated discussion, debate, argument; the point is that those who have been traditionally embattled by the ranker sort of white males, rich, middle earner or jobless nobody, are going to punch back, pushback, talkback from this point on. The crybabies on hard right social media and the assorted propaganda mills who routinely shame, belittle and defame women, blacks, immigrants, liberals, progressives and members of the LGBT communities are going to find that the old tactics aren't going to work this time, if ever again. It sticks in their craw and they can't swallow it whole, partially, or in the smallest slices. Steven Colbert jokingly frets that we have a less than a reliable sense of right and wrong if it takes a maker of razor blades to carry a persuasive moral message to the rest of us. Perhaps, but I applaud Gillette to that degree. It's my hope that carries through to all sectors of the culture, visible and invisible. The message would be that if you're going to be a toxic, bullying, abusive, racist/homophobic/misogynistic half-brained cretin in a civil society, you will be called out, you will be hauled off for crimes you've committed, you will be named, shamed and made an example of. Learn that and learn it quickly.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

MC5 - I'm Mad Like Eldridge Cleaver (Live, 1968)

There was a gasping blowhard on a blog who in the course of a debate as to which country, America or Britain, had produced the largest number of Great Rock Bands uttered these phrases that still have me gritting my teeth these seven years later, formulating a ready response: American bands with VERY few exceptions SUCK! The best I could come up was this: Do you mean all American bands, ever, from any time in rock and roll history? You don’t believe that since American bands and solo artists are the architects of rock and roll, and that without them, the British bands you love would not exist, at least not in the form that makes you go gaga and loopy, like and roll ought to do. I refuse to believe that any art that I love stems from, or was influenced, or made possible by anything that ‘sucks. Since American bands influenced a good many great British bands, American bands, by and large, do not suck. Great musicians tend to be influenced by other great musicians. I think you understand that. For the track record in the post-British invasion phase, I insist that it’s about even, America ahead by a neck. But here, we can have a reasonable disagreement.

The fact of the matter is that the history of British rock and roll is a reworking of traditions that are not native to your shores. You've produced great music and extensions of established styles, but rock and rolls' bleeding edge comes from America, finally: that seems to be the only advantage to being as gummed-up as we are--there is a tension in the musical culture that remains constant and vital that you Brits, historically, have only refined into an aesthetically arguable style. Britain has gotten all the credit for punk rock, and even that’s not their own invention: The MC-5, Iggy and the Stooges, The Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls were playing years before Malcolm McLaren placed his want-ad for future Sex Pistols. But what of it all? It goes back and forth, and it’s unlikely that either shore would have made as interesting music had we not been exposed to the music the other was making. Every note that gets played comes back to us changed, modified, altered to suit another players' purpose relevant to his experience.

The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks crushes one’s skull and destroys one’s notions of pop decorum just fine, but it does sound like Kick Out the Jams sixteen years later. The psychodrama tic of marginal bands who are locked out of the star-making machinery is, like it or not, is a long and rich tradition in America with the likes of Alice Cooper, another Detroit boy who sold several million albums with the proto-grunge rock sometime before the Pistols had half a wit about themselves. One cannot take black music from the equation; to do so is racist and foul and evidence of bed wetting. Rock and roll is black music at its heart and base, and we'd be dishonest to exclude the matter. It does, after all, come from Chuck Berry. Ask Keith Richard. Chrissie Hynde still sounds American to me, and still sounds like Akron, Ohio. Iggy Pop and Ted Nugent hail from the Detroit/Ann Arbor area, and the geographic/temporal coincidences certainly didn't cause either to sound like the other. In turn, why should Hynde sound like Devo? Any hoot, she kicks it major ways, she is awesome, a goddess. And obnoxious? I only must buy her records, not buy her dinner.

For BB King and other blues artists, it’s still another case of Brits admitting that the music they're making is based on someone else’s work. We cannot seem to get around that. Eldridge Cleaver is as fallible a cultural critic as anyone you can name, and his comment about the Beatles was intended to appeal to white radicals who were buying his books. It was a nice for him to assure his audience that he wasn't a complete monster: say something nice about something they love. Proper credit for a white man making black music acceptable to white teens, though, properly goes to Elvis Presley. Anyone of our blessed Brits would cite the El as their first exposure to black music, along with millions of white American teens, was through him. The Beatles essentially were needed links in an ongoing chain of influences. But Elvis was the groundbreaker. Period. Any other statement is not accurate, Eldridge Cleaver to the contrary.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Mailer meets McLuhan, 1968

This is a fine discussion, I think, between two of the most interesting public intellectuals of the 1960s/70s. Different approaches toward making the dire situation better, though I think both find common ground in the way each has diagnosed what's killing society and culture. McLuhan has the temperament, I think, of a social engineer, suggesting that once we appreciate the way media and technology change the perception of the environment or creates the environment in fact, the world would then evolve into his global village. Mailer is more the artist sort, a thinking man's Hemingway, Paul Tillich with a good right hook; he has scant hope in technology, which is controlled by corporations,to improve the lot of humanity over any any amount of time, and sees the necessity of individuals saving themselves by radically breaking with the enforced mediocrity set upon then and placing themselves in situations that would challenge them, cause them to grow, wake up, evolve . I would say, as well, that Mailer flounders a bit, grasping at straws, not fully grasping McLuhan's theories on how the accelerated advances and implementation of digital technology into our everyday lives profoundly changes the way humanity comes to comprehend reality.