Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Poetry, of a sort

Someone I met found out that I've had some poems published in a few journals over the long and dreaded decades of trying to be clever, and asked how one goes about writing a good poem. That is, a poem others would want to read, not just your wife, mom or drinking buddies. Read poems by good poets and if you're able, take a poetry writing class in to learn the finer points and  techniques of the art. That was what I said, not inspired or inspiring, but practical. Here are a few more thoughts, offered here before the muse catches me unaware and transport me to a zone of poetic reverie and thus make me of no earthly use  until the poem is written and the mood again goes from miraculous to banal.

If you have any desire to write poems that are distinctive, fresh and are notable for having a language style that is interesting and able to “express the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable “, you have to cleanse yourself of the vanity that everything you write as a poem is precious and must remain untouched. You have to read what you’ve written with a critical eye and find out what it is you’re trying to say, and then chip away everything that in the draft that does not add up to a convincing poetic sequence. Having favorite poets and being aware of the techniques that make up their style is a must; if you understand why particular poets appeal to you, have an effect on you, cause you think about your world in a more nuanced way, then you have the start in developing a good critical ear for your work. 

There are things that great poets like Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Eliot, Laux, Wanda Coleman, O’Hara  make their poems memorable and a proper and alluring expression of their personalities. It wouldn’t hurt   expression to get into the weeds a bit and study precisely HOW your favorite writers are achieving the resonance that comes from a well-considered poem. This will likely improve your habit of mind as you compose and will strengthen your creative flow while writing. Along that line, you have treated your first draft as a first draft and realize that half of what goes into a poem, more often than not, is rewriting, revision, correction, editing.I was told by a poet fifty years ago that to make something wonderful in the form of a poem, the “best writing has to be removed.” For me, this was getting rid of didactic language, lectures, pointless literary allusions, and concentrating on what is truly “poetic” in something I’d just written. This next point has an endless stream of variations, theories, styles, and the lot and each has a coherent aesthetic, but any poet worth reading over time realizes the difference between poetry and prose. 

They do different things. As a wise writer named Clyde Hadlock once said of the two, “Prose is the photograph, poetry is the x-ray.”

Sunday, January 23, 2022



I worked at the Birch Aquarium Bookshop for 12 years until I finally retired in 2015. In that time I saw the shop evolve into a gift shop, full of toys, games, artwork, delicate glass items, and hundreds of impulse  boy toys for the kiddies. And yes, they kept books around. But parents with mewling toddlers were the rule of the day, the Aquarium needed their purchases to support their grand efforts to educate the public about Ocean preservation. Among the kiddie toys featured in bins at the cashier stations were these items, rubber spheres composed of suction cups, which of course stuck to smooth flat surfaces. We called these things "sticky balls" (insert snicker here) and accepted that when school groups came through the store from the aquarium, toddlers, and teens would grab the balls and throw them at the counter glass. There was a large painting of fish hanging behind the counter which was protected by a large pane of glass. Of course, a flurry of sticky balls would be tossed at it  and we would look behind us after a rush and to see the painting  covered with the multicolored spheres to protective glass; it looked as if it had broken out in Technicolor gin blossoms. Both the sound of them hitting and adhering to the surface of  the glass they connected with and the stubborn, resistance they gave when pried off, replete with each suction cup giving a popping rat-a-tat-tat with each cup that was suddenly reintroduced to air, a lip-smacking gasp for air, seemed to give the sales floor staff an low-grade variety of post traumatic stress. I know I tended to instinctually cringe and grit my teeth when I  realized the sticky balls were about to fly as a whole yet another  time before the   workday was done.They were among the many banes of my long-term Aquarium employment, and had gratefully forgotten about them. That is, forgotten about them until the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. The nightmares haven't stopped since.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Davidson on Age and Disability on Poets

Here is a brilliant essay / poem / talk piece by poet and critic Michael Davidson, one of my  professors at UCSD when I  was becoming involved with poetry and poetics. He writes here of the effects / influence of aging and /or having a disability has on a an artist's work . I read this with great interest because I've sufficiently aged to the extent that I've noted a change in the tone and subject of my poems and found insight in how my lifetime hearing loss formed in large measure my sense of poetic process. I've called it the Norm Crosby Aspect. Crosby was an old school comedian I had seen on  the Ed Sullivan Show a dozen times at least, an affable presence whose shtick was the mispronunciation and punning misuse of language.  It turns out that the Crosby was very hard of hearing, wore two hearing aids, and like me often tried to bluff his way through social situations when younger and pretended to understand what others were saying. When responding to what he thought he heard, he related, his answers seemed strange and surreal and non-sequential.  He turned into a comedy act and I, who also tried to fake my way through encounters I could only make out half of,  started to write poetry. Wonderful essay from one of the best contemporary critics writing.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022



Most of the time I write to find out what comes after the sentence after the one I just wrote. I have a particular set of strategies, notions of musical phrase , cadence, rhythm and structure I’ve developed over a good many years—and this isn’t imply that I’ve mastered this form of poetry, free, at all — and I’ve internalized these linguistic habits much as a jazz musician internalizes his training and notions of theory; I come up with a first line and consider what object, word, image, attitude it contains and try to imagine what sounds musical and rhythmic and a logical expansion on the details the first sentence contains. It’s theme and variation, improvisation of a sort in the moment of creation, seeing where the initial idea takes me, stanza to stanza, until I come to a place to a poem where it can end with a resolution (or irresolution) that satisfies me, and perhaps satisfies a reader. What I discover about myself is that there is another way to explore emotion, experience, spiritual and philosophical concepts without resorting to the mechanical language of the academy.

If you want to write good poems, poems that even readers you don’t know personally would want to read again, you must read poetry, lots of it. It’s tempting to dismiss that advice and insist that you want your vision of life to be unique, wholly your own, untainted by the form or reason of other writers, but we go back again whether you want your verse to be read and read again by the widest possible number of people who have an interest in poetry. Reading other poets, published poets, and discussing their work is the best way to get a workable (and surprisingly adaptable) idea of the general form and flow that good poems have. The impulse to merely gush emotion and to attempt to enhance every emotion with qualifiers and ineffective cliches looms large in the young poet, and the key lesson is the learning of craft. Writing good poems—in this case , let us say those works that strike you as fresh, free of cliche and cant—is no less a craft than writing good , effective prose. Most effective for many poets is a starting point of an image, which may be a something that strikes them as odd, out of place, or extraordinary in some peculiar way that the observer, the writer in this case, needs to write around the mute object (the unspeakable uniqueness of natural and material phenomenon which defy description and which taunt the limits of language to contain) and create a conversation with this rediscovered sliver of the world with new ideas and phrases that might ,perhaps inspire the population to engage with their reality more creatively, assertively. 

T.S. Eliot commented in an essay that poetry is a means for the poet and eventually get beyond their emotions and gather something like an elevated grace by means of their purely human perceptions (of not from the intervention of a god of their diffuse understanding). The quote, frequently extracted from his book  The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), is precisely this passage: 

"Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves."

    I would agree, yes, generally, but I would also say that good poems, good art can help the mind join a person’s random collection of half processed and ill-remembered experiences and produce a feeling —sensual, spiritual, political, romantic, philosophical—can did exist within the person before
reading and considering a poet’s (or artist’s) work. Much of the time I believe poems, when they are good and evocative , from the pen of a master, can cleave together, the dissociated bits of memories and create a new sensation. It is often said that a poet , novelist, songwriter writes and finishes their individual projects because they want to find out what happens, to discover how it ends. 

Monday, January 17, 2022



So much of this project depends on the use of actual clips from the first three films that you're not convinced that director Lana Wachowski didn't have much faith in the ideas that are haphazardly strung together here. To be expected, the action sequences are well-made. The look of the film is dark with desaturated color in all shots to give this enterprise an oddly fetching grubbiness. Still, when they are not fighting, the characters are talking, talking, talking, talking and talking and then talking some more as they hash through plot points and concepts of the three previous films, indulge themselves in some very 90s Baudrilliardisms and stale deconstructive bromides, all of it given with a hurried, breathless pace, none of it really makes any sense in ways that you care about. What you realize is that this whole reshuffling of the Matrix mythology is to set us up for another trilogy of movies, or more even, if this current effort justifies its expense and hype financially. It's not without some laughs, some cool moments, some genuine surprises, but as with most franchise films these days, it's drawn out, it drags too often, you find yourself fast-forwarding to the next action sequence because of all the chatter amid the expressionless looks of sleepy eyed actors cannot keep your attention.


 A well-made piece of action-adventure, and a unique premise, to my mind, but nothing to brag about if you're the screenwriter or the director. There is nothing technically amiss with the motion picture; every scene set up achieves what it's supposed to do, the actors are fine , the pacing and editing keeps matters moving along. The problem is that the matters that are kept moving are hackneyed tropes. You can only repaint an old wreck of a vehicle so many times before the dents , scratches and pockets of rust show themselves through the thickest coat you can put on it.


A fine , dark comedy that presents audiences with characters viewers want desperately to relate to in some way, an urge the filmmakers deny. There are times when you feel inclined to cheer for Rosamund Pike's character as the heartless and irrationally ruthless tries to surmount grim challenges the tautly constructed plot foists on her, only to have your heart strings strummed, more than just a little, but the sad eyed frustrations of Peter Dinklage's portrayal of a deep- souled yet equally heartless Russian mob boss. But filmmakers are quite adept at intervening at those plot points where viewers might invest there sympathies in a single character's plight: at crucial points we get reminded that although there is a veneer of "relatability" to all protagonists and antagonists (Pike's and Dinklage's personas switch positions a time or two here) we get reminders that these folks are monsters, sociopaths, dedicating themselves to doing awful things that ruin the lives of innocent people. The ambivalence adds to the tension and makes the comedic critique of corporate capitalism effectively cutting.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022



Richard Goldstein, among the first rock critics ever and a long time writer/critic and editor at the Village Voice, as written his take on the passing of author Joan Didion. In  keeping with a well-developed skepticism that's been his trade-mark, the writer goes after the recently -sainted Didion . She was lacking in her support of the feminist movement is one point he points out, and homophobia is another. These failings make reading Didion's books and essays a problematic experience for feminist and LGBT readers , as well it should be. Goldstein is a brilliant critic, always has been; he has the conviction to go against the conventional wisdom and bring a well-considered argument to the discussion. Remember that he was among the very few pop critics to give a largely negative review of Sgt Pepper in a 1967 issue of the NY Times. Other pundits, both lit majors starting careers in commentary and older scribes eager to be on the cutting edge of something and thus up their hip cred, had rushed to say that Pepper was the advent of a whole new art form, the new poetry, something fresh and collectively brilliant. Goldstein was less eager to go with herd think and was, in retrospect, refreshingly skeptical of claims made for the disc. 

His argument was a reasonable one, and had some points that still stick. In further retrospect, Sgt Peppers emerges as still though flawed effort of its period that has a good many tunes that are actually listenable. Was Goldstein wrong? That's arguable, but I am grateful for the perspective he provided, For Didion, he does largely the same thing, and is right to point out her skepticism of feminism and the elements in her work that weren't precisely acceptable to all facets of her readership.

 She had failings, if we want to call them that, but Goldstein takes a tone here that informs his argument against the late writer's sudden deification, that he expects writers to be perfect in sync with some fluctuating concept of how the world ought to be. Didion was a literary writer of all else, and the only requirement asked by the readers who kept her in the writerly trade is to convey the world as she intuited it, in her essays, her novels, her journalism, in a style and manner of characters, real or imagined, trying to make their way in a reality (real or imagined) will not behave. She had a voice, she had a style, she had an elegant and powerful skill with words that could bring significance to the most inane detail, gesture, environment. Her genius as a writer was taking the perennial discomfort with people, places and things and creating a body of work that made the discontents of the city, the disaffection of the citizens within, and the narrator's weariness, dread, paranoid of venturing again into the convulsions of post-war America a tangible experience. I would admit to what Didion didn't do for the Good Fight many of us thought we were mounting, and forgive for writing for William Buckley's National Review. But actually, there is nothing to forgive; rather, I would thank her for being imperfect in print.