Showing posts with label poets. Show all posts
Showing posts with label poets. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Collins in the Wall Street Journal


Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins,in a recent chat with a Wall Street Journal reporter, talked about "banging his head" against the likes of Joyce, Pound and their attendant difficulties and his eventual decision to align himself with poets like Philip Larkin and Robert Frost and "poets, who dare to be clear." Superb models to use if you're aspiring to write in contiguous sentences unmarred by needless line breaks. 

Poetry readers should be grateful that Collins found his voice in the place where the conversations are actually happening, in the world and not the rheumy chambers of a book-addled soul. Difficult poetry that is actually good is difficult to write, and there are only a few among the millions who do so who actually deserve attention,praise, and continued discussion. At this stage,it becomes increasingly the case that there are far too many poets in the world who are trying to out- perform Stevens, Eliot, Stein, Olson in pushing the limits of poetry; the last group I paid attention to who managed difficulty that intrigued, provoked and which stopped making sense in a variety of works that made younger poets like myself examine the tropes I was using and attempt, with some success, to put it back together again, perception and images in newer works that come  out  just a little more out of the long shadow of previous and still present genius. 

So thank you LeRoi Jones, Ron Silliman, Rae  Armantrout, Paul Dresman, Bob Dylan and a few dozen others read in fifty years of reading for helping me , no, forcing me beyond my self-entombing idea of genius and moving me closer to the public square. No longer a younger poet stumbling in his attempts to master what seemed to be fashion at hand, I'm  old enough to accept the less stringent view that the only criteria for judging a poem's style, format, complexity and other such matters is in how well it works  on the reader who is reading it? Difficult or clear as glass, does the poem make a music one wants to understand? 

Billy Collins, of course, has his own amazingly effective style of clear poetry, and it's a marvel  to read how he begins with a scene,a situation performing what is often a banal house- hold task--listening to jazz, paying bills, a drive in the country, a bit of coffee in the city--and then a reverie of a sort,a memory triggered by some inane object , a recollection often seasoned with a light application of Literary Reference, just enough to expand the notion or expose a contradiction in his own assumption (the insight often being a dead sage's warning or mere reflection about matters of pride and exaggerated expectations)And  then there's a seamless transition to the scene from where he began his writing, the material world unchanged but, for the rumination that we've just read, is not the same as it was.His genius and  flaw are  the same heightened talent, his ability to produce these compact missives of everyday wonderment continuously.That's not to denigrate his skill at writing them, as the economy of his language, the resourcefulness of his imagination to find new twists and inlets within the limits of his style, and the genuinely  resonating effect of his phrase-making mark a writer who works his pieces; he is a professional, aware of his audience, aware of his materials, an artist who refuses  to let any of his ideas get muddied by the pretense   of deeper intimations.William Carlos Williams had the view that the thing itself is its own adequate symbol. Whatever one seeks to describe in the world one sees is already complex . Collins, more so than Williams, explores connections , fleeting though they are , of the things around to the world his imagination creates a frame for when he departs from home. His strategies, of course, are more varied than what I've described, but this is a recipe he uses as often as not, a template he can expand, revise, contract at will,  a habit he does splendidly. This makes him a good artist, a good craftsman, but it is also something that makes me want to call him a writer rather a poet.

He is , I think, the equivalent of the old school local newspaper columnist who would, twice or thrice a week, write 700 words or so about something in the news, in his life, whatever comes to mind, who would end his reflection that effectively left the reader reassured and just a little confused as to the purpose of that day's topic. The secret, though, was less to give meaning to the community one recognizes, but rather create the sense of texture. Columnist and poet Collins have skills that remind of things that you cannot quite put a finger on--something is lost, something     is joyful, something is sad or funny, but how, why , what is it?

I might mention as well that Collins' work seems to be a sequence of experiences that are uninterrupted by work situations.Others can, I imagine, provide me with poems of his where work is an element, a strong one, perhaps even the subject of the poem, but it occurs to me that Collins , at least in many of his poems, is a flaneur, a walker in the city, a watcher, the character who observes, records, relates the isolated bits of daily experience, testing the limits of his ideas, constantly re-acquainting himself with his own fallibility. Please don't mistake that for a bad thing. It's nice work if you can get it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

6 short essays on John Ashbery

It comes down to whether you appreciate the conflations Ashbery artfully manages as he penetrates the psychic membrane between Steven's Supreme Fiction, that perfect of Ideal Types and their arrangements, with the material sphere that won't follow expectation, nor take direction. I happen to think that much of the interstices he investigates are results of artful wandering; Ashbery is a flaneur of his own musings, and the Proustian inspection provides their idiosyncratic, insular joys. Had I thought Ashbery overrated and a bore, I'd have turned my back on critical praise of him and left him cold; I have a habit of keeping my own counsel regarding reading preferences, as I'm sure all of us do. But continue to read him I do, over several decades.  

Not a rebel, not a polemicist, hardly a rabble-rouser who makes speeches and writes incendiary essays against injustice, Ashbery is an aesthete, a contemplator, an intelligence of infinite patience exploring the spaces between what consciousness sees, the language it develops to register and comprehend experience, and the restlessness of memory stirred and released into streaming associations. Ashbery's are hard to "get" in the sense that one understands a note to get milk at the store or a cop's command to keep one's hand above their head, in plain sight. Ashbery's poems have everything the eye can put a shape to in plain sight, clouded, however, my thoughts, the cloud bank of memory. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Aristotle's metaphysics, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, a guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgment and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary. One might think that the mtvU audience might be more attracted to arch-romantic and decidedly urban poet Frank O'Hara, whose emphatic musings and extrapolations had equal parts rage and incontestable joy which gave a smile or a snarl to his frequent spells of didactic erudition. He was in love with the popular culture, with advertising, movies, the movies, he had an appreciation of modern art, he loved jazz and ballads, and he loved being a City Poet.

He was more the walker than Ashbery, I suppose, or at least he wrote more about the going to and coming from of his strolls. unlike Ashbery, O'Hara loved being an obvious tourist in his own environment and didn't want for a minute for his poetry to leave the streets, cafes, and galleries where he treads. Ashbery is more the stroller who gets lost in his associations triggered by what he beheld. Ever more the aesthete than his fellow New York Poets, he was interested in things a little more metaphysical, that being that the reality that exists in the inter-relations being the act of perception and the thoughts that are linked to it, which branch off from the perception and link again with another set of ideas, themselves connected to material things observed and remembered. O'Hara was immediate, like the city he loved, while Ashbery allowed his senses the authority to enlarge his perception, to explore the simultaneity of sight and introspection. In a strange way, Ashbery is the more sensual of the two, willing to examine that even the sacrifice of immediate coherence. I’m not a fan of difficulty for the sake of being difficult, but I do think it unreasonable to expect poets to be always unambiguous or easily grasped. Not every dense piece of writing is worthy by default, of course, and the burden falls on the individual talent. Ashbery's writing, for me, has sufficient allure, resonance and tangible bits of the recognizable world he sees to make the effort to maneuver through his diffuse stanzas worth the work. Poetry is the written form where the ambiguity of meaning and multiplicity of possible readings thrives more than others, and the tradition is not a parsimonious use of language, but rather a deliberate expansion of what words pieced can do, what meanings they can evoke, and what sensations they can create. The prose is the form that is, by default, is required to have the discourse it carries be clear and has precise as possible. Poetry and poets are interesting because they are not addressing their experiences or their ideas as linear matters subject to the usual linguistic cause and effect; poetry is interesting because it's a form that gives the inclined writer to interrogate their perceptions in unexpected ways. The poetic styles and approaches and aesthetics one may use vary widely in relative degrees of clarity, difficulty, and tone, but the unifying element is that poetry isn't prose, and serves a purpose other than the mere message delivering that is, at heart, the basic function of competent prose composition.

Asbhery settles in for the long haul

Whether It Exists
 by John Ashbery
All through the fifties and sixties the land tilted
Toward the bowl of life. Now life
Has moved in that direction.We taste the conviction Minus the rind, the pulp and the seeds.
It Goes down smoothly.
And the field became a shed in ways I no longer remember. Familiarly, but without tenderness, the sunset pours its Dance music on the (again) slanting barrens.The problems we were speaking of move up toward them.

This may be the closest thing to straight-talk your likely to come across from a John Ashbery poem, a brief meditation on how emotional attachment to otherwise vivid memories wanes as you age. Yet even in its brief two stanzas and spare outline, this poem manages to bring two signature Ashbery traits to its center, elusive but not aloof. It suggests that just as the planet is formed by forces of weather and natural occurrence, forces that exist precisely because the earth exists at all with innumerable ecosystems shaping its profile over a great many eons, we also come to be formed by the cumulative logic of our choices over time.

Where once youthful ego and naive philosophy gave us the surety that we were the captains of our own fate and were superbly equipped to navigate by invisible stars, we find ourselves with the slipping of years in cities, occupations and with hobbies formed by the life we thought we created from whole cloth. Man makes his tools, and then the tools make the man. In Ashbery's poem, our enthusiasms have ceased to be passions, an animating force of character, and are now, wizened with years, tested by experiences great, tragic and mundane, a cluster of traits, inconsistent habits of mind that haven't a coherent center but rather a shambling direction; inclinations rather than agendas. The glory of planting one's flag on a patch of earth with it mind to transform that acre and the acres around into a kingdom that will bear your name on signs and in memory becomes a hallowed shape.

Not that we are required to remain hard-wired in stubborn habits and soured romanticism in our old age; Ashbery is a poet who cannot help but remain engaged with the world that has usurped his youthful mandate. Even as days, weeks and months go by faster in old age, the poet views what was the soil which was his metaphor for self creation and brings something from decades of life; what was formerly merely raw material waiting to be formed by an aesthete is now filled with nuanced shades, tones, subtle rhythms in the close details   of trees and their leaves, tall grass. The world again provides you with something to consider and absorb whenever you're finished tending the wounds of the ego that is recovering from a protracted disappointment.

At a later date I added color  And the field became a shed in ways I no longer remember. Familiarly, but without tenderness, the sunset pours its Dance music on the (again) slanting barrens. The problems we were speaking of move up toward them.  

Emphatic Mumbling: John Ashbery's Glorious Diffusion

I've thought for years that the best way to read John Ashbery's poetry is to first throw the instruction manual away and then go for a fishing trip in his various lakes of opaque meanings. Literally, imagine yourself in a boat in the center of a large body of water and cast a line into the water, and then reel in what pulls and makes the line go taut. Whatever comes up is always a surprise, unexpected, perhaps a tangle of things that wouldn't be bound together or linked in any conceivable but in the dreamy but sleepless realm of Ashbery's actively processing mind and attendant imagination.

This might be the closest an American writer has ever come to transcribing the language of their thought process; for all the conventional wisdom about Ashbery's associations with painters, French surrealists and the rush of popular culture, he very closely resembles the method of Virginia Woolf and the still engaging, if topically staid process of stream-of-conscious.

Ashbery's poems are filled with much of the material world, both natural and that which is manufactured, fashioned, contrived and constructed by human agency. In both Woolf and Ashbery, the central voice, the observer, distanced or not, renders an image, makes it solid and substances, gives it attributes and distinguishing nuance, allows the thing to be played with as the mind associates, puns, constructs parallel universes and contradictory timelines; sections of books, a cold cup of coffee on magazine, a painting under a cloth, shorelines seen from Italian villas, comic book heroes and the breathing of a grudgingly referred to "you" who is voiceless, without input.

I was aware that Ashbery was an adherent of Wallace Stevens and his notion of the Supreme Fiction, a reconfiguration of the tension between Idea and it's physical expression to the senses. But where Stevens constructed a grand rhetoric to address the generic formulations of every day--his poems often times sound like critiques of a reality that is inferior to a divine Idea that makes their formation possible--Ashbery makes more informal, casual, and brings the distanced bewilderment to street level. There are glimmers, glimpses, observations, and sightings of the physical detail that assures you that you and Ashbery are living on the same planet, and yet at precisely the moment you come to a reassurance, these details blur and merge with the spillover of many other chats and conversations the poet seems to be having. The poems are not monologues, and one cannot call them a "medley of voices", as Richard Poirier had referred to Norman Mailer's Why Are We In Viet Nam?. "Medley" implies an orchestration of unlike parts made to harmonize, to make sense in ways that give pleasure. Ashbery's voice is singular, his own, and what comes from his typewriter are whatever arguments, debates, interrogations are rumbling through his consciousness at that given moment. While Ashbery is capable of the well-turned sentence and even sweet music on occasion, his aim isn't to give pleasure, but rather to make the ordinary and nettlesome extraordinarily weird. It's not that his poems are any more accessible than Stevens--his less daunting syntax actually seem to make his poetry more demanding than Stevens'-- but with patience we can comprehend a language we might actually use, a voice that could plausibly be one we would have in those moments of lost thought, daydreaming, vague yet intense yearning when there is so much we want to bring together for a moment of clarity but are frustrated to find that our senses keep changing along with the world they behold.

Ashbery is the central poet for many critics whose projects intend to layout the rise of urban Modernism in American verse. Marjorie Perloff is someone else worth mentioning as much of who she deals with are city poets, worldly, college educated, unashamedly bookish, and unafraid to employ a more vulgar popular culture, IE comic books, movies, advertising, along with the more swank and sophisticated allusions to high culture, whether literature, opera, theatre, painting. A connecting thread through much of the poets emerging after WW2 was their ambivalence to the plenitude of culture and media--Dwight McDonald's derided mass culture--and began, in their individual endeavors, to fashion particular styles to sift through the cultural dumping ground each of them was witnessing.

Elizabeth Bishop is exquisitely hermetic in her verse and is much closer to the qualities Stevens praised for poetic surfaces calling their own form into question, and James Merrill, who was something of a virtuoso in sustained, whispering elusiveness. One sees why some of the poets of the New York School receive more attention from readers and critics, especially the work of Ashbery and Frank O'Hara (and to a lesser degree, the wonderfully digressive poems of Ron Padgett); meanings and intents about the growling contradictory messages of physical reality are dealt with as unresolvable conditions of existence in the work, but the point is how the poet is engaged with their world. It might be said that Ashbery's work makes no sense, and conveys a sense of witness to an ever blooming enlargement of perception. The poetry of the New York School was, in essence, about talking about the world as it unfolded, an attempt to give a cadence and rhythm to the kind of personality which bears witness to the confluence of sight, sound, and smells.This is a fitting rite for a city that is in your face, traffic lights, pedestrian density and raw-lettered advertising, the moment you step out the door of your apartment building; everything is seemingly noticed, nothing is trivial, everything is a part of the story. Sheer meaning, hard and fast, is not be found here, but feeling, resonance, introspection are, and it is this several layered ambiguity that keeps a reader up at night, staring out of the window, testing the keyboard as ideas about what we haven't thought about comes in phrases even God himself couldn't explain.O'Hara is not so oblique or confusing--he is popular precisely because he has the lyric capacity to merge his far flung loves of high and low culture and still carry on a rant that achieves a jazzy spontaneity--he is the poet from whom Billy Collins has taken from and tamed for polite company.

Ashbery is the stroller, the walker in the city, the flaneur, the sidewalk engineer examining the city in it's constant self-construction, composing a poetry of association that accompanies a terrain of things with inexplicable uses.W hat seems like a mighty muddle in his writing becomes full engagement of a personality in love with what the senses bring him; at his best the intelligence of the poems is transcendent and there is , in the main, a tangible joy in how he phrases his reactions, responses and retorts to a world that always seems to baffle him in some wondrous way.

Monday, April 21, 2014

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, December 22, 2013

Shann Palmer

I never got to meet poet Shann Palmer , who passed away yesterday , but I did get to know  her at Slate's now defunct reader forum, Poems Fray. There was a loyal group of us who, as forums tend to be, were passionate  , insightful, sometimes angry and excitable to varying degrees, and we opined at length on matters of poetry, poets, poetics and ,yes , poetry again. Many of us were poets on the forum and a few of us were actually good. Shann, though, was not "actually good" at writing poetry; she was bloody superb and had a way with building a series of sentences that formed perfectly etched stanzas, the stanzas in turn following a thought through its permutations in the real world, remembered and current, and her conclusions were nearly always the perfect summations of  a poet, a person who , though perhaps cranky, tired, in love, angry or joyous, knew what she didn't know and looked forward to investigating the next incident, the next adventure. Her images were clear and uncluttered, beautifully spare, her voice was the plain speaking but literate combination of someone thinking out loud and telling you what there is in her world . She was one of the most intimate poets I have read--in my readings there nearly always seems to be a confidant, a husband, another person being spoken to, or rather , spoken with. Shann's gift, her gift to us, was that hers was not a poetry of conclusions, summaries or getting things nailed into place. It seemed more like a conversation she was having, in progress.  Her passing brings me sadness because there is not just one less friend, of a sort, in my life, but one less significant poet in the world to inspire me to write another poem, to fill another page. God speed, Shann.

Two poems by Shann Palmer, originally published by

fat-bottomed girls you make the rocking world go round
how much is too much?
how much cake and condiments
chocolate decadence crushed
nuts on whipped cream dreams
sugar wafers extra sugar salad
on the side hell on both sides
cointreau soaked fresh fruit
panne bread garlic butter spread
all the way to the edge of the toast
cinnamon and sugar coffee latte
mint cookie not to mention
entrees wellington well done
spanakopita shepherd's pie
en crustade layered lasagna
mozarella moshed ricotta
enough to make an angel weep
kate smith sing another song
liz let out another inch shelley bed
another star-struck boy rosie bite
a dog vanessa stop watching

a Boston ballerina dies
for want of bone Paris models
with sunken eyes shoot horses
in a world where children starve
there are no easy menus no
compassionate cuisine only
secrets in every house in every
kitchen in every heavy heart.

You can't spit
around here without hitting
a poet or novelist these days
dime a dozen like my daddy's
cheap detective magazines
back in the fifties as if any of 'em
know what the hell I'm talking about.

we used to have integrity once
or twice a month shit I knew I would
never be left alone or without a drink
there was always something
jumpin' somebody laying low
someone to sleep with course
that had another set of problems
there was that woman in Tucson
used to say her crabs had the clap
she was telling the truth too.

we'd put on the Doors or the White album
smoke weed until we were comatose
watching the candle dance on the adobe
as if it meant something maybe Gilman
would have some sweet hash there was
that time Pfieffer jumped the train with
a couple of Black Panthers on the run
standing out on the porch watching
the stoplight change talking about the whole
goddamn universe being a celluloid
moebius strip slept on the floor
landlady came by the next morning
said we were all pigs but didn't throw
us out we were fine buncha crappa
always paid on time in spite of our
intense recreational illegal activities
we weren't dopers we were intellectuals.

reading poems with gravity Jim would blow
smoke in my face but I never cracked if Steve
wasn't there he'd try other things that sometimes
worked but that's better left unsaid my words
transcended thought he told me I'd tell him the future
none of it came true except we never
married and I'm still writing poetry
pulling lint out of my navel and calling it art.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Visionary Bombast

like the idea of Vachel Lindsay rather than the practice of  reading his work, or even listening to it, the often made apology of some of his defenders who maintain that his works are meant to be performed, not scanned in anthologies. As Lindsay was entranced by song and its subversive adeptness of slipping past a censoring intellect and infest and infect the soul with all manner of radical and subtle emotional stirrings, his work was meant to be exclaimed and dramatized for their power to be fully felt and fairly surmised. 

Fair enough, I say, but too often what I find in his work is the cadence of a creaky gate swaying in a steady wind, or a swing rattling on its chain. He seeks to grasp the moment of when he discovers the unchanging difference between right and wrong; he wants to create an emotional response in the reader that will not tolerate injustice nor stand for suffering; he wants the poetry of the period to influence the listener to cease with their odious doses of bad faith and to instead live genuinely, fully, not taking a breath nor another life for granted. All this is well and good, but to me it is hokey. His task was to  grant everyday things and ordinary lives a dignity they hadn't been given before, but in doing so he manages to add yet another thick layer of metaphorical tonnage that keeps us further from the metaphysical presence he is longing for.

 I have a difficult time even considering his writings the evidence of a fevered imagination setting up and alternative universe, of a sort, in his quest to unearth and reveal the true nature of the everyday. The Congo, I think, is racist bombast, pure and simple, an example of a well-intentioned progressive in spirit trying to pay homage the culture of a people whom whites kidnapped and subjugated with slavery; he comes off as condescending and half baked. I think he only added to the problem he wanted to remedy. There is a difference between VL attempting to write something he called a history of the negro race and Duke Ellington, a black composer and intellectual, taking ownership of his own ancestry , traditions and , most importantly, the stereotypes of his race and culture and creating some astounding art. Good though his intentions were, VL's poem is paternal , presumptuous and racist by attitude and application; there is the fundamental assumption that Africans and those of African descent were incapable of telling their own story. Ellington, along with a good amount of the work of Langston Hughes coming out the Harlem   Renaissance redefined the terms. VL's attitude is simply hard to sit through without a session of exaggerated defenses and hearty condemnations. Spirited debate is fine, of course, but it seems to me that Ellington's "jungle music" is the superior work of art becomes the genius, verve and timelessness of the composer and his singular orchestra's work puts one in the center of the music, not a field of footnotes and gutter sniping. The seeming irony of a black artist using the world "jungle" to describe his own music seems irrelevant at best.

I understand the interest Allen Ginsberg had in Lindsay, since VL would, at the time, be the closest America had to a William Blake. Blake, however, gave into his visions to the extreme and allowed them to cohabit with him in his daily life; there incredible things he maintained in his public life about his visions and his dialogues with angels that he spoke of  as a matter -of -fact.

The further evidence is Blake's work which is truly unique, ungainly in syntax, but completely unforgettable as to how the universe was structured, at the core, rubbing against the flesh of the god or gods that created the heavens and the earth. Blake zipped past the clichés and ready-made paradigms that available to him and created something from whole cloth. His work broadened and became denser as he grew older; he wasn't much interested in getting others to change their behavior so much as he was in creating a vivid sense of what it is everyone man, woman and child will have to face. 

He considered himself a poet of the Inevitable. Lindsay, of course. An intriguing intersection of influence and cross influence; you can see how Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs were attracted to Lindsay not just as a public poet , but a public visionary, someone who could capture the public's imagination with broad , sweeping movements of image and colorful narrative. Lindsay did, of course, argue through his career a series of conclusions informed by a firm sense of what was right and wrong in society and wrote in such a flamboyant fashion that he might seduce, persuade, cajole those attracted by his theatricality to change the limited way they came to regard the world. He desired to instill in his listeners (and readers) the notion that everyone has a humanity that cannot be reduced by economic oppression or removed by harsh laws. It was the idea, a powerful one, that the morally upright thing to fight for--fairness, justice, equality, democratic virtues--were self-apparent, or would become so once the best case was made with the most persuasive language only one who is touched by the muse can write and recite, compose and exclaim.

 Dylan and Ochs perhaps had an easier time, being songwriters connected with a host of progressive causes--civil rights, anti-war movements largest among them--and it was their skill at composing brooding, simple, compelling melodies to hammer away at their inspired rhetoric that kept their songs, their lyrics in the public mind. Much of the oft repeated support of his work, even at its most anemic ,is the puffery one suspects zealots contrive in a mission to raise the importance of a hero they've embedded deeply into the soft tissue of their consciousness. This is something that we find with writing about Dylan--so many elaborations and comparisons that the apologies are more nuanced than Dylan's actual work. All the same, there is a strong connection, an awareness, a deliberate alignment on Dylan's part with a tradition other than rock and roll. The claims that Dylan was influenced by Lindsay, the Beats, Whitman, or "the usual Modernist suspects" are far from fantasy. The influences are traceable, noticeable, conspicuous in a great many songs, like "Desolation Row", "Visions of Johanna", "Memphis Blues Again", "Gates of Eden"; surreal though rock and roll geniuses Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley may seem and have been in their work and personas, the aforementioned songs definitely came from exposure to a good number of modern poets, ranging from the Symbolists through Whitman, Eliot, Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg. 

Those influences are in Dylan's work; how much he absorbed of what he read is the wrong question, but rather how well. Dylan, as any good artist would, took what he liked and what he found useful in musical styles and literary modes and made them his own. Dylan’s accomplishment, his singular bit of real genius, was blending Chuck Berry with his personal version of street level surrealism. Nothing like it existed in lyric writing before it--and I am not insisting that Dylan is the one who made song lyrics poetry, a notion I've railed against for years--and to diminish or dismiss literary influences in the creation of this body of work is, I think, short sighted. This is the kind of ruthlessness of the creative process no one really likes to talk about--it is the cliché of the amateur borrowing as opposed to the professional, who steals, who literally talks ownership of what he came across. VL is part of the circle of influences, more for inspiring a public persona and purpose than for direct influence on the work. Like it or not, VL did set the groundwork for what a public artist with literary/musical inclinations would be, and Dylan is among the generation of songwriters who adopted JL's conceit for their own purposes.
Along with Ginsberg, who desired to become a the voice of a perceptions that found expression before a conservative superego diluted whatever power might have been had in the first thought, songwriters who had grown up with Lindsay's work were inspired to write about things that were meant to resound beyond the music hall, wrote for his audience, which is valid on the face of it, but his temperament is closer to that of a songwriter than a poet on the grandest scale. It was, for Lindsay about what would sell, in a manner of speaking; his is also a cautionary tale against pleasing an audience too well, as there is the threat that will not let you change. And that is the frustration that kills a talent that has the potential to evolve.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


The poets I like have to be good writers, first and foremost, no matter what their work looks like on the page. There are many writers whose works are stunning to look at as a kind of typographical art, but reading them winds up being an insufferable experience, unpleasant not so much because the poems are difficult but  because the writing is just plain awful, being either willfully obscure to disguise a lack of  real feeling toward their experience, or, most typically , for exhibiting an inane, unoriginal and cliché choked sensibility that would never have gotten out of a junior college poetry workshop. In either case, the visual look of a poem is a distraction from the mediocrity of the piece being read. Good writing always matters, and there are many, many wonderful poets whose works have an originality achieved through a mastery of language that fortunately leads us away from the nagging dread that a tactless and unschooled savant garde has completely overtaken the conversation. Good poets must be concerned with language, I think, since that is the stock and trade of the art. Language made fresh, reinvigorated, reinvented-- I have no arguments with anyone who earnestly attempts to make language convey experience, ideas, emotion, or even the lack of emotion, in ways and with techniques that keeps poetry and poetic language relevant to the contemporary world, the one that's currently lived in, but there is a tendency for a good many young poets , fresh from writing programs, to repeat the least interesting ideas and execution of their professors and to make their work obsess about language itself, as a subject.The concern, boiled down crudely, is that language is exhausted in its ability to express something fresh from a imperialist/patriarchal/racist/individualist perspective, and the only thing that earnest writers can do is to foreground language as their subject matter and investigate the ways in which proscribed rhetoric has seduced us and made our work only reinforce the machinery that enslaves us.

This kind of stuff appeals to the idealist who hasn't had enough living, not enough bad luck, not enough frustration or joy to really have anything to write about, in large part (an grotesque generalization, I know), and it's easy for someone to eschew the work of absorbing good poetry -- Shakespeare, Stevens, Whitman, Milton, Blake, O'Hara-- or learning something of the craft and instead poise their work in non sequiters , fragments,clichés, sparsely buttressed inanities, framed , usually, in typographical eccentricities that are supposed to make us aware of the horrific truth of language's ability to enslave us to perceptions that serve capitalist and like minded pigs.More often, this sort of meta-poetry, this experimental notion that makes a grinding self-reflexivity the point of the work, reveals laziness and sloth and basic ignorance of the notion of inspiration-- the moment when one's perceptions and one's techniques merge and result in some lines, some honest work that cuts through the static thinking and makes us see the world in way we hadn't before.
I speak, of course, of only a certain kind of avant garde; one I endured in college and have since survived when I found my own voice and began to write what I think is an honest poetry. With any luck, some of these writers will stop insisting on trying to be smarter and more sensitive than their readership and begin to write something that comes to resemble a real poetry that's fresh and alluring for its lack of airs. Others might do us a favor and get real jobs. Others, I think, will continue to be professional poets as long as there  is grant money to be had, and will continue in their own destruction of forest land.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Muscle poetry

The poem "Richard Noel" is Harry Thomas' slap at obscurantist modernism in all its forms, resisting the lure of diffuse and the oblique for the clipped, staccato version of Rudyard Kipling, although Kipling himself would have furnished the fife and brass to accentuate and enliven the rattatatat of the military drums. Thomas' poem is a rhythmic straight jacket, the confined emotionalism of someone trying to keep their bleeding heart to a steady, unexcited beat. If only if he'd actually let it all go to provide us with something fiercer, more explosive than this soggy parody of Hemingway's succinct, staccato  effusions about a Personal Code.
To finish the long profile

**his grade depended on,
the afternoon before
**the surgery, alone,
he worked late in the library.
**I saw him typing away.
On my desk were his ten pages
**the first thing the next day.
Over the years I, too,
**have had hard things to face.
But when did I once summon
**such fortitude and grace?
It is admirable, one supposes, that a student gets their homework turned in on time despite an affliction, but this tribute, with its hushed bathos, seems very, very silly indeed. There is something remarkable in the attempt to overstate a point using such a crabbed rhetoric; the clichés and the conventional wisdom toward the sick and the afflicted area boiled , chipped and chiseled to their irreducible essences, leaving only a salty residue of uninteresting thinking. There is ossification here, there is poet tasting, but there is no poetry, such as we understand it. So what does one do to mend this tendency of amateurs to compose and distribute this stanza'd insult to the eyes? Exactly nothing. Nothing can be done to cure the lagging tastes of the naive.

There is that large faction of the otherwise diminutive poetry audience that likes its verse rhyming, rocking in a cadence that suggests a three-legged clogging competition, stanzas that are morally coherent and as comprehensible as a stack of pancakes, and the seldom discussed aspect among the rest of us self-declared elites fighting back gag reflexes is that this more or less a permanent state of affairs in this odd and contentious corner of the literary world. For all the chatter some of us offer up about being ecumenical. inclusive and appreciative of the broadness contemporary contains with regards to style, aesthetics, and the subtly differentiated concerns each of the coexisting schools collectively undertake to have their respective poems achieve their results, many of us choke with contempt and despair over the obvious if unacknowledged truth that doggerel, poesy, poet tasting and all the loutish rest are permanent fixtures in the literary culture that thrives beyond the ramparts.
There are no mass conversions forthcoming when it comes to convincing the rest of the poetry world that they’d be better off reading the stronger stuff. Consumers know what they want to read, and the amateur poet, not beholden to particular school of poetics or allegiances formed while they were a graduate student, will write exactly how they see fit, daring, strange enough, to write poems that make sense.

I don't think there is anything subtle or understated about "Richard Noël”. This set up is basically the plot line of the old ABC-TV disease-themed "Movies of the Week", where the usual tragedy was introduced in the first act, the resolve of the afflicted is tested as he or she struggles to get on with their life is shown in the second, and the third act concludes with the victim teaching a doubting observer a lesson amounting to the life can be lived fully even with a hindering, perhaps fatal ailment. These soapy melodramas were churned out week after week, and what their popularity attests to is that this sort of by-the-numbers approach to conflict and resolution is what the public accepts as the height of dramatic action.

What's off putting to me is the patronizing tone Thomas takes toward his subject --the whole Kipling "Gunga Din" tone of Imperialist paternalism (where there is the narrator's surprise that what he regards as "civilized" virtues emerge from a heathen subject) weighs this down with a sure paving of the narrative line to a limited series of genre constrained conclusions.
It might be interesting for a writer to use this situation as a reason for soul searching and critical self-examination, but that is a tricky balance to achieve, the getting the details of the afflicted's situation right with a delicately deployed tone , and having the narrator's introspection not overwhelm the poem and make the poem a bottomless confession. And what ought to be achieved by the third act, that final part of the dialectic, would need to be an insight, an image, a phrase that is somewhat apart from the previous two elements, something unique and not facile, as Thomas' finishing stanza was in "Richard Noel".

The execution is competent enough, although there isn’t an interesting rhythm anywhere in the poem. It’s hemmed in by its lack of distinction or character. While I don’t the poet’s sincerity, this rhymes of the sing-song variety; each time a line alights upon a previous line’s phonic twin, there’s a perceptible crash, or a thud. It’s not that I’m opposed to rhyme, but it is certain that in these days following the post modernist insurrection a poet who rhymes should be exceptional. Thom Gunn gets the craft write with his verse, bringing in associations that surprise the reader expecting a vague gloss of the subject matter due to the presence of rhyme. His work is wonderfully controlled, musical, artfully constructed without indicating the labor it takes to compose with such a tuned ear:
The Man with Night Sweats
By Thom Gunn

I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams of heat
Wake to their residue,
Sweat and a clinging sheet.
My flesh was its own shield:
Where it was gashed, it healed.
I grew as I explored
The body I could trust
Even while I adored
The risk that made robust,
A world of wonders in
Each challenge to the skin.
I cannot but be sorry
The given shield was cracked,
My mind reduced to hurry,
My flesh reduced and wrecked.
I have to change the bed,
But catch myself instead
Stopped upright where I am
Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,
As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.
There are other poets who write a fine poem in more traditional modes who haven’t sacrificed their wit; one may argue on ideological grounds that the formalism one comes across is a reactionary movement linked in spirit and practice to a more rigid culturally conservative impulse, but for my part I prefer to judge the poet by the work. Eliot, Pound and others where profoundly nasty people who did work that with stood their propensities toward bigotry and general “A”-holism. It’s a simple matter of judging what works in the poem, and what doesn’t.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Ruth Padel quits an esteemed Chair at Oxford for some dirty tricks she performs against a rival, Nobel Prize Winner Derek Walcott. What learn again what we already knew, the gods have clay feet.

I'm not surprised reading about the shenanigans among the tenured poets at Oxford, since even on their best days poets do not advance beyond the level of being human and humans, we all know, have basic instincts they, at times, act upon ill-advisedly using. What is surprising is how stupid these folks are in our era of digital communication, in which virtually everything one has written or said is retrievable through a few well-targeted clicks through the Google search engine. It is , perhaps, that these folks, dually gifted and cursed to make language do extraordinary things, have applied their toddler -like desires with the rhetoric of good intentions or higher purposes.

Walcott, through one account I've read, seemed like he was attempting to convince one female student in his class that making love with him would be the perfecting of the epiphany he was attempting to help her achieve. The student rebuffed and Walcott, the esteemed (and over-valued) Nobel Prize winner acted venally by giving her a "C" for her course work. Padel, of course, wanted the position she and Walcott were in contention for and sent off her emails to the press, citing , in her remarks regarding her resignation, that she was acting upon student concerns regarding Walcott's lecherous extracurriculars. No one was buying it, of course, and the matter was clear--what had been a squalid matter of a professor's alleged sexual misconduct became even more squalid by a rival's attempt to take advantage of the mess. Her action is even more loathsome for the fact that the indiscretions Walcott is reported to have had are not recent but many years ago, one in 1982, the other in 1992. Padel's self seeking reveals her to have the instincts of the village gossip, wallowing in rumor and innuendo for their own advancement.

The tragedy, picayune as it is, is that becomes virtually impossible to regard these writers for the artistry and scholarship that made their reputations--one can only think of them as pathetic , ego-driven characters who's respective levels of brilliance did not deliver them from goonish behavior. It's comic, really, to see writers of god like abilities with the language act like weasels when it comes to their crotches and their careers. It might be a good thing that professional poets be made to stand in the corner along with the shamed presidents, deposed kings and celebrity screw ups who've relinquished their right to be taken seriously.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Who wants to be a bard?

There is a bright fellow I know from Ireland, a grand poet , a beautiful writer, who thinks that there are too many poets in this world and that remedy the glut with the closing of MFA Writing programs that he feels cranks out sock puppets rather than real bards. It’s not an unusual grouse, all the wrong people are getting published, and it’s too much of a burden to get the truly gifted among us between covers. Mentoring, sponsorship, some kind of affirmative action from the established poets to the lesser known is due, no , it is owed.

I'm not so sure that published poets owe anything to their unpublished kin; even if there are vast differences in the amount of circulation a particular publisher can give a poetry volume, technology makes it possible for virtually anyone to get a decent looking volume of their work published. One can pool their resources with other writers and form a publishing cooperative. It's not easy promoting a new book, especially books of poetry--the audience is virtually non existent in most communities, and that community , as such, does not buy the book the poet on hand might be trying to sell.

But the case is that literally anyone can get a book published, by some publisher, for virtually any poetry style they happen to be writing in. The impossibility of having something between covers is a grossly exaggerated myth.Those who attend MFA programs, earn degrees and make their contacts among highly placed poets and publishing contacts deserve, more or less, the broader spectrum of attention they might get if only because they did what was required when one chooses to be a poet by profession; we might sneer and think them privileged and the lot, but their path was one involving work and dedication and, incidentally, talent. This is a path any one of us with enough determination can follow as well. One can't be assured of the results, but the mechanisms exist for all who bother to find about them to use.

I don't know if there is too much poetry being published; one can say as well that there are too many movies being released, too many competent tenor saxophone players, too many decent cups of coffee being served. I rather like the bounty and would consider it an awful situation if there were less to choose from. Meritocracy is fine as an ideal, but more often than not in nearly all human activity, luck has as much or more to do with the recognition someone garners as talent and hard work. Aiming, by design, to make a system "fairer" for poets encourages even more mediocrity, since such a system would be bureaucrat default. Poetry, above all other things, is subjective to the extreme as to the nature of quality, and subjecting such an ephemeral thing to institutionalized standards would further the death of the art faster and farther than any of us would like.

"Set the bar higher"? Who sets the bar, and how do we begin this vague process without violating the rights of publishers to publish who they want, as little or as little as they want? Arts are a free market, above all else; sorry for the libertarian analogy, but regulatory practices on the matter of taste, whether a reader's,, a poet's, or a publisher's, is repressive and totalitarian. I am a liberal by nature and believe in fairness and justice for all, but you cannot legislate taste any more than you can legislate morality. The Soviets tried for decades and stifled quite a few good writers who might other wise have found voice in a freer market of ideas and expression.

America, has always been on the margins so far as book sales and exposure, and there have been many attempts to bring it to a wider audience to my memory, none of them successful beyond a short-lived media splash, what David j. Boorstin called "the pseudo event". Save for those rare sorts who become celebrities and manage to make their poetry book sales into respectable revenue streams--Allan Ginsberg, Billy Collins, Robert Frost, John Ashbery--the rest of us will have to resign ourselves to being at the margins of the reader's attention. When I picked up my first copy of Poet's Market, the editor in the introduction warned against expecting to make more than contributor's copies or bus fare as remuneration should they have poems accepted. You wrote poetry because you loved the medium and published poems not expecting to make all that much money. He said, essentially, don't quit your day job; that's been some of the best advice I've every gotten as a genius-in-waiting.