Thursday, March 22, 2007


Fans of slick macho adventures (very) loosely based on historical events with a pronounced emphasis on hacking, stabbing and slashing are having a feast with director Zack Snyder of Frank Miller's graphic novel 300. The squabble here is the Battle of Thermopylae, circa 480 BC, where Spartan King Leonidas and a hardened band of his best soldiers head off an invasion of the overwhelming Persian armies. The excess masculinity and historical inaccuracy didn't bother me, precisely because the film is adapted from a graphic novel. Director Snyder, I think, has found the right pitch for the movie version and has, in effect, created something better than Frank Miller's original fantasy.  The results are acutely mindless, with characterization and momentum at a persistent fever pitch and dour tone found in the comics, with the potential allegories to current day debates over Bush and the Iraqi War blurred at best. The point is less to bring awareness to the audience that Imperialism Is Bad than that unchained and uncompromising masculinity is good. Suitably, the intellectual content of 300 comes off as a cartooning of Robert Bly's masculinist screed Iron John. But rather than shudder with the confused mash-up of Spartan history and homoerotic militarism, the movie moves forward with its absurdities, bombast, and swagger with impressive agility. To exploit a cliche further, the battle scenes, though hardly believable, are amazingly balletic in their swerves, dodges and severing connections of weapon to limb and neck; Synder has mastered the rhythm of intersecting slow motion and regular speeds and the constant perspective-changing the latest camera technologies avail him. This does rather well to exploit the perfect forms of the Spartan soldiers, nearly naked save loin clothes, helmets, spears, and spears, hard, sinewy athleticism poised (and posed) to jab, stick, slice. It's doubtless Yukio Mishima would have liked this movie for the amount of time the camera spends scanning the length of one sculpted body after another. 300, however, did not bore. Snyder seems something of craftsman when doling out the excess and the unneeded here; he knows when to stop and move on. He deserves credit for keeping the narrative brisk.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ellen Wehle and Mark Strand

Not every poem an interesting writer publishes is itself interesting;I've had the embarrassment of seeing my least favorite self-penned poem printed in small magazines
that would expose my damning pretensions to an audience that mattered ato someone trying to practice the craft. I thought Ellen Wehle's poem in this week's Slate"Second Coming" was too elliptical and sparse to worry a meaning from it, which is a shame since I think poet Wehle is normally an interesting poet.This seems less writing than say, jotting , an attempt to get flashing chains of association rapidly on paper. Not every chain is worth rattling, or presenting as a finished work.There is what seems like a conspicuous attempt to create a dread here, something similar to Mark Strand's poem "The Dreadful Has Already Happened" []. Strand, though, isn't merely arranging choppy sentences that are glutted with iconic references; instead he creates a narrative, non sequitur as it may be, and lands us on a terrain that is palpable in spite of it's unreality.
The symbolism and private allusions remain concealed, of course, but their capacity to disturb and convey the sinking feeling that something awful has happened , for me, strikes a primordial core. It works because Strand's elements is localized, with a skewed family history, punishments. The familiar is defamiliarized. Wehle hits a slip stream with "Second Coming" and powers through the junkyard of history with the equivalent of an industrial grade magnet. The assignment , perhaps,was to sweep over the battered metal remains of political and religious bastards of the past and then to make art, a poem, from what sticks to the black, flat disk. It is ,though, a tad worn in presentation, part Dada construction, part political agitprop, part language poem, not synthesizing the energies of the three competing anti-aesthetics into something recognizably new. Or interesting.It suffers the worst fate a poem can suffer, it has no vigor. Tap, and you get a flat thud in place of resonance. This is more finger exercise, a practicing of the scales in different keys, this is something you leave in the notebook. Ellen Wehle is a good poet, and I've written well of here in a past Slate offering, and I will chalk this one up to Robert Pinsky's curious habit of pick weak submissions by good writers.

On reading from a box of my old poems

There's value in leaving things out of poems, of allowing gaps in a narrative field as a way of allowing a reader to assemble a line of thought or interpretation composed of what the writer has furnished and the tactile facts of one's own experience and reading. The best results give us a bit of verbal mystery, a collection of skillfully arranged elements that, hopefully, results in a new poem with each person's reading. But this is an approach fraught with danger, and one wanting to write in this style would need to ask themselves essential questions, such as whether they're going to be able to do what it was Eliot, Ashbery or Rae Armantrout, creating a abstract writing that still draws in a reader and compels them to "finish" the work, or is one going to write a impenetrable mess, either skeletal or verbose, that absolutely defies having any coherence brought to it by even the subtlest reader? I fall into the latter camp more often than I care to admit, and spent too many years being willfully obscure, hermetically sealed and airless, so private in intent that even I was at a loss explain what I was trying to say. Prolixity and drift are my twin trademarks as a flawed poet, and I am the author of many boxes of unreadable sheets of typing paper that are where they belong, in boxes, many of them, waiting for the dumpster.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Grousing about work

No one likes to work, and everyone likes to complain about having to do so. A general statement, for sure, but accurate in a general sense. Some folks we bond with and empathize with their experience, while with others given to grousing and grumbles we encourage to shut up, for God's sake. What's clear is that some folks are better at listing their complaints than are others. It's about style, attitude, on whether there's something interesting to hear, or read.Philip Levine is a sure cure for anyone who can't push the proverbial boulder up the hill anymore, and his poem "What Work Is" is a magnificent detailing of the glory and grime of getting your hands calloused for a paycheck. Levine, a Detroiter, is keenly aware of the layerings of the working Middle Class, and finds a way of speaking to their lives without swooning in faux socialist praise about "innate nobility". He respects the working class and his own experience too much to be anything but truthful about it. It's a fine poem. Stephen Burt's poem, though, has many problems. That he can write isn't one of them; this man can put together a sentence. But there are bigger fish to fry than skewed grammar.

The critical offense in Burt's poem "Dulles Road Access" is it's scarcely contained arrogance and repulsion of having to work, of having to sell something to someone who needs to be convinced to buy it. His theme was bad faith on all sides, and complains readily that our all our training in the arts and history are reduced to mere skill sets intended to move the Bottom Line. Everyone complains about work, everyone, no one wants to work, no one, everyone feels denatured and reduced in stature and squeezed for time as obligations time for hobbies and the arts, one feels less than human because of the need to fend, forge and feed ourselves and our own. Yet people work anyway, they show up on time, they do their jobs well, and somehow create lives for themselves that are worth sticking around for, and within the limits created by work, men and women create lives that are not entirely bereft of value , joy, aesthetic virtue. I've been working since I was fifteen, and though I might be deluded on the point, my life hasn't been the eternal grey wall Burt imagines the lot of us staring at while the office clocks ticks slowly to 5pm.

An old complaint, expressed at every water cooler, coffee house and bus stop across the country, and Burt's addition to this chorus, apart from adroit rhythms, merely repeats the muckraking findings of Vance Packard and Philip Wylie two generations previous. This is the poem who has dropped their rattle and can't retrieve from the crib they refuse to climb out of.

We are untrained
to manage even the pace
at which we live.

This is worthy of a groan and an obscene gesture, an insight the Hugh Prathers and RD Laings of the world offered up in the Seventies when the culture had a morbid interest in each inexplicable twitch in their individual moods. Burt can write about work as an institution and work as an experience in anyway and in any style he wants to,
but there's nothing "fresh" or generationally unique to his perspective except, perhaps, his willingness to complain more openly than other good writers have been. But this becomes bellyaching and complaining and the negative -thinking equivalent of all those feel-good bromides one comes across in pop psyche and New Age literature. In this case it's a conditioned response regarding the dehumanizing aspects of working for a living, and even the implied "we" of his generation's allegedly collective attitude toward being a professional, it amounts to the same species of precociousness that made much of the Sixties and Seventies counter-culture a morass of unfocused, clueless indulgence. It's an attitude one grows out of, provided that sense of specialness doesn't kill them, spiritually and literally. Really, the plain message of this poem is that the narrator hates his job and thinks in generalizations to convince himself that he'd rather be lazy than productive. Levine, as the title declares, actually talks about work, this bothersome, tiring, repetitive activity we with varying and tailored approaches, attitudes, responses. His poem gets across the finer and subtler dimensions of labor by actually sussing through the particulars of desire colliding with necessity; this is where he finds his poetry, and it is here where he can address the conflict in unexpected and believable ways. You trust that Levine knows something about having to show up on time for a job he hates (or loves). Burt convinces us only that he has hard to meet needs.Burt's poem is nostalgic, really, and he seemed to writing in the shadow of the truly colossal complainers and, as such, has written a poem that is sorrowful reminder of the worst creative writing classes can do. The worst they do is that teach young people to be professional poets who are more concerned with making life accommodate language and not the other way around.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Jean Baudrillard, Crypto Neocon, Dead

Jean Baudrillard , that grizzled scold of postmodern indirection, is dead as his ideas. Baudrillard’s formulations, however abstruse, seemed formulaic the more one parsed his pages. Umberto Eco, a clearer writer on the subject of surface appearances being passed off as authenticity, covered much the same beat in “Travels in Hyper Reality”, with a playfulness Baudrillard never displayed. Motherfucker wrote books of less use than a collection of Donald Rumsfeld speeches. At best, his expression of his ideas was a thick, lush weave of deferring equivocation and generous portions of gravity-defying association that thrilled you with the virtuoso language he could spin to keep on the edge of your expectation, sounding as if he were about to arrive at some set of something useful. One didn’t understand a phrase or a word, but one loved to hear him talk. At worse, he reminds me of Walter Benjamin, unable to shake his jargon lest someone find something in his writing they can interrogate in earnest. What he seemed to be saying, in louder or softer tones, and nearly always with the vaguest paint he could color his notions with, is that the authentic, the natural, the fixed reality we dream of returning to, is gone and never existed and how we conduct ourselves via strategies to oppose oppression and effect changes in our condition are doomed, finally, and illusory, since all is ceaseless duplication and variations of opposing versions of historical finality. It's all for naught, and we might as well do nothing at all, merely consume within the storylines and props given us and allow the puppets with the microphones, tv cameras and the Army and Navy to run their games. Remember, Baudrillard was brilliant at describing things and mounting details of what is contradictory, perverse or demonstrably false; notice, though, that he offered no idea on what anyone could do about the situation. My thoughts are that JB was a nihilist and that the bald face of postmodernism, in its global viralism, is to encourage inaction, apathy. There's much of the round robin in his rap, a circuity that works any argument against itself. But it reveals a fatuous tendency to not
answer a question. Agendas are not Baudrillard's strong suit, and after all the illusions that his evasions are a form of liberation and empowerment for those at the margins--the criminal, the student, gays, lesbians, transgendered, the perennially non white, we finally have a poetics that finds glory in things falling apart while the privileged reap their final profits. Their prescription for the population was what neocons wish for the voters; go back to sleep.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Don't Let Them Hear Your Write

There comes a time in most poets lives when thoughts of their own death start to crowd their concerns, and the work they produce , the poems,
start to churn in that anxiety. It often makes for great work, the "mature" part of an artists career as they assemble a life time of perceptions in the fashioning of a style that is sure and bittersweet in the the way image, stanza , line, assonance and alliteration nails the troubling awareness that each day that passes is one less day on earth. This dwelling on the inevitable tends to become a constant buzz under the civilities and rituals of routine interaction, a phase where you seem and feel distracted, distanced from the world you walk through, glancing at everything in abstracted bemusement as if through a thin, barely perceptible membrane that separates you from anything else. Only your thoughts matter, only your subsumed astonishment that some how the the world as you know will get along with the grace of your presence. And so we wonder, and wonder, and wonder again how will we be remembered; what poem, song, or artifact will someone inspect of ours will someone inspect as they muse on our absence?

Nuar Alsadir handles the issue in The Riddle of the Shrink with appropriate reserve, too much so on this score. The details are telling, illustrative, comic in the way their caricature the inopportune instances that frustrate a smooth transition to day's end and Jay Leno or Letterman before bed. But it's pat stuff, straight from poetry's version of Central Casting; you can just about see the trails left by the feather dusters on the tropes as they were readied for use; lost tickets, a disconnected phone, a ball rolling under a piece of furniture where it will stay until either interior designers or movers force the hypothetical room into upheaval.

Upheaval is exactly what this poem does not have, and it is in the well -mannered inventory of shuddering detail that makes this seem more like a list of ideas for a poem rather than a poem itself. There is a self-reflexivity here that is perfectly useless to the theme and attempted tone of the piece,

The friend you have entrusted with your death

song, an editor, has changed the words.
Now it is you, not your modifiers,

who will dangle, suspended between this world
and the next.

You could make the case that the use of language is flowing and clever, but it is the seamlessness and cleverness that makes this stick out : the obsession to have the work refer to the author's life as a poet, a person of the purposefully dissecting and associative mindset who is now aghast that she will lose control of her words after her departure because an editor reworked some of her lines. There are any other number of things to ponder and run down in detail that would benefit graduate students lost, for the moment, in the paradoxes presented by philosophies of language--do humans make the language, or does language shape the speaker?--but that is another activity, not poetry. John Ashbery, whose name has been used here many times in the last week or so, manages to blend philosophical problems and anecdotal bits of his life with a style at once mysterious , challenging and yet engaging for all the areas his work insinuates itself in. Even as a young poet, Ashbery's writing was such that the philosophical and the more recently biographical materials had no designated areas where one stopped as another began, there was no sectioning of source material, which is what this week's poet is intent on. Ashbery is seamless and unaffected, if often inscrutable; we none the less are intrigued with his wanderings. But Alsadir is orderly, writerly, too logical and conveniently ironic in her confrontations with should convince us is here as her innermost dread and terror.

The sanctity of a writer's work aside, it is hard to really care about matters such as what happens to ones eternal soul with this ill-disguised whimpering larding up the works. Again, I wish poets who feel a need to mention that they are poets or writers in the poem, or are prodded by primeval forces to write a verse with poetry as the subject would instead trust the quiet about them and write nothing at all until the world their senses cannot control engages them again. No more self-reflection on the medium, okay?

The poem is too well mannered, too writerly to really seize upon the surrealism Alsadir attempts in the second half:

The image of the future

is the memory of the dream in which
you are standing before a kiosk, attempting

a transaction with a forgotten code.

These reads less like a poem where psychic dislocation is given a glaring, austere showcase than it is something paraphrased from stacks of old Robb-Grillet novels; it experience converted into jargon, and the defamiliarized tone sounds borrowed.

Friday, March 9, 2007

BREAK, BLOW, BURN: Camille Paglia's Poems that Matter

Camille Paglia
I'd said some rude things about Camille Paglia's reemergence as a regular columnist at, berating her for basically wasting the opportunity to be smart about cultural and political issues by lavishing each form of self-flattery. To court cliche, even Norman Mailer has more modesty. I haven't changed my mind, but I should mention her 2005 collection of poetry criticism, Break, Blow, Burn. It's the liveliest collection of critical remarks I've in years. Camille Paglia published her collection of poetry essays Break, Blow, Burn (now in paperback) in 2005, and straight away there were those neoconservatives who seized upon the firebrand professor as one of their own, someone brings "reason" back to the classroom. It was hoped in some discussion groups I've recently emerged from that Paglia is Sanity itself, ready to unfasten the chokehold of incomprehension that's been around literary criticism for decades. The short version of that conversation was that Paglia would be the celebrity academic intellectual who would sift through the Great Books and present a straying society the Values and Virtues William Bennett cherishes almost as much as he does a solid poker hand and a stall stack of chips. Hold the phone. I don't think Paglia represents "a voice of reason" since the word "reason" is the last thing you want to apply to a close reading of a poet's work. It implies, by default, rationality, and it's never been the poet's assignment to reason through experience as if he or she were a scientist trying to classify and categorize the world about them. 
Rather, poets, good poets, and their work continue to attract us because the way in which they usurp the instructed ordering aspects of language and instead find ways to integrated what is seemingly inexpressible, felt the experience, the interiority of being, with what is observed in the factual being. It's perilously hard poetry to write successfully and, even when it's done well, reviewers toward totalizing , sense-making totems that bring a reasonable and agreeable sheen of coherence to a work; the way we've come to discuss poems falls too often in the smelly troughs of conventional wisdom, received perceptions, cracker-barrel philosophy,  simple-minded platitudes, devised, by consensus or conspiracy on the part of readers and reviewers, to have the world remains entirely comprehensible and sane. A worthy critic from the eighties, Clyde Hadlock, once wrote of the best verse being something unique in literature. He asserted, with deft metaphor, that if the prose was the photograph of how the nature of the world appears to the author, then "...poetry is the x-ray." The voice of reason is the enemy to good poetry, and that is what Camille Paglia knows better than any other commentator; a poet, she argues in Break , Blow Burn (now in paperback) is that a poet , though a conscious and determining artist, acts none the less as a conduit for the wild strands of personal narrative, religion, myth, comprehensible realism, rage, philosophy merge, blend, twine and twist in the same discussion. Poetry is the language of unreason, another way of taking the pulse of the culture as seen from the particular and individual poet's voice who lives within and yet is compelled to view it askew. The essays in Break Blow Burn argue that the poems under review are not required to "make sense", to deliver a singular meaning, easily digested and disposed of, but exist instead to provide a subtler, more nuanced , more complex sense of what experience entails. Many ideas from many sources come to bear on a poem's thesis, and Paglia pulls them out, addresses them, and demonstrates the fascinating dialectic of the way ideas, images, expressions and varied dictions influence one another, offer shades of inference, change meanings. 

It wasn't enough that the national discussion on poetry was already pathetic and contrived, a contest between assorted second and third generation splinter groups of specialized enclaves trying to inhale what was left of the air in the tiny room where the debate raged. Amazingly, the conversation had become as dumb as it was insulated. In the 2001, the New Agers and refugees from shoegazing concerts got into the act with the publication of Roger Housden's slim collection Ten Poems to Change Your Life, in which he presented the undefined general reader with a set of poems, varied to gender, nationality, religion, lifestyle orientation, that they might consider between errands and cell phone chats: " The Journey" by Mary Oliver ,"Last Night as I Was Sleeping," by Antonio Machado, "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman ,"Zero Circle" by Rumi ,"The Time Before Death" by Kabir,"Ode to My Socks" by Pablo Neruda , "Last Gods" by Galway Kinnell, "For the Anniversary of My Death" by W. S. Merwin, "Love After Love" by Derek Walcott "The Dark Night" by St. John of the Cross . A high quality selection, give or take exceptions according to tastes, but Housden's intent seemed less to introduce readers to the wonders and varieties of perspective poetry might offer than to bring us to the lectern where he would deliver his Message of the Day. Following each poem there was a light discussion of the life's circumstances the preceding poet wrote about and Housden would extrapolate through a number of nimbly massaged points of literature, theology, popular spirituality, in order to give the image reader a broader perspective, a moment's respite from that crackle and insistence of contemporary consumption. The aim of the collection, hardly surprising, was to have the stressed audience abandon their cell phones, laptops and other devices of damning distraction,  and make time to smell the roses before they were gone, trampled under the heel of progress. It's not an original premise, but it remains sage advice all the same, and one could for the moment put their disdain for the use of a poet's work as fodder for a feel-good mill, although containing the contempt was harder than it would seem. The irony was that the fresh perspectives, the original language use, the carefully crafted evidence of subtle intelligence interrogating the problematic nature of existence was being used as another means of delivering readers to insights they already know. One hoped, even prayed, one hid under sheets of wishful thinking; any way of bringing readers to quality poets was worth a little bit of pimping by an enterprising editor and motivational guru. Or was it? The problem remained that the skewed thinking that characterizes much of the best work would only confuse and further complicated the world for an audience that wanted assurances, not ironies from what they read and reflected upon. The mind was already a roiling with contradiction and discontent. Housden's editorial genius was his ability to ignore the problematic subject matter and stir his declarations skyward, looking over the hill for the displaced Gods who formerly assured us a coherent world.
Ten Poems to Change Your Life turned into a series of five similarly named collections, a choice gathering of poets per volume followed by Houston's compulsively upbeat chats. A gimmick has been established for Housden and was performing handsomely—the books, pocket-sized, were perfect for bookstore cash register stands as impulse purchases, and in the dozens. One despaired seeing that Housden's books sold while the poetry section remained the slowest selling in the store where one worked; the audience was ready to read one poem by Walt Whitman and absorb a slight ration of cracker barrel spiritualism as an afterward, but such readers weren't inclined to pick up "Leaves of Grass" and do their own thinking. Housden's audience is one that wants to be told what things mean. Housden's brilliance isn't what he says about the poems but rather in recognizing an area of mild interest to big audiences that hadn't been adequately exploited and denuded of any possibility of inspiring even a minor itch.

It was enough to make one want to give up the game entirely and watch DVD reissues instead, but there is a blast of fresh air coming through the room, Camille Paglia's Break, Blow, Burn, a collection of forty- three poems brought together for close reading by the author. Paglia is a humanities professor at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and made her entrance on the national stage with the publication of her bulging, bombastic and usually brilliant book Sexual Personae, a sprawling study of sexual identity, its profound effect on art and culture, and the endless way that it's been disguised and altered. Personae was maddening in all its phases and investigations, with theories and declarations worthy of full dissertations popping up every few pages, yet no matter how one reads her breathless, in-your-face explications that every proverbial pore of existence, society, and culture was dripped with sexuality (repressed or blatant), you couldn't dismiss with the usual brush off lines. Paglia's basic thesis about the best way to appreciate poems is to stop worshiping reputations and the sordid prestige that comes and begin instead to read and think about particular poems. Hers isn't a sensibility to bow to fashion or someone's deeply intoned name; fame and a gimmick will not acquaint the poet under review any slack. As she says in the preface, what she believes in are great poems, of themselves, separate from larger bodies of work. What we get in the forty-one essays in Break, Blow, Burn are her intense, close readings of what she regards as the best poems in English; the selection and the arrangement of what these "best" poems come to be won't satisfy every taste or notion of what honestly comprises the best work, but Paglia didn't write these missives in order to cosign every lazy idea we've had about poets and their work.
These are her favorites, using her criteria, and quite unlike many skimpy or corpulent collections slapped between covers to satisfy a fleeting fashion, she will lay her arguments in solid, comprehensible and far-flung terms, returning again, again and yet again to the respective poems she's reviewing. Less a medium to make us feel warm and secure, her poems have to do with an extreme engagement with life on life's terms. Whether finding whole worlds of secular metaphysics contained in the few lines of Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of a Jar," sweetly limning the edgy and cavalierly erotic voyeurism of Paul Blackburn's "The Once Over" or marveling at the triple-tiered city speak of Frank O'Hara's fantasy "A Mexican Guitar," Paglia discusses each of the poet's work as points in which spiritual certainty and intellectual pragmatism come into conflict, war with one another, and emerge by poem's conclusion with some third perception larger than the opposing inclinations which reveal a finer, more complex, less fixed situation for the human condition. In each case, Paglia follows the poet in the process of bringing together the poem, their process of perception, beginning with what was observed, the associations the image conjures or suggests, and delicately observing how the poet controls their associations, no less careful than a great composer, giving play to the various senses and associations each phrase and delicious reference appeals to. Paglia's genius is her ability to recreate the poet's thinking at the moment of composition. This makes her discussions intimate, vital, a whirlwind of excited speculation. Flux, change, destruction, growth, all the things that make the up the endlessly repeated cycles of death and birth, are what connect these poems, and Paglia, in these vividly studied pieces, isn't about to let any of us slide by with only a nodding acquaintance with what a poem can mean as well as be. Her view of art is that it increases our awareness of life's enormity, not reduces it to some meager paragraphs of ego massage, and it's a good thing that she was willing to put her notoriety on the line in introducing some rigor into the general chat. Finally, what is especially inspiring in Paglia's fierce arguments is her refusal to grant the readers slack. None of this material is over your head, she seems to insist, Get on the ladder and see what's out there.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Poems by Debra Nystrom and Amee Nezhukumatathil

An interesting poem about snow, if you can beyond the horrid recording of poet Debra Nystrom reciting her work.As usual,the recitation of the poem is marred by the outstandingly consistent ability of Microsoft's software to suck the life and warmth from anyone's voice; I'm not being ironic here, given the title. If there were someway for the engineers to adjust the sound quality to make the voice sound more alive and feeling, it would be appreciated, As is , poor Nystrom sounds as if she's packed in a trunk. Yet it may be an appropriate tone given the downward slant of the poem's psychic terrain, a general survey of isolated farmland in a blizzard,where isolation becomes it's own reason for being. Dreary, stalled, obsessively committed to her own stasis in the surrounding field of furious snow, Nystrom gets the gloom and borderline despair grow and take hold and quite literally form a weight that sits upon you;

you think of cutting the motor off to sit
in the tractor cab awhile, radio songs slowly
fading out as they suck the battery dry

There are things to be done in this bleak world, yet the extended absence of other voices of similar age and experience, the cessation of life until spring thaw, proves to be an enervating element that is at times overpowering. Nystrom chooses the language well to get across the mood, finds comparisons with her character's interior life with the exterior climate that are swift and clear

white nonsense scattering at the windshield
like bits of wreckage hypnotizing
till some kind of sleep comes on

Snow here seems analogous to sleep and sleep, rather obviously, is some depressed longing for death, death as an idealized state where there is only silence and no voices buzzing with their chatter of attenuated relationships or failed life-defining projects. What works here, I suppose, is that the poet compresses the mood, starting in the center of it and then moving out with details of the white, lifeless landscape; Robert Lowell's confessional prolix is not this poet's style, it seems, yet neither is Raymond Carver's terse,truncated lines. She is closer to novelist and short story writer Russell Banks, who knows full well the quality of being snowed in, as if buried alive.

by Amee Nezhukumatathil is my kind of poem, funny in a way someone can be if they have a discreet sense of the absurd that might float an irrational idea just so so that it has the dual effect of initial plausibility and then lagging clarity. The punch line , in other words.

Nezhukumatathil (yes, I cut and pasted her name in this spot) smartly side steps any obvious lectures that might have occurred to her to deliver regarding prejudice, identity politics, or the cruelness we foist on another. Rather she sympathizes with the perplexed reader, the bewildered student:

On the first day of classes, I secretly beg
my students Don't be afraid of me. I know
my last name on your semester schedule

is chopped off or probably misspelled—
or both. I can't help it. I know the panic
of too many consonants rubbed up
against each other, no room for vowels

to fan some air into the room of a box
marked Instructor.

The empathy she expresses leads to an unforced litany of big name diseases and conditions that are truly frightful to consider, and just as unlikely to cause anyone harm as her elongated last name. Nezhukumatathil keeps the anxiety localized , in human scale, which relieves her of the need to construct a global argument of a sort, with the attendant sweeping rhetoric that would've overwhelmed the heart of the poem. The writing is clear and graceful, just this side of whimsy; the appeal lies in the idea that this situation they all can get through if our sense of humor is in place.

What I read and heard was the sound of someone talking to a group of other people, imagined perhaps, full of perfect responses to the problematic nature of her last name, but still with a conversational thread working on that leads her audience, real or imagined, away from a source of fear so there might be some distance where humor can undermine anxiety and prejudice and discussion of a sort can begin. These items and words and definitions are nonsensical, sure, but they're not used willy nilly. Nezhukumatathil moves her ideal set of students into an ideal absurdity.

But most important, even if they did cohere, it would cohere into a poem that is still intolerably banal. The poem coheres very well, in tone, scansion and the implicit movement of ideas and their undermining. In this case, a underplayed notion that one shouldn't let an irrational and unfounded dread of new things--long names, new places, new relationships-- freeze one's possible responses to a larger world
they have to enter and act creatively in. This is anything but banal, though a straight moral lecture would have been dreadful, to coin a phrase. I admire the way she underscores her point through implication rather than direct argument. This allows some creative movement for the reader, who either gets close to her point or has license to make their own with her materials.

I wouldn't call this poem didatic, since it actually moves away moves away from didacticism, even to mock it with all the knowing references to ten syllable words and their obtuse definitions.The point of exaggeration is to reveal the absurdity of those banal items that create tension and fear, which is precisely what Nezhukumatathil does here.The imagery here is appropriate in so far as I think her escalation of complex terms and the bugaboos they define are in keeping with the logic (or lack of it, rather) that keeps individuals uptight. Effectiveness is what counts, and I think the poem, a good, small poem about a banal irritation in the poet's life, is effective in clearing ground and allaying fears without lectures, rage or insults. It operates the way a good put-on does, a straight faced declaration of some wild state of being whose meaning is grasped, or created after a particular spell of gullibility is cast.

I think it's her intent to veer to things that are not odd or eerie in and of themselves; though she never abandons her lyric bent, there's conversational quality of "jumping around", from item to item, sans cogent transition, that is faithful to the associative leaps actual talk assumes. This is idealized speech, of course--real speech transcribed is unendurably repetitive-- but I think she succeeds in blending her craft with a workable premise of what intriguing speech would sound like. Elmore Leonard writes amazing and intriguing dialogue in his crime fiction although we know full well no one actually speaks as engagingly as his characters.

Still, we suspend our protests and allow his crime novels to engage us. Nezhukumatathil has a harder time of it, since Leonard has the length of a novel to make his approach plausible and realistic seeming, and she has only the span of a poem. Her problem is not to overwhelm her subject with an excess of rhetoric or flourish and yet be "poetic" to get a sense and a tone just right, to capture some essence.

This is an elliptical monologue with the actual ellipsis removed, with the seamlessness meant to direct the theoretical students the narrator is addressing from their standoffish through an inspection of the absurdity of their fear. and finally to reassurance, provided with this:

I will tell jokes, help you see the gleam
of the beak of a mohawked cockatiel. I will
lecture on luminescent sweeps of ocean, full

of tiny dinoflagellates oozing green light
when disturbed. I promise dark gatherings
of toadfish and comical shrimp just when you think
you are alone, hoping to stay somehow afloat.

Cockatiels, toadfish and comical shrimp are appropriate , I think, because the poem concludes with something of an invitation , a promise that there is more to be gained by being open minded about new experience than there is by remaining closed and unduly protective of one's set view of the world.

The Poverty of Theory and the Burial of Poetic Meaning

Jean Baudrillard is dead this past week, and what I remember from this postmodern French scold wasn't the sense he was making about how our reality is inauthentic and comprised only of ceaseless simulations of some archival idea of authenticity--an ordinary notion in cafe society better writers have finessed and fudged over the course of worrying about their legitimacy in the mythical public sphere provided by print. No, not that at all. It was that his theories reached the incomprehensible beauty of a John Ashbery poem, streaming, steaming strands of sheer pondering that gave one the feeling that what's being said must matter and must be important and is something one must struggle with and fabricate opinions on because JB's prose was damnably dense, rendering every specific detail it might come across abstruse, bruised and convoluted as matted hair. Tom Wolfe, fading New Journalism hot shot and junior league Veblen, had his uses, in this case providing a fine catchphrase when he mocked the New York art world in The Painted Word; critics and theoreticians of art had risen in importance, creating a situation where one could "see" the art unless they knew the theory. Theory, in general, is an all-consuming monster these days, formerly a habit of mind that would clarify issues, now a thing in itself, blocking the view. A theory is a guy in the row in front of you who won't remove his hat.
I like theory well enough when it's an aid to comprehending a work, but it's gotten so that theory itself is the be-all in literary writing, and that is the tragedy of much poetry that gets published and acclaimed. Theory is unavoidable when it comes to any attempt to outline why poetry works or doesn't succeed in accomplishing what a writer set out to do; dealing in broad outlines appropriate to the poems that might be considered, you set out your details, draw from the work, cite other instances of similar work, set up contrasts, make comparisons. Presto, you're theorist elaborating at some length in order to reveal the subtler aspects of what one hopes is work worth the parsing.

It's useful, though, because theory, in this case, is an activity secondary to the art it tries to address; if the poet is clear, if his abstractions crystallize contradictions between emotion and intellect, if he or she creates that remarkable language that is at once graspable and yet tracing the edge of invisible meanings, the astute critic is there to explain, draw out, praise and explicate those values that make the work click. Similarly, in this idealized relation, a poet full of his or herself, drunk on convolution, overblown language, large concrete slabs of pulse-less abstraction, and all sorts of crabbed, cubist intellection, the critic is there as well to address the problems of an art that is created for no audience in mind other than a small circle of sycophants.

A large part of the problem is that criticism and theory have achieved parity with creative writing, with the result being a generation's loss of heart in the lines they wrote. The intuitive, the gut level, the anecdotal was distrusted, and poets had to exercises something like a critical self-flagellation in their nominal poems that carried the caveat, implied or directly asserted, that the "I" writing the poem was a social construction, and that the responses the poems contained were part of particular political hegemony which had made slaves of us all. The function of creative writing, of writing poems, became one witless bit of onanistic deconstruction after another. Where difficult poems by Eliot, Stevens, Bishop, and Ashbery at least tried to (successfully, I think) leave with a sense of the things they spoke of and allowed for reader interrogation, much poetry since has become incoherent for its own sake. I do think there was a generation of poets who did not know how to write about the world or their experience in it.

Billy Collins, not a favorite poet of mine, is correct when he says that we're still in the early stages of recovering from the bad faith difficulty that's hounded us for twenty some years. It's just that theory, in the hands of its practitioners, doesn't know its place. There are not enough decent, good and brilliant critics as there used to be; there seem to be no Alfred Kazins, Frank Kermodes, Leslie Fielders on the horizon to continue the task of sussing through, inspecting, and interpreting novels on the basis of what's actually in the work, and thereby establishing a base from which to grasp how particular works succeed or fail or wallow in the middle in their attempts to enlighten.I'd call this criticism for the engaged reader, the ideal person curious enough about their entertainments to want to discuss the issues they arise further.

The criticism-as-closed system begins, I think, with the advent of the New Critics, ala I.A. Richards and F.R.Leavis who, though paying tribute to the idea that the study of literature, specifically poetry, needs to be reduced to nothing other than what is within a given work (excluding all other details such as historical context, biographical information, influences, etc), I suspect the intention was to create a systemic jargon that was intended to mimic the analytical esoterica of scientific inquiry; there is an envy within that particular circle that wanted the authority and power of what hard scientific investigation was thought to have. Though New Criticism has waned in years with the advance of new fashions and trends, the impetus to remove criticism and theory from the mainstream hasn't gone away. It's gotten worse, let us say.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Some Jazz Albums I Bought Over the Last Ten Years

JC on the Set by the James Carter Quartet, a stylistically wandering but frequently fused effort from the saxophonist in group. Nice reading of 'Sophisticated Lady'--Carter's phrases are sure and undulate with a blues cadence even as he extends his lines over a sublime melody. In other areas, he sounds tad brackish and barking-- blorts and grunts at times when he really didn't need them, as if to establish some kind of credibility that admirable technique alone cannot. He sometimes grates.
Still, his work here is compelling for the most part, and Craig Taborn’s piano work is a handy and deliciously quick-witted foil for Carter: elegantly, giddily fast up tempo, meditative and yearning as he scrolls over the ballads. On a similar note, I just bought and played "Empyrean Isles" by Herbie Hancock on Blue Note, and features Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and "Anthony" Williams. A terrifically moody album, Hubbard’s' composition are smooth tone investigations--his piano work is focused and at this date, 1964, sculpted tasty figures. Hubbard likewise weaves in and around and through the music with a surety that belies his later brash, flaming attack. And Williams on drums is a wonder, as he always was: this album is fine companion to his own "Spring". Hearing this underscores the loss.

Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane
--Kenny Garrett

Kenny Garrett (alto saxophone), Pat Metheny (guitar), Rodney Whitaker (bass), Brian Blade (drums).

I guess I've been in a straight ahead mood lately, catching up with CDs I haven't played much since I bought them. Garrett acquits himself here on his alto, and allows himself to mess with Coltrane’s' sacred phrases: a potent abstractionist when need be, but a man who’s outgrown the old clothes and demonstrates an inspired re-tailoring of the material. "Giant Steps" has a swaggering waltz feel, with a sly, side long reading of the head, and Garrett’s' improvisations come in deft, spiky explosions. Metheny remains a marvel of jazz guitar here, a continuing revelation since he more or less walked away from his fusion stance some years ago, and the bass and drum interplay between Whitaker and Blade tumbles and rolls nicely through out. Worth the money I spent.

Remembering Bud Powell --Chick Corea and Friends

Roy Haynes (drums) Kenny Garrett (alto sax) Joshua Redman (tenor sax),Wallace Roney (trumpet) Christian Mc Bride (bass).

Yes, yes, I am playing a desperate game of catch up, and habits tend toward stellar tributes rather than primary sources, but....

..this Corea Bud Powell collection is notable for, besides dense and cutting improvisations, is the quality of Powell’s' compositions. Corea resists the temptation to Latinize or fusionize the material and instead plays the charts straight--Powell’s' sense of harmonic build up and resolution is loopy, easing from sweetness to tart dissonance. All of which is the canvas for some good blowing. Corea reins in his extravaganzas and weaves around with a now untypical sense of swing. The efforts of Garrett and Redman are a reed lover’s idea of heaven. Roney has a cool, crystalline tone, and his phrasing is meditative, reserved, nicely so, though one desires a Hubbardesque scorch at odd times. Haynes and McBride are champs.

Jazz From Hell---Frank Zappa.

Was always curious what Zappa would have sounded like if he could make full ensemble music without musicians to deal with. This is it, every tone, harmonic and textured, save an outstanding live guitar solo, MIDI'd to the nearest liking his famous impatience would allow. Daunting, but oh yeah...

Spring--Tony Williams

Wayne Shorter (tenor sax) Sam Rivers (tenor Sax) Herbie Hancock (piano) Gary Peacock (bass) Tony Williams (drums).

From 1965, a too-brief but alluring Blue Note set of moods and expressions ranging from sprite and dancing to somber and melancholy. Shorter's and Rivers' respective tenor work are wonderfully complimentary, with Shorter's long, ribbony lines knitting intricate configurations with the darting, brasher style of Rivers. Williams is a master with the brushes here, easily soloing through out the disc.
Interesting here that Gary Peacock starts what sounds like it will be a firmly intoned bass solo, but after a few plucked notes, the disc ends. Like that. Nada. It's a shock, but sounds right after a couple of listens.

Muddy Water Blues --Paul Rodgers

Rodgers, ex of Free and Bad Company, is as good as blue-eyed blues/rock belting has ever gotten--he can rasp and croon, belt and banter with equal measures of savvy and snap when all cans are firing. Sadly, he sings better than he writes, as just about all his post-Free efforts show. On this album, he digs into the bullet-proof songs of Muddy Waters, and has a hoot doing them: refreshingly, this is not a purist effort. Instead, it’s a throw back to British blues rock, which was louder, faster, flashier. Jeff Beck, Gary Moore, Brian Setzer and Trevor Rabin and Neal Schon all lend their fingers here, flash and feeling , and Rodgers applies the vocal chords for the best singing he'd done in easily ten years. "She Sends Me", "Born Under a Bad Sign", 'She's Alright" and "Rolling Stone" help me, for a moment, remember why I used to think he was the best singer on the planet. For a minute, that is.

Far Cry"--Eric Dolphy w/ Booker Little

Dolphy (alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute); Little (trumpet); Jaki Byard (piano); Ron Carter (bass) ; Roy Haynes (drums).

What a band. Poised in the Tradition, but watch out: Dolphy's playing , especially on bass clarinet, are never far from the margins: even here, within the relative conservatism of the material, he threatens pure, Coltranesque blowing. A nice tension through out, and Dolphy is tireless with his invention. Little has a tight, squeezed sound in his playing, and it's a gas.

Jimi Hendrix:Blues --Jimi Hendrix

A typical gathering of Hendrix loose threads, centered his outstanding blues guitar work: some tracks work better than others, the band is not always in tune , and sometimes drags terribly, but this is more than archival stuff for completist. "Red House" is included, always inspiring, and "Bleeding Heart", a truly mournful show blues work out that has only surfaced once or twice on some imports, has Hendrix digging deep into the frets. A live "Hear My Train A Comin'", originally on the "Rainbow Bridge" album, is a masterpiece of pure, blazing Hendrixism: Everything Hendrix could do right on the guitar is displayed here, the sonic flurries, the screaming ostinatos, the feedback waves that he turns into melodic textures with a snap of the whammy bar: this track ought to the one any Hendrix advocate plays as proof of the genius we speak about.

Not a bad blues guitar disc at all, essential for this Hendrix fanttle is a crackerjack trumpeter, and Byard glides easily from

The Body and Soul ----Freddie Hubbard

An early work for Hubbard intended you showcase his flaming trumpet work in both septet and big band formats. Yes indeed. Hubbard’s' reading of the title track is superlative ballad work, and in other areas, his often times top-heavy virtuosity finds a place among and atop Wayne Shorter's arrangements. That is to say, Hubbard is not buried under a producer's idea of "taste", and Hubbard’s' attack exhibits hardly a trace of the scorched-earth style he’d favor in many of his later sessions. This is not to say that Hubbard is tamed, only that this is a successful combination of normally competing sensibilities, a true fusion. Along with Shorter, Eric Dolphy, Cedar Walton, and Curtis Fuller add their solo graces to the material, and larger ensemble work is marvelous as music can be.

Tenor Legacy --Joe Lovano

Lovano--tenor sax/Joshua Redman--tenor sax/Mulgrew Miller--piano/Christian McBride--bass/Lewis Nash--drums/Don Alias--percussion.

Legacy indeed. Lovano and Redman are an evenly matched set of bookends here, with Lovano's lusher tone taking the lead voice. He and Redman have a wonderful time of one-upmanship on some tracks, and Redman's ability to solo as fluidly as Lovano does lushly hands us a top-notch collaboration. Wonderful horn lines, and cracker-jack from all the others. Straight ahead blowing, solid compositions.

Sonny Side Up --Dizzy Gillespie , Sonny Stott, Sonny Rollins

Gillespie--trumpet/Stott, Rollins--tenor saxes/Ray Bryant--piano/ Tommy Bryant--bass/Charlie Persil--drums

A three way blow from 1958, this sessions is fast and furious. Stitt and Rollins are breath taking, particularly at the double and then triple time of "The Eternal Triangle", while Gillespie, as usual, is peerless with his tone and attack. "After Hours", as well, is a briskly played blues: one marvels at how many moods and approaches a player can have within the same 12 bar solo.

--Dexter Gordon

w/Gordon--tenor sax / Sonny Clark--piano / Butch Warren--bass / Billy Higgins--drums

A 1961 gathering, a roll-up the sleeves where only the music mattered, from the sounds of things here. Gordon has such an easy gait on the slower, bluesier tunes, and an engulfing sense of swing on the faster tracks. And in between, any number of moods , his phrases whimsical, suggesting , perhaps, what Paul Desmond might have wished he sounded like if he would only dare step out of that glossy, modal style and burn a little. He might have garnered a bit of Gordon's humor. Billy Higgins is wonderful here, and Sonny Clark is a bright star through out: his chord work and harmonic turns brighten up the room. This is the kind of music that makes you want to drink after shave and wash your cat in the sink.

One of A Kind--Bill Bruford

w/Bruford--drums and percussion/ Allan Holdsworth--guitar / Dave Stewart --keyboards / Jeff Berlin-- bass

The King Crimson and sometime Yes drummer had occasional jazz-fusion sessions when he wasn't furnishing beats behind abstruse angst fantasies, and surprisingly, the music holds up well. There is not an amphetamine strain fuzz tone anywhere to be heard. What helps are good tunes, most by Bruford, that mix up funk, Zappa, and Prog-rock stylistics under unmannered conditions, allowing the instrumental work to mesh, mess around, and burn as needed. Holdsworth offers some impressive ultra legato lines, and Jeff Berlin is singular on the bass. Bruford, hardly a Cobhamesque fusion monster, lacks some the swing you might like, or even the blunt Bonham-oid pow! to make this rock harder, but he's an able timekeeper who keeps the session forging ahead.

--Eric Clapton

A 2-cd set of blues tracks from Clapton, one studio out- takes and random tracks from previous work, and a live disc. This album often drives head long into a torpor that revives the phrase "noodling", as one mid-tempo blues after another eventually turns the stomp into a slog, and the guitar work runs a course from inspired and fierce to directionless and tired, tired, tired. This is the blues of exhaustion, what musicians do on stage when there no more songs or licks , but with time still on the clock. The live set fares quite a bit better--Clapton sounds awake and his guitar work is a demonstration why he's regarded as one of the classiest blues pickers alive.

But you wonder about someone's need to flood the market further with absolutely everything in the vault, in the drawer, under the sofa, lost in a box in the fruit cellar. Tedium too often wins out in the mood setting competition. A shorter, punchier single disc release would have been a better option.

This Land
--Bill Frissell

w/ Frissell -- guitar / Don Byron -- clarinet and bass clarinet / Billy Drews -- alto saxophone / Curtis Fowlkes --trombone / Kermit Driscoll -- basses / Joey Baron -- drums

If Aaron Copeland wrote for small ensembles that highlighted a very electric and twangy guitar, the effort might sound like this. A fine mélange of approaches, hoe-down pastoral rubbing against some Manhattan chatter and rhythm, uptown funk overlaid with strains of Ives, jazz lacing everything together. Similar projects handle the diversity well --think Dixie Dregs and Bella Fleck-- but Frissell's instincts are sensuous, not sinewy. The improvisations are nicely over lapped, and Don Byron is a breathing history of his instruments.

Getting There--John Abercrombie (ECM)

w/Abercrombie -- electric and acoustic guitars / Marc Johnson -- bass / Peter Erskine -- drums / Michael Brecker (special guest)-- tenor sax.

Sprawling , icy fusion, informed with Euro-detachment that has its moments of genuine passion and swelling originality. Abercrombie’s plays in terse note clusters, infrequently favoring the long lines over the diffuse rhythms, but he has a nice phased , electronically grafted tone whose colors add density where other wise there would be none. Good , probing jazz rock. Brecker's contributions could have been phoned in, though.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

This Was Your Life

Nothing makes the soul sink faster than witnessing the conversion of youthful idealism and passion into new ways of getting yet more money from our wallets. In the midst of a world that is insane with immoral wars, terrorism, and increasing occurrences of natural disasters, we seem ready to have our past sold back to us, and worse, retold to us, as if our own recall and reports from the front lines were inadequate for the purpose of History. Apparently, you can sell refrigerators to Eskimos.

No matter, I suppose, it's a discussion I'll join anytime, venturing forth opinions on The White Album being a greater double record set than Exile on Main street, whether Dick Cavett was actually any smarter than Johnny Carson, or if Norman Mailer ever got those bossy feminists about what's really important in this man's world. We are eager to surrender our disbelief and fight the battles over again, reciting song lyrics and mounting arguments about the inevitability of a Revolution that will change the meaning of everything. Everything has changed, yes, but not even remotely as we might have imagined. So the passing of every artifact and every minor player from the Fifties and Sixties becomes significant, if for no reason other than to remind us that we all inch nearer the end of our individual tethers. So we distract ourselves and glory over the memories of the formerly great and the inconsequential with the same indiscriminate vigor.

Presently we are in a moment of time when Bob Dylan is set to be deified; a benediction is underway. His memoir, Chronicles Volume One, sold well in hardcover and has just been released in trade paperback, Martin Scorsese has prepared an extensive documentary on his life and career that will be broadcast over PBS at the end of September. Perhaps a Supreme Court nomination should be offered to cement the idea in place that Dylan has become the most overexposed and overpraised man of verse since the glory days of Robert Frost. The mention of the evokes so many associations that have little or nothing to do with his art, songwriting that we are in danger of losing all honest perspective on his writing, and the elements that gave it the power to begin with.

Someone posted his lyrics to his middle period song "Shelter From the Storm" online as a way of commemorating the ghastly devastation of New Orleans, something I thought suspect because this happens to be particularly weak lyric; unfocused, unsterilized, cryptic without being evocative, the cliches and the desperate overwriting to avoid cliche make this a twisting bitch of tune to parse in any convincing way. I was about to write something to this effect when the same person posted a stronger lyric, the brilliant "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall". The strength of Dylan's best writing became clear again, momentarily liberated from image, innuendo and celebrity worship.

"Hard Rain" is one of Dylan's greatest lyrics, and certainly packs more poetic power than the much later "Shelter from The Storm". "Hard Line", inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis, was written in a pitch of national anxiety as to whether we were about to enter a Third World War, a fact that gave Dylan's lyrics a honed edge and a kind of Biblically inspired surrealism whose images suggest the sorts of undreamed things occurring just prior to a last day of reckoning. We might have averted the nuclear holocaust back in the day, but the song's genius is such that speaks over the decades and resonates louder and less ironically than it did in 1963; it is potentially even more political today than it was so many years ago.

"Shelter from the Storm" is much later Dylan, and it has never sounded more than someone trying to get up a full head of steam again, only to end up parodying their own best work. It might seem weird today, but I could never figure out what it was Dylan was talking about, or why any of the rustic fantasies and idylls that dominated much of his middle work were worth constructing. Suspend my disbelief as hard as I might, I could never buy into the image of Bob Dylan as a wayward traveler, rambling from town to town, taking odd jobs and having strange affairs with cryptically inclined women who end their affairs with morals that are enshrouded in magic-ball vaporings. It's not that the lyrics in "Shelter" were merely enigmatic--that would be a relief--but that there's an implausibility so conspicuous that I sometimes wondered about Dylan's mental health. It occurs to me that such worries demonstrate a inner stability on my part, and that is something I ought to thank Dylan for someday, but not before I max out yet another credit card acquiring as much thirty-year arcana as a man in his early fifties can stand to have.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Poems and Prayer

There are times in the middle of the afternoon after I've finished what I think is an inspired poem when I have the momentary sensation--fleet! is the world--that all those wonderful metaphors and inverted oppositions were given to me by God Himself. I've sober nearly twenty years, though, and I have a strong feeling that if I ever heard God speak, he'd tell me to go ahead and have a shot of hooch. Faith I have, but not to the degree that I think a higher power uses me as a mouthpiece for his left over tropes. The feeling passes, and I disabuse myself that poems and prayer are linked in degrees more bountiful than rare. I think the distinctions between the two things are clear and crucial, as both modes of address are for distinct purposes.

The key distinction between poems and prayers are that poems are almost invariably written from within experience, and as a form, is under no obligation to detail and highlight it's rhetoric toward any obligatory pitch or prejudice. The poet, distinct from the praying person, has the freedom to invoke God or invoke him not at all; the poet might even insist that the wonders he or she comes to write about are phenomena in and of itself, independent of anything divine.

Poetry allows for the religious, the agnostic, the atheist and the indifferent with regards to God. The single requirement is that the poem meet the needs of literature, however the poet lands on the issue of the divine; what constitutes literary value, of course, is subject to a discussion that is nearly as abstruse and premised on unprovable suppositions as theology, Literary criticism might be said to be it's own sort of religious dogma.

Prayers, in contrast, start outside human, terrestrial experience and beseech a higher power to intervene in human affairs. While poetry , in general, glories in all things human and is obsessed with the mystery of perception (finding that miraculous enough ), prayer assumes human experience is flawed, in error, and needs a strong hand to right itself to a greater purpose. Prayer in essence is an admission of powerlessness or one's situation and one's instincts to cope with the difficulties presented; the varieties of spiritual inspiration vary and are nuanced to particular personalities and finer or lesser nuanced readings of guiding sacred texts, but prayers share a default position that human existence sans God is incomplete and in need to surrender itself to the Will of a variously described God.

It is possible to write a poem that addresses god that is not an entreaty, finding His presence in the world as we already have it, not as we think it was.
"Question" by May Swenson does this.

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?

It's a fine poem, and Swenson is speaking from within experience, finding something wondrous in the world as it is. Her poem is about finding God in the details of this existence, and does not beseech a higher power for guidelines about how to live a more righteous life according to
scripture. Prayer assumes that human life, in essence, is merely an audition for a seat in Heaven. Swenson assumes we already have our seat and seeks God's inspiration in making the place where we live purposeful and fuller.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Hemingway and the heart of the matter

Now and then, in passing, not intended to start a war of any dimensions, someone remarks about how Ernest Hemingway is overrated, his books kept in print and his reputation buoyed by conspiracies of tired white academics that yearn, in secret, for another “good war” for America to again assert its virtue. I get irked, bothered, pissed off royal when someone baselessly derides Hemingway’s accomplishment as a storyteller and stylist (but none as a thinker), but I do see the point about the cult of Ernest who’ve come to regard him as a stalwart of honor and reserve forged by the sacrifices of having lived through a World War when the enemy and the Evil they presented to America wasn’t the least ambiguous or murky with runny metaphorical drift.
Now and again I recall essays and lectures about bad wars and bad faith and bad character for the citizenry as a result, and even sighing in exasperation as otherwise intelligent people suggested that America could use a good war, a “just” war in moments of low national mood so that we might collectively have something to rally around, some shared values to swear to protect, some duty to perform. This is a slippery slope to fascism, yes?

I say leave Hemingway out of the war drum circle and concentrate instead on how well his stories convey the experience of a generation of Americans suddenly thrust into and upon the world, pulled from Wisconsin farms, Bronx tenements or California movie lot, and marvel as well at the economy with which he did it. As the moral authority of governments gave way to chaos and slaughters that only burned the earth, ideas of what were of value were internalized, personalized, nearly becoming part of the nervous system. Hemingway is, in fact, grossly under-appreciated for his best work, specifically "In Our Time", "The Sun Also Rises", "To Have and Have Not". So much gets accomplished in such a stingy choice of words! His was a different world than the one we live in now, and his accounts of the world, is, at its highest, sublime. At his worst, he wrote sentimental gruel whose bathos so thick you could use it for mortar. A string of post-humous novels hasn't helped the reputation, and have served to obscure the real accomplishment. His writing is about trying to learn to be a man when even the teaching father is a madman sacrificing family for blind patriotism. It’s precisely because that he had issues with his masculinity that he tried to work out in his fiction, is a large part of what makes him great. The point of literary study is empathy as well as analytical comprehension. Hemingway may have fallen short of the self-actualization, but his fictive attempts, at best, resonate and move, and achieve transcendence even when he did not.

Perhaps it is a male thing, that these are matters that a reader might have to be intimate with in order to enlarge their appreciation of the work, but I think not. More, I think, it comes to personal taste, as in, if one does not care for the way Hemingway described his universe, fine. But I don't believe the ability to relate emotionally to a text need be restricted to gender, nor should it be limited to any other smoking gun criteria. The college professors who instructed me through his work were men and women, and the women, I have to say, win for inspired lectures, wedding appreciation with critique, understanding the poetry of the struggle, and why the struggle was futile.

Prospecting for insight through Kerouac’s' journals will be give scholars reason to devastate another section of prime forest, but his novels remain , inspite of it all, maddeningly inconsistent in their best forms, and progressively unreadable in later writing years. Kerouac had his moments of divine lyricism, I admit, but the cult around his grey, sotten visage is nearly as objectionable as the devotion many give to Ayn Rand: the matter is not how good the writing was, but what the author stood for. Once the chatter about writers drifts, or jumps desperately, from concerns with style in the service of great storytelling and lands in the odious camp that insists that a writers' primary task is only to reaffirm a readers' shaky self image of being a rugged and forward thinking individualist, I reach for a good book, or ponder taking a nap. Either option is more fruitful, or both are more interesting endeavors. It galls me that comparatively little attention was given to the passing of William Burroughs, the one true genius of the Beat group, while the easily assimilated rebellion of Ginsberg and Kerouac claims the top half of the literary pages.

Delillo’s work, it seems, will survive the withering dismissals of affected yokels, and "great American novels" continue to be produced yearly, quite despite our obsession to narrowing the field to only a handful of worthies who fulfill criteria no can state for sure. But DeLillo stands poised for world-greatness because he brings Americans into the larger world,where qualities of being American, imagined by our civics teachers as being divinely granted, has no bearings in a world that seems incoherent and supremely foreign. DeLillo's work, in "The Names", "Mao II", "Players", have Americans of a sort--professionals, artists, intellectuals, poets, usually white, privileged--losing themselves amid the shifting and renegotiated narratives, collective and personal, that are repeated, ala mantras, to give the world as sense of reason and purpose beyond the hurly-burly of the phenomenal world. This is a sphere where the sense of the world, our strategies and accounts to deal with it, are fed to media and then sold back to us with conditions attached. I imagine a work that is equal parts Henry James, for the aspect of Americans confronting the non-American world, and Orwell's "Animal Farm", where we have the pigs, in the dead of night, with ladder and paint brush, changing the wording on the social contract painted on the side of the barn.

As has been said, there is no "last analysis" to be had just yet, and for DeLillo's sake, I hope he writes a few more novels before we start issuing forth career-ending appraisals of his body of work. I am an obvious DeLillo partisan, but I don't think everything he's done is fully rendered, satisfying every idiosyncratic standard a "serious" reader might contrive, but the fact is that DeLillo is not a novel-a-year contestant with Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, or recently, Mailer, all of whom seem in a rush to consolidate reputations and make themselves nice and shiny for Nobel consideration. DeLillo has published a mere 11 novels since 1969, hardly an overload for almost thirty years as a professional writer. That he has themes that re-emerge from work to work is to be expected from a writer, and for DeLillo, his investigations into what we too- easily refer to as post-modernism (yes, I am guilty as charged) and it's accompanying paranoia have produced major fiction, which is about, in too-broad a summary of his work, the difficulty of living in a world that has been stripped of any resonance of meaning, any suggestion of Truth, capital "t". This is a kind man-made environment that stems from the make-it-new innovations of High Modernism, and entering the next century with a sense that we have not learned anything despite high-speed technologies that shoot raw and indigestible mounds of data from one place to another.

It's not a matter of us finding our "Moby Dick" for this century, because that places a false premise from which we expect writers to operate from. Yes, there is the anxiety of influence and the desperate writing younger scribes do to escape from under the long, inky shadow of the geniuses of the recent and less recent past, but I think each period is unique, and that great work is produced in some concentration of creative frenzy that dissolves the anxiety. Readers looking for another "Moby Dick" for this century are better served to consider their period unique and regard the tradition as a lineage that is not a straight, paved highway that vanishes into a classically defined set of particulars every would be master adheres to, but is rather a broken, dotted line that threads and weaves through a loose cluster of tendencies in the culture, filled with writers who redefine themselves and their art each time out. Melville himself had to break with his own habits, transcending his discipline as a clever crafter of sea stories, a venerable genre he arrived at, to write the masterpiece called "Moby Dick".

The best writers today do no different, living up to the nothing else other than the authenticity of their process. Faulkner and Joyce have comparable greatness, I feel, but I cannot escape the feeling that Joyce was the brainier of the two. Joyce’s' infinite layering of literature, history, theology and myth in to the molecular structures of Ulysses and Finnegan’s' Wake demonstrates someone with a sensibility that subtly wishes to have Art supplant the Church as the institution men may comprehend a Higher Truth( what ever it turns out to be). His own dialectic method, perhaps.

I agree with the remark of Faulkner being much blunter, though he is scarcely a brute: the sensationalism Faulkner could give into was also linked to a patch of swamp that released his language, and allowed him to master the interior monologue. This gave us novels like "Light In August" and "Absalom, Absalom" that had with diverse psychological density.

The human heart at war with itself.

Ann Coulter plays the cheap seats

It's official now, Ann Coulter has given up the illusion, believed or otherwise, that she is an important political intelligence and has now acknowledged her status as a Republican party clown. Calling Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards
a "faggot" at a recent conservative convention, her routine becomes transparent, and she now becomes the equivilent of a third rate stand up comic who never got their shot on the Tonight Show, trading in the same boiler plate tastelessness for a
marginalized crowd of like minded dimwits.Witness this nitwit's floundering quip here, courtesy of Salon.

Perhaps is the neocon version of bad poets and gratingly neurotic bohemians sitting around cafes flattering each other with quaint left wing jargon, horrendous poesifications of so-called verse and various versions of how "The System" is keeping everyone in the toilet. Coulter seems the first instance of a generation of right wing shills who, having no second act, will join the assorted other "edgy" alternatives in the vast dustbin. But not before she can squeeze a few more dollars from her pose and convince herself a few minutes longer that she's still relevant.

I suppose she's trying to pass herself off as being edgy against "political correctness", but that's a standard complaint that has lost an urgency in the godawful long time since right ring attack radio took up the call. Coulter is for hire for anyone who will pay her to do her tricks and recycle her bile. It's someone's idea of fun, I suppose, though one can't shake the feeling that there's anxiety thick enough to spread with a shovel inside that equine face of hers. Two things are clear in view of her use of the F word against Edwards:

1.The shriller she gets, the more her Adam's Apple bobs.
2.One remembers Truman Capote describing a best selling woman author from the Sixties as resembling "a truck driver in drag."

Friday, March 2, 2007

LED ZEPPELIN and others...

It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by Zeppelin reemerged on my radar and revealed a band that was more diverse, musically, than the popular invective allows. Where I lived at the time, Zeppelin fans were just as likely to be listening to the Band, Van Morrison and CS&N, along with other folk "sissy" artists as they were the macho sounds of hard rock. Now in my mid fifties, how I perceived the world at 18 - 21 is irrelevant to the fact that they've made some good, sometimes brilliant tunes. Hardly perfect: the lyrics are an embarrassment, but the band is about riff and sound.It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by Zeppelin reemerged on my radar and revealed a band that was more diverse, musically, than the popular invective allows. Where I lived at the time, Zeppelin fans were just as likely to be listening to the Band, Van Morrison and CS&N, along with other folk "sissy" artists as they were the macho sounds of hard rock.
Zeppelin was uncanny in their ability to keep it simple and yet seem sophisticated musically;it is something I think is crucial to their rock and roll success: riffs and sounds over laid on a varied set of styles and influences that work, sonically, more often than they don't. The lyrics, with the vocals, were just part of the overlay, a part of the texture, the assault on the nervous system that gives us pleasure and empowerment. Dispite the interest in musical ideas far afield of the blues, the band kept it visceral, punchy. They were like a friend of yours who was already ready for brawl.

Like the Beatles, or Steely Dan, Zeppelin was a studio band, where the studio was the proverbial third instrument. Live, they were one of the worst bands I've ever seen--though they sounded pretty damned good when I saw them in '67 (?) on their first US tour with Jethro Tull--but in the studio , their music was finessed and honed, typical in those days. For all his faults as a faulty technician in live circumstances, he is a producer who brought a fresh ear to the recording process, and came up with ideas that circumvented the routine dullness and rigor that's become the bane of less able hard rock and metal bands after his Zeppelin's break up.
Led Zeppilen 1V is their high water mark for track-by-track knockouts and variety of sounds, but Houses of the Holy is where the band really stretched beyond the comfort of the hard rock style they created. I think they do reggae fine, and "The Crunge" is quite funked up-- Plant's Brown vamping is inspired, and the lyrics are , in turn, somewhat surreal with out losing a greasy, fry-cooked crease in the seam. The Song Remains the Same is an unfortunate release , album and film, and confirmed my feeling that Page had devolved to the worst live rock guitarist extant. The BBC sessions, recently released on a two CD effort, shows Page and the boys in full throttle: the guitar work is rangy but crisp and cutting. Plant, likewise, is in full voice, a plus if you liked the way he sang.

The attraction, though, is the guitar work.The only real bad after shock of Sgt Pepper's and other "concept albums" from the period was the mistaken notion by other artists that there had to be one grandiose and grandiloquent theme running through out both sides of their albums in order for the their work to be current with the mood of the art rock of the period. The Beatles succeeded with "Sgt.Pepper", "Magical Mystery Tour", and, and "Abbey Road" ( easily their most consistent set of material, I think) because they never abandoned the idea that the album needs to be a collection of good songs that sound good in a set: over lapping themes, lyrically, are absent in the Beatles work, unless you consider the reprise of the Pepper theme song on a leitmotif of any real significance (it's use was cosmetic), although musical ideas did give the feel of conceptual unity track to track, album to album.

Lennon and McCartney and Harrison's greatest contribution to rock music was their dedication to having each one of their songs be the best they could do before slating it for album release. For other bands, the stabs at concept albums were routinely disastrous, witnessed by the Stones attempt to best their competitors with the regrettable "Satanic Majesties Requests". The Who with "Tommy" and "Who’s Next" and the Kinks , best of all, with"Muswell "Lola", Hillbillies" and "Village Green Preservation Society" , both were rare, if visible exceptions to the rule. "Revolver" and "Yesterday and Today" are amazing song collections, united by grand ideas or not. I buy albums with the hope that the music is good, the songs are good, not the ideas confirm or critique the Western Tradition.

What makes The Beatles' "Revolver" an album? Good, varied songwriting, inspired performances, and production that rises to the task at hand. Albums have always been song collections, regardless of what the current press hype might have been. What Brian Wilson introduced with the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" introduced were specific musical and production techniques that changed the sound of rock albums to come after his pioneering work, but the work on "Pet Sounds" and other releases are linked sets of songs, period. The genius is what he does within each song, and where those songs get placed on the album. And actually, that is not that much different than what artists and producers had been doing all along. The crucial distinction is that the artist finally had some say in what was released under their name. Authenticity is such an elusive quality that it's mostly useless when judging as subjective as whether someones music is legitimate. It's a nice way to chase your own tail, though, which is what many like to do. Better to consider whether the music is at least honest, or better yet, if it's done well: whether music , lyrics, voice, style work on their own terms, makes for a more interesting set of topics, and a more compelling record collection. Interesting art doesn't “make you work”, but it does render more rewards if one considers it at depth deeper than a Rate-A-Record session on American Bandstand. But for rock and roll, the interesting "art" ought to be imbued with significant amounts of fun that should , seriously, inspire nothing more in a listener than to dance, thrash, get wild and make a fool of themselves, with the hopes they don't get killed in such a
lowbrow rapture.

Two by Don DeLillo

*The Body Artist
by Don DeLillo
by Don DeLillo
DeLillo is perhaps the best literary novelist we have at this time, which the career-defining masterwork "Underworld" made clear to his largest readership yet: at the end of all those perfect sentences , sallow images and and long, winding, aching paragraphs is a voice whose intelligence engages the fractured nature of identity in a media-glutted age. A central concern in DeLillo's novels has been a perfect description of what his characters surround themselves with as they construct an integrated identity within an existence, creating a poetry as those items fall into disuse or are fetishized to the point where there is only faint nostalgia , not a direct address of a romantically conceived world. Melancholy pervades DeLillo's work, even his comic ones , as the material things that are made, sold and purchased fo the purposes of fixing individuals coherently in communities large and small are
reduced to competing streams of wishful thinking.
The Body Artist has him contracting the narrative concerns to a tight, elliptical 128 pages, where the Joycean impulse to have a private art furnish meaning to grievous experience is preferred over the dead promises of religion and philosophy. What exactly the woman character does with her performance body art, what the point is of her ritutalized , obsessed cleansing of her body, is a mystery of DeLilloian cast, but it's evident that we're witnessing to a private ritual whose codes won't reveal themselves, but are intended as a way for the woman to again have a psychic terrain she can inhabit following the sudden and devastating death of her film maker husband. The entrance of the stranger in the cottage turns her aesthetic self-absorption , slowly but inevitably, into a search into her past in order to give her experience meaning, resonance, a project she quite handily ignores until then. The sure unveiling of her psychic life is a haunting literary event.

DeLillo's language is crisp, evocative, precise to the mood and his ideas: you envy his flawless grasp of rhythm and diction as these traits simultaneously make the cottage on the cold , lonely coast seem sharp as snap shot, but blurred like old memory, roads and forests in a foggy shroud.A short, haunted masterwork.
Don DeLillo again shows that he's our best novelist of American absurdity with this strange off-kilter comedy that centers around the events of an eventful day in Manhattan.

makes the same obsessions with the erosion of certainty into a bizarre comedy of bad habits and quirks.Against a backdrop of raves, a Presidential motorcade, a rock star's funeral, mysterious street demonstrations and the constant, ghostly electronic feed of news of pending financial disaster, a young billionaire asset manager limousines uptown to get a haircut in order to embrace his sense of inevitable, personal apocalypse. DeLillo's writing is outstanding, funny with a cool lyricism, poetic when you least expect it.

The brillance here, as with "White Noise" and especially "Mao ll" is the way characters seek to reconfigure their metaphors, their assuring base of references , once their world view is rattled and made less authoritative by unexplainable events and human quirks. This is semiotics at its best, an erotic activity where DeLillo probes and glides over the surfaces of ideas , notions, theories and their artifacts, things intellectual and material emptied of meaning, purpose.

It's a hallmark of DeLillo's mastery of language that he gets that psychic activity that constantly tries to re-infuse the world with meaning and purpose after the constructions are laid bare; Eric, here in this world of commodity trading, which he regards as natural force that he's mastered and control, attempts to reintroduce mystery into the world he is trapped in. He is bored beyond the grave with the results of his luck.

His efforts to live dangerously , spontaneously and thus get a perception he hadn't had and perhaps secure a hint of a metaphysical infrastructure that eludes, all turn badly, but for DeLillo's art it's not what is found , discovered, or resolved through the extensions of language, but rather the journey itself, the constant connecting of things with other things in the world; this is the poetry of the human need to make sense of things in the great , invisible state beyond the senses, a negotiation with death.

His majestic tilling of the semiotic field yields the sort of endless irony that makes for the kind of truly subversive comedy, a sort of satire that contains the straining cadences of prophecy. The city, the place where the the hydra-headed strands of commerce, history, technology and government merge in startling combinations of applied power, becomes an amorphous cluster of symbols whose life and vitality come to seem as fragile and short-lived as living matter itself.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

"Fight Club" By Chuck Palaniuk

A contemporary masterpiece. An underground fight club goes from a way for frustrated men to vent their rage over the variety of emasculations they think they've suffered and becomes a stealthy, destructive movement sworn to topple a false and dehumanized consumer culture. In the thick of the anarchism is the mysterious Tyler Durden, who's
charismatic brand of evangelical destruction alternately attracts and repels. Clearly , he is someone you cannot take your eyes off of as he exhorts his troops to
pull the rug from under the engines of Industry. Chuck Palaniuk's satire is vicious, masterful, a vision of a bloated culture set on the cutting board , inspecting with a dissecting eye.

This is the perfect novel of terrorism, and Palaniuk extends the violence aesthetic of Mailer's "White Negro" and the various therapies encouraging the psychically wounded to vent until they heal or when the things that are killing them disappears. In both instances, the aim is to free the body from the sterile consumerism its shackled to and to feel alive, and advocates of this sort of expulsion would be quick to add that the violence assumed in their rants and manifestos is metaphorical only; poetry to make a point. Paulaniuk , though, is having none of this grandstanding equivocation on the point; a male either feels that he's had his manhood commoditized and removed from his being, or he does not, and he's willing to take direct action against the symbols and systems of oppression, or there are complacent with a status quo and, hence, part of the problem.

The genius of the novel is the author's decision to take the talk of mortal liberation at face value and to follow the logic. Aggrieved males attacking each other , fighting as hard as they can, blows to the body, the head, the groin meant to help them feel something real and independent of programmed responses and advertised results, and in achieving a bond and formed a community, there becomes the united purpose of bringing down the towers of business, the arrogance of faceless, soulless capitalism. Palaniuk's novel is fiction and it is satire, but it is also potent social criticism and disturbingly presents a mindset of a collective for whom acts of grandscale violence, of terrorism are the only sane action possible because they are the only things one can do that means anything. Fight Club is a rousing, disturbing read.