Wednesday, September 12, 2007


It seems the memorials were substantially muted this year than they've been in the recent past.And where before one anticipated and dreaded the anniversary of the attack, more than a few people I ran into yesterday didn't realize the significance until it came up in passing conversation or from a glimpse of a newscast or a newsstand headline.

I suspect my anecdotal evidence is a clue to millions nationwide who started their day as if it were merely one like the day before, twenty four hours to be productive, decent, responsible, or to be miserable sons of bitches; it wouldn't have occurred to any of us to stop what it was we were doing as family members and economic citizens and just watch the streaming cablecasts of parroted opinions , or to hold a candle for hours or drive with the headlights on in a vain and empty gesture of solidarity with fellow Americans and the souls of those who were killed.

There is something perverse about expecting a stereotypically united America ritualistically reliving the shock, horror, rage and grief of 2001, a collective habit the Bush minions tried to sustain with their clubfooted attempts to keep the population in perpetual fear. There is a 9/11 burn out happening, and more of us are about getting on with the work that remains to be done; we're tired of being sand bagged, brow beaten, lectured, pilloried, and threatened on many psychic levels that Something Horrible Is About to Happen while at the same instance being entreated by the same powers to go about our business as if nothing is wrong.

It's a small wonder that the handful I met yesterday shared similiar reactions when informed of what day it was. A pause, a bowed head, downcast eyes, a hint of exasperation in the deeper reaches of the eyes. A resentment, perhaps , unshared but felt in common.

"I have a new baby and I'm starting a new job" was what one of my associates responded, "I've other things I was thinking about having to do than mark this date for crying all over again..."

We move on because we have to, and the mood now seems to be not mourn the dead but to figure out how to live life meaningful after the worse-thing-that-could-happen takes place.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Notes on a Jack Kerouac

Image result for jack kerouac
photo by John Cohen
The idea that Jack Kerouac is a great American writer and that On the Road is a great American novel has been an ongoing hard-sell by his publishers and those who own the copyrights on his books ever since I can remember. It seemed that way since I first encountered his name in high school. One read the books one was supposed to in one's teens—Slaughterhouse 5, Steppenwolf, Naked Lunch—and however much one might have changed their estimation of their youthful heroes, one was also expected to hold their first opinion of Kerouac and his particular book for all the time. One only grew to love it more over the decades, so the gestalt went, and it was unthinkable that a literate person from the boomer generation would have less than glorious things to say about Kerouac and the revolution he inspired. But all this is too much, and enough already. I never liked the novel; I never cared for Kerouac. However, I lied that I liked him due to peer pressure and the prospects of scoring with hip young girls I wanted to bed. It was a lie extracting a cost. Now I say that one might write an article of those who didn't care for Kerouac, thought him a mediocre scribe, a balled-up novelist, an indulgent you crossed the street if you saw him coming toward you.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac was a book I detested when I read in high school, and it remains the most overrated book by an American writer I've encountered. There are moments of real poetry here, yes, but the waxing and waning in dated and contrived hip argot were embarrassing to read through. It was during a bloody argument about merits of Jack Kerouac's writing when the woman I was arguing with, a twenty-five year old who planned to be a penniless, wine drinking mooch like her hero Jack told me, "You know Ted, your very extreme opinion of him stinks of jealousy." The look on his face would be a smirk, maybe a half-grin, the eyes swimming as if in a jar of viscous fluid, with just a glint of hope radiating from his jellied irises that he might borrow some money from you. Resentment is the better term, the sort of anger arising when you realize that you've uncountable hours under siege by the Kerouac cult as the thick weave of truisms and sagging homages to the spirit of rebellion poured forth. This is all time you can never reclaim. I have no reason to be jealous of a man who drank himself to death before the age of fifty while living with his mother, and it is impossible to be jealous of a man who wrote so poorly. The truth is that after spending nearly twenty years trying to accommodate Kerouac's work by reading many of his books and a good many biographies and secondary sources about him and his fellow beats, I admitted to my innermost self that my gut instinct was right, Jack wasn't a good writer and that his continued popularity has more to do with a cultist hype that surrounds the work and persona of Ayn Rand; there's an invested interest in making sure that the author is always spoken of in the most regaling terms.

Others like me, cursed with literature degrees, broad readings, and an appreciation of craft in the service of genuine inspiration, regale him far less, finding his writings charmless, undercooked, ill-prepared, all sizzle and no steak. Those willing to say that Kerouac's oeuvre was wholesale bullshit are in the minority, as the Jack Kerouac Industry shows no sign of slowing down. Every smokestack is fired up, and what might have been clear skies are blackened all the more with his loopy circumlocutions. So much of what has passed as analysis and informed commentary on Kerouac's work has been in the form of undigested memoir and idealized recollection when the author would recall their first encounter with On the Road or The Subterraneans and how the experience changed their lives, changed the way they thought about the incident, changed the very culture of American Life. Personal anecdotes and testimonials, at best, multiplied by decades, nearly all exhibiting soft thinking regarding Kerouac's skills as a writer. Such easy estimations of who I think are better, more extraordinary writers (Mailer, Pynchon, DeLillo, and Gaddis) would be unacceptable to the demanding reader, Kerouac's critical reputation gets a pass. My compressed gripe, grumpy autobiography, and condensed criticism are personal, sure, but no more than the love notes Kerouac receives from his fans. My squib is of no less value in this context, and it still makes a point.

Image result for jack kerouac
photo by John Cohen
And it's not all Jack, of course; otherwise, I wouldn't have included that brief bit of pretending to like his writing for reasons extraneous to literary appreciation. I was petty, vain, insecure, the whole teenage/college freshman shot, but as fucked up as I was in my unintellectual use of Kerouac's name, it typifies what I think consumers of the counterculture name brands were actually doing, using the Beats, Buddhism, drugs and varying degrees of political cant to satisfy baser desires. In Kerouac, what people saw wasn't literature or art but an invitation to indulge in The Fuck Up Within.

Kerouac was still chasing after the rapid stream style of both Joyce and Thomas Wolfe; there is the quality of someone beset with twitches and jitters which is talking in a charging rush of language, attempting to get everything, everyone and every idea in the confines of a few single, very long sentences, but who hasn't the capacity to leave himself a frame of reference and imagine the qualities and textures of things other than himself. Joyce gives us Dublin in a single day, Virginia Woolf conveyed a mind negotiating the harder edges of a real-world, and Thomas Wolfe, I think, offered a more successful record of his narrator's experience as his novels moved slowly through their rhapsodic, if glacial paces. The reader witnessed growth, ambiguity, increasing complexity of spirit, and worldview variously, and these qualities make the novels move. And dumbfounding, in the best sense. Kerouac, for me, rarely sounded as if he ever got up out of his chair, for all his rapid chatter about trains, highways, hitchhiking. The failure of his work is that he sounds like a man who's trying to convince himself that he's having a good time. All the same, the assumption is that all these varied, subjective responses to On the Road need to be positive ones and that a personal reaction, loudly and assertively put forward, is not allowed.

The sheer popularity of the book does not confer innate brilliance upon it; this is herd-think, and it's an ironic situation at odds with a book extolling non-conformism. The attempt is to inoculate the book against criticism, whether as abrasively subjective like mine or subtler and more considered another reader might offer up. This turns Kerouac and the mindset of his core adherents into something resembling zealots. There's been a cottage industry of Kerouac biographies and commentary over the last twenty years—the bookstore I worked in before my current job had a most minor thirty recent, in secondary print sources on the man, nearly all of it subscribing to Kerouac's greatness. The recent coverage of Kerouac and the anniversary of On the Road has more or less with what's taken to be a given as to the book's high merit. It's my experience, over many years, that saying you don't like On the Road causes makes many folks give you the stink eye. Some acts threatened and treated me like I was mentally ill. And it gets somewhat predictable, speaking of which, for Kerouacians to try to get me to change my mind with the usual dogma of liberation, freedom, non-conformism, bizarrely.
This makes me suspect all the more that those enamored of On the Road from an early age did so because they wanted to be non-conformist just like everybody else. This is hero-worship, a cult of personality stuff, and an undiluted form of celebrity obsession. It is less Kerouac's talent the readership is responding than the image he represents, carefully manufactured and maintained by publishers and the owners of his estate. A defender of the novel wrote me that "Life doesn't have any structure. It doesn't have any narrative arc. And Kerouac blows away all that rigid contrivance with one brilliant explosion of language. "I scratched an itch, considered the statement, and got long-winded all over again. Life, actually, does have structure, in the communities we create and the institutions we formulate to hold them together, and in the culture that is shared that provides a diverse citizenry with a sense that there is a purpose to where and the way we live, and that there are the means to improve, correct, or change the conditions of our lives. This is the structure. While Life has no narrative arc, by itself, literature certainly does. In the art of that narrative, the contingencies of life, all those things that one cannot predict (let alone prevent from happening) are contained in the fictive form and can be appreciated as drama, comedy, moral instruction, what have you. Literature is a means to make sense of Life, to provide resolutions to brief joys and significant traumas, and it is a way to prepare a reader for whatever strange turn one's Life might come to. It's funny that some of us get antsy when Kerouac's legacy is challenged.

One can't diminish the quality of the camaraderie, though. Their friendships were and continue to be solid and robust. I've had the good fortune to meet some of the Beats --Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti--and what became evident as they indulged my pesky questions was that these writers spoke to one another, and what they talked about was literally everything that came to mind. Each poet's works inform the work of the others, and all of them were quick to acknowledge the influences their friends had on the respective bodies of work. My particular gripe to the side--that too much of the first-thought-best-thought stuff found its way between book covers--this is a fellowship to be admired. On the Road is a book one ought to read, I think, to know something of a part of a generation responding to the post- WWll experience, and with any luck, one does not stop there, thinking they've read the definitive book of the time. Other Beat writings are more crucial, especially Howl by Allen Ginsberg, one of the great American poems of the 20th century; inline, rhythm, imagery, and the contrasting and clashing elements of rage, despair, and eureka! Quality laughs, Ginsberg's poem supersedes the best of Kerouac's prose and is a compelling evocation of the deadened conformity of 50s culture that agitated and motivated him and his fellow writers.

 i do acknowledge that Kerouac did have a native genius for language that I think was, tragically, obscured by the writer's urge to embrace experience in a hurry. In a hurry he was, influenced by both the elusive notion of zen to be in the moment (or better, be the moment) and the zipping virtuosity of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell's jazz improvisations. Up tempo, crazy fast, instant configurations of genius adding up to a pulsing , nerve rattling kind of genius, these elements inspired Kerouac, but even at these speeds his heros, buth musicians, writers and even zen masters, were required to take their time and learn the dictates of their disciplines; Parker's or Coltrane's or James' fluidity and near perfection of instant creation are the result of endless hours of practice and learning to go beyond one's habit of relying on easy conclusions, tired tropes or fussy,pretentious, hyperventilated phrase making and considering the sound, the effect, the expressiveness of the words their putting together. One learns, hopefully,to be elegant, poetic and original with alacrity. Jack Kerouac could indeed be moving and genuinely beautiful in what he wrote, but these moments are exceptions--there is such a need in virtually all his work to make experience more vivid, more real with overwriting that his adventures through life seemed more strained that naturally forthcoming.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The jazz rotating in my CD player right now is---

The Stranger's Hand --  Jerry Goodman (violin), Howard Levy (harmonica, piano) , Steve Smith (drums, percussion), Oteil Burbridge (bass)

Very credible jazz fusion here, with ex-Mahavishnu violinist Goodman slicing and swirling through his improvisations with a natural swing and brick-tossing sense of rock that continues to advance the instrument in non-classical areas. But the real show here is Levy, whose harmonica playing is revolutionary--the ability to produce a chromatic scale from a diatonic instrument is hard enough, and the ease with which Levy performs makes the sounds--folksy and blues tinged by turns, with sudden flights of real register jumping complexity--makes his solos terrific. Those not enamored of the jazz rock of old won't be convinced that this disk advances anything, but this is easily the strongest fusion effort since the Dixie Dregs at their peak. Smith on drums and Burbridge on bass are wondrous as well.

Ju Ju -- Wayne Shorter (Blue Note)

Wayne Shorter -- tenor sax / McCoy Tyner -- piano / Reggie Workman -- bass / Elvin Jones -- drums

A 1964 session, sweetness and light meets fire and deep seated anxiety in seeming alternating breaths. Shorter is thoughtful, probing the moods of his ingeniously laid-out material with finesse that hints at more expressionistic playing to come--his tone always struck me as inner-directed--while the band delivers everything their names promise. Elvin Jones continues to convince that he is the greatest drummer in jazz history.

--The Uptown String Quartet (Blue Moon)

Saw these four women on CBS Sunday Morning a year or so ago, and their bringing their classical training to bear on jazz was a quirky notion that works genuinely well. Name it and the style is here, Kansas City blues to some very "out" moments, and some blues to spare, with the ensemble not seeming to try to preserve the dusty air of the chamber, nor falsely infuse their work with a creaking notion of swing. It swings nicely at that, and a bonus is a left field arrangement of "I Feel Good". It's glorious to hear James Brown in long hair circumstances.

Carry the Day --Henry Threadgill (Columbia)

Produced by Bill Laswell, with all compositions by Threadgill, this is one of those albums that make you glad there is such a word as "eclectic" in the dictionary. His multi-reed playing is sure through out the sessions, and here organizes his players in a way that make this creepily seamless, that is to say unnervingly groovy. Brandon Ross supplies some truly edgy jazz-rock guitar work--damn, this style is still exciting in the hands of the right fret man--and this features some of the freshest horn charts I've heard in years. Varied, serious, fun, exciting, arty, and yes, very well done.

The Heart of Things --John McLaughlin (Verve)

McLaughlin--guitars / Gary Thomas -- reeds, flute / Jim Beard -- keyboards, synths / Matthew Garrison --bass / Dennis Chambers --drums

Good players wasted on thin grooves--McLaughlin , like the late Tony Williams, writes riffy little tunes , with occasional "fancy" changes, that barely support the technical expertise of the musicians, who tend to over play their hands to shore things up. Despite an odd good moment here where things click, everyone sounds muscle-bound : thick, dense, slow witted. It needn't have been the case.

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 it's frequent moments of genuine passion and swelling originality. Aberbrombie's plays in terse note clusters, infrequently favoring the long lins over the diffuse rhythms, but he has a nice phased , electronically grafted tone whose colors add densisty where other wise there would be none. Good , probing jazz rock. Brecker's contributions could have been phoned in, though.


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.

Nothin' But the Swing--Black Note

Mark Shelby--bass/Willie Jones 111--drums/James Mahone--alto sax/Ark Sano--piano/Gilbert Castellanos, Nicholas Payton--trumpet/Teodross Avery--tenor and soprano sax

Cool jazz, in the style of the classic Miles quartets, though lacking a Coltrane or a Shorter to sear the ground with. No matter, though, as the ensemble sound is glowing and warm, with a spring to the swing, and some thoughtful solo work. Mahone has a warm alto sound, and rounded feel to this lines, and Gilbert Castellanos provides a sufficiently icy rim to this phrases: a sullen trumpeter, this man.

Thursday, September 6, 2007



An old peeve, this: Bob Dylan is not a poet. He is a songwriter. What he does is significantly different than what a poet does. In any relevant sense, the best of what poetry offers is read off the page, sans melody from accompanying guitar or piano and a convincingly evocative voice. The poet's musical sense, rhythmic properties, and other euphonious qualities are derived from the words and clever, ingenious combinations alone. A reader may appreciate the words, the rhymes, the cadences, the melodious resonance, and dissonance, as the case may be, but all this comes from the language of the poem alone, on the page, without music. When addressing such rich and soul-stirring sounds of nouns and adjectives conjoined, the musicality we speak of has everything to with the poet extending the limits of everyday speech. You can read Shakespeare to full literary potential, I think, because his verse, in the guise of dialogue, still satisfies as writing, with metaphors, rhythms, cadences swirling and ringing to a heightened sense of what the complexity of human emotion can sound like if there were words, allusions, similes, and metaphors that could give life and texture for what are, in his plays, inchoate feelings brewing at some base level of the personality before the mind can provide them with an articulate if flawed rationale.

photograph by Jim Marshall
It was the task of Shakespeare, the poet, and the playwright combined, to give vocal music to what were speeches that made private thoughts, half-plotted schemes, inarticulate resentments, paranoia, the whole conflicting brew of insecurity, self-doubt, and malevolence into something that was the equivalent of music, a sweet and stirring sound that bypasses the censoring and sense-making intellect and which makes even the foulest of schemes seem just and only natural. The writing, that is to say approximates music from the page and provides for a more complicated task when considering our responses to a provocative set of stanzas. Dylan is a songwriter, a distinct art form, and his words are lyrics, which cannot be experienced to their fullest without the music that accompanies them. One may hum the melodies while pouring over the lyrics and mentally reconstruct listening to an album's songs, but this proves the point. Of themselves, Dylan's lyrics pale poorly compared to page poets. With his music, the lyrics come alive and artful, at their best. They are lyrics, inseparable from their melodies, and not poems, which have another kind of life altogether.

The lyrics are flat and unremarkable save for their strangeness, which is not especially interesting in verbal terms. With music, voila! Transformation. This is a condition that makes what Dylan does songwriting, not the writing of poetry. These are distinct art forms with features and rules of composition that are crucial and non-negotiable. Cohen is an interesting case since he inhabits several writing mediums, IE, novels, poetry, plays music. He's not incredibly prolific in any of these areas--over the forty-plus years that he's been on my radar, his output has been meager, albeit high quality--but it occurs to me that he's more of an actual writer than Dylan is. They are different sorts of geniuses. Cohen, of course, is a novelist overall—"Beautiful Losers," "The Favorite Game"--and a poet, someone wholly committed to making the words from their own music, rhythm and power so that the sort of splendid, soul-racked suffering he specializes in, that deliciously wrought agony that's midway between spiritual experience and sexual release, is fully conveyed to the reader and made as felt as possible.

Cohen tends the words he uses more than Dylan does; his language is strange and abstruse at times, but beyond the oddity of the existences he sets upon his canvas, there exist an element that is persuasive, alluring, masterfully wrought with writing, from the page alone, that blends all the attendant aspects of Cohen's stressed worldliness-- sexuality, religious ecstasy, the burden of his whiteness-- into a whole, subtly argued, minutely detailed, expertly layered with just so many fine, exacting touches of language. His songs, which I find the finest of the late 20th century in English--only Dylan, Costello, Mitchell, and Paul Simon have comparable bodies of work--we find more attention given to the effect of every word and phrase applied to his themes, his storylines. In many ways, I would say Cohen is a better lyricist than Dylan because he's a better writer overall. Unlike Dylan, who has been indiscriminate for the last thirty years about the quality of work he's released, there is scarcely anything in Cohen's songbook you would characterize as a cast-off. 

Cohen takes more care in words he selects to tell his tales. He creates his moods as he provides a sense of location, tone, and philosophical underpinning while subtly suggesting the opposite of whatever mood he might be getting at. Cohen is simply more careful than Dylan. In word selection, more discriminating; the architecture of literary influence is on display in the disciplined rhymes of Cohen's parable-themed lyrics, elegantly so. It is, to be sure, a matter of choice how a writer manages their word flow. Cohen's writing has a sense of someone who labors hard to make the image work, to have that image compliment and make enticingly evocative a scenario that starts off simple and then arrives at a moment of fatalistic surrender to powers greater than oneself, both sensual and spiritual. I feel for Dylan's method because he is an admirer of what Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac regarded as Spontaneous Bop Prosody, a zen-like approach to an expression where it was believed that the first thought was the best thought one could have on a subject.

Good poets, great poets, are writers when it gets down to what it is they do, and it's my feeling that Cohen's experience as a novelist, short story writer, and playwright has given him a well-honed instinct for keeping the verbiage to a minimum.  Cohen isn't a chintzy minimalist like Raymond Carver. And fewer words in a piece are not, by default, superior to more extended word counts. Cohen just has a better sense of when it's time to stop and develop a  lyric further.

Dylan's genius is closer to the kind of brilliance we see in Miles Davis, where the influences of unlike styles of music and other elements-- traditional folk, rock, and roll, protest songs, blues, country, French Symbolism, Beat poets--were mixed in ways that created a new kind of music, and required a new critical language to discuss what it was he had done with the influences he'd assimilated, and the range of his power. It is possible to look at aspects of Dylan's art. Fine individual strands wanting--his lyrics may be unfocused or strange for their own sake, his melodies are either borrowed or lack sophistication, his singing is nasal and grating--but taken together, music, words, voice, instrumentation fused, one experiences catharsis, power and galvanizing mysticism in the best recorded moments. "Ballad of a Thin Man" is a flat, curious scribble of a lyric read by itself. Still, with the minor critical intonations of Al Kooper's keyboard and Mike Bloomfield's interned guitar, coupled with Dylan's leering, a snarling dramatization of the lyric, we have an art that is riveting n terms that are purely musical; yes, one might go on at length and create a cosmology of what Dylan's lyrical creations make of the experience, but the emphasis needs to remain on the whole.

"It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) "is a terrific, innovative song lyric, and as a lyric does not have the same power as a well-written poem has on the page when that lyric hasn't the music to give it momentum. The power of the lyric has a sustained "oh wow" element, one line after another summarizing the sad state of the Perfect Union, the Idealized world in harsh, ironic terms, each image and beat of the intoned images, critical, lively, surreal in a seamless mash-up of different concepts, are lifted, foisted, tossed to the listener by the steady and firm strums of the simple guitar Dylan maintains. Lyrics have their advantages and can be pretty artful and subtle, but I maintain that they're a different art form; the words are subservient to the song form, where poems of every sort are autonomous, structures made entirely of language. (Unless, of course, you're a Dada poet who just arrived here with a time machine).

"Desolation Row" and "Visions of Johanna," two songs from what I think is the center of Dylan's most significant period as a song-poet, if you will, likewise are not to make their fantastic excursions through Daliesque landscapes alone on the page, as flat print. Dylan's chords, his voice, and his forward-march rhythms are what make these extended lyrics crisp and suggestive of metaphysical chaos under a thin the thin guise of civility and reason. Drums, organs, twangy and tuneless guitars, police sirens, his braying voice bring a dimension to the lyrics that aren't there without it. Dylan's songs especially--more so than Cole Porter, more so than Chuck Berry, more so than a host of his contemporaries--are not self-sufficient as page-poets are with their work. It can be argued that what Dylan has done is more complex, subtler, and requiring a new vocabulary to discuss than what poets have done, and something I would subscribe to on principle. Dylan remains a songwriter first and foremost and a poet only through loose analogy. In all, Dylan's lyrics serve the musical experience, the concept of a song, which makes Dylan a songwriter of genius, but not a poet. When they are writing poetry and not novels or songs of their own, poets are committed to making language, and language alone, the means through which their ethereal notions will be preserved. Successor failure depends on how well they can write, not strum a guitar or croon a tune.


 I do admire the work of artists who remain attractive as they get older, but it is a fact that many writers, poets, songwriters do their best, most compelling work in their early years. Dylan is one of these--the most incredible songs, in my view, were those that combined equal elements of Surrealism, Burroughs-inspired language cut-ups, blues and rural south music vernaculars, and heavy doses of French Symbolism by way of Rimbaud and Mallarme. This gave his stanzas a heightened, alienated feeling of sensory overload, making him the principal Lyricist of the bare existential absurdity that life happens to be. No one got to the infuriating heart of the sensation that life had ceased to mean anything after those matters that "mean" the most to us--marriages, friendships, tastes, financial security, spiritual or religious certainty--were changed, destroyed, or simply vanished. Dylan's writing was of the individual suddenly in the choking throes of uncertainty, batting back encroaching gloom with the kind of swinging, poetic wit that reassembles existence. It is a stance, a state, an aesthetic state of being that made it possible for him to fire on all cylinders for a good run of time. Generally, the poetic quality and intensity that Dylan produced in the longs on the list I made are a substantial body of work that perfectly matches the most vigorous work by Eliot, Pound, WC Williams, Burroughs Ginsberg. It is also not the kind of work you can keep doing for a lifetime; like Miles Davis, he had to. His mature work has often hit the mark and offers the long view of experience in an, especially moving way. Just as often, I think he misses the mark and overwrites or is prone to hackneyed phrasing. 

There is much quality to the later songs, but they are not among Dylan's most excellent as a body of lyrics. 
Dylan is called more often than not a poet because of the unique genius of his best songs; I don't think he's a poet, but a songwriter with an original talent strong enough to change that particular art forever. I do understand, though, why a host of critics through the decades would consider him a poet in the first place. My list is the songs I think that justifies any sort of reputation Dylan has a poetic genius. I like most of the songs mentioned above for various reasons other than the ones on my initial 35 choices. The Songs there manage an affinity for evoking the ambiguities and sharp perceptions of an acutely aware personality who is using poetic devices to achieve more abstract and suggestive effects and still tend to be wonderfully tuneful. No one else in rock and roll, really, was doing that before Dylan was. On those terms, nothing he's written is entirely at the level of where he was with the songs on my list; this list consists of the body of work that substantiates Dylan's claim to genius. "Just Like a Woman" is one of the most refined character sketches I've ever heard in a song. What's remarkable is the brevity of the whole, how much history is suggested, inferred, insinuated in spare yet arresting imagery. I rather like that Dylan allows the mystery of this character to linger, to not let the fog settle. The ambiguity gives its suggestive power, and there is the whole element of whether the person addressed is a woman at all, but rather a drag queen. It's an open question. It's a brilliant lyric.

"Drifter's Escape "was on twice and is now a single entry. There is a concentration of detail in the lyric, a compression of Biblical cadence and sequence that makes the song telling and vivid not in its piling on of stanzas but in its brevity. He does the same for "All along the Watchtower," which I regard as a condensed "Desolation Row," a commentary, perhaps, from the tour bus just passing through; the tour guide finally tells the driver, "there must be some kinda way outta here." I regard the true "poetry" of Dylan's music in the earlier music, where he is spectacularly original in how he forced his influences to take new shapes and create new perspectives. Post JWH, I just find too much of his lyric writing prolix, and meandering, time-filling rather than revealing; the surreal, fresh, colloquial snap of his language has gone and is replaced with turns of phrase that are trite, hackneyed, ineffective;' they strike my ear as false. Even "Blind Willie McTell," a song that has been persuasively defended by intelligent fans of Dylan's later work, strikes too many false notes for my tastes. Musically, it drags and philosophically seems a victim of convenient thinking,  a PC version of Song of the South; some of the imagery is simply cloying and seems more suitable for Gone with the Wind than a poet of arguable worth.
...See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell...
Really, that is awful, a dreadful presentation of atmospheric detail meant to create historical context and mood, but it trades on so many received ideas of slavery, racism, the south, et al., that the intent no longer matters. It strikes as more minstrel show than tribute. Had anyone submitted this to serious poetry (or lyric) writing workshop, it would have been handed back to us for revision, with the advice that we rid the narrative of the creaky, questionable window dressing? "When I Paint My Masterpiece" works wonderfully because of its lack of any messages about social justice. It works because it is a short, terse, vivid travelogue, vague and evocative in equal measure. The ambiguity and absence of relevance to anything other than Dylan's need to speak offhandedly about an exciting time in the life of a particular character is what makes this song memorable.
Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece
She promised that she’d be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece

Well, I had a feeling that the general good sense this album conveys is that Dylan wasn't trying too hard to prove he's a genius. The record is straightforward, and the language is remarkably free of affectation, a tendency that has plagued him post-JWH. I especially like "Sign in the Window"; it has the sincerity and actual and momentary acceptance of where one happens to be in a specific part of life and offers a new set of expectations. The perfectly natural language here, excellent and unexpected rhymes, telling use of local detail that give us color and history without sagging qualifiers to make it more "authentic." The lyrics are a recollection of a trip, places visited, perspectives changing, a nice string of incidents in a language that sounds like a natural voice telling real things, with genuine bemusement.  

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Congratulations Paul Guest

Paul Guest has just had his second collection published, Notes For My Body Double, and it is recommended.Guest is a pleasant fellow who's writing combines his wits and intellect in cogent twinings where one element doesn't swallow up the other. There is no wallowing in emotions that allow no relief, nor are their long strands of arrid erudition choking off a poem's circulation. He has, above all, an ear for the spoken language, and elevates it just so that it achieves a nearly imperceptible heightening; it's a stylized patois that manages to be writerly without sounding like it's written down and sterile. Paul is anything but sterile in his work, and often seems surprised by his own responses to events, people , places and things. This bodes well for a writer;s future, I wager, since it's a relief to come across a young poet who doesn't sound like he's at the end of his capacity to empathize with the large and small circumstances of existence.

Congratulations on your second volume, Paul.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Writing and sleeping at the same time

Who hasn't had the experience of dashing urgently into a dark room to do something very important only to forget what that something was once we flip the light switch? It's humbling to have the furniture seem to glare at you as if angry for disturbing their sleep. Likewise, I'd wager more than some of us have dialed phone numbers only to forget who it is we're calling, or, if we do remember the name, the very reason for the contact.

There are two choices in that scenario, hang up and feel stupid for letting your target and topic slip your mind, or stay on the line and, if they answer, bluff your way through the chat, hoping to trigger a recollection with a key word or phrase. Option two doesn't often work , and the attending result is an awkwardness one feels they'll never recover from.

Joanie Mackowski's attempt to describe, declaim and dissect Jean De Flane's 1500 painting of the messenger angel's appearence before Mary to reveal that she is to be the mother of the Son of God makes me think that she forgot her inspiring idea once she entered that particular room of her imagination. The poem, "Bad Annunciation" had a series of flashy notions she wanted to fit into a tightly compressed, succinct poem but forgot what her aim was. The problem for her may well be that she had a bad start on her composition and her determination to make the poem work structurally used up the inspiration it would have required to tie this jointly convoluted and clipped scenario with the unexpected turn that would have dissolved the problematized perspectives and placed this attempt in the reader's mind in a broader perspective. So much telescoping and collapsing of vantage points go on in this poem, that one never knows where they are standing in relation to angels appearing before Mary to announce the coming of the infant Jesus, an element that could be made to work well if Mackowski had better control of the ambiguity in her lines. Her error is conspicuously trying to regain control of the poem,(or enliven it from the deadened sentences she's written) with the clumsy insertion of a mirror trope, with a whole array of referenced representation made to quite suddenly do a the tired little waltz of who-is-watching-who:

She doesn't look

at the book, open in her lap. Not the usual book: it's a picture-
book, a museum catalog maybe, Four

Centuries of Annunciations—anyway, it's open
to a dime-sized, dim, and inverted replica of this same

painting here. How clever: a mirror in her lap,
like the pinprick infinite hope just plopped

in her womb.

This is an idea that works well for poets who've that rare skill to take an idea and explore , examine and postulate upon the conundrum and confusions arising when mind/body dualisms are engaged; John Ashberry's Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror comes to mind, as does Wallace Stevens Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird or Palm Tree at the End of the Mind. The difference with these works and Mackowski's trash -compacted stanzas is that Ashbery and Stevens both harbor desires to merge with the sedate and strange representations of the material world, and imagine new harmony between earthly elements and to bring melody to formations that clashed with each other. The aim, I would guess, was to road test the imagination's limits in how it can provide a buffer and refuge against the grit and grind of a noisy, violent and vulgar reality.

Joanie Mackowski, though, was looking for the exit by the time she came to write those blithely mechanical lines, to bring order to her muddle and provide with a greased slope of rhetorical hat tricks to fast her getaway. But even this was too much work to do, and she leaves this thing in the middle of the poetry superhighway, like a car thief abandoning a boosted ride when it runs out of gas or gets a flat, or when the novelty of the ride starts to bore them.

The angel enters stage left,
as usual, but he brought no flower, just

a spear. Will he kneel? His knees
haven't yet touched the floor. Perhaps he flies

with them bent, to save time. And he's more bivalve
than angel, his wings too rigid and blue, yet to evolve.

She is, to be sure, describing an artist's representation of the famous scene, but there is a question with what she wanted us to consider, what elements we ought to interrogate. It might well be that the aggregation of art and writings about the annunciation over the centuries have made the humanity of Jesus less believable , if we're to regard the angel's bivalve qualities as sufficient reason to say Mackowski considers Christian legend to be an anti-human garble. This ending, better fitting a much longer poem where more has been introduced and twined together with the sort of Ashbery/Stevens genius for long form speculation and trope-exhaustion, does not summarize or bring out buried elements and contradictions in a hard, ironic light, but sounds instead like it's an introduction to a third act, where the reward lies waiting. But this is the room Mackowski rushed into to do something urgently needing to be done; once she flipped on the light, she forget why she was there. And so she left.

And left us hanging.

Monday, September 3, 2007

In Praise of Heartless Poetry

I used to insist that poems that didn't have "dirt under the fingernails" were without value, insisting that live as it's lived by working men and women in America were more interesting , more complex and more important than the dense, academic poems one was made to read in contemporary poetry anthologies. In full disclosure, I was an undergraduate at the time, in the mid to late seventies, an earnest poet trying to be relevant who, incidentally, was having problems in literature courses requiring same said anthologies. There might have been a worthwhile insight somewhere in my whining for a polemic I could write if I cared to take the time, but it suffices to say that I was lazy, too lazy to read the poems, too stoned to go to class, far, far too stoned to read the secondary sources to be prepared for class discussions or for the papers I had to write. I did what anyone genuine undergraduate poet/radical/alkie would do; I blamed the system. So there.

It took a bit of doing--sobering up, bad grades, failed relationships--for me to get wise(r) and actually read the work I thought unworthy, and the remarks of critics who've done their own work considering the aesthetics at length, and I've since backed away from trying to shoe horn all poetry into a tight fitting tuxedo. What was learned was relatively small, a revelation for the truely dense; poetry works in many ways, and the task of the critical reader cannot be merely to attack and opine but to make an effort to weigh a poem's elements on their own merits , studying how effects are accomplished, and then, finally, lastly, to offer a judgement whether the poem works . Not that I adhere to this prolix method--I shoot from the hip and often miss the whole darn target--but I try. Now the issue, from Slate's Poems Frame, is whether a poem can work if it lacks the glorious thing called "heart".

Anyone seriously maintaining that a work of art, be it poem, novel or painting is doomed to failure because it lacks this vague quality called "heart" has rocks in their head. Artists are creative people, on that most of us can agree, and by definition artists of narrative arts make stuff up from the resources at hand. Whether the source is actual experience, anecdotal bits from friends or family, novels, biographies, sciences, all these are mere furniture that go into the creation of the poem. The poet's purpose in writing is to produce a text according to some loosely arranged guide lines that distinguish the form from the more discursive prose form and create a poem that arouses any number of responses, IE feelings, from the reader. "Heart", I suppose , would be one of them, but it's ill defined and too vaguely accounted for to be useful in discussing aesthetics. Confessional poetry and the use of poetry books and poetry readings as dump sites for a writer's unresolved issues with their life doesn't impress me generally, as in the ones who do the confessing never seem to acquire the healing they seek and instead stay sick and miserable and keep on confessing the same sins and complains over and over. Journaling would be one practice I would banish from a poetry workshop I might teach. We are writing poems, not an autobiography .

I would say, actually, that one should suspect that poet who claims that every word of their verse is true, based on facts of their lives. I cannot trust the poet who hasn't the willingness to fictionlize or otherwise objectify their subject matter in the service of making their poems more provocative, worth the extra digging and interpreting. Poems and poets come in all shapes and sounds, with varied rationales as to why each of them write the way they do, and it's absurd and not to say dishonest that "heart", by which I mean unfiltered emotionalism, is the determining element as to whether a poem works or not. My goal in reading poems isn't to just feel the full brunt of some one's soggy bag of grief or splendid basket of joy, but to also to think about things differently.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Two books of poems worth owning

poems by Ed Dorn
The late Ed Dorn wrote a masterpiece with "Gunslinger", an anti-epic poem that prefigures many post-modern gestures from its 60s era starting point. Funny, cartoonish, erudite to the extreme, it also locates a tuned lyricism in the Western vernaculars that Dorn uses: the metaphysical aspect of our legends, the sheer questing for answers as Euro-Americans come treading closer to a West coast that will stop them and force them to settle and create lives from dust and ingenuity, comes alive in way that never escapes the zaniness of Dorns' narrating inquiry into the nature of the search.

Civil Noir

poems by Melanie Neilson

Melanie Neilson has a genius for tearing apart the suggested givens of an image ,and then reassembling the details in ways that confound meaning. She gives a long look behind the set designs of our social construction, and inserts a heated zaniness into our negoitations with the normal. Her sense is visual, her language--exploded, elongated, twisted, resolutely reshaped---sensual and snaking with percolating pleasures.

A flurry of Poets published in Slate

James Hoch's poem "Draft" reads like notes gathered from a shoe box kept under a bed, only just recovered only years later after the weight of accumulated life has made the mind a field of circuitous memory. Small boy, too young to comprehend the ways of married adult life, sees his father leave and what seems like the resulting decline of his mother's health:

Some things, I knew,/were beyond choosing /father leaving, the endless /caring for mother, that love /is a salving: what medics and nurses do.

Fodder,/I was too small to object,/the conscription too severe.
A lifetime of growing up with the gnawing certainty that those you come to love and depend on will leave you in the lurch without a clue to their motivation or feeling. Every conversation not having anything to do with work or sports becomes a mine field of self-fulfilling prophecy.Years later , an argument his wife gives him a good rocking:

So when you said / you felt drafted / into marriage, the shutter

screwing up my face, you / quickly followed, just a metaphor,

The fleeting thing being reached for is that it is not a metaphor to the narrator, but instead very real and existing at some primordial level of consciousness where the hapless child still cringes in the while the adults around him scurry around in agitated melodramas. What she takes to be a mere figure of speech instead sends that expected bolt of dread through the narrator's system. We have here a scene from a marriage seen through a crack in the kitchen door, through a window left open on a hot night; she sees the anxiety on him and assures him it's only a word.

Try another,

I said, closing the window, /drawing a breath between each / sentence, trailing closely every word.
This is a sour situation, and it hasn't anything all that interesting going on in it's asymmetrical lines to warrant much more consideration. I'm thinking of Sylvia Plath Lite. Plath could get up a full boil of language when addressing the failings of her relationships with men, and she could get sufficiently global in her references to make her brooding lyrics worth a curious read. Hoch here seems too indebted to Raymond Carver as this poem plays out; I appreciate and pursue the thinking that a reader can be left guessing to larger actions "off stage" as they read a dramatic unfolding, but it helps if there is electricity in the events. One wants to be convinced that this narrative is something that needs to be told.

This is weak tea, not strong coffee, and is a bit too defeatist for my liking. The narrator's child self we can take pity on, but the narrator as adult, seeming not to have become not the least bit resilient with age, we find inexplicable weak and gutless. I am sure James Hoch is not gutless, but this poem sure is. An ode to spinelessness? It reads more like a snippet from a confessional novel Philip Roth would be writing, minus the rage, and rage is exactly what this poem lacks and needs , in an accurate measure, to make it live and become memorable.

This is a sigh, an oh-hum, a dejected kicking of the tin can down the street after a minor disappointment. What we imagine off stage for these two is a tedious existence of purse-mouthed conversations and silent dinners, a series of compartmentalized daily chores and rituals that affords them the maximum amount of time away from each other. There might be a bigger drama here, some family catastrophe that might inspire a stronger and more responsive muse. Hoch has here a faint sketch that would matter to the vaguely depressed.

I can't , 'though, get much excited over a couple of scenes connected through a soft-focus eliding. Hoch may have meant this to be suggestive of hearing a snippet of a tense conversation through a thin apartment wall or an open window you happen to be walking by, but this situation lacks sufficient tension. It is arguably neurotic in that it suggests a personality that requires unnaturally high maintenance. After the wife explains her use of the word "draft" as a "metaphor", we have a glimpse of a relationship that is going inexorably to the dogs. Hoch's narrator may have been placed at ease with his wife's clenched jaw assurance, but he sounds petty, controlling, and resentful that his control of his environment had been threatened:

Try another,

I said, closing the window,

drawing a breath between each

sentence, trailing closely every word
This is not a man of grace and consideration; closes the window to make the cold and the outside noise stop unnerving his indoor world, and a taunt for the wife to "try another" metaphor while he weighs the words that are said and the manner and posture in which they're uttered. Co-dependency at it's most skeletal and repulsive.

But all this happens under the surface of the spare descriptions, and what he have is an outline freighted with too many signifiers to indicate a greater psychological turmoil; this is a soap opera, filled with long , unsmiling stares, monotone deliveries of barely contained contempt. I don't often say this, but Hoch has underwritten this piece, and the "subtle" maneuvering between the different meanings of "draft" are clever more than revealing; it seems more a nice trick than a stunning trope. This poem comes off as all short cuts with no main road.


Slate's poetry editor Robert Pinsky has an affinity an abiding fondness for poets whose work reads and sounds like a series of interrupted ideas. This might be revealing, since I get the feeling that the stammering sequence of lopped-off exposition makes me think of the youngest kid in a large family, one constantly piping in and yelling and talking too fast and abruptly over a crazed din of babble so their lone voice and smothered perceptions can be heard and gain some air.

Sometimes it works, since I enjoy David Lehman's mosaics of place names, mad jazz and painterly effect; there is an fabulous improvisation in his lines that performs an activity I think is poetry's core province, which is testing language's ability to accommodate experience and offer up perception in a manner that merits a second, third or a hundredth look at the daily things that surround us. I find surprise and glee in his work, at it's best, and the interruptions or clipped notions work as layers of many references Lehman decides to associate; it's a sloppy process, I suppose, but it's one I'm partial too, taking Frank O'Hara as my foil. There is not enough time in this life to bemoan and decry what cannot be undone.

Too often, though, the Pinsky predilection for gives us material that isn't poetry at all, but only muttered aspects of pains and regrets that will not heal. Sometimes it seems like we're in a cheap motel with our ears pressed against the well trying to hear what's happening in the next room

under the blare of the constantly on TV. Creating the effect that we're eavesdropping on some private ritual is not , in itself, evidence of art; the writer has to provide something that will convince the reader that this is more than the conventional weirdness that anyone of us is capable of when we're not seen by the public eye.Picking at the perceived wounds will not hasten the cure for the pains, nor will it transform them into poetry, an art that one might want to paraphrase, quote and make one's own because the language caught an essence of emotion and a salient detail that cleaved to the imagination and eased, for a moment, the dread feeling that you're always alone, unheard and anonymous.

Twichell's poem “Sling" does none of those things, and we are again stuck in an elevator or on a cross-town bus listening to someone talking to themselves, continuing a conversation that should have concluded decades earlier.

The meanest thing my father ever said,
he said to my cousin, who told me:
She'll make the world's worst wife.
Thank you, cousin, for tearing away
one of my veils.

When Mom came to see us
I fell from the tree house, and had to lug
a pail of stones around all summer
since the elbow healed slightly bent.
That straightened the arm.

O when does childhood end?
In the globe of the night sky,
the inner stars are falling.
I leave him in a room like a baby's
but without toys.

It’s a list of grievances that presented in an unremarkable way, save for the conventional wisdom that if one is cryptic and unyielding about the few comprehensible bits in a verse, then one has succeeded in writing a credible poem; this isn't the case with Twichell's poem, which demands that you fill in the blanks and do the work of giving it coherence. Interpretation is one thing a reader must do, of course, but there is the expectation that the writer has offered up something that is worth the excavation and which can sustain the inferential, layered analysis .This poem isn't the one to warrant such an effort. Contemporary poetry is fairly much defined by autobiography, confession, full disclosure, private languages and the lot, and it's a stylistic given that's been pursued by any number of brilliant poets who had the talent and will to make their demon-wrestling the stuff of compelling poetry-- Robert Lowell and Plath and John Berryman wrote with a mastery of language as mighty as the egotism that made them use their collectively deteriorating self esteem as the focus of their work. Big talent will make you forgive almost anything, since it always comes down to the work itself, that set of lines one has written that must stand by itself, sans the poet's protests.


Mark Strand is a poet whose work I've gagged on when I had to read him in college thirty years ago, and the effect is the same this morning with "Mother and Son". There is something patently fake about Strand's poems and the sentiment he tries to get across, and for all the sign posts that signify misery and hurt that crop up in this poem there is not a sense that he believes a word of it. He tries to be surreal and hushed in his lines, but his business is stagy and arch instead of evocative. He approaches his scenes as a scenarist would trying to pitch a movie idea to a potential financial backer.

The son enters the mother's room
and stands by the bed where the mother lies.
The son believes that she wants to tell him
what he longs to hear—that he is her boy,
always her boy. The son leans down to kiss
the mother's lips, but her lips are cold.

There is no empathy here, only declaration and instruction about how to appreciate what he intends. It fails even as journalism.This isn't poetry, but rather stage directions. In another medium, theatre, this might may add up to powerful, wordless acting, but it is without resonance as a reading experience; these are jottings, you think, notes at the margin of a page that might find themselves elaborated upon later, in a stronger, more vivid context.

It has the feeling of summer reruns, something you've from this author before, and each exposure is more listless and bored than the last. Strand cannot purge himself of childhood images of death, and has used this seemingly autobiographical element as a running gag through his decades as published poet; there is a stifled fear and dread of death , detectable here in "My Mother on a Late Evening In August " and in "The Dreadful Has Already Happened" .

The earlier poems are stronger , with greater vigor; despite the conspicuous aspects of wallowing in the mythology of traumatic childhood, Strand still writes with a power that achieves the quality of stifled terror. It becomes a different story decades later, when the sure footed moves of youth loose their grace and what was once grace of a sort becomes a leaden shuffling, without uplift or rhythm. "Mother and Son" is the premise worn to it's thinnest , least viable point; if this poem were a floorboard, it would give under the weight.

The burial of feelings has begun.
This is not just a bad line, but resembles as well a grunting short hand of a writer who is too familiar with the situation he's committed to verse about over and over. In other genres Strand would be called a hack.

The son touches the mother's hands one last time, then turns and sees the moon's full face. It is a sure sign that a poet has nothing new to say about a subject if he or she employs "the moon" as the means to create an eerie mood, or suggest realities that mere human senses cannot register. One can't really ban the use of the moon as an image for poets since the phenomenon of the thing has so saturated our reference points that we would likely lose an entire literature if it were no longer available to writers to use at will, but one does expect some real work to go into the employing of such an accessible symbol. Strand's moon is something of a prop, a deux ex machina in which the white orb in the black sky makes things poetic and pregnant with nearly unsay able knowledge sans a human intelligence creating the psychological frame work for the aesthetic operation to achieve an effect of real meaning. That is the staginess of Strand again, directing our responses instead of engaging. He can be a bossy poet. For Strand, though, it has gone on too long, and it's unseemly that a poet his age still hangs around dead things in the night, refusing to let an old wound heal. But then again, more than a few poets enjoy picking at their scabs when they're looking under rocks for smoking guns.