Wednesday, January 9, 2008

John Lennon and the Weekly Standard

There's an uncommoly irrational amount of slobbering gibberish coming from this Weekly Standard's piece from 2003, about the 23rd anniversary of the death of John Lennon. Shame on these guys for a waste of brain power. Lamely, hired shill Joel Engel attempts to parse the utopian day dream of Lennon's idyll "Imagine", citing a line from the song, and then going on about the usual cruel realities of the read world. All of this, we find out, leads to every sin and perversion we might concieve. It's tiresome, of course, because it argues, at heart, that there is nothing anyone can really do to make things better, and that one might as well be grateful for the tense little bits and pieces of material gain they have in a world where military might and technology stands in the way of dark hordes taking over our country, our country, and our women. It's a frothing rant, demanding apathy of readers who might other wise be convinced that there is a way to not merely describe reality, but also change it.

The writer misses the obvious point of the tune which is that it's written as if it were a children's song, and that the song only asks the listener to "imagine" a perfect world, that's all. Lennon, though not a subtle political theorist, was an artist and something of a poet in his finer moments, and the song here is meant to motivate, encourage, nudge, and encourage people to actually try to have better lives by being better people. The point is clear, even if not obviously stated: engage the world, seize the world, carpe diem. What worries the Weekly Standard editors is that the form of engagement might well be scores of folks suddenly registering as Democrats.Silly, but this is in keeping with the grand old party's tradition of less goverment and creating an apathetic distance between the common folk and their government that regulates how rights are divied among the population and how resources are used. Silly,yes, but less so than the creaking insults Engel cobbles together for this anniversary hit piece. Joel Engel hack job here is the gasping disdain of a party hack , an moldy pile of obvious sarcasm he attempts to use to obscure the fact that he hasn't a clue as to handle the song. Doubtless an editor assigned him the task of pissing on Lennon's memory, and this is the sorry best he could come up with.

This is right wing rock criticism that equals the bone headed assertion by George F.Will some years ago when he declared that Springsteen's "Born in the USA" was a song of unquestioning nationalist pride; as with the case of Engel, Will didn't consider the song's lyrics, and you wonder if he even bothered to listen them closely at all. The simple narrative of a pissed-off Vietnam vet myseriously eluded Will while he vainly tried to turn it into Republican propaganda.

Will didn't succeed in his stint as rock critic, and Engel fails even worse. The worst part of it all is that he spends his time wallowing in the kind of sophistry he accuses Lennon of. But it does me good to realize that twenty three years after his death, John Lennon is stil considered an enemy whose spirit must be attacked by those who identify him as evil, bad, a harbinger of bad times a'comin'. It makes me think that there are some things in this world worth fighting for.

Trickle Down Post Modernism

One confronts the average man's working definition of modern art as being the sort of difficult object, whether visual art or literary text, as being something that's open ended into which the viewer can infer any significance . This works fairly well as a definition in a nut shell, accurate in the intentions of what the host of self-referential aesthetics enable us (or forces us, rather) to do if we the audience are to make the effort to bear witness worth the sustained use of our senses. This wreaks havoc with conservative aesthetes who think art should be a giver of laws instead of platforms from which one constructs their multi-faceted paradigms and (in a phrase) deconstructions. One might sympathize with the law givers for reasons having not a bit to do with maintaining and orderly and chaste life, but with the particular tedium of modernist (nee post modernist) strategies. The self-referencing of the medium, the placing of format as the subject of the work ceases to be an interrogation of played out narrative explanations as to what experience leads to and becomes a cloying club of knowing gestures, a wink, a nod, an elbow in the ribs, the patois of yet another privileged group suffocating in their theoretical enclosures.

A key reason for postmodern writing was because reality itself had gotten too strange, obtuse, inflated with its own self-justification for writers to try and be more fantastic than. Cited before, especially from the writings of Brit critic Tony Tanner in his book City of Words, the only way for literature to thrive and reasonably to a fantastic reality is to attempt and be even more fantastic, to shed itself of the need to be faithful to reality and to become even more aware of how fantastic language and technology have caught up with and surpassed conventional fiction's ability to penetrate it's center.

Did Derrida and Barthes actually "define", or address at all the rather slippery notion of "post modernism"? Seems more appropriate to say that they, in their respective inquiries, high lighted some real conceptual issues in Continental philosophy, and created another layer of jargon that made an industry out of what, in retrospect, seems a small addition to our ways of thinking about writing.

Both were inspirations to a generation of literary critics who wanted some Gallic gravitas in their corner so they may speak philosophically with out actually philosophers--or so they may extend their embedded existentialism with into the world with a bright and shiny new paint job--but my reading of them didn't come across the word "post modern". I may be wrong.

Siding with Jacob for a moment, the act of preferring one writer over another with regard to value , style and impact constitutes a choice, choice being a decision. This personal canon-formation, a nascent writers' set of examples of what writing can be, ought to be, and where writing ought to grow from, is obviously a set of choices, albeit convoluted.

Likewise, I doubt that there's a moment in a writer's activity when they are not aware of the shadow of past genius that is cast over them, the Greats--however defined--that they aim their work away from, toward an originality, and maybe genius,that is their own. The anxiety of influence, courtesy of Harold Bloom, is almost an observable dynamic in sensible study. The scholar, in turn, only uncovers who the influences are in the course of credible research, but does not choose them. The temptation may be great, but the theorist/scholar/critic can speculate only so much in their interpretation of real data.

Writers begin with private views and prejudices about the given world, perceived through their eyes, their sets of experience, but an aim of writing to begin with is too seek consensus: it's the shock of recognition, among other things, that gives the aesthetic satisfaction with a narrative that's rendered well. Private projects don't stay private: they enter into the reading world in an attempt to give us more ideas, fixtures, metaphors to help us think about ourselves . That is all, I think, that literature can ever promise, the work itself. Criticism, like literature proper, is hardly a fixed set of standards, a Biblical claim of absolute, final totality. It's an activity that's adjacent, secondary to, literature, and at best can act as an aid to the reader seeking to underline salient elements that dovetail, enlarge, or illuminate the problematic nature of experience that won't, and cannot, tell you what it means.

The artist DOESN'T choose his influences, rather, he finds himself chosen by them.
Too flat an absolute a statement to be useful here: Bloom's refinement of a dialectical model to describe, in sweeping, how influence forms new writing is spectacular, but he over reaches, and over states his case with an insistence that influences choose the writer rather than the other way around. This is a deconstructive reversal that's cuter than it is precise. It's half the tale. Better to have it half and half: the writer certainly exercises choice so far as who they opt to read through their lifetime, and makes judgments based on their reading as to who matters more than others in the forming of a idiosyncratic aesthetic. The writer, as reader, is not a passive agent here.

A writer "being chosen" by their influences makes more sense, I think, when he place the statement at the moment when the writer is actually writing, when inspiration, imagination, and whatever other resources a writer has at their behest combine, churn, swirl, and combine in ways during the drafting that could result in interesting, original work. Process is a word that's horribly abused and bled of meaning these days, but here it's appropriate. Creative process is a strange ritual unique to each writer, an idiosyncratic set of habits that are the basis of the discipline needed for a writer to actually stay seated long enough to produce and bring the work through all it's stages. It's the mysterious clutch of protocols that unleash the influences into the creative roil , and it's here, during these churning, erupting , fever pitched sessions where a writer looses the ability to control the influences about them, large and small, whether from their personal reading, or from the larger culture: it's here where the writer is literally "chosen" by the influences and styles about them and literally have their style defined and guided. So it seems to me, anyway. For the force of the unconscious in the work, of course: memories emerge, scenarios spontaneously form, and arcs are drafted and written out to link disparate sketches on a narrative spine that rapidly becomes a fleshed-out work.

But the steps to get to the point where writing actually commences, I believe, begins with some conscious choices the writer makes in the world that's given to them: deciding what has value among the given--whatever we mean by that-- constitutes choice. What happens beyond that is what becomes problematic, and subject to niggling disagreement. But conscious human agency is not

The self is earned, not invented, some might say, but I might say that the thing which is earned is now less constructed. Well and good, but someone had to invent the criteria of a "self" that's awarded to someone who's "earned" the appellation. A gift wrapped box of "self" does not pop into being at some ceremony one attends on graduation day. Something that is earned needs to have a definition, however slippery or subjective, and that entails construction, more choices to be made in the inventing of a generalized "self".Anything that can be "earned", abstract or material, first needs to be invented.

Anything that is "constructed" is thereby real, whether abstract or material. A constructed entity is operative and has an effect on one's conduct through a problematic sphere. If a self is "constructed", it has dimensions, it has definable limits, it has conditions that are a premise a personality is initially based and layered upon with experience. If it can do that, it's as real as anything as anything you might throw a tin can at. A thing's existence, then, is understood as the actuality of its essence. Allen Ginsberg, speaking of a conversations he had with his mentor William Carlos Williams, gave a definition of Modernist perception as being that "...the thing itself is it's own adequate symbol..." Further, there is the strong suggestion that there is no God in this scheme, that the "thing" being perceived did not require an ideal type, or any other kind of Ideal superstructure in order to exist, to be. Ginsberg, and later poet/critic Jerome Rothenberg, gave a suggestion that this was Western writing's back-door approach toward more open structures, to decidedly un-systematized philosophies, witnessed in the Beat flirtations with Zen. This brings us knocking at the door of an extended Modernist approach--a style in which avant-garde procedure became an ironic protocol to literary writing--that became, in some critical finessing, post modernism.

How could the beliefs be useful if they weren't true? I could have many false beliefs that are coherent, but of what use would they be? The test of any theory is in how it works, and the gauge for how it works is in whether it's employment is of observable benefit to others, i.e., does it give some one and their community a coherent and workable structure to live life, to promote what would locally be defined as the Greater Good, and likewise provide a means for helping a community absorb change, how however and why ever it happens. The test of whether a theory is useful, if I remember my William James, is whether such a methodology leads one to a truth that's germane in situ. The usefulness of a theory is judged by how it side steps the confounding and conflating "proofs" of what constitutes Truth, with the big "t", and instead enables one to find something that works in mending the immediate situation.

Speaking for myself, Lost in the Funhouse is nicely written gripe in which author John Barth, flowing of pen, voices a buried resentment against his own reading habits, a collection that's kind of dull: he voices the complaint against the dreary optimism of modernism, the same dull complaints, in fact, and yet wishes that had been him, rather than Joyce or Faulkner at the key moments of break-through novel writing: a Bloomian moment with his career, with his writing desperately bloated books, his "literature of exhaustion" to demonstrate how much more radical he would have been had he the power to intervene in recent literary history, and also a classic example of the School of Resentment. Barth, I think, resents his teachers, or at least writes like he does.. His work, though important in the postmodern genre, is among it's dullest. The Floating Opera, though, is a masterpiece: brief, funny, unusual, unselfconscious in it's re-formation of the novel. Many readers would find Infinite Jest too hard to follow because they are reared on typical mainstream fiction that sticks to strict, world -shrinking genres. The Modernists we've mentioned here, if in passing, are Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, and Beckett, among others. Faulkner was the only one who produced works resembling mainstream entertainments, with As I Lay Dying and Intruder in the Dust, yet even these less consequential efforts in his body of work are daunting for the vaguely referenced "general reader".

It's a tenet of Modernism that in order for writing to be truly contemporary, it must achieve a level of difficulty that allegedly force the reader to reassess their take on experience. Impenetrability was encouraged, so far as the Modernist project encouraged any specific tendency among its early practitioners. "Make it new" was a chief slogan at the height of the Modernist literary movement, courtesy of Karl Shapiro, and the works, assimilated into academic study, don't comprise the sort of literature that makes for lazy readers. Rather, it's techniques set up the ideal reader, say, "reared in the Modernist style", to grasp the manner and aim of a Postmodern writing, which again, I believe, in it's best expression, is an extension of the Modernist agenda, albeit tweaked about the edges with a bankrupt critical apparatus. The theory cannot keep apace with the actual imaginative writing: sorry, but many theorists seem like bright children adept at taking things apart who cannot quite put them back together in anyway that's useful, meaningful.

The accurate statement about Modernists, in general, is that theirs wasn't a search for the single, unifying meaning, the single, capital "Truth", but rather that human beings have a capacity of breaking old habits and developing new ways of seeing the world outside their skins. There is a notion that that writing, art, architecture, film, et al, can be used in unique ways to bring about new perceptions of the addressed world, new ideas about human experience, rather than finding the one unchanging Truth, the single metaphysical road sign. Modernism operates, in a real and traceable sense, within the the concept of the Pluralistic Universe, addressed by William James.

There is truth out there, goes the assumption, but it's less about an absolute dogma about an underlining definition than it is about how the human personality comes to perceive and form a sense of place and belonging within it. The search for singular Truth was a vain task, noted by Eliot, Pound and others: at it's best expression, Modernism remains an invigorating vehicle , a keen investigative sense. Postmodernism searches for fallacies, so called, but we're stuck with the old binary oppositions that deconstructionists find offensive: we cannot have a definable sense of what is false unless we give ourselves over to an idea of what it opposes, the truth, or truths, plural. By default, postmodernism continues the Modernist project for what is useful in our descriptions. An extension of Modernism, in other words.

greased harmonica

Tom Sleigh looks for the mourner inside.

Tom Sleigh has an ongoing argument with God which comes to be little than how did He get the job when things in the poet’s life are going so badly? Or not badly enough.There is a strong aroma of dissatisfaction with the materials the poet's higher power has given him to write write about; making do , he resorts to big guns, large concepts each, and smothers the feelings. Sleigh is prone to write some of the saddest poems in his neighborhood, and sad fact accompanying his melancholic verse is that , from evidence presented here in Slate, writes with the sterile seriousness only the most mediocre scribes can manage. “Recording”, as is his style, has the narrator squinting too hard to see how the movements of air carries particles of God’s cloistered whimsy, squinting into dark corners in badly a badly lit room. This is a tragic scenario in which the loss of a dear friend incites the deeper pondering of the bends and dents that make up the mortal coil, but one cannot escape the feeling that even though his friend is the one who is dying, the poem is about something that is happening to the narrator. I imagine a mordant writer trying to enjoy his soup when he gets the call about his friend’s worsened condition, to which he frowns, grimaces, and says under breath damn, more psychic probing to do, damn it all…

The first word God said made everything
out of nothing. But the nothing shows through—
through his breathing on the tape casette,
so slow, so tentatively regular, so almost
at an end although it doesn't end but keeps
refreshing itself over in the quiet it's

recorded in, that it almost seems to float
in like a medium of water, deep down

near the bottom of something too dark
to see through

It might be a natural reaction for some to seek the higher order of things, to ponder the supernatural order behind this fatal happenstance and perhaps prepare a brief against the failing friend’s ignoble end, but Sleigh can’t seem to do anything except write himself into a syntactical muddle. These sentences go on at length and lose their emphasis, which is to say that unsold formless and without the vaguest impact; one may well be able to decipher the substance and themes of Sleigh’s dirge, but that’s merely a victory of critical reading, not a gift to the reader’s soul. Very little in Sleigh’s writerly world is serene , and the sour and souring experiences comprising his subjects are not things that can be, conveyed directly, clearly, with emphasis and impact. Poetry, above all other language arts, is the form which is best suited for the purposeful use of ambiguity, obscurity and a certain amount of cloaking of the terrain one speaks to, but there is a requirement, regardless of what aesthetic or revisionist manifesto that might direct a writer’s hand to at least create a sense of a situation, an emotional imbroglio, a scenario where the distinctions between ideas and forms collapse and language creates terse paradoxes that form the poetics of a severely mixed feelings.

Eliot, whom I assume is a major influence on Sleigh, merged his soul sickness with a richly honed physicality in the form of brilliantly scanned details. They had the effect of making the impossibly vague and indefinite qualities he tried to parlay into language comprehensible to his readers and established the grounds for empathy. One might not have been able to make literal sense from “Ash Wednesday”, but one did garner of sense of its conditions and recognize a human element that transcended Eliot’s vague discontents. What works in Eliot, though, is his ability to leave mention of his own nervous skin and jittery frame of mind and to project his psychological state onto the world his interior life filtered; there is the sense that the inane , the banal and commonplace items that compose the world he knew—breakfast nooks, asylums, cafes, salons , galleries—are transformed into constructs of melancholy, decadence and decline, and yet there remains that it is the experience of the reticent speaker , his drawn-down point of view, that colors and characterizes the environment. His universe was a series of broken dioramas with scenes whose imagery could elicit several generations of critical interpretation that has yet to exhaust Eliot’s text. The author was smart enough not to, in Tom Wolf’s phrase describing Mailer’s fiction “lard things up” with an excess of thinking.

This was the particular miracle in Eliot’s poems that he could exteriorize his feelings and spiritual desolation without analyzing them into inert specimens. Sleigh needs to occupy the states of mind he gives to the page, to declare his ownership of this melancholy and to continue to define the terms of the loss he’s feeling, and it’s this emphasis that makes recording overwrought; hearkening back to an earlier idea that he was irritated by this tragedy at some deep level, he overwrites to the extent that it reads as if he’s attempting to compensate for a lack of first response, and so he plumes the depths of his vocabulary
to construct a suitable model for the depth of his grief. It comes off as strained, convoluted, and unconvincing. Unconvincing for me, at least.

His breathing
is the breath that makes me catch my own breath

coming into my lungs as the sound comes
into my ears and into my brain and into some where

inside me I know is being hollowed out
by each breath of his preparing a nothing

that is so dark and seamless I lose sight
of him being borne away on the currents

of his breathing that inflates into the everything
the nothing wants to be.

When he lay there,

shrinking back away from sunset, the nurse said
his fear was common, called "sundowning."

And when he finally settled down, and later sank
into a coma, he began breathing just this way,

breath flowing out, flowing in, while the nothing
moved on the face of everything and God
climbed down into the rising of it.

This is much ado about the sound and sight of another invading his own senses and how such a case of powerlessness places one in a whispered contact with a concrete yet mysterious inevitability , a real response for anyone who has watched a loved one die, but I particularly resent is Sleigh’s relentless application of the first person “I”, the melodramatic presentation of his internal brooding and symptoms of grief; this is the stuff of the science fiction trope of the android constantly monitoring and analyzing it’s reactions and responses to incidents in order to gauge how close to being genuinely “human” he has become. All through this piece , one is not convinced that the narrator has actually gotten in touch with that well of grief , has gone through the variously stages of coming to terms with a dear loss, and has turned that experience into a strength. Or at least a good poem. “Recording” is an apt and ironic title; moods, flights of dementia, physical reactions are made note of and there is an attempt to duplicate them and reveal the submerged essence of it all in imaginative writing that does not , over all, evoke more than a fictionalized, formula-bound tragedy. It’s an image one finds in a script, with directions for the camera , nicely articulated notes for where the lens should focus , which shoulder to peer over, closing in at just the right speed until we come upon the narrator, sitting alone, holding a cassette recorder; then the music fades and the sounds of the breathing fills the screen. Next , the music raises again as the narrator lifts his head and peers into a corner spot in the ceiling; we hear rain drops. This resembles nothing so much as a dozen closing shots in episodes of “ER”

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Three Larry Coryell Albums

Toku Du is among the "straight ahead" jazz a 1988 set of sessions focusing on jazz standards combining the guitarist with Stanley Cowell (drums), Buster Williams (bass) and Beaver Harris (drums) with results being academic at best. This tunes, Coltrane's "Moment's Notice", Monk's "Round 'Midnight","My Funny Valentine"-- get a neat, circumspect treatment that is gutless at best. The guitarist enters these "straight ahead" projects as if he's doing penance for past sins, or that he's been trying to recover his reputation as a musician since his coke-fueled days in the waning days of fusion. Coryell does better with a later release, My Shining Hour, as he rolls up the sleeves and rags and rages on a material from Miles, Ellington, et al; the playing on the later release is positively liberated and exhilarating, and his band on that session likewise swings and rocks and generally pulses with an verve  the present disc in large part lacks. Coryell always bears a listen, but when he chooses to be bad, he chews a foul root. Not that Coryell has forgotten the jazz-rock that made his reputation in the Sixties, as we can see with Cause and Effect, which highlights the guitarist in a Tony Williams Life format with keyboardist Tom Coster and former Journey drummer Steve Smith. Coryell back in his native land, jazz-rock, and the results are prodigious, fleet, searing. Coster and Smith, keyboards and drums respectively, are a galvanized rhythm section switch-hitting time signatures and polyrhythms with a slamming accent, and Coryell is very much at home, very cutting, swift, brilliant. Freed from the archivist's sense of delicacy with older tunes "in the tradition", Coryell follows his wild, sober instincts and lets the notes fly; he hasn't been this exciting in a fusion context since his controversial work with Mingus. Fine and shredding

2008 ? Already?? Ah, man...

We're all nearly a week into the new year, and last night was memorable (but not momentous) because it was the first time in the forthcoming 54 weeks that I wrote "08", and did so without having to cross out an erring "07". The date was on my rent check, due the fifth of the month, and after I signed my name it seemed official, if actually inane; I have committed myself to 2008 as a fact. That being said, one would suppose I'd also say that it's time for folks to stop sussing out, for god's sake, the best and the worst of 2007--c'mon, we're six days into 2008, people , get with the program!! --but before I bid adieu I will suggest that anyone who hasn't seen the film The Assassination of Jessie James By the Coward Robert Ford should so before it slips from theatres. Or at least make your next NetFlix selection. Directed by Andrew Dominik and with a screenplay by him and Ron Hansen (adapted from Hansen's novel), the film features choice performances by Brad Pitt, as James, and Casey Affleck, as the sycophantic Ford. Dominik has a parched, coolly elliptical style that reminds you of Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven) as he draws a dry poetic backdrop in this unfolding tragedy. It is about the cult of celebrity worship seen from the 19th century, with James seen as an erratic manic depressive given to exaggerated bouts of joviality and rage in an effort to mask his growing depression; we witness the slow but inevitable course of Robert Ford's infatuation with James turning into paranoia after he joins his gang and moves into his home. Pitt and Delp are amazing polarities here, drawn together for a grim result you'd rather not see coming. This film makes up for the overplayed hype that accompanied the merely OK western 3:10 to Yuma; that film was dressed in old garments that didn't quite fit.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

A fine poem from Kevin Young

Kevin Young is an interesting but inconsistent poet who has yet to purify his style; the ghosts of those he favors make their noises in what seems to be every other poem I come across by him. But he does slam the ball from the park about as often as he swings through air. This works rather well, since the voice is stronger, more assured, the language taking on a diction that can make its influences mesh and produce a distinct set of tones:

Campbell’s Black Bean Soup

Candid, Warhol
scoffed, coined it
a nigger’s loft—

not The Factory,
Basquiat’s studio stood
anything but lofty—

skid rows of canvases,
paint peeling like bananas,
scabs. Bartering work

for horse, Basquiat churned
out butter, signing each
SAMO ©. Sameold. Sambo’s

soup. How to sell out
something bankrupt
already? How to copy

rights? Basquiat stripped
labels, opened & ate
alphabets, chicken

& noodle. Not even brown
broth left beneath, not one
black bean, he smacked

the very bottom, scraping
the uncanny, making
a tin thing sing.

The model, Frank O'Hara, suits Young's ability to catch the manic swerves of accelerated city speech and still have the precise phrasing a poem requires to be memorable. The conflations here, the puns, are electric and potent in the contradictory stances they bring together, a white art world and a young black artist trying to make a place himself amid the shilling, hype and inverse racism and still maintain his cultural identity. Would that he was this much on the beam much more often.

Friday, January 4, 2008

ACT NOW AND SAVE: minimalist misery

There is something to be had with being chintzy with the number of words one puts on the page as one attempts a compact and powerful expression of an idea that might other wise be talked to death. "Less is more", in the words of architect Mies van der Rohe's explanation for his Spartan designs. In the builder's sense of the phrase, form follows function, with the aesthetic of the structure shaped by the functions the building is required to fulfill; the idea was to disabuse urban populations of the decorated and sickly festooned traditions of bourgeoisie that have gone before and introduce a new set of relationship between human beings and the spaces they inhabit.

The modernist poet, inclined to the terse and abrupt phrase, the broken image, the ellipticized sensibility, wanted to use words as if they were objects to be arranged to achieve a specific effect; the aim in turn was to discard several generations of accumulated rhetoric, not the least being the argumentative digressions of the Metaphysical Poets and the shammed-up personas presented by the most drippingly egocentric of the Romantics, and give us all, rather, a direct treatment of The Image. A reader was to be made aware that what they were bringing to the poem were associations that are already contained in their head; the poem, the hard expression of the perception , stripped of the adjectives and qualifiers usually the poet's ready, is meant to be seen in itself, in isolation. One is supposed to examine the conditions of their own response and realize that is they, the reader, who completes the poem upon reading. Williams, though, considered his world rather concretely; there is nothing beyond the mist except vacuum. Eliot is present not at all for the obvious reason that Eliot and his revamping of the Metaphysical Poet’s habit of poeticizing their philosophical arguments weren’t principle sources of Young’s anxiety of influence. It’s Williams, with his notion that poetry needs to be in the vernacular and that the thing in itself is its own adequate symbol, whom Young has gone to school on and is influenced by. You of all those here should know that not every poet gathered in this generation of geniuses had the same view as to what poetry and language must do. It has been said that there are as many types of modernisms as there are modernist’s exceptions, and this ought not be considered a claim that the poets in America and England were on the same page, reading the same paragraph, nodding their heads to an agreed agenda. The argument that Young sides with, and which I find the most appealing, is the one Williams , Shapiro, McLeish (and Stevens, for that matter) make in their different ways, especially in their Imagist experiments, was that what is need in poetry is a clear, hard, material language where the things of this world can be treated directly. This was the principle thrust of Modernism, however divided the schools were in their particular aesthetic--to change the way the world was perceived and, as a result, change the world for the better.
All this is fine as long as it works , which is to say in each case that as long as the buildings are reasonably attractive or have intriguing shapes in the city blocks where they've displaced older buildings, and as long as the poem is , on it's own terms, making use of a language, sparse as it might be, that gives one the phrase, the trope, the image, the spark that will make the reader's mind engage the cultivated intuition which makes poetry worth reading (and writing) in the first place.
But too often enough less is less, and this is what poet Kevin Young has brought us, again, with his poem "Act Now and Save". Young is one of those young poets whose work veers between genuine invention and gimmicky application of line breaks and pauses lifted from WC Williams or Archibald McLeish; one wonders when he will stop trying to please his professors and mentors and slip into something more comfortable, such as his own voice. His previous poem here, Elegy , was nothing less than a low-rise building under construction, bare girders and preliminary piping through which a stiff wind blows. That's the point, I suppose, a creaky construction of unmoored signifiers requiring brick, mortar, lumber, wiring, the placement of windows so it can finally resemble something useful. It was so bare that one might as well have been gazing at lone, gnarled steel rods sprouting from the compact dirt at construction sites as they wait for the rest of the building to appear, one rivet, welding spot and steel beam at a time. There are better ways to make the mind do interesting things.

Act Now and Save has the same problem, a sequence pared back so far that there remains only a gutted root of a poem. It's a sequence of unfinished sentences, declarations that are choked off before the mind can convince the voice to finish the sentiment and commit to a knowledge that the situation of the speaker's life has changed. That ambivalence might be interesting had the verbal chunks themselves, the smashed syntax, been interesting enough to have us imagine, that is to say, finish the scenario, and alternative scenarios as well.

It's a wonder the world
keeps its whirling—
How I've waited
without a word—
Staring where
the sun's no longer—
You gone
into ether, wherever
You want
to call it. Soon
Sun won't fight
off the cold
But today warm
even in the rain.
Whatever the well
you want me
To fall down I will—
Meet me by the deepest
part of the river
And we'll drown together
wading out past
All care, beyond even
the shore's hollers.

I can't for a moment find sympathy for this depressed person who is standing by the river talking to another who is present only in memory; "river", "drown", "rain" "sun" come off as ready made words one selects from a write-your-own-free verse-poem list, terms in themselves that when properly placed give us automatic evocations of loss and the feeling that world is too complex and mean spirited to continue to live in now that a certain someone is gone. Not that there is anything wrong with these words as such, just as there is nothing wrong with the notes one hears in a glutted guitar solo on a classic rock station. Context is everything, a suitable melody for the guitar notes, and sharply drawn particulars, details, in the case of Young's poem. It sounds hackneyed to say this, but Young didn't make me care about this mumbling; one hears this stuff on public transportation all the time, but the beleaguered there are not being paid four hundred dollars by Slate. Young at his worst sounds like he’s still trying to prove himself to his elders that he’s an inventive poet, but that in so doing he sounds contrive, derivative; the style he borrows from isn’t that of 6th century Chinese poets , but from Williams, McLeish, Shapiro, even Dickens. My essential point didn’t require a thorough outlay of the trends in modernist poetry since the Jazz Age, since that would have been padding. I spoke to those facets of modernism that are the models Young sees himself in line with. The limits of empathy are tested and exhausted everyday until the next morning, and a professional like Young should give us more than this dress rehearsal. It's opening night here, and his fly is open.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Exile on Main Street

“Happy", included on the Rolling Stones’ album Exile on Main Street is one of their great songs, and Keith Richards does a superb job singing. Richards, in fact, is very much the credible singer, having a hoarse, whispering croak of a voice that marries his blues and country influences. There is a measure of palpable emotion as the guitarist’s haggard voice stretches for a note that might not be his to possess,something like the battered working stiff who finds new reserves of inspiration when inspiration makes him forget the weight of his day and declare what there is in his life that’s worth standing up for. This is a singer whose talents would have blended to excellent effect with the rustic tones of the Bands' Levon Helm and Richard Manual. I've been listening to Exile on Main Street lately, and it's amazing how this albums just seems to deepen with the years: it's one of those great releases whose basic roots-music emphasis places it in the considerable company such the early Band records or Moby Grape

It's a tough call because both Exile and The White Album have strengths that are unique. Preference, though, falls with The Beatles, since it's an unusually strong double disc of songs, featuring Lennon, McCartney and Harrison at their zenith. The variety and quality clenches it. Exile has the appeal of mood, atmosphere, the ennui that the bands’ world-weariness had caught up with them, to which the response is an inspired re-investigation of their roots in American southern music. I believe that this as honest a music Jagger and Richards have ever made together (or as honest as Jagger has ever been), but whether the two discs are real emotion or skilled posing, the tone and mood of the album can't be denied. It is their last great album. I'd say Electric Ladyland needs to be in the top five best double-albums ever released (rock/pop division) for the consistent genius in all areas, start to finish: Hendrix was hitting what might have been a long stride as a major songwriter, his guitar work had never been more inventive and searing than it was here, and the production is near-flawless, with the guitars and such adding something of a grand religiosity to the proceedings

The point , though compressed, isn't mysterious, nor coded in arcane jargon: after the wide ranging and successful experimentation with sundry styles that reached a slick , professional peak with Sticky Fingers, Exile was a re-examination of some of the forms that were the basis of their own music, namely rhythm and blues, straight up blues, gospel, country. It's all there, I do believe. The mix was muddy, not clear, creating what one perceptive writer called an air of "audio noir", and the band sounded tired but fully invigorated by some spark of energy, some keen sense of mission that made their grooves and beats sound fateful. The additional layer on Exiles' re-imagining of the foundations of the bands' sounds was the experience and cogency they applied to the subject matter, the splintery, inane and unchanging truths that fairly inform the lyrics.

Beggar’s Banquet, the album which was their best expression of how drugs and other excesses might lead to worldly wisdom (or at least an artful cynicism) was l in line with the general hedonism that was the hallmark of the hippie-movement, wherein one trusted the resilience of youth to bring them back from the edge they danced very close to: gross consumption and gratification of ones' senses was the by-word, and Banquet handily defined the period, albeit its dark, mean-humored side. Exile had the sound of a band whose high-living had caught up with them. This feeling, this sound, is a large part of what distinguishes this album from the albums that came before it. You might try actually listening to the album.” Torn and Frayed", "Stop Breaking Down", "Sweet Virginia", "Ventilator Blues", "Shine a Light", "Soul Survivor", even the bouncy and rocking "Happy" all, in their own manner, reflect a sense of pausing, getting a breath, contemplating the ache at the end of long cycle of over-extension. These are not the same kinds of songs as earlier ones, ala "Satisfaction”,” Get off My Cloud", "Play With Fire", "Stupid Girl" or "Street Fighting' Man", potent rock and roll numbers that match a younger, more impatient and more arrogant psychology: the songs on Exile work so well precisely because the mood of the band was more somber, reflective, wizened with wear. Jagger and Richards were at the peak of their craft on this set, and the songs have a tangible moodiness, a real set of expressions that add up to a more cautious, and increasingly wised-up world view that tacitly, and explicitly comprehends the fleeting quality of mortal life.

It’s not far to suggest that this album is the best album regarding the extended effect of decadence on a bohemian community , along with Lou Reed’s blisteringly and cluster phobic Berlin. The production of Berlin fits the ideas: the characters are decadent, the city and the period were decadent over all, and the production is, I think, suitable for the terrain Reed covers here. A big, thick wall-of-sound, Phil Spector filtered through Bertolt Brecht. Reed was writing about his own popular culture indirectly in the way he wrote of his fictional wastrels on Berlin, but the music and lyrics are etched from what he's done and witnessed. The production works, and this album is an underrated masterpiece from the Seventies.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Jazz saxophone great Michael Brecker, 1949-2007

A belated word on the passing of Michael Brecker, a jazz saxophonist who, with this trumpeter brother Randy Brecker pioneered the use of horns in fusion and rock-accented jazz improvisation, passed away last January 13 of this year. Brecker , of course, was much more than a fixture on the fusion circuit; as with the case of guitarist Pat Metheny, another musician first associated with the narrowing dynamics of jazz-rock, Brecker made his mark as an explorer of form, fashioning a rich and full bodied tone and a supple, inventive style in the way he presented his formidable technique. The sound of his spirited solos has poured from my apartment windows for years, and his was an identifiable style that would get me moving my fingers as if I were holding an instrument myself, punching up and punching out the down beats and wrapping a thick, lacy set of ribbons around the busiest of bass lines. My heart sank when I read of his early passing, and from here, nearly a year after the fact, I offer a thank you.

Friday, December 28, 2007

TMZ bottom feeds its way to the top

Gossip website has been slinging the proverbial crap at celebrity fuck ups for a while now, and one needs to admit that it was guilty fun watching the overpaid get some come uppance as their missteps and errant thinking were held to saturation ridicule. But then the nausea set in, the sheer meanness of the enterprise; constant badgering and inspection of the doings of people of no real consequence just makes seem like a playground bully who is too much of a beef-brained moron to think of anything better to do. Now they have a television show, it's a success, and the New York Times covers them with a puff piece. The "newspaper of record" sounds like it's endorsing this televised goon show. The newspaper's lack of criticism or direct comment on either the web site's or the program's pernicious pandering seems a further stab as they reach for that large segment of their potential readership that's attracted to this sort of bottom feeding journalism. That's a tragedy in a sense, since it would be refreshing for someone to be the scold and demand that someone stop giving these paparazzi-enabling knuckle draggers free time on my television. It’s one thing for an Internet creation to break out into the mainstream, but the awful drag of it all is that it had to be a petty, smug and bullying infestation like I realize that celebrities are an odd breed who are paid unreal amounts of money to fulfill audience requirements of glamour, power, beauty and grace and who are fair game when their lives go awry (or right, for that matter). But what does is just a shade shy of stalking, and the need for anything half-way resembling news about famous folks to fill their way web pages and TV slots, any snarky, sneaky, unfounded rumor to regale their audience with is mendacious pandering. Certainly the likes of Paris, Britney, Lindsey, Te al, have created their own catastrophes that are going to be played out in public, but the daily hammering these folks get goes far beyond someone getting their “just deserts”; the television version of the show especially is mean spirited and a superior tone that suggests a staff drunk on it’s seeming power to make or break reputations. The saturation is pornographic, honestly

Thursday, December 27, 2007

"Aftermath": an artful evocation of a difficult state of being.

Rosanna Warren's poem"Aftermath" is the kind of reading that brings to mind the cliche that at times you gets a deadly chill that makes them think someone had just walked over the spot where you'll be buried. This is a very sharp, very clear utterance of a moment something you see clarifies and reveals the facts and truth behind an all consuming anxiety. The cancer survivor, undergoing various sorts of therapies, has the time to reflect and sort through a life that is past, negotiating with the hard fact of her mortality, and witnesses the birth of the doe, a new life having a violent arrival into the land of the sense and sensation.

The fawn couldn't stand
but raised its too-large head to gaze at you.
You were, as you said, already more or less
posthumous. You took each other in.
One of you before, the other beyond fear.
Two creatures, side effects on one another,
headed in opposite directions.

This is a nice play between the narrator and the doe and her new fawn, two examples of aftermath, the first being the reviewed results of a life nearing the end of it's term that teeters just a bit on a wallow, the second being the abruptness and pain of birth. One is an exit, the other an entrance, and there is the slightest suggestion of what might be larger stakes in this epiphany, the endless cycle of birth, life,death. It is a bit anthropomorphic, one would say, to suggest that the fowl and the narrator had a primal connection as this chain of life was pulled forward, one creature being pulled in while another is moved out, but it's a conceit that works simply because it isn't overworked nor used a license for a murky metaphysics; poet Roseanna Warren maintains brief, taciturn, fully aware that her task is to serve the image and it's subtle revelation.

Compare this with Norman Mailer's style of attributing human characteristics to a moon rock, observed through thick layers of compartment glass, in his wonderful book about the moon landing Of a Fire on the Moon; Mailer was at his loquacious best at the time, and had to extend several elaborate metaphorical constructions in order to get away with his suggestion that he was in telepathic communication with this lone, vacuum packed lunar nugget. Even Mailer partisans like myself wince when he come across this concluding passage,
and realize that the writing was more performance than insight; Mailer's rhetoric capsized any insight he might originally have had.

Warren , in contrast, is particularly delicate in her handling of an idea that would be ludicrous in left in in the hands of a less discriminating discriminating writer.That she resists the need to lather it up, lard it up or lord it up in her effort is evidence of someone who can mold language to fit a mood, to underscore a mood. The tone here is ambivalence which is marked by a paucity of qualifiers, and there is the sense that one is in a rarefied air , crisp and chilly, where a cold light is about to reveal an unadorned fact in your life. "Aftermath" is a gem, a melancholic but artfully restrained evocation of a difficult state of being.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

How God Created The World

No god I know
waits for a chat
as he waits
in a garden ripe
with words that
are first in line.
There is no garden
until he desires fruit
rich in the taste
of particular soils,
there will be no desire
until he creates hunger
and the need to sit down,
there will be no table or chair
to put anything
that belongs on them
until he contrives the
things that go there
and makes it all look
like they've been present
for the ages.
There will be no ages
unless he makes things
with tongues, mouths,
tastes of all sorts,
something alive
with a memory of what's good
in this life they discovered along
the way as they experimented
with ways to talk to a god
who seems so busy
thinking things through,
he realizes
nothing will age
unless there are creatures
that die.

The god I know
thinks of big words
and broad strokes,
he's been asleep
since the beginning
time, which he invented,
he will wake up
and create, I think,
the cell phone, on a lark,
and will notice
at once
that his voice mail is full.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Oscar Peterson

Oscar Peterson, possibly the chief jazz piano virtuoso , has died. No one I've ever heard surpassed either his speed or his technical mastery of the ivories, and he was one of the handful of thuderclap virtuosos who's solos were continuous streams of melodic invention. His was an immense talent in service to musicality; his improvisations were so well developed that one might say that Peterson composed music each time he performed. One of my favorite jazz reissues is a disc called Face to Face which features Peterson with an group of improvising elite, including Freddie Hubbard and Joe Pass. It's a furious and magical blow out, with a long and faniful lacings and ribbon like sorties managing to leave me breathless each time I play it. Peterson, to be sure, led the way through the mad accelerations and fevered playing, the sparkle of his dancing cascades evoking jubilation.Thank you, Oscar.

Friday, December 21, 2007

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy and written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen , is easily my favorite film of the year, especially surprising because the departing 2007 turned out to be a solid year for American films. Letters from Iwo Jima, Zodiac, Valley of Elah, Breach, Gone Baby Gone, Children of Men , The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 To Yuma and some lesser lights kept the movie going a pleasure, and even the more blatantly commercial and pandering movies I saw, under the excuse of their being guilty pleasures (Live Free or Die Hard, Resident Evil: Extinction) were sure footed enough in premises and execution to not dilute nor drag down my impression that the lot of us are about to leave a year of unusually good film releases. One does hope that Ridley Scott finds his footing again and can make a film as good as his past successes--Blade Runner, Blackhawk Down, Gladiator--because the glamorized Scarface/Serpico move he attempted with the listless and static American Gangster renews that annoying question you ask yourself when you walk out of his more recent efforts: what was the fuss about him anyway? One would wonder as well when Denzel Washington might lose that nasally wavering monotone that's become his signature vocal tic, or when Russell Crowe might convince an audience again that he can act and not merely memorize his lines and hit his marks.

No Country for Old Men is one of those Coen brothers films that doesn't miss a beat, doesn't miss a trick, and which makes use of each rhythm it invents and each trick it employs in service to the story with the sort of mastery that makes you forget that you're viewing something that was meticulously constructed. Seamless, in other words, as was their Fargo, a comedy that worked in broad, slowly applied strokes of the brush that inspected the ticks and quirks of the characters as they headed for their eventual comeuppance. Hubris is a striking theme in the Coen's movies, and it appears again in their new thriller, where one has the simplest of conflicts, a trailer-living Vietnam vet comes across a bloody drug deal gone bad and tracks down the two million dollars that was meant to seal the deal, and finds himself, through random occurrence, sheer chance and whimsical decision, being tracked himself by a hired killer.

The center of the film are these two characters, the vet (Josh Brolin) thinking he can outwit and kill the stalker seeking to put him on ice, and the killer (Javiar Bardam), a force of nature who cannot die, will not be deterred, detoured or delayed. His character, oddly named Antoine Chigurh ("Soo-gar"),fulfills his task required by the detection of the unwarranted pride a protagonist assumes for himself; he is the force that one does not see coming, that thing that cannot be stopped nor will wait for you. Chaos and carnage are his sole purposes. Brolin's character, named Llewelyn, has no idea what he has decided to go up against, and from here one is aware that the stage is set for the inevitable tragedy that will come and cannot be halted. The Coens have an outstanding sense of being able to slow down and draw out a scene, to have a thumb on the turntable, so speak, as they prolong an agonizingly nerve rattling sequence --Josh Brolin's character is chased across a river by a hell hound pit bull which comes mere seconds from tearing his throat out, a scene causing audible gasps both times I saw the film--and still keep to intrigued with the goings on and the detailed bits of business the characters involve themselves in.

Clarity with an unforgiving reality principle one theme in play, with this movie being a four way split between those who have no idea the cruel game they're in: Chigurh’s citizen victims, those like Llewelyn who think they can avoid or change what is inevitable, the uncompromising destructive force that is the killer Chigurh; and , in a moving and subtly, softly underplayed performance by Tommy Lee Jones, the growing awareness of a cocky sheriff who realizes that the murders in his district are without reason, logic or even passion, and that this represents a sacrifice he is unwilling to make. Destiny is another theme here, and Jones' sheriff loses his nerve and retires. Late in the film, restless and not sure of what to do now that he's left an occupation he was fated to have by family tradition, he recounts recent dreams with their vague symbolism of what direction his life was meant to take. One wonders on this aspect of the tragedy, the correspondence of action creating purpose and definition. The sheriff may have saved his life by retiring, but has he robbed himself of his purpose in the life he wanted to keep. He is caught in an ambiguity, and it's a toss up at this point which is worse, a death in service to professional duty, or living with an unsettled issue no consoling will allay.

The encroaching despondency on Jones' face as he tells his wife of his dreams, where a wise ass smirk once was now replaced with a tight, brave smile that cannot disguise a man who voluntarily relinquished his grasp on self-certainty, is its own unique tragedy. Only the craggy and creviced face of Tommy Lee Jones could have evoked the inner broodings that tear at the soul, and only his voice, cracked, rough, and choked on dust , could have managed to bring out the melancholy contained in his elliptical monologue without once raising his voice or gesturing wildly. Javier Bardem's virtuoso turn as the psychopath Chigurh , as well, is among the most memorable presences to inhabit the screen in awhile. Self-contained, virtually expressionless, given to odd bits of logic and rituals, he is not a character but a personification of every foul thought of vengeance and fury one has ever imagined in their life. He is not someone you meet, but rather a catastrophe that happens to you and hope you survive.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Noisy Eden

Below the Falls" is one of the noisier poems we've seen here for awhile, and it is Kevin Barents' peculiar attempt to convey the idea that turmoil and drama exist in those areas one might normally assume to be areas of balance and natural tranquility. Barents' goes against the archetype too readily here, and after all this is done, all this wandering around a natural scene that continually yields miniscule melodramas and suggested cycles of birth and dying oscillating in condensed terms, whether the Nature-As-Eden myths were something worth debunking, even in metaphorical terms.

The immediate association one reaches for is Wallace Stevens and his Palm Trees at the End of the Mind,, part of his sequence of poems that tours the Supreme Fiction's variously rich terrains and interrogates the tone of these mental constructions with queries about their fidelity to slippery emotional nuance.Too which he marvels at his imagined terrain's ability to smooth out contradictions, anomalies, disruptions to the nature of Idealized Form. Stevens never mistook his lyrics as being anything other than the gilded musings on what his felt, not measured.

A poem should not mean
But be.

Poet Archibald MacLeish wrote that, in his piece "Ars Poetica",his reasonable and witty manifesto liberating his poetry from having to be "about" anything other than itself. That thrust, in essence, was that poetry was no longer the central domain in which speculations about the nature of reality , beauty, and the pursuit of the Good Life were discussed and debated, and that it was , in modern times, not the friendliest grounds for discussions about God and his purpose for us on earth. Other, prose dominated disciplines had quite handily usurped those topics as science handily dislodged, diminished and debunked the mystery and mythology the general consensus used to apply to the material world. A poem should not "mean" anything, as in questing for the precise definition of things and thereby making fixed, general statements about them. A poem should "be" as a thing itself, a material item true to its own nature, a construction of words, considered by MacLeish, WC Williams and Stevens (among the poets of that generation) to be malleable no less than clay, glass or steel. The aim of the poem was not to reinforce the materiality of the world and the given political and economic realities that relied on perception that markets could define, exploit and profit from, but rather that poetry should tend to perception, free of the filters we've been indoctrinated into. These poets were not especially overjoyed with capitalism (although one would be hard pressed to call them leftists in any sense) and it's propensity to smash and upset the unannounced world. Williams wrote (and I paraphrase) that the thing itself was it's own adequate symbol,which , considered closely, stated that there is no God and that human personality could and needed to see the things in the world on their own terms, in and of themselves.

Barents writes in an arcana-cluttered tongue that he's disturbed, angry in fact, that he and his walking associate found not refuge from the city's grind and violence. What they discovered instead was only more of the same , in other forms.

Greedy hemlocks crowded in the draw
eclipse a hophornbeam. We've picked along
a path held from the hollow's laurel hells

to where a trickle pushes off the cliff
and grabbles down into a greenstone bowl
the drop has pestled through the same old years.

Barents over writes through the entire piece and consults the notebooks where he'd written those exotic words and phrases he took a fancy too, seduced by their peculiar phonics and untidy plumage. There pair making their way through the nearby wilds may as well be in the center of the city they wanted to get away from. The central idea here isn't peace but unrest, not peace but constant turmoil, of nature being a state where it quite naturally consumes and regenerates itself in new forms . Barents attempts to disabuse of one set of ideal types and tries to substitute another paradigm, that of nature as great destroyer and vicious feeder.What do we do?

Protect an heirless joy
or fold our suffering into this place?
The limpid races aren't potable.

Rusty thrushes drop a stranger's line.
Huddle with me in our leave a while
before we hurry back to our fatigues.

I would agree that this poem is glutted with obscure words that have been used for the sake of dressing up the banal, unexceptional ruling idea that is the poem's central theme, that nature contains its own kinds of dissonances and violence , and his result is nothing less than an ugly tract housing with a front yard full of garden gnomes and enamel deers, large Mexican planter pots and Christmas lights remaining on the front door months after the Holidays. Nothing distracts from the quarrelsome inanity of this poem, and adding to it's lexicon only makes the condition worse.It might have have helped if these words were used musically, but that didn't happen--it's as if Barents had three contrasting "formalist" approaches in mind when he composed this, and hadn't the heart to make this expression a purer example of a given style and habit of thinking.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

John Hazard's "Luanne": where ever you do, there you are

I haven't attended my high school reunions for the simple reason that I still live and work in the same town in the town I went to school in. There are enough of those I went to school with, late middle aged, "thickened into silence" or garrulous and bony, who I see during my week. I'm aware enough of who has died, divorced and remarried, who is undergoing treatments for fatal diseases, who has joined AA or started drinking again, who has become a new grandpa or granma. Paying good money to discover news I can get or deliver over a cafe table seems foolish.

There is , additionally, the plain and gruesome fact that there are those in high school I don't care to see again. Old girl friends, druggie friends, bullies, class peacocks, the brown nosers and the brown shirts. Some people were horrible , monstrous entities when they were teens, and although there might be the outside chance that they've changed, found a path, and turned into reasonable, decent people, there is the awkwardness of running into someone you haven't seen in years, someone with whom you've had only a tangential connection, and finding yourself standing there, struggling for words after a hesitant greeting, a handshake with a loose grip. Who is this person? Do I owe them money? Did he steal my gal? Did I steal his copy of Led Zeppelin lV?

John Hazard writes as if he's suffered through this voluntary form of punishment in his poem "Luanne Again, Southeastern Ohio", and conveys the dulling shock of seeing other members of his peer group showing the evidence of gravity and time taking their combined toll. Everyone he witnesses in the conference room seems lifeless or somehow inert and drained of whatever animation made their memories intriguing enough for the narrator to come to a reunion,

Reunion: some sit almost nameless

in a motel conference room—red and gold

balloons. Folding chairs and ham. Forty years.

Some have thickened into silence. Some are hard.

He does make an effort to imagine that it is the obvious peculiarities of the scene and the resented confines of the conference room that makes his situation so stifling, a reality where the faces might radiate life in response to a world they’ve made for themselves since graduation:

For all I know, those faces on a normal day

might stare over sinks, dandelion yards,

the children's children playing there,

grass-stained photo ops.

Still, it is deadening all the same, the faces remain expressionless masks, and so the narrator’s mind wanders over names of those who are not there, Shirley, Fred, and especially Luanne. Hazard does an interesting trick here of isolating a moment of daydreaming life when someone’s name and face come to mind, someone who one hasn’t thought of it years, not thought of but haven’t forgotten; what he gets here is the swift and seamless segue to that conscious filling nano- second where there appears a name, a face, an event, vivid and sharp, and just as brief. Hazard’s character here concentrates on Luane,

Sometimes I dream about that dog of hers,

brown or maybe tawny, hit by a car

outside my uncle's grocery. It lay

in its blood as she fled crying

to the family store (hardware, paint)

the way I ran home later that year—

fat old Rudy, coal truck,

as I watched by the side of the road.

Her dog was bloodier.

In the place that she's inherited,

is her silence richer, too,

than my packages of words?

I wouldn't be the reporter she would choose.
Hard and compact, these are details that are alive as the narrator tells it, and reveals a slight change in tone, where the foregrounding scene in the conference is an evocation of stasis, entropy and this scene of the past, where there is life, vivacity, real emotions witnessed. Here there is history, here there are events that mark a consciousness still forming a world view.

It’s not a big moment, not a third act of a Hollywood movie where there is some moral that’s learned the hard way and the beginnings of a mythologized justice being brought to bear on what has been amiss. Hazard’s narrator has only a fleeting regret, the recognition of an unspecified opportunity missed .

But here I am, Luanne, to say I regret

the vast rock between us. For all I know,

the dogs of your other life—not frisky,

not mean, not especially sweet—have been

steady, staring for scraps or staring from a porch

at grass in a breeze. For all I know,

your other dogs were happy and lived forever.

Hazard’s instincts here are right sized for the size of the perception he sought to convey on paper; this poem has the unlabored purity of the passing thought; it is the best that someone already ensconced in the complications of their life can do as the memory and
unresolved nature of whatever happened to? arises and distracts the bearer from the faces in front of him. It’s a thought that has to be tied up in a hasty knot, a botched ribbon as present circumstances demand an audience. One concludes with a soft regret of the distance that has grown between them, an admission that admits no guilt, no self-incrimination, and a bland wish that Luanne has in the intervening time prospered somehow and that he dogs , if she still kept them, lived long and prospered with her. What I appreciate here is the lack of specifics beyond the accident involving Luanne’s dog; the lines are graceful and taut in equal measure, and achieve a balance of composition. Anymore freight might have compelled Hazard to offer up a dirge along the lines of Robert Lowell, a dangerous poet to model yourself after. Hazard’s intents are much more modest and this poem has an admirable precision in getting at inglorious subject: middle aged man remembers a girl from school who’s image he cannot wait to shuttle off again into some obscure corner of the mind. There comes a time, always, when you have to stop rummaging around the attic and move fore worth with what needs to be done now; laundry, shopping, bill paying, a kiss for the woman you love in this life, not the one you left behind.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Baker and Beckett

This isn't about poetry, but it's what I've been reading and it's what's kept me in my chair 'til too late at night, that being the semi-fictions of Nicholson Baker.Not a pleasant experience, if reading, as Barthes claims, is an activity we do , at heart, for the pleasure of the text. This was more like a calculus assignment, an exercise to see if I've been being attention the most current shiftings in what is considered fiction.I think I was ahead while I was still napping.

The general reeling I get from the Baker work I've read, U and I, Mezzanine, Vox : aimless wandering around a subject, speculation for its own sake, a kind of dithering response to extrinsically urgent circumstances,something very much like going up and down an elevator. This is the writing of distraction, and its a body of work that is compellingly shallow in its aim, a window display.

Very post-modern, I'd say, but it's disturbing to think that men and women who are nominally good writers can fill up pages and bandwidth with a tweaked yammering that exists only to avoid the ideas they begin with in the subject line. This is very much like Becketts' novels, Malloy, Malone, The Lost Ones, More Pricks than Kicks, and here we have the link with the Late Modernism that had the creator (author) and subject (novel) rising , in their imperishable need to produce, from the noisy clash and clutter of an aesthetic philosophy that demanded new ways of putting the world together, of making the world non-liner and multivalent, sufficiently prepared to be remade with technology and criteria. The Beckett/Baker writer seems to face the endless variations they may take for a narrative, and instead defer the decision about which one to take and what sort of fictional ethos to manufacture. The deferral is the subject itself, the eye-averting technique that wills itself to be endlessly about the undecidability of how the reality should be written into being. This is a sub-stratum in the though of postmodern writers, the avoidance of death through the refusal of becoming engagement of any process of decision making that would definition to a sphere of activity that must then be engaged, acted within.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Emily Dickinson, Our Contemporary (expanded)

This poem I wrote about Emily Dickinson was less about her poetry--than it was about what I imagine to be the spectral dimensions of her cloistered life. Writing poems, speaking only with her own readings, informed by her books, her only audience her surroundings, her tiny little world. She is one whom speaking her mind in compact cadences, in densely packed epigrams seemed to be enough . Published but a little in her lifetime, I could only imagine further her bundling her missives, musing that she might become a voice, or a myriad of voices whose murmurings might seep through the foundations and plant a line or two in some passerby's ear.

We are all Emily Dickinson

We are all Emily Dickinson
talking to the furniture
over the pages of a book,
each leaf a reach across

small moments twixt
centuries by the inch,

we speak with modest tongues
when there is weather rattling
the windows, panes quaking
as though nervous with old meals
served on dark trays,

we have stopped moving
and have been nowhere at all
and we pause in our stopping
to consider the ash that rises
from the chimney logs,
the rooms and hallway
viewed through a crystal
that makes the air itself
become pithy, overgrown with reticence,

we become Emily
as we tie our missives together
with haggard twine in lacing loops,
we place our murmurings into a drawer,

we will laugh
like small girls
for years to come
as visitors come and go
through the rooms
swearing to one another
that they heard voices
behind the wall,
the eyes of the paintings
seemed to follow them around the room.

Emily Dickinson, the mistress of compressed reflection, advances her belief in the probable darkness that follows death when she write on the subject of the immortality of poetry. As with much of her work through her harbored life, there was a preoccupation with the concept that sheer nothingness awaited each of us. There was no "passing over", there was no seat next to God despite sermons and summons to behave righteously, there was no ethereal vantage point to see what writings were still read, which had been scrapped, which we rediscovered. Death was not a "state" one lapsed into as if it might be something one might come out of again; it was entirely non-being, bereft of potential. The fate of a poet's work, in popular regard and currency, were to be unknown once the lights went out. She doubtless refers to her own work with these lines:


The Poets light but Lamps—
Themselves—go out—
The Wicks they stimulate—
If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns—
Each age a Lens
Disseminating their

She seems to assert that the poem survives , if it is vital, and with that the meaning of the poem changes with each generation that it passes through. Author intentionality is relevant only when the poet is still alive and is around to make further arguments, write more poems to expand or contract their original thesis. Afterward, what the author intended to say, what they originally meant, becomes merely historical, and the poem assumes a life independent of it's author's particulars. The poem, because it is vital, is adapted and absorbed by each succeeding "lens" "circumference" it passes through; vital poems and vital literature in general are a means for which the intellectual and cultural givens of age can confirm or critique the legitimacy of their habits of mind.
The text of the poem, or the author's thinking and intentions, cease being the end-all and be-all of interpretation, since the work's passage through generations of readers and discourse presents a contemporary audience with something layered and laden with meanings and associations that are not easily dispensed with.

The dialogues of a vital work have become as much a part of the poem as the actual words on the poet's tablet, freshly writ. This makes Dickinson quite contemporary in her thinking, since it reveals an awareness that there is no metaphysical certainty that will lock her work's definitive and final meaning into place, for all time. Rather, she was aware that, seemingly, that so long as a poem continues to be read, it continues to be changed, revised, altered. She would have been an interesting person to discuss reader-reception theory with. I don't mean to say that what trying to grok what Dickinson is driving is impossible or useless; I think I overstated that part of my rant. Rather, I think it's impossible to read the poem in situ, by itself, sans outside references, which is how New Critics would have us take up the text. Generations of discussion and interpretation have become inextricable from a vital poem and, though one may well re-establish a poets original set of concerns and the gestalt from which their poetics originated, that is not a place modern readers can profitably dwell for long. Our readings must engage decades of previous readings that have become inseparable from the vital work.

The goal is comprehension, in terms of making a poem mean something to readers beyond the poet's imagining, and that means creating new contexts and criteria for relevance. That is something I positive Dickinson, always one aware of the nearness of death, had on her mind. Or something akin to it. I don't think Dickinson anticipated immortality, but it seems likely that she wondered how her poems would be interpreted beyond her life. She seems to have been of the mind that the poems ,'though fixed, as such, in the same scale of words, wouldn't be quite the same poems she'd written. Absent her voice to correct an erring view, she was aware that the poems would come to mean different things to commencing generations

don't see ED as romantic either, but rather as someone who was doing the best they could do with a personality and temperament she couldn't help but have. Her reclusive life was her choice, and in that decision she was fulfilled, with her books and her writings. It's unfair to characterize it as "wasted" if she didn't strive for anything beyond her home in Amherst. It may well be that she was incapable of adding to the social good beyond her writing; not being a social creature, reticent to meet others and loath to travel , she wasn't inclined to engage others with ideas, projects or causes. There was nothing there to waste. Some folks are just like that, I'm afraid, shut ins with their hobbies and obsessions, doing the best they can do with the solitude they crave. The judgement of history is that Emily Dickinson has done substantially better than most who don't often venture into the light, whether sunshine or moonglow. Since her poetry is the direct and desired result of the reclusive life she chose, it really is impossible to contemplate how her extraordinarily odd and often brilliant verse without considering, speculating and opining what that life was like. She is Emily Dickinson, who left the world a bounty of work that's been mainstreamed more than any other American poet and, as such, she has no right to privacy. I am of the school that says that a poet on her level of recognition needs to have eveything about their life and work scrutinized so we can a better idea of what that greatness is. This includes her sex life, or lack of it: it has a bearing on the tone and style of her work.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

When Music Mattered

There is no limit to introspection in the younger artists: mumbling heartfelt and half baked poetry to guitar bashes, electric or unplugged, is a tradition that was strong by the time I graduated high school in '71. The melodies and the mumbling haven't improved when the Torch-of-the-Tortured-Poet was passed between generations.

But even in our glory days, with our Anti-war, counter cultural, vaguely leftist politics, what we're we ever to the record companies than a demographic to be sold to, and in turn, sold to other creators of pop culture content? I think that that Hollywood and their cronies on the fabled Madison Avenue had us pegged, detailed, and enumerated as a predictable market share just as much as they had broken down the buying habits of housewives. We were ready for shipping.

It seemed a matter of the snake taking on the language and lingo of the target audience. In 1967, or 68, in the midst of campus demonstrations, student riots, and so on, Columbia Records took out large ads in underground and antiwar newspapers, periodicals they virtually supported with their advertising budgets. The photo showed a multi-cultural in a holding cell--a long haired white, blacks, Asians, men, women, a couple of old folks (I think), all with head phones on, listening to a stack of new Columbia albums, music, presumably, to smash the state by. The slogan?


Either we were too dense to think, for a second, that the ad was a cynical ploy and that, in fact, Columbia Records was "The Man", or may didn't care and bought the albums anyway, but what this ad, and ads hawking different things over the years, revealed the keenest insight: instead of being so special that we would change the world with music and higher consciousness, we were just another age group with high amounts of disposable income passing through, buy what made us feel special. Columbia knew what made us feel special: they knew us better than we knew each other.