Friday, January 11, 2008
Thursday, January 10, 2008
The death of a loved one is not something that one just "gets over", as if there was expiration date on grief. Yes, one moves on with their life and tries to have new experiences and adventures, but poets, like anyone else, get older, and the longer view on their life and relations comes to the for. Poetry will tend to cease being the bright and chatty record of one's impulses, leavened with fast wit and snappy references, and will become more meditative, slower, a more considered rumination on those who've are gone yet whose presence remains felt and which influences the tone and direction of the living. It's hardly a matter of getting mileage from a tragedy as it is a species of thinking-out-loud. We speak ourselves into being with others around us to confirm our life in the physical world as well to confront the inescapable knowledge of our end, and poets are the ones writing their testaments that they were here once and that they lived and mattered in a world that is soon enough over run with another generation impatient to destroy or ignore what was here only scant years before so they may erect their premature monuments to themselves and their cuteness.
We survived our foolishness and quick readings, a poet writes, we lived here and mattered to a community of friends and enemies in ways that no novel or epic production can capture, and we wish you the same luck, the chance to live long enough in this world you seek to fashion after your own image so you may write about your regrets, your failures, the things you didn't get around to doing.
Let me remark that despair isn't the default position for poets to take as they get older; as I think is plain here, poets will in general treat their subject matter with more consideration, more nuance, more acuity as they age. The host of emotions, whether despair, elation, sadness, celebration, aren't likely to alter, but the treatments are bound to be richer, deeper, darker. One has aged and one has experienced many more things since they were in their twenties, and convincingly casting off the same flippant riffs one did in their fifties as they had while a college freshman is a hard act to pull off, emphasis on "act". One grows up, if they're lucky, and acts their age. Acting one's age doesn't necessarily mean one becomes a crotchety old geezer yelling at kids to get off his (or her) lawn; those character traits are formed long before the onset of old age. But what I think is a given is that an aging poet would be inclined to be more thoughtful as he or she writes. And why shouldn't they be. They have more experience to write about and to make sense of.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
Campbell’s Black Bean Soup
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
already? How to copy
rights? Basquiat stripped
labels, opened & ate
& 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
There is something to be said about 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 otherwise 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 the 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 elliptical 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 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, isolated. One is supposed to examine the conditions of their response and realize that it 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 principal 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 modernism 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, MacLeish (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 its 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 MacLeish; one wonders when he will stop trying to please his professors and mentors and slip into something more comfortable, such as his 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, of 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 knowledge that about 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 of the world
keeps its whirling—
How I've waited
without a word—
the sun's no longer—
into ether, wherever
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 readymade 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 paid four hundred dollars by Slate. Young at his worst sounds like he’s still trying to prove himself to his elders . The 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 every day 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.