Sunday, March 30, 2008

Writing and Aging

Poet Paul Breslin, writing about writers obsessed with their place in history in Slate’s on line forum The Fray, made an observation about the poet confronting his old age and having to wrestle with either settling into a known, familiar style , or to push one’s boundries further still, risking a loss of readers and critical ridicule. Was one going to be Dizzy Gillespie, resting on his inventions of bebop velocity, or to be Miles Davis, looking back at his past with a scowl, aggravating the notes and the harmonies for a new sound, a new thing? Breslin said this:

“... the poet who gets obsessed with reputation and turns into a self-caricature is a disturbingly frequent spectacle in American letters--must have something to do with our culture's eagerness to commodify everything and everyone. It becomes hard for a poet to focus on images, not image.”

Yes, and the sad fact that's dawning on us is that writers really do tend to run of things to say as they get older; consolidating their marketable identities into a framed and footnoted package historians can refer to after their passing is an activity that makes me sadder the older I get. There is a mania you see amongst some poets as they plunge into furious productivity, trying to tip the scales as to how the western canon will treat them in time. Allen Ginsberg was long past his best and most brilliant work; he had 'become" the professional Ginsberg, the product Ginsberg, the sage and philosopher and the seer and the divinely inspired rebel. I do not question Ginsberg's beliefs in the slightest; I've met him on a couple of instances, and a no-nothing phony he wasn't.

He was actually engaging and subtly intelligent. He has one of the best reading voices I've ever heard. That said, one confronted his recent words on the page and became aware that they were formless, random scribings, notes to one that never became the lines of finished literature. For all the good things he wrote about and embodied about the open and tolerant society, there was an awareness of audience expectation that was obvious in the slovenliness of the verse. It was as if there was a feedback loop going on that compelled him to perform for the duration of his life those same notes over and over again, and to attempt to preserve what he regarded as a massive and lasting contribution to American Literature.

That was the fatal flaw regarding his work, as it isn't the artist's job to attempt to control the posthumous judgment of their work, or to design, arrange, and seek funding for the altar at which new and older readers alike may gather and murmur their respective renditions of shock and awe. Norman Mailer, was similarly obsessed with his place in history, and even went so far as to name one of his early books Advertisements for Myself, but the difference is that Mailer had a sense of irony about the nature of his quest to forge a revolution in the consciousness of his time. Ever the clever boy, Mailer turned his self-aggrandizing proclivities and turned it into a literary persona that allowed him to produce a series of nonfiction masterpieces, such as Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Of a Fire on the Moon. Yes, it was Mailer the character at war with the world, and the character protested that the inhabitants of the world weren't doing as they should, but there was always an outward push to Mailer's egocentric excess a legitimate and mostly successful attempt to engage the world around him and understand it; Mailer's particular obsession with his place in history, with his influence on the powers of his time was successfully turned into a stylistic trope that could be used as metaphorical springboard to address the unseen details of human activity in unexpected ways. A brilliant writing style helps immensely, which Mailer has always had. And here comes another point; Mailer, unlike Ginsberg, could change his style as he got older, wiser (perhaps). By the time he won his second Pulitzer Prize for The Executioner's Song, Mailer-as-character was all but gone, the sentences were short, clipped, and the complex story of Gary Gilmore and the America he lived and murdered in was made real with the artfully artless; you couldn't "see" him writing.

John Ashbery, of course, is another who hasn't diluted his art for fame and glory;it is one of the supreme ironies in contemporary that perhaps our most unrelentingly obscure "name" poet has ascended to greater media saturation by sticking to his guns. Voices from the margin usually stay there, and die there. But not Ashbery. My take is that if one thinks there is nothing to John Ashbery's poems, they are bringing nothing to their readings, Willingness is the key; something of oneself needs to be invested in reading the poems in order to find pursuable verse. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.He was more the walker than Ashbery, I suppose, or at least he wrote more about the going to and coming from of his strolls. unlike Ashbery, O'Hara loved being an obvious tourist in his own environment, and didn't want for a minute for his poetry to leave the streets, cafes and galleries where he treaded. Ashbery is more the stroller who gets lost in his associations triggered by what he beheld. Ever more the aesthete than his fellow New York Poets, he was interested in things a little more metaphysical, that being that the reality that exists in the inter-relations being the act of perception and the thoughts that are linked to it, which branch off from the perception and link again with another set of ideas, themselves connected to material things observed and remembered. O'Hara was immediate, like the city he loved, while Ashbery allowed his senses the authority to enlarge his perception, to explore the simultaneity of sight and introspection. In a strange way, Ashbery is the more sensual of the two, willing to examine that even the sacrifice of immediate coherence.
I'm not a fan of difficulty for the sake of being difficult, but I do think it unreasonable to expect poets to be always unambiguous or easily grasped. Not every dense piece of writing is worthy by default, of course, and the burden falls on the individual talent. Ashbery's writing, for me, has sufficient allure, resonance and tangible bits of the recognizable world he sees to make the effort to maneuver through his diffuse stanzas worth the work. Poetry is the written form where ambiguity of meaning and multiplicity of possible readings thrives more than others, and it's tradition is not a parsimonious use of language, but rather a deliberate expansion of what words pieced can do, what meanings they can evoke, and what sensations they can create. Prose is the form that is, by default, is required to have the discourse it carries be clear and has precise as possible. Poetry and poets are interesting because they are not addressing their experiences or their ideas as linear matters subject to the usual linguistic cause and effect; poetry is interesting because it's a form that gives the inclined writer to interrogate their perceptions in unexpected ways. The poetic styles and approaches and aesthetics one may use vary widely in relative degrees of clarity, difficulty, and tone, but the unifying element is that poetry isn't prose, and serves a purpose other than the mere message delivering that is, at heart, the basic function of competent prose composition

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sleeping is better than sex

Robert Pinsky at Slate does one of quizzical turns as poetry editor and offers this poem by Lucie Brock-Broido, which he posted in 2004 .This is a depressed, airless little stretch of depression and despair that is so self-consciously arty that the empathy of the reading world isn't needed required in the slightest.

It has the grunting shorthand of a mumbling sociopath who has constant dialogues with invisible adversaries in the streets; in one way or another, the narrator is going to get one set of aggravations straightened out and squared away, only to have another proverbial shoe fall, another range of ills and bad breaks upset whatever thought of serenity might have been forming.

The poem, obviously about hurt and perhaps about some variety of sexual obsession that prevents joy, release and peace from being experienced, is ruined with bizarre and convoluted language that try to mask an inability to confront the dysfunctional center this piece ostensibly tries to crystallize in its brief lines; suitable metaphors are not imagined, language isn't given the rigor required to have the lines vividly evoke and blur in the same instance.

Brock-Broido devises instead images and allusions that are nearly as awful as the Joyce Carol Oates I've read here:
How is it possible to still be startled

As I am by the oblong silhouette of the coiling
Index finger of a pending death

You don't care, really, about how it is that the poet, or the speaker is still startled when they happen upon words like "oblong", a singularly arrhythmic word that satisfies no operative psychology in the work. Like "zaftig" from our otherwise fine lyric from last week, the word is obvious window dressing that used to dignify the creaking obscurity of "silhouette of the coiling Index finger of a pending death..." Brock-Broido might have been thinking of the neo-gothic death-wishes of Poe, or the aestheticized indirection of Ashbery's interior walking tours, but there is no fresh expression to come upon.

Whatever the poet was thinking about committing to verse, none of it made it onto the page. The power lacks power, emotional punch, or mystery, any of those alluring qualities that give a decent poem its attraction and worth. I find this more than just a little pretentious and academic. This is not a compelling language to speak of a world that we all share, however differently we might feel about

Friday, March 28, 2008

What Flip Side?

As a matter of habit, I posted this poem to one of the discussion boards on Slate magazine’s forum The Fray. I thought it was a decent attempt at the loose-fitting sonnet form, as practiced by Ted Berrigan and featured in Gerald Stern’s engagingly gangly book American Sonnets. The distinction between these efforts and the Elizabethan sonnets one parses in college courses is that the “loose-fitting” form (my phrase) is an attempt to bring the particularly American instinct to confess and promote one’s idealized personality in free verse, ala Whitman and Charles Olson , with the limits a more formal structure. The results satisfy nearly no one but those who appreciate perversions of form, with the hope something new emerges. Sometimes something does. I was hoping for comments on this slight effort:

Sonnet 16

A sign of the cross and a sign on the door or just sign
yourself out if it’s a weekend pass you’re dealing with,

sign yourself up for a moment in the sun when you
have your tax refund check in hand, give us some cash for

the diversions that approach the distraction level
of morons who get their exercise reading the labels

on records as they go ‘round and ‘round on the
phonograph, signs of life in a living room, your parents

house and sofa, I am hiding behind a chair before the light
switch is flipped and a panic like business plans that come

undone where you signed a dotted line that ends up
being a perforations around your wrists, like you see

on butcher’s charts, you know, under the sign that reads

Interesting, and as often happens on the forums, the first response to the poem brought something else in the poem to think about other than how well it works as an amateurs attempt at more structured verse. A poster with the moniker Th Paine asked

How many people will understand what you mean when you refer to record labels spinning around on a phonograph?

Good question. Who would have thought that LP's would be something that reveals your generation? I remember years ago talking to a young man , twenty years younger than I at least, about various matters. When it came time to say goodbye, I said "I'll see you on the flip side". He looked puzzled as we shook hands as asked me what I meant by "flip side". In an instant I realized that he was too young to remember long playing albums, vinyl, and briefly explained that before CDs records had two sides, side A and side B, and that the phrase meant the other side of the record. It was no big deal , of course, but it was informative that I was now old enough that some of the cultural references I'd been using for decades were now potentially incomprehensible to younger adults. The larger irony is that my poems, whatever I think of them, most likely strike adults, young or less young, as incomprehensible in turn, and that it ought not surprise me that someone who read the poem above responds to a detail they recognize and have a good question about. Some years ago I was enamored of "reader response theory", promoted by Stanley Fish, which had as one of it's implicit ideas was that a text wasn't particularly "finished" until a reader had read it and interpreted it with the resources and associations their unique community would afford them. There is a finer, more subtle theory than I've let on, but let us say that the fancy that someone's response to a poem is , no matter what it is, is as interesting (and important) as the poem itself is under a momentary reconsideration.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"Houseflies": big warning comes on small wings

"Houseflies" by Kevin Barent is a perfectly realized minature, a rapid string of thoughts linked cohesively where a series well sketched images get across a life lesson that's learned in a sudden flash of self awareness.This is a confession of one's limitations without the autobiography that would weight it down in details of incidents that would be problematic for the poet to make interesting or pertinent to the mission of having the poem work. The tone is converational, the addressed other in the poem being the collective houseflies as they swarmed over and around him, and he admits his folly of thinking he could vanquish with conventional means:

I knew you all when you were young.
I tried to drown you in the garbage bin

with bleach and hose-water, but you floated up
and swam, jerking little grubs,

like bloated rice, or someone punching
from inside a tiny body bag.

There is the well used comic touch of having the narrator sound paternal and pompous, substituting "garbage bin" for the unsaid 'though rhyming "play pen", an introduction that introduces a couple of items of "off stage" interest". We have here the emerging suggestion that Barent is voicing the secret and self-horrifying desire of some young parents that they could make their babies go away, perhaps even murder them, so they, as young people, might return to their days life of self-absorbed consumption, a desire one struggles with and buries in the farthest reach of the conciousness as one accepts the new responsibility, the life long task of parenting.

Second, the off stage implications are global, as when America's habit of underestimating the foreign entanglements it commits itself too, convinced that a big army and a finely honed rhetoric could solve another country's internal problems and make the source of irritation vanish, the lesson being that the enemy , created by our fumbles and arrogance, returns to the battlefield, stronger, angrier, readier than ever. Barent does not lecture us on foreign policy and keeps the situation local, although there is an intriguing inversion here, if one considers the implicit political critique a bit further; the centered powers of American strategy making regard their foes as subhuman, as other, as insects feasting on the misery we're trying to fix, while Barent's smaller scale war forces him to anthropormorphize his flies as he gives them their due. Quantity changes quality, the standard line goes, and the more intimate struggle with the flies makes possible respect for the facts as their revealed. The larger scale of war against an enemy we've underestimated brings us up against pride, vanity of the worst, most murderous sort, a trap where an action cannot be changed because we cannot admit we were wrong in the first place.

And now you circle overhead—
small, neat, glossy with newness,

helping yourselves to what was mine,
angels from the man-made world.

Vanity is the ultimate theme here, the grossest sin of the one creature who is self aware enough to develop culture and a language with which he many rationalize his supposed supremacy and omnipotence, and it is these man made things, both the conceits and the material items we've made with our genius for fashioning tools , industry and commerce prove to be more a source of ruin and destruction than we would have thought. The flies are the sarcastically referred to as "angels" taking possession of what was once the property of a single man, or the whole of society. In this small, ironic image, Barent adds the additional and final insight that we too often fail to take responsibility for what it is we do in the world, of what we introduce into it , and that we constantly fail to see a larger picture and see what it is we've done that gives us so much garbage to manage, so many wars to fight, so much death as a result of both. The point of the final lines seem to be that the source of our problems often as not originate with our most brilliant ideas.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

No Country for Old Men on DVD

No Country for Old Men, now available on DVD, 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. But for all the joy the brothers have given me , there is something a measure overdone, over the top and overwritten in their movies, brilliant as they may be. The aspect of homage is never far from most of their efforts, and there was a lingering hope that there might be a project they'd undertake that wouldn't have the knowing wink, the grotesque elaboration on genre iconography. The Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name was the ideal choice; like the Coens, McCarthy has a world that becomes meaningless and cruel once the vanity of elaborate expectation are violently removed, but where the Coens allow the distance and the space to appreciate their joke and fall into the comfort of being let in on the joke, McCarthy gives no quarter, no comfort, and sees nothing to laugh at. It is a tragedy remains tragic, intended for the reader (and viewers) to appreciate what they have for as long as they're privileged to have it.The Coens in turn offer no quarter, which has effect of ramping up the tension, the creepiness. This film is a wonderfully constructed work of unnerving verve. Hubris is a striking theme in the Coens' 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.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A poem for Easter, sort of

We have our crosses to bear and we have our means of taking a load off our feet and our minds; of mine is writing furious notes to the margins about matters that matter little in
any time line you can conjure. Tending to irrelevance seems my fate, and so be it. The other method is playing lots of blues harmonica, relishing the sound of those bent notes and staccato riffs as they seem to hammer out the worrisome kinks and dents in the armor surrounding an other wise fragile ego. But today is Easter, and we are to rise to the task, rise above our petty concerns, and find a greater purpose than our relentless self seeking. Some of us seem natural to the calling, while others of us wait years for something to happen as a result a dedication to the rituals of faith.

Therein lies the problem, an inversion, a misreading profound and simple; the faith is in the rituals one was instructed in, not the act of faith one performs with no guarantee that any good will come of one’s winging it, sans script. Hence this poem, written this morning, a sketch, a monologue short changes the power of observance by interrogating ritual while one is ostensibly observing sacred rites.

Arisen (revised)
Today we roll away the stone
and find there's not a bone
we can pick with the stems and
blooms of seeds that have
breached the soil
after the long nights
of cold, dreamless slumber.

Tonight we bless ourselves
and dust our shelves
and curse under our breath
that wasn't more on the table
nor more praise
for the calluses our hands took on
hammering each nail
into the joists
for the roof over our heads
that keeps the food dry
on the table
that's set bread and wine,
our own flesh and blood.

Tomorrow we rise and
make noise
that’ll upset our poise
as we stare out the window
and curse the sun the rising again,
cursing the moon
for sleeping until dark,
scratching behind our ears
as we struggle to remember
over toothpaste smears
each and every step we took
to get where are,
arisen and angry,
a rough patch of unshaved chin.

I think the narrator is joking, as in being bitterly disappointed in his inability to make his actual life and the good fortune he believed devout faith would befall him. The over riding idea of grace, revivification, and joy in being alive in service to God doesn't match his feelings about his concrete experience. Nothing he has tried, I'd imagine further, has lessened what he considers the excessive load he bears. He is arguing the opposite of what he paraphrases the promises of faith to be, and this, I think ,is his problem; he hasn't the patience to allow his culminated experience become into wisdom.

He is someone who will remain, most likely, a grumbler, a complainer, a bitter smart ass. I share some of these qualities; he would rather be right than wise, a habit of mind that certainly winds up more dejected that raptured. Galway Kinnell is definitely an influence I called on when writing this morning.

Jason Ricci Hits the Sweet Spot

Rocket Number 9
Jason Ricci and New Blood
(Eclecto Groove Records)

Anyone with a strong need of hearing some of very fine and blistering blues harmonica work by a player dedicated to extending that small instrument's capacity to surprise a listener, I'd recommend getting the new disc by Jason Ricci and New Blood, Rocket Number 9. Ricci is one of those musicians where you can here the influences of players he's "gone to school" on (sounding to me like a sweet blend of Paul Butterfield, Little Walter, Sugar Blue, Sonny Boy Williamson and Howard Levy , and a smattering of mainstream saxists ala Paul Desmond )who has blended what he's learned into a vigorous, original style. Rocket Number Nine is a glorious and tight blues rock album, with plenty of sharp guitar work, a rhythm section that balances tightness and an an appealing , shambling kind of looseness , all of this highlighting Ricci's serpentine harp improvisations and ragged-but-right vocals.

What becomes obvious is that young Ricci is not stuck for an idea, and it's a wonder to hear his solos rage and soar and then transform into jazzier lines; one would have a hard time to finding another harmonica player with a better grasp of his technique and imagination or who makes as much of an effort to present fresh notions, configurations and twists into his playing.

There's a naturalness to what he brings forth, a sensual joining of his lines that is remindful of Butterfield at his most prime; rather than seeming like an upstart perfunctorily playing his warm-up licks before launching his super chops too soon and too often, Ricci, like Butterfield, has a jazz-players of dynamics. There the rare skill of building and releasing tension that keeps on the edge, motivated by the band's virtuoso rhythms and the lead man's sober unpredictability. New Blood, as I said, is a tight, rocking, funkified band. Everyone, take a bow!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Poetry and Ice Cream

The whole issue as to what makes for a "moving poem" is as subjective as what the best ice cream flavor is, and the delineation of these differences are what makes discussing poems , at times, a great pleasure. I might have qualified this further by saying that I was moved by the poem and had assumed that Pinsky was as well, but no matter. "planting daffodils" is a lyric poem, analogous to music, and there is something in the sound of the words and the spaces between the images they've formed that gives me a clue to several ideas that are tangible yet beneath the surface of what the poem describes; the art of what was almost said. What comes into play is the reader's task, if they're interested in the task, to complete the poem itself; thre is a meaning the poet intends, yes, but there is meaning the reader has of their own that can possibly make for a meaning even more fascinating than what the original author had thought possible. One is moved by the sounds of the words placed together who's musical properties, their very sounds, act as a trigger for some of us who would then quite suddenly experience something of a revelation as a sequence of memories, fragments of recollection, piece themselves together and give the poem that's beheld on the page even more resonance than if one were merely trying to deciper the author's private intentions. Boulay has the ear to make these things happen. One is moved by public expression and the private reactions the words , together, stir.
Charlotte Boulay's poem, spoken of in the last post and in a discussion here is a useful illustration of how our concepts of life and death are layered in a sheer set of metaphors and analogies that contrast our routine lives with our idealizations, and warns, at the margins, that we will be surprised, shocked and saddened at the end if we think we've gained control of our fate beyond our final day.
The strange thing about personal tastes, whether it applies to ice cream or poetic styles, is that while a collective of interested folks might agree in the abstract what constitutes quality, the more specific , localized elements become dicier the closer we inspect.
There are folks I know who cannot stand chocolate, strange as that might seem. Nonetheless, they are adamant in their aversion, and can sound off with varying degrees of articulation as to why chocolate is vile, or at least undesirable. What interests me isn’t whether I’m converted to their thinking, but rather that they make a good argument for their belief; while I might not be convinced, I might learn something in the exchange about conflicting tastes, and enhance my own appreciation as a result. Ideally speaking, of course.
The first thing to accept is that some folks will not have their minds changed about their tastes and their prejudices; it becomes, then, a search for those with whom you might disagree but might learn something from.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"planting daffodils", a fine lyric poem from Charlotte Boulay

Charlotte Boulay's "planting daffodils" is among the best poems I've read in the years since taking an interest in Robert Pinsky's weekly and mostly quizzical selections, and it is here where I commend on an expert choice. One might have spoken too soon if there was a suggestion that the former Poet Laureate has a tin ear; I'll suggest instead that he might select what moves him as often as he chooses what merely engages his curiosity. "planting daffodils" ponders the relentless fact of the cycle of life and death, linking them to the seasonal changes, that what comes from the earth returns to the earth and is again reborn changed, elevated, seasoned with wisdom and a hard won spirituality. Boulay gets my attention because she brings together the literary and the material, the reference to the priest giving Juliet the potion that would put her into a temporary death-like coma, and working in a garden, planting bulbs.
*******The Friar tells her, drink this
potion and for a time you will be
as dead.***What? she says,
*Are you kidding? Only the earth
knows that faith. But this love is of the earth,
so when she sleeps, it's in darkness,
******a round weight curled in a papery shroud.
This fall, digging little graves, I can smell
******winter approaching like the war
that already rages, not with drumbeats and shots
but more ominously silent, a great lack
of lucidity and grace.

This is a strong poem, I think, and I don't think there's a false or strained remark or move anywhere in it. The language is unpretentious without being self-consciously barren as, say, David Mamet's or Paul Auster's poems can be, and her elisions , the pause and unspoken link between the imaginative (Juliet) and the material (the garden in fall) is done with just enough spacing to surprise a reader with the association. The obvious connections between them are presented well--there's no sense in the images being overdressed for the occasion, so to speak--and I rather like the darker implication about human vanity being under-addressed, almost not at all, but implicit all the same. It gives you the effect of a delayed shock of recognition. I think it wise of her as well to avoid mention of Easter and keep this poem within the scope of what man imagines and what man must actually contend with.

There is anxiety, fear, the shivering dread that matches the chill of cold earth being dug up as one enters into the cyclical ritual of preparing for a rebirth of life and a bountiful garden in distant months to come. Juliet must trust the priest and allow her love for Romeo to give her the strength and blind faith to drink the potion and hence and “ for a time be like death”. In the fall, the gardener sets upon tilling a hard ground, “digging little graves”, knowing the bloom the spring will bring but made to think all the same of war, carnage, desolation. The gardener continues to plant what she has come to set into the earth, knowing at a level of gut instinct that life emerges anew from a soil that would seem incapable of yielding nothing at all.
So is a rooted bulb a record
of a promise kept through winter. This is the truth we only half
believe:**that each hoary, twinned sprout becomes,
in the moment before she sees him,
*Juliet, waking to a clasp of arms,
*******yellow trumpets crying.

And so bulbs grow, break the soil, rise toward the soil and to new life, a life coming from what appeared to be a despoiled earth which had, in truth, nurtured it through the cold months. What was planted wasn’t dormant, but in fact growing and being readied for a life on the surface of things. Appearances are deceiving, we realize, but there is more, a twist; Juliet awakes from the tomb from her death like slumber and finds the dead Romeo next to her, Romeo, who hadn’t known of the conspiracy between the priest and Juliet and thought her dead when he beheld her in the tomb. Boulay’s ironic reversal of fortunes here is perfect and finely fitted, and intimates that appearances that are contrived to deceive to advance an agenda, whether nefarious or inspired by the hot, exclusive intensity of teenage love, can work against the intended results. The irony the poem contains is that despite the seeming devastations nature foists upon us and, seemingly, itself, is that new life is nearly always the result; volcano explosions, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods. What existed before is tossed aside, displaced, destroyed, but not discarded, as their seeming waste becomes the materials that make a new life possible. A diminished note in the poem is the suggestion that the vanity that we can control nature and change its function is an illusion that we have continually smashed. It is a lesson we refuse to learn, however, precisely because we have the curse of turning our strong feelings into world views and applied philosophies that often as not result in ironic ruin. The eternal cycle of seasonal change and life and death goes on unconcerned, churning, destroying, upsetting, recombining, giving birth, a process cannot be stalled, deterred or manipulated. The underlining point here is that these great forces are matters we may struggle against or attempt to adapt to as we must, but there is a vanity in our nature that thinks we can usurp or avoid what confines and directs existence because emotions become fever pitched with raging love rage and we mistake the transcendence that effects the world that furnished our niche.

Boulay was probably told early on that political poems about specific situations don't often work well as poems after the catharsis they provide passes; even the readers who agree with the sentiments are not likely to read the poem again as a verse that might add value to their interior life as they accumulate experience. The lack of specificity adds power to her gradually accelerated insight to the vanity of think that nature would defer to our desire, be they fearful or arrogant. Nature just is.

I have a feeling that the "reversal" aspect surprised her as well, that it came from the writing and wasn't a conceit apriori to the writing; if so, she shows good instincts to maintain the secondary emphasis. This would have been an instance where a poet with a less keen ear and sense of balance between image and idea would have turned the notion into a lecture in an erring attempt to mine more insight from the surprise. Boulay didn't try to improve on her fortuitous dialectic, fortunate for us.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Rock and Roll on PBS Pledge Night

I turned on PBS the other night, discovered it was a fund raising night, and witnessed the incredibly creased likes of the Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly performing truncated versions of their respective hits. It reminded me why I've come to prefer straight ahead jazz in my later life.
Pledge Night

Let’s remember that
we’re strangers here ourselves
as we consider the years
we’ve had the same phone number,
the answering machine
is full of salesmen
stumbling over their scripts
and toll free exchanges,
get an extra room cleaned
for free and God, do I want a smoke.
None of us
who still have hair
believed our music
would age as badly
as an ice cream flavor
involving spinach and Brussels sprouts,
all the guitar licks
leave an after taste
of hashish, a stench of love beads
doused in petuli oil,
what was sleek and smooth
is now grey and creased
like paper that’s been
folded and unfolded over many years,
yes, I tell my barber,
roll down my ears;
give me a buzz
the equal of a shot and a beer.

I still listen to rock and roll, and for me the perfect road trip music is Deep Purple's Machine Head. I just don't attend all that many rock shows anymore, especially ones by the bands of my generation; the look pathetic. Jazz musicians maintain dignity as they age, since their music is about musicianship , not desperate appeals to what gets termed youth's "rebellious spirit”. But it depends on the artists; Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Lou Reed and some older bands like King Crimson or, in punk, Bad Religion are rock acts I’d consider paying money to see, since it’s the power of their songs and the genius of their musical and lyrical textures that have withstood the defanging quality of aging; the music still has a bite, and can take a leg off if you’re not careful. Contrarily, there have been a number of times when I’ve seen living jazz legends (who will remain unnamed) who seemed to sleep walk through their improvised paces; not every elder jazzbo can be a Sonny Rollins, a man who continues to challenge himself. The secret being an artist who ages gracefully is to make sure that what you’ve had to say in your medium was worth hearing in the first place.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Well Made Poems"

More often than not I defend the "well made" poem if the poet has the needed things going for it , like a solid construction, an ability focus imagery in a fresh and sparing way the unresolvability of conflicting responses to situations written about, either past or current.The execution should take one by surprise, leave one breathless, if only for a second. Ideally, each verse would be an epiphany;we make do with less, however, and adjust our expectations accordingly. Like it or not, those poems, scorned by large sections of the post-avant gard who write a more difficult work, are themselves not easy to write; one may speak of technique all they wish, but there is an innate sense, I believe, of knowing how start, what to build with and, most importantly , when too quit, lest one kill a good idea for a poem with the lack of confidence overwriting suggests. Billy Collins has come in for his share of jabs and jibes because of the middlebrow accessibility of his work, he is a poet who has a certain mastery of the everyman voice who writes poetry "for the rest of us" ; his is a poetry is a body of work that forces the reader to think about the world they're already familiar with in new ways.His is the world of the banal, the small, the incidental, the vocabulary of twitches and tics , but this remains a realm that needs to be written about. Collins is the man to equal the challenge in inspiring a reader to interrogate routines and schedules that guide their journeys from desk to mailbox and back again. Billy Collins, in fact, is the perfect "gateway poet"; when I worked at an independent bookstore for some years in San Diego, several customers over several years expressed a desire to read something more daring, challenging, "edgier" than what the former U.S. Poet Laureate was offering. I navigated them to Thomas Lux, comparable to Collins for clarity and readability, but darker, more ironic, a poet who explores the unintended results of one's best efforts to assert their will on the world.

There are those "well made poems" , however, that strive to hit all the marks that only make you feel that someone is trying too hard for the lead role in play they're not suited for; they dance too fast, they sing too loud, they deliver the monologue without suggesting that they're talking to another person."For D" by Roseanna Warren reads like it were a dull long poem that had been workshopped down to a dull short one; the striking language is all that's left, and there is nothing between the odd phrasings to make this prissy string of worry beads intrigue you. The poem is a dieter who has lost weight too quickly who finds that absence of flab doesn't mean one will find a prince or princess emerging from the flab and stretch marks.

This is one of those poems where you read each line expecting something to happen at the end of each line, and nothing does. It's a fussy poem, full of odd and unnatural words placed in positions where attention becomes focused on the odd sounds the words make rather than the meaning they may suggest or the unresolved feelings being sussed through. Euphony is fine, everyone enjoys rich words and intriguing slang, but there is an expectation that the person writing the poem should have his or her feet on the ground and have a diction roughly like ours (slightly heightened, of course, since this is poetry after all).

The plane whumps down through rainclouds, streaks
of creamy light through cumulus, and, below,
a ruffled scattering, a mattress' innards ripped—

No one talks like this, and no one should be writing poems with this word choices this precious. Whumps is a word suggesting body surfing as a lone man or woman braves the water and rides the momentum of waves coming to crash on a burly shore line, and it also sounds like the sound a drunk uncle might make against a newborn baby's bare stomach; Warren wants to suggest a plane's bumpy passage through some "creamy" clouds , but she makes us think of desert instead of a slow unnerving as she nears her destination. "Innards" is the kind of word one actually speaks, but ironically, in an affected voice to soften the use of a dated colloquialism. The image of seeing a slashed mattress on the landing approach could have been a dramatic one, a choice foreshadowing, but "innards" undermines that.

For the rest, the poem is over arranged, and it occurs to you finally that this reads like someone preparing their responses and poeticizing in advance of the facts; Tilda Swinton's ruthless character in Michael Clayton comes to mind, a nervous corporate crook rehearsing her prepared statements in the mirror with different tones of voice, eye movements, and differing tilts of the head. Her character, like this poem, ends badly.