Sunday, May 4, 2008

Iron Man

Iron Man is perfectly positioned to be the first major hit film of the 2008 summer season,and for good reason: it's a fine and entertaining bit of swift, efficient entertainment. Film makers at times have the tendency to make their comic book adaptations a shade too serious but inserting subtexts and philosophical overlays that dampen one's desire to suspend their disbelief.

The wounded inner child issues of Ang Lee's The Hulk made that film into a very noisy tantrum, and Bryan Singer's attempt to link the Superman mythos with the arrival and eventual ascension of Christ made his Superman Returns the slowest moving boat in the channel. IM director Jon Favreau and screen writers Mark Fergus Hawk Otsby make the prudent decision to play this storyline like it were a regular Marvel comic book tale, a refreshingly two dimensional narrative that allows the writers to invest some appealing character traits and good lines of dialogue. Casting is splendid as well, with Robert Downey being a perfect as billionaire arms manufacturing Tony Stark who is kidnapped by terrorists and has a life-changing experience that compels him to build his Iron Man suit and hence undo the harm he has done with his WMDs. An especially fine touch comes with Stark's irritated banter with the workshop robots who assist him in the suit's manufacturing, and in the appropriately destructive trial and error shake down cruises the new weapon requires.Downey applies all his native charm to make Stark seem a playboy with a shrewd sense of irony who's paradigm shift to become a Good Guy doesn't dry up a ready wit. This super hero can run his mouth as well as his engine. It is a nice distinction from other such efforts that this a super hero who might require a AAA card in the event of a stalled suit of armor.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Leslie Scalapino, the Laureate of Close Inspection

It's Go In Horizontal: Selected Poems 1974-2006
Leslie Scalapino
(University of California Press)

Laying out a poem like it were a trail of breadcrumbs a reader would to the bigger feast of The Point Being Made is not how writer Leslie Scalapino writes. As we find ourselves in a time when the popular idea of the poet and their work they compose seems slanted toward the lightly likable Billy Collins and others assembling stanzas that are easily grasped, shared, written out in a fine hand on perfumed paper and preserved between the leaves of a dictionary of quotations. Difficulty or the second look, beyond the festooned surface, is not for this audience, which wants, one thinks, poetry to be a prettified version of obvious literary sounds.

Scalapino requires not the casual gaze but the harder view, the more inquisitive eye. Scalapino brings a refreshing complexity to her work, a sanguine yet inquisitive intelligence that is restless and dissatisfied with the seemingly authorized narrative styles poets are expected to frame their ideas with. The framing, so to speak, is as much the subject in her poems and prose, and the attending effort to interrogate the methods one codifies perception to the exclusion of details not fitting a convenient structure, Leslie Scalapino has produced a body of work of rare and admirable discipline; the writing is a test of the limits of generic representation. Her work as well as an inquiry on how we might exist without them.

In a series of over nineteen books over published since the seventies, she has been one of the most interesting poets working, an earnest inquisitor of consciousness and form blurring and distorting the boundaries that keep poetry, prose, fiction, and autobiography apart. It's Go in Horizontal is a cogent selection from three decades of writing.

The distinction blurring is not a project originating with her, but there is in Scalapino's work the sense of a single voice rather than expected "car radio effect", the audio equivalent of Burroughs's cut-up method that would make a piece resembles an AM dial being moved up and down a distorted, static-laden frequency. Leslie Scalapino's writing is one voice at different pitches responding to an intelligence aware of how it codes and decodes an object of perception. The work is fascinating, interrogations that wrestle with the act of witnessing.

In the best sense of the comparison, her writing has traces of Gertrude Stein at her most concentrated, when she had considered the Cubism of Braque, Picasso, and Leger and sought an equivalent in writing of the effects they achieved in their painting and sculpture; a disassembling of the usual way that orders visual experience the effect of which reveals each perspective at the same time. This simultaneity of witness presents problems at first--head scratching isn't an unusual response to first timers even these days--but the beauty of the project is that the abstraction it produces in the work of the Cubists and with sympathetic experimental writers like Stein is that it allows for things that are normally hidden or ignored in favor of more flattering, svelte detail to be brought to the forefront. The world is less smooth and elegant as the former restraints are removed, and it becomes a huge space filled with objects of infinite shape.

Stein, though, was principally intrigued with the visual, and Scalapino's writing concerns itself with an investigation of one's own perception.

There is a fracturing of narrative flow, a rephrasing of what was formally said, a studied trek through a temporal sequence of events full of incidental images, smells and sounds, any of which trigger associations linking the speaker, the witness to phenomenon, to a personal history and future one speculates about in limitless wondering. Scalapino's writing is a study of the mind conducting its habit as a device that forces order on an infinitely complex rush of details that would otherwise overwhelm the senses.
Her poetry examines the canvas on which one draws their conceptualizations, a worried presence on the margins of consolidated personality ever aware of the filters one applies over the phenomenon.

I haven't excerpted any of Scalapino's work here because the formatting of this blog wouldn't do justice to the arrangements of her lines on the page; the spatial arrangements are crucial in many of her poems for each sliver and shaving of nuance to fully work. But there are are some choice links here you can follow to some of her works online, presented, I assume, as the author intended them to appear.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

"HEAT", a movie by Michael Mann

I’ve seen director Michael Mann's three hour masterpiece Heat four times, thanks to HBO and Netflix, and a recent reviewing the other night has convinced me I ever was of it’s greatness. Maybe it's just a guy thing where the typical male obsessions, like guns, cars, violence, are elevated to potentially embarrassing levels of reading, but the ironically named Mann has the cool style to pull off the task. "Cool" and "style" are the important words to remember.It's a heist film as tragedy, and its particularly arresting to seeing the un-bottled rage of Pacino's dogged cop contrasted with the coolly methodical criminal of DeNiro set against the expansive , cluttered , over lit loneliness that constitutes Mann's idea of Los Angeles. Mann'>Mann is in control of his materials, and his decision to limit the amount of shared screen time between his top billed stars was smart indeed; rather than a conventional vehicle plot geared to accommodate big stars in uninteresting situations, we get ins study in distinct and not-so distinct contrasts as the competing personalities and their agendas head to an ending where only one, or neither of them is standing. Mann at his best gets the hard-boiled genre where all a man has going for him is his professionalism and the personal code that comes with it, and Heat to me is an intriguing extension of the style.

Some critics were alarmed by what they felt was Mann’s reluctance to have feeling for human relationships –we are in the country of stoic individuals conducting themselves by codes of honor and conduct that places weight on action, not words and their adjectives--the movie is about human relationships reduced to the occupations that command everything; emotional attachments are a luxury the characters, cops and crooks alike, cannot afford. This is a given in heist dramas, but little, really, has been done to show the devastation that The Life has the personal level. Pacino has grudgingly accepted the isolation his work has forced him into, and pursues DeNiro without let up, whatever the cost to himself or those around him. DeNiro's character, in turn, has a code that says, in effect, that someone in the life needs to be ready, always, to abandon whoever and whatever is around them the minute they know the "heat" is around the corner; the tragedy is slowly set into motion as he violates his own code, his rules for existing in the life he's chosen, and attempts to take his girlfriend with him. His end is inevitable. Heat’s success, for me, is the way Mann expands the minimalist conventions of the narrative line and examines the irrevocable ruin in human relations that the characters' choices result in.

I don't know about the characters being unrealized, since I think this is in the tradition of Hemingway wherein blatant introspection is nil, but much is conveyed through a series of small details, glances, scars. Perhaps you don't see it, but there's a lot that is said between the lines here, and the acting--Jon Voight is particularly effective here with his restraint, among others--creates a tangible feeling of emotional attachment being hammered into silence by a rough trade. The bit with Pacino's daughter is the least convincing thing in the film; my impression is that Mann had four to five hours of film he had to edit to an hour. This is obviously a truncated storyline that should have been excised from the film. But it's a flaw I can live with..Mann has been taken to task for not making his case about alienation by subtler means, without resorting, as one critic wrote “….to extremism because the vast majority of people never get so mesmerized by their jobs that they lose their humanity the way De Niro does.” The complaint , of course, is that Mann loves the build up to a grand explosion of feeling where only a character’s capacity for ballistic reaction can satisfy the need. Mann, though, I think is well in the tradition of theatrical tragedy, as DeNiro’s character’s, master thief, thorough professional, a planner who makes no mistakes in his agendas, assumes that he can defy the odds against getting caught and thus assumes his carefully articulated professionalism will shield him from unlucky happenstance. He is a sufferer of unwarranted pride, a carrier of hubris who claims credit for all that great around him. Tragic form demands that the Universe correct itself, since one thing corresponds with everything else within the dramatic frame, equilibrium must be reestablished.

Heat is a tragedy, and tragedies require extremism. There is no more extremism here than you'd find in Shakespeare. This isn't saying that Mann's work here equals The Bards, but only that the out sized action we witness is in perfect scale with the tragic form. It operates at the appropriate level. Heat is a movie, and movies generally demand "extremism." Movies are required to be "larger than life", perhaps, but "extremism" here is a generic requirement of both tragedy and the noir aspects Mann is working in. The conventions of the narrative style don't allow for the middle ground, the kind of emotional richness that are reserved for the civilians of the world, with straight jobs that have regular hours. The minimal and the maximal are the options in this case, and Mann does a what I think is a credible job of getting something operatic from this story of two men , bereft of other human satisfaction and nuance, plunge ahead to an inescapably bad ending. The scale of the Heat works beautifully. 

The Wire, as I said, is one of the best television dramas ever, period, and it come from writer/producer David Simon, whose book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets was the inspiration for the edgy, quirk- ridden genius of the late Homicide: Life in the Street, produced by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson. Simon has a genius for getting the stories of all involved just right, and under his direction he creates complexity and grey areas and flaws and other gripping nuances in characters that make his unique style of crime fiction fascinating, arresting, moving. The distinction between The Wire and Heat, as you've alluded, is the difference between TV and movies as forms; a continuing weekly drama can develop characters over time and layers can be added without straining credulity. Movies, even long ones, have to be more efficient in the way their characters and plot mechanisms are deployed. In any event, I think both projects are fantastic pieces of work. 

I have an affection for some films that have intractable flaws, along with the works of odd and flawed novels and messily writ poems, and there is much I find to like and admire in Apocalypse Now and Heat, enough, certainly, to make them worth initial and subsequent viewings. A good deal of what these two long and notable films deal with is an idea of a character's humanity getting wrapped around a Big Idea, whether it's a seduction with origins ideological or professional, and the drama, which I do believe is convincingly put across as felt experience in both these films, comes as characters find themselves making decisions to finish the tasks and duties they've set for themselves, no matter how profound their regret and misgivings are. Style, of course, has much to do with how watchable these out-sized actions are, and both Coppola and Mann managed watchable movies that caught, manipulated and sustained their respective tones. Heaven's Gate, though, I found singularly unwatchable, the problem being that Michael Cimino isn't a particularly interesting chronicler of people's lives as they move toward their destinies. Vincent Canby called worse than a forced tour of your own living room, and I'm not one to argue. The Deer Hunter, in turn was pretentious, vague, structurally incoherent from the get go, an aggravating movie that was like someone continually clearing their throat to make an Important Statement , but never delivers anything the least bit edifying.

Getting human beings as "they actually are" is a conceit, and is an impossible task. Characters in narratives , regardless of genre, are all ideal types, and the question really needs to be whether you appreciate a particular director or writer's creations in a terrain more or less created out of whole cloth. Different genres have different givens as to what sorts of nuances and backgrounds characters have; this leads us to stereotypes, of course, and what we respond to is how well someone might avoid the obvious and give us new wrinkles, twists, turns and habits of mind. David Simon is terrific at this. Mann, in turn, has his moments too.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"Abundance" by James Longenbach:Less would have been more

James Longenbach writes his poem "Abundance" as if he wanted to direct a Hitchcock movie. As with the Master, the poem opens with flurry of cross cutting of images that shape the narrative to come; a man on skies crossing a freshly frozen lake, a shot of a clock or watch to tell us what time it is, a cracking in the ice the man doesn't see, a flash of open water to the north, the man sliding off the ledge, never to be seen again, a crowd at the shore, watching, shocked, hands over mouths, heads turned.
It's too much to hope for the audience to follow the shifts of perspective as this poor loner vanishes under the ice.

The omnipotent perspective that conveniently gives us the back-story, the crucial event and the sad result that the first person narrator lays out has a journalistic affiance that seems like a suit case that's too well packed. It may well be that Longenbach wants to give voice to someone who's had time enough to process their grief and absorb the shock and comes to speak of the odd tragedy in a tone reflecting a mind battered with bad news, but that is not how it comes off. Rather, it has that filmic quality, which would be urgent and compelling had this been a movie we were watching, but it is, instead, a poem we're reading, and the admittedly deft use of the quick edits is more like someone desiring to dispense with the set up so they can arrive at the "poetic language", the portion of the poem where the reader is meant to oooohh and ahhhh. There is a bit of button pushing going on here, like a template for a romance novel; insert your emotional response here.
The center of the poem, the stanza one might point too if they had to demonstrate why this is a poem at all and not merely a sequence of clipped prose, is the wondering of the meaning of it all, the mystery of a man wearing skies while crossing an iced-over lake, the unknowable facts motivation of a man who knew better than to walk over a lake that had been frozen less than 48 hours:

Immediately the gossip began.
Why did a man who'd lived on the island all his life,
Who knew enough to unfasten his skis,
Cross ice no more than forty-eight hours old?
If the wind hadn't kicked up,
If anybody could have thrown that far,
If there's been no ice, if there's been enough—
All-seeing stars that never sink beneath the northern pole,
Whose orbits embrace heaven, circling the earth,
My friend the poet lived on an island.
He built a cabin, planted beans. More than anything
He liked to visit other islands.
When the ice collapsed he drowned.
Fire shall burn, earth grow,
Water shall wear a covering,
Locking up the sprouts of the earth.

I can’t say that I’m surprised that the man who made the fateful journey across the ice is a poet, an assignation that , by association, should make the mystery Longenbach wants to be the poem’s center seem even more mysterious, ominous; this feeds into the notion that the poet is an oracular figure, doing quizzical things, saying cryptic things as they ply their hyper tuned sensibilities to the sounds and slight glimpses they pick up behind the veil between the world as it’s merely seen and the world as it really is. The notion goes further in that there is a fatal attraction, of a sort, operating here, the man , the loner on the island drawn to travel to neighboring islands when the lake freezes over, working on a hunch , the inspiration of which is beyond his grasp but one that he honors none the less with activity that baffles others.

top heavy with introduction and weak on resolution and what happens is a page full of several ideas that not aligned in an associative order. The last lines , though , are a perfectly drawn poem, a minimal concentration of images that set up, imply, suggest, and remain mysterious.

My friend the poet lived on an island.
He built a cabin, planted beans. More than anything
He liked to visit other islands.
When the ice collapsed he drowned.

This works for me, having both the abruptness to have you wonder aloud “what the hell” and yet containing enough detail where you can supply the missing details, as one would do with WC Williams.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

If Hillary can't withstand Olbermann's metaphor, why should she be President?

There's understandable concern that the longer Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama battle for the Democratic nomination for President, the more it will help the Republicans in the November election; the longer the tussle, the harder it becomes for the Democrats to pull their act together and present a United Front with a plan for a Better America. But it's not enough, it seems, for Democratic politicians to pile on each other, it seems that Democrat -friendly pundits have to start smacking each other around in like fashion. Salon editor Joan Walsh, a smart woman and a welcome addition to the cable news cadre of Rotating Commentators, took a vague, niggling exception to a remark made by MSNBC's Keith Olberman regarding the attempts to have a party elder meet with Hillary Clinton in private to persuade her to drop out of the campaign. Olbermann subsequently apologized for his metaphor on the air, which subsequently set off a round of comic liberal self-examination. One wonders if somebody remembers that there is an election to win.

Keith Olbermann is one of my favorites if only because he was the first anchor on cable news who didn't cave in to the talking points of The Right Wing Noise Machine and rather talked back in terms they (and his audience) understood, loudly, clearly, emphatically, and armed with documented facts and precise, exact quotes, presented in context. It's little wonder why GOP activists dislike him. He might have been harsh with Hillary Clinton, but it's not as if she hasn't merited the scrutiny; her misleading statements about her record of public service, her flip flopping on issues, and her husband's ill-advised introduction of race into the debate are matters to be parsed and critiqued. It's ridiculous to take umbrage with Olbermann's metaphor, since the outrage is nearly a parody of the hypersensitivity of certain liberal constituents whom Rush Limbaugh takes so much joy lampooning. Hillary Clinton is wants to be President of the United States, and she claims that she’s ready for the job, whatever the job takes. If Joan Walsh thinks that’s true, she should stop fretting whether Olbermann’s remark was sexist and resist the urge to make women candidates a Special Class, exempt from the rough and tumble anyone else interested in the office has to suffer.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Harmless Poem": powerlessness and transcendence

There are days that start that with a bad mood, a sour disposition, a curse on the breath as you leave the house to make your living, and most of us are lucky, most of the time, that these bad starts abate and a lighter view comes over us as we interact and engage our encounters on their own terms, not how we wished they were.

There are those days that start bad and stay bad, when each and every small thing that hits a sour note on what we demand be a perfectly tuned keyboard just grates at us, sends a falling current down the spine. The day becomes a down escalator down a bottomless shaft for the rest of the day and into the night , and the litany of those who have sinned against us, the material things that impeded our path, slowed our advance toward a short sighted goal-- the stop lights , the traffic signs, the intruding phone calls of people who need help, the cigarette smoke and the barking dogs-- all become a conspiracy to lower our spirit, to distract us from grasping whatever it is that is just beyond our reach.

It's a bad situation and I am glad they don't haunt me as long as they did when my certainty about how the planet ought really to spin caused me nothing but arrogant exasperation. In my experience, the especially dispiriting part of these bad-mood binges, these black holes of being, was that there was nothing tangible I could name , no incident nor reciept of bad news, that would have triggered a unified field of gloomy perception; the senses that a mysterious God had given me to learn about and get by and be creative in the world were now the source of an unlimited number of soul-killing annoyances. How things, looked, sounded, felt, smelled were my sources of torment.

My mood was such that each person and thing by simply and dutifully existing as they were, unmindful of my presence (and certainly unaware of my unease). You guessed it, I was full of my own presumptions, nothing seemed worth doing, there was no point in going on. This was nothing to laugh at because I had no sense of humor. To those in the know, these were the symptoms of forgetting Rule 62.

What appeals to me about Stuart Dischell's poem "Harmless Poem" is that it contains the sort of rolling, incantational swerve of a powerful prayer that beseeches something greater than the speaker's wits can muster on their own for a relief the bondage of self to have a sense of humility and the attending sense of humor restored. I've no idea what inspired Dischell to write this poem, but it does sound like someone attempting to lift himself from a grossly generalized negative world view by admitting the absurdity of his complaints of objecting to people, places and things for being merely what they are. The poem is well paced, arresting , with a mounting set of things and their faults listed in increasingly surreal depiction,

Forgive the web without its spider
The houseplant with few or many flowers
And the stars for hiding in the daytime,
Forgive astronauts for distance
And surgeons for proximity,
Forgive the heart for the way it looks
Like something a dog eats from a pan,
Forgive goat-gods and wine-gods
And the goddess bathing in her pond,
Forgive the sea for being moody,
The air for its turbulence, the stomach
For its vomit, forgive the insistence
Of sperm, the greeting of the ovum,
Forgive orgasms for their intensity
And the faces they make in people's faces,
Forgive the music of liars, forgive autumn
And winter and the departure of lovers.
And the young dead and the persistence
Of the old, forgive the last tooth and hair.

This is a chain of association of a mind that gathers up the evidence of offenses, makes notes of things and the results they get and makes the connection to the next link that is effected and made to make fragile concept of harmony shakier still. This is the confession of a man admitting that he is powerless , after all, over what gives him aggravation and that his life is unmanageable in the cumulative misery these otherwise inconsequential irritations give him.

The title seems more ironic than anything else; what it implies is that the "harm" we all need "less" of is the result of when we pass constant judgement and create for ourselves an ongoing condition that culminates in deeper depressions, more anger, poor decisions, meaness for its own sake, and the poem's entreaty is for relief from this toxic turn of mind. I sense someone taking deep breaths as they speak these words, and fingers grasping rosary beads. Dischell is smart to compress the process to the concluding prayer, the litany like entreaty the poem is modeled after. This is the fabled by very real Moment of Clarity, when one realizes the exact nature of their wrongs as they are and is able, for a moment, capable of getting to a personal truth unobscured by defense and denial. The truth is this; nothing in the world will sit right with him until all his forgiven and accepted as being exactly they way are.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Robert Pinsky blows his nose

Former Poet Laureate and current Slate poetry editor Robert Pinsky recently caused a stir , a small one perhaps, with a column he wrote for the online magazine’s Culturebox department where he offered up a Poetry Frequently Asked Questions. He gave a number of questions it seems the mildly interested have asked him over the years such as why don’t modern poems rhyme, why are they so hard to understand, or why don’t contemporary poets write about politics and current events? The selected questions tip Pinsky’s hand, and his own replies are terse, as he prefers to instead quote a poem at length to clarify his point or contradict an inquisitor’s assertion. The feature read like it was Robert Pinsky giving everyone the rasty raspberry with his version of Frequently Asked Questions, and the sarcasm and condescension of his replies and example poems reflect someone who is tired of being kicked in the groin each Tuesday for his selections. It's time for the poet to move on, or if you prefer, to move forward to other projects where he hasn't such an opinionated readers who are more than willing to flip him the bird and eviscerate his often quizzical selections . Pinsky tipped his hand answering the final question, a one word reply that sums up a few years worth of bottled aggravation:

9. Well, I like poetry that is amusing, that maybe makes me chuckle a little. I'd rather read something reassuring and light than something complicated or gloomy. Is that bad? Does that mean I am a jerk?


The abuse the former Laureate has received is due more than his idiosyncratic choices; his refusal to engage the criticisms from PoemsFray commentators has put him at a remove. His silence is imperious, detached, reeking of contempt. When he was writing his Washington Post column about poetry, Pinsky could write lucidly , and concisely, on a topic and specific poems, and more than one of us at the PoemsFray had hoped that he would offer prefatory remarks to his weekly selections. Not to give away everything before the poem could be read, but with enough context and insight into style and technique that could well have been a launching point for more varied thinking on the board. But remark he didn't, and from anyone can tell he gritted his teeth , waiting for a chance when he might have his turn at the microphone. Yet even here he pusses out; it's worth remembering that what he presents in Culturebox is what he thinks are the most frequently asked stupid questions that have come his way, queries given him by legions of straw men to whom he gives poems as a way of saying "fuck off". We have, in effect, an editor who really can't understand the resentment he's created, cannot (or will not) talk with the posters, and gives vent to his congested anger in a messy, unsightly spectacle. Yeah, maybe he should go on to the next project, the next appearance on The Colbert Report. The point is that he should probably be someplace other than on Slate.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The sublime and the hurried

  • Swift narratives that both cover ground and supply both the pace and blitz of rapid, time-constrained travel have their appeal; everyone loves a cliffhanger, and it's a sweet thing when the story leaves the expected and begins and ends with qualities that are distinct and opposed, violence and kindness, but which are linked. Michael McGriff’s poem [the line between heaven and earth]is a minor pleasure because he shows that he can give a sense of a cinematic timeline as he shows us a journey that begins with a brutal and unflinching slaughter and evisceration of a bear and what processes the removed gall bladder goes through to emerge, in the end, as a cure of a kind, that blandly presented item that eases discomfort and, we assume, exists entire free of violence. 

  • It works because McGriff has the wit to show the procession from raw animal guts to a palliative that will soothe a child’s fever. The imagery is concise, telling, and free of editorial conceit or metaphysical conceit. As with a camera lens, this poem observes the determination of a poor man to prepare a folk cure for a child's discomfort, the virtual act of faith, and taken with no evidence nor guarantee that it will have the desired result. The line between heaven and hell begins in the heart of the person willing to soil and foul themselves with bloody work, which intends and follows through in their effort to comfort another human being. 

  •   The line between heaven and earth ******glows just slightly when a bear's gallbladder ******is hacked out and put on ice in California: ******the line between heaven and earth begins ******with a ginseng root and ends in an anvil: ******the gallbladder rides in a foam cooler ******on a bench-seat in a pickup heading north: the line ******between heaven and earth carries a crate of dried fish ******on it's back: The man driving the gallbladder ******used to sell Amway and sand dollars blessed ******by Guatemalan priests

  •  This is thinking that believes in the cause and effect relationship between the earthly and the supernatural, and fittingly, the flow is fluid, serpentine, with the sure slither of hissing tires coming up a wet street; less than McGriff concerns himself with locations as he instead focuses what is nearby, in suffocating proximity, such as ice, a foam cooler on a bench seat, a man who used to sell Amway and shoreline contraband. The poem is suggestive of place, and this is a style I wish he’d maintained. Unfortunately, he saddled himself with a title that promises large significance and revelation. Still, there are no Blake-like metaphors geared to tear apart the thin veil that divides the realms from one another. There is no adequate irony either to make a diminished expectation pleased with the result. 

  •   into the mouth of a child ******whose fevers grind the teeth of rage: ******this is how the stories of all miracles begin.

  • Alas, a mere summing up in pedestrian terms, a moral of the tale delivered as if the reader were in third grade, grappling with the simplified versions of Aesop’s Fables. The subtext is not so disguised as to make the poem an inert collection of ossified cleverness, nor is it so obvious that one might yawn upon seeing the resolution telegraphed so far in advance. Mcgriff, had he maintained his delicacy, would have had a piece where the reader would be allowed to parse the ambiguity and arrive at conclusions that might surprise them. As happens too often, the poet started looking for the exit before engaging with an ending that fit the surefootedness of his initial images and lean flow. McGriff furnishes his own spoiler and hadn’t the confidence, this time, to let his subject—that acts of kindness and charity are linked intimately with the genuine evil of existence—emerge unexplained but in full context, with resonance and that bit of mystery that makes many a spare lyric linger in mind than would the details of a sermon or a presidential speech. I'd have been more satisfied had McGriff left us with images of striking contrasts, like the animal entrails, the hammered anvil, the child taking the grimly created cure, and allow the reader the chance to discern the line between heaven and earth, the juncture where miracles happen, is in the instance when something caring and noble arises from relentlessly mean circumstances. He needn't have given us the marginalia from his first draft; we would have gotten it after all.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Recently from NetFlix: Cinderella Man

A friend of mine commented a couple of weeks ago that in a time when what we consume in popular culture is so prefabricated , formulated and test-marketed until all potential joy is legislated from it's predictable husk, we tend to praise any movie, band, play, novel as "brilliant" that displays anything resembling a heart or half a wit about itself. Other superlatives come into play as well, like "great", "genius", "masterpiece" and all the rest, and the over rating of perfectly ordinary albeit respectable entertainment goes on. It's a sad and sorry cycle, especially in the case of the movies where the critic's assessments are most readily consumed by movie goers and used to pick the flick to while away the dark with. It's a sad time for anyone who wanted who wanted to write about movies because those that influenced--Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, James Agee--could think cogently about films in their essays. The paragraphs too many critics are dis spiriting; every other sentence reads as if it could be taken out and plastered in the ads as fully servicable blurbs, heavy on adjectives, empty of ideas.

It's a classic case of setting up great numbers of folks for disappoints aplenty: perfectly fine motion pictures like "The Interpreter", functioning perfectly well as classic B movie genre pieces, are saddled with overpraise and hyperbole , written by critics suffering , perhaps, from "irrational exuberance" for a movie that was marginally better than the swill too often served up on big screens. Critical reasoning is out of whack, and films that are fine and dandy without being profound , edifying or in anyway "brilliant' beyond their professionally executed duty to entertain well are not given a proper reading. This makes films age badly.

"Cinderella Man" is certainly a fine B movie project by all involved, and there are plenty of compliments to dispense to all involved here, particularly in the continued fine work of Russell Crowe. He continues to reveal previously unseen nuances in his performances, and here is perfectly fine as a decent palooka who through what's portrayed as a humble Will-to-Power rises above his poor prospects as a fighter in order to provide for his family.Nearly everyone in the film is a decent personage--damn decent, you could say--and it's a compliment to director Ron Howard for not letting the storyline sink under the accumulating bathos. It's perfectly played, laid out, absolutely symmetrical in the way it arrives at the conclusion in which the power of contender Jimmy Braddock's selfless love wins out over the brute strength and Vesuvian rage of heavyweight champion Max Baer. There is a tug at the heart, you choke up a bit, you fret and cheer and applaud with every glove that land's on Braddock's face and every connection he makes with an opponents chin, nose or ribs. Fight movies are the only genre where the skillful director, armed with an able script and smartly placed cast, can make the button pushing moves plausible; Clint Eastwood's recent "Million Dollar Baby" is another example of the human situation being reduced to a few determinist particulars the hero (or heroine) must rise against so that the invisible quality we call Human Spirit can become a plausible thing for us to respond too in ways that are no longer abstract mouthings.

My preference between the two films, though, goes with Eastwood's drama: it veered unexpectedly (but not implausibly) from the underdog storyline and presented an unvarnished tragedy in the making; the situation of "Million Dollar Baby"'s characters was problematized , and the personalities of the characters became intriguingly complex as the issue of assisted death arose as a plot point. As someone has said, everything in the world of "Baby"'s characters changed in minute, leaving the issue of Human Spirit and unconditional love more complicated than whatever cliches that would come trippingly and unthinkingly off a fast, glib, idea-free tongue.

"Cinderella Man", of course, has no such complications, and stays the course towards what is a classic Hollywood Ending:the good guy wins the fight, makes good on his debts, lives a productive and decent life in the glory of American hopes and dreams; what makes it work is Howard's particular genius for narrative rhythm and momentum--the storyline moves ahead with a leisurely swiftness that stands in contrast with Eastwood's remarkable ability to take his time and dwell on scenes without dragging in his direction. This is not, I don't think, a great motion picture--I'll hold out for the superior "A Beautiful Mind" by Howard--but it is a very good one, a finely crafted and engaging bit of professional film making from a Hollywood director who remembers when Hollywood itself made the best movies in the world

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A poet in the lower case

It's strange to go through old bits of writing and see again what you once thought was simultaneously cutting edge and timeless. This isn't the sort of thing I pursued in my writing life, and have vacillated between degrees of difficulty that at least read well, but I can't quite dismiss my time attempting to write within the self-critical confines of Language poetry as being a waste of time; it was , in fact, terrifically instructive, not least of which was to direct me toward my strengths and away from my weaknesses. I also have a real fondness for some of this en-jambed lines and marvel at the language's capacity to snap back into usable form after being tortured and twisted by willfully abusive wunderkind.

But overall, I couldn't see writing a poetry that only a brief coterie of associates and a thin scaffold of masters might appreciate. I read this and recognize that the non-sequiturs have there origins in actual conversations in which tempers flared and love affairs commenced, and that the puns are jokes I used to share about texts, authors, gossip, local landmarks, pop culture references, all mixed together in a way in many attempts to dislodge the master/slave relationship we thought existed between writer and reader. The words to describe the appearance of things that compose an imitated world are the subject of the Language poets; the variant commodity fetishism that links a unified idea of poetry to a consumer reality is reduced to non-sequitur, babble, a distracted murmur of people standing in line.

The problem, though, is that that audience for whom the pieces were intended has dispersed, moved on, or died as tends to happen in the unexamined life, and the poems and texts I produced emulating Language poets are homeless, so to speak, sans an audience to confound and taunt. People just stared at me at the readings where I dared trot this creaking experiments and attempt to perform them; imagine a room full of confused dogs staring at you, heads tilted the side, waiting for the biscuit of wit you don't in fact posses. But by this time my appreciation for the Language writers I was coming familiar with --the multi-tracked universe of Ron Silliman, the satiric inversions of Bob Perelman, Rae Armentrout's crystallization of the fleeting perception that would usually escape a sentence's ability to make lucid--only deepened in an appreciation for the rigorous pioneering their aesthetic undertook when no one would really shake up the post-Beat/New York poetries. But what they had started was there battle to put forward, not mine, and as I began to develop something resembling a mature style--when the poems were "more hits than misses" as poet Paul Dresman told me-- I resigned myself to being an unusual sum of all that I liked in poets in their work, someone at the margins of the scene I was nearest who's influences were clear but whose application of styles had grown beyond emulation and formed something natural and original, something my own. I was content to be a good minor poet, unknown for the most part, but satisfied that what was on the page with my name on it wouldn't embarrass nieces and nephews after I was gone and perhaps some future professors might find some poems that were actually satisfactory in estimations other than my own neurotic rethinking of my own worth as a writer.

Unlike Cage, extended silence bothers me tremendously, and over the years I've opted for a style and strategy that at least invites the reader to interact with. It's not inaccurate to say that I found my subject thirty years ago, but only fifteen or so years ago did I find the consistent, flexible voice to give it life. But I am grateful for the fifteen years of poems that don't make me wince and which have brought a nod, a laugh, a tear to some others and which made me feel as if I was actually connected to a greater chain of circumstance that fended off the desire to wallow in the kind of EZ alienation that is our culture's chief curse and cheap excuse for doing nothing to make this life better. It beats putting a gun barrel where it would do the most harm. Breathing, says all good poetry, beats not breathing.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Who needs to age gracefully?

Claude Scales is a thoughtful blogger with a keen ironic sense who quotes New York Times columnist Gail Collins on the issue of boomer aging:

Long, long ago, Mick Jagger used to say that he couldn’t picture singing rock ’n’ roll when he was 40. His message, obviously, was not that the Stones planned to retire, but that Mick planned on remaining in his 30s forever. That which we cannot change, we ignore.

Ah, I hear you. A friend of mine solved his age issue by refusing to have anymore birthdays. It was a funny line at the time, when both of us were still in our mid thirties in 1987, but the last time I saw my friend a year ago I beheld him in latest guise as a high toned, edgy shoe designer for Hollywood stars. He certainly took the part seriously, with his thin designer glasses, body fitting shirts that hugged his weight-machine toned torso and arms like a small glove on a large hand. And then there was his face, which was lined as it ought to be for a man in his fifties; he's a good looking man, to be sure, but the conflict between an untouched face and clothes more appropriate to Euro trash movie villains leaves one scratching their head intensely, at the risk of making the scalp bleed.

Not that I am without vanity; a mirror is sometimes the only friend I have, in that a friend is someone who tells you the truth no matter if you like it or not. The evidence is in; act your age, yes, you've gained weight, those lines around the eyes are yours, friend, enjoy the character they give you.The best I can do is play blues harp in sometime bands with musicians of like age, 39-55, and resist the twitchy urge to mime guitar chords.The generation that listened to big bands had an easier time with their idols aging than we rock and roll boomers have had; jazz musicians stand there and play great music while the rock musicians, in sound and mythos, is predicated on the promise of youth and rebellion, ridiculous things to strive for when the grey hair and creases and body mass gang up on them.

All the same, one has to tip their hat yet again to the Rolling Stones and appreciateaa the fact that whatever the issues of age have been, they've protected their reputation as a working band. They continue to release albums with new material, most of the tracks being surprisingly taut and crisp (even though Mick Jagger's famed jaded ambivalence in the lyric department sounds rather pat these days), they continue to tour , they continue to sound like what rock and roll , in theory, should sound like, angry, ironic, aggressive. We might also add that Jagger and Richards et al sound , in their best recent music, wise but not withered. Like the recently departed master Norman Mailer, they aren't leaving show business without swinging for the fence each time at bat, hitting more long balls than anyone has a right to expect. Might we get some of that energy and inspiration?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bob Dylan's Pulitzer

I'm leery of awards committees creating special categories where none had existed before just because someone thought it would be a great idea for Dylan to get one of their prizes. What Dylan got wasn't the equivalent of the Oscar's Irving Thalberg Award, an established prize awarded to an individual who's life's work has advanced and influenced cinematic art. Dylan's specific award seems to have been given for no other reason other than the Pulitzer thought it would raise their hip quotient. Bestowing this award on Dylan seems as meaningless as a university giving someone an honorary Phd to a celebrity because it briefly raises that institutions visibility. The degree itself is meaningless, signifying status, not accomplishment. It would have been meaningful if Dylan's Pulitzer came from something he was actually nominated for, but with the way these things work out , I'm not sure this group of editors are ready to create a category for pop musicians.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Alan Shapiro's Heroic Impotence

Alan Shapiro has been Robert Pinsky’s choice  a number of times for the Slate's Tuesday poem installment, and he is writer who is inconsistent in his execution. He is , as a poet, by turns clever, subtle, able to bridge vague quandaries with concrete emotion . At other times he will become parochial, stale, a self- aware mess who too often mistakes an examination of his own powerlessness as a fit subject , of itself, for a poem. This is the case with prolific poets; there’s so much dedication to producing the work that one hasn’t the time, nor the inclination, to give the newer material the disinterested editor’s scan and detect where one’s worst tendencies surface.“Triumph” is one of the lesser poems Shapiro has had published here, an attempt to write a poem about a homeless person the narrator, the poet most likely, he sees daily. There are telling details Shapiro picks out and presents with a journalistic precision, especially in the clean way in which he describes the homeless man’s bedding ritual:

saw him as I drove by—
I don't have to tell you what he looked like—
Spreading a plastic sheet out
As for a picnic
Except he wasn't picnicking;
He was lying down to sleep
In the middle of the sidewalk
In the middle of the day
On a busy street,
The spoils of him lying there
For everyone to gawk at
Or step around.

There’s nothing here that would open the

I would suppose that Shapiro intended this little tour of his psyche’s interior decoration to operate as a criticism of how literary types allow their infatuation with metaphors, tropes, generic conventions and relativizing their reactions to real events, but what his results are less effective as commentary on alienation than it is a specimen of narcissistic self-regard.

Yes, even measures of negative self-estimation are narcissistic and are evidence of larger vanity since they remain instances in which the author becomes the subject of what’s been written. The homeless man is made less real, and is no more than the misery idex’s equivalent of a nice sunset inspiring a poet to rhapsodize about their frolic under clear skies on a warm day. The poet here ignores an obligation to frame the world he witnesses and to offer an image that would help us think differently about circumstances separate from our set attitudes. This is a formula confession from Shapiro, a poet who should know better ; the easy slide into self-dramatization is galling. It’s offensive.
But whatever I did or didn't do
I did it to forget that
Either way
He was the one asleep on the sidewalk,
I was the one borne along in the car
That may as well have been a chariot
Of empathy, a chariot
The crowd cheers
Even as it weeps
For the captured elephant too wide
To squeeze through
The triumphal arch
And draw home

earth and the skies of our awareness of the hard facts of this man’s life, but there is a hint given to a witness’s arsenal of associations that try to comfort the leery from too much bad news. Shapiro’s narrator thinks of picnics at first instead of realizing that the destitute man was carving a space out for himself for a night against the elements, both weather and human. The problem with the poem comes when Shapiro, the poet, tries to figure out what to do with the scene he has just established; it wouldn’t be enough to allow these circumstances speak plainly and loudly for themselves, sans a lecture or the slippery rationalization of why one does nothing. Shapiro reveals his real intention of the poem, which wasn’t to establish empathy with a fellow human’s struggle but rather to examine his own apathy and his desire to remain in his head, piling metaphor upon upon metaphor as he processes the unruly sights he repeatedly sees and repeatedly drives away from;

Monday, April 7, 2008

The disgrace of National Poetry Month

We are here in April again, and those of us concerned a little about poetry as art need again accommodate the ludicrous thing called National Poetry Month. The hope is to get folks to change their reading habits to include poetry volumes along with their steady diets of mysteries, romances, celebrity cookbooks and memoirs written by people who will soon to be exposed as liars and cheats. Is there hope for the General Audience? The divisions in the Poetry War are drawn, both sides will wage battle for the soul of the book buyer , but the pathetic truth is that vast promotion and arguments as to the worth of verse are to no avail. Literally, no one is buying it. Or buying too little of it for the fuss and bother of having a month out of the year dedicated to poets and their obscurities.
The General Audience I speak of is vague, purposefully so, as it speaks to anyone who has an amorphous notion of how to generalize about poetry readers share in common. The war between various schools, groups and the like strikes me as more bickering between the professionals, poets, critics and academics (some of whom happen to practice all three occupations) who have status and power on the line as they advance their agenda and create an enemy camp in the interests of bolstering whatever claims can be made for a particular group's alleged superior aesthetics. Some of this ongoing disagreement is fascinating and useful, since the distinctions as they’re clarified can be informative and the criticisms each has of the other’s perceived shortcomings can potentially yield insight on issues a writer might be otherwise be too close to.

I have my preferences, sure, and I subscribe to a particular set of principles, but these rules of poetry are worn like a loose suit, not a straight jacket. Most readers who a general interests in poetry , contemporary and older, will like or dislike a variety of different approaches to verse for an equally varied set of reasons, most of which, if asked, our hypothetical General Reader would be able to explain if asked. The basic question of a poem, whether written for the lyric voice, the vernacular rant, or the experimental rigorist, is whether it works or not, both on its own terms and in terms of whether it gives pleasure or joy. Someone might suggest that teachers could increase the audience for poems if they taught the material better, but this is a strawman.We can't lay this at the teacher's feet because it's my firm conviction that most poetry, ambitious or otherwise, isn't going be the thing the large majority of their students will take after in adulthood, regardless of how good or bad a job the instructor might be. We're talking about adult readers here, those who have reading habits formed and in place for a lifetime; some are more curious about more ambitious forms, most who read poetry prefer the greatest hits of Whitman, Plath or Dickens, if they read poetry at all, and the General Audience, as we've been calling them, has not interest in poetry what so ever, except when they need a quote for a funeral or a wedding.

In other words, people who might buy a book of poems do so for reasons that are the same as they always have been, word of mouth, display, book review, and so on. Things like National Poetry Month do so very little to increase the fraction of the book buying public to have even a casual appreciation of poetry; they simply don't care for those things that are not measurable by generic conventions. Charles Bernstein wrote a cogent, if slightly smug essay in 1999 called "Against National
Poetry Month As Such"
in which he derides the notion that publishers and a clatch of state and federal arts czars can increase interest in and sales of poetry collections by reducing to the level of the contrived New Age/faux mediation group think that would have us read the literature with the hope that stress and pain will go away.(I am thinking myself of Roger Housden's odious collection "Ten Poems To Change Your Life",which abuses the work of good poets by presenting them as accessories one buys on impulse at the cash register).Bernstein's main point is well taken with me, that poetry is being sold as something it isn't, like the volumes poets publish are good for you in the way that pop psych and New Age literature claim to be. What is being sold are the specious promises of poetry, not the poetry itself which, of all the literary arts, should stand alone , unencumbered by political or therapeutic contrivance. National Poetry Month is a hypocritical waste of time, I think, a commercial venture born of the kind of cynicism that enables corporations to manipulate buyers into purchasing things they haven't an honest need for.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Chris Forhan's Mastery of the Compact Reverie

Robert Pinsky has been on a winning streak lately with the poems he's selected for Slate's weekly poem, and I thank him for the consideration.

"Oh Blessed Season" by Chris Forhan comes upon us like the first days when winter becomes Spring and the days are glorious and sunny to a fault; after months of bundling up against a constant cold and having had rather enough of stuffy noses and over the counter remedies, we greet the suddenly gorgeous days with a new sort of fever, that of hope and insurgent optimism. Our expectations, in the collective assumption that the season's change is our time to renew our Contract of Life and to make the eternal chain of work blossom and become ripe with growth again, do tend to be overstated in the first flush of sunshine and raised temperature , and as the zest soon enough becomes the daily grunt work it had been during fall and winter. Save for vacations and an extra day off, we merely modify our layers of clothing and adjust our complaints about the weather. But what I like about Forhan's poem, though, is the way he creates a rhetoric of optimism, the days as they create a sensation of well being; the season brings about associations with many things, pleasant and fulfilling experiences. This poem is a chain of associations that suggests a euphoric condition:
Summer strode slowly in clownish festoonery, forgiving everything.

Blessed was the fruit of its womb: slumbering bees, blossoms' furious purple
clouds scattered like napkins late of lips moist with cream and champagne.

Chiffon was a word heard often then.

Oh, to live like that again, operatically bored with the reckless long business of

To loll on a ridge above the jostling gondolas,
to sprawl in a field amid the ruins of lunch, the crumbs and rinds,
to be slaked by a final swallow of wine and feel safely ravaged and awry,

These are not the declarations of someone expecting the worse to happen still, not someone waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop, but rather the larking tones of a man who seems quite intoxicated with the light, the warmth, the breeze. The worry of the world seems comic quite suddenly, and the temporal division between one's selective memories and the harder truth of the current station are blurred for the time being, dissolved. There is a sense in Forhan's even-handed opulence of someone who is willfully trying to sustain the good feeling; there is , I think, an awareness that this too shall fade soon enough as the reverie gives way to an admission that the verve of youth ages, becomes seasoned, creased, that petals fall from every blooming flower.

To loll on a ridge above the jostling gondolas,
to sprawl in a field amid the ruins of lunch, the crumbs and rinds,
to be slaked by a final swallow of wine and feel safely ravaged and awry,

to joy in the horses' forelocks, beribboned with blooms of sweet everlasting—
a distraction from the black, inapt cast of their eyes,

that sequestered look, as of something they've seen and not forgotten yet.
The evocation of communing with nature and the creatures of the profusely rich terrain introduces the downbeat, the faint, off-note that returns the desire to the world unprogrammed by wishful thinking. The gaze falls upon the horses, who's sequestered look parts the clouds , so to speak, to show the accurate relationship between things. The last line brings this idyll into the present tense and establishes it as something being recollected, the admission that these sensations vanish or are taken for granted when youthful eyes are described as giving a "...sequestered look, as of something they've seen and not forgotten yet." Masterfully done, the narrator shakes his head, snaps to and witnesses his world again in real time, without sense-addling filters that good weather can become. Without the baggage of tenuous philosophizing, sans the need to "wrap up" the poem and deliver a point, Forhan's lets the narrative sequence unfold as the reverie itself might of, a sudden flush of sensation, and then an ebbing of the good feeling as the current situation reasserts itself. This is a beautifully written poem of a fleet moment that otherwise would resist the attempt to capture it so compactly.

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