Monday, May 19, 2008

2 poems I like by A.R.Ammons and Marvin Bell

Called into Play 
A.R. Ammons 

Fall fell: so that's it for the leaf poetry: 
some flurries have whitened the edges of roads 

and lawns: time for that, the snow stuff: & 
turkeys and old St. Nick: where am I going to 

find something to write about I haven't already 
written away: I will have to stop short, look 

down, look up, look close, think, think, think: 
but in what range should I think: should I 

figure colors and outlines, given forms, say 
mailboxes, or should I try to plumb what is 

behind what and what behind that, deep down 
where the surface has lost its semblance: or 

should I think personally, such as, this week 
seems to have been crafted in hell: what: is 

something going on: something besides this 
diddledeediddle everyday matter-of-fact: I 

could draw up an ancient memory which would 
wipe this whole presence away: or I could fill 

out my dreams with high syntheses turned into 
concrete visionary forms: Lucre could lust 

for Luster: bad angels could roar out of perdition 
and kill the AIDS vaccine not quite 

perfected yet: the gods could get down on 
each other; the big gods could fly in from 

nebulae unknown: but I'm only me: I have 4 
interests--money, poetry, sex, death: I guess 

I can jostle those. . . .

Since I've raged and ranted more than once around here about how there should be no more poems about poetry, I thought why I liked "Called into Play" and not the work of other writers. Attitude is the difference, I guess. My basic gripe is against who regard poetry as a vehicle of relentless self-revelation, the sub-Nerudians and faux Rilkeans who seemed to have skipped the other qualities their inspiring source's poetry had and instead are determined to make a cult from the practice; the poet as priest is not an image that appeals to me and even the most supreme of egoist geniuses, Walt Whitman, would likely find the conceit a bit vain. I don't include the Language Poets, as someone had asked me, even though poetic language is at the forefront of their work; the effort there, I think, is an honest and exciting investigation into new ways of thinking about how language can be written to more creatively engage the complexity of experience. Ammons, of course, is much less formal, and has an the appeal of some who'd just gotten out of bed and is trying to get the sleep from his eyes. What he sees is the same old things, only completely different, to paraphrase comedian Steve Wright. I like the way Ammons demystifies the subject by simply talking about search for something to write about. What he mentions here, things like lawns, mail, current events, are brought up as things he might impress into being the details and subject of a poem he wants to write. He might have been talking about a mad search for missing car keys; there's humanity in this momentary frustration.There's the suggestion that Ammons is tired of his old turns of phrase and wants to forge new ones:
...should I try to plumb what is 

behind what and what behind that, deep down 
where the surface has lost its semblance: or 

should I think personally, such as, this week 
seems to have been crafted in hell: what: is 

something going on: something besides this 
diddledeediddle everyday matter-of-fact: I 

could draw up an ancient memory which would 
wipe this whole presence away...

Ammons admits his limits as a seer or oracle and speaks of language as something he works with through the craft of poetry, a practice he works at diligently in an effort to find an expression that transcends mere competence and achieves an artfulness. The poem is funny and moving in it's way, as Ammons' work is constantly aware of death, which makes philosophical certainty a cluster of moot points. This all puts A.R.Ammons' musings on poetry in sharp contrast to a host of others who'll essay forth in verse about poets being the intermediaries of Truths and Principles only a select few are able to deign and decipher for the less gifted. Without repeating my previous misgivings, I'll say that this his Hogwash and Elitism, and these are the sorts of people I imagine Ammons himself asking to go away.

Marvin Bell
He believes the tar pits hold bones but preserve
no emotions, and he believes space is matter.
He still thinks a kiss with full lips transformative,
the hope of a country boy with an uncultivated
heart, from the era of doo-wop and secret sex,
when the music was corny, cliched and desperate
like teenage love. Who now will admit that poetry
got its start there, in the loneliness that made love
from a song on red wax, from falsetto nonsense.
Who does not know that time passing passes on
sadness? A splinter of a song lyric triggers shards
of memory and knots in his gut. He regrets he was 
lashed to the mast when the sirens called. He
believes the sea is not what sank or what washes
up. There are nights the moon scares him.

Marvin Bell is one of those poets who can offer a string of non sequiturs and still having you following the heart under the odd contrasts in his lines. Associative leaps are not the easiest thing to do when so much of what your attempting to get across has more to do with a transitional state of mind than it does an position that can be easily parsed and contained.  Unlike Tony Hoagland's poem, "The Story of the Father" (featured at Slate last week) , where what should have been scene from a longer prose narrative got compressed beyond human caring with mannered, showy language, Bell has the ease of line transition, the ability to jump from one nervy island of reference to another and provide a sense of something gathering speed, assuming nuance. The young man going forth into the world of the senses, sparked by music, sirens, scents and touch; there is a skillfully maintained idea, implied and not editorialized as an intruding and infeffective aside, of music as that thing that bypasses the mind's censors and entrenched protections against foolishness and lands and seeds the desire to experience more with the senses, to test one's expectations against experienced fact.

He believes the tar pits hold bones but preserve
no emotions, and he believes space is matter.
He still thinks a kiss with full lips transformative,
the hope of a country boy with an uncultivated
heart, from the era of doo-wop and secret sex,
when the music was corny, cliched and desperate
like teenage love.

This is a fast run of language, streaming , quite literally, with all the elements that compose it melded together in a fluidity that rushes towards a crashing and overwhelming satisfaction. Tempo, rhythm , what the hip hoppers refer to as “flow”, this poem is simply perfect, simply lovely. This makes you think of magic nights in a music club where the lead soloist is at the very heart of an intense improvisations he or she is assembling, destroying and recreating in seeming simultaneity, absolutely transcendent in the spotlight and oblivious sounds of drunk talkers, dropped silveware, or the arguments of traffic noise coming through an open door. The soloist is in the moment, in Steven's land of Supreme Fiction, discoursing with a world that should be but is not. 

Friday, May 16, 2008

Poem as Dagwood Sandwich

I wanted to like Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Story of the Father” more than I did, if for no reason other than the description of the father burning the photographs reminds me of a potent scene in Reynolds Price's bittersweet novel Love and Work. In the novel, a middle aged English professor finds life closing in on him as he tries to balance the demands of organizing a literary festival at his college, becomes more estranged from his wife, and quite suddenly has to realize that he has to close the house of his recently deceased parents. The professor is an especially loathsome schmuck, self involved, resentful of the needs of work and family on his time and patience. Coming upon boxes of old family photographs, the beleaguered teacher throws them into a metal trash can and sets them on fire and it is there, watching the photos curl and bubble and finally obliterate the youthful faces of his dead parents that he looses it, breaking into tears, confronting the frustrate, clenched assholism of his current life. Price is a splendid writer, not one to over describe or tell you with an excess of verbal flair how to read the scene; he is very able to get across the tension, the unspoken dynamics of a situation without so many metaphors or flashing similes and allows the scene to make you think of some of your own touchy circumstances. Empathy is the word.

Hoagland's poem is all editorial, though, a clinician's report of a depressed patient. Whatever the intent, this poem is etherised upon the table.The writing is actually better than "a clinician's report", but there is the sense that what was over written in first draft was cut back but with the full intention of keeping the poem weighted with two generations of family grimness; the over writing still shows in lines that hope to be clean and elegant in their lack of qualifying distractions.

How quiet the suburbs are in the middle of an afternoon
*****************when a man is destroying evidence,
breathing in the chemistry of burning Polaroids,

watching the trees over the rickety fence
****************seem to lift and nod in recognition.
This would be expected in a Rick Moody novel, who has tried to revive the darkly humorous melancholy of John Cheever with writing that combines battling metaphors and inclusions of botched, deadwood imagery, so glaring in his novels like Ice Storms and Purple America, the kind of writing that is a stall for time until the author can finesse a transition. Hoagland's lines here are self conscious to the degree that he expects to gain respect for telling an anecdote so close to the Everyman’s grief-sick heart, but this poem seems no less a template of sad tale telling than what one is likely to hear or say when no can figure out what the proper words are when trouble arises and troubles formerly smooth waters.

Hoagland sticks with fussy details that he writes about as if he were still mentally arranging their order as he settles for the one among many unsatisfying options. The contained and compressed form of the poem might well be his trouble, as these are details that fit a short story or a novel where family interaction and private rituals emerge in a more expansive narrative. You read lines like these and wonder what Richard Ford or Russell Banks might have done if they were used in the length of a novel;

Over and over I have arrived here just in time
to watch the father use a rusty piece of wire

to nudge the last photo of the boy
************into the orange part of the flame:

the face going brown, the memory undeveloping.

It is not the misbegotten logic of the father;
it is not the pity of the snuffed-out youth;
The writing is fine as is, but the effect is toppled with a narrator’s remark, a summary that draws attention to the rote dynamics, as well as showing a writer trying to condense a bulkier cargo of ideas.

It is the old intelligence of pain
********************that I admire:

how it moves around inside of him like smoke;

how it knows exactly what to do with human beings
to stay inside of them forever

This is a sentence that begins a work of fiction, along the lines of “Call me Ishmael” or “They through off the water truck at noon”, a fast and arresting introduction to a character that then tells of his immediate situation and then recounts the events that have brought him to his present vantage point. Hoagland’s attempt to crystallize the unspoken alienation, anger and stunted grieving with phrases that don’t introduce character but rather attempt a wistful acceptance of what cannot be explained leaves too many things unattended to. This poem is a Dagwood sandwich that spills from between the bread slices.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A page for Paul Blackburn

The Electronic Poetry Center (EPC), an online resource for information and works of major contemporary American poets based at Suny at Buffalo NY, has gone live with a page for Paul Blackburn. He was an amazing poet who could parse the spoken idiom and make it sing with a unique tone and personality better than any poet since W.C.Williams, and he could insert the most subtle of philosophical paradox and shifting viewpoints with writing that seemed off hand,an effortless expression.The seeming ease of line indicates the attuned ear, the steady pen, the economy of a master who could arrange his blocks of language, position the line breaks, compose the length of the line to a rhythmic sense that doesn't escape you as you read his work. If there was anyone who understood and achieved great effects of Williams' theory of the variable foot, Blackburn was that poet. There was always an electric current in his best poems, the thrill of the mind racing while the body is charged with energy, excitement.


Long ago and far away

and the swimmer
heading out into the bay
arm lift, plunge down, the head turning;
my heart you may swim forever
out. Look,

there is the horizon
Sea and sky meet, change; why
are we not this real intensity forever?
surrounded and known.
The world else is brown and calculated.

There on the beach, the
woman watches.
Between her legs the dog sits,
wiggling, wanting to go
too. It is a kind of death watching him swim out,
away from her, his head getting smaller and smaller, flash
of arm in sun, down,
distant churn of water between the small waves. She
holds the dog's two haunches in her hands.

He is hardly to be restrained, and love
is manifest, is felt from the two of them

The swimmer is himself.

There was a large world his eyes beheld, and he had the skill to get his perceptions in tuned with a personality framed the ironies and contradictory impulses in that odd space our language skills that allows us to hover over our own views, ambivalence and ambiguity. Not that Blackburn himself was distanced from his subjects; rather, his poems, his finest work, integrated his ideas with the terrains and the personalities within them. Please go to the page and read the wonderful poem above with the line breaks intact. Click also on well on the links for splendid Blackburn commentaries by Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Creeley, Robert Kelly among several other notable poets and commentators.

Thank you the folks at EPC for their work, and to Ron Silliman's blog for the link.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Did someone kill painting?

Back in the late Nineties I was involved in an online debate as to whether painting were a dead art , in view of the then emerging new digital media which promised to give artists a new canvas, a new palette, a revolutionary way of creating art that hadn’t been done before. I harrumphed and pouted and tried to be sage in my remarks, but there wasn’t much of anything I could offer to the discussion other than this: Painting will be dead when artists stop painting and when art lovers stop desiring to look at the work of past, recent, and current artists. So far, there are no so-described symptoms of paintings' impending demise. In any case, what is with the impulse for some to declare entire mediums "dead", as if a literal body had been discovered somewhere, knife in back, bullet in brain, i.e., "the death of literature", "death of the subject", "death of the novel", "the death of the author", "the end of history", "jazz is dead”,” history is dead", "rock is dead", and so forth. I've read these declarations over the years, some with, some without arguments, some articulate, others ruthlessly abstruse, and save for a momentary rush of certainty that the many threads of history are suddenly woven together to the precise moment that the respective professors are making a case for, one realizes that the activities still go on in strength.

Humans have a way of tending toward their business and their pleasures, in the ways that suit their needs and personalities, quite despite the cloudy forecasts of aesthetic morticians. There seems to be an easy habit-of-mind that wants to advance a more recent set of techniques, usually attendant on new technologies, only at the mortal sacrifice of older mediums. Co-existence seems a concept that makes a self-conscious avant-garde nervous. In any event, shall we say that there are things that can only be done with painting that nothing else, really, has come close to? Even if it did come close to achieving the effects, good oil or watercolor can, what makes the new medium anything other than an advanced species of clip-art and simulation.
The body count, I think, is greatly exaggerated. Devalued, no, if the aim of new art is to re-create, faithfully, effects produced by painters. Sadly, this seems to be the only motivation behind many competently technologized artists whose work is often little more, really, than the reproduction of painterly effects. I'm willing to think these new medium artists are still wood shedding and experimenting with what they can do with their "new canvas" and "new palette", but it's plain that many have yet to make Real Work. We have fascinating results that have an inescapable crisis of its own, an utter soullessness coming from any intrinsic lack of character apart from the shiny, show room sheen of simulacra. Clip art is the result, I believe, if that is the only impulse motivating the particular artist. Newer methods can indeed co-exist with older--it's all around us--when artists drop the show-offish instinct of duplication and instead reconcile themselves to the limits as well as the advantages of their particular form. The crisis, I think, festers on the other end. The death of painting not withstanding, it seems that painters long ago accepted the terms and strictures of their chosen craft, and are in a long and envious history that they can play with at will, add to, diminish, broaden, contract, what have you. No painter I know feel crunched or sickly because of the imagined malaise --human need to express itself perseveres and is acted upon whatever revisionist rhetorical brackets are set around them, trying to diminish their worth, relevance, or health. The death or crisis of their art is meaningless to the working artist. The announcements that arts or particular mediums are "dead" or in "crisis" are melodramatic inventions that comes from bad, over generalized criticism that's in a hurry. It's better to get on with the honest work of art making, and focus commentary on the interaction between art styles and periods. Technologized, digital art is the art that is having the crisis, if anything: a personality crisis and one wonders what his new art wants to be when it grows up. This is a real question: what is "real work?"

Work that artists manage to do that's unmindful of having to illustrate a critics' or a harried art historians' criteria. What that evidence is endlessly subjective, and will vary artist to artist, medium to medium, but it will be the work, I think, that seems the most self contained, mature, and complete, with all influences assimilated and artists experiences and personality full enough to inject an individual intelligence into the work. It will be the work that utters precisely the ideas the artist has about ways of seeing. It is art that works as art, not demonstrations of yet another manifesto. We're talking about professional adult artists here, not small children or plants that need tending. What makes a form of art- making grow are artists who dedicate themselves to their process, their work, and who focus their energy on how the medium they've selected for themselves. A healthy self-criticism probably doesn't hurt the production of new work either, as with the notable artists who can tell the difference between pandering to an imagined niche market, or a specialized audience that inoculates the work from honest appraisal, and the real work that is made quite apart from anyone's expectations or demands, except the artists'. Good art-making is a rigorous activity, playful as it is, in whatever mode one operates out of. Everything else seems to take of itself if the art is good, worth being noticed. One advances into a their art with no real concern about making history--their obvious concerns are about making their art, with some idea of what it is they're advancing toward, and what past forms are being modified and moved away from. But the judgment of history--as if History, capital H, were a bearded panel viewing a swimsuit competition--will be delivered piecemeal, over the years, after most of us are dead, and our issues and concerns and agendas are fine dust somewhere.

The artist, meantime, concentrates on the work, working as though outside history, creating through some compulsion and irrational belief that the deferred import of the work will be delivered to an audience someday, somehow. That is an act of faith, by definition. The artist, painter or otherwise, also casts their strokes, with brush or mallet, with the not-so-buried-dread of the possibility that that the work will remain unknown, shoved in the closet, lost in the attic, and they will be better known for their day job rather than their manipulation of forms through a rarefied medium. Less that democracies are anti-artistic than they are resistant to the notion that aesthetic concerns and artistic expression are reserved for a cultivated elite. Democracy rejects this sublimated priesthood on principle, and opens the arena, the galleries so that more who wish to do so may engage in the intuitive/artistic process and keep the activity alive in ways that are new and precisely relevant to the time--this is the only way that the past has any use at all, as it informs the present day activity, and allows itself to be molded to new sets of experiences. Art is about opening up perspectives, not closing them down, and that is the democratic spirit at its best. Otherwise, the past is a rigour-ed religion, and history is an excuse for brutal, death wish nostalgia. History, for that matter, is not some intelligence that has any idea of what it's going prefer in the long run--the best I can offer is that history is news that stays news, to paraphrase a poet, which implies that the painter who survives the tides and eddies of tastes and fashion and fads will the one whose work has an internalized dynamic that is felt long after the brush is dropped and the breathing stopped.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Does God Change His Mind?

The stark differences in God's persona between Old and New Testaments had changed his mind as to what to do with the world he created, and it's reasonable to think of him as a deity who is constantly changing, evolving. Otherwise we'd have a God who is static and incapable of changing; he'd be someone who'd be incapable of dealing with a continually unfolding cosmos which he put in motion in the first place. The Prime Mover, I'd think, must by definition be able to move again, and yet again, as needed, as his vast mind assesses, discerns and decides. Process Theology, put forth by Alfred North Whitehead and others, deals with a bit of this, as does Norman Mailer in most of his writings, most recently in his dialogue with Michael Lennon, On God.

It may be, after all we ponder about his Greatness, a mistake to think of God as omnipotent; if we are made in his likeness then our weaknesses are his as well, and this gives a vital clue that God is less than all-powerful and that he doesn't know the outcome of each and every matter before him. It's an attractive notion that God remains teachable by the very things he creates.

There's a reason that it's written that God blessed/cursed man with Free Will; I actually believe that FW is central to his Divinity, in the sense that he could choose to battle his creative power and simply do nothing. The existential nature of God, though, would become bored and ill-tempered simply existing in a vacuum, and so he decided to create meaning for himself, much as we do in this realm. Free will is that thing that allows us to associate together and determine and define right and wrong, good and evil, and it is also that inspire given instinct, I believe, to empower us to fight the baser desires and instincts

Friday, May 9, 2008

"I'm Not There": Dylan Degree Zero

The more interesting aspect of Dylan Watching the last four years or so hasn't been his new music, which is fine if a bit cornball and relying too much on the songwriter's reputation for a passing grade, but rather in how well, how brilliantly he's managed and manipulated his image and mythologies. Chronicles, the assumed first volume of an ongoing memoir, had him writing clearly about his influences and his struggles as an up and coming folkie in Greenwich Village in the Sixties, an intelligence that maintained a bucolic trace that never let on too much, too soon about what his fandom wanted to hear about.

I actually enjoyed Tarantula and still parts of it brilliant in ways that would have been interesting if Dylan had continued writing for books, especially the riffs on Aretha Franklin and the odd fellows who suit her, and especially the poem about the end of Bob Dylan, recited at the beginning of Todd Hayne's recent fantasy I'm Not There. As for film making, at least he's allowing professionals, Scorsese and Haynes, to put his accounts together.

I don't think that manipulating his reputation so much in recent years makes Dylan less of an artist, only that it's been the most ingenious expression of his art of late. The self-construction of his persona is crucial to his ability to write songs in the manner he did. The work does stand by itself once we deal with the albums and not the reputation, but like Miles Davis there is a context of rigorously maintained mystery about them that can't really be separated from the work.

Actually, I think Dylan's albums of new material in the nineties and the 2000s are among the best writing in decades, a sure recovery from the depressing drift of his work in the eighties. Love and Theft and Modern Times are the writings of an artist who has let his masks slip a little, allowed his defenses to open just a tad and allowed his thoughts to develop a clear, if haggard voice. None of the lyrics approaches his genius from his best work, but then again Davis never produced some quite like Kind of Blue after that, nor did Mailer attempt to write another Naked and the Dead. While I'm bored unto death with the packaging and repackaging of him as cultural icon, I do admire his willingness to move on to the next music to be written and played, regardless of what others might make of it.

He wasn't about to give away the core and cause of his mystique, and seemed determined to with hold more than he would reveal, a shrewd and measured use of his charisma and allure. The Martin Scorsese directed miniseries for PBS No Direction Home was, of course, a feast of obscure footage and interviews with Dylan and his fellows as they recalled his rise to stardom and their time basking in Bob's cold glow, but again it was a production underwritten and controlled by Dylan, with Scorsese being only the hired gun to bring it too market. Now, finally, thanks to NetFlix, I've seen I'm Not There, director and co writer Todd Hayne's movie that deconstructs, in several overlapping narratives derived from Dylan's factual biography and his self-mythologizing, with a series of actors including Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett taking turns doing impressions of the reclusive icon. I turned it off forty minutes into the DVD , my prurient interest in Dylan and the manner in which he continues to add layers to what's left of his charisma finally exhausted. It’s not that the various versions of Dylan here aren't good or canny; the actors are good mimics who imitate Dylan's accents and affectations from the differing periods of his life, from the days when he wanted to be Woody Guthrie and took to adding a twang to his speech and dropping his g's like were seeding an apple grove, to the citified version of himself, post Greenwich Village and Gerdes Folk City, when the media discovered him and he made himself another cryptic sage with a bag full of self-cancelling aphorisms perfect for the age of McLuhan. Blanchett gets this ideal of Dylan down perfectly, an angular, shock-theatre hair do, a firm, scowling face, a constant attack of the amphetamine jitters.

What brings it down is the lack of a story line that would make this fanciful and hard to take fan letter into something that would inspire my willing suspension of disbelief. There is something about Dylan’s fan base that nears a cult identity, and one picks it up from time to time when a writer starts speaking in a stream of Dylan’s, where song titles and oddments of phrase, riveting and hackneyed, substitute themselves for a real argument; you know the audience reading the stream just nods and grooves on the heaviosity it all. I posted about Dylan’s problematic Pulitzer a month ago, and the only response was from a writer who’d self-published a novel where the character names and the major plot lines are taken straight from Dylan lyrics. I haven’t read the book, but I would imagine it to be at least as annoying as the Beatles film Across the Universe, where a plot is contrived from that band’s lyrics to offer us up—what else?—a tour of the most over-studied clichés of the Sixties. That I was getting the references this movie was making in the course of its unraveled narrative style made the matter more frustrating; it was depressing to realize that one had to be a Dylan obsessive to follow any of this at all. There has always been something cultish about Dylan's fans, but this, among other efforts since the start of the 21st century, is too close to the songwriter asking to be adored and coo'd over. He is willing to remind us again and again and yet again if we missed it the first time that he was a genius poet of the juke box, and we, a generation priding ourselves collectively for being so bright and hip to the Man’s trick of co opting our best ideas, seem more than willing to let this guy sell us our own memories.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Draft Beer, Not Poems

Sometimes a writer tries to protect him or herself against complaints by attempting to theorize their work’s shortcomings, as we seem to witness in Slate’s recent weekly poem. It's a neat trick for James Longenbach to title his poem as "Draft of a Letter" , since it would inoculate him against the expected criticism and outright sneering that the poem makes no sense. Faced with the carping and complaints, he can fall back on the title and announce that the poem is an abstraction of a draft of a communication, a literal letter half written and half still in process, percolating in the author's head, with ideas and images and associations jumping between streams like so many dozens of digital fish one might imagine in a rather pointless computer game. The poetry, he would say (and probably does) lies somewhere in the spaces between the lines where our own imaginations construct our own connections between sentences that are hermetically sealed against coherence.

The preemption ploy might be believable if what was actually written were more intriguing, but Longenbach's parts are the sort of undergraduate
experimentation and emulation one reads endlessly by the time a workshop gets up to reading The New York School. I see nothing here that wasn't written better by a dozen or so of my poetry buddies in college--Steve Farmer, Melanie Nielson, Shelley White, David Sternbach-- before they abandoned their spirited emulation and forged their own styles. Or anti-styles, depending on what you're attempting to make language do. Longenbach's poem doesn't read as if he's trying to make language do anything except lie there in it's tentative frame, hoping someone will stare at it (nee read it over and over) until a white spotlight shines down and the unspoken relations between Longenbach's skeletal remains of a poem are revealed. In this case, it is less an interpretation of a poem, less a parsing or evaluation than it is, in fact, an autopsy.

This might have been a healthy piece of writing at some point in its compositional history; there may well have been some rather sleek and alluring connections between the suggestions of dream imagery, sexual awakening, the conflict between wanting to fly and the rules of gravity that hard earth that enforces them

CloudsFrom the invisibleMountaintops,Then mist.Rain soaked the groundUntil it swelled,LiftingMy body
Flat on its back.Delicate fingers,Voice fair.In the end
I found myself drawnTo what was neither very large
Nor very small.In heaven,If you say the word death,Nobody understands.

I have no reservations diving into the heart of allusive poems; it's my preferred style, as you might have noticed. But I demand that the writing, however fragmented and subjected to whatever fashions, trends and hot button theories about poetry, at least have a surface quality, a snap and a way with a phrase that makes the work of sussing through and reassembling the disconnections worth the labor. I think poetry needs music and rhythm no matter what the approach, and Longenbach is as musical as flat iron being pounded with large steel hammers. Even fans of Industrial would cry enough and beg the DJ for some Mahler. There are the beginnings of an interesting poem here, and I suspect that there was something much more substantial when Longenbach got started, but then the most casually advanced advice and admonishment one gets from workshop situations--- prune, prune, prune--took over as operating principal, and we can say, safely, that tactless and unfenced trimming of a poem often times leaves us with something that is malnourished, chintzy and cheap in it's minimalist array, stupidly arrogant in its incomprehensibility. The title is the tip off, an admission that this hardly a poem at all, but a murder. What stream of ideas our author was trying to bring together died on the way Slate's poetry page.

Two poets published in the last three years in Slate’s weekly poetry series have respective strengths and deficiencies which center on similar habits of composition,
which ought to show that individual skill matters more in this game than the stylistic ideology a writer would throw at you in defense. The idea of having a musical ear plays strongly here.

First, one should know up front that Nadia Herman Colburn's reading of her piece “Love Poem” the poem is a buzz kill. Already hindered with the least appealing sound quality, she reads her verse blankly, stiffly, to the beat of the metronome and not the speaking voice. Remember movie scenes where the character is on the phone and the person at the other end of the line is made to sound as if they were speaking from a closet, yammering through a gag? Colburn doesn't sound much better; the reading and the sound quality have less audio appeal than what gets from an answering machine. Too bad, too, because this is not a bad poem when read alone, without sound, a series of elliptical images and sudden memories, seeming to come to the narrator in fast rush. There is some lovely, if diffuse writing here.A lake flickers after snow,and I enter the refraction,like playing the piano—fingers moving under handthe hour stretched with Chopin.A confluence of sensation, a shiny lake surface, a recall of music, a suggestion that the body remembers where it is and what do as would the trained fingers on a keyboard. Something in her responds, is aroused, bits of place and incident brought together in new configurations, just as the fingers themselves never know what music they might play under fingertips actually touch the ivory.In children, too, it's habitual:a group mazes its way along the streetlike an amoeba under a microscope—but once when the day still held usto itself, there was a sudden turning towards—as when, in Wisconsin, from the back of the car,I first saw the man in the moon:An interesting jump here, children in winter crossing the street, a sense of driving forward, to the center of some mystery so far unknown. But then the revelation, some sight observed from the backseat of the car, as if witnessed for the first time, eyes open, and alert.those craters, the eyes, the wide shadow at centerthe mouth. It was so obvious!Now I'm always trying to forgetso it can come again,naturally, like the cat through the cracking the window over the garage,or the fallen leaves that collect each night by the door.

This is an intriguing string of images, one stanza said and laid over the other like oft-kilter whispers or distinct melodies performed slightly out of sync. The main point, that one's whole body and being will respond to triggers and cues and make one feel that there is meaning and resonance in places that cannot be spoken, is successfully gotten across, but what strikes me is the chain of association that reflects the short cuts of thinking, quick measurement, fluid framing of context and detail, yet malleable, in flux, unfixed. Her language is musical, graceful, and strangely enough provides us with a dissociation of sensibility that retains a delicacy that is rare. It is an elegantly wrought poem. For the time being we have seen fewer poems-about-poetry and have become witness to another notable tendency for the Tuesday poetry selection, poems of intense narcissism. It's not necessarily a bad thing, since last week's poem by Nadia Herman Colburn both outlined and made sense of fleeting images of a faint past without forgetting that her task was to be lyric and evocative with the material she chose; Colburn's wonderings and bemusements of the sharp synapses her environment provoked involved us in a poem that precisely and unpretentiously captured the intensity of the perceptions, the rush of recall, and avoided an understandable seduction of placing a lecture in the confines of her choice of selected words.This is not true for Louise Gluck's poem "A Myth of Innocence", which is lecturing, nearly hectoring, and weighed down by a ridiculous solemnity that reminds me of the pinched nerve seriousness of elder priests at mass whose ruthless lack of cheer or life would make a nine year old boy or girl want to liven things up with arm farts or gum popping. Gluck's writing is so weighted with unbelievably padded writing that it reads in slow motion, like a funeral march, through all the obvious paraphrases of overplayed myths and the cumbersome attempt to bring a universal concept into a private moment when ones loss becomes the sadness of the world.

She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,I was abducted, but it sounds wrong to her,nothing like what she felt.Then she says, I was not abducted.Then she says, I offered myself,
I wanted to escape my body. Even, sometimes,I willed this.
But ignorance cannot will knowledge.
Ignorance wills something imagined, which it believes exists.

This syntax is tied into knots and hamstrung loops of unfulfilled metaphor and allusion that it makes you think of a distracted chef who cannot complete a single plate of an artfully prepared meal. I get a strong feeling that this poem is likewise composed of scraps, items intended for more complete poems, wholly coherent and perhaps fresher in their utterance. So many indefinite and transcendental qualities flow back and forth in this writing, mentions of myth, reflecting pools, a yearning for a younger self and an unsigned future. It's a traffic jam of references, none of it particularly musical or convincing beyond nudging a reader with strong hints as to what Gluck has been reading all these years.

I have a feeling that this may be a poem that Gluck worked on quite a bit in order to give a semblance of poetic content, but no matter how she tailored her first draft the writing remains lifeless and unconvincing. I've written hundreds of poems that I hoped to make evocative with a mannered strangeness of phrase and allusion until I realized I had only produced a variety of convoluted poesy. Gluck should have moved on, cleared her palate, and gone for a simpler, less cluttered tongue to speak what her muse presents to her.I don't think that there's a gender gap concerning like or dislike or dislike of Gluck's poem. As I said , I rather enjoyed last week's "Love Poem" by Nadia Colburn even though it treads much the same territory Gluck is traipsing about in--both poems concern a narrator's vivid glimpse of an acutely missed past--and I think the preference is about style, not gender. Colburn writes as if she's aware of the pitfalls and pratfalls of incessant concentration on the modulations of one's emotional temperature and rather smartly, I think, veers her line to that of William Carlos Williams ' that there be "no ideas but in things". The surface quality of her words are absolutely true to a gone moment in time, tactile, physical instances that trigger a rushing recall; her sensation is real, felt, and there is something in the elegant sparseness that allows a reader's mind to enter into the scenes and "finish" the poem, to diffuse the intrigue with the resonances of their own experience.

Colburn is smart as well in with holding what she knows about larger matters, and keeps her literary fore bearers out of the stanzas and on the shelves where they belong. In mind, but out of sight."Love Poem" is a marvelous and careful composition, a neat composition. Gluck, who, I have to admit, has rarely written a poem I wanted to reread is someone who’s vaunted jaggedness and open ended writing I find somewhat prosaic and all-thumbs in her attempts to seem daring and innovative."A Myth of Innocence", perhaps more approachable than the host of her other poems, is the least interesting thing I've read by her; it is an exercise on a routine and not so compelling theme, and whatever emotion she might actually have been drawing from to write this is leeched out by a characteristically ill-thought involution of syntax, and a need to instruct the reader as to how to respond. Her poetry is a glacier paced assortment of ponderous bits that strike me as remote, abstract, and cold, and their is strain in her associations that makes the muscles in my arms tense. I never get beyond the feeling from reading her poems that an overworked muscle is about to tear, and some real pain is about to begin.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Jerry built poems

Some of us make sour remarks after confronting a poem daring to be vague in uninteresting and undernourished ways,and the activity, to an extent, is guilty fun;nothing boosts your ego more than having a go at someone else's presumption of their genius. Still, it's a mark of cynicism, unearned and easy to tap, that reveals a unease that has little to do with the poetry itself. A review of my work even as of a year ago reveals the closed-universe strain of poems, the sort where nothing is revealed and not a detail is given to help along, a truly clueless poetry. I am trying to be more optimistic and sunny.

The grousing is understandable since nothing grates in the literary arts than a scribe trying to extend the expressiveness of language by reconfiguring the parent tongue. One may furnish their own examples of poets who've littered their front yard with the clunky scraps of their experiments, and we can all commiserate in a common distaste for the over rated hacks who hide their inability to say write anything interesting behind a wall of willful hebephrenia.

Sherod Santos does something remarkable this week, though, demonstrating with his poem "A Place in Maine" that it's possible to use conventional language, clear images and place the narrative situation in recognizable contexts and still write a poem that is incoherent, indecipherable, absent of interesting particulars or even an interesting turn of phrase. Compression, normally a trait I prefer in short poems (where details are spare and tellingly placed along with terse commentary from the nominative narrator), is the source of Santos derailed intents. There is something going on between the woman at the table and the man who has moved out of her life after several decades, but there isn't anything given to us about the quality or dynamic of their relationship for us to use as a clue where a parsing of the intended ambiguity would yield a reader's useful (i.e., enjoyable) speculation. The poem is spare parts and standard confessional designs dredged from the cyclone-fenced lot behind the Poetry Workshop; the piece sounds written to meet audience expectations as it goes about it’s jerry-built paces. Along these lines, a lack of conviction becomes obvious, with writing that seems nearly a parody of stuffed-shirt language,

It hurt for her to see me see what I couldn't,
in my heart, quite pity. And yet, across the lesser
distance of some forty years, she invites me
over drinks to think how hard it must've been for her.

Involuted syntax would work if there was something remarkable and mysterious to come upon while reading and so give the reader grounds to fathom the ambiguities and undecidable clues an interesting poem could provide, but this gives us none of it. There might be a temptation to consider this telling of the meeting as the account of someone still stunned with the peculiar and hurtful emotions dealing with an aging parent who might well be suffering from dementia and who’s jumps in conversational matter is mirrored by Santos’ absence of connecting detail or segue, but that would be a case of doing the work for the author who could well have strengthened the poem by adding to the writing, not taking away from it. There have been limitless times anyone of us might have sat through open readings where one would-be Eliot after another attempts the rough waters of elliptical reference, battered and bamboozled by one bard after another with violent images, in jokes and contrived melodrama that couldn’t stand up to a harder scrutiny.

The effort could be explained as a suggestion of troubles, conflicts, unresolved dramas that go largely unsaid, but that doesn’t cover it ; even a work that is sparing with the connections between stanzas requires enough for a sense of a desired implication to satisfy a reader’s desire not to feel they’ve wasted their time. Suggest “A Place in Maine” does, but it doesn’t evoke the dread at the center of the poem. Automatic pilot is the key phrase here, with one quizzical element on another as the poet attempts a dense and fine layering of merged complications; these are more like random snaps one picks up from someone’s basket of family photographs. Furnishing your own linking narrative between the various photos of first communions, weddings, and the odd shot of people standing in front of old cars can be as interesting as the images one is given. The elements of this poem are blandly generic with a pretense to more troubled tempests, crystallized by the poem’s last line “You mustn't forget I'm still your mother." This made me think of sight gag of Steve Allen or Johnny Carson taking a drink of water and then spitting it ought when their side kick uttered a confounding bit of nonsense. This is the sort of rhetorical bomb shell one would employ to cast every suggestion and insinuation that had come before into a new and possibly more dangerous light. It comes off as a cheap trick and even an admission that one was writing a poem that required an infusion of intrigue. No soap. No dice. No poem.

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 more giant 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 a sense of frantic and sharply applied cuts in a film , different angles juxtaposed against one another, ideas revealed in contradictory shades of light. The poet pauses, repeats a phrase, restarts the narrative from the beginning, jumps to the end and then inserts the middle section. The jump cutting,the shuffling of details, repeated, reworded, the same scene addressed in all conceivable tenses--it's all dizzying, remarkable. 

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 the phenomenon, to 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 worrying 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 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 review the other night has convinced me I ever was of its 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 relaxed style to pull off the task. "Cool" and "style" are important words to remember. It's a heist film as tragedy, and it's particularly arresting to seeing the un-bottled rage of Pacino's dogged cop contrasted with the coolly methodical criminal of DeNiro set against the vast, cluttered, overlit loneliness that constitutes Mann's idea of Los Angeles. Mann is in control of his materials, and his decision to limit the amount of shared screen time between his top-billed stars was wise indeed; rather than a conventional vehicle plot geared to accommodate big stars in uninteresting situations, we get ins to study in distinct, and not-so different 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 a feeling for human relationships –we are in the country of stoic individuals conducting themselves by codes of honor and conduct that places weight on the 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 tiny, really, has been done to show the devastation that The Life has on 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. For me, Heat's success is how 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. Still, 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 dramatic 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. The 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 outsized 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." Films are required to be "larger than life," perhaps, but "extremism" here is a general 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 reserved for the world's civilians, with straight jobs that have regular hours. The minimal and the maximal are the options in this case, and Mann does 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 lousy ending. The scale of the Heat works beautifully. 

The Wire, as I said, is one of the best television dramas ever, period. It comes from writer/producer David Simon. His book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets inspired 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. Under his direction, he creates complexity, grey areas and flaws, and other gripping nuances in characters that make his unique style of crime fiction fascinating, arresting, and moving. The distinction between The Wire and Heat, as you've alluded to, 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 how 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 writing poems. There is much I find to like and admire in Apocalypse Now and Heat, enough, indeed, 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 seduction with origins ideological or professional. The drama, which I do believe is convincingly put across as a 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 outsized 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 is 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. This aggravating movie 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. 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.