Monday, January 12, 2009

Auster's poems

Strange to think, but the spare, undecorated prose of Paul Auster does achieve a poetic effect of sort, but it's something that comes about because he can create situations and odd scenarios that often times gives us the duplicitous ironies that are a good poem's hall mark. One is not sure where they stand after reading an Auster novel, and his poetry in kind does a trick of seeming like John Ashbery without the prolixity.Ashbery's genius is the concurrent circles of reference his hard objects inspire in his mind; they conflate gracefully, refusing closure. Auster's poems refuse closure as well, but his are stanzas that have a hard glare like black and white streets; no technicolor, just high contrast black and white.The stanzas and images are crystalline, hard, unadorned, and the dreamy language around them, the assumptive tone that starts with a given set of attitudes and finds itself changed or shattered by poem's end, is blurry, confused, and imprecise. An interesting tension results--there is the feeling of someone overwhelmed by the conflations and overlapping demands of events and walking away, blinders on, into a new identity.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Poetry v Prose 2: another poem by T.R.Hummer

Years, another poem by the intriguing T.R.Hummer, continues that poet's fascination with the promises and evasions of prose , the language of certainity in an existence that adheres to no protocols that have been spelled out, literally. We could say that the best aspect of having a written language is the poetry that results in discovering that things and events are never as they've been described and defined.

Years ago, the story begins. Once.
In such-and-such a place, some season or other,
A stranger, two lovers, disaster.
She wants to close the book, but constellations
Of narrative structures interlock: gunfire
In the street, explosions at the embassy,
Betrayal, failure, decades of grinding hopelessness.
How long ago he died, his face pages vanished.
And she, dedicated reader, carries out sentence after sentence,
Her knowledge of the end complete, her execution certain.

The story begins and it never ends, as this tale and countless others like it are recast and retold; different actors, similar circumstances. Hummer gets ahead of the tedium that self-awareness of narrative form can create but chipping away at the didactic and getting to the good parts, the bits of unexpected circumstance that make a familiar narrative compelling, only they are not so unexpected. This poem might be a highlight reel, or someone fast-forwarding a favorite DVD for those scenes that resonates the most; the condensing of the particulars itself has an exhilarating effect. I think the last lines -- And she, dedicated reader, carries out sentence after sentence, / Her knowledge of the end complete, her execution certain -- because it suggests a pun, a reflection of the words we use to recount and recite a plot we know very well, and also something akin to a sentence one is fated to live through, to a willingly subscribed to circumvention of one's time where one's actions are plotted out in advance.It would seem to argue that we are only at ease using our own will power when we are secure in the belief that that we're constrained by a grand narrative where outcomes are premeasured and assured, despite our efforts to violate form. You are left to consider whether will power is an illusion in this instance, or if the violation of form is the disregard of the grand narrative and that we do have will power? As with the kind of ambivalence Hummer connects with for, the matter is slippery and does not rest either in or outside the distinctions; the boundaries are permeable.Will power, nee Free Will, exists indeed, and we live with the knowledge that we have the ability to go beyond implicit and tacit boundaries and create unpleasant consequences, but we chose not to. Most of us don't, in any case, and will use a sounder judgment. The majority of us wouldn't take a gun to traffic court to settle a dispute involving a ticket. This notion is something fluidly referred to as 'sanity', and there is a comfort knowing that one's fellow citizens stay within the boundaries. But there is ambivalence about those margins we stay within; there is an attraction to an existence where the Rule doesn’t apply. This seems a strong reason as to why we valorize and apologize for those artists, poets and writers we regard as artists, the usurpers of the norm. If they would otherwise be an unmannered assortment of louts.
Hummer's interest in written language as subject matter comes from the perception that human personality (in our culture at least) thrives on the notion that we're creative and groundbreaking creatures who can redefine themselves, as individuals, anytime it suits us, but that there is a virtually unspoken need to know that there are limits to how far we can stray from the script we're handed. It's knowing that we could break through the fourth wall and create all sorts of chaos for ourselves and our fellows , but that the host of us choose not too; we ascribe this to Free Choice, but for me Hummer has a darker theme, that of Fear Itself. The dread of an existence stripped of meaning, of limits, keeps us in check.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Poetry vs Prose

The Unwritten History of Prose by T.R.Hummer is a poem sussing through a variety of ambiguities about the competing provinces of Specialist Languages. The upshot of the poem is that the the jargon of each linguistic stronghold bleeds in the common parlance in a big way, one is left wondering, if they stepped back long and far enough from the tropes one routinely uses to discuss their life and their relations, that one's self-description of being-in-the-world is far more fractured than they thought. We are a species being, of course, but the conditions of behaviour and purpose are subject to tweaks and tunings from the experts--scientists, ministers, doctors, lawyers--who act, shall we say, in a profound spirit of self-interest. Whether it's enlightened or not depends on where you had your money invested, if you had money to start with.

Fitting that there is poem about prose, as a form, given the surfeit of stanzas about poetry or, more galling, poets talking about being poets. The difference is striking, and considering them, you can appreciate the reasoning poets, good ones, would consider themselves a stand in priesthood, the antenna of the race; poetry is the manifest destiny of the soul, an expansionist form that conspires, contrives , conflates the matters it chooses to deal with into a unified field theory of how the universe operates solely to make us feel a select schedule of moods. There is , perhaps, a theological assumption here, that just as there is a plan , with protocols, God intends for us to have in order to arrive, or not, at the off world point of this life--remember the phrase everything is exactly the way it ought to be in God's universe --poets treat the human experience as if were a fixed menu written in a language only they could read and order from; if crow was what they ordered, crow was what you ate.

Prose would be more concrete, pinpointed, appreciating the density of the concrete and the earthly essences that went in to making all these things adhere and form other things that are made by man; poetry is the tongue of God whispering his will into our ears, prose is the rumble and logical result following the fall from grace, a post- Babel of competing certainties , voices of conviction basing their expertise only in what can be measured, quantified, molded into a tool, a machine, a city of man made things, enterprise divorced from sacred intention, unmindful of consequences that cannot be felt until every enterprise is exhausted and each resource is depleted. Prose is the language of progress, capitalism, the rationale of moving on to the next thing , creating another catastrophe premised on unbound hubris.

I rather like this poem; it says prose is the medium with which we say "here I am, this is what I did, these are my explanations of my actions, my apologies for each and every failure." In the beginning there was the word , and in the end there will only the rubble of a civilization of things created from concepts those words delineated , and perhaps in the end there will be only the fragments of prose bits that survive, half-phrases, intriguing references and terms torn from context and historical fact, mysterious combinations of phrase that become, ironically, poetry all over again. A new Eden might yet arise, and we might yet again be a tribe collectively guessing the meaning and purpose of the sounds we make with the scraps of language set before us.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


It's a strange turn of the New Year when we first say adieu to arguably the greatest jazz trumpeter of the second half of the 20th century, Freddie Hubbard, and then this week discover that another musical pioneer with qualities opposite those of Hubbard's has died as well, guitarist Ron Asheton of The Stooges. Hubbard was a virtuoso force of nature, to engage in an abrupt use of cliche, a technical wizard who had, additionally, the great gift of melodic invention that put his untouchable skills in the service of riveting improvisation. In the company of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Hubbard coaxed an infinite number of dialogues and moods from his instrument, and he could place in the center of the emotional core of extemporized outings--the virtuosity made you feel alive , with emotions you forgot you had.It might sound too high hat, but metaphor aside, the Stooges were an alternative all the same to the pat bohemianism of the counter-culture;Rolling Stone and other hip capitalist media convinced America that there was a consensus among those of us in the "youth culture" and that all of us rock and roll fans were docile and enlightened, ergo harmless. The Stooges , along with the MC5 , showed everyone what was under the rock, a festering mess of violence, irrationality, youthful impatience. Sooner or later the lie had to be given to the hype about the Sixties and it was fitting that Ron Ashton's guitar work, a cranky machine of attitude, served as the battering ram against the edifice.

Ron Asheton, though, was of a different sort, a merely adequate electric guitarist who harnessed a narrower array of moods, attitudes, those being, I think, anger, diffidence, defiance, indifference to authority, characterized by a grainy, fuzzy, brashly fumbled yet heavily set of major and minor guitar chords. If Dave Davies of the Kinks invented the power chord with "You Really Got Me", Asheton reduced the formula to an even more primeval essence, his guitar work droning, groaning, distorting , aggravating and lumbering a set of teenage attitudes that crystallized the state of being inarticulate with a mind flooded with sensations and drives that had no experience nor wisdom to grant the spectre of coherence. He was the perfect foil for Iggy Pop, rock and roll's master of the throwaway lyric and the over driven ego; Asheton's primitivism had the gravity of a great boulder teetering precariously on a high cliff, finally sliding off with a crash, gaining momentum and mass as the huge rock approaches the bottom of the canyon; whatever was at the canyon floor was about to be smashed. Asheton made it clear on Stooges tune "No Fun", "1969" , "Search and Destroy", "Gimmee Danger" that whatever bad mood and impatient being lay at the center lay at the heart of Pop's lyrics wound up in the barbed wire snarl of his bleeding fuzztone and wah-wah pedal. Ron Asheton, an American rock and roll genius, one of the most influential fretsters of our time. Thank you, sir, and rock on.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Freddie Hubbard, RIP

I had the good fortune of seeing the recently passed away jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard several times when he played San Diego, most memorably in the Seventies when he played at the Catamaran Hotel. At the time Hubbard had made a switch from the straight ahead style on which his considerable reputation was made to a more commercial, funk and fusion approach, heavy on back beats, simple melodies, with a minimum of improvisation, and this was the material he concentrated on for the first hour of his show. Technically impressive, I remembered thinking , and I leaned over to my date and said that I thought it was a shame he was performing the recent radio-friendly hits that had brought Hubbard's name to a broader,non-jazz audience. It was as though Hubbard had heard me, for as yet another anemic ballad finished, he turned to the rhythm section and began an uptempo count and BAM! the group snapped into a head-twisting bop.
Hubbard, who was an imposing figure on stage and had a build that reminded me of a fast, hungry boxer, blew the finest trumpet solo I'd ever heard, a brilliant, fast, blinding succession of lines that skittered, danced and pirouetted in configurations that seemed alive, serpentine. For the rest of the night Hubbard was in command of his trumpet, the strong , bell like clarity of his tone and the sense of fast-witted sass and unexpected delicacy on the slower numbers continually surprising a crowd that, perhaps attracted to the gig by commercial records geared for popular acceptance, quite possibly had no idea that they were coming to see the best jazz trumpet player of his generation.

Hubbard, like many great musicians, made some dubious style choices, and was, at times, a pain in the ass, as I learned when he had a week long engagement in the eighties at the Summer House Inn's jazz club Elario's, where I worked as a reservationist. Hubbard stayed in the hotel during his gig, and was, shall we say, difficult in temperament. I answered the in house phone at the front desk one afternoon and it was Hubbard calling from his room, asking the bellman to bring up a pack of Marlboros; I decided to bring him the smokes myself, seeing a chance to actually meet a musician I admired. I knocked on the door of his room, which opened with a jolt, and saw Hubbard standing there, in his underwear and t-shirt.He tilted his head and looked at me through squinting eyes.

"Marlboros" I said, and handed the pack over to him.He took the pack and shuffled around a bit, an awkward moment. "If you need anything else, just give us a call at the Front Desk" is what I said. Hubbard said something and closed the door. The following morning I spent most of the afternoon answering phone calls from customers who'd come to see Hubbard perform at the restaurant; it seems he got into an argument with the pianist on the band stand between tunes and fired him on the spot, adding a gratuitous remark about the size of his personal business.

Let's say here that Freddie Hubbard was the greatest trumpet player of my lifetime and that what I concentrate on are those records where there seems to be no disputing the fact, Red Clay, Outposts, Body and Soul, Hub Tones. The composer of the classic "Red Clay" had clay feet it seems, but when all is said and done it is the work great artists that lives on, not the foibles and contradictions. Freddie Hubbard,thank you. Thank you very much.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Thomas Hardy as Inaugural Poet

Thomas Hardy finds something beyond his idea of reality that gives him hope despite the rigors of crisis and tumult in his poem The Darkling Thrush, published this week in Slate by poetry editor Robert Pinsky. The scenario here is that the planet is colored by the most dour of moods, seemingly shrouded and engulfed in a corrosive, soul killing pessimism . And yet, amid the foul weather and declining mood, comes a hint of something lighter, a clear wisp of clean air. Hardy seems to have learned that perception is not , by default, fate.

I leant upon a coppice gate
…..When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
…..The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
…..Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
…..Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
…..The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
…..The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
…..Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
…..Seemed fervorless as I.
At once a voice arose among
…..The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
…..Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small
…..In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
…..Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
…..Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
…..Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
…..His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
…..And I was unaware.

Confronted with gray, rainy day, a terrain of alienating spires and barren trees, the funeral day is suddenly lit up with the swelling song of the oddly-placed bird. One feels hope, optimism, from an unexpected source. It is a perfect poem for the day as we anticipate the forthcoming Presidential Inauguration .
Optimism isn't the easiest matter to get across convincingly in a poem, but there is something about the arrival of Obama in Washington that calms me more than a little. The reason might be that the new president is willing to stop arguing all the distinctions-without-difference¬es that have all but obscured our dilemma and instead confront our national and cultural issues straight on, without flinching. The point here is that there is some hope from an unexpected source that we may soon have leadership that an older guard was unwilling or unable to produce; whatever happens through this, we seem ready as a country for whatever comes after the collapse of the status quo.

Hardy's ode convinces with its uplift fairly much because his lines are melodic and they swing rather loosely for such a constricted form--there is that feeling, as we catch the beats and the galloping rhymes , that one might get as they struggle forward in a wrestling match; one senses an advantage looming, an opening about to gape widely, and this sudden expectation charges you hard, pumps a bit more adrenaline, takes you over the finish line . Through it, one is exhausted, sore perhaps, but stronger, more confident, in a state where one does not take anything for granted. Hardy seems to point out that nothing gets better without change and change is invariably struggle.

Hardy seems to be talking about the fact that creatures other than man , who have nothing invested in thinking their species special or blessed in any way, have the ability to withstand and transcend trauma, and ironically appear stronger, nobler for the struggle. The song of the thrush is theatrical, a tad melodramatic, but for poetic effect it does serve to remind the author, lately suffering a depressed mood, that life isn't about the all of existence between in place only to confirm, challenge, or test the philosophy he has developed from the gathered wisdom he has read; there is sorrow, of course, but life goes on separate from expectations and personal bitterness and beauty is not only possible despite awful events and traffic circumstances, but in fact exists, plain, clear, unselfconscious. We have the poet here at the moment when a small perception gives rise to an ongoing re-examination of ideas and relations that have sustained one so far and to appreciate the truth that what a cosmology should be a loose fitting suit rather than a tight fit.

Which is to say that Hardy finds himself awakened to the possibility that even as life goes on, it needn't be a grudging trudge, and that one can experience the wider variety of emotional and aesthetic life than before, when one found himself sure of their ideas and knowing everything without experiencing a tenth of what the world has in store.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Poems and personality

How can anyone hope to comprehend the poetry without comprehending the poet first?

If the poet is good, they should be able to write poems that stand by themselves without the poet's biography to guide them. Reader's "get" Shakespeare's speeches and sonnets with out requiring the background incidents that might have been the material from which he drew his images and metaphors--the competently written poem has a coherent , if elusive language that can be understood on their own terms. One can learn to enjoy John Ashbery's fluidity of association without wondering if this is what goes through his mind when he's driving a car or attempting to prepare his taxes, and one needn't even know what or who it is he's writing about or to while they read him. It's the quality of Ashbery's writing, the unusual way he frames every phrase with something alluring and tactile that makes the guesswork we need to do to his intentions a pleasure.

Gloom is also an alluring element in a poem if it's well crafted, freshly phrased, provides a new sensation. Bukowski at his best could get you with that jab in the heart after making you laugh at his antics,but his punchlines end up as shtick too soon and too often. We leave it to Thomas Stearns Eliot to provide the elliptically phrased dread, the exquisitely burnished despair that speaks to us clearly without a hint of Eliot's crabby personality being known to us: the work speaks for itself.

For elusive poems one can appreciate the mood and tone, one needn't go further than Eliot; his dalliance with anti-Semitic movements in Europe can enlarge a reader's understanding of his famously ruined terrains, but one can, all the same, get to the larger pessimism that something special has been lost in our culture and we cannot get it back. Ryan, though, might be too transparent in her poems, if her work reflects her thinking--writing is the act of fleshing out a notion so that it intrigues a reader. Ryan is terse to the degree that you think of Joe Friday with slant rhymes.

Not mean, but...?

A poem should not mean
But be.

That said by poet Archibald MacLeish, in his piece "Ars Poetica". That thrust of that poem, in essence, was that poetry was no longer the central domain in which speculations about the nature of reality , beauty, and the pursuit of the Good Life were discussed and debated, and that it was , in modern times, not the friendliest grounds for discussions about God and his purpose for us on earth.

Other, prose dominated disciplines had quite handily usurped those topics as science handily dislodged, diminished and debunked the mystery and mythology the general consensus used to apply to the material world. A poem should not "mean" anything, as in questing for the precise definition of things and thereby making fixed, general statements about them.

A poem should "be" as a thing itself, a material item true to its own nature, a construction of words, considered by MacLeish, WC Williams and Stevens (among the poets of that generation) to be malleable no less than clay, glass or steel. The aim of the poem was not to reinforce the materiality of the world and the given political and economic realities that relied on perception that markets could define, exploit and profit from, but rather that poetry should tend to perception, free of the filters we've been indoctrinated into.

These poets were not especially overjoyed with capitalism (although one would be hard pressed to call them leftists in any sense) and it's propensity to smash and upset the unannounced world. Williams wrote (and I paraphrase) that the thing itself was it's own adequate symbol,which , considered closely, stated that there is no God and that human personality could and needed to see the things in the world on their own terms, in and of themselves.

"An American Dream" by Norman Mailer

An American Dream
a novel by Norman Mailer (Vintage)

Image result for an american dream mailer
Mailer's meditation on violence and evil will not be everyone's idea of a good novel to read on the beach. Still, An American Dream is a fully realized male fantasy wherein one set-upon, White, alcoholic protagonist berserks himself into sequential delirium fueled rages to rid himself of the crushing banality of the culture that he feels is killing him by the inch. To do this, he commits a series of violent and insane acts in an alcoholic haze; challenges sent him by the moon (really) whose successful completion might give him a hint of the freedom he dreams is beyond the neon-lit tarp of the Manhattan skyline. This pilgrim's progress is nothing short of an obscene fantasy, wherein our hero, a decorated war hero, former congressman, and talk show host, strangles his maddening estranged wife, buggers the German maid, steals a Mafia Don's girlfriend, and proceeds, in 24 hours, to lie and deceive the New York City Police Department, the Mob, with intimations that the FBI and CIA are involved invisibly in the mess he created. The plot, of course, is lurid, absurd, and the product of a particular time, but Mailer's novel comes at a time when the Hemingway cult of quiet, a manly stoicism managed through a singular, privately held code of honor, was exhausted of compelling narrative potential. Mailer’s idea was to see what would happen if the man who might have been the Hemingway hero, suffering his hurts in some poetic privacy, had a psychotic break instead.

Gone, we see, is the hard-carved minimalism of the Hemingway style, with Mailer offering a delirious metaphorical ride through the ugly side of individual realization. Stephen Rojack's character is akin to King Lear in the rain, gone insane precisely because he no longer has the staging guiding his eye and thinking. In the clutch of his tantrums, the world finally seems to pull back its shroud and reveal the shape and purring function of its true nature; Rojack sees cities of diamonds, rains of falling stars; he smells and tastes those things never served on a plate. Mailer's great chains of metaphors deliver a dissolving sensibility that sees, fleetingly, the way everything is connected, the hand of an anonymous God directing His actors in ways unannounced and never explained. Rid of the props and storylines, nothing is left, an emptiness that can only be filled with increasing destruction. This is a riveting, wild, and enthralling exploration into the romanticizing of prescriptive violence.

Troubling, agitated, problematic for great numbers of readers, a brilliant novel despite its flaws. It may be even because of the flaws--the unreal dialogue, the haphazard cramming of a week's worth of events into a single 24 hour period--that bring the long runs of sentences shriek and burn so splendidly, as there is the sense that he is in a dream within which he must confront and conquer every blatant and disguised dread. The crash and slam of the plot dynamics--bear in mind that there is very little slack space here where one is allowed to rest and gather their wits in the midst of this ludicrous plot--get an intensity of feeling just right, that the world and the things in it are crashing down upon you. Your only option in the delirium is to obey the first fleeting voice that commands to respond, attack, destroy that which is killing you by the psychic inch. Mailer had written in his infamous essay "The White Negro" that it was one's moral responsibility to "encourage the psychopath within oneself" so to be able to experience greater and more expansive perceptions, to generate a new knowledge violently dislodged from murderous conformism. In An American Dream, he conducts a fictional field study of his theory by setting it loose in the plot of a novel. The results are exhilarating as they are nearly unspeakable.

Tom Wolfe, I remember, was not a fan of the novel, suggesting in a review that Mailer “lards up” his prose with too many allusions, metaphors, and similes when he ought to have taken a hint from James M.Cain and fashioned a terser, blunter style. He used Mailer’s running metaphor of boxing and compared him to a fighter who needed to get out of his corner faster. I differ with Wolfe’s conclusions and tend to agree with the late critic Richard Poirier’s reading of the novel, which considered “An American Dream” a compelling delirium of language styles fused together, the elegant, the surreal, the jazzy and slang-infested, the terse and the verbose, in a spectacular, intoxicating sweep. The novel's point was to reveal Stephen Rojack’s festering self-doubt despite his nominal accomplishments as both war hero and media figure and his deranged attempts to save what he considers his soul. Mailer’s novel is an interior view of a breakdown, an interiorized version of Lear’s final speech.

A reader who might be intrigued by Mailer's fictional realization of his existential anti-hero/hipster/White Negro wouldn't be wrong to think that the author himself is disturbed by the furthest reach of his imaginative takes on the purgative value of sudden and decisive violence. Indeed, from this point on, Mailer's ideas about violence and power come with more caution, nuance, and in a brilliant turn to begin his moral argument about the cause of aggression in the culture, he penned his brief, obscene. Fantastically incandescent novel Why Are We In Viet Nam: if Stephen Rojack was the result of a psychically emasculated man given in to floating voices and lunar impulses in the wan hope of being delivered from what is killing him by the inch, only to become only a more complicated expression of those mechanisms that generate the larger, global evil, Why Are We in Viet Nam? Takes a more expansive view. The question isn't answered, nor is Viet Nam even mentioned until the book's last page. Yet, by the time you reach the end of this brief and ingeniously offered account of an Alaskan bear hunt, we've gone through something primordial, cultural conditioning that produces a need for violence at the most rudimentary level of the culture.

 Mailer's habit of romanticizing violence and macho performances end with this second book, and the serious shift into the causes, conditions of our troubles begins in earnest, leading Mailer through a fantastic series of novels and nonfiction. He dared what other literary writers only feigned and actively engaged the world in ways and manners that he thought would make reality surrender some of its secrets. The hope, of course, would be that he might be able to change the way men and women viewed themselves in a political reality that had stripped the individual of all creative drive and hence empowers them to change the substance of their world. Grand ambition, yes, and a failed enterprise, but in the attempt are left a string of brilliant books -- The Naked and the Dead, The Executioner's Song, Why are We In Viet Nam, Armies of the Night, An American Dream, Harlot's Ghost,-- that, among others, form a body of work at once daring, daunting, vain and arrogant, preening, breathtakingly on target, raunchy, clipped, rich and rolling and lyrical like the grandest music. An infuriating writer, yes, but even so, one whose work stands tall in the era he wrote.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Two poets: Aliki Barnstone, Carl Phillips

"Riding Westward" by Carl Phillips is an extraordinarily good poem for most of its length, a knowing evisceration of a venerable American icon, a myth stripped of it's power and portent , with nothing left but dress, mannerism, the predictable 
slew of cliches;
Compromise his very own shoot-'em-up
tilt to the brim of his hat self, smirk to match,
all-for-love-if-it's-gotta-come-to-that half
half unintentional, I think, sashay.

Phillips reads as if he's hung around a few country and western bars and had gotten fairly tired of seeing an endless stream of gas-station buckaroos strut and preen their big hat up and down too many sawdust and spit covered floors to put up with it anymore. But this poem becomes a ghost story of sorts, an observation of what's left on earth after the power of particular symbols cease of have any real, practical force;

The silver spurs at his ankles where maybe
the wings would be, if the gods still existed,
catch the light, lose it, as he stands in place,
scraping the dirt with his boots: lines, circles
that stop short, shapes that mean nothing—
no bull, not like that, but scraping shyly, like
a man who's forgotten that part of himself,
keeps forgetting, because what the fuck?

What's left is all mannerism, gesture, cults that consist essentially of dress up parties among those in later decades who rummage through the past trying to find or at least construct a useful set of props and stylistic tics with which they can create an identity and hence a purpose. Yet the hats, the boots, the song he sings bemoaning an idealized loneliness under red Western sunsets are iconic and empty; nothing of this comes from the need to survive, but rather the need to belong to something with a fixed certainty. This is an interesting poem to contrast and compare against Ed Dorn's epic poem "Gunslinger", where the poet reconfigures a series of Western icons into a search for some real matter and meaning beyond what mere language can manage with it's crippling dualisms;it's an anti-epic poem that prefigures many post-modern gestures from its 60s era starting point. Funny, cartoonish, erudite to the extreme, it also locates a tuned lyricism in the Western vernaculars that Dorn uses: the metaphysical aspect of our legends, the sheer questing for answers as Euro-Americans come treading closer to a West coast that will stop them and force them to settle and create lives from dust and ingenuity, comes alive in way that never escapes the zaniness of Dorn's narrating inquiry into the nature of the search.

Phillips takes in the same set of aggregated props and conventional wisdom and sees instead the gaping emptiness beyond the heady glee of being dressed up in the spare vocabulary of personal codes and principled ruggedness. It's all empty and bankrupt, a story we tell to keep the darkness away. Phillips hints at something more profound than the cosmic silliness he sees with the strutting, posing and atonal warbling of prairie songs: our costumes represent nothing but wishful thinking , and that such thinking is the closet we stand to being transported to a serene, transcendent place. The gods have died, Phillips states, and we are left with our lives to either accomplish something real, or to wander about deluded, reduced by stereotypical narratives of individuality.

It might be said that was impossible to make anger a boring subject for a poem until Aliki Barnstone tried her hand at it. "Anger", Robert Pinsky's selection for the week, is set in situation a good many --too many-- of us recognize as awkward, strained, thoroughly unpleasant, a dinner for two who, sitting presumably at opposite ends of the table as they cut and chew their food with controlled strokes and grinding, manage a language in which they put each other on trial. Each has a turn to outline their argument , to make their case, the casing of civility chipping away with every stroke of knife and stab of fork:

Yet we sit together at the table, each to serve
the other artfully poisoned morsels, point a fork,
and go on and on, watching the widening distance.

This would work, perhaps,if this were a fresher take on a soured relationship, but the poem treads territory that is too familiar, and Barnstone's greatest mistake here is over writing the scenario her template provides. The poem reads like a set up for a knockout punch that does not materialize from the corner she's trying to fight her way out of. It goes on too long, and the device of comparing this meal and its discontents to a trial is less a metaphor than a reason to write further , to add stanzas.

You say, "You should have listened to me,"
and, "But you had to be you, didn't you?"
Then I become the witness who testifies against me.
We deliberate all night, inventing counterpoints,
narrowing our vision at spears of candlelight
and we go on and on, watching from a distance,
as we appeal, go back to discovery, retry, seek
sympathy by recounting suffering and history,
though this defense may deliver the verdict against us:

The prosecutable element would have worked if it were brief, even fleeting, and if it were a means to segue into something else about the world this couple thought they were living in contrasted the world they now perceive as they relationship, presumably, slowly grinds to a stop. Barnstone might have managed something genuinely poetic if there were a sign , in images, of how the reality has changed. Rather,"Anger" reads as if Barnstone were too fascinated with the mechanics of making her -trial conceit work; the poem is damaged by repetition, needless volume. It is a mistake of perception, the assumption that the length of a piece is a measure of it's value. This length equals a long wait in a doctor's office.Grating as well is the last stanza, where Barnstone's woman character, the "I" narrator, has a failure of nerve and instead wallows in the misery she and her husband/boyfriend make for each other:
our embrace will pull us down
through the shades, and we'll hold on to our grievances
and go on, too watchful, unable to get some distance,
reading and helplessly rereading the sentences against us. 

Who amongst us does want to yell "get your ass out of there"?Barnstone clings to the relationship less for affection than for a reason to continue writing poems like this one. Poems written in bad faith about bad faith give evidence not just of bad, self-pitying verse, but gives obvious clues to an underlying disorder.I prayer is that Barnstone gets a relationship that is everything she desires it to be, and writes a poetry that doesn't reinforce a pathology.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Four Sonnets, sort of

Sonnet 1

You turn your head, you cough and recover,
hand at your throat, the mike buzzes but not before
you shuffle your poems and read yet again, you go on in a room
where everyone has a first line, I would read about your eyes,
wide as they are as saucers cups that are deep as pans of bread
that come from the oven and into my heart, and that’s a start, I think,
you fold your hands as you read; you’ve got this memorized,
yet it all seems extemporized from the bottom of your heart which hasn’t a bottom at all, now some one else reads, a guy with tattoo of his tongue across his left cheek, he screeches to hip hop clicks of the tongue but he’s young and not far from done as long as his homies thrown their signs with fingers that cross a language of quieting the flutters of the immature heart, I will read you later, on the phone, with every court and hand gesture, you wave goodnight, I know the line,
you’ll see me in the funny papers.

Sonnet 2

Not this day nor that one but the one after all these, rather,
when we come into town with pockets full of matches
and cigarettes in a sock, we rock the nation with big beats
in hock to no groove other than the tire tracks that
criss -cross the oceans on trade winds that carry notes
like saints carrying a crucifix to the next thorny hill
under a sky that opens only for any spirit that slides
up the ladder like plumes of smoke, we toke in gasps
and get out of the car, unload, set up amps, take up a collection
for a room to split five ways, give or take the extra guitarist,
a girl friend who snores, a nice place, we say, this world is ours,
while over the bridge, in the other life where phone lines connect,
there are meals to eat before the meat gets cold, moms to kiss on the cheek,
girl friends to lie to because we love them too much to be ourselves on a dare.

Sonnet 3

Extra candles at the table mean that there
will be more bread to butter, more sin to absorb

even as we see a motorcade and a pope in
a unbreakable box on the screen when

the first spoonful of hope is served from bowls
that a heat that escapes logic and cold fingers,

bless everything that gets in your way, says Dad,
do the sign of the cross and make the world tremble?

work your voodoo somewhere else,he hisses, hand me a roll and turn off the set.
the screen goes dark, millions of button-down faces
in crowds that line streets and make the stadiums sag

under the human pounds are gone in a small white dot against a dark green field,
and Dad smiles again, snapping his fingers,
and chews his bread with his eyes closed,face framed with lacy steam.

Sonnet 4

A fevered dream gives up its dark corridors
and invites me to stare at the ceiling instead,
with music of laughs and grunting keyboards
filling the dim sleepless niches that make up the sky
that is now filled with circling birds, black and crying,
hypnotized by advertising about home loans and
travel clubs to the farthest end of a Pacific Island where
there are no dull, all-night parties and robot music that
grinds away at unsmoothed nerves, I pick myself from
the bed, kiss your forehead, slip on my open toe sandals
and sit at the edge of the bed, the edge of my wits,
the end of what feels like the earth Columbus
must have feared all three of his ships would drift over
in a delirium born on a black, sleepless sea.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Buy me a bottom

David Kramer, a lasped drinker from the sound of things, writes nostalgicly of what he misses about getting tanked in bars, the practice of "buybacks", bartenders and patrons buying drinks for one another. He recalls it fondly and I read his column, shall we say, with interest. Mostly it reminded me of why I haven't had a drink in over twenty years.The thing I used to miss about drinking more than anything was the nearly erotic flush I felt course through my body after I finished the first drink, usually imbibed in loud, glottal gulps; the stressed nervous system would seem to relax, to let out a sigh and where ever I was seemed the most perfect place in the world. Often enough such occasions took place in alleys or alone in my apartment with all the shades drawn, since I drank for twenty years and the end of my drinking life came a dreary and depressed and repetitive scenario of tanking until I would pass out in my own easy chair, my shower, my kitchen; I couldn't manage my affairs in the taverns where everyone knew my name.

But if I happened to be seated at the end of the bar, near the bartender's well, it was a more perfect union between myself and the cosmos, or at least the contents of whatever ale house I landed in--the people were brilliant, the interiors showed discriminating tastes, anything that was said or done in the space of the twenty minutes to an hour my good mood lasted was nearly always extraordinary and inspired the most sublime ideas on my part. I loved where I was, and so did the other regulars who happened by those particular afternoons, late nights and early mornings when the bars could legally open--when the booze worked for us, we'd share our resources and buy each other drinks in the spirit of mounting an attack on the negative energy that cursed and tainted the world outside the front door. Sooner or later, though, the good mood faded, the good willed shriveled into rapidly encroaching resentments, bitterness nuanced our witticisms, our rapid succession of brilliant ideas soon became slurred, incoherent speech. People just got uglier, and I had no sense of time, to paraphrase Dylan, who nailed the recurring situation.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Who wants to be a bard?

There is a bright fellow I know from Ireland, a grand poet , a beautiful writer, who thinks that there are too many poets in this world and that remedy the glut with the closing of MFA Writing programs that he feels cranks out sock puppets rather than real bards. It’s not an unusual grouse, all the wrong people are getting published, and it’s too much of a burden to get the truly gifted among us between covers. Mentoring, sponsorship, some kind of affirmative action from the established poets to the lesser known is due, no , it is owed.

I'm not so sure that published poets owe anything to their unpublished kin; even if there are vast differences in the amount of circulation a particular publisher can give a poetry volume, technology makes it possible for virtually anyone to get a decent looking volume of their work published. One can pool their resources with other writers and form a publishing cooperative. It's not easy promoting a new book, especially books of poetry--the audience is virtually non existent in most communities, and that community , as such, does not buy the book the poet on hand might be trying to sell.

But the case is that literally anyone can get a book published, by some publisher, for virtually any poetry style they happen to be writing in. The impossibility of having something between covers is a grossly exaggerated myth.Those who attend MFA programs, earn degrees and make their contacts among highly placed poets and publishing contacts deserve, more or less, the broader spectrum of attention they might get if only because they did what was required when one chooses to be a poet by profession; we might sneer and think them privileged and the lot, but their path was one involving work and dedication and, incidentally, talent. This is a path any one of us with enough determination can follow as well. One can't be assured of the results, but the mechanisms exist for all who bother to find about them to use.

I don't know if there is too much poetry being published; one can say as well that there are too many movies being released, too many competent tenor saxophone players, too many decent cups of coffee being served. I rather like the bounty and would consider it an awful situation if there were less to choose from. Meritocracy is fine as an ideal, but more often than not in nearly all human activity, luck has as much or more to do with the recognition someone garners as talent and hard work. Aiming, by design, to make a system "fairer" for poets encourages even more mediocrity, since such a system would be bureaucrat default. Poetry, above all other things, is subjective to the extreme as to the nature of quality, and subjecting such an ephemeral thing to institutionalized standards would further the death of the art faster and farther than any of us would like.

"Set the bar higher"? Who sets the bar, and how do we begin this vague process without violating the rights of publishers to publish who they want, as little or as little as they want? Arts are a free market, above all else; sorry for the libertarian analogy, but regulatory practices on the matter of taste, whether a reader's,, a poet's, or a publisher's, is repressive and totalitarian. I am a liberal by nature and believe in fairness and justice for all, but you cannot legislate taste any more than you can legislate morality. The Soviets tried for decades and stifled quite a few good writers who might other wise have found voice in a freer market of ideas and expression.

America, has always been on the margins so far as book sales and exposure, and there have been many attempts to bring it to a wider audience to my memory, none of them successful beyond a short-lived media splash, what David j. Boorstin called "the pseudo event". Save for those rare sorts who become celebrities and manage to make their poetry book sales into respectable revenue streams--Allan Ginsberg, Billy Collins, Robert Frost, John Ashbery--the rest of us will have to resign ourselves to being at the margins of the reader's attention. When I picked up my first copy of Poet's Market, the editor in the introduction warned against expecting to make more than contributor's copies or bus fare as remuneration should they have poems accepted. You wrote poetry because you loved the medium and published poems not expecting to make all that much money. He said, essentially, don't quit your day job; that's been some of the best advice I've every gotten as a genius-in-waiting.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A bad job

One hears often enough that it must be great to work in a bookstore, and I say, well yeah, sure, it's a living and it covers my expenses and pleasures, but it isn't always peaches and gravy. Here is an experience that nearly persuaded me to try another line of work.

It was the George Herbert Walker recession of the nineties and I was working at Crown Books in La Jolla , California, a slave wage job in a mediocre , short-changing, cheapskate corporation situated in a much-monied community of neurotic retirees living off the wealth of dead parents who, for all their money and skin color, were town full of high maintenance leeches who delighted in demanding anal-inspection attention for all the mere sums they actually spent. Crown Books, in turn, was the worst managed companies I'd ever worked for, seemingly operating on a fear-based business plan; cheap books for customers, sure, but the downside of that outweighed the pittance one saved at the register. No store credits, no special orders, no Books In Print, no selection, refunds mailed to you in the form of a check from Landover, MA. within three to four weeks. The customer service manual for Crown, some of us joked, was one page and only had one word, that term being NO.

I suppose I ought to mention that deliveries came through the front door, usually thirty boxes of remainders, and that they had to be received in the center of the sales floor; ahhh, nothing like trying to cross-count book stacks against a packing slip while retired corporate executives badgered you about the good old days that were never in fact extant, or while the thieving likes of slacking teens recycled moribund cliches while they helped themselves and their backpacks to Penthouse Magazines, in plain view of passing parents and their brat kids.

It wasn't a pretty picture; Crown was the 7-11 of bookstores--you bought what they had or you could go fuck yourself for all any of us oppressed clerks could care. The worst of it all, though, was the store manager, Jennifer, a probable speed freak, skinny, wiry, anti-social, snarky like old drone deprived of her game shows, always beginning projects and not finishing: she overslept one morning and I arrived on time, finding the front door still locked up and stacks of boxes containing books, dumped by the warehouse driver. I called the district manager for Crown, a mirthless drudge named Miriam, and promptly got myself chewed out. I stopped her rant--I called her at home, after all--and told that none of this was my fault and just how do you suppose we get the store opened and the inventory inside, off the sidewalk? Ms.M seemed annoyed that I was more interested in getting the store's inventory secured than in subjecting myself to her mewling list of droning complaints about how about a bunch of selfish, rotten assholes the La Jolla was. Miriam, shall we say, was neither the sharpest tine on the fork. She was, in fact, a dim bulb, clueless to any event thing outside her sphere of short-sighted references. I'd call her obtuse, but I wouldn't want to offend the genuinely obtuse among us.

She gave me Jennifer's phone number, and I called, and a scratchy voice grunted and gasped and swore like a mother fucker until saying, three throat clearings later, that she'd be at the store in twenty minutes.

Jennifer showed up an hour later, not smiling, looking more burned out than a junkie's spoon. We said not three words during the shift when the phone rang. It was Miriam for Jennifer. All I could make out from the aisle where I was receiving books was Jennifer giving faint protest and then inevitable submission to her boss's blowtorching. No mam, yes ma-me, but I was only...yes man, yes I do...yes I will...yes mam, yes mam, yes, I do apprec---no mam, no...
At closing Jennifer took me aside and handed me a yellow sheet, telling to sign it. It was a written warning, something she'd gotten in the habit of issuing me; this , coming from the manager of a store that had burned through five store managers in six months. I gave it back to her.

"Take my name off the schedule" I said, "I don't work here anymore...."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Philosophy of Crap

"Sewage Has It's Say", a poem by Steven Cramer, stinks to the highest reaches of irony, and it's a fine thing too.A monologue in essence, the essence of which is the voice of what we consume processed and reduced to it's fouler essences in turn. This is the food we eat and the drinks we imbibe with all the cosmetics of preparation removed, after all the benefits (nutrition, energy) and debits ( obesity, high blood pressure) have been had. Insulted, railed against, invariably used as a pejorative, equated with the foulest intents and deeds a race is capable of, sewage finds it's voice, it talks back to the world that is other wise obliged to consume and make crap and crud an unavoidable consequence; there is hypocrisy here, the fetid mess proclaims, everything winds up in this repulsive stew:

Give me roots prying into the joints
of your main waste line, Charmin
thickening her web first to a nest,
then to a dam, and I'll sluice in reverse,

top the basement tub and spill
into a poem! Damn! I've sunken
to new heights! Will you take
a hint and stomach your disgust?

What does The Thinker look like
he's doing? How come Luther heard
God's thunderclap of justice via faith
whilst sitting on the privy?

Steven Cramer has an especially acute wit to imagine a dark mass taking on a voice one could imagine being intoned by a hammy Shakespearean actor intent on over-emoting the lines, a misunderstood and maligned end product talking shop with a product , Charmin, that's ostensibly dedicated to wiping it out. But wipe as much you can, the stinking sludge maintains, you will become part of this flushed proletariat, these breakdowns of food stuffs, fecal encrusted tissues, diapers, sanitary napkins, condoms, illegal drugs and syringes.

At the heart of the matter is that is we really are what we eat, echoing an otherwise stale counter culture cliche, and regardless of how we gussy up the chambers with spray-can aroma, disinfectants , no matter how much art and artifice we set around our dinner table preparations, regardless to what extreme we pervert language to raise our collective self image and have our race be at the top of the food chain, we are in the food chain none the less, inseparable, consuming vast amounts of products to keep the mortal body a going concern, producing waste in all varieties, forms.

You know...where love's pitched his mansion, so
don't shower so much. Squeaky clean's
for mice. No soap's got enough tallow
to wash out the mouth mouthing off.

What made you so ... nice? Polite's
kind of like death, isn't it? Okay, not
quite. But consider this, my sweet kin
in excretion: to flies we taste like candy.

Whether it's The Thinker or Theologians considering the feasibility of a personal God, everything resembles the process of taking a dump, a long and ponderous crap, the moment when every idea one has absorbed in passing finally passes through us, if we're lucky enough , leaving only that bit of nutritional purity that has helped us grow, come up with an idea, an invention, a poem that is truly our own. Steven Cramer's personification of an unspeakable and limitless mass of stinking waste as having a voice to raise in it's irony-citing defense is an excellent bit of wit.

The literary references are less self conscious than such citations usually are since his point is to reduce the space between humanity's greatest conceit as an elevated species and the inevitability of it's least appealing biological requirements. Everything is shit, like it or not, all is waste, the finest poems become sludge. One needs to embrace the fact, if not the cistern that contains the messenger.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

In the Valley of Elah: rent this DVD!

We are still talking about how bittersweet and haggard Tommy Lee Jones was in the Coen Brother's remarkable adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel "No Country for Old Men", understandable enough, but most of us have all but forgotten another amazing film he made that same year, "In the Valley of Elah", an Iraq War-themed murder mystery written and directed by Paul Haggis.I'll have to put in my two cents for "In the Valley of Elah" as one of the best films to come out in 2007. I saw it when it opened in a nearly empty theater, and I could only imagine in retrospect that we hadn't collectively arrived at the moment when we wanted to see Jones shine especially well in a role. That moment arrived a couple of months later with the offering from the Coens So far as demonstrating acting chops, it was a banner year for Jones, particularly in demonstrating his skill at underplaying a character, slowing down his pace, giving his lines a nuanced, cautious pace; this is remarkable for an actor whom was bordering on becoming a Pacino-esque self parody of inappropriate over-stylization of a performance.

"In the Valley of Elah" has a enticingly thick layering of lies, conspiracies and misdirections revolving around a major political blunder, the Iraq War, and in classic detective form the former military police inspector Jones portrays has to confront and puncture each and every cover story other characters are handing him as he conducts his unofficial murder investigation. The screenplay and direction of Paul Haggis is remarkable for the lack of self righteous speeches about the inhumanity of it all--there are no Paddy Chayefsky tirades to be heard anywhere. Rather , there is a laconic tone, a dragging weight to the dialogue as resignation to odious greater events seem to depress the very light.

There is one especially choice frame, when we see Jones from the street as he uses the machines at an all night Kinko's; through the window the interior light brightly burn through the dark street for a few feet, and then grows faint and ragged at the end of it's glowing radiance, suggesting both the urban isolation Ed Hopper could get on a canvas and that this character's world, once young and idealistic,is getting dimmer as he gets closer to a truth of a tragic consequence to a gross demonstration of bad faith. It's a generation clash of the subtlest measures and we can see Jones' notions of integrity, patriotism and honor shrink in the cold vapors of a another generation coached more in buck-passing than duty.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Speechless as Trains

Posted here because it's one of my favorite poems.-tb

In the drift of the words you are speaking,
wrapped in steam
that unfolds in vapors that vanish
in the cold snap of wind
that blows against
brick houses
that remain beautiful
despite neglect and graffiti,
a half-century of weather,
I am stunned,
speechless as trains.

I am drunk in love
with an idea of you
before we ever spoke words, that is,
committed biography
without being asked,
in a blur it seems
one of us was getting out of a car
in front of a marquee that advertised
a dead man's magic,
giving a panhandler a dollar
drawing up a collar on an oversized coat,
eyes locked into
the swirling twines of
train station steam
from an ideal century,
steel towers and smoke stacks are
rising to the nights' swallowed
promise of a glimpse from the roof of the
tallest building ,
feet moving under you,
but the steam dissipates, torn asunder by
wind and thunder,
I've memorized the lines of your hand,
these are lanes where eternity lives nameless
and absent in the Present Tense,

The same stores, the same houses,
the same neighbors coming and going .
pass me by,
cities are made
for finding dark places
as fingers trace the limits of seams,
the way the threads tear
at the stitches.

All this before
I heard you talk in that twang
and before I knew there was
an idea in your head, a buzz
of book learning that meets the world and negotiates
meanings with truths that have no resonance
except repetition and insanity.

I love those first moments
when it was all image,

The city’s posture bending
to compliment a style you forced even
canyons of tall buildings
and banners for gunboats bearing
dead sailors names
to give themselves away in a rapture of your eyes
lighting the streets and every room with grace
that would be uncanny,
for a minute I believe the city was built
on a hill nearest Gods' dispatching cloud.

But you spoke
instead, about the weather and movies,
my rapture was destroyed and shredded,
you became another pretty head full of brilliant thinking.

History is something you can wrestle with and win,
irony is a language you use with the ease of
turning the pages of a big dictionary,
the double click of the mouse,
subtlety is the Church you attend,
you make the streets that vanish
into perspectives to not disappear but
to continue somewhere over other hills,
in the middle of
a continent whose state capitals
you can name and spell on the Main roads.

You cannot transform my city
into the simple pleasure,
the world is just pure process, a
machinery that never stops,
your brain, my words,

Damn you, damn you,
it's gotten so a man cannot hide
even inside the lust he saves
when love won't follow the script
damn you,

Tonight there's only smart talk,
getting in touch
with my feelings,
framing statements
in generalities that leave room for the
world to resists even momentary certainty,

No escape for the wanna-be wicked,
no sleep without perspective,
the relevance of a sock drawer, pairs of socks,
speechless as trains in the yard
before the daily invention of light,
the day that comes again without knowing you

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Brief and banal

Obviousness is not an attractive feature in a poem; you come to the poet wanting something more from words than headlines, cliches, the hackneyed like, and get instead a groady fish tossed in your face. Rachel Hadas, someone whom I've liked reading before, gives me a cold dish. It tastes awful.

Conveniently, a troubled sleep produces a fevered dream of an ominous wedding where , after the anonymous couple finishes their vows and concludes the rite with the ceremonial kiss, the world melodramatically becomes unhinged and unruly. Powerful forces encroach on the transparently joyous occasions and will commence, we assume, to undermine every expectation for the couple's future happiness . But it's not just the wedding pair who are to tormented and subjected to the uncertain whims of a usually cruel fate--the whole neighborhood is infected with the seeping bad faith. The situation goes global.

The air trembled
as if, hooves thundering, a nightmare galloped
past the house along the empty road.
Summer was waning. I was getting old.
The vision of the wedding fell away
and launched me, weary, into a red morning.

Even for a dream sequence this seems rather to rapid a transition between a celebration and gloomy consequences, giving the poem more storyboard, as in film making, than storytelling, odd and menacing as that diffuse narrative was required t me. Rather than an having entree to someone's symbolic equivilents of dread, we have some one pushing figures around a doll house, narrating from afar. It's a forced, ginned up performance.The world was warring, drowning, catching fire.
What we have , in essence , is one of many warnings we've received in our reading lifetimes against putting our faith in traditions, habits , rituals, prayers or anything else one might have hopes for protection against catastrophe or worse. Our expectations of sanctuary, whether in actual , material fact or in spiritual assurance, will slam hard against the brute force of the inevitable forces that gather and express themselves in innumerable ways, from our species territorialism to what forms of seeming revenge Nature herself will heap on us. The couple that's been joined have left childhood and entered into the sphere of adulthood where only truth , hard, unforgiving, unstoppable, holds the reins. People , places and things will vanish, disappear, war clouds will gather, mountains will fall, the god of one's parents will be silent.

Spare as this poem is, it tries too much, a grand slam indictment against false gods and the lot of it; it's dime store Schopenhauer and a c minus paper from a junior college philosophy course. The pessimism that lurks in these stanzas strike my ear as rather too easily achieved, like a tired idea left lying around like some odd object one would grab and use to hammer home a point; it reads like a makeshift construction.It's a bit much, even if this is framed as dream narrative; the anonymity of the wedding couple, the facelessness of anyone who might have lurking in the corners of this congested smacks of a Twilight Zone episode , fine for a show that's been off the air for decades, but a lazy scenario for a poet who wants to do something more than mimic the stylistics of an old TV show.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Emphatic Mumbling:John Ashbery's Glorious Diffusion

I've thought for years that the best way to read John Ashbery's poetry is to first throw the instruction manual away and then go for a fishing trip in his various lakes of opaque meanings. Literally, imagine yourself in a boat in the center of a large body of water and cast a line into the water, and then reel in what pulls and makes the line go taut. Whatever comes up is always a surprise, unexpected, perhaps a tangle of things that wouldn't be bound together or linked in any conceivable but in the dreamy but sleepless realm of Ashbery's actively processing mind and attendant imagination.

This might be the closet an American writer has ever come to transcribing the language of their thought process; for all the conventional wisdom about Ashbery's associations with painters, French surrealists and the rush of popular culture, he very closely resembles the method of Virginia Woolf and the still engaging , if topically staid process of stream-of-conscious.

Ashbery's poems are filled with much of the material world, both natural and that which is manufactured, fashioned, contrived and constructed by human agency. In both Woolf and Ashbery, the central voice, the observer,distanced or not, renders an image, makes it solid and substances, gives it attributes and distinguishing nuance, allows the thing to be played with as the mind associates, puns, constructs parallel universes and contradictory time lines; sections of books, a cold cup of coffee on magazine, a painting under a cloth, shorelines seen from Italian villas, comic book heroes and the breathing of a grudgingly referred to "you" who is voiceless, without input.

I was aware that Ashbery was an adherent of Wallace Stevens and his notion of the Supreme Fiction, a reconfiguration of the tension between Idea and it's physical expression to the senses. But where Stevens constructed a grand rhetoric to address the generic formulations of the everyday--his poems often times sound like critiques of a reality that is inferior to a divine Idea that makes their formation possible--Ashbery makes more informal, casual, and brings the distanced bewilderment to street level. There are glimmers, glimpses, observations and sightings of the physical detail that assures you that you and Ashbery are living on the same planet, and yet at precisely the moment you come to a reassurance, these details blur and merge with the spill over of many other chats and conversations the poet seems to be having. The poems are not monologues, and one cannot call them a "medley of voices", as Richard Poirier had referred to Norman Mailer's Why Are We In Viet Nam?. "Medley" implies an orchestration of unlike parts made to harmonize, to make sense in ways that give pleasure. Ashbery's voice is singular, his own, and what comes from his typewriter are whatever arguments, debates, interrogations are rumbling through his consciousness at that given moment. While Ashbery is capable of the well turned sentence and even sweet music on occasion, his aim isn't to give pleasure, but rather to make the ordinary and nettlesome extraordinarily weird.It's not that his poems are any more accessible than Stevens--his less daunting syntax actually seem to make his poetry more demanding than Stevens'-- but with patience we can comprehend a language we might actually use , a voice that could plausibly be one we would have in those moments of lost thought, daydreaming, vague yet intense yearning when there is so much we want to bring together for a moment of clarity but are frustrated to find that our senses keep changing along with the world they behold.

Ashbery is the central poet for many critics whose projects intend to layout the raise of urban Modernism in American verse. Marjorie Perloff is someone else worth mentioning as much of who she deals with are city poets, worldly, college educated, unashamedly bookish, and unafraid to employ a more vulgar popular culture, IE comic books, movies, advertising, along with the more swank and sophisticated allusions to high culture, whether literature, opera, theatre, painting.

A connecting thread through much of the poets emerging after WW2 was their ambivalence to the plenitude of culture and media--Dwight McDonald's derided mass culture--and began, in their individual endeavors, to fashion particular styles to sift through the cultural dumping ground each of them were witnessing.

Elizabeth Bishop is exquisitely hermetic in her verse, and is much closer to the qualities Stevens praised for poetic surfaces calling their own form into question, and James Merrill , who was something of a virtuoso in sustained, whispering elusiveness.
One sees why some of the poets of the New York School receive more attention from readers and critics, especially the work of Ashbery and Frank O'Hara (and to a lesser degree, the wonderfully digressive poems of Ron Padgett); meanings and intents about the growling contradictory messages of physical reality are dealt with as unresolvable conditions of existence in the work, but the point is how the poet is engaged with their world. It might be said that Ashbery's work makes no sense, and conveys a sense of witness to an ever blooming enlargement of perception.The poetry of the New York School was , in essence, about talking about the world as it unfolded , an attempt to give a cadence and rhythm to the kind of personality which bears witness to the confluence of sight, sound and smells .This is a fitting rite for a city that is in your face, traffic lights, pedestrian density and raw-lettered advertising, the moment you step out the door of your apartment building; everything is seemingly noticed, nothing is trivial, everything is a part of the story. Sheer meaning, hard and fast, is not be found here, but feeling, resonance, introspection are, and it is this several layered ambiguity that keeps a reader up at night, staring out of the window, testing the keyboard as ideas about what we haven't thought about comes in phrases even God himself couldn't explain.O'Hara is not so oblique or confusing--he is popular precisely because he has the lyric capacity to merge his far flung loves of high and low culture and still carry on a rant that achieves a jazzy spontaneity--he is the poet from whom Billy Collins has taken from and tamed for polite company.

Ashbery is the stroller, the walker in the city, the flaneur, the sidewalk engineer examining the city in it's constant self-construction, composing a poetry of association that accompanies a terrain of things with inexplicable uses.

What seems like a mighty muddle in his writing becomes full engagement of a personality in love with what the senses bring him; at his best the intelligence of the poems is transcendent and there is , in the main, a tangible joy in how he phrases his reactions, responses and retorts to a world that always seems to baffle him in some wondrous way.