Tuesday, March 31, 2009

GIMMEE THAT SHOVEL --blues harmonica

There are some who think me a vain and self-concerned fool, and I will admit to a slight egocentric tinge. I think I am modest to know when to shut up, though, and I'm certain enough to insist that there are some things I actually do well. Opinions on poets and their poems and the further concern over what it is poetry needs to strive for, accomplish and what truths it needs to adhere to will remain insoluable, with my two cents (three cents? one cent?) tossed into the the melee , but I do play well. It bores a good many others, though, and for those readers who haven't the love of blues harmonica, I apologize. This video, recorded today, is especially tasty; I ought to take out of the of the office and onto the bandstand. Meanwhile, enjoy.

Friday, March 27, 2009

MAN IN THE DARK: Paul Auster takes a nap

Paul Auster desires to be a cross between Don DeLillo and Borges, which is to say that he desires the cool surface of the DeLillo's beaut fully managed tone and Borges genius for making the inane become suffused with an nether worldly sublimity. It works , at times, as in the novels that comprise the "New York Trilogy", his novel "Leviathan" and more recently his masterpiece from a few years back "Book of Illusion"; the way he uses the element of chance in his narratives can at times be one of the keener miracles of American writing. Auster, though, is a man of limited style and a set of ideas that have very nearly played themselves out, as we see here in "Man in the Dark". A small-time professor and book reviewer , recovering at his daughter's house after a horrific auto accident, spends much of his time watching movies and lying in the dark, imagining movies of his own, in this case a narrative of an alternative America that is being torn apart by a civil war. The elements here get very convoluted, and those familiar with Auster's favorite devices will sense the writer just a shade bored with his inventions and his borrowings.What you could see coming up in this tale was the eventuality that somehow this man in the dark, the imagining invalid, will have to confront the protagonist of the very tale he's concocting as he lies there. Tension is supposed to start here, the twist is supposed to make the skin tighten and the fingers eagerly seek the next page, but these are conventional turns in an Auster manuscript. When he's taken with a set of ideas, he can make incredible coincidences believably take a reader on a trek launched by sheer caprice. Man in the Dark's action seems engineered at best. The spare, evocative style that is the writer's trademark hardly rises above a monotone. Narratives, real and imagined, twine together in such a way that we're supposed to ask which is real and what his false until we are brought to a relief, although the only relief to be had here is not from the novel's building tension, which is slack, but from the tedium that ensues. That's a feet for a book that isn't even two hundred pages long. I was a bit disappointed by this novel, less for witnessing the decline of someone who was once a reliable provocative writer and more because he repeats his good ideas here without grace, snap , or variation worth noting. This was the draft you're supposed to throw away,not submit to your publisher.

The End of Verse? Again??

Newsweek has a piece about a the results of a report from The National Endowment for the Arts that was a mix of good news and bad news for those concerned with the national reading habit; people were reading more , with increases in fiction and non fiction alike, but we were, collectively , reading less poetry. The article takes the usual dooming sensationalist slant with the article's title, The End of Verse?People love to read about funerals, I guess, or the cultural echo of re-runs have truly colonized our attention spans. This is the same used car with a new coat of paint.

There is a long history of poets and critics declaring poetry is something completely other than prose, a separate art approximating a form of meta-writing that penetrates the circumscribed certainties of words and makes them work harder, in service to imagination, to reveal the ambiguity that is at the center of a literate population's perception. An elitist art, in other words, that by the sort of linguistic magic the poet generates sharpens the reader's wits; it would be interesting if someone conducted a study of the spread of manifestos , from competing schools of writing, left and right, over the last couple hundred of years and see if there is connecting insistence at the heart of the respective arguments .

What they'd find among other things, I think, is a general wish to liberate the slumbering population from the doldrums of generic narrative formulation and bring them to a higher, sharper, more crystalline understanding of the elusive quality of Truth; part of what makes poetry interesting is not just the actual verse interesting (and less interesting ) poets produce, but also their rationale as to why they concern themselves with making words do oddly rhythmic things. Each poet who is any good and each poet who is miserable as an artists remains, by nature, didactic ,chatty, and narcissistic to the degree that , as a species , they are convinced that their ability to turn a memorable ( or at least striking phrase) is a key with which others may unlock Blake's Doors of Perception.

The lecturing component is only as interesting as good as the individual writer can be--not all word slingers have equal access to solid ideas or an intriguing grasp on innovative language--but the majority of readers don't want to be edified. They prefer entertainment to enlightenment six and half days out of the week, devouring Oprah book club recommendations at an even clip; the impulse with book buyers is distraction, a diversion from the noise of he world. Poetry, even the clearest and most conventional of verse , is seen as only putting one deeper into the insoluble tangle of experience. Not that it's a bad thing, by default, to be distracted, as I love my super hero movies and shoot 'em ups rather than movies with subtitles, and I don't think it's an awful thing for poetry to have a small audience. In fact, I wouldn't mind at all if all the money spent on trying to expand the audience were spent on more modest presentations. The audience is small, so what has changed?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Watchmen: a grinding, verbose bore

I  thought of comparing Watchmen with Francis Coppola's epic Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now as an example of another expensive , ambitious film that combines botched ambition with a compelling visual style, but I gave up that notion after thinking it through for a couple of days. It would have been unfair to Coppola's troubled saga; since it's 1979 release, I've seen the film at least six times that I remember. Vague, grandiose and over long the film might be , and as problematic as Marlon Brando's performance as Col.Kurtz remains, you can still study the metaphors and allegories director and co writer Coppola was using from his source material, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness; one does pick up on the notion of how an individual (or a culture) can drive itself to an obsessed pathology , and the images from the voyage up the river create a sustained feeling of a contracting world view. The paranoia is vivid, felt; fail as he might in revealing what "The Horror" is at the heart of this simple fable is, Apocalypse Now manages, none the less, to creative a diffuse poetry from the symptoms. Watchmen,  is well beyond the symptoms and focus's on the wounds and, sadly, fatally, has characters lecturing each other on the way things ought to be. For all it's flash and form, Watchmen is a grandiose, bombastic bore. The audience seems to think so to as well. It's not a film I care to see again short of being paid to do so.

The big reason Watchmen tanked so badly was because the film was, after all, structurally incoherent. Not all the blame can be laid on Zack Snyder, since it seems to me that Warner Brothers, eager to trump competitor Marvel at the box office, went for what they considered their sexiest comic book property for screen adaptation. Any honest fan boy or gal would have told you that Alan Moore's original novel wasn't the likeliest item to made into a movie; Hollywood movies have an aesthetic and style that demands a far simpler storyline and shorter running time , and the original novel , with it's layered story lines, post modern feints and it's intangible blend of physics, history and philosophical axioms, was weighty with an ambition that is contrary to a visual medium.

Even with the substance of the novel slashed back considerably, there was still too much for director Snyder to have to contend with; even at the barest representation, there were a gross too many characters who's back stories had to be presented at inconvenient intervals in the action; Snyder tries to compensate for all this an admittedly brilliant look and repulsively violence, but even these outbreaks of gruesome mayhem could not deflate the mulled over glumness of the of monologues and voice overs. The viewers, hoping this enterprise would gel at some point, had to instead sit through nearly three hours of what came down to repeated doses of this one-two combination: TALK TALK TALK TALK TALK /MURDER MAIM SMASH GOUGE DISEMBOWEL.

Snyder had worked some magic with his historical deconstruction in his film 300; his choice of style and fantasy over factual matters was justified by a confident bravado. The excitement from that film was aided, I would assert, by a simpler story line, a better idea of what the conflicts were leading up to; he was able to re-vitalize a moldy collection of cliches from the cultural common stock concerning valor,bravery, loyalty. With Watchmen he tries , bravely I think, to reinvigorate a higher class of cliches, the sort of received notions one finds on the floors of University Department offices, and finds himself overwhelmed. The source of those cliches, the original graphic novel , itself an over rated expanse otherwise smart folks have attempted to jump categories and insert into the New Western Canon, is a property that would have smacked any bright lens man to the ground.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Quietude is Deafening

Gail Mazur's poems have an easy elegance that can , in their best renderings, bring a number of heady matters into the same conversation without a sign of the stanzas tearing at the seams.Apparent one can read in a previous selection published on Slate,In Another Country, she has the ability to give form to a sense of sensations that you'd think would remain inarticulate and exist only as vaguely felt sensations: happy, sad, despairing, hopeful, what? She gives these sensations voice, a monologue. But as well as she brings her equivalent phrases for unnameable notions together in a smooth transition to a page , the transition is too pat, too eager for prime time. The conceits that drag her work down is the continued sense that the insoluble conditions she enjoys digging through for material find resolution in her over worked ironies.

"The Age" shows no shift in strategy and no modesty in the size of the unambables she's attempting place a sign on; no more odes for an empty house, bring on the Temper of the Times!!!This would be fine, of course, but what irritates me is the implied exclusivity , the book cliquishness of this bit of zeitgeist mongering. You feel like a friend you came to a party with abandoned you with a group of others , none of whom you know, who are enthralled by a lone speaker who seems to be synthesizing everyone else's input into a discussion you know nothing about, touching on each tidbit and making them fit some clever if predictable irony gridwork.

For what seemed an infinite time there were nights
that were too long. We knew a little science, not enough,

some cosmology. We'd heard of dark matter, we'd been assured
although it's everywhere, it doesn't collide, it will never slam

into our planet, it somehow obeys a gentler law of gravity,
its particles move through each other. We'd begun to understand

it shouldn't frighten us that we were the universe's debris,
or that when we look up at the stars, we're really looking back.

This is exactly where you and I have walked in , and there is the feeling that all these longings for historical knowledge, back in time when matters made sense as they occurred and had their effects, is wishful more than anything else; the phrases are so well chisled and polished in their response to sort of bleak declarations the narrator might have been confronted with that I'm inclined to think , assuming the poem is inspired by experience, that Mazur might have been stumped by the original inquest as to what became of our collective Sense of Hope. We'd begun to understand /it shouldn't frighten us that we were the universe's debris,
or that when we look up at the stars, we're really looking back doesn't sound spontaneous at all, it's desire for a firm place to set one's certitude studied, not weary.

Starting from small details to grander themes is a technique I enjoy when the parts are a good fit for one another, but Mazur reverses the equation here by going from grand to minute, as in the way she begins with an implied struggle against the despair of the age, settling finally on the school children chanting the name of the New President as some sign that the clouds will separate and the sun will shine again. This would be fine if it weren't such a smarmy production. This is a Hallmark Moment, an epiphany so perfectly placed in this ostensibly factual account of a personal struggle against spiritual malaise as to be incredible, implausible, phony . What Mazur is trying to get across is something that's very small yet very meaningful, yet she talks this idea to death with a busy-work string of contemplations that effectively crush the poetry .

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Locket, a poem by Peter Gizzi

I don't know if I'd call Peter Gizzi a Language Poet, though he certainly has affinities with that group of writers. He's closer in style and sensibility to George Oppen or James Merrill, two poets who appeal to me because they have an internal monologue that attempts to assess experience through the objects that represent memory but who, unlike a fellow introvert John Ashbery, prefer a brutally adjective free manner.

There is a remove in the approach among these three writers that evokes the dislocation of coming across unfamiliar things and attempting to link the details in some useful way. Gizzi's poem , I think, is like looking inside some one's desk drawer and observing, up close, a layering of items that have been shoved there over a period of time--odd material items gathered together for no singular purpose or reason other than the collection is the doing of one individual; you stop trying to make sense of the pile as a whole and seek, instead , to profile the person, unknown and unseen, who placed the details together in the first place.


Peter Gizzi
Here is the ashtray and here
the plastic cup of cool water.

And here is the known world.
As fingers duplicate the event

of hunger. Get up. Go
to the division of various

stories and look for the naked
man beneath the stream be-

hind the house. The same
house that I does not inhabit.

The car is there. The letters
are there. And this street

leads to no particular day.
The way home remains

a mystery to those who are
looking. How else recover

what otherwise is. Lost
to the open. Space between

leaves and stones. Here
also is the neighborhood.

Lost to the open./ Space between leaves and stones./Here also is the neighborhood. The world opens up rather suddenly from the hard, specific detail one inspects and interprets, only to lose it as more details and their nuances align with the first set of assumptions; what was to be a simple explanation of a photograph, a book of matches, an odd sentence written on the back of a business card becomes complex until the accumulation overwhelms the simple timeline one preferred. The particular thing loses significance in a nuanced history that cannot be reduced. Implicit in Gizzi's poem is the idea that any recounting of personal history is something of a fiction: it's the arrangement of vaguely vetted details on which one tells the tale. But what fascinates me here is the disruption of the process--the narrator sounds like he's starting over again and yet again. The objects are concrete, but their meanings are tentative, their positions seem to shift in retelling.

There is a gaze here, a tangible poring over of things that are distinct--every object has a story as to how it arrived at the spot upon which you witness it--and it wouldn't be unusual to consider that there is an actual locket, with a photo graph or image of a kind, that itself becomes obscure as other associations are conjured. A house, a place where one lived, a photograph of a man showering naked in a stream behind the house, a familiarity of images that cannot be isolated to specific incident. Something has spurred the clipped stream, and what happens as with most times when one is attempting to assemble a full picture from the dimmest of recollected memories is that the deep past is anonymous.The way home remains a mystery to those who are looking.

What attracts me to this is the yearning to know more about the vivid glimpses, and the ache of realizing that the object is beyond your grasp. The observer of the details is denied the certainty of details the objects and their fleeting images suggest and is left, he chooses, to merely imagine what might have happened in the narrative gaps; beyond a certain age, reconstructing the earliest memories of time on earth isn't unlike interpreting what goes in in the unseen narrative leading up to what we have of Sappho's writing. The guess work becomes the work of art.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tale of the proscratinating Horn dog

"All My Senses, Like Beacon's Flame" by Fulke Greville, a formerly obscure poet who is now being revived and rehabilitated three hundred plus years later by the preferring mentions of Harold Bloom and others, is a superb poem of directed ambivalence. It's the tale of a man who chooses the ache of desire over the pain of losing himself to the power of another being over him.

Caelica 56: "All My Senses, Like Beacon's Flame"
All my senses, like beacon's flame,
Gave alarum to desire
To take arms in Cynthia's name
And set all my thoughts on fire:
Fury's wit persuaded me,
Happy love was hazard's heir,
Cupid did best shoot and see
In the night where smooth is fair;
Up I start believing well
To see if Cynthia were awake;
Wonders I saw, who can tell?
And thus unto myself I spake:
"Sweet God Cupid, where am I,
That by pale Diana's light,
Such rich beauties do espy,
As harm our senses with delight?
Am I borne up to the skies?
See where Jove and Venus shine,
Showing in her heavenly eyes
That desire is divine.
Look where lies the milken way,
Way unto that dainty throne,
Where while all the Gods would play,
Vulcan thinks to dwell alone."
I gave reins to this conceit,
Hope went on the wheel of lust;
Fancy's scales are false of weight,
Thoughts take thought that go of trust.
I stepped forth to touch the sky,
I a God by Cupid dreams;
Cynthia, who did naked lie,
Runs away like silver streams,
Leaving hollow banks behind
Who can neither forward move,
Nor, if rivers be unkind,
Turn away or leave to love.
There stand I, like Arctic pole,
Where Sol passeth o'er the line,
Mourning my benighted soul,
Which so loseth light divine.
There stand I like men that preach
From the execution place,
At their death content to teach
All the world with their disgrace.
He that lets his Cynthia lie
Naked on a bed of play,
To say prayers ere she die,
Teacheth time to run away.
Let no love‑desiring heart
In the stars go seek his fate,
Love is only Nature's art.
Wonder hinders Love and Hate.
**None can well behold with eyes
**But what underneath him lies.

We have an erotic poem here, a distended stretch of rhapsodizing the brings us in the center of a train of thought that is sparked, fired up and colored entirely by a long and obsessive gaze. It's an interesting comparison with T.R. Hummer's poem in Slate last week, "Bad Infinity" , where the reader was likewise situated in a psychology that was arguing with the world and attempting to reconcile combating approaches to a world that appeared to be failing the narrator, much of the power of which comes from Hummer deploying a set of images culled from what seemed to be reconfigured tropes and semantic turns that might formerly neatly contextualized the world with grace and nuance but now which seemed to be falling grossly short.

Greville's poem, written over three hundred years earlier, has the narrator at the most severe pitch of an arousal wherein he wrestles with all the conflicting motions. He is something like Hamlet, lost and stalled , perhaps impaled by the metaphorical scaffolding he constructs for himself; he cannot take action so he does nothing but instead continues to settle for the satisfaction of having fashioned a new kind of language to describe an intensity that finds no resolution. As the dear Cynthia, falling under the dually imperious and self-critical gaze of Greville's horn-dogged suitor, is subjected to a stream of artful exaggerations that compare her and the feelings she creates to grander things greater than her would be lover, we have the metaphorical flow taking a turn, at first describing all that is desirous of the good lady that the observer would like to physically encounter, only to have the rationale undermined as the poetry assumes its own authority and becomes the ruling edict in this stream of obsessed thought processing. She is too fine to be touched, too near the perfection of angels to be violated, hers is a beauty that is stunning to the degree that all who behold her are made motionless, made hapless, made powerless.

Some years ago I attended a lecture on eroticism , and in a section where the speaker needed to make the distinction between the erotic and the pornographic, the point was made was that what we find erotic in a situation lies in the very fact that contact, the actual coupling, is suspended, deferred. Anticipation is the essence of the erotic impulse, the rituals of seduction, the contemplation of the shape and good graces of the other one is attracted to, the psychic moment when the pride and embarrassments and degrees and self-doubt cease to matter and one pursues something outside their daily concerns.

Greville's character, it seems to my meager estimation, was hoist by his own explosive rhetoric , considered something thing truly beautiful and worthy of possessing but deemed himself finally unworthy, preferring instead the ache of yearning, the pining after, the perfection of a feeling that made his imagination become gloriously alive. A fear of commitment, perhaps, but most of all I think it might have to do with a fear losing of what power one things they legitimately have. The force that could coax such brilliant from a man could surely rob him of as well, and that would leave him sans anything he knew was truthfully his. This is almost a comedy of a sort, albeit a richly musical one; a man choosing his muse over the woman he believes he could love.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The new book?

The death of the book, that paginated, bounded thing we carry around with us, dog-eared and highlighted, a friend to turn to in the moments when our attention isn't spent talking about what others want you to hear? The romantic in me says no, I want my books to be forever things, and love the illusion , now waning, that bookstores will be with us forever, but I did someone the other day using Amazon.com's reading device Kindle recently, and without bother describing it too much, the ease and comfort of use looked very, very appealing. Books in a another form, perhaps, abetted by a different delivery system? Probally so.

I can see the future of selling books being in on line downloads from a seller like Amazon or Barnes and Nobel, but I don’t think anyone will ever get in the habit of reading whole books from their computer screens, as a general habit. Rather, I suspect the fate of reading lies in reading devices that have a comfort and ease of use ; the issue, I think, is portability, since the basic advantage of the book over an internet text is that the book can become something of an intimate partner with you as you go places, travel, or just sit in a comfy chair , absorbing and considering the prose or poetry you’re witness to. There’s a need most readers have, older or younger, for the physicality of holding a book as they read –that seems to the way things stay in mind after a book is finished. So many column inches of prose I’ve read on line over the last ten years has stayed with me, superb as the writing may have been: all that wit and wisdom has vanished in the ether, passively taken in and mindlessly expelled like microwave cooking.

Not nearly as high; the attrition of the print material from memory is due more to the sheer volume of books I’ve read during my fifty six years. Getting older takes a toll. The point, though, is that what I’ve read with books, those intimate, portable, bendable, malleable objects that contain our language, has become integrated over time–the content and ideas have been better assimilated than from the materials I read on line. It might be a generational difference, I’ll concede, but I think it’s a safe guess that people won’t be reading from computer monitors, cell phones, lap tops or net books; they’ll prefer something cozier, like Amazon’s Kindle device for the book downloads they sell–it seems a device that invites the interaction between reader and the page that are the biggest allure of books over on line reading.

The move toward buying books via download is inevitable, in my view, and the real issue is what one means by “hard copy”. Without indulging in knee-jerk Tofflerism, my current best guess that book buyers will prefer a device like Kindle , or something similar, to reading books either on line or from a computer monitor: as I said before, portability and ease of use are key for the consumer instinct.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

No to St.Patrick

This Tues will be March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, and being of Irish descent those who know my last name and aware as well that some consider me a poet, a lover of words used fully, have started to ask me what my plans were. Who’s party are you going to, what Irish Pub will you be drinking at, what Irish poet will you recite at the Open Reading of Irish Poetry?

Attending the idea that you would want to celebrate a culture rich in the greatest ringing glories of the English language comes the question about how drunk you intend to get, and will you remember the way back to your bedroom at your mother's house if you become unable to utter a comprehensible sentence. There are times I hate being Irish; the jokes at the expense of this culture make it obvious that White European Americans are the only ethnic group one can offend with impunity. The Holiday is a match to conspicuously open can of gasoline.

On The Day itself, many will inquire “Where’s your green?” All these questions on the single topic becomes nagging of a kind, the persistent inquiry into what someone else takes as an imperfection. My imperfection seemed to be that I didn't feel Irish enough. I don’t wear green on any day, it’s not my favorite color, and there’s a deep resentment at others who expect me and any other Irish American to play the shaleighlei -stroking trick monkey with green paper hats, green beads and affecting brogues as bogus as paper forks.

There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s movie “Annie Hall” when his character Alvy Singer berates a woman’s Jewishness with a number of wisecracks at the expense of the ethnic heritage he imagines her identifying with. The woman says nothing and Singer, feeling he’d crossed the line, gives a half-hearted apology for his jokes, to which she replies (and I paraphrase here) “No, it’s alright, I don’t mind being reduced to a cultural stereotype”

This was a “eureka” moment , since it articulated a foul mood I’d been in for years each time St.Patrick’s Day rolled around and Americans, of Irish Lineage and otherwise, rolled out their boxes of stereotypes: green beer, whiskey, green beads, glittered cardboard shamrocks, the whole disgusting offensive lot.St.Patrick's is a day on which those of us with family connections to the Emerald Isle are to relish the contributions of Ireland to the world by way of it;s poets and dramatists and novelists, whether Joyce, Yeats, John Millington Synge or Roddy Doyle and Seamus Heaney, an activity of worth if the proceedings were low key and attentive to what Irish writing sounded like and what cluster of emotions and experience it collectively expressed; it's a literature at war with itself and, as such, conflicts and tensions such as that results in a major poetry. Bombast, bottles and bullshit about all things Irish follow the lip service to the Literature, and St.Patrick's Day becomes no more than respectful of it's cultural name sake than does Cinco de Mayo or Halloween. It's an excuse to drink to excess and behave badly and be a lout. It was assumed that because of my last name and that I made a living both writing and selling books that I would be all over the Holiday and partake in the lugubrious, drunken wallow. I remember yelling at some partying moron with an Italian last name who was doing a miserable Barry Fitzgerald impersonation that I had it in mind to come to his house late at night and do some patently offensive immigrant through a bullhorn if he kept up with what I thought was a cultural slander. Of course he didn’t get what I was getting at, and I never showed up in his driveway to deliver on my promise, but the upshot is that he's never forced his face into mine after that with that wavering brogue.

I resisted the temptation to ask if he did Minstrel Show impersonations for black people on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, as the point was both overkill and would be lost on him.Say what you might about me, but I pride myself on the quality of issues I waste my breath on, a perverse pleasure that might reaffirm the cliche of the Irish being masters of futile eloquence. Doubtful; I just love the sound of my own voice and don't compelled to credit cultural determinism for what is either a gift or a curse( depending on circumstance, inspiration, and the quality of the coffee I might have been drinking when inspired to place a few words on the page, in rhythmic order, declaring war on a latest peeve or pestering pustule of aggravation). It must be said that despite that small country’s amazing contributions to World Literature, I’ve never felt much kinship with Ireland, nor with the native Irish I’ve met. What I've felt like through my life is a middle class white guy, Irish American, emphasis on the American. Irish-American.It's a different tribe.