Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Well, yeah, I'm grumpy some of the time, and I've been accused of being a curmudgeon in regards to National Poetry Month, the annual dedication to an elusive art with a small audience that itself is divided among several hundred-seeming schools of thought as to what is genuinely worth reading or promoting. The reservations come chiefly from the attitude that poetry is something pathetic in itself, with Special Needs, and that there is a collective delusion in the publishing world that poetry can be made more popular by hyping the form with the cliched hokum that sounds culled from New Age screeds. It's a little infuriating to witness an art that you believe, at it's best, sparks the unusual idea or the unforeseen connection within a reader be reduced as something that marketers promise to deliver a consumer to an even deeper vat of circumscribed thinking.
I wouldn't say my remarks about National Poetry Month are grumpy, just realistic. On the face of it I welcome a month dedicated to the art , craft and diversity of poets and their work , and even think that the month might well bring new readers to poetry as something they'd read in their leisure time. The problem is that once we give someone or some thing a special day, week, or month for the nominal purpose of increasing awareness, most of the population bothering to observe what the calendar day commemorates will nod their head, bow their head, read a few poems, maybe buy a single volume that will likely wind up half way finished and atop a coffee table, a page bent down to mark a page,not be picked up again, and then be done with it for the year. It certainly gives major publishers significant favorable publicity so they can present themselves as more than bottom-line obsessed subsidiaries of malignant media corporations: look at what we're doing to support the arts, look at our love of poetry!!
There are poets who benefit, many of them I count my favorites, but the fact that poetry in general has a month dedicated to it's supposed welfare seems more to me that the rest of the literary world considers the form a poor, sickly relative; April as poetry month is the metaphorical gulag, a ghetto, a hospice, that space where this art, which no publisher seems to know how to market so it contributes usefully to their bottom line, is allowed to make it's noise, indulge their rhetoric for a short period in the spot light before being ushered from the stage and back to the margins.
Poets, the work they do, the theories they develop regarding their art has been the most rarefied and most diffuse of the arts as it developed since the encroachment of Modernism over turned the conventional thinking about poetry's form and purpose. It's been to poetry's advantage, I think, that the audience has been small, very small, compared to the other genres that help publishers make their payrolls and their dividends, since the relative obscurity has allowed poets of many different styles and concerns, politics and agendas to advance their art and arguments , both Quietist and Post-Avant Gard, unconcerned with a commercial aspect that wasn't theirs to begin with. National Poetry Month is something like a zoo the city folk may visit on their days off , and the poets are the exotic creatures who will perform their tricks, do their dances, take their bows for the smattering of applause and loose coin that might come their way. Generally speaking, poets and their work would be better off, and saner as well, if the illusion that a dedicated month will increase the readership and increase book sales as well.
It would be better for poets to stop behaving like their in need of rehabilitation and went about their business, doing what we're supposed to do to the best our individual and collective abilities. If the work is good, interesting, of quality on it's own terms, the audience , whatever the size, will come.
(A related piece from two years ago, with a link to a useful Charles Bernstein essay.-tb)
We are here in April again, and those of us concerned a little about poetry as art need again accommodate the ludicrous thing called National Poetry Month. The hope is to get folks to change their reading habits to include poetry volumes along with their steady diets of mysteries, romances, celebrity cookbooks and memoirs written by people who will soon to be exposed as liars and cheats. Is there hope for the General Audience? The divisions in the Poetry War are drawn, both sides will wage battle for the soul of the book buyer , but the pathetic truth is that vast promotion and arguments as to the worth of verse are to no avail. Literally, no one is buying it. Or buying too little of it for the fuss and bother of having a month out of the year dedicated to poets and their obscurities.
The General Audience I speak of is vague, purposefully so, as it speaks to anyone who has an amorphous notion of how to generalize about poetry readers share in common. The war between various schools, groups and the like strikes me as more bickering between the professionals, poets, critics and academics (some of whom happen to practice all three occupations) who have status and power on the line as they advance their agenda and create an enemy camp in the interests of bolstering whatever claims can be made for a particular group's alleged superior aesthetics. Some of this ongoing disagreement is fascinating and useful, since the distinctions as they’re clarified can be informative and the criticisms each has of the other’s perceived shortcomings can potentially yield insight on issues a writer might be otherwise be too close to.
I have my preferences, sure, and I subscribe to a particular set of principles, but these rules of poetry are worn like a loose suit, not a straight jacket. Most readers who a general interests in poetry , contemporary and older, will like or dislike a variety of different approaches to verse for an equally varied set of reasons, most of which, if asked, our hypothetical General Reader would be able to explain if asked. The basic question of a poem, whether written for the lyric voice, the vernacular rant, or the experimental rigorist, is whether it works or not, both on its own terms and in terms of whether it gives pleasure or joy. Someone might suggest that teachers could increase the audience for poems if they taught the material better, but this is a strawman.We can't lay this at the teacher's feet because it's my firm conviction that most poetry, ambitious or otherwise, isn't going be the thing the large majority of their students will take after in adulthood, regardless of how good or bad a job the instructor might be. We're talking about adult readers here, those who have reading habits formed and in place for a lifetime; some are more curious about more ambitious forms, most who read poetry prefer the greatest hits of Whitman, Plath or Dickens, if they read poetry at all, and the General Audience, as we've been calling them, has not interest in poetry what so ever, except when they need a quote for a funeral or a wedding.
In other words, people who might buy a book of poems do so for reasons that are the same as they always have been, word of mouth, display, book review, and so on. Things like National Poetry Month do so very little to increase the fraction of the book buying public to have even a casual appreciation of poetry; they simply don't care for those things that are not measurable by generic conventions. Charles Bernstein wrote a cogent, if slightly smug essay in 1999 called "Against National
Poetry Month As Such" in which he derides the notion that publishers and a clatch of state and federal arts czars can increase interest in and sales of poetry collections by reducing to the level of the contrived New Age/faux mediation group think that would have us read the literature with the hope that stress and pain will go away.(I am thinking myself of Roger Housden's odious collection "Ten Poems To Change Your Life",which abuses the work of good poets by presenting them as accessories one buys on impulse at the cash register).Bernstein's main point is well taken with me, that poetry is being sold as something it isn't, like the volumes poets publish are good for you in the way that pop psych and New Age literature claim to be. What is being sold are the specious promises of poetry, not the poetry itself which, of all the literary arts, should stand alone , unencumbered by political or therapeutic contrivance. National Poetry Month is a hypocritical waste of time, I think, a commercial venture born of the kind of cynicism that enables corporations to manipulate buyers into purchasing things they haven't an honest need for.
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
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.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Friday, March 27, 2009
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.
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
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.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
"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
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.
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
"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 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
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.
Friday, March 13, 2009
There are those I know, friends and former friends alike, who know it's well within my personality to become a fire-breathing jerk; though I prefer to regard myself as having an even temperament most of my awake time, there are those moments when something gets to me that will not let up. An annoyance, a complaint, the site of something ugly or something said that was offensive to my closely held (and improvised) standards as to how reality and it's subjects should arrange their affairs. Bear in mind, please , that I am seldom right when I go off on a toot, and my universal declarations about the exact nature of the world's wrongs are inappropriate, over stated, bigoted, unfair, the rantings of a salivating asshole. Even at my age, with the wisdom I've garnered from decades of mistakes I've learned from, I still have to make amends, apologize, repair the damage I've done during my lashing out. That said, bear in mind as well that these moments of rage binging are much scarcer than they were , say, twenty years ago. The point, I suppose , that knowing better is not enough.
But anger, being in a state of pique is seductive; quite suddenly, as the adrenaline flows and what had been a passing social glitch becomes a World View, the world gets smaller, I get larger, and all matters at hand and hidden, all business , entertainment, love and remorse become intertwined, connected, the world suddenly makes sense. The small irritations that had been collecting in the recesses of compartmentalized personality show their full fester at last and everything that one knows becomes a chain of related failures, betrayals, breakdowns, recriminations, all of which seem to be headed to one end, a single source for the source of the world's (nee my) discontents. It's much the same as being on a drug, and there is something awesome as one calms down and realizes the stress they'd just put themselves through--one wishes they could rage more and sustain the fleeting unity, but it is illusory. It's proof , for me a least, that my brain isn't my best friend when I've exhausted my wit.
What I've marveled at, though, is the associations that come to you when you've revved up your mind to function at the sharpest point of a perfect snit. Seamlessly, effortlessly, without resistance and without contradiction , you find yourself being like Hamlet equivocating brilliantly as he ponders a conspiratorial heaven that draws an ill map for him, or Lear, for that matter, going insane as he strips himself in the rain of the vestments of his power, real and symbolic, because the actual relationships so revealed to him are too much. It's poetry, the power to begin with the instance and utilize language to extend a psychology that places human worth below the philosophical certainty we might have been raised with.
Poet T.R.Hummer gets at this beautifully with his poem "Bad Infinity", a ram-rodding crash course of sensory overload that begins with a colonsocopy as a starting point and soon compresses the raw cycle the narrator speeds along:
During the colonoscopy, orbiting through twilight sleep,
***she felt, light-years distant in the interior darkness, a thump
And a dull but definite pain—as if someone were dragging,
***at the end of a rusty chain, a transistor radio through her body,
A small beige box with a gold grill, assembled by a child in southeast Asia
***in 1964—and she woke in groggy panic till the nurse made soothing noises
For her to sleep by, like a song in an alien language heard through static
***beamed from the far side of Arcturus: The Dave Clark Five's
"Glad All Over," maybe, tuned in by a boy in Thailand. Such a drug,
***the doctor said. Everything you feel you will forget.
Amen to that. Amen to plastic and silicon, amen to a living wage,
***amen to our tinny music, to the shrapnel in the IV drip,
Amen to the template of genes that keeps the body twitching
***and the wormhole in the gut of Orion I will slip through
When the chain breaks and the corroded battery bursts, its acids eating
***all the delicate circuitry that binds the speaker to the song.
Wonderfully done, powerfully done, this gets that state of helplessness as the subject, a woman under examination, feels the effects of the drug and the invasion o of her body, attempting to balance between a giving in to the process she's volunteered for and an attempt to maintain control, dignity, a small measure of power that couldn't robbed for her. Hummer has an ear for interesting coinages and odd juxtapositions , and understands the irrational references an addled thought process can take.
Hummer's technique avoids an explicit argument and side steps the rhetorical flourishes with which to make concrete details bring the reader to material point , preferring rather to allow the similarities he aligns in this string of association to bleed into one another as we come upon, perhaps, a metaphor that is delivered invisibly, nearly outside the poem, The body and the radio are made to be similar items, organic matter and technological device coming to the same fate, the eventual break down. Everything breaks down, falls apart, all things , whether the bodies of living creatures, buildings or mechanical devices, fall prey to age, wear, tear and spill their contents back onto the ground; all things release those things that give them an animating spark, including those machines designed to detect defects and indicate a means of real-world salvation. But all things fail, and a life is never truly saved but rather, at best, is allowed to linger longer. Hummer blitzing images and manic rhythm radiates the rage of someone who gets this emphatically; in the end we are reduced to the sum of our dissipated parts , with the attending terror that there is no salvation after the last pulse.
The probes feel like a cheap transistor radio playing a Dave Clark 5 song ironically called "Glad All Over" as the probes search for cancer cells,
and concludes, violently, hauntingly, with the tale of the imagined radio become personified and wearing out, the battery leaking acid, corroding the sheath that contains it. This language stream, equal parts brutal fact and drug enhanced delusion, combines what I hear is fear and anger meeting head on in equally forceful bursts, the result being something between acceptance and the last act of defiance . The beauty of it, of course, is that Hummer conveys this as a state one is currently in, with little in the way of set up, nor a clue as to what the post-examination results might be; this is not unlike walking into a room you thought was empty and finding someone in there alone, confessing secrets from some isolated area of their being to the shadows. Hummer makes us feel ill-at-ease and maybe a little as if someone had just walked over the spot where we'll eventually be buried. Or scattered. Not many writers do that for me.
This reads as if it were a combination of dry facts from a history book blended with a student's marginalia. Scissors, paste and yellow highlighter are all over this assemblage, which indeed seems more assembled than composed. There is a punchline McDonough wants to land on, an example of Fate's anonymous wit, but there is not enough here to make us, meaning me, the reader, care enough to interpret the poem so that it becomes whole and coherent. It would be easy enough to dwell on issues such as how a sensationalist media twists historical fact into personality driven events and fictionalizes the record with romantic constructions in the interest of selling papers, but that would be too much weight to lay upon such a slight and underfed piece of writing. Such speculation would be more than the critic's invention than the author's intent.The mistake was to approach this set of information as a poem, as this is a clear case where an unambiguous prose format would have achieved what resonance McDonough wanted to have us experience; prose seems better suited for such terseness. I'm thinking of Ernest Hemingway, who's masterly avoidance of qualifiers still provides a powerful kick, particularly his short story collection In Our Time is a masterpiece of what wasn't included in the telling. The italicized sketches between the longer stories are what McDonough should pay attention to, as they show how only a few facts conveyed in a paucity of words can still pull at your heart the way she wanted.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Peter Campion is a good poet but a dreadfully standard-issue reader, and as always, the tinny recording values offered by Microsoft engineers makes the merely unexceptional become truly awful. Which is too bad for Campion, because this is a good poem that has legs beyond the poet’s near motionless reading?
Near motionless indeed, since this strikes me as about speed, impatience, anticipation, the world whizzing by in a television ad fantasy of a man rushing through traffic, in his home town, lifted on the wings of his desire and lust as he attempts to free him of the ordinary stuff of existence he endures and land him in the presence of the woman that makes the battle with jobs, traffic lights and slow drivers worth it all. Campion conveys a masculine verve that seeks what arouses the male sensibility; the town he rushes through is a blur of details he desires to be past, beyond, liberated from as he vanishes into the v shaped perspective of the road vanishing over the perfect hillside that exists only in the mind's eye.
Fast transparency that explodes the fuel and air
in the cylinder and shuts the intake valves and thrusts
down on the piston so the crankshaft spins and spins
It is the rush, the race, the mechanics that are erotic and the source of the stimulus that engages the senses, that creates the elusive reference to the body's swelled reaction to a fast tracking of particular set of ideations. This is a waking dream dream scenario where each strand of sensation and movement ceases to be distinct and isolated and which seem to meld into one primal rush to "be" in the world as intensely as the body can stand:
this pull to her could be your own impersonal presence /cloaked in the day to day of the malls and condos /all those wired sensors keeping on guard for you /except you flicker even inside the wet wall /where papillary muscle makes that sweet pulsation in whatever room she's moving through this moment /under the cotton and the cool smoothness tinted blue.
This is a kind of race toward an extinction, a surrounding of all manner of power and control to something greater than the hunter can manage; the poem ends in the suggestion of softness and "cool smoothness", a space of erotic surrender where the armor is doffed, the bullets unloaded, the pent up knots and coiled aggravations of the day released in some fantastic exchange until there is a drift into oblivion where gas pedals and traffic lights matter not at all. It reads best, without Campion's recitation, when you regard this as bittersweet jag of thought where one finalized object of desire colors the surrounding world. This is done wonderfully, the world defined by the reach of one man's looping obsession.
Campion turns an ordinary thought into an extreme language that simulates the frequent fast-forwardings a good many of us power-obsessed sorts are prone too, wherein the world of home, work and community relations can go to a sudden and unexplained hell for all we're concerned because there is a sudden and seeming instinctual need to severe ties and race forward toward that which is most desirous to us. Prohibitions, niceties and protocols are damned, we want what we want when we want, and we've the will and the means to achieve our ends.Male fantasy, perhaps, rarely acted on to the extent I've described because most of us don't fancy jail or losing jobs as acceptable consequences of pursuing a whim, but it is the mind set that Campion details in his abrupt, speedy phrases; in the chase, the world is a blur, details like their defining points and accompanying contexts, and there is a kind of elevated euphoria that arises in the acceleration toward desire.
A sort of drunkenness, I suppose, an urge to burn up what energies there are in one's body and in the world where one lives and to be made in the flash of either a literal or metaphorical flame into a another form of energy; it is the urged to be changed, and in this case it is the eroticism of thinking of the woman he his racing toward, that creature of another kind of power with whom he may merge and dissolve. This is DH Lawrence at fever pitch. Lyricism has more than one kind of music to play along with, but let us also say that music is not always lyrical. I don't think Campion intended sweet sounding passages that might assume to emulate an easily assimilated melody. This is not Sara Vaughn, but rather Charlie Parker. As with Parker's serpentine phrases and crammed choruses, the matter is speed, which Campion gets right, and the attending anticipation that becomes sheer impatience with the world the higher the velocity becomes, or the higher the desire for yet more speed becomes. The poem doesn't sound lyrical to me at all, and the angst isn't in the sort that would make muscle men behind the wheels of Detroit's noisiest engines contemplate their long empty nights at intersections.
The poem works for me because Campion's voice comes from a condition of his narrator's thinking rather than a nuanced response to events that have already happened. It is about the wish for a rapid exit from obstacles, and it is in this instance that he creates his breathless, blurring effect. The physical world is summarized and dismissed while the desired object is enlarged in the expectation. As with all things erotic, the urgency and tension are created in the distance between the two, in that in-between state the narrator desperately wants an immediate exit from. This is much less about the actual race to his lover's house than it is about a mindset that takes control of the nervous system and produces a physiological effect. Our driving hero might well be stuck in a traffic jam on the Interstate for all we know, and that matters little here.
The relationship between the speaker and the woman seems to be suffering from some unspoken fallout, even if it is only physical distance. What falls outside the frame in this case only intensifies my curiosity about the extreme in which the narrator's personality is tilted. It's not important for me to know anything about the woman (if she even exists in this narrator's frustrated thinking jag), only that it's a telling element, a slight detail that convincingly leads up to a fleeting state of mind that Campion isolates particularly well.
Campion is a fine poet, a very good one, and "Lilacs" is a fine bit of elliptical heartache from him. He has a wonderful way, if that's the phrase, at getting nestled between the long deep sighs and low toned moans erupting mid throat. There is so much imaginary agony the narrator suffers here while he inhabits a life that seems to be working, one wonders what goes on behind those eyes. We've all seen those eyes, on buses, in banks, at parties, when someone is in the middle of a throng of people, in the midst of mad activity, eyes on someone who still strikes you as being alone, lost in thoughts, their eyes cast at some translucent thing in a corner, high or low, rummaging through imaginary boxes filled with their life, looking for a clue as to how they came to be standing among others of whom he or she wants no part of.
It used to burn, especially in spring:
the sense that life was happening elsewhere.
Smudged afternoons when lilacs leaked their smell
past schoolyard brick, whole plotlines seemed to twist
just out of reach. Inside the facing houses
chamber on networked chamber rose … to what?
Some angel chorus flowing around the sun?
Some lurid fuck? ... For years that huge desire
simmered, then somehow ... didn't dissipate
so much as fuse itself to thought and touch.
Not an attractive state to be in, this perpetual state of regret and unexamined expectations, but it is a state of mind nearly epidemic among those for whom poverty isn't a source of their despondency, and for whom scents, sounds, tints of light or billboard slogans are triggers , launching points for them to go asea rudderless amid the ebbs and flows of unconstrained memory. This poem is a small gem, a perfect lyric of a mind trying to reconcile actual choices he's made in partners and occupation and location, with other he might have made, thinks,perhaps, should have made.
Though one would usually be compelled to elaborate too much, too long, too often in exploring this situation--what defies being named encourages the exhaustion of even the best writer efforts to tease a sense of exactness from such a state of perpetual , nebulous limbo--Campion sticks to poetic principle and gives us language that creates a sense of the interior argument. The external world is not banished entirely from his thoughts;rather, they intrude on his reverie, they bring back to his current obligations, duties, his willingness to pretend to be happy inspite of persistent regret.
You stand in purple shade beside your dresser.
And filtering off the park the breeze returns it:
lilac: its astringent sweetness, circling us
as if it were fulfillment of desire.
But not fulfillment. Just the distance here
between us, petaled, stippling to the touch.
Campion, again, writes well about what happens in the cracks between life's cushioning assurances, but he reads dreadfully, and the recording provided us reveals him to sound whiny, sniveling, limp wristed, a reticent and rattled drone of gutless pessimism. The poem is too good to merely be known for a wimpish rendition; even the most self indulgent of regrets should have a residue of rage smouldering, a flame of anger still consuming the last unspent piece of lumber.
Friday, March 6, 2009
Some days are just are a bother for no reason you can put a pulse to, especially on those days off when there are no plans , leaving you to thrash around the house looking for something to inspire you. Some days are like that , and the lesson might be in the learning how to survive the hours when there are no crisis to defuse, no lives to save, no call to demonstrate your expertise or authority. Steven Dunn has a poem that doesn’t precisely address the condition I vaguely define here, but it did give me a counter point when I came across it yesterday:
And so you call your best friend
who's away, just to hear his voice,
but forget his recording concludes
with "Have a nice day."
"Thank you, but I have other plans,"
you're always tempted to respond,
as an old lady once did, the clerk
in the liquor store unable to laugh.
Always tempted, what a sad
combination of words. And so
you take a walk into the neighborhood,
where the rhododendrons are out
and also some yellowy things
and the lilacs remind you of a song
by Nina Simone. "Where's my love?"
is its refrain. Up near Gravel Hill
two fidgety deer cross the road,
white tails, exactly where
the week before a red fox
made a more confident dash.
Now and then the world rewards,
and so you make your way back
past the careful lawns, the drowsy backyards,
knowing the soul on its own
is helpless, asleep in the hollows
of its rigging, waiting to be stirred.
This has the breezy informality of what Ted Berrigan could do with this remarkable faux sonnets. It's hard thing to pull off , the moment-to-moment progress of someone moving and thinking as they move about a community they know, and even Berrigan was, much of the time, a little too much off beat personality, too little genuine poetry. Dunn is a bit more formal than Berrigan (who's charm lies in his shambling verse), and that bit of reserve brings us a sharper focus as his gaze and thoughts engage. It's a swift stream . What I enjoy about this poem is Dunn's clarity and the ease in which this sequence of images, with the tone modulating ever so from point to point. It's a poem about nothing in particular and things in general, about the things that come into the narrator's field of vision and the memories that are sparked after his failed phone call and his resulting walk through the town he lives in.
I especially liked the Nina Simone citation, since one of my absent minded habits is to start thinking of or even hum a sung a phrase someone else had said had inspired; it's like a private intermission from the affairs of the day. This is a record, also, of the narrator's own thinking, thinking, in this sense, being not an interior essay one fashions as if preparing for debate, but impressions of what's seen conveyed in broad strokes, sketches of the real world one is lost in.
Less argumentative than reflective, with the reflection being refreshingly unprofound yet elegantly modest, it is a poem of someone starting a point of the day in a casual funk who comes to realize that the world in miniature, his suburban (or exurban) locale, is abuzz with others wrapped in their chores, their jobs, their hobbies lest they think too much on the emptiness around them and drive themselves desperately crazy.
Mad Magazine used to do a feature called "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions", my favorite being a cartoon of a man climbing from a wrecked car he just ran into tree. Some one else walks up the scene ands asks "Have an accident?"
"No thanks, I've already one" responds the bemused victim.
I am tempted more than once daily to get a smart mouth when other citizens in passing give me platitudes, cliches and truisms in conversation, and that, as we know, is a waste of one's energy and wit. What I like about Dunn's poem was that he could turn it into a poem, something larger than the gripe at hand and creates an hypothetical existence that corresponds with the idealized and finalized exactitude a stale phrase or moldy poeticism contains. Beyond that, of course, is the narrator's realization that after his particular bit of snobbery, his perfect response of "No thanks, I have other plans" becomes ironic, effortlessly so in Dunn's straight-forward rhythms and images. It has the odd tinge of self-fulfilling prophecy, and you wonder if the speaker considered another cliche by the end of the poem, the one attributed to Abe Lincoln,"People are only as happy as they make their minds up to be." It's a conumdrum one drifts into while taking a long bus ride or waiting for a table , and it's something one gets out of with a sigh and then pressing on with the agenda that's been plotted. Dunn gets that moment beautifully as well.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Stevens, with compatriots Williams, Eliot, et al, were, in their varied ways, obsessed with making language a hard, malleable material no less than clay or steel, and they wanted to write and elaborate upon images that didn't obscure the fantastic qualities of the world their language was supposed to be writing about. Perception is a dominant concern for this generation of modernist poets, and Stevens, I believe, followed the loose dictates brilliantly and developed a methodology of processing the world that could capture in it many of its amazing juxtapositions. What is amazing about Stevens' work is that he develops a philosophy of perceptual imagination from the world as it already is.
I present it here as evidence of my prolix problem; it's been deleted from the post below to give the worth Goldensohn a less-larded discussion,but I'm sure other examples remain. Need I mention that I'm enamoured of my own writing voice?
Monday, March 2, 2009
Reading Faust When Young
for David Mamet
I remember only the leap from the bridge
into the turbulent river after knowledge,
but not what special knowledge or what power
ever came his way in the old story.
I was young when I read it. Immortality
meant art and Faustus was never an artist.
And as for girls, you didn't need the devil,
when you offered everything. What did he really
need to know? Something about the girl—
what she felt and could never say because
she had no words for it? He had little
to say to the Greats. Helen was a peep-show.
And the stuff about his soul—
well, that was religious and historical.
Overreaching for me was natural. I wanted
to know everything, to stay forever in school
taking courses. God and the devil
never figured in. With his snaky tail
the devil was too fanciful to explain
the lines waiting for gas or a bullet and ditch
and fire bombs and carpet bombs and the icy
rapture of ideologues shouting about who to kill
and who to save. My fellow humans were real:
their evil was sufficient. The sacred
was love and art and the political dream.
The world-drunk heart was what I took for the soul,
which dulled the edge of Faustus' sacrifice
and god was never real enough to love or lose.
Everything looms at me. Hound's-tongue
with wet doggy leaves and blue flowers
starts up from the mist-streaked hillside.
Standing by itself, framed in fog
the live oak twists black arms above me,
an embrace, free of the crown of leaves that hides
the outlines of limbs in the crowded background view.
The canyon and the next hill disappear.
Plunging into dense puffs and gusts of fog
along the road a dying friend wheels
and lunges from cliff wall to cliff edge
in a bright yellow blouse and blue jeans
joyous with losing herself and coming back
in daily magic, you see me then you don't.