Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Tedium of Bukowski

Writer Charles Bukowski spent several decades writing about three or four things, which were drinking, staying drunk, screwing drunk women, playing the horses, and drinking. His was not a large world, and after reading a raft of short stories,three novels and five of his plenitude of poetry collections, it's safe to say that he'd run out of things to say about the redundant activities of his life. Hence,his redundant themes and the waning energy of his work as his life wore on, with he waiting for it all to be over with. Young people love him because Bukowski is as close to an actual nihilist any of them are likely to encounter in American fiction and poetry. His principle failing is his unwillingness to think harder or differently about the world of drink, cigarettes, whores,race tracks and flop houses and bad sex. This poem, as it goes, goes through the typical moves and ends on some winsome sigh about lost opportunity, faded youth, mauling over of some psychic pain that is somehow aimed at making us understand why he is such a luckless asshole. Ironically, few writers have been as lucky as this guy, lucky in that the game he ran on us held up all these years, and that it still has enough allure to sucker yet another acolyte who just entering their drunken -brutishness- is -authenticity phase. Bukowski was good at one point in his life, but his lack of interest in the word outside is few blocks of Los Angeles made him progressively less interesting as his years and books wore on.What is distressing is that he decided rather early on his career to rewrite "Love is a Dog from Hell" and "Ham on Rye" for the remainder of his life, marking his work as the stuff of a man who whore'd his talent to become saleable to an audience wanting to seem literate without actually doing any reading beyond a certain depth or page length.I just can't shake the feeling that Bukowski's version of despair and beatitude is more a symptom of cornball fantasy than something felt from the gut, or the heart. He exhausted that vein long before he passed away. He makes me think of someone who creates enormous amounts of anxiety because his life essentially static, full of non-events, sad variations on daily behavior, and rather than go mad and destroy something, he tries to pass off the nagging vibe by writing alot, in a reserved, occasionally effective prose; still the, fantasy did not resolve what I think were his real symptoms. The themes did not change, the moral of the stories were the same funny/sad/fuck you bits of flophouse grit. One realizes, after a bit, that the only thing Bukowski did succesfully, besides write the same story over and over, was grow old.

from The Future of Poetry

You need to carry a bigger stick if you're going to talk to me about the blues. Everything in the backyard has a price tag on it, It's the way you grind your teeth when you sleep that makes the mornings a welcome advent of stalled traffic at the freeway entrance, loud radio blasting partisan blame, a coffee mug between my legs. Magic tricks with coins at the behest of fingers dancing between the back of the earand the tip of her nose makes the child wonder who’s been placing quarters in her hairas she dreamed of her pretty ponies and afternoon teas with her network of dolls. She told me that you were coming over, and now here you are, and I still don't like you, so there. A mailman sneaks past the apartment building with the lightest steps he can manage. Cats come from the bushes to see who’s making all the noise. The clown at the party faints under the summer sun. Needless to say that there's no use telling the truth, so I'll shut up and allow you to sit there on the prosecution couch, arms crossed and tight lipped, filling in the stony silence with a vibe that's louder than any screaming you might have done. Hey, I just learned how to speak in tongues. A sandwich made from a recipe for alphabet soup. In the right disguise, I thought my voice might rise and ride on the wind with the leaves and smoke. For a quarter more I can give you enough fries to gag an off duty cop. All this gangsta rap is punchy, I mean, so honkin' in yer face, ace. Sentences cannot be jail terms when what you mean is a statement of justice meted out like finger treats and cold cuts. Let's go be with the others at the party, all of us gathered together like pearls around a long, rich neck. Sorry, but you are talking to someone who is smarter than the average bear, but an idiot with regards to taxes and dating tips. Be useful and go far, far away. Here's my entry in the bad Hemingway contest: rain. Close cover before striking. Call me Spider. Woke up this morning with those Phenomenology of Spirit Blues. Superman has moved into the Telephone Booth of Solitude. You think you can take me in a game of Groan? Yes, I never want you to leave in a bad mood, I prefer my relationships pure, like blank job application forms.
Author tags:

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Big If has Big Ideas and sucker punch laughs

Mark Costello's novel Big If is a superb and unforgiving comedy of American life involving a low-level Secret Service agent who must get reacquainted with her estranged computer-genius brother when she takes a respite from the paranoid turns and twists of her nerve-rattling job.This is a book of richly skewed characters doing their best to make sense of their lives, or at least have their lives take on a fleeting semblance of normality. The quests, individual and collective, aren't what anyone would expect—this novel takes a hard left turn from the Anne Tyler/Paulo Coelho fictions that insert everyday mysticism into the complications of city life—and the results are habits, tics, behaviors, and alienation from self that comes close to home, in the heart of the nest: the bedroom, the dining room, the kitchen, the places one lives the most and gains small satisfactions or walls themselves off to unreachable Siberias of the psyche.

In many ways, this is one of the best novels to investigate what one might do without God, or even a convenient social construction of The Public Good. All points of reference in Big If are minimized and negotiated from relevance. Costello's prose is alive with the things of our life, and is superb at demonstrating the clash between the happiness material items promise and the world that denies such rewards. He is the master of setting forth a metaphor and letting it travel through a storyline just beneath the surface, operating silently, mostly invisibly, always effectively.

Their father, in the first portion of the book, is a moderate Republican insurance investigator of scholarly reading habits who happens to be a principled atheist. You cannot have both insurance, the practice of placing a monetary remuneration on unavoidable disaster, and assurance, which has religion promising protection from evil and disaster.

The children, in turn, assume careers that seem to typify the dualism their father opposed, son Jens becoming a programmer for the Big If online game for which he writes "monster behavior code" that attempts to outsmart human players and have them meet a hypothetical destruction. Daughter Vi, conversely, becomes a Secret Service agent, schooled in the theory encoded in The Certainties, a set of writings that lays out the details, nuances, and psychology of extreme protection. These are world views in collision, and Costello's prose is quick with the telling detail, the flashing insight, the cutting remark.

The problem, of course, is that no one can define what "good" is. Big If is excellent, and what makes it work is that Costello accomplishes the dual difficulty of handing us a small town/suburban comedy the likes of John Cheever would have admired. The other is with the rich detailing of the other Secret Service agents who work with Vi Asplund.

There is something of a domestic comedy seamlessly interwoven with a skewed Washington thriller, with the elements of each spilling over and coloring the underlying foundations of both. In the first part of the novel, we have an atheist Republican insurance investigator who has a habit of crossing out the "God" in the "In God We Trust" inscription on all his paper money, replacing the offending word with "us". Vi, years later, winds up in a job where "in us we trust" is the operating rationale, as she and her fellow agents strive to protect their protected from the happenstance of crowds, acting out on intricate theories and assumptions that can only be tested in the field.

Costello is wonderful at the heightened awareness in the ways he presents his details, his comic touches. A beautiful agent who still receives alimony checks from her smitten ex-husband carries on a correspondence with him via the memo line of the checks, where he continually writes "come back to me". She writes "No, never" each time, deposits the check, knowing that her ex will see the reply when he receives the canceled checks. The book is full of these fine touches. We have a sense that it's the small things, the small frustrations, as much as the larger disasters that conspire against our happiness.

On view in Big If are different models on which characters try to contain, control, or explain the relentless capriciousness of Life as it unfolds, constructs through which characters and the country and culture they serve can feel empowered to control their fate in a meaningful universe. The punchline is that Life goes on anyway, with its fluctuating, undulating, chaotic dynamics that only occasionally seem to fall into place. Costello wrests a subtle comedy of manners from the small failures of anyone's world view to suitably make their existence unproblematic. This is a family comedy on a par with The Wapshot Chronicle, but in an America that is suddenly global, an air that makes even the most familiar things seem alien and fantastic.

Monday, May 11, 2009

a new poem

Say Nothing of Your Money

Say nothing of your money
earned in wet trenches

picking up the stones
tossed at you from the gallery above

when the bell rings one sharp report
and the retort is all get-out-the-way

or follow what's already
passed you,

you see when you look up
from the streaming stats

underscoring the rise and decline
of green and red arrows

that it's your jacket , pants and shoes|
you notice passing you in a huff
holding a fist full of notes,

someone found your closet
and all your phone numbers

and learned your script
better than you ever recited it
as if in concert, hitting the high notes
pure and shrill,

Asia declines
and oil bubbles slowly,

pork and precious metals
stall at dockside

and bankers
have given all the credit to God
who is not giving any of it back,

you trade in your car
for an old bike
with a dented bell

that rattles like a marble
in the bottom of an empty can.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Bukowski:Born Into This

Bukowski: Born Into This on DVD, a documentary on the writer by John Dullaghan demonstrate why fans should be leery of meeting a writing hero, especially if said writer specializes in writing about boozing, whoring, bad jobs, pain, despair, bad luck and bad faith: fairly soon the charm of the man falls away during the classic interviews collected here, and we're given a grim picture of an irritating and maddening personality who could do one thing well, which was to write about his life long fuck ups and regrets. Bukowski's writing was limited and his books are something a reader wanders from after an infatuation of the one-trick genius,but the film leaves you with the feeling that way he wrote about the world he knew was singular and will survive many coming trends and fads in writing life.I'd never say that Bukowski was without art or the transcendent grace of the true poet.Lew Welch said you don't write unless you can't do anything else, and in that sense I suppose suppose the one thing the man could do was understand his pain to it's sharpest , needle point jab and then to tell the truth of it all in a voice that was undecorated and splintered. There is beauty in his verse, but his scope was so narrow that I fear over the years he began to write poems and tales according to what he knew were audience expectations. It's an over cited quote from Frederich Engles, but it bares repeating here; quantity diminishes quality. The poems , I think, were a bit too easy for him to compose on the fly, and this is why I think Bukowski's lasting contribution to American letters is his fiction, especially Post Office, Ham on Rye and Hollywood. Fiction is harder to write, and the world of Henry Chinasky, as Buk imagined it, avoids the easy outs the later poems are won't to have. For hard core fans only , perhaps, but worth catching or getting on DVD. There was something as touching as revealing about the scene where the monster inside him bubbles up while he's sparring with his wife.It's doubly moving when you recognize Buk's flair ups of rage and aggression from your own experience, if you happen have a back ground involving more-or-less alcohol consumption; it's the urge to destroy everything that's important in one's life, to drive off anyone that cares about you because under all the bravado and gallows humor lurks profound self-loathing that will manifest itself at exactly the wrong moment. Not that there's anyone good moment for booze-fueled flare ups to occur. Writing seemed the one thing that was unconditional in his life, and it is the one thing that kept him either blowing his head off or killing someone else. The rare , black and white footage in the movie was amazing, and it was appropriate to open the film with Buk at the Poet's Theater in San Francisco, puking his guts out before going on stage to read to a packed auditorium. The footage I thought was effective was Buk driving his VW bug, taking his interviewer of the mean streets he roamed. Favorite moment: Buk is going off one anecdote/philosophical tangent when a siren drowns him out. Buk falls silent, the camera captures an ambulance speeding past them, cutting through the traffic to some life and death situation, and then Buk resumes his story as the siren fades, not missing a beat. A perfect counterpoint. I thought Barfly was a blown opportunity, mostly due to Micky Rourke's cryptic stylization of the Bukowskiesque protagonist, who seemed to stuck somewhere between an SNL-quality impersonation of Brando's Godfather performance and DeNiro's habitual screw up in Mean Streets. Faye Dunnaway was a revelation, though, giving a performance that didn't need to be propped up by some by-gone idea of glamour. She did well with the film's tone of washed out naturalism.

One thing that I'm grateful to Buk for is his convincing Black Sparrow publisher John Martin to reprint the novels and stories of John Fante. Fante seems to be the biggest influence on him as a writer, and after reading several of his books-- Ask the Dust, 1933 Was a Bad Year, Brotherhood of the Grape, Wait Until Spring Bandini-- I'm firm in my opinion that Fante is the better writer. A better prose style, a funnier sense of humor, a hardboiled lyricism that rivals the best flights of Chandler. The republication of his body of work, I think, was a significant restoration to the American canon. Fante was a writer of the Last Stand ,
of flawed yet ambitious men advancing toward vainglorious dreams despite repeated wounds to their romantic, out sized egos. What gives Fante his edge is his refusal to soften the blows as he writes about the vanities and fuck ups of instinct driven men;
the hurt is palpable, the humor is deadly, the situations believably human.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Uselessness as Utility

Preston Sturgis did something brilliant with his film "Sullivan's Travels", a satire in which a socially conscious Hollywood director pretends to be a hobo so that he can meet and learn about real poor people and their struggles. His aim was to get a feeling of the down trodden masses for his next movie, "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" (claimed decades later by the Coen Brothers). In his journey he is arrested, tried and sentenced to work on a chain gang, where he suffers the brutalizing effects of Southern justice. One night the prisoners are herded into the mess hall where they are going to be shown a film, a cartoon, and during the animated slapstick, these weary, tragic faced men burst into boisterous laughter, belly laughs, guffaws, the whole shot. The director discovered the great truth about what an audience wants and needs, which is entertainment, diversion, a distraction from the crushing sameness of their lives. Sturgis, though, was a cynic even with this conclusion and offered up the idea that art is, after, quite useless when it comes to teaching us anything about the human condition. He's in full agreement with Oscar Wilde, in his preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and to conceal the artist is art's aim.
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.
This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.
That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.
The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.
No artist has ethical sympathies.
An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.
From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician.
From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type.
All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.

Ought you cease being an art maker if you agree with the most over-cited remark the manifesto, “all art is quite useless”? It doesn't have to be either/or in this matter. Wilde's idea that "all art is useless" is something I wouldn't agree with, in the broadest sense, but I do see the worth of his remarks in a subtler application: that the quality of art does not, of itself, ennoble a person, but rather the quality of the personality that selects or creates the art he or she surrounds them self with. As to ceasing to write on principle if I happened to agree with the literal thrust of Wilde's statement, of course not. Wilde was a decadent, an aesthete influenced by a 19th century French modernism that rejected the moral didacticism and instructive lessons much art was glutted with during the period and preferred, instead, an "art for art's sake". The point of art, both in making it and putting oneself in proximity to it, was to appeal to the emotional, the intuitive, the irrational, to achieve "a derangement of the senses", as Rimbaud declared. I'm against any reductionist notions declaring that art is required to do one thing or the other so far as intents and goals by default--the validity of any theory of art is in how well individual art and artists achieve their ends--but according to Wilde's aesthetic philosophy I should keep on writing, for it's own sake, because it brings me pleasure. It could also be the latent Calvinist in me, usurping my Irish Catholic guilt with heavier doses of theological dread: I write to keep busy, to occupy myself in activity so neither mind nor body are idle and wasting away with nothing but bed sores to show for my time. That's more fear based than Wilde was thinking of, but it coheres with the main point, that art, as process, is it's own reward. One needs to reconsider the idea of "reward", though.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The poor are patronized, Baseball gets punked

Lucas Howell couldn't cram enough conditional observations into this over-alert lyric; the poet, seemingly a sympathetic lyric writer by nature (or conceit) wanted to get to the core of the bleak reality of the coal miner's as they emerge from the mines. It's an inelegant pile-on of elegant phrase making where we are, in effect, instructed not to miss the point that these men have extraordinarily hard lives the likes of which we can read about in poems like this.

Out of the broad, open land they come.
Out of a coal seam's
hundred-thousand tons
of overburden, out of shit-reek barns
and shearing pens,
or down from the powder blue
derrick platforms of howling Cyclone rigs
they rung by rung descend.

This isn't bad writing as it goes, but very little of this kind of tone goes a long , long way to the point he wants to make, which seems less about the lives of the workers than it is , perversely, the bragging rights Howell claims as being the witness to both and consequently imagine them in language that makes their lives more vivid, hence more real. Had he moved on from his set up in the first stanza we could have done something different with this poet's acute sense of detail, but the second stanza brings us the example of a writer who isn't sure he'd closed the deal with the reader; Howell tips his hand and lays bare the set up he's arranging with gratuitous of qualitative pronouncements, as in the rather unremarkable and trite observance of

They come bearing the weight
of lives and labor on their boot heels,
a week of night shifts,
or the prairie sun's relentless arc.

We're to shed tears, on cue with the faux-folk music of dulcimer , guitar and fiddle , as we are given over to archetypes culled from Walker Evans' famed portraits of working poor whites. Crushing weight, long work shifts, a punishing heat, life here is presented as it might seem to the casual witness, bleak and hard and beset with no relief. But there's more coming, a conspicuous twist that you sense coming ; one set of detailed if cliched images emphasising a community's unglamorous obligation to go into the earth cannot pass without an equivalent arrangement emerging at the half way mark. It surely does, and Howell lays out all the cards he's been holding--the innate dignity of the human spirit cannot be crushed by the far off requirements of corporate interest, no sir, these men , tired and calloused as they are, reaffirm their dignity and their love of community with game of baseball. The game is not just the national pass time, it is the miracle elixir, the magic bullet for physical pains and complaints of alienated labor. One half way waits for a Liberal Guilt siren to sound; the aim of the poem is solely to create a comfort zone with which those made uncomfortable with unadorned facts might wrap themselves, give a nod, and then walk away.

But here, beneath the lights of Bicentennial Park,
these men work the stiffness
from their shoulders,
crow-hop and sling the ball sharply
around the horn. No matter
who they've become
in the years since boyhood, the game's
muscular beauty remains.

Transformation and transcendence and resurrection are the themes here, and the power of play is the device through which these workers cease , for the time being, being stooped shouldered and regain the elan vital that was plentiful in their youth. It's not that the therapeutic benefits of sports are false--life without games, play, physical recreation wouldn't worth sticking around for--but rather that Howell reduces what he's been witness to a convenient narrative structure that reports the hardship and then no so subtly, gracefully, nor convincingly turns around and provides a homily to convince himself, if not the reader, that something beautiful flourishes, thrives even in the midst of pulverizing ly hard and repetitive work. The last stanza is dreadful and spiked with the shards of truism platitude, and disingenuousness.

And the small victories
sustain them—a well-timed swing, or dusty
headfirst-dive for home—
as they disband,
again, into the world from which
they take their living.

This is a pompous and false dichotomy, that the laborers relish their game and find the "small victories" to be a satisfactory compensation for their dangerous work and poor pay, and it strongly implies that this is the way it needs to be. It's awful enough that Lucas Howell doesn't trust his own skill a writer to make his points and inferences without sticking instructional billboards along the trail of his thinking, but he adds an insult to injury with the banality of his insight. This man is the least interesting poet I've read in years.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Eliot, T.S.

There was someone , in one of those long ago forum rants somewhere on the Internet, who argued that the bulk of the T.S.Eliot's poetry was comprised of lies because he reached erring conclusions about the fate of human kind as it hurtled further into the twentieth century. My friend, of course, was ten years older than I and was an eternal optimist in the ongoing progress of humanity toward a magnificent perfection--history had a glorious end for him, and he rejected and attacked any cynicism he perceived that was contrary to his preferred end game. I offered that he was reading Eliot wrong--Eliot's conclusions might have been incorrect, if one insists, but his writing certainly wasn't false. He wasn't writing to please no one, but only scratch that itch he otherwise could get to.

Eliot, again, was not lying in any sense of the word--lying is a willful act, done so with the intent of trying to make someone believe something that is demonstrably untrue. As the point of The Quartets and his plays have to do with an artful outlaying of Eliot's seasoned ambivalence to his time, the suggestion that "beauty lies" is specious. One has license to argue with the conclusions, or to critique the skill of the writer, but the vision here is not faked dystopia Eliot contrived to a good amount of trendy despair--that comes later, with artless confessional poets who lost any sense of beauty to their own addiction to their ultimately trivial self-esteem issues.

Eliot, however one views him, sought transcendence of what he regarded as an inanely short-sighted world, and sought to address the human condition in a lyric language that has, indeed, found an audience that continues to argue with his work: the work contains a truth the readership recognizes. Eliot was following suit on the only prerogative an artist, really , has open to them: to be an honest witness to the evidence of their senses, and to marshall every resource in their grasps to articulate the fleeting sensations, the ideas within the experience.

This is the highest standard you can hold an artist to; any other criteria, any other discursive filter one wants to run the work through is secondary, truth be told, because the truth within the work is the source of that work's power. One need to recognize what it is in the lines, in the assemblage and drift of the lyric, in the contrasted tones and delicate construction of vernaculars, what is that one recognizes and responds to in the work, and then mount their response.

There is more to the Quartets or the plays than what you regard as defeat--there is hope that his work inspires future imagining greater than even his own-- but I cannot regard the poems as failures in any sense, even with the admission that there is great beauty in them. Eliot renders his consciousness , his contradictory and ambivalent response to the world he's grown old in with perfect pitch, and it's my sense that his intention to provoke the imagination is a sublime accomplishment. As craft and agenda, the later pieces work.

More random notes

That hairy and nameless monster we call"truth", large or small t, is something we arrive at after the fact, up the road, after we're over the hill. The point of personal experience is something we assign later, when memory arranges the particulars in some fine fashion that makes the data resonate like some kind of grand or sad music that needs it's expression in talk, a phone call, poem , novel, blues guitar. Truth is the plausibility of feelings toward the events that shape our conditions, not the calculations that lead us to First Causes and Final Consequences.

Since experience is the hardest thing to convey --it is not an argument I'm making, it's a tightly knotted cluster of feelings and emotions linked to a sequence of events that I have need to relate to you, to bring you into (in a manner of seduction, dropping the suspenders of disbelief)-- I generally favor any writer to use any and all materials available and appropriate.

At best, we see an outline of the truth, a blurred reconstruction, and it's here we , as readers, need to give our trust to the writer to take us through an implied but imaginatively plausible world. Mastery makes us forget the lines we're reading, the very words we're taking in. Good writing , whatever it's style, origins or intent, quite literally pulses , and is that shape, the "truth" we want to pull the veil from.

Do you think artists are creating wonderful veils, or 'pulling' at some pre-existing veils? Important distinction, wouldn't you say?

The idea of the metaphor is metaphorical, and since the 'truth' it's protecting is metaphorial , or at least figurative in some way, it seems like a dead issue. What's useful is to consider the process 'through' the veils, or the arrangement, tone, and orchestration of the narrative events that lead a reader finally to the last chapter, the last page and he last sentence, where one arrives at the author's sense of an ending, and their implications of whether the tale really does "end" there, done with, having served its purpose of illustrating a 'given' moral lesson based on a nominally 'realistic' event, or whether the lives of the characters go on, after the last page, changed after an arduous narrative, braced for an unknown future.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

William Logan can't remove his nasty mask

Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue
By William Logan

William Logan has become more famous as a disgruntled critic and trench-level wit than as a poet, his nominal calling, and it seems fated that the good writer will be recalled who he has dismissed so many for no reason other than an excuse to ladle out more of his cold, lumpy gruel.

Even in those instances where one is inclined to agree with him on principle there remains the scraping sound of a blade being sharpened in the background--in his estimations of Billy Collins, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Robert Frost, all one need do is read on with half an eyelid open , allowing the reviewer to present his good, balanced graces and equivocations until he lands upon the puffed-up sins he wishes to expose and the poems he desires to slice and dice. It's a chronic malignity that suggests more symptom than judgement, an indication of someone who makes a harsher case than is required so much of the time.

An honest criticism is appreciated, always, but the negative is the only coin Logan chooses to spend which, I think, renders his judgements suspect , no less than a publicist's hand out. Does Logan desire to be Poetry's Simon Cowell? Doubtless, since there is a kick indeed in handing out bad notices. In Logan's career, however, it ceases to be a form of Truth Telling than an expression of a mind that cannot adjust it's comprehending filters long enough to dare a fresh insight, an idea that might surprise the reader. The lamest stand up comic alive comes to mind--you've heard these jokes before, a long time ago.We have instead a wind up monkey, clashing it's cymbals intensely until someone winds it up again.(less)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Hip: The History

HIP:The History
By John Leland

John Leland's Hip:The History is the sort of book I like to read on the bus, the portentous social study of an indefinite essence that makes the reader of the book appear, well, hip. This is the perfect book for the pop culture obsessive who wonders, indeed worries and frets over the issue as to whether white musicians can become real blues musicians or whether Caucasian jazz musicians have added anything of value to the the jazz canon besides gimmick.

What we have with Hip is a what Greil Marcus has been attempting to for decades, which is write a coherent narrative of the margins of American culture, descendants of slaves and the children of immigrant parents, coalesced in ways in which each other's style and manner intermingled even if the respective races did not. The grace moment in history is that some wonderful things emerged from all this borrowing, posturing and tension, the jazz, rock and roll and a genuine American literary vernaculary; the tragedy is that it took generations of racisim and violence to produce the historical conditions for these vital arts to emerge. The question of hip furnishes the theme that brings Leland's sources together--what emerges is the story of two races that cannot live together and cannot be apart.

Leland, a reporter for the New York Times, has done his research and brings together the expected doses of cultural anthropology, literature and, of course, music to bear on this sweeping, if unsettled account as to what "hip" is and how it appears to have developed over time. Most importantly he concentrates on the lopsided relationship between black and white, each group borrowing each other's culture and suiting them for their respective needs; in the case of black Americans, rising from a slavery as free people in a racist environment, hip was an an ironic manner, a mode of regarding their existence on the offbeat, a way to keep the put upon psyche within a measure of equilibrium. For the younger white hipsters, in love black music and style, it was an attempt to gain knowledge, authenticity and personal legitimacy through a source that was Other than what a generation felt was their over-privileged and pampered class.

Leland's range is admirable and does a remarkable job of advancing his thesis--that the framework of what we consider hip is a way in which both races eye other warily--and is sensitive to the fact that for all the attempts of white artists and their followers to cultivate their own good style from their black influences, the white hipsters is never far from black face minstrelsy. For all the appropriation,experimentation, and varied perversions of black art that has emerged over the decades, there are only a few men and women who've attained the stature of their African American heroes, people who, themselves, were the few among the many.