Friday, June 19, 2009

Art and Science

Written in response to an email where I was asked what I thought the distinctions between Science and The Arts were. An impossibly broad question to answer succinctly, but I did have a fine time distilling my generalities into three action-packed paragraphs.-tb

The difference between science and the arts is that the sciences, the hard sciences, are predicated on facts, hard, verifiable data culled from methodical research , stated in the form of theories , ie. Scientific methodology provides as well a mechanism for verifying both the data and theory that gives them an articulate expression. If there facts are found that do not fit an proposed or an accepted theory, then the theory is changed, or junked altogether. Science, we can say, is very material, in it's subject matter. It deals with the physical world and the observed universe as it's originating source; even those speculations that suggest a metaphysical dimension, as often seems the case to layman in advanced physics, the suppositions are based on commonly vetted particulars.

The arts, as in literature, painting, sculpture, drama, film making, dance, have to do almost exclusively with the imagination; although the genres base their projects on experience and what is observed in the world around us, the emphasis isn't to add to the body of knowledge by developing explanations as to why things work the way they do, but rather to create, convey, communicate the subjective experience of the world however it might strike the individual artists. To coin a phrase, results may vary from artist to artist, but the philosophical premise of art making , in the broadest and most diffuse sense, would be to investigate the realm of appearances and what those perceptions seem to suggest on levels that, in themselves, aren't measurable. Scientific investigation , of course, requires imagination and a certain artfulness in the application of disciplines that uncover the real connections between substrates of existence, but facts and statements about facts remain the goal.

The further point is to produce advances in technology, based on more complete understandings of what wasn't as clear before; a further point is to discover things about the world that are useful. The arts, regardless of medium, cultural origin, or political-religious apologies, deal in major portion with the way the world seems, the aim , perhaps, to fulfill a human desire to feel at home in this existence. Beyond that, Oscar Wilde said better than anyone , in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey:

"All art is quite useless".

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Talking miracle blues with Janet Shore

As with "In the Cafe" by Louise Gluck , "Last Words" by Janet Shore reads more like prose instead of what many prefer their poems to be. Fair enough, I'd add, although I rather like the notion of a poet using whatever device , tone or at their avail in order to get their ideas across in the most inspired form. "Inspired" is the operative word,seen in Gluck's monotonish drift. The theme, a description of a male friend of hers who ,from her recollections , has in various ways attempted to complete his inner life through a series of intense relationships with women, lacked rhythm, bounce or lyric turn .It read as though she lost interest.

"Last Words", though, works quite a bit better and makes me think of the shaggy dog story, a device . Shore disguises her direction , distracts us, intends to leave us in a bit of a pause after the poem is finished as we consider what we've heard. The sense of leading to one package of generic expectations continues from the reading Shore gives the poem in the audio provided by Slate; she reads it with the knowing pauses, the lingering over poignant details, recited at a pace where it's intended that we absorb the finely rendered details. I especially liked this part:

... I asked them
to please turn off the TV's live feed
to the empty hospital chapel, lens
focused on the altar and crucifix-
it seemed like the wrong God watching
over her, up there, near the ceiling.

On the visceral level this gets across the disconnection between an institution's attempt to comfort the suffering and the bereaved. Tellingly she provides an image where the narrator's alienation is magnified, the image of altar and crucifix, suggesting an intimate relationship with a comforting God, made more distant through an in-house video hook up, an alienation made more acute that the hospital broadcast the wrong Deity. There is room to assert, in a more rational moment, that God is God and that one ought not quibble over the iconography , but this isn't a particular sane moment for the narrator. It's not far afield to generalize that a number of us who've spent time visiting dying family and friends in hospitals recognize the atmosphere; everything seems strange, time is out of joint, nothing seems real. Nothing is a good fit for the moment you find yourself in , everything seems wrong. I particularly liked the way Shore condenses a cliche about God , as He is demoted from being a Lord in the Sky to a lowly spirit on a camera perch under unattractive ceiling tile.

Reading the poem shows another twist to this narrative, a tone that's matter of fact, succinct, with the images seeming more of a verbal short hand than a perfected distillation. It's someone telling you a tale of something that's already happened, a rapid, picturesque run through of a sequence of awful events. It takes on the swerve that makes you think of someone who starts pouring out their heart ot the first friend they find ; the lessening one's burden when they manage to make someone else ill at ease. We have a character trapped by her penchant to talk and talk some more, even in the attempt to give comfort.

And because hearing is the last
sense to go, the nice doctor spoke
to me in a separate room. He said
it's time to say good-bye.Next day,
he returned her to her nursing home
to die. Her nurses said just talk
to her; let her hear a familiar voice.
I jabbered to the body in the bed.
I kept repeating myself, as I'd done
on visits before, as if mirroring
her dementia. I rubbed her hand,
black as charcoal from the needles.
I talked the way a coach spurs on
a losing team.

She is approaching the end of her timeline, the clock is running out, and there is nothing to do but commit oneself to a monologue directed to the stricken woman, a constant chatter and prate that finds one revealing those things, trivial and dark, light and severe, to fill the air with words, to filibuster against the inevitable darkness. The speech is offered as if the patient could hear, could understand what was being said, appreciate the intimate details and habits of phrase from the woman who is sitting with her. The narrator's expectation, was that this was her chance to dump some of the excess baggage she'd been carrying around, compartmentalized as psychic wounds she'd allowed to scar over, knowing that the woman to whom she was confessing to, in a manner of speaking, would soon enough pass on, taking what was revealed with her. The end game was simple; she wanted to give the dying woman as sense that she wasn't alone in her dying moments

Suddenly she opened
her eyes, smiled her famous smile,
she knew me, and for the first time
in a year of babbling, she spoke
my name, then, in her clearest voice
said, "I love you. You look beautiful.
This is wonderful." I urged her
to sip water through a straw. Then
two cold cans of cranberry juice,
she was that thirsty. Her fingertips
pinked up like a newborn's.
I wanted the nurses to acknowledge
my miracle, to witness my devotion
although I'd been absent all spring.
They reset the clock, resumed her oxygen.
I was like God, I'd revived her. Now
I'd have to keep talking to keep her alive.

The Twilight Zone moment here, the irony that reminds you to be careful what you pray for , even if you don't really mean it, as we have the patient actually aware of what was being said to her over those days, with something crucial ignited within her spirit to raise from her coma , to open her eyes and declare her love for her bedside companion. She is thirsty, she drinks water, to cans of cranberry juice, she was that thirsty, she wants to live on with her new sense of animation. And the visitor, the comforter, the life-sustaining monologist, how does she feel? A little bit like God, perhaps, but as being all powerful; she rather suggests the Almighty's resentment . This would be a God who, as a bringer of miracles to this world , a Deity taken for granted for the forces he puts into motion for the benefit of human kind,comes to view his miracles as drudgery.

Maintaining the natural order is a thankless task. I think there's an undercurrent of resentment in the narrator's rushing cadences, the sort of thing that someone who feels their life hasn't turned out the way they dreamed waiting for the passing of a significant other so that a change of fortune might take place. One would busy themselves with doing the right things in a time of need--visiting the stricken, for example--say the the appropriately commemorative last words at a memorial service, and then walking into a vague new freedom.

Putting the period at the end of that sentence, though, is much delayed, as Shore's narrator finds herself feeling even more committed when the patient recovers and, apparently, thrives in revival. It echos a Beckett-scenario where there is much chatter and cold silence centered upon an immobility of spirit. There are never any last words, there is always something more to say, there is something else to pause in one's path to listen to, there is always an obligation one takes on less from need than from a larger dread of breaking with one's familiar ruts and routines.

Shore appreciates a nuance in miracles; they're not momentary divine interventions in our lives that do one blessed thing and then are finished, but rather a change in the direction of our lives that necessitates a change in our behavior. The found an interesting way to show us how even miracles can be another reason to complain. Some of us just can't live otherwise.

Wither Lady Gaga?

A brief piece appears in Slate this week that wonders how smart dance hit phenomenon Lady Gaga happens to be with her conspicuous cherry-picking of style points from previous avant garde trends, with some discussion of the specific debt she might owe to Madonna. The article's theme is that there is a constant recycling of cultural artifacts that , it seems, a few people manage to package and market into lucrative careers, but one might make note a sub theme that goes un-commented upon; the recycling of old feature story ideas.If one were to change names, references and dates, we'd have the same sort of article that appeared , a dozen a month, during the mid eighties and early nineties that attempted to parse Madonna. What Lady Gaga and Madonna both share is not only pretentiousness but a talent for recycling dated avant- garde gestures and an instinct of what they can get away with in a climate where even the recent past is forgotten. The basic difference between the two, it seems, is that Lady Gaga would really like to be taken seriously , as one can see in her continued references to Warhol, performance art, Bowie, the Bauhaus school.

Like the autodidatic Bowie, she appears to know a bit about experimental art and the like. What I get , though, is a regret and resentment of being born 50 years too late for the generation of edgy art she obviously admires; she wants to , it seems, to join the ranks of her heroes not only through her music and choreography but by trying to talk her way through the clubhouse door way.This Gaga entity might be contrived and a fake, but all this falls under the rubric of art, which deals in things that are created, made up, stitched together. In this sense, she is not dumb at all, and shows smart sources to pilfer from; she is, in fact, in a great tradition of western artists, low, middle and high on the culture scale, who made interesting careers piecing together things they've lifted from other their betters.

Lady Gaga might not be an intellectual, but she isn't stupid. She is smart.The question, really , is whether it's good art or not, a less simple task than condemning her outright. I find her a late comer to the game , and less interesting because I've survived the David Bowie and Madonna years, and have witnessed the bric-a-brac aesthetic of postmodernism bloom and wilt with the fashion season it was part of. I see her as a little girl in an attic trying on her grandmother's old clothes, adoring herself in a mirror as she imagines herself dressed for the day in a generation that isn't hers to claim.

Madonna's pretentiousness was several decibels turned down.

Not a raconteur, as is Bowie , she kept her declarations relatively spare and didn't dwell long on her extra-musical projects, such as the monumentally vacant product that was her book "Sex". She seems to have realized that she wasn't a public intellectual and didn't try to be anything of the sort.One might remember the Esquire magazine interview with her conducted by Norman Mailer . Mailer was ready to do for her image as he had done for Marylin Monroe, to put forth a case that Madonna, like Norma Jean, was a brilliant and profound artist on terms entirely her own. While Mailer's controversial biography on the actress resulted in fanciful if touchingly expressed speculation, Madonna seemed unwilling to follow Mailer's blustery lead. She gave terse answers, sticking to what she knew, the result being one of Mailer's sorrier moments during his late career.

Her energy and her wits brought her back to the music, a mix of obvious borrowings, re-fittings and conflations of compatible musical styles--disco, techno, rock-- and had the self-honesty that although it was arguable that was an artist with a capital "A", she was, as she remained on our radar , a confirmed A-List celebrity. She, like Bowie, appeared to have gotten over the urge to prove that they're still the ones who define what is current on the emerging scene and are content to work at their own pace, on terms they've written for themselves. Will Lady Gaga be so lucky?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Dylan joins the Canon?

Cambridge University Press,is coming out with booked titled The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan , the intent being, one supposes, that august institution wants to enshrine Dylan at last, accepting him into the Canon. No doubt I will purchase the volume and read closely what a generation of critics reared on Dylan's lyrics will have to say as they make their respective cases for him being a poet worthy of being placed alongside Milton and Eliot. I fear, though, that a good many of them will miss the point of what's been exciting about Dylan's work, that it is, after all, rock and roll. Rock and roll is always worth discussing at length , through as many different filters as possible, but one fears that too many critics, desiring to sound academic , ie, "legitimate" as they bring their learning to an analysis of the songwriter's work, will forget to achieve that state of accelerated insight one discovers in the best of Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs and instead convert their passion to tenure-seeking jargon.

The problem with a number of literary treatments with Dylan's work , I find, has the error of sticking too closely to Dylan's lyrics and attempting to align him with the supreme examples of our poetry. Although these articles are fancifully argued much of the time, Dylan winds up suffering, as there is, I believe , more that contrasts than favorably compares. His language, in itself, hasn't the stuff that sustains a reading that would seek a system of allegory and metaphor that approaches Blake. The lyrics are a bit flat in that sense, limited in dimension, mainly because the writing we consider is not poetry, a medium that can achieve verbal effects on an unlimited number of levels. Dylan's words are lyrics, and their effectiveness, their power lies in the music gives them life.

A straight reading of "Desolation Row" would give the feeling of some intriguing surrealism sadly constrained by a sing-song rhyme scheme. The song , though, changes everything, from the steadfast, aggressive strum of the acoustic guitar, Dylan's vocal performance (snarling, dead pan, phrases bitten off in reserved disgust), guitarist Mike Bloomfield's bittersweet improvisations and the careening harmonica solos add a power not attained by a close reading of the lyric sheet. Greil Marcus, who has been guilty of summary vagueness on the subject of Dylan's Greater Importance, is , nonetheless, superb when he confronts specific Dylan songs, convincingly getting across how the conflated traditions Dylan brought together--folk, blues, Tex Mex, rock and roll and Symbolist Poetry, produced something new, strange and transcendent. He could grasp at how these things worked together for their artistic power. I am afraid, though, that the Cambridge Companion could suffer from a surfeit of specializations that too often have little to do with edification. There are some writings on Dylan's work that are as exotic as the singer's most intangible imagery. An example, cited by the Boston Globe and on Ron Silliman's blog, suggests a turgid time awaits even the most faith Dylan partisan:

"Dylan's lyrics construct an author-reader relation posited on the model of an irresolvable enigma which is both the incitement to and the perpetual frustration of readerly desire."

One had reason to think that rock and roll lyrics were truly the poetry of the age, but hindsight reveals the hubris of youthful assumptions. Far, far too little of the work by even the best lyricists have approached the wealth of expression and style that page poets have managed, even up to the current day. Dylan is not Wallace Stevens, Tom Waits is not Blake, Leonard Cohen is not Shakespeare, Joni Mitchell is not Auden. What needs to be developed is a critical language that can discuss, at length, the work of these songwriters as songwriters who assimilated aesthetic values from poetry. Otherwise I think we're all missing the point and blowing so much smoke up each other's pant legs as we drone in platitudes about how rock lyrics are the poetry. It misses the mark entirely. Lyric writing for music is a distinct craft from than that of the tradition of the page poet. There are points, of course, where the traditions converge and perhaps borrow from one another, but not often enough to willy nilly refer to gifted songwriters as poets. The work that really needs to be done in this area is to expand how one discusses the art of songwriting. Dylan, Paul Simon, Mitchell, Costello, et al, are better referenced against the likes of Stephen Foster, The Gershwins, you name it. Dylan, I would say, has had a very minor effect on contemporary poetry--the revolutions we habitually talk about here in modern verse were well under way long before he even picked up a guitar. His real impact is on music, on songwriting, on rock and roll.It's is his profound influence on popular music that helped changed American culture, and it is in this area that his artistic legacy is based. At the end of the day, Dylan remains a musical artist, not a literary one.

It's not every attempt to place Dylan on a par with canonical poets without insight or mired in a nervously applied jargon. Some are superb pieces of critical thinking. Even Christopher Rick's unfairly mocked, high-level inspection of Dylan's work in his book Dylan's Vision of Sin at least speaks to the reader in comprehensible prose, which greatly mitigates the thin air he's attempting to take deep breaths in. Michael Gray's study, Song and Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan , brings a thoroughness to the subject matter, bring focus on a multitude of influences Dylan absorbed and used t create something new. Gray spends his time on the lyrics and performs some impressive maneuvers to make the lyricist a suitable companion for the page poets, but what makes Song and Dance Man especially powerful is the stress on how the music ratchets up the power of lyrics . He writes, in this book, like a Greil Marcus who doesn't get quickly distracted from completing an idea.

The cited sentence has none of that--it seems a foul odor emerging from a long sealed crypt.Dylan deserves better than the crypt, of course, and I'll pay my money to see how the folks at Cambridge did assembling the best thinking they could find on Dylan's hard-to-classify work. Until I buy and read the Dylan Campanion , of course, my question, to risk using a metaphor a third time too many, is whether the songwriter will be illuminated or embalmed.

Friday, June 12, 2009


The length of In the Cafe, appearing this week in Slate, would have you think that author Louise Gluck is a monologist. That's not the case, we find; a skilled monologist will have a a point or an effect they achieve , more often than not. Gluck's poem long lines are merely that, long, un-inflected,without snap or spice. Instead, we have a droning account of a male friend who happens to be a serial romancer--a sensitive male who absorbs portions of women's lives and energy over a period of time and then leaves them for the next adventure. It's not that this isn't worth writing about, but this is more topic drift development, an exercise in killing time. Gluck doesn't even go through the pretense of trying to make this intriguing as poetry and offers up the stale device of disguising undistinguished prose in irregular line breaks.

Gluck's long- form poetry is part of the disparaged School of Quietude, the conservative conglomeration of professional poets who's careerism controls the major book contracts, literary awards and plum teaching assignments who's market-pleasing style, a gush of self-infatuated musings that prefer to leave the reader hanging in murmuring waves of uncommitted relativism--the sort of work that doesn't move you to think beyond your conventional wisdom but leaves you anxiety -ridden in the decorated fringes of your misery. The attitude, among the worse offenders , seems to be gutless, indecisive, reflective rather than reflexive, passive rather than active in the world. One appreciates stillness and the sharply observed detail independent of an interfering ego, but that is not what Quietude, in the worst of it's world, is about; the poets seem to be bothered that they were cursed with compositional skills. You read them time and again and come away with the idea that a requirement among this coterie is to speak of themselves in their work as attempting to have an experience. You can feel the shrug , sense the poet dropping his pen, you can nearly hear the soft swearing under his or her breath about the perception being too hard to convey with wonder, awe, as a miracle in itself. That is to say, complacency wins again and the prospect of changing one's loathesome circumstance is too frightening. One would rather suffer with what they know rather than dare a single foot step in another direction. The worst of this kind of poetry, I've heard, is like a three hour forced tour of your own living room.

Hers is better described, perhaps, as the School of Drone, a kind of outlining of unexceptional incidents involving straw figures wherein a reader suffers what would have been a tolerable three minute on -air NPR essay about a diminutive epiphany stretched egregious lengths. that provoke involuntary teeth grinding. One doesn't really care about Gluck's portrait of a man-in-process; she attempts a neat inversion in maintaining, toward the end, that this man wasn't wasn't a bastard nor a feckless creep. By the time she grapples with her reasons for having sympathy for her comrade's quest for enlightenment, we are out of sympathy with her tale. This becomes the melodrama you switch the channel from.

It's cut-rate of D.H.Lawrence, but without the erotic intensity.She does, retain Lawrence's rhetorical bulk.Like him, she sounds like she's trying to talk herself into believing her basic premise as well as the reader, a trait that makes "In the Cafe" a dry lecture that hinges on a vague and brittle point. This poem is the equivalent of the bore at the party who continues to prate although everyone else has gone home and the lights are turned off .

Adding to the despair over this poem's glacial pace is the promise of the first lines, which are bright, with a hint of witty resignation;

It's natural to be tired of earth.
When you've been dead this long, you'll probably be tired of heaven.

It's a perfect set up for a story of an every man's quest for the place where he might find contentment in love and spirit. But where there might have been a telling comedy that provides the moral that our expectations undercut what we assume are our virtuous yearnings instead turns into a drab recollection. No time is wasted in weighing down the promise of the first two lines with the leaden grouchiness of the second two:
You do what you can do in a place
but after awhile you exhaust that place,
so you long for rescue.

This gives the whole game away.I wonder if this would have worked far, far better if Gluck had written this as a short story. The prose -quality of these lines might have bloomed a little more, breathed a little more air, the scenario might have been more compelling.

The first lines are terrific and they could have been a poem by themselves, a condensing Gluck seemingly wants nothing to do with. Being succinct has amazing advantages.It provides an ending, a place to land. Gluck and other writers --myself at times--often mistake raw length for more substantial writing.Some writers have the gift to go long and reward the patient reader .Most do not, and few of us are Proust, few of us are Whitman, few of us are early Allan Ginsberg.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Mick Jagger has amassed a troublesome track record with his non-Rolling Stones projects, the aged rock icon turning out intermittent and indifferent solo albums, film performances, duets, the whole shot. Even to the most ardent Jagger partisan, the obvious is now clear that the good man's musical instincts have found best expressions in his partnership with fellow Rolling Stone Keith Richard. Richard seems the real musical genius behind this band's amazingly resilient body of blistery, wickedly cynical rock and roll, and it's due to him, I think, that they continue to release strong albums decades after their supposed "peak"; 2005's A Bigger Bang caught me by surprise when I first played it. The trademarked weave of cranky, thundering guitar work by Richards and second guitarist Ron Wood fused quite ably, brilliantly even around a set of riffs assembled with a jeweler's touch, Jagger's vocals, a signature mix of whimpering sobs and bull-moose roars, underscore the album's unifying tone of hard-knocks hindsight and pampered fatalism. Charlie Watts' drum work kept it simple, hard, steady. This album is the sound the Stones have been famous for, turned into a refined signature art, the sense that there is a huge apparatus of attitude and consequences teetering and about to fall forward, the sheer weight of gathering gravity picking up speed, velocity, undeniability. Jagger, though, did have one album, from all his years of attempting to create a musical style independent of the Stones, where his instincts find a comparable format; as with the case with Richard, the disc's success has to do with who he partnered up with. In this case, it's Lenny Kravitz on Jagger's 2001 album Goddess in the Doorway. 

What makes I Goddess In the Doorwayworth the purchase is the fact that Jagger is singing better than he has in quite a spell; gone is the bellowing that characterized the corporate feeling of the last two decades of Stones releases, replaced with performances that underline the fact that while Jagger may be technically a poor singer, he is a supremely gifted I vocalist. The distinction is key if only to say that a singer is someone who can hit the notes of a melody with trained technicians, and maybe, just maybe manage something of a human personality, punchy and unpredictable, to come through the purely rounded tones. Jagger, with fellow mewlers Dylan, Bowie, and Tom Waits, among others, work brilliantly within their shredded, imperfect limits as frontmen. Jagger again sounds alive and tuned to the screwy grooves of the tunes. Musically, too, the album is strong, with the electro-vibe of "Gun" percolating nicely under Jagger's faux-sinister snarl and grunt. The riff-happy "God Gave Me Everything I Want" is a slam-dunk of a hard rocker, with all the crashing guitars from Lenny Kravitz bringing several generations of attitude-fueled chord bashing to bear against a four-square drumbeat. Jagger's vocal quite literally howls and twirls a keen elbow to the rib and offers a brief, blasting, well-situated harmonica riff toward the end that manages more impact than any number of witless John Popper solos. Sorry to say that the effect of all the good sounds here wither when one confronts the lyric sheet, wherein Rock's supreme ironist and cryptic cynic par excel lance sinks below the surface as he struggles to come with something resembling real, genuine, heartfelt emotion. It's a tedious assortment of a greeting card, web-page poetry where every unexceptional expression of love and its fractured derivatives finds room in these otherwise agreeable tunes. Jagger hasn't a talent for reflection or writing about others who are dear to him; his stylized narcissism is too entrenched.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Little Denny--a tale of youth and food

Little Denny kept sliding off the lunch counter stool. The waitress poured his mom another cup of coffee.
The waitress laughed, a snorting giggle.
“That's cute” she said, turning to look at Mom, a young woman in her mid twenties who'd peering at a magazine while fidgeting with her food. She slapped her sandwich on her plate and grabbed Denny's arm.
“Shit” she said, her voice a irritated hiss, “he's doing this on purpose, the rat-“
“OwwwwwwwwwwwwWWWWWWW” yelled Denny when she yanked him upright on the stool, forcing into an impossible posture. His face met the edge of the counter half way,
where he could see a history of dried and chipping wads of gum mark the rim like mountain ranges on three-dimensional globes. The hamburger Mom ordered for him sat on its plate in front of him, a mountain of meat and sesame seed buns.
“Now eat” his mother demanded. Her long finger that had been leafing through the magazine pointed to the plate, looking crooked, shaking, with a long, twisting fingernail curling toward the charred patty as if to drop something from a claw. Denny cringed again.
“Eat” she said again “eat and quit fucking around.”
The waitress's smile shrank to a chastised `o' from his bulging , full-cheeked glory, and turned to chores , her own business. She pulled half empty ketchup bottles from a shelf under the counter as Denny reached over the chasm between he and the counter and grabbed the hamburger from the plate. It was the size of a football in both his hands. Squeezing it tight, he raised it to his mouth and then turned his eyes to Mom in order to see if she could see him doing exactly what he was told, a mature boy of 4 and a half!
Mom was sipping her coffee, the sandwich on the plate with two bites out of it, staring at the waitress who was pouring the remains of the ketchup bottles into a single vessel, so to waste not a drop. Denny squeezed the burger so tight that the patty slid from between the buns and hit the floor with a wet slap that sounded like a kiss heard in rowdy cartoons. The phone rang, and when the waitress reached over to grab the line, her arm swept into the bottles and knocked them to the floor. The bottles shattered into a hundred red, bloodless shards. Startled, Mom spilled her coffee.
Little Denny fell off the stool.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Despairing over despair, observing what's already perfect

I  my love for adjectives, metaphors and unhinged diction when I was a younger man attempt to write in the shadow of the Eliots, the Ashberys, the Stevens of the poetry world. Needless to say (but to be said anyway) I wrote a great deal of poems that could be blue penciled into submission, as many, many of the things I composed were done on the fly, in full improvisational rant. Most of us are lucky enough to survive and learn from their youthful indulgence, and my preference in tone , for my work, is to more concise, terser , more direct in my treatment of the world. It's an ongoing experiment in phenomenological terrorism, but we can conclude that my later offerings seeks to get back to the data, the situation under a poem's consideration. One longs for something to come from their keyboard that's less abstract and more at one with the material realm, a project destined to fail--one cannot step outside their own skin to observe oneself in their habitual habitat--but it is the attempts that are worth considering, pondering, it is the art that adds to our knowledge of the things we don't know. For others, of course, poetry is a means to classify and categorize and index people, places and things; it is a means to conquer the world and reduce to quantifiable data. Poetry here is means of missing the point entirely. 

Sadness. The moist gray shawls of drifting sea-fog,
Salting scrub pine, drenching the cranberry bogs,
Erasing all but foreground, making a ghost
Of anyone who walks softly away;
And the faint, penitent psalmody of the ocean. 

One needs to admit to Anthony Hecht's mastery of the carefully articulated tone of his work , and appreciate as well the limits he observes when constructing correlatives between interior states with the material world. Not pompous, not grandiloquent, not bombastic, Hecht's poem "Despair" finds a way to make the sluggishness of the human spirit resemble the turns of the day-- 
Gloom. It appears among the winter mountains
On rainy days. Or the tiled walls of the subway
In caged and aging light, in the steel scream
And echoing vault of the departing train,
The vacant platform, the yellow destitute silence.  
The adjectives are perfectly selected and fitted like the smaller, finer diamonds in a larger arrangement of vaguely tarnished gems, with the intent being to remind you, I suspect, that more often than not one has found themselves caught unaware that the warm afternoon has taken on a sudden chill in just the minutes it took for the sun to take a late afternoon shift of position. It does just that, but it seems a bit false; the perception seems padded by the slightest degree.  
But despair is another matter. Midafternoon
Washes the worn bank of a dry arroyo,
Its ocher crevices, unrelieved rusts,
Where a startled lizard pauses, nervous, exposed
To the full glare of relentless marigold sunshine. 

What I recognize over anything else is a world that seems to exist only for it's elements--an Edward Hopper universe of subdued tones, melancholic hues and diffuse light-- to illustrate a mood that itself seems more imagined, fanciful. The language eschews the chance to be vivid and naked with the sadness it attempts to corral and instead decorates the psychology. Phrases like "Washes the bank of a dry arroyo" or "To the full glare of relentless marigold sunshine" , for me, hang there like waiting room art that is nebulous and comforting; the real experience is abstracted, obscured, defused of potential. This makes me think less of an accounting of what one has felt and found suitable expression for than it is a rumor of something having happened . This is the kind of language one comes upon with someone who has something on their mind they aren't comfortable exposing to an honest art. Measured, well crafted, balanced, similes and metaphors synchronized , but without a single provocative notion. You're left to admire the structure of the thing, the finesse of the inner mechanisms, and leave the poem without a hint of real feeling.


The conventional wisdom is the older artist uses bolder strokes and is more selective in the techniques they use from their assembled devices and acquired skills, and appealing prospect for older poets and readers who surfeited with the orgy of earnest self examination. Enough about you, already, we know it's you who's had these experiences, tell us what you see without announcing that you're in the act of seeing. I don't constantly roll my eyes when coming across a personal pronoun in a poem--that would be rude, even in private--and I will attest to liking poets who've a winning manner that mitigates their constancy in the work; I am a Norman Mailer fan, after all. But not everyone is so engaging, nor interesting, at least when they are the articulated persona the poetry is coming through. Much of the time you desire the more direct approach; let's skip the foreplay and go straight to the perception, the place where the new idea forms. My model is William Carlos Williams, who could, to my mind (and ear) draw a lyric from the barest of linguistic ploys. It's a clean, well lit poem. 

Spring and All 
by William Carlos Williams 

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines-

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind-
Now the grass, tomorrow

the stiff curl of wild carrot leaf
One by one objects are defined-

It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of entrance-

Still, the profound 
change has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken. 

There seems less of the telling-the-world-what-it-mean??s I gather from Hecht's skilled outline and sense in Williams someone who has remained quiet and still long enough in the spaces he inhabits to have the world reveal itself. This poem is one of action, so to speak, activity, of how nature exudes and recedes with the change of the weather, how the terrain seems to wither under a severity of cold wind and hard snow but comes to life again as the ground softens and the temperature warms a bitter air. Where Hecht, to me, reads as if he was determined to find dour inner states, Williams finds symmetry and elegance in what the passerby might consider a rough and unrefined wood; Williams' eye is sure and his ear is tuned to the music that's already in the frame he wandered into ; there was no need to busy up his materials. Being the doctor, Williams had, perhaps, an innate appreciation of how things fit together, whether the human body, the buildings of a city that hugged a rough shoreline, or otherwise untrammeled nature itself. He is wholly aware that what he's seeing is already perfect before he arrived; the perfection is independent of his personality and his desires, and there his presence does not bring beauty to the landscape. It is his task to notice what's there , to see what is in front of him that otherwise goes unseen, to notice the world apart from his ego. That is what makes Williams one of my favorite poets.

Slam is dead, they say

Is Slam in Danger of Going Soft? -
Well, not dead, but in danger of losing street credibility because of its growing popularity as a default style among a generation of urban, street oriented poets. Like hip-hop, it's a brand name, not an attitude anymore, a commercial idea, no longer a community ideal. Slam poetry has arrived, and it bothers more than a few. The New York Times recently worried whether slam poetry was going soft and in danger of losing whatever potency. The slammers are virtually everywhere you go when you investigate the further reaches of what comprised the unincorporated, unassimilated branches of contemporary poetry, but like rap, the style has become just that, a style, another among many.

The anger, rage, the colloquial playfulness and in-your-face strategy that had made these bracing bards a phenomenon worth considering has become predictable. A large cause of slam's deadening is the monotony of presentation--choppy, click-track, scratch-popping momentum, hip-hop style, almost invariably defines the poets 'performance style. One tires of being exhorted to, waved at, lectured, or otherwise badgered to show the poet some love. The School of Quietude could offer a lesson to the young, the eager, and the impatient: dial it down, quiet it down, and don’t forget to breathe.

One poet after another seem to ape the maneuvers of the one who'd been on stage before them, only with their gestures, nonsensical accelerations and ramping down of recitation temp, their whoops and hollers, their sudden gushes of near rhymes and forced analogies pouring forth, unguided by nothing but gravity, like a collected detritus falling from a crowded closet. As with listening to streaming heavy metal rock on satellite radio, might have spent their time listening to the machines in a laundry mat. At least some clothes could get washed in the bargain.

What further kills the buzz with slam poetry is the incessant, braying, unreconstructed egotism of the poets who cannot leave the autobiographical style behind and place distance between themselves and the world they live in. Even in the bleakest situations, the sorriest locals, a poet worth their good graces could drop the personal pronouns and study the relationships of people, places and things without the need to intervene with declarations, objections, ineffective protests. As with the pacing and the cadence, the effect of nearly every poet delivering a hasty rant glutted with self referencing becomes an ironic form of group think--think of the old joke about someone attending a convention of Independent Thinkers. The motto: I WANT TO BE A NONCONFORMIST JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE. The poet has the right, sure thing, to talk about things in entirely whatever fashion they choose to, and solipsism isn't rare at all in the far-ranging universe of poets and their assorted schools, but variety, we think, would be expected from an emerging school of poetry. One shouldn't feel compelled to write and perform in the same manner. The might as well be wearing school uniforms, complete with a crest.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

David Bromige

David Bromige, a poet with an ongoing interest in seeing how the language operates in the many schemes a human mind can present for it to map out, passed away yesterday, leaving behind a large body of work that is, as the saying goes, too broad for a simple explanation . He was, from my too infrequent readings of him over the years, a poet who continued to go the outer perimeters of form , intrigued by how one might come up with new cadences to contain the accelerated rate of experience. He seemed also to be someone who wouldn't allow lazy expression be what represented the emotional core of the poetry, either from dog-eared templates of conventional poeticizing, or hastily contrived experiments that missed a human connection in their haste to be striking. In his best form, which was usually the case when I picked up one of his books, he was a poet who thought we could do better when addressing a remarkable life we've been given.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Ocean, song, death

Sleep is a foreign country sometimes, that place we can't get too long into the night because there's some nagging concern , some godawful dread has escaped the compartment we've placed it in, assuming a blunt and repetitive voice, a sound, a melody that will not let up, denying us a visa to a restful night. Matters trivial or grave, it does not matter the contents and their meaning, we have all, more or less, spent the night staring at the ceiling, memorizing the grain of the wood beams above. Jason Shindler had bigger fish to fry in his poem Ocean. It's clear that the narrator cannot sleep, a song and a probable loop of thoughts replaying through his mind--he has something on his mind that will let him rest. It is a rush of ideas that contradict each other and then blend into a single stream, the hankerings of a desperate man struggling to maintain a narrative coherence to the life he knows is coming to a final dawn.The opening lines --

Good bye again. Say there is a little song in my head

And because of it I can't sleep or change my mind
About the future.

--pretty much establishes the fact that Shindler's narrator isn't particularly thrilled with his prospects as a going concern--"...I can't...change my mind /About the future."--and gives into the general wash of the language, the variations on the undisclosed phrasings in the song and attempts to imagine an ocean with the sound of water merging with is troubling melody. Now the song runs all the way down

To the beach where I sit as if the sky

Were my room now. No one, not even you,
can hear me singing.

As if the music rose from the mouth of the ocean

The respite from the song, the sleepless state is to imagine the breeze of the sea air , the night sky, and imagine, vividly. that the walls of the room have given way to the larger world that this person knows they will be departing. It seems to me that this the need to deny the isolation of the end, the end, and to have the senses feel more fully, again, what is unique and textured; we might be reading about someone trying to change the tune that will not stop from a dour funeral march to a moving, rhythmic sound that might reanimate the muscles, give strength to the bones, make the labored breathing a full intake of wind. More than that--"No one, not even you, not even you,/can hear me singing./ As if the music arouse from the mouth of the ocean."-- there's a feeling that we might have walked into a room where someone was talking to themselves, speaking in odd referents as though rehearsing some lines of a sad monologue, in preparation for a large, all transforming transformation. Shindler's hero has a desire to be merge with all things that he has known and with all things that have formed him, to sing and have himself become integral to the planet.

Like rain before it reaches us.
Like wind twirling dresses on the clothesline.

Who has no one has
the history of the ocean.

Lord, give me two more days. So that
The last moments may be with someone.

It's less the prospect of death that incites the dread than it is the knowledge that one stands to be alone at the moment of passing and forgotten afterwards; delicately, persuasively we enter into the thought stream of someone in some half-awake delirium, drawn between the desire to merge with a the essence of a life bringing ocean and to remain , at the end, on the less abstract plain of being in the company of an intimate. These are the thoughts of someone on the way out, weighing up the imagined options of their would seem to me that the narrator does not want to leave this life and is , at first, insisting that he deny an eternal darkness by somehow melding his spirit with the churning, endless, life giving power of the ocean. Later, though, there is acquiescence and the speaker accepts his fate, it seems, and ceases to make demands about the terms of his death and instead prays humbly for a more modest favor, two days for the arrival of the nameless "you" whom the poem addresses. There is a transition here that is quick and seamless, but not seeming arbitrary. Rather than live on forever, somehow, there is the right sized desire to have what one sees at the end be a person for whom a lifetime was worth all that came with it.