Friday, July 17, 2009


Image result for paul auster
An ironic choice, I suppose, since I've spent quite a bit of energy railing against that reflects upon its own processes But  Paul Auster's style is so clear of superfluous adjectives, verbs and dead weight qualifiers that he gets across some of the mystery involved in composing a verse, a quality that eludes other writers. A novelist by trade, Auster's fiction often fashion themselves after mystery novels where every assumption and cover story is questioned, and in which action is moved forward by chance; whole chains of events and consequences in his best fiction-- The New York Trilogy, Book of Illusion, Leviathan-- that depend on the fickle choices of where one desires to place themselves, on impulse, on the spur of the moment. White Nights likewise comes across as a detective novel , combined with a ghost story; within in it are the themes of someone writing something in isolation wondering if anyone will read, how anything will change if a readership is found, how the writing lives on in the writer's words haunting a stranger years later, in another part of the world. I t comes , finally, to that flashing recognition a reader experiences when another's words confirms some nuance of feeling one has felt in their own travels through an amorphous existence. I think the poem is lovely, compelling, and finally undecidable to final meaning. But that is the whole point, I would think.

WHITE NIGHTS / Paul Auster

No one here,
and the body
says: whatever is said
is not to be said. But no one
is a body as well,
and what the body says
is heard by no one
but you.

and night. The repetition
of a murder
among the trees. The pen
across the earth: it no longer knows
what will happen, and the hand that
holds it
has disappeared.

Nevertheless, it writes.
It writes:
in the beginning,
among the trees, a body came walking
from the night. It
the body's whiteness
is the color of earth. It is earth,
the earth writes: everything
is the color of silence.

I am no
longer here. I have never said
what you say
I have said. And yet, the body
is a place
where nothing dies. And each night,
from the silence of the
trees, you know
that my voice
comes walking toward you.

You can never have too much existentialism, French, German or Maynard G.Krebs; the idea that a writer is in his existential moment, stripped of his excuses and wholly dependent on his next action to give his life meaning , purpose. authenticity, is exactly the dilemma we discuss here all the time. It is the issue that all these poems-about-poetry attempt to take on but never grasp because of the intangible nature of the issue and because so many of the poets who attempt the task fumble with their poetics. Auster gets to an emotional core--the loss of self one can experience in writing, the dread that the words might be unheard, ;unread, when the writing is done and one is passed on--by the choice sparseness of his metaphors.I wouldn't disagree with you about the poem attempting to bridge different parts of the body, but I think the particulars aren't that important in so far as the real issue is the author's attempt to make contact to an Other , some essential part of one's sense of them self in this life that is dually absent and yet persistent in one's instinct. The question arises, is the writer talking to himself in an effort to join his separate selves, or is he seeking a common bond with a community he has no evidence actually exists? This is the ambiguity and the beautiful ache in the poem. You can never have too much existentialism, French, German or Maynard G.Krebs; the idea that a writer is in his existential moment, stripped of his excuses and wholly dependent on his next action to give his life meaning , purpose. authenticity, is exactly the dilemma we discuss here all the time. It is the issue that all these poems-about-poetry attempt to take on but never grasp because of the intangible nature of the issue and because so many of the poets who attempt the task fumble with their poetics. Auster gets to an emotional core--the loss of self one can experience in writing, the dread that the words might be unheard, ;unread, when the writing is done and one is passed on--by the choice sparseness of his metaphors.

The poem attempts to bridge different parts of the body, but I think the particulars aren't that important in so far as the real issue is the author's attempt to make contact to an Other , some essential part of one's sense of them self in this life that is dually absent and yet persistent in one's instinct. The question arises, is the writer talking to himself in an effort to join his separate selves, or is he seeking a common bond with a community he has no evidence actually exists? This is the ambiguity and the beautiful ache in the poem. He writes this poem as if hoping that in the written admission that he cannot define what is only a sideways glimpse in his mind's eye , the Other will reveal itself, in full and true form. The consequence is only more distance, more estrangement from what is desired.Writing is one of the recurring tropes in all of Auster's writing, and one of his themes is the problem of the writer who is trying to write the world into being--to establish a psychology that provides narrative continuity to existence that can provide a vague sense of purpose--who confronts what cannot be predicted, only accommodated. 

Strange to think, but the spare, undecorated prose of Paul Auster does achieve a poetic effect of sort, but it's something that comes about because he can create situations and odd scenarios that often times gives us the duplicitous ironies that are a good poem's hall mark. One is not sure where they stand after reading an Auster novel, and his poetry in kind does a trick of seeming like John Ashbery without the prolixity. Ashbery's genius is the concurrent circles of reference his hard objects inspire in his mind; they conflate gracefully, refusing closure. Auster's poems refuse closure as well, but his are stanzas that have a hard glare like black and white streets, no technicolor, just high contrast black and white. The stanzas and images are crystalline, hard, unadorned, and the dreamy language around them, the assumptive tone that starts with a given set of attitudes and finds itself changed or shattered by poem's end, is blurry, confused, and imprecise. An interesting tension results--there is the feeling of someone overwhelmed by the conflations and overlapping demands of events and walking away, blinders on, into a new identity. Here I thought of a piece of typing paper that is blank, waiting for a story to be written on it, the problem being that while the story might be good and entertaining in it's reworking of old tales and morals, it doesn't change the paper it's on, though sullied with words, it remains paper. It is the writing that gives the writer meaning, the constant advancing of his narrative line; existence itself is unchanged in its unknown virtues, if there were any in the first place.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fidelity to Fact or to Art?

It's not uncommon to come across a feverish poetry enthusiast who turns a blacker shade of rage when they discover that a poet they've taken a liking to does not, by default, base every verse they compose on real experience. I've had this situation in several workshops where a participant or two became irate when I let on, during a critique, that some elements in a some poems I submitted for review were not wholly autobiographical. What set off the participants, I guess, was my distrust of poets who insist on full disclosure sharing, as if the slightest ebb and flow of their emotional equilibrium sufficed as finished work. Experience was merely material, I remember saying at one time or another in a dispute over the purpose of writing. Experience was like wood, glass, paper, what have you; the poet, the artist, had to make it into something else , a species of writing not contractually obligated to gets the names and dates correct. This doesn't sit well with a few of my very serious co-work shoppers.

This is , I suppose, part of the long term hang over of Confessional poetry and other styles that choose to make journal entries into the stuff of literary explication. It seems beyond some that poets, if they're any good, are writers all the same and are allowed to make things up , to invent narrative circumstance for the purpose of getting out a good piece of writing. Still, there is the thought that some immorality has taken place. A betrayal of reader trust, perhaps.

This isn't the poet's problem, though, but rather the reader's, who should, by rights, arrive at the idea that the validity of any approach to writing a poem lies in how well it works, on the page. One should think more broadly on the subject; verse plays are fictional, and yet their validity as quotable, meaningful poems isn't questioned at all--virtually no one objects to the stanzas being used to put forth an imaginary activity; this tolerance should be extended to single poems, ones not connected to grander fictional universes. The evolution of poetry into a form thought to be exclusively autobiographical in purpose is a narrowing of what poet should be allowed to do.

I don't think poets are obliged to write solely from their own experience, since we have to remember that poetry is , above all other considerations, an imaginative craft. There are any number of times that I've written pieces of my own that are based more on an idea and inspiration ; although based or premised on some actual fact of in my life, the details are often fictional. It is the rare poet, I think, who rigorously sticks with autobiographical material who doesn't soon writing the same set of poems over and over until they finally stop writing.

The issue, of course, is balance; how much ought to be from real life, and how much should be embroider, enhance, fictionalize?One way or the other in excess can result in dullness or unspeakable bombast. Empathy , I think , is what the poet is after; can he or she write in such as way as to get a reaction from a reader who might empathize?Poets , we must remember as well, are writers, and writers tell stories they want readers to relate to in some capacity. Not all the stories they tell us are true, as in adhering to autobiographical facts; I want something better than vetted facts. What I would expect is something more than Coleridge's tirelessly useful phrase , A "...willing suspension of disbelief"; I like to feel as if the writer had taken some bit of their own experience and considered hard and long enough what they might do with it, to enlarge an incident's potential as a means of having readers made aware of a world that's apart from the comfortable references and homegrown usages.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Wallace Stevens stroll along the shore

It's interesting that some would rather argue with Wallace Stevens rather than grasping what he's writing about.Understandable: fans of Billy Collins , preferring their poems to be neat arrangements of common things highlighted with a smattering of clever learnedness, find Stevens an indefinite perspective. The ask themselves, "where are these places he writes about, and where are all the people who ought be inhabiting this piazzas or strolling these beaches?" It's precisely the lack of those things that intrigues me about Wallace Stevens' problematic take on the tension between mind and spirit. What we have in this world, his poetry informs us constantly, might be a flawed representation of the real thing, but for intents and purposes the inferior idea is all the reality we can handle. Falling short, we try harder to get to an ideal state which is elusive.

Beauty is momentary in the mind--
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

The body dies; the body's beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.

Stevens' work is obsessed with the whole conundrum Plato introduced with the Ideal Forms, perfect in their unknowable terrain, versus the actual thing we see in front of us, aging with time, falling apart and eventually dying. The perfection , the beauty of the body we see, is a construct, a phenomenon we subject to our psychological preferences that make the world tolerable, livable. And when the body dies, it remains beautiful, in memory, in the mind that Stevens addressed in the stanza above it. Stevens , a realist, actually, and not a romantic, would suggest that "beauty" and "spirit" are actual concepts by which we arrange our lives, but that such things only have currency as long as there is someone still alive to remember the particular , place, or thing that embodies the afore mentioned qualities.

Stevens believed language, the vehicle with which we construct our complicated notions of permanence and metaphysical certainty, is finally inadequate to the task of capturing the things of the world as they actually are, in themselves, beyond the assumptiveness of our paradigms and censoring filters. This is what gave his poems their exquisite lyric tension, the pondering of shapes, concepts, places , arranged just so, altering and changing to other versions of "permanent" perfection as the personality changes , however slightly. Our heaven is a malleable place, he considered, eternal and ever lasting , ironically, only as long as their is someone who remembers to hold those thoughts in mind.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Image result for ar ammons

Someone I showed this poem to gave back to me after reading it back the book after a cursory glance up and down the page. She asked: "where's the beef?". Then we had a beef; I liked the poem, she didn't, and we took several hours to smooth out the differences between us.
 Assuredly, more than a difference of view on what constitutes quality in free verse poems was under review , and yes, I realize that recollection resembles a scenario for a minor key spasm of-of "flash fiction" that would be doomed to see print in a small magazine that would reach the hands of  on the chronically poetic.The "beef", is Ammons' details, and the poem works precisely because of his plain speech and the emphasis on his line breaks. Ammons' narrator highlights a more fleshed out version of the same sort of subject, making the point that what comes at you fast in life are marriages, births, and deaths, in that order, in thick, hard clusters; before you know it, you're at the end of it all while the cycle continues for another generation. One descends either into cynicism and despair, or one considers themselves to have been fortunate, blessed, to have lived a life that's endured joy, failure, and every celebration and tragedy in between. Yes, this is a poem, there is no pretense about it, and it works very powerfully because of Ammons' couplet form; the prose reformatting turns this into something anyone converted to paragraph form would be, a series of run-on sentences.I like his language, his ability to keep a topic running through a myriad of associations that wouldn't ordinarily meet in a piece of writing, and I admire his utter lack of pretentiousness. This is quite wonderful.

In View of the Fact 
By A. R. Ammons 

The people of my time are passing away: my
wife is baking for a funeral, a 60-year-old who

died suddenly, when the phone rings, and it's
Ruth we care so much about in intensive care:

it was once weddings that came so thick and
fast, and then, first babies, such a hullabaloo:

now, it's this that and the other and somebody
else gone or on the brink: well, we never

thought we would live forever (although we did)
and now it looks like we won't: some of us

are losing a leg to diabetes, some don't know
what they went downstairs for, some know that

a hired watchful person is around, some like
to touch the cane tip into something steady,

so nice: we have already lost so many,
brushed the loss of ourselves ourselves: our

address books for so long a slow scramble now
are palimpsests, scribbles and scratches: our

index cards for Christmases, birthdays,
Halloweens drop clean away into sympathies:

at the same time we are getting used to so
many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip

to the ones left: we are not giving up on the
congestive heart failure or brain tumors, on

the nice old men left in empty houses or on
the widows who decide to travel a lot: we

think the sun may shine someday when we'll
drink wine together and think of what used to

be: until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every

loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love, love that can grow brighter

and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way. . . . 

In other news,  I've ranted on occasion that there should be no more poems about poetry, I thought why I liked "Called into Play" and not the work of other writers. Attitude is the difference, I guess. My basic gripe is against who regard poetry as a vehicle of relentless self-revelation, the sub-Nerudians and faux Rilkeans who seemed to have skipped the other qualities their inspiring source's poetry had and instead are determined to make a cult from the practice; the poet as priest is not an image that appeals to me and even the most supreme of egoist geniuses, Walt Whitman, would likely find the conceit a bit vain. But there's always exceptions to anyone's "rules" about the proper tone and stance a poet needs to maintain when bringting their stanzas into the world, and Ammons is an exception indeed, a brilliant one , and he's exception who doesn't sound like he intends his poems to please anyone's gilded sense of the proper. He will talk about what he wants to, what he needs to, in whatever manner he deems fit.  Good for him. 

 Called into Play 

A.R. Ammons 

Fall fell: so that's it for the leaf poetry: 
some flurries have whitened the edges of roads 

and lawns: time for that, the snow stuff: & 
turkeys and old St. Nick: where am I going to 

find something to write about I haven't already 
written away: I will have to stop short, look 

down, look up, look close, think, think, think: 
but in what range should I think: should I 

figure colors and outlines, given forms, say 
mailboxes, or should I try to plumb what is 

behind what and what behind that, deep down 
where the surface has lost its semblance: or 

should I think personally, such as, this week 
seems to have been crafted in hell: what: is 

something going on: something besides this 
diddledeediddle everyday matter-of-fact: I 

could draw up an ancient memory which would 
wipe this whole presence away: or I could fill 

out my dreams with high syntheses turned into 
concrete visionary forms: Lucre could lust 

for Luster: bad angels could roar out of perdition 
and kill the AIDS vaccine not quite 

perfected yet: the gods could get down on 
each other; the big gods could fly in from 

nebulae unknown: but I'm only me: I have 4 
interests--money, poetry, sex, death: I guess 

I can jostle those. . . .
 I don't include the Language Poets, as someone had asked me, even though poetic language is at the forefront of their work; the effort there, I think, is an honest and exciting investigation into new ways of thinking about how language can be written to more creatively engage the complexity of experience. Ammons, of course, is much less formal, and has an the appeal of some who'd just gotten out of bed and is trying to get the sleep from his eyes. What he sees is the same old things, only completely different, to paraphrase comedian Steve Wright. I like the way Ammons demystifies the subject by simply talking about search for something to write about. What he mentions here, things like lawns, mail, current events, are brought up as things he might impress into being the details and subject of a poem he wants to write. He might have been talking about a mad search for missing car keys; there's humanity in this momentary frustration.There's the suggestion that Ammons is tired of his old turns of phrase and wants to forge new ones:
...should I try to plumb what is 

behind what and what behind that, deep down 
where the surface has lost its semblance: or 

should I think personally, such as, this week 
seems to have been crafted in hell: what: is 

something going on: something besides this 
diddledeediddle everyday matter-of-fact: I 

could draw up an ancient memory which would 
wipe this whole presence away...

Ammons admits his limits as a seer or oracle and speaks of language as something he works with through the craft of poetry, a practice he works at diligently in an effort to find an expression that transcends mere competence and achieves an artfulness. The poem is funny and moving in it's way, as Ammons' work is constantly aware of death, which makes philosophical certainty a cluster of moot points. This all puts A.R.Ammons' musings on poetry in sharp contrast to a host of others who'll essay forth in verse about poets being the intermediaries of Truths and Principles only a select few are able to deign and decipher for the less gifted. Without repeating my previous misgivings, I'll say that this his Hogwash and Elitism, and these are the sorts of people I imagine Ammons himself asking to go away.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Camille Paglia, wind-up firebrand

Camille Paglia has been taking some heat lately for writing the dullest column the internet has ever witnessed; some have called for a boycott.I will maintain that her book “Sexual Personae” is a first-rate piece of critical thinking, but then again it's an academic work, where one's wildest declarations have to be defended with a close study of the materials. Being columnists requires a lighter scrutiny on the subject, since it's opinion, not thesis writing, but Paglia's chief sin is that she's very predictable in her remarks. All columnists are predictable, you may argue, once you get accustomed to their prejudices and their riffs, but Paglia's failings have little to do with her positions than her tone-deaf prose. George Will's conservatism is an enervated husk, but he's worth my while to read if only for the elegance of his prose.

 Maureen Dowd,though her turns and nuances are familiar to millions, remains a master of varying her targets and polishing the quotable, the snappy line. William Buckley, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, gadflies all, knew how to make the repetition of their essays tolerable with a shrewd instinct for entertainment value; it's just the thing to get a reader who thinks you're a louse to read every word you've typed out. There is an art to column writing, even political column writing,but Paglia hasn't the ear nor the verbal grace to keep us intrigued by her topics. That is, her topics are fine, but her opinions are derailed by an ungainly presentation of self. It was suggested to me that I write as I spoke , as a way of getting out the ideas on paper, and then work to remove glitches, awkwardness, tired similes. It was bad advice in my time, and I had to strive to write better than I was capable of speaking.(This isn't to imply that I've shown the discipline to revise as much as I should. Yes, I need to heed my advice). Paglia, however, writes precisely as she talks, a self-declaring, stammering, redundant bag of rocks tossed right into your face--the sort of talk you hear around the dinner table of large, talkative families. 

But would work in real life annoys on the page; even a first year writing major would have advised her to ease up on the persona pronouns. The same student would also have suggested that she'd consider honing a sleeker, more flowing prose style. The reader ought not feel as though they're walking through dark room with a floor full of toys to trip over. She is a blowhard, and seemingly cannot give an intelligent reply without talking about herself in the main, evinced especially in her habit of telling you, redundantly, when she first wrote about a subject and how time has proven her right yet again. Under it all is chattering nervousness that just gets on my nerves. I imagine she is a good teacher who can keep  her student's interests, and, if she ever gets back to publishing serious books again, a first-rate intellectual. To describe what she's been doing meanwhile as “coasting” would be dressing up the truth; Paglia is more in line with the class of professional celebrity those of us of a certain age remember, the former columnist, actor, book publisher, actor who took to being permanent celebrity panelists on TV game shows, offering America bite-sized versions of their former selves. But as a columnist she is a washout. Bite sized Paglia is not appealing in any respect; it would a fine thing if she had a song to play with that horn she keeps squalling on. Joan Walsh and company should have realized this some years ago and realized her name brand is aged badly.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A poem that says "give me some"

Sometimes it pays to revisit an old friend, such as this splendid poem by Paul Guest, posted in Slate in 2005."Nice" is the word that comes to mind when I read "Water"; a man and woman of undetermined age or relation-husband and wife, lovers, strangers just met in the parking lot or local library?-- visit an aquarium whose inhabitants of snout nosed fish and spine coated sturgeons moves them to do the deed in an elevator, surrounded by water, tons of it, contained in tanks in which the fish of the world swim. It's very nice in the sense in that it operates cinematically, a seamless move from what the narrator was saying, presumably afterwards, away from the fish tanks, in a quiet minute between love makings, to the dissolution of all pretense of casual speech and the acting upon sheer lust.

There is so much poetry happening in the aftermath of seemingly meaningless couplings; the brain, especially the brain of a professional poet, is an meaning creating machine where the smallest items in the universe come to serve, after the fact, in the creation of a legend of good intentions and deeply felt loss over what goes unsaid at the time when the fleeting opportunity was there, waiting to be filled with meaningful talk.

Evidently the meaningful talk comes when the poet is alone, speaking to the mirror. I half expected to have the camera pull back just a little more and reveal the poet not only alone, speaking to a mirror, but also that the mirror and the room that contains it are situated inside a movie set, braced up with particle board and duct tape.What I like is that the poem doesn't explain its situation, and yet isn't busy being trying to be mysterious, cryptic , impenetrable. Penetration, if I may, is precisely what the poem is about, but fluidly so, in language of water, memory, things that seem to slow down jack hammering lust and brings one into momentary awareness of each sensation and twitch of limb and slide of presenting and receiving appendage. The world is all motion, smooth, fluid as water, every moment intense, nuanced, suspended in the mind yet over too soon. Our friend Paul has written the perfect erotic poem and furnished a perfect backdrop for the ideas he had been working over at the time he took up his keyboard to compose. A poem of intense tactile moments, reflecting on the incredible nature of surfaces, the spines of a fish, the skin of a lover, the regions unseen yet which beckon us as limbs, zippers and defenses against the world are surrendered and one is without arms in front of another person, taking the path of least resistance. We need to remember that this a poem, not a police report:

I forgot
my place in the story I idly told you,
as we rose in the elevator,
as your hands found in my neck a knot
your fingers could untie
with ease. Love, you know
that language failed me
early with you: in my mouth you found
a hidden stammer. In all
the days since, what have I said
that was right? So little.
But know: when we stood on one side
of thick glass to watch
a world of water ignore our entire lives,
I kissed your fingers
and each one in that light was blue.

This reads to me very much like the beginnings of a seduction, with the woman taking the initiative with her bookish, nervous companion. There is much to assume here because much is suggested--not said outright, but teasingly suggested-- and it's not inappropriate to infer what might continue, off the page, out of view, based on what evidence Paul gives out. I wrote earlier that this poem reads as if it were a daydream, wherein the material reality and the objects in immediate proximity serve as counterpoint to the narrator's
arousal, more metaphor for a sort of slow, fluid action he is thinking of acting upon as soon as he is able to conclude his spoken foreplay. Absolutely nothing might have happened, of course, but the purpose of this poem is more about how the senses run over reason and will virtually change the texture of real life.

The poem has that "fade to black" feel to it. The lens goes dark, and we can only assume that the best of what's possible between men and women is taking place away from public view. But the poem has a lyric, appealing unreality to it, a surreal sensation wherein the act of recall is more intense, more spectacular than the actual event from which we compose a history. Paul, I think, may be inclined to have us in between all the sensations, all the associations of tactile arousal.The narrator's perception is skewered by his attraction to his companion, and everything around him--fish tanks, lights, odors, surfaces--are aligned in his psyche to underscore his emerging desire. I spoke in a previous post as well as the things of this world seeming more props on a set in the effort to bolster the pitched desires being described. Since it remains ambiguous what actually happens between the two after "I kissed your fingers/and each one in that light was blue " the "fade to black" remark is a perfectly reasonable thing to say.I like this poem because, among other things, I've written dozens like this because I'm an incurable romantic who finds it easy to write an enthused lyric about the mysteries of women.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Poetry is for grumblers

It's hard to write good poems, period. I have to admit that I've generally little or no use for most rhymed and metered poems, basically because there are so very few poets who are able to compose as such without seeming like they sacrificed emotion for a metronome and a rhyming dictionary. It is not something that pleases my ear under normal circumstances. Free verse, in turn, is in large part willful obscurity and arbitrary line breaks where the point is to disguise one’s lack of anything interesting to say.

The drone replaces the metronome, and a Cuisinart of unconsidered images and arty inferences take the place of an interesting arrangement of materials that, though quite different, find an atmospheric and tonal coherence in the hands of the genius, that rarest thing among us all. The dirty little secret is that most poems written by most poets are mediocre, substandard, self satisfied little noise machines composed by scribes who are, to some degree, either delusional or self-aggrandizing.

I have to include my own poems among the verses that were written by someone seduced by his vanity , the ones I wrote and still write that attempt a short cut to genius by a sheer force of personality."Force of personality", though, is being grandiose in retrospect. It's more accurate that at the time, in the late seventies and through the mid-eighties, when I sobered up and saw much of my effort for what they were, slack, cryptic and untested by a discerning ear, I had the confidence of a kid who thought poetry was the place to hang all my entitlement fantasies on. I was lucky, in the main, that there were some superb readers of my stuff who weren't hesitent to make particular note of the crap I wrote and to highlight what it was I actually good at. I even listened to some of the advice, to measurable effect.

There seems to be few places where a good poem, confident of it's parts, neither chintzy nor baroque beyond human use. I've just put down a volume by new formalist poets, those who insist on rhyme and meter, and found most of the stuff stiff, and then I opened up a volume of Jori Graham and got p.o.'d all over again, abstruse, ungirdled swill. So yes, it's hard to do well, but half the point is in the search.

It's a gross over generalization, to tell the truth, and unfair to all the serious, well intentioned poets who attempt to come up with something that simultaneously references tradition and adds something original, daring, as yet unspoken into the mix. The quality of the line breaks interests me the least ; form, I think, follows function, to borrow Louis Sullivan's dictum for his architecture. If the writing is good to begin with, inspired by an idea that sets the mind blazing with a head of bold, fulsome language and that language is tailored, adjusted, made new and perverted in ways one hadn't thought imaginable, then the line breaks take care of themselves, almost on some macro-instinctual level. For me line breaks, in free verse, are the equivalent of a musician's note selection during an improvisation--the phrases, the pauses, the gradual introduction of the dramatic arising from the simply and sweetly stated-- and a writer with that sense of where and how sentences and their words can best display underlying melodies , meanings and less obvious inferences can arrange his or her words with a surety of place a solid idea can give them. Line breaks are the least problematic part of a poet's task.

I distinguish between difficult poetry and the obscure--Eliot, Ashbery, Stevens, Clayton Eshelman, Robert Kelly, Ron Silliman are difficult, for example, with the implication being that there are some things the writer has been thinking about and considering for awhile, Poetry is the vehicle, aside from criticism, that the sort of problematized perceptions they want to get across and interrogate . Obscure poets, I think, are correctly called "vague", the implication here being that there seems to be an awful lot of effort spent buttressing banal brainstorms with a morass of references and closed-off syntax that seems not just evidence of incompetent writing, but purposeful. Ann Carson, Jori Graham and a good number of others seem more careerist than inspired, and their work seems more inclined to keep their allure as deep thinking poets in tact rather than spark something magic in someone else's imagination.

The Shag and the Mullet

I had a shag haircut for a year or so during the early seventies. I borrowed twenty bucks from my Dad, who thought I was going to get a flat top and thus appear neat-as-a-doctor's office coffee table, and paid a guitarist who called himself Ramada to take the scissors to what was then an impressive, shoulder length cascade of curls. Ramada was also a badass guitarist for a local band called Madame Beast, who specialized in British rock--Small Faces, Spooky Tooth--and over all , I thought he looked cool, bitchen, the shit. I couldn't play guitar, but damn, I wanted his hair cut. A half hour later, I emerged from the bath room, tight ringlets of clipped curls on the floor waiting to be swept up, a skinny, glasses-wearing kid in jeans and a layered hair cut that made me look, well, ridiculous. And chubby-cheeked. And incredibly self conscious. I would try the trick of trying to catch my profile as I passed store windows, I'd linger in Sears clothing sections checking myself out from many sides in the three-mirrored fitting rooms, I would spend time in the bathroom trying to get my hair to seem to fall just so, like Keith Richard or Ron Wood. My Dad was pleased with neither the haircut nor the time I spent in the bathroom doing, apparently...nothing. No, the haircut didn't make me a hit with the ladies. But I did get stared at alot.

The Sixties died when rednecks starting wearing their hair long, and you knew that the bloom was forever off the rose for British rock and roll when the shag haircut morphed into the mullet, a style intended for the ambivalent white twenty somethings stranded between a gas station and a pancake shop just off the interstate who couldn't decide which was a better ideal to live up to, military respect or rebel-yell hoo-hah. As with a conflation of two bad choices, we have results that are worse than if one chose to do nothing at all. The mullet does not look good on anyone, at any time, in any era. Like much of American life itself, where the fabled opportunities and boundless avenues of choice have shrunk to the most scant options, the mullet is a haircut that isn't selected to someone so much as assigned, like a military issue. It's symbolic of one's willingness to dedicate themselves, in order, to family , flag, and God and yet retain the revolutionary spirit of our country's founding, a nice trick if you can manage it, but too often what we see are listless and angry young men working against their own interests, ready to bash gays, blacks, beat wives, girl friends, any one they suspect of being a terrorist merely because they don't resemble them in skin tone , speech, or accent. And perhaps also because they aren't wearing a mullet.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

This poem has no handles

We find ourselves reading one poem about poetry after another in nearly all the slim collections we are sent our buy , and I have a growing dread that this is something no amount of harranguing will make go away.It's a category more bards show a personal powerlessness
to leave alone. And poetry editors. Soon enough we'll have a literature that is not from someone engaged with life in that search for the surprise, the miracle, the hard truth that resides outside themselves, but rather only on how well they are playing the poet/priest role they've taken for themselves. Would this have something to do with the trend toward young writers who've hardly entered their thirties composing memoirs of lives that aren't nearly as interesting as people you pass going to work?

Perhaps, perhaps; Americans might have gotten over their taste for Confessional Poetry just a bit, but rather than seeing the rise of a New Disinterest concerning topics and content, writers are confessing, revealing and genuflecting at the altar of their meager achievements more than ever. Hey, it beats working, and writing a poem where the language seldom lands on anything other than the writer's temperature is easier than sussing through the problematic strands that make life such an inconclusive thing from dusk to dawn, cradle to grave. Some of it has to do with a poet wanting to have the last word with dead poets who's work motivated him or her to do the hard work to participate in a financially strapped art; if someone can't get rich writing poems, they can at least emerge from the shadow of the giants who've come before them and flip them the bird. More often than not, however, it's puffery, self-congratulations, sophistry.

It's not the playful wallow that characterized the avant gard indeterminations of seventies post structural poetics--that at least skirted the edge of dada gesture and surrealist logic. This new habit is
mere vanity. The long rolling is incredible.

And once again the self-reflective
twitch proves to be an ideal way to fill a page, a monitor, a notebook with a series of eccentric line breaks. In this instance, Campbell McGrath's"Lincoln Road" offers a twist and merely uses the meta poetry index as a means to
jump start a verse:

Browsing, before dinner, at Books & Books,
checking out the new poems
in the new journals, the vast glass panes thrust against
by shoppers and gawkers on Lincoln Road
emit a particular cautionary hum
as they insist upon delimiting inside from out,
tongued and grimed by the fingerless
gloves of the homeless,...

Irritation is the mood here, a man of ideas focused on the latest missives from the competition, seeking either pleasure or taking notes on what
the hot first lines are, when the bustle and commotion of the rude public interrupts him. Damn, I hear him think, now I have to slip into my flaneur costume and observe the cursed details of things in the city and the population who negotiate the hard corners of sales counters and
intersections! Damn it all! There isn't, of course, any further mentioning nor obvious dwelling on the entwined poetry or being a poet, but the tone and pace of the poem, the leaden use of "literary" words to describe banal circumstances, bespeaks a boredom. This doesn't have the virtue of the boredom become genuine ennui, a variant of despair, a quality that at least might inspire sharper language that bypasses the rote literacy of McGrath's ode to his
prowess as an observer.

...the splash
of modest fountains
in common space, a baby
in green hip-harness
staring back at me goggle-eyed, recording it all
like the tourists with digital camcorders
pre-editing their memories
and the ringing of cellphones broadcasting
a panegyric of need
with whichever hooks and trembles
we have chosen in the darkness to answer.

The problem is tone, of course, and none of this convinces me that what was described was actually seen . Suspension of disbelief comes into play here, since this particular list attempts to get across what was observed in a hurry, while browsing, on the fly, it needs to suggest something fast, mercurial.

You'd think, really, that this sort of matter should catch the rhythm of things that are fleeting, and are fluid. The people, places and things should be made to seem that they have lives or conditions of existence apart from the frame Campbell places around them,

The effect in the poem, though, is static, like butterflies ethered and pinned some eccentric's collection.

There is a surface beauty to the poem, but all these people, those who've interrupted our narrator's browsing, are stick figures all. Campbell's descriptions are worked over, padded with overly precise detail that sounds mechanical, unnatural. Attitude as well ruins the mood, with the asides about tourists with their cell phones and cameras seeking an unnatural process of memory preservation belonging more in a reckless, full tilt rant rather than a poem that at best would claim to be a skillfully rendered sketch. It satisfies as nothing at all, and the material is so dry that these lines could be used as kindling.

Tell You What--a story

Not a true story, but pieced together from bits and pieces heard over the years. Some who have overcome a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body don't acquire the humility or hard won wisdom dreamier narratives would lead us to believe. -tb

“I'm gonna say this one more time" Karl was saying, "I mean how many times you want me to say this? Or do wanna see me turn myself turn inside out?"
It was the stupidest thing he'd said so far on a hot night of post-meeting bluster, but the point was to keep his prospects' attention on him, unnerved, eyes big and sleepless. He dropped the match book to the diner table and fingered the unlit cigarette he wedged between two clubby knuckles. It was creased and mashed in the center. Loose tobacco spilled from the tip. He scratched the back of his neck with a fingernail he hadn't chewed, and studied the twirling fan over them, rotating like helicopter blades. Shadows chased each other across the drop ceiling. The prospect stared back, motionless, massaging his knuckles, watching Karl who glared in turn at fan blades whose rotation only stirred the muggy air into listless currents. His mouth hung open as he considered the useless air-conditioning. He looked dumber than a pile of ashes.

"What are you looking at?" he barked, feeling the burn of his table partners' stare, "drink your coffee." Across from him a man who absently fingered a spoon. He tapped it against the cup so that it made a dead, thudding noise, not a clear pinging, but a thump, Karl thought, like a sock full of other socks being slammed against the side of one of the houses he used to break into when he need drinking money. He threw the cigarette at his prospect. The prospect turned his head to t he side, and the twisted smoke bounced off the padded booth cushion.
'9Knock that shit off' Karl said, He wiped a sleeve under his under his vein-gorged nose. He pulled another cigarette from his pack. The other man lifted his chin as though to speak.

"Now, I..." he managed to say.

Jack cut him off; the flat of his hand shot up and he waved like he was wiping a car window with a grimy rag.

"Don't say anything". Karl was almost pleading. He stroked the length of the Camel studied the pack, wished he were sucking in a
lung flail smoke, he wanted to choke on the fumes of something burning.
Recent California elections contained a state wide proposition that would ban smoking in all public facilities, including bars and restaurants, and unconstitutional travesty authored he felt by fascists and Commie punks This riled Karl considerably, if only because he once swore that elections were a fake as a climax in a porn video whose results would never come to bear on his life style The proposition passed handily, evidence that non-smokers considered themselves an ignored political force who needed to stick it to a group that most of the electorate was out of sympathy with, that, with the death of Communism as universal bogeymen and the rise of causes based on a collectively perceived sense of being slighted and stomped down , smokers had to bend over and take what was columnists and Sunday talk show gadflies assured us, a decision that would be good for the soul, good for the lungs, something that would clear the air and have us be civil to one another in a smoke less public sphere. Karl wanted to smoke, and his sense of duty to his querying prospect, this man who wanted to know how to stay sober, was waning, frayed by rules, chipped at by police, eroded by the current that ran from his brain to his lungs that demanded the aroma of the sulfur, the sting of the first smoke hitting lungs and caroming over the tongue, the glory of the choke the bum, the proud suppression of a cough. He should have voted.

His career as a political forecaster was over, and all he was left to do in diners and meetings halls was fidget reshape one cigarette after another, and think variations on a theme even he was tired of thinking, revs given up everything else, even sex isn’t coming in like it used to, Mi that A left A coffee and smokes, and flow; he though4 these Goddamn those goons wanna get there again, a man gives something up that almost kills him and sons of bitches say I can't smoke with my coffee.

The cigarette he'd been tapping through his reverie was between his clubby knuckles again stroked, stained, creased with worry. He tried staring into the eyes of the man sitting across from him and to start his sermon on getting sober, but the lights distracted him, his mind was

five miles away where he wanted to be, sitting at another table with friends who could make their. own beds. Something glistened in the prospects' eyes, tears held back. Karl wanted to comb his hair, to make this duck tail ride high and mighty in the back like fins of a car he owned years ago in Modes t6, a city full of dust and drinking.

His prospect was named Doug, fifths from appearance, with hair tat was a swirl of brown and white strands woven inseparably together The tines of his face deepened into middle aged ravines that sagged, a gathered sadness. He dressed in a way tat didn't advertise position or hidden money, just cast -off rags, a work shirt, jeans, tennis shoes. He might have been homeless, ambling from a church service center, or a Mercedes dealer doing his own yard work, puttering around the hillside of a Del Mar estate whose ocean view only God and bank accounts could give you. He had a sleepless shiver, nerves that would rattle a train from its rail.
"Well" Doug said, clearing his throat to forestall a stammer he knew would rattle his words, "Well, I mean, could you tell me again, I mean, what you mean, that is, there's something I missed at the meeting and I thought you could tell me the actual method, the way you stay stopped..."
A woman's voice broke in.

"How you guy's doing over here?"

Their waitress Tina , as it read on a her name tag embossed in flaking gold leaf; hovered over them with both arms flail of plates and a fist full of meal tickets tucked in an over sized pocket in her apron. She gave off the feeling that everything about her was precarious and that she might drop everything she held, finally standing in a pile of shattered restaurant china and half eaten chicken fried steak. But Tina seemed like a seasoned server who negotiated the chaos of coffee pots, antsy kids tossing ketchup soaked French fries over the bunkered dining booths, and special requests for Nutra-Sweet instead of sugar, decaf, not coffee with a gliding, frictionless grace. Arms of dirty plates or no, she would stop and ask if there as anything one of her tables desired. Doug desired to go home, stopping at the liquor store for something that would turn off the noise. Karl ran a finger around his coffee cup and hoped Doug had money.

"You need anything else-- more water, or coffee, or maybe some desert?'
Her voice had bleached traces of an Arkansas drawl that had rubbed against the toneless inflections of California malls. The uniform was a cool pink, and looked like it had come right off the laundry truck; the pleats were crisp and curt.
Karl straightened up instinctively, his knee bumping the underside of the table, knocking over a water glass. Water and lumps of melting ice spilled right down the middle of the table, and rushed toward Doug, and splattering in his lap. Doug's face turned sour, the lines in his face becoming became a map of a growing bad mood.

"Goddamn it" he said, "goddamn mother- of -god" Flustered, tried to stand from where he sat, and banged the table even upsetting the coffee he hadn't touched He fell back into his seat coffee, not yet cool. He dropped the spoon.

Greasy punks tell me jackshit I have a motherfucking cigarette with my goddamned piece o fshit coffee; thought Jack Stuben. He shoved the cigarette, newly squeezed and indented in the middle, behind his ear.

The waitress set the plates on the table next to them, where a young man and woman swam dreamily in the inexpressible vastness of the others' eyes. They traded, shared and exchanged gut reactions and insights and feelings about an edgy experimental avant-garde independent firm they’d just seen. They stopped talking and looked up the waitress at once, seemingly rehearsed for this precise cue. Both mouths opened wide as doors, wordless in minor catastrophes. They were in their twenties, and wore wire frame glasses, and were looking forward to sitting together after a movie and talking to one another like the adults they wanted to think they were.

"God fucking damn it" Doug mumbled. His arms blurred trying to cool the burn in his crotch by waving a menu over the seared inseam, looking like he were trying to keep somebody under the table who'd tired of their heaven of pressed wood and gum wads.
"Could you get us some towels, Tina?" asked Karl.

"Tell you what" she said, " my name isn't really Tina it's Cheryl, but I forgot my name tag at home, so I put on this one in back by the time clock, because you have to wear something tat has a name and the restaurant name on it--1'
Cheryl already bad towels in her hand, had piled dishes and removed cups, professional and almost without noise, and spread the towels over the spills and padded the towels and turned them over knowingly, a professional press of the hands
"--so I just decided to where this one, even though there's no one here named Tina, I thought it would be all right for one day, because you know, a waitress without a name tag is probably holding the place up, you know, how are you doing, mister, do you need first aid, are you hurt..."

Doug held up his bands and smiled widely to reveal two rows of teeth, white as an over-painted fence. He shook his head, his attempts at laughter resulting in a snorts and grunts.

'No thanks', he said, half sobbing, gulping hard.
"Could we have our check?" asked the man from the booth next

to them. Cheryl looked around and glanced at the table, the dishes she set there, the ice cream deserts they had ordered. He was dejected, severely bummed out, out of sync with the night as he planned it to happen. All that film analysis they would not get to, it was too early to walk her to her car, oh stir; he thought. The woman was digging through her purse. The chat about the cross- cutting between the grin fire and the hero's dad undergoing heart surgery was so close to epiphany and then Pd touch her hand, and then I woulda asked for the check oh damn it. He sighed, a slow hiss gushing between his teeth, which were as perfect as dullness itself.
"Coming' right up" Cheryl said, "just let me clear that stuff for

"It's alright" the young man said, "just the check, please..."

"Sorry about that, Doug" Karl said," man oh, man, I sorta start talking some stuff here,” I get a little clumsy... glad you're not hurt... ".Now, you were asking me about how one stops drinking, and I was gonna just add that it’s not a matter of stopping, it’s a matter of staying stop, and we in the program say that if you do what’s asked of you, if you work the steps, if you go to meetings, then you can find a way to live a life that's happy joyous and free..."

Doug squirmed in his seat. He glowered at Karl as he shred the paper napkin he used to pat his scorched crotch. Shredded layers of the napkin lay on the table in front of him. His jaw was clenched, and his eyes glistened even more than they had before, but k was not sadness this time.

"First you treat me like I'm a moron, "he began," I mean, I come to tile meeting because I cannot stop drinking and my life is full of shit and tragedy and everything I ever work for is about to go away because I am a drunk, and I listen, and I hear nothing but complaints and whining about nothing at all and I ask you afterwards to talk to me and you tell me to take the cotton out of my ears and in into my mouth because I don't know anything, and you tell me to come to coffee here with you, and you’re going to elaborate on how you stay sober, and I get spilled on and burned and then listen to you jabber on like nothing happened about nothing I can use..."

Doug took the cigarette from his behind his ear Goddamn motherfucker, he thought.
"You sound mad, Doug. Real mad, I think you ought to turn this resentment over to God."

Fuck it, thought Karl, I'm going to fire up right here and blow a flicking goddamn smoke ring where all the assholes can see. Kiss my ass, motherfuckers.
"Anger is not a luxury an alcoholic can afford" he said.

"Ma'am, can we have our check?" the man next to them pleaded with Cheryl, who raced past them. The diner had gotten busy. It was near midnight, and people wanted coffee and a meal before a drive home, to the end of the day.

"Right there, sir" Cheryl said. She had a hand full of menus and was taking people to tables that hadn't even been cleared off yet.

"Our busboy and dishwasher decided to get drunk? On Friday night? Christ."
The night manager rubbed the top of his sweaty bald head and went back to ringing up customers at the register after another waitress told him why there was an unexpected backlog.

'No clean tables, no silverware, no pots and pans, no monkey dishes, nothing... "he rang up a customer, made change for a twenty and thanked the man and the women who'd had their film discourse intervened upon.

"Fuck you" said Doug, "l mean, seriously, fuck you. You are a high and mighty little punk I wouldn't hire you to sweep my sidewalk."

"Well, look you, all high and mighty all of a sudden. You forget you approached me about this. I 'vex been sober ten years...

"I made a mistake, and lam gone away from you..."

Doug stood up and tossed a five dollar bill on the table.

"You are gonna get drunk.” Jack Stuben thought, Christ on a crutch this guy is mad.
"Maybe" said Doug, "maybe..." he turned and walked to the exit, into a thick clutch of customers lined to up to pay their checks, while others huddled, waiting for tables to be cleared.

In front of the restaurant, the young man was holding his date's hand, pausing for a second before he walked to her car in the parking lot where, he hoped, there would be a pause in the light talk, a drift in the lilt of her voice as it trailed off looking for another image to describe a fun evening, where he would lean over and kiss her, touch her lips, put a hand on her shoulder and then lightly, gently, trace the tines of her back, and then walk away, a promise of phone calls on his lips, a skip to his own car, his favorite CD in the player, fresh senses to inspire his bed time. He was about to say something, after staring into her eyes when
"Fucking goddamn asshole, drunken hypocrite jerk, FUCK!!"

The restaurant door blew open with a bang, and Doug stormed out, yelling under his breath, passing the forlorn lovers, arms flying fists balled together, walking up the street to where there was a stretch of bars and liquor stores whose signs lit the night with a smeared amnesia that was as dark as the night could ever be if there were no city to get lost in.

"GODDAMNIT!!" They heard him yell. They stared at him until he turned a comer at the light, and there was nothing but gaudy signs that seared the evening sky like it were black paper. Car horns insults, car horns. Doug was gone, around the comer, and through a door into the bean of something where the sun could not reach.
The couple was still on the comer as Doug vanished around the corner, and looked at each other as the street sounds overwhelmed their awkwardness. They were aware of themselves standing outside the Denny's with all their small talk and smart chatter unheard, only themselves and their breathing.

"Maybe I should walk you to your car" he said.
"Maybe you should" she said, and took his arm.

tamable you should come to my apartment1 she said, puffing him closer after she hooked arm through his, ' I think you should..."
They stopped."I want you to" she said. He smiled at her, and was going to lean over and kiss her before going to her car , anticipating the night and the way it night yet undue itself, when there was a speech, god, he thought, another screaming bum of tires, more screaming, tires hitting the asphalt, car horns and curse words tearing the night apart, rage under hoods delivering what is the fact for intersections and neighborhoods where the century stopped two decades ago, he caught the screech and the words before he could plant the kiss and the suggestion of how, maybe, perhaps, please god, that the rest of the night would go, he held her close, he heard the squeal of the wheels, the words


A Chevy, a car frill of guys, a beer can flying from the back seat,
a siren, a chase maybe, more lights and car horns and signs for booze and strip
tease, she pulls back from her date.
"Can we just go?"

The night manager had his sleeves rolled up and a plastic apron on, pushing another tray of dishes and silverware into the washing machine. His glasses were steamed up. The dishwasher and the busboy were out by the trash bin, and he could hear them swearing in words he'd never heard in Spanish before. Next the pots, then the pans, and then the rush from midnight until three, when the bars start to empty and there is never enough monkey dishes or water glasses and all the forks from the last load through the machine are caked with egg yoke. He pulled a hose coming from the top of the dish washing machine, and aimed it at dish rack he just filled with plates to be run through. He pulled down on the handle, and jets hot water shot forth, pelting the caked food from the plates, filled the station full of steam. The night manager let the hose shoot water For some reason the steam, the billowing vapors that
surrounded him, felt pleasant as it soaked into his clothes and warmed his skin. He couldn't explain why even to himself It just felt good.

Karl put the five dollar bill in his shirt pocket after folding into an origami of his own invention. Fuck it, he thought. Sober ten years for what. Ungrateful newcomer. Christ He stood and walked to the cashier stand by the front door, walked sideways between opposing camps waiting to pay and waiting to be seated. His check was still on the table.

"That dirty dog" said Cheryl, coming to clear the table and finding the unpaid check. Not even a dollar tip, cheap asshole. A man's voice intruded. "Excuse me) Tina, but could we get some water here?"

She turned and saw another couple seated at the adjacent booth, a man and a woman, in their forties. Cheryl smiled. Nice hungry people who have to be set right in their manner of ordering meals at one of her stations.

She tapped her name tag. "Tell you what'1 she said, "my name isn't really Tina, but I forgot my own name tag when I came to work today---"