Friday, October 16, 2009

Dickie Peterson, RIP

Dickie Peterson, bassist and lead singer for the proto- heavy metal band BLUE CHEER, has ascended to the giant E CHORD in the sky. His bandsaw -on-steel vocals, joined with guitarist Leigh Stephens' PULVERIZING ATONAL GUITAR SOLOS and drummer Paul Whaley's trash can demolition, Peterson and crew lay the ground work for a generation of metal and punk bands to come: MC5, STOOGES, MOUNTAIN, LED ZEP, RAMONES, MOTÖRHEAD, DEAD BOYS. Even the Velvet Underground, with their feedback skronk , couldn't match Blue Cheer's steel-belted forays into electricfied abandon; the Velvets merely taunted the strings of their guitar, Blue Cheer sounded like they punched holes in oil tankers. And Peterson's vocalizations where the perfect match, screech, rasp and banshee wail all rolled into one bag of verbal outrage, maintaining a punk's slouch . He was the white blues- belter who deserved the praise. Sorry Janis. object width="425" height="344"> It's appropriate to remember that their early manager, a fellow named Abe "Voco" Kesh , bragged that Blue Cheer played so loud that they killed a dog at an outdoor concert. It is true that they played so loud that they recorded parts of their second album on piers in San Francisco, amps and speakers faced toward the bay because they kept blowing out the studio soundboard.

Edward Field laughs it off

Poets cry the blues as often as anyone does, the difference being, I suppose, that a poet attempts to turn their sorrows into a world view, a tale of a fall from grace. You can sense that not just art is being attempted, inspired by sadness and regret, but an entire philosophy. And, if not a philosophy, then the formation f a cosmology that puts an uglifying cosmetic on the face of a poet's existence. Their tales are, individually and collectively, is the retelling of being expelled from Eden; tragic, catastrophic, crushing the quaking events are, they are accounts of the precise moments when Things Started to Go Wrong. It gets to be a crushing matter with some writers who cannot seem to move on, who seem either stuck or milking the muse, as it were. There is a need to lighten up, and stop taking one’s less joyful moments too seriously. I would look to Edward Field for a cure, in his poem “Unwanted”.What I like about the poem is the lack of a consuming pretentiousness and its address of the bad-self image in a direct, offhand way. This has an irony that doesn't overwhelm the tone nor capsizes the demeanor. Some other poets we could have named would have turned this thing into a dissertation or a distended confession of uninteresting sins. Field's style here is not to defend him, to offer a defense of himself, or construct a tortured example of Metaphor Creep in an attempt to make the abuse and attending defeatism a valorous state to be in. Field, in my view, knowingly avoids the confessional poet’s sin of inverted hubris and refuses to wear his psychic scars like medals from a bad war. His manner here is fast, direct, unexpected. His view is reflexive, not reflective, and has learned his lesson well from Cyrano that one can best regain their autonomy, their sense of empowerment, by being able to insult himself than those who would oppress him manage, or fathom. This man has an interesting way of talking about his inability to attract attention or friends, from the first line onward--
This is an enticing introduction to the narrator, an elaborate but succinctly presented deconstruction of the cliché of someone being so unpopular they couldn't get arrested. The whole idea that a man would stand next to his own wanted poster in the wan hope of being recognized by strangers that would be attracted to him for purpose of cash reward introduces a host of complexities of mirroring and the seeking of validation in negative dimensions that one might well get lost in, but Field handles it lightly, with a fast, dismissive verve, a tone of a man who cannot take his sorrow too seriously. A few of us would object to the use of poetry as therapy, something I agree with in principle, but what I like with the Field poem is how he turns his woes--or at least the character's woes--into a plot or a sort. I can't say this poem is attached to an agenda--Field wrote from many moods, in a variety of tonalities--but I would say the spirit is satiric of the kind of person who cannot see beyond what annoys them. I rather like the idea that the poem could well be a form of disguised bragging; the even-keeled don't nearly get enough credit, let alone take any credit for their ability to bounce back.This is wit, with perfect comic timing; too many writers (and comedians) who try to riff on a theme mistake volume for quality, but Field here is intensely aware of the value of the sound, pacing, and sequence of words. He has a fine sense of how to develop his idea, expand it, change it, and then bring it back down long before the tedium barrier is breached. It made me laugh, I liked the writing, and it was a fresh take on an insoluble problem. Field did well. He seems to have announced his anxieties, owned them, and commanded to return to the basement. The poem suggests we do the same and simply get on with living in the world, not in our heads.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hunter Thompson, again

I was looking for something to watch on TV while avoiding chores when I stumbled upon HBO on Demand. I browsed through the available movies, most of which I had either ignored in the theaters because they seemed bloated and bland in the previews, or seen already and had no desire to watch again. The typical cable problem: too many channels and nothing interesting. I decided to check out a few more movies and found one that I had missed, Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with Johnny Depp as the late Hunter Thompson and Benicio Del Toro as his sidekick, the drug-crazed Dr. Gonzo. "Crazed" is the right word for the film; Thompson's book of the same name is a hilarious masterpiece of drug-induced paranoia, where his loud and frantic prose worked brilliantly. One could feel the fear and intensity and laugh at the madness.

Gilliam, however, is a heavy-handed director and tries to recreate the frenzy of Thompson's prose with a restless, jittery, and argumentative visual style, words that also describe Depp's portrayal of Thompson. The film failed in its attempt to revive an old sensation, and so did Thompson's body of work, many years of declining returns on his old reputation. Sometimes I'll pick up a book I had read and enjoyed years ago just to see if the writer's prose still has the same effect on me after my taste and expectations have changed, that is to say refined by experience, whether good, bad or neutral. Some writers still have that knockout punch in their old books--Mailer in An American Dream and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Hemingway with In Our Time , among many others--and some heroes have aged poorly over time, like Lester Bangs, Charles Bukowski. No surprise; in my mid-fifties, I'm drawn to the deeper lyricism in the words that fill a page, the tone that goes beyond the moment of excitement and that continues to resonate as an example of writing that nails its moment perfectly.

A recent re-read of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter Thompson was this kind of book, from its infamous road trip opening to its paranoid adventures at a Las Vegas Narcotics officers convention; for all his death wish and self-centered recklessness--a revolutionary without a plan--Thompson wrote the final word that needed to be written on living on the edge. One wondered, even when young first encountering Thompson and his extreme style, whether he would fall off that edge or if someone would push him. It can't be that surprising that Hunter Thompson ended it the way he did; the only question to ask is why it didn't happen sooner. He was a case of Hemingwayism gone wild on crack cocaine, that one's challenges were one's character, and that the unwritten essence of a personal code was formed by how well one overcame one crisis after another.

It was always about struggle with Thompson, the struggle to meet deadlines before his drugs took effect, the clock ticking before a deadline would come again and he had nothing but a paragraph of drugged nonsense; like Kerouac, who he greatly admired, he came to document less the event he had been assigned than his own chronicles of using his body as a testing ground for new and improved abuses. You might say that he treated his mind as like a car he'd constantly try to rev up, lift up, juice up in hopes of getting the engine and suspension to take a sharp turn faster, meaner, louder, with the thought of eventual breakdown for the moment blocked out by the sheer mania and thrill that such speeds and close calls give you. But his mind fried; he wrote less; he mumbled more in public speeches and talks; he broke bones; his manner was a textbook example of the word "fried". Hells Angels It was as if the synapses that had fired and given **the world** Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had fused **the ends** of his nerve endings and made it impossible to change style, outlook or interest. Other writers of similar aesthetic--Mailer, Wolfe--found new voices, bigger subjects, subtler ways to put forth their arguments with existence. Thompson was stuck in time, trying to sustain himself on sparking fits of rage and guile, coming up with little that was new, as it must be for an artist to keep a pulse worth beating. The real bummer is that he lived all these years knowing that he didn't have another good book in him. This might have been his biggest pain to endure, and it might have been the one he meant to stop once and for all. I agree that Thompson is an easy target, but then again he rarely missed a chance to make himself one. The curse of being a celebrity writer is that one risks becoming a brand name and finding themself facing audience expectation more than their muse. Thompson became Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo Journalist , and became something of a clown making faces for a paying crowd. The pity of it all is that he had great talent when he put it to work, the result being a small but strong core of books from his body of work: Hells Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. But the act got old and the body couldn't keep up the paces anymore, and his writing became erratic, cruel, angry; he became a writer eternally dissatisfied without recourse to wit or irony. There was something sadly drastic about Better than Sex, a strange assemblage full of loud declarations and not much coherence; Thompson in his prime could emerge from his comic paranoia and invective and land on an illuminating point. This was all hollow gesturing. The problem, I suppose, was that Thompson never took the time to change his act, his style, to consider a project that would reshape his notion of what constitutes writing. Mailer dropped the third person persona and wrote The Executioner's Song, a fugue-paced saga made of terse sentences, and went on to a later career that still provoked controversy. Tom Wolfe, in turn, became a novelist, a good thing for him, as they mitigate his later essays, a string of missives from a sourpuss. In both cases, to varying degrees, the changes of stylistic venue kept both writers fresh in their old age. Thompson didn't avail himself of the chance.
I don't dismiss him as a drunk and a drug addict; I simply won't discount those things that ruined his talent. We do need to consider him seriously as a representative author of his time, but this needs to be done with it in mind that his biography is a cautionary tale for those who read him, like him, and decide they want to write crazy paragraphs like he did. One would need to emphasize the distinction between trying to write like Hunter Thompson and trying to be Hunter Thompson.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Conflating the punchlines

New Journalism was a style of cultural journalism that favored using fictional techniques to tell fact-based stories, with writers such as Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Peter Matthisen each becoming the omniscient narrator observing, cataloguing and characterizing each telling detail of the events under review. The approach faded as something one claims as current, but the flashy prose style and application of novel-like strategies remains influential. The method has left a trace that seeps upward through the soil and is absorbed, as an influence, by a generation of journalists nee bloggers, historians and social loud mouths who may well be unaware that loud mouthed application of fictional narrative structure to actual events isn’t something that was always with us.

The New Journalist were post modern in their coverage of events-- whether the writers themselves were modernists in sensibility is irrelevant to work they did. The style defined, in the usual quarters, as the eclectic jumbling of categories and styles, the blurring of distinctions of generic distinctions, and transgressive of boundaries that were formerly considered sacrosanct, immutable, unyielding. Some years ago that sounded revolutionary and seemed a lethal theoretical blow to the constructs of the vaguely described ruling class controlling the conversation and the terms. There are masterpieces in the genre, yes, but a good amount of it reads agitated and shrill, written by writers drunk on adjectives and cheesy effects who tried mightily to goose a number of ordinary stories.

The work evident in Armies of the Night, The White Album, In Cold Blood, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, and other sublime and less-sublime examples of the approach fulfill what's come to be the givens, and even clichés of post-modern writing. It's not unreasonable to think that writers normally considered Modernists would take what's thought to be a post modern strategy in order to achieve perspective that normally form would make more difficult. Carrying about the matters involved in a story hardly disqualifies a work, or a writer, from being a post modernists. The cool, ironic stance that is supposed to problematize the conditions of narrative formation seems more as a pose critics who have a curious aversion for writing that is meant to illicit a galvanizing reader response: it sounds more like a good rap than good reasoning. The conflation of the irrational of fictional dynamics and the reasonable presentation of vetted facts is exactly the kind of writing literature ought to be engaged in, whatever slippery pronoun you desire to append it with. Being neither philosophy, nor science of any stripe, fiction is perfectly suited for writers to mix and match their tones, their attitudes, their angles of attack on a narrative schema in order to pursue as broad, or as narrow, as maximal or minimal a story they think needs to be accomplished. New Journalism seemed, for many, not just history in a hurry but Philosophy on the fly.

The attack on modernism's' assumption that it was the light to the "real" beneath the fabrications that compose our cosmology, is grossly over stated, it seems: Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Stein, arguably literary modernism's Gang-Of-Four, did not, I think, tell us in any specified terms exactly what that true reality was, or what it was supposed to be, but only that the by dicing up, challenging, making it strange and making it new could we challenge ourselves, as artists, and as readers that new perceptions, and new ideas about the nature of the world could be had. Individually , each writer had a different idea of heaven that they wanted the world to become--Pound was ultimately a befuddled, albeit fascist sympathizer, and Eliot became a conservative Royalist (and their anti-Semitism is problematic for anyone looking for real-time heroes)-- but so far as the principle thrust of their work, which was away from the straight jacket of accumulated literary history and toward something new and different that renewed the possibility of art to engage the times in an aesthetically relevant manner, is scarcely diminished in power merely because it came before.

New Journalists never never referred to themselves as "post modernists", and the style, now faded some what, has been absorbed by the culture as an accepted style for very mainstream consumption. The news story-literary-narrative scarcely raises an eyebrow today. But the judgment of history has these writers, nominal modernists perhaps, performing the post modern gesture, interrogating the margins of genre definitions, and making impossible to regard news reporting quite the same again.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Give them hell, Keith Olberman

Keith Olberman, host of the political news and commentary program Countdown with Keith Olberman on MSNBC, dedicated the entire hour of his show last night to a Special Commentary--read "editorial"--on the need and the requirement for major health care reform. It's about death, he proclaimed, his voice firm , with just a tinge of an outraged tremble characterize his impeccable syntax. The issue is about death and how we, as a country, as a culture, represented and served by a government ostensibly by and for The People, do what we can to humanely for-stall death, extend life, and improve the quality of life that we have. Death wins out every time, Olberman admitted, but the inevitability of the Grim Reaper's visit wasn't the issue. It came down, rather, to the battle between those who want to aid the sick, help the infirm, and make it possible for citizens to avoid illness and catastrophic circumstances when they can, and those who would rather the infirm just go away. It was a potent forty minutes or so , a well phrased, acutely articulated, wide ranging polemic that was in part personal testimonial--Olberman detailed his father's declining health as well as his frustration and dismay with the health system he witnessed in place-- and historical survey of the corporate bottom line at it's most mendacious. You can view the entire commentary here.

Someone said else that Olberman is a windbag, but he's our windbag, and I say God bless for being the one to bellow the truth about Republican greed and dishonesty and to dedicate a full program to discuss at length about Health Care. Olberman is a good writer--his prose assumes that viewers are able to follow compound sentences that contain more than one idea--and he is , contrary to those on the other side of this issue, sufficiently buttressed by the truth. Not a set of ideologically framed truisms and unvetted talking points, but facts. I thought his comment was forceful, powerful stuff, and the use of his father's illness and his own frustration with the systemic incompetence of our health professionals put a human face on the sort of corporate neglect which denies care to millions of sick Americans.
He was right to go straight to the unsaid bottom of the issue, that the whole shooting match centers around death, on the forstalling of it's onset and the improvement of life before it's arrival, and to deal at length at those entrenched interests who's priorities are for an increased number of subscribers paying monthly premiums and for paying less in payouts on an increasing number of claims. The comment veered here and there, of course, but this was purposeful, deliberate, perfectly illustrative of the calcified corporate culture that has no grasp of the human dimension of their business, the lives of the clients they nominally exist to aid in time of need.

Olberman is right to assert that the companies do not care for the well being of their clients and that only a ground swell from the public, tired of being duped into supporting policies contrary to their interests, is what's needed to change a medical system that will collapse upon itself. Olberman speaks truth to power. Go Keith!

The Death of the Critic

A buddy had just finished a book I'd lent him, The Death of the Critic by Ronan McDonald, and was convinced that the theorists needed a severe pounding. His language was such that I had to put the phone down and answer the door for the pizza delivery man. When I got back and picked the phone up again, he was still ranting, unaware, it seems, that I was gone for a couple of minutes. He's a high school pal, someone who likes no matter the contrasts in cultural preference, and he likes a critic to perform the service of being a consumer guide. He likes mysteries, Clive Cussler, and actual crime books, and all he wants is a synopsis and brief evaluations on whether he'll get his money's worth. I have no idea why he wanted to read the book. Still, he was fired up enough to be convinced that the Usual Suspects McDonald lays out for literary criticism's demise--French theorists, multi-culturists, feminism, variations on the postmodernist riff--had conspired to irritate him. One might understand the response, as in any of those times, one volunteers a statement, heartfelt but visceral, not cerebral, about a book they read and enjoyed that might have happened to be the subject of conversation. Once you make your remarks, add your few pennies worth, some intelligent ass chimes in with caterpillar-length words and odd ideas from two or three different disciplines, and leaves you there, lost and humiliated.

That happened to me when I was younger, much younger, mouthing off my platitudes about arts and politics, but rather than getting angry and nurturing a resentment, I was determined to become one of those smart asses, or at least sound as though I belonged to the club. My friend, though, craved his resentments and continued variations of his anti-intellectual beef over the last forty-some years. I assume most of us have friends like that. It was an exasperating conversation. Finally, I got him off the phone and made a mental note to not lend him any more books related to literary theory or the history of ideas. Instead, I'll offer him some Elmore Leonard. There is a writer we can probably talk about.

On the book's topic, it's not that the literary critics are dying as much as people have pretty much ignored them, preferring the pseudoscience of theory, which likes to wallow in choking, jargon-clogged solipsism writing that actually engages a book. It's style, the author's intentions, and the successes or failures contained therein. At some point, a generation of young academics hitched their fortunes on the diffusing forces of continental philosophy because they found a method through which they could abnegate their charge to aid readers to sharpen their skills. Literature, by whatever definition we use, is a body of writing intended to deal with more complex storytelling to produce a response that can be articulated in a way that's as nuanced as the preparatory work, the factors that make for the "literary" we expect cannot be reducible to a single supposition.

Use is a valuable defining factor, but the use of literature varies wildly reader-to-reader, group-to-group, culture-to-culture, and what it is within the work that resonates loudly as the extraordinary center that furnishes ultimate worth, varies wildly too; some things instigate this use, and they aren't one determinant, but several, I suspect. Ultimately, the goal of literary criticism is not to create the terms that define greatness but to examine and understand what's already there and devise a practical, flexible framework for discussion. Ultimately, the interest invalid criticism is in how and why a body of work succeeds or fails in its operation, not establishing conditions that would exist before a book is written.

Some of us who toyed with deconstruction and the like, when we found that language in general and literary writing, in particular, couldn't address the world as is, remember the sweetly tricky issue of inter-textuality. Promoted by Derrida and deMan, if memory serves me (and it often doesn't), this was the fancy footwork that while books fail to address the nature things and make them fixed, unchanging situations, texts (meaning books) referred only to other readers, and the coherent systems writers seemed to uncover or create about how things are were in practice drawn from a limitless archive of each text that came before the one you might have in your hand and considering its fidelity to your experience.

We find a futile concern since everything has already been written, everything has already been said. If this were true, we asked, how can it be that some theorists are using language to precisely describe what language cannot do, i.e., precisely describe things? I never read a response that made sense, as the answers seemed even more steaming heaps of jargon that made the unanchored theory before even more impassable. It is a pity since science writers and even literary researchers could explain, in more straightforward terminology, the purpose, technique, and consequence of the minute and verifiable data science was accruing.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Crimes and Misdemeanors is a seriously underrated Woody Allen film, and one of his most even handed. With the seamy elements of unbridled careerism, adultery, murder, and dead-end spiritualism laced through it's deftly constructed narrative, it is a precursor of Allen's 2005 critical success Matchpoint, a good variation on the film maker's themes. But it is C and M that is the more potent film; the characters are complex and unlikeable and their respective fates embodies as Clint Eastwood's slogan at the end of Unforgiven ; "Deserves got nothing to do with it". Moral and ethical structures are fictions that work for us sometime; at other times they have no effect at all, with the consequences being incomprehensible to a psychology that prefers closure and a "just" conclusion to events and situations.The comedic and dramatic are finely twined around each other here, and one realizes finally that each is what makes the other possible. While there is an ongoing reference to a God who is blind as well as silent--the idea that the Deity has perished before his finest creation, Man, has is fascinating--there's a the perfect irony at film's end, the distinction between being in the world, committing acts and taking responsibility for them. The doctor who has his wife murdered by a contract killer suffers suffocating guilt for what he had put into motion, and feels himself twisting in the breeze coming off the abyss. The documentary film maker, dreaming of starting an adulterous affair with a woman he works with, does not act on his impulse and feels guilty for the lust in his heart. At movie's end, both meet by accident at a party and begin to talk , in a general way, about their state of being. The film maker is still burdened by guilt for his impure thoughts and regret for his failure to act on his attraction to his work mate; he is not happy.The doctor in turn, the man who entered into a successful conspiracy to kill his wife, offers up that sometimes it seems that life is one long catastrophe you're waiting for to end with some horrible , calamitous consequence, that the world you know will crash and you will be condemned, but that after awhile you notice the sun still comes up, household and work are still waiting for you to attend to them, the guilt and shame fades, you start to feel okay, and then, after a period, you have to admit to yourself that your life is actually pretty damn good. It's a choice and, I think, iconic scene from Allen's work, with the man who sinned in fact (Martin Landau) giving a big , smug grin while the film maker (Allen) , who sinned in his imagination alone, slumps in a pose of freighted self-loathing, punished without reserve for refusing to take the risk.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A rowdy nap

This poem from Dean Young's collection Private Mentor took be aback. It was a jolt, a tingle, a shooting pain above the eye. It was as if someone had just walked across where someone was already buried, someone I knew.

The first time I saw my father after he died,
he kept knocking against the window
even though I was afraid
that the cat would kill him. At least crash-

landing on the sill and then knocking more
was an improvement over the mechanical
bed, no glasses, no teeth, only Holy
shit I’m dying on repeat in his mind,

his three terrified, disgusted, bored offspring
in the ozone waiting room politely ignoring
the bilge from the grief counselor.

They’d had bad dreams before but weren’t sure
they too were cinders shooting through the cosmos
from one oblivion to another.
One thought of his convertible in the parking lot,
was it locked? One discarded baby names on her list.

One became an anvil but if you asked,
No he’d say, he wasn’t hurting anyone.

Something green hustled by whose only job
was swabbing surgery floors so it was good

Dad’s spirit didn’t cling to him, it needed
some air. How can I remember a voice
so clearly but not a thing it said?

The shrinking was immediate. Once

I thought a frog in a puddle in North
Carolina, easy to hold in my hand,
possible to protect. I was wrong.
Then after the fawn coming pickpocket close,

he gave up for years until yesterday’s
black stone on the beach with his gentle eye
for which I’m grateful still, and cherish
then heave back into the sea’s honeysuckle.

A bit surreal, and well done, definitely Kafkaesque with the blend of bewilderment and institutional sterility. It's a comic poem, I would guess, close to a comic book logic, perhaps with a bit of prime Woody Allen thrown into the mix. The image of the spirit of the dead father hovering and drifting through the site of his death strikes me as something a family survivor would come up with as a buffer against the coming shock of a parent's death; let's imagined Dad as a spirit as new spirit ambling about just as he did when he was still alive. There is a desire, primitive and grossly selfish, to let everything fall apart and drop one's pants to moon the portrait of the dead patriarch, but it's hard to muster up the courage,the brio, when the spectral father is roaming around his old places of love and work, tending to things he hadn't finished . And the moral and economic center of the family shifts and we realize, at last, that we are fully adult. It's difficult to act like a child , even when the Old Man is gone, when you know you're acting.

When my family discovered my younger brother dead in his apartment in January of 2000 , we stood numbly in the parking lot while the police did their work. After a half hour of managing only tears and half sentences, I made a joke, referring to the time when my brother, bottoming out on drugs at the time, used to sneak into our late parent's garage located below their condominium."Well, now he can move back into Mom and Dad's basement" I said. There was silence for a second, and then laughter, deep, grating guffaws from four shell-shocked siblings. And then more tears came between the laughs and we ceased being numb and recognized the meaning our loud tears; grief and relief, mixed in gasping intervals. We would mourn the loss of our brother forever, and it was likely we were glad that wasn't yet our turn to be staring straight up at the ceiling or open sky, seeing absolutely nothing.

Used Books: paragraphs for slow Saturday morning

Underworld -- Don DeLillo
Yes, the novel sprawls over the years and the characters in sideways fashion, but DeLillo has managed sprawl to good effect before, and here he does not slacken in skill. The search for the baseball, about which not much is known is except rumor purporting to be History, big H, lays the ground beautifully for a series of stories linked by the search for a usable , recent past through the ruins of a society that flies in the face and faith of the search. Great satire, great prose--DeLillo is among the best living writers in English, I believe: there's not an ounce of fat. This is savvy and skill and sheer know-how that eludes our faux wonder child, David Foster Wallace, prematurely praised for too little work. DeLillo is our best living novelist.
House on Mango Street --Sandra Cisneros
A little jewel, from the point of view, in large part, of a small girl growing up in the slums. I don't know how other the author's work reads, and her poetry, from what I've read, is ordinary and quietly competent, but House is heartbreaking, where you witness the hardening of a world view before the young girl had any larger experience. A gem.

The Hours --Michael Cunningham
The intertwined narratives, connected through time and each related in some marginal way with the issue of Virginia Woolfe and her novel Mrs. Dollaway, is lovely, being about lose, desire, the great inability to frame an ideal and then live in it in a universe that is busy, intrusive, insensitive to inner life. Cunningham commands the Woolfe style : the stream of conscious that is amid thought in the ebb and flow of existence: we have , again and again, real images, concrete in detail and form, become, through character musing and more musing, become abstract, fluid, merged with the fleeting psychology of each passing moment. A good work.

A Frolic of One's Own --William Gaddis
I love the fact that the late Gaddis simplified his style, not a wit since the 1958 publication of his first novel, The Recognitions. Brilliant dialogue, which drives the novel, sans character attribution. The lawyer trade should duck under the table if they see a judge with this book poking from his robe.

Birds of America --Lorrie Moore An outstanding prose writer, this is a terrific set of short stories. It is a cruel error to regard her as a women's author, as her stories have a dimensionality that have the travails and emotions of her women characters' resonate with a congruent male readership.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The sourpuss returns

I stopped going to open readings about twelve years ago for a combination of reasons, lack of time foremost among them, but coming up near second was the weariness of being subjected to a continuous stream of encrypted banality. Not to grind this axe too long nor too loudly, what is most striking about the assembled grossness of over-reaching testaments it is no one seems to have had an interesting take on what muse-inspiring incident happened to them. Too often, too often indeed, the Epiphany moment seems to drive the earnest amateurs deep into the Archive of the Already Said Too Often, which dampens my enthusiasm for the notion that an introduction to good poets and their work will, by default, improve and hone the attributes of a readership who would likewise enjoy contemplating existence in unique combinations of metaphor and simile. Rather than broadening the perspective, as hoped, many become entrenched in bad ideas. It's like a cold one can't quite rid themselves of, I guess, doing so at last after rest and a vacation from taking one's seriousness too seriously, but the bad taste also acts like a virus, incubating for quite a while and effecting the senses in ways that seem to lay an irreversible tendency to grandiloquence, truism, bathos, rugged individualism. Some of this is inevitable during being human with the conceit of being sensitive creatures with something to say--God knows I am an insufferable jerk when it comes to the sanctity of my poetry, which is, let us say, looking increasingly hokey as I get older. If that were the case, the reader, and the listener, would have the sense that some fact, independent of the narrator's expectations, was acknowledged and that the speaker is ready to change their thinking. Yet another reason I gave up doing public readings as a matter of habit: my good poems are few, really, and repeating them bores me. The sort of tract many readers come across in airports and the shelves of bookstore self-help sections, though, resemble a poem less than they do knotted strings of re-fitted clichés that lacking the value of irony or circumstantial variation. These are more things one would say after an accompanying string of disasters and disappointments that work not to comprehend experience and, perhaps, gain a perspective on why things don't go according to plan, but rather to rationalize and reinforce one's attitude and manner of moving through the world. When all is said and done, Frank Sinatra said the same thing, but with more style and less pop-psyche cant: I did it my way… Not that Sinatra's croaking croon makes this a desirable way to go through life. We are who we, sure, but a large part of being human is our capacity to change our behavior based on experience. Existence is not something you experience passively, or an event that merely happens to you. It is something you participate in. One is powerless in controlling outcomes of events, but within the larger picture, we can change our actions, we can change the way we think. We do, more often than not, influence the results. We are who we, sure, but a large part of being human is our capacity to change our behavior based on experience. Existence is not something you experience passively, or an event that merely happens to you. It is something you participate in. One is powerless in controlling outcomes of events, but within the larger picture, which this poem attempts to present to us, we can change our actions, we can change the way we think. In doing so, we can, more often than not, influence the results one gets. Such poets come across as defeatists in a Hemingway ammo belt. Poetry is fun when it is good. This was not good. Those who write poems, I think, are obliged to write the poems they can, whatever their style, and that they ought not be surprised when they are criticized for using clichés and glittering generalities in place of real craft or inspiration. One's innermost thoughts, of themselves, are often not interesting as poetry. Whether the young poet admits it or not, they have a responsibility to express their inner lives in  fresh ways that it's exciting to readers in the outer world. Small thoughts are perfectly fine, and one need only inspect Emily Dickinson, or the Imagist poems of Pound or WC Williams for examples. Even the "less than earth shaking" poem has a bar to reach; it should nonetheless be exquisitely expressed. Those who participate in their lives are not passive, they are engaged with it. Even the shy, weak, infirm, modest and laconic among us take proactive roles in the directions we take, and take responsibility. Most of all, there is the capacity to remain teachable, to learn from experience and change behavior and mindset; this is what keeps people interesting and useful to their fellows. Those who refuse to change their ways, to use experience merely as rationale to reinforce ineffective methods to coping with existence, are jerks much of the time, or just irredeemably clueless. One stays away from these people, and their poems.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Rather have rhinoplasty than read poems this boring

John Koethe

In another life I might have the time and inclination to stand up to Koethe's daunting allusions, but after attempting , more than once, to overcome the skim, the glance and the cursory read and engage the poems, I became listless and depressed; it was like one of those odd moments of hackneyed existential literature where the hero, me, is alone in some government office waiting my turn to speak to an official about something and discovering that I couldn't understand a word that was being said. Worse yet, though, was the fact that didn't care what anyone was talking about. A book of poems that creates torpor and apathy, the urge to crawl back into bed with pretend flu symptoms, does not encourage a recommendation. Maybe I'm just stupid. Or maybe that these poems really are that dull and dulling. I maybe be wrong. It's likely I have suffered a failure of the imagination. Or is it just as likely that John Koethe failed to convince me that his prosaic ruminations are interesting?