Saturday, October 31, 2009


1951-October 30, 2009
Norton Buffalo was one of the best harmonica players on the planet, a skillful, fluid and fleet player at home with blues, folk and country idioms, and was a monster chromatic harmonica player above it all. He made a lasting impression on my own playing since the early Seventies, and it saddens me and countless other harmonica players and fans that one of the modern masters has gone. Rest in peace, Norton

Note on a bad poem

Someone with whom I've argued with for years on Slate's Poems Fray forum some months ago posted an "original" "poem" , requesting , without qualification, any and all crtical comments. The poem was a cryptic attempt to merge science and math into a presentable metaphorical system, the result being, I thought, muddled, lecturing and undermined by the author's determination to make a sweeping generalization about the imprecise nature of existence and our limited capacity to know it precisely. Not a bad premise for a life's writing, of course, but execution is everything; the poetry still has to be good. The poem is here. My response is below. What follows in the thread is the author tripping over himself with backsliding and quease-inducing equivication.

The idea of imagining what machines might dream about , if they were sentient, has been done before, and the punch line as to whether they "dream of electronic sheep" is itself rather well known and branded by a specific writer, Philip K.Dick. His novel is "Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep", which was the book on which Ridley Scott's movie Blade Runner was based. Dick's title is an ironic reference to the plot, about self-aware androids violently considering the nature of their existence. Your use, I'm afraid, lacks irony and does not advance on the original idea, which is what an inspired borrowing should do.
The problem with taking a phrase or title so closely identified with a famous writer is that you are obliged to use the borrowing as a springboard to an entirely original work of your own, inspired by but very different from the inspirational source. Hemingway borrowed the phrase "for whom the bell tolls" John Donne for his book on the Spanish Civil War, and didn't merely insert it into a work at face value, for decorative purposes. The title made a suitable counterpoint for his succinct, gripping narrative of men trying to maintain "grace under pressure".

What you have here is not a poem, but a series of questions that are flat and rather ordinary bits of poesy one finds in many poetry workshops blue penciled off the page. You don't seem to be writing about anything; your passive tone is something you perhaps think provides your writing with a lyric sway and a spiritual lilt, but poetry , by the sorts of poets we discuss here, even the ones some of us don't particularly enjoy, have a tougher language. They are interesting to read at least in so far as they , for the most part, appear to be attempting to crystallize the best language for their experience, and the ideas that follow suit.

No ideas but in things.--William Carlos Williams wrote that and it's excellent advice to anyone trying to write poems . Your problem is that you want to write about abstract things, metaphysical things, mystical things, and desire to join the farther reaches of scientific hypothesising with dreamier theological daydreaming but you ignore the world of things, which is our senses can measure and experience with certainty. You rarely begin with the material, you rarely convey a theme that might be based on actual experience, you are hardly ever convincing in any emotion you suggest chiefly, I believe, because you start with a skewed idea of what a poem should be and tailor your writing to suit the template you've adopted.

I think you should junk the poem and try to write a poem about something that is solid, has density, is something a reader would recognize, and try not to insert an editorializing cliche or a vacuous "summing up" that turns you efforts into post cards and photo captions. You seem unable to get away from the tired phrase, the dog eared adage, the trite truism; you need to try very, very hard to transcend your worst habits as someone attempting to write poems. At present , they seem intractable.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Oliver Douglas gets a clue

Great writing provokes arguments decades after it first appeared, which we can see in David Roderick's poem "Thoreau's Beans". We witness someone realizing that work is, after all, merely work.The way this poem proceeds is rapid and sharp, like the shovel or the hoe digging at a hard earth, and I do like the manner in which the clauses are stacked on one another, like so many books or dishes neatly arranged but still askew by seismic shifts or human vanity. The shifts here are vanity, it seem. David Roderick ‘s character, taken with a literary explication on the rural life and the time a communing with the earth allows one to think, contemplate, regard the larger things in life, i.e. , to think, allows him , though , to think about how hard this life is. You can sense the assumptions crumbling as the real facts of farm life take root. Please forgive the obvious word play.

--in a notebook this is his thrift
and estate: the stems
weakened until he finds them

cow chips, which he must
have felt for in the dark
but never wrote about stealing

from his neighbors' fields,
and now he sees himself,
without the pond's reflection,
for what he is, a failed guide

A television analogy might seem appropriate, but I think there’s a place for it here, in the sublimely subversive situation comedy Green Acres, wherein a park avenue lawyer named Oliver Douglas abandons the skyscrapers and big money for a rural life on a run down farm. Everyone around him realizes that the farm he bought is an arid , dilapidated mess, and who are, in fact, more aware of the world as it is than the would be gentleman farmer, who , tilling the field and repairing machinery in pleated pants, Brooks Brothers shirt tie and vest, refuses to, or cannot realize that he’s deluded . The source of the comedy is obvious, and effective.

Roderick’s character, though, seems like an Oliver Douglas who gets it, that is, gets the moment of clarity that he is neither engaged in an applied philosophical inquiry nor ascending to a higher intellectual/spiritual rigor, but rather in an occupation that is a living, not a lifestyle. Fine, subtle and resonant as Thoreau’s writings are, as central to the American Canon as they have been, they are rather useless as guides to being an effective farmer. Perseverance is the quality city folk forget to talk about when waxing about the connection between the earth and a man who gets his hands deep into the dirt to bring life into the light. What registers with our protagonist, I read, is the meaning of this activity isn’t about having an active in the seasonal life cycle, but rather bear survival. One does this because they have to, not because they are intrigued by the exotica of other ways of life outside a cozy urban context.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The modernist divide

Ben Friedlander thinks that Marianne Moore is the center of American poetry's modernist resurgence, not Eliot or the storied Ezra Pound. He has no problem ignoring the names text books , lecturers and earnest undergraduates insist as being embedded, in place, in order. He responds to what he likes, not brand names. Or so he seems to be saying; I think it a reasonable thing to do when one seeks what speaks beyond reputation and an theory that speaks louder than the work it's supposed to examine. This got Ron Silliman's attention, who argues for a need the relationships between the artists over the decades, one period to the next, one century to the next. The kinds of poems we prefer are not written in an historical vacuum. Both make their points.

The problem seems to be that modernism is a slippery thing to define so far as getting all the moving parts perfectly described and catalogued. It's a general style and approach, one could say, and that Friedlander's preference for Moore being at the center of this concentration of forces seems personal instead of subjective; he's chosen those that work for him and has banished those that intrigue him the least to the hinterland, a matter that doesn't bother me so long as we intend our declarations as subjective rather than historical.

Moore was a hit or miss proposition in my reading of her, lacking the set of masterpieces that fuse one to the gravity center of a period, and Eliot, though a conservative and unpleasant old coot even his younger days, did write a set of stanzas that still take my breath away; one can argue the point, of course, but Eliot's best work, in the Waste Land and Ash Wednesday, still pokes a sharp stick in the side of one's personal complacency.

Pound, I think, is indigestible, arrogant, and possessed of genius only with respect for being an idea man, a critic, a talent scout. As a poet he was more an overstuffed trashcan than a filter for the larger culture he was trying to effect. His work matters the less in our current time, but his life does provide us with an idea that we ought not trust the artist's political thinking solely because they're an artist. An imagination capable of taking the forms of the world apart and reconfiguring them in interesting ways may make for good art or not. We can always ignore bad art with no effect to the social good; bad politics are impossible to ignore.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Default kneejerkism

Ben Mathis-Lilly, a New Yorker editor and an apparent hip hop fan, wrote a 2008 column in Slate pondering what happens When Good Rappers Collaborate with Lame Rock BandsAdmittedly the subject interests me hardly at all, but I was taken aback at what seems to be a default knee-jerk position; black musicians are cool regardless of the quality of their current product, and rock bands are vapid and mediocre.Period.Something is wrong when the article assumes that the rappers entering into a collaboration are first-rate from the get-go and that the rockers are, to a guitar fret, lame. Whatever the relative merits of individual rappers, I haven't heard these guys and gals subjected to the kind of criticism rock musicians have taken over the last four decades, and I suspect much of this is a failure of nerve on the part of the critics. Rock bands are judged against a consensus as to what constitutes a good tune; the emphasis changes, of course, but there is a tangible standard that's applied when these guys come up for review. Most rock and roll bands are crap, pretentious and fake, but there is a tradition of arguing over the music to separate and distinguish the worthwhile from the dreck; there is even a subspecies of rock criticism where participants exchange views on the marginal, the commercial, the insipid aspects of the music. Reviewers of rap seem victims of groupthink and extol their rhyme droppin' heroes sans judgment regarding the material. No one seems willing to dissect the raps beyond sociology; art seems the last thing on anyone's mind here. Rap is a younger form, but in the thirty years plus that it and its antecedents have been around, there has been enough time for the anesthetic to developed and be articulated. Eric Dyson is a brilliant commentator on hip hop but will focus on artists he likes and defends. Stanley Crouch, though a critic I find much to admire, is a curmudgeon on the matter and considers a lot of rappers to be fakes and opportunists. The judgment isn't reliable, say, to tell us what is actually in the music under review. That's fine, but there is a lack of daily reviewers to yell tripe when tripe is served. Thirty years of hip hop ought to give the writers an idea of what is bogus and the vocabulary to tell their readers. The coterie of critics who began rock criticism--Jan Wenner, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Paul Williams, Ellen Willis, Robert Christgau--were in large measure Humanities undergraduates in the Sixties who started their own zines, ala Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Creem, to cover music they loved. Their audience was small at first but grew, and the influence of the critics grew as well. I don't doubt this small number of African American young men with backgrounds in literature and art and music theory couldn't start their own upstart vehicles to counter the hype and cant that protects hip hop releases from the rigorous, ongoing analysis. I've no doubt that there are fans of the music who'd like to read something that wasn't apologetic hype who relish the opportunity to read critics who can step beyond the record company rhetoric and, to coin a phrase, speak truth to power. Rap is massive, pervasive, and influential, and it's time it gets interrogated in ways novels, plays, poems, films, and all the v visual arts do. Rock and roll spent a good twenty years being regarded by mainstream media as low brow and unsophisticated and completely lacking in any kind of merit; the music, as we know, changed as did the cultural currents that influenced younger musicians that began picking up guitars, and bright and energetic writers wrote about the new music in terms that changed the way the larger culture addressed it. Hip hop has evolved to no less a degree. Interestingly, there hasn't developed a tradition of reviewers establishing a variety of criteria with which to judge how respective bodies of work measure up in terms of aesthetic worth; in all, there is a lack of discussion as to how rappers measure up, exceed, or lag in what they're trying to do. To me, it seems like a form of protectionism, an institutionalized blind eye to real criticism that will cause the music to die of its own excess. The lack of discriminating taste in the hip-hop press makes this scene seem more cluster-fuck than creative.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Auteur Theory: Filmmakers Beware

There was an interesting piece at Slate in 2006 about the auteur theory in film criticism with regard as to whether film directors and screenwriters can both be given credit for being the central creators of an especially great movie. Read that piece here and be prepared for a cogent lesson in the history of movie reviewing. I think the theory is useful, but that it ought to be considered sparingly: it's useful as a particular aspect of film criticism and review, but it is a notion that we are better off retiring altogether. The problem with the idea is that a generation of film critics spent their time generating convolutions about directors and their reputations, using the auteur-ism as the main filter, rather than actually assessing the films that were being made. What we wound up with was little about individual films and much about puffed-up reputations. The theory, I suspect, has helped ruin a few film maker's products, as in the case of Martin Scorsese. 

Scorsese might as well be screaming through a bullhorn about his auteur status. On the other hand, Clint Eastwood has an easy claim on the term, although he wears his ascendancy to Great Directorhood like it were a loose suit. It shows in the movies he makes, I think. Fascinating as his films are, they are marred by an arty( as opposed to artful)virtuosity that steps out of the frame and instructs the viewer that genius and vision are unveiled in front of them. There is great talent here instead of self-declared genius, which is to say that Eastwood uses his filmmaker skills to serve a story, not pad his resume. I've thought for years that the auteur theory was useful mostly to fanboys who wanted a means to turn their film hero obsessions into matters of serious study, thereby providing them with a reason to discourse as a matter of professional dispatch about their teenage enthusiasm. The same has happened to rock criticism and continues as popular arts chatter mimics the tonier rhetoric of literary and theater criticism. Everyone, given a theory to match their preferred diversion, gets to be a know-it. 

It beats learning a trade, I suppose. A pesky item in the concept is the advance of reputation over the quality of specific work. Dozens of second, third, and fourth-rate directors whose films exhibit the tendencies a nominal auteur must have, such as a readily identifiable camera style that accents and enhances a director's personalized view of the world. Jack Webb, creator and star of Dragnet, wrote and directed films that transported the cue-card realism of the television show to the wider screen, "30", "The DA," "Pete Kelly's Blues" among them. The style is very distinct; the writing stands out from anything else in the field, the world view, basically post-Hemingway misery about loners abiding by a code without which the planet descends into slow chaos, bespeaks the traits the auteur critics consider as graces. Yet there's a reason Webb's films only see an infrequent screening on AMC or one of the Turner stations while Howard Hawks or John Ford are shown repeatedly; Webb's films are fascinating for their stiff professionalism but are in plain fact dull and dulling. Just imagine Dragnet's basic flat line style transposed to newspaper offices, a Marine base, or a jazz band, with the storyline stretched to feature film length, and you can imagine something so trudging and cement shod that you might mistake it for Brecht. Hawks and Ford, or others one can name, easily break out of the specialized auteur ghetto and aren't afraid to entertain the senses. Auteurism's particular limit is the failure of the proponents that not all filmmakers are worth the same amount of enthusiastic ink.

Soupy Sales, RIP

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I can't actually say to what degree a television comedian like Soupy Sales had on me as I grew up, but it's enough to say that he was a large part of my viewing life while otherwise growing up in Detroit in the early sixties. His wackiness has remained a family reference point for years. When my father passed away in 1995, the five of us kids--Julia, Owen, Hollis, Reed and myself --went to the LaJolla Comedy a month later where Sales was scheduled to perform. Well, perform he did, delivering what seemed to be an endless stream of jokes, drink in hand, his face still rubbery and begging for a fabled pie in the face. The jokes were blue, the memories were grand, and it seemed an appropriate way to remember our lives with our father and our eventual destination, California. Some have mentioned his influence on Saturday Night Live and Pee Wee Herman. You can read some more on Sales here and here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Horses as they are

Small poem, a slight quiet annoyance for some, perhaps, but simple enough for me, and not presenting it's point in terms of sighing regret or grating contemplation--Rachel Richardson's poem "The Horses" .A pleasant enough commemoration of the strange elegance of horses ; there is something in the regal, streamlined, artful symmetry of these creatures that compel us to stare at them and compose the reams of association placing them in grander contexts and greater purposes. Rachel Richardson goes through some paces edifying us with the grace and dignity horses have regardless of their situation and seems about to announce a greater revelation with equine metaphors, but she steps off the usual path. The horses, over conceptualized as creatures gifted with a naturally inextricable freedom, are seen here not as animals with a will to power, a creative striving, a need to express themselves in action. They are at the river under the low trees and in the flower bed at the edge of town for simply this:

Not because
they are parched or starving. They walk

because night stretches out, and there is a road,
and someone has opened the gate.

This is a neat collapsing of assumptions when you come on the last clarifying realization after wondering about the possible causes of something strange you've just witnessed. The more complex scenarios involving agency are moot points entirely, inapplicable, uttered for their own sake. Someone simply forgot to close the gate and horses wandered off because that's what they do when their is no obstruction. Not with purpose, necessarily, but just wander off until they tire. That's what we all do, after all.

"Freedom" is the slippery slope Richardson wisely skips.Being "free" is, to a degree, a matter of definition and how a culture collectively projects that onto the world it lives in; men are free (or not) , as far as the political and legal systems he finds himself under. Freedom is merely those things and activities that are not prohibited by the State. Horses, quite outside the concerns of human dignity, rights and wandering concepts like freedom, just are , as far we know, a species no less restricted than man is. Freedom , in any sense that's meaningful, requires a contrary concept and an attending philosophy--slavery, dictatorship, charismatic rule, indentured servitude, prison life. One chooses to live freely and one chooses, as well, an ethical system through which voluntary actions confirm the value of being relatively unhindered in one's pursuit of happiness. Man may well decide to wander to the river because he enjoys the water flowing by or because he prefers the taste of non-tapped water; these are aesthetic considerations, subjective, difficult to assess, perfect for a layering of justifying metaphor to explain the quaint preference.

Horses, however, go to the river and wind up in flowerbeds because that's what they do; there is an imperative I'd say that has more to do with genetically generated behavior than with any dreamy concept of unfettered existence. Horses are free? To do what, be a horse? Horses haven't the means to become anything else other than horses and, for all we know, lack the facility to imagine themselves as another species. They are stuck being horses, with no choice in the matter.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Speaking of times in twangs and tongues
of alien regions which share memories
of months and distant smells of dust and oil
rising from the black asphalt hours before the rains came.

California an alloy where grandchildren
Meet each other in jobs that make no sense and
compare notes over hot, tasteless coffee about
what it was their grandparents were saying,
something in code that firmed up their backbone
and brought a mist to their eyes.

We are too close to the expiration dates of our lives
to think of parachutes when its Autumn by the Pacific Ocean
in a city whose best exports are sand and gunboats,

warm air and cool breezes turns us into
a generation of rasping sighs in lawn chairs nursing drinks
under tourist umbrellas in the neighborhoods we moved into
three decades ago in expectation of making a mark
on a locale that was as unknown
as anything we wanted to do with our lives.

Its about gloom and rain and love of defeated weather
that has me speaking for a generation that exists only
as that we that goes only by one name, mine, still typing,
hot as a riot when the music gets loud and someone else is being clever.
Its about being sorry for rich people for being so pathetically well-oil when integrity is the only thing Ive been eating

In coffee houses in motels
near the fair grounds dealing in degrees of English
and slants of the camera eye,
it's about the loneliness of standing
in the same place with the sinking feeling
that gunboats are riot enough
Wondering what in the universe makes sense
when youre bored for no good reason,
and philosophy has been retired until everyone gets back from the beach ,
from the water of laughter comes in many streams, the language of joy.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hit them back

Fox News has its collective under garment creeping into the their puckered private area because the Obama White House, from the man himself and higher staff members, have opined that the Murdoch channel isn't a news organization, but rather a propaganda arm for the Republican National Committee. Three cheers for the good guys; it's about times Democrats, be they liberals, progressives, moderates or blue dogs, talk back to the noise machine.

The American Left certainly wasn't afraid of offending political sensibilities while there was a Viet Nam war through which the ultimately unprovability of historical determinism could be obscured by a conflict whose obscenity over rode local matters. But with the end of the war, the left here abouts receded to theory, unwilling, I think , to realize something fundamentally decent about Americans and their sense of fairness to the right cause, and it seemed to matter little to the intellectual elite to deal with practical matters of policy , county, state and federal.

The left became generalized in theory and law, and reduced everything to an eviscerated discourse of euphemistic speech that was not allowed to defile a sense of neutrality: things ceased to have names, only vague descriptions , and in this atmosphere any talk about identifying problems about what sickens the Nation became impossible . Rather than take action to change social relations, real practice, a fight for change was reduced to a ideologically perplexed course in etiquette, the practice of which made humans confront each other in ways that were nervous, nervous, ultimately insane. The progressives were more interested in shoring up their tenuous gains since the start of the Civil Rights Movement, which suited Republicans just fine.

"Guts" comes to mind, courage, old fashioned and romantic virtues , but still ways to talk about the world, the city where we might live, and within in, a way to imagine and realize the ways to make it maybe make it more workable than it was then when we entered into it, knowing only hunger and the feeling of cold earth. The courage we speak has been demonstrated with the winning of both houses of Congress and the White House; what remains to be done , in a fair fight, is to pursue the cause and smacking down the grimy dogs who would bring us down.