Friday, April 30, 2010

M or M?

Miracle Whip has been attempting to usurp mayonnaise as the condiment of choice among sandwich makers and chewers with a gamy, faux-hip series of television ads featuring seemingly boneless teens and college freshmen flailing about to some click-track electronica while an announcer smugly declares that the new generation of brash alt-spreaders "Will Not Turn It Down!" Chief among my complaints would be that these crazy kids are a gooney bunch of waifs whose brains , collectively, have yet to develop that sphere that helps a nascent sense of "hip" into an appreciation for quality--I'd be offended, ticked off, pissed, angry and downright irritated if I were a generic young person, seeing my generation depicted as a graceless bunch of droopy trance dancers made to bounce like addled puppets on a string in the tribal worship of a product as truly wretched as Miracle Whip. It is an item that cannot decide what it wants to be--spicy? tart? sweet? tangy? velvety? It is an amalgam of the worst aspects of all these taste differentials--it ruins a perfectly good piece of sliced ham, it soils a fine piece of chicken if offends the tongue as it turns a chicken salad into a war crime. It's not that Miracle Whip "will not turn it down": it's more than the hapless among us, sans mayonnaise, cannot keep it down. So... why mayonnaise? It's the simplest math problem you'll encounter : it tastes good, and it tastes good on nearly everything you put it on, burgers, hot dogs, chicken salad, tuna, ham, cheese, oh god yes, it has the right texture, the alchemical brilliance of sweetness restrained by the right guiding hand of creamy texture, it is a pleasure on the tongue and the blend of oils, egg and spices compliments the flavors of the food it adorns, it meshes well with the bread it connects with, it is a condiment that makes the minute you take for lunch in an otherwise dreary day of bad news, late fees and bill collectors an island of sensual solution; nothing else matters for the fifteen or twenty-five minutes it takes to make the sandwich and eat it with a relish that reminds you that your senses are elements one must bring pleasure to. Mayonnaise brings joy to the lunch counter.

On Smoking

The genius of advertising is the way it can sell products to clients who have no practical use for products . One can get a fine example of how successful these geniuses have been with an online exhibit of cigarette advertising here, on a Stanford University web site. It's enough to make one salivate and to buy into the health claims the magazine notices claim for what has to be the most useless and dangerous product introduced into the consumer market. Ouch.I smoked for near thirty years , from the early seventies through 1997, less inspired by the barroom bathos of Bogart nursing his damaged romanticism between sips of bourbon , face obscured by ubiquitous laces of smoke, and more by rock stars, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan and the like, odd-haired, angular and faces gaunt as the sides of sheer cliffs, musicians hanging out on the periphery of whatever mainstream their tour buses happened to be passing.

The period was, we know, still somewhat defined by the myth of the counter culture and the notion that things corporate were bad for the planet and yourself as well, but still few of us who grew our hair were willing to grow our own food, and still fewer were willing to forsake their Marlboro 100s or Lucky Strikes for ideological consistency. It was the ironic element of the drug taking of the day that many of us who dabbled in or became overwhelmed by chemicals often times defended our recreational use of illegal materials by citing that nicotine was a drug , it was fatal, and that it was legal, the same being the fact for alcohol.

It was hypocritical, man, and the squares, the man, the establishment had better rethink their pitch when it came to mewling forth about narcotics. Whether the nebulous collective I just named examined their attitudes again is unknown to me, but what I do remember was that the thinking insulated those of us in our denim'd cliques from some harsh facts and amounted to little more for us to flaunt convention and smoke, drink, toke, inject, drop, in all senses, imbibe. We were in the vanguard, weren't we?

In my case, rock stars died, friends got older or died, the music died, corporate marketing absorbed the particular tricks and whistles of all that hippie culture and the lot of us found ourselves in haircuts, with jobs, having our values sold back to us. And at the age of thirty five years old, divorced, fired, broke, I found myself still smoking two packs a day and drinking myself to a near grave. After an intervention in 1987, I went to a famous rehab in California, and smoking was the unifying thing among patients who other wise had nothing in common besides their addictions the resulting tales of wreckage they were attempting to clean up. We'd smoke during the meditation breaks, we'd smoke the five minutes we had between group meals and the next group therapy, we'd smoke on the dorm patio at night after the treatment day and exchange war stories of alcohol and drug fueled degradation while we puffed, exhaled, coughed, and continued with our stories. Deep wells of gasping laughter were had, and I do remember the desert night, talking to voices across from me in the dark, the only light being a full moon and the moving , cherry red tips of several cigarettes scurrying about like fireflies. Oh, smoking was the sacrament, it was the last link to a life I based on trying to imitate what someone else a bad boy was. Man, oh man.

In 1997, nearly ten years sober at the point, I was still smoking, frequently sick with colds that didn't seem to go away. I wasn't enjoying the cigarettes anymore, and was, in fact, tired of trying to be cool in any sense I thought it meant; I was too hold to get away dressing like a junkie guitarist, I wanted to act my age. I was on the bus in December, a rainy day, cold and miserable, and noticed various stores along the route where clerks were in the service entrances, standing in the shower, smoking away. Not unusual to note, of course, but no one looked happy or to be enjoying the drags they took off the cigarettes they lit in the cloud burst; they were smoking because they had to smoke, rain or no, cold or no, five dollars a pack or no, they looked like drug addicts, and quite suddenly I felt like one myself.Addicted to cigarettes. It was the "aha" experience. It was liberating. I quit that month, and haven't had a cigarette since.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


Back in the late Nineties I was involved in an online debate as to whether painting were a dead art , in view of the then emerging new digital media which promised to give artists a new canvas, a new palette, a revolutionary way of creating art that hadn’t been done before. I harrumphed and pouted and tried to be sage in my remarks, but there wasn’t much of anything I could offer to the discussion other than this: Painting will be dead when artists stop painting and when art lovers stop desiring to look at the work of past, recent, and current artists. So far, there are no so-described symptoms of paintings' impending demise. In any case, what is with the impulse for some to declare entire mediums "dead", as if a literal body had been discovered somewhere, knife in back, bullet in brain, i.e., "the death of literature", "death of the subject", "death of the novel", "the death of the author", "the end of history", "jazz is dead”,” history is dead", "rock is dead", and so forth. I've read these declarations over the years, some with, some without arguments, some articulate, others ruthlessly abstruse, and save for a momentary rush of certainty that the many threads of history are suddenly woven together to the precise moment that the respective professors are making a case for, one realizes that the activities still go on in strength.

Humans have a way of tending toward their business and their pleasures, in the ways that suit their needs and personalities, quite despite the cloudy forecasts of aesthetic morticians. There seems to be an easy habit-of-mind that wants to advance a more recent set of techniques, usually attendant on new technologies, only at the mortal sacrifice of older mediums. Co-existence seems a concept that makes a self-conscious avant-garde nervous. In any event, shall we say that there are things that can only be done with painting that nothing else, really, has come close to? Even if it did come close to achieving the effects, good oil or watercolor can, what makes the new medium anything other than an advanced species of clip-art and simulation. The body count, I think, is greatly exaggerated. Devalued, no, if the aim of new art is to re-create, faithfully, effects produced by painters. Sadly, this seems to be the only motivation behind many competently technologized artists whose work is often little more, really, than the reproduction of painterly effects. I'm willing to think these new medium artists are still wood shedding and experimenting with what they can do with their "new canvas" and "new palette", but it's plain that many have yet to make Real Work.

We have fascinating results that have an inescapable crisis of its own, an utter soullessness coming from any intrinsic lack of character apart from the shiny, show room sheen of simulacra. Clip art is the result, I believe, if that is the only impulse motivating the particular artist. Newer methods can indeed co-exist with older--it's all around us--when artists drop the show-offih instinct of duplication and instead reconcile themselves to the limits as well as the advantages of their particular form. The crisis, I think, festers on the other end. The death of painting not withstanding, it seems that painters long ago accepted the terms and strictures of their chosen craft, and are in a long and envious history that they can play with at will, add to, diminish, broaden, contract, what have you. No painter I know feel crunched or sickly because of the imagined malaise --human need to express itself perseveres and is acted upon whatever revisionist rhetorical brackets are set around them, trying to diminish their worth, relevance, or health. The death or crisis of their art is meaningless to the working artist. The announcements that arts or particular mediums are "dead" or in "crisis" are melodramatic inventions that comes from bad, over generalized criticism that's in a hurry. It's better to get on with the honest work of art making, and focus commentary on the interaction between art styles and periods. Technologized, digital art is the art that is having the crisis, if anything: a personality crisis and one wonders what his new art wants to be when it grows up. This is a real question: what is "real work?"

Work that artists manage to do that's unmindful of having to illustrate a critics' or a harried art historians' criteria. What that evidence is endlessly subjective, and will vary artist to artist, medium to medium, but it will be the work, I think, that seems the most self contained, mature, and complete, with all influences assimilated and artists experiences and personality full enough to inject an individual intelligence into the work. It will be the work that utters precisely the ideas the artist has about ways of seeing. It is art that works as art, not demonstrations of yet another manifesto. We're talking about professional adult artists here, not small children or plants that need tending. What makes a form of art- making grow are artists who dedicate themselves to their process, their work, and who focus their energy on how the medium they've selected for themselves. A healthy self-criticism probably doesn't hurt the production of new work either, as with the notable artists who can tell the difference between pandering to an imagined niche market, or a specialized audience that inoculates the work from honest appraisal, and the real work that is made quite apart from anyone's expectations or demands, except those of the artist. Good art-making is a rigorous activity, playful as it is, in whatever mode one operates out of. Everything else seems to take of itself if the art is good, worth being noticed. One advances into a their art with no real concern about making history--their obvious concerns are about making their art, with some idea of what it is they're advancing toward, and what past forms are being modified and moved away from. But the judgment of history--as if History, capital H, were a bearded panel viewing a swimsuit competition--will be delivered piecemeal, over the years, after most of us are dead, and our issues and concerns and agendas are fine dust somewhere.

The artist, meantime, concentrates on the work, working as though outside history, creating through some compulsion and irrational belief that the deferred import of the work will be delivered to an audience someday, somehow. That is an act of faith, by definition. The artist, painter or otherwise, also casts their strokes, with brush or mallet, with the not-so-buried-dread of the possibility that that the work will remain unknown, shoved in the closet, lost in the attic, and they will be better known for their day job rather than their manipulation of forms through a rarified medium. Less that democracies are anti-artistic than they are resistant to the notion that aesthetic concerns and artistic expression are reserved for a cultivated elite. Democracy rejects this sublimated priesthood on principle, and opens the arena, the galleries so that more who wish to do so may engage in the intuitive/artistic process and keep the activity alive in ways that are new and precisely relevant to the time--this is the only way that the past has any use at all, as it informs the present day activity, and allows itself to be molded to new sets of experiences. Art is about opening up perspectives, not closing them down, and that is the democratic spirit at its best. Otherwise, the past is a rigoured religion, and history is an excuse for brutal, death wish nostalgia. History, for that matter, is not some intelligence that has any idea of what it's going prefer in the long run--the best I can offer is that history is news that stays news, to paraphrase a poet, which implies that the painter who survives the tides and eddies of tastes and fashion and fads will the one whose work has an internalized dynamic that is felt long after the brush is dropped and the breathing stopped.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Uncollected or Unloved Poems?

There's a nice piece by Jennifer B.McDonald in the New York Times' Paper Cuts book blog about publishers using the phase "Uncollected Poems" as  a subtitle. She correctly wonders why the word "previously"  went missing , noting that once a clutch of stray poems have been formally gathered, edited and published, they become, ahhhh, collected.Hailing a poetry book as either "Collected Poems" or,less impressively, "Selected Poems" offers the buyer the sense that the object in their hand is the result of a specific project, or a coherent chronicle of an especially subject-rich period in the author's life. Those evocations may be true to varying degrees, but packaging for the marketplace has as much to do with it; few of us wish to invest in an untidy and ill considered grab bag of verse.

The hope, I guess, for the "Uncollected" sobriquet is that might resonate with as much as authority as the previous two qualifiers.The intention being that these poems are distinct in their own right. But distinct exactly how? As in that they've been ignored, set aside, forgotten about or rejected over the years for ever-multiplying and varied reasons? "Uncollected Poems" sounds like a hasty euphemism for "unloved poems". They hadn't been collected up to this point for reasons of quality; I can't shake the feeling that "uncollected" suggest a batch of poems a poet might have tossed out if he suddenly found himself having to move to another location. The first thing to go is whatever one has no use for , or is no longer found of.  The

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Cannibal Quietism

 We've had a surfeit of poems about teachers instructing students in the use of language, and it has become a tiresome game. Lesley Wheeler offers up the premise in her poem Oral Culture , the plot line so to speak, brandishes a few instructional vocabulary words , and then pronounces them, emphasises them for texture, sound, the way the resound in enunciated sequence. The aim, it seems, is to present these words as aesthetic things, in themselves, full of echos and thunderings that come off as both subtle and dramatic music , but which, despite their dictionary definitions, distance us from the grain of the image being accounted for. We are in an age old quandary--the further we parse words and the meanings they take on as individual terms link with other terms , we become less settled , less centered.

Wheeler's teacher recalls her own recollections of childhood, her memory comes alive with aromas and tactile reminders--but something is lost. The teacher deconstructs her own memories by nothing that the pleasant items that emerge from the stream of associations were not ageless examples of perfection.

The became flat, they went stale, the blessed things of growing up broke, splintered and eroded; this would be a neat turn around if we were reading this thirty five years ago and the context were a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem posing a less digestible version of the problem that texts, whatever their intended argumentative aims, contain their own counter argument. Poets Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman , Michael Palmer and a number of others foregrounded language as subject matter and problematized the notion of the lingua franca bringing a static totality to The State of Things. The State of Things, if they remain things that matter to an alert mind negoiating the daily happenstance, are not static, but fluid. The LANGUAGE Poets' various projects of exposing how the hard and slippier implications of codified rhetoric --overlapping lexicons that reduce the percieved self into an indentity that serves entrenched power-- leaves us with a body of work that makes us aware of that phrases we borrow to evoke our inner life are more like fashion items than tools of honest introspection. It's a daunting fact, and there remains a difficult beauty in this school's expressed discontent with the mortified traditions that came before it. In 2010, the method has become a conceit that becomes used for an over utilized irony--the words we use to inscribe the world with a precise definition to meaning and purpose only exacerbates the situation. Which leaves Wheeler no other option other than to go on parsing lexicons and experience until something like a profound boredom overcomes her.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Keep your pants on

It's springtime, the temperatures rise, the flowers blossom and the nostrils swell with the scents of clean air, a sweetness that hearkens you to younger, hardier, randier days. At the drop of a hat, when the instincts overcame your better thinking in tandem with a like-minded partner--heads and genitalia swelled with the flush of urge and there was no argument to stop the rearrangement or removal of over and underclothes. Desire had its logic, but it was without language or syllogism, no conventional tools at all; it was an eroticism of things in your surroundings being focused, like perspectives that vanish to the same point, the same conclusion; you have to get your nut. This moment in the day, after the stolen looks, the limping banter and sly insinuation, has been dictated. You vanish, you get your rocks off. And for the rest of your life you relive those moments, as there is in the accumulated memory the incidents that have the psychic tabs sticking out. The days at work, the conversations you find yourself having, your appropriate discussion with someone half your age set you up for visions of old youth and the energy stream you hadn't dipped into for years. The current race reminds of you of every erotic thing you'd performed; for a moment you find yourself slipping between dimensions, the conversation you're actually having and the bedtime story you're presently reliving.


My student sends letters to me with the lights turned low.
They feature intricate vocabulary, like soporific and ennui.

Like intervening and kinetic and tumult. He strings words together
like he's following a difficult knitting pattern. He is both more

and less striking without a shirt on. I know this from the time
I ran into him at Wal-Mart buying tiki torches and margarita mix

and, flustered, I studied the white floor tiles, the blue plastic
shopping cart handle, while he told me something that turned

to white noise and I tried not to look at his beautiful terrible chest,
the V-shaped wings of his chiseled hip-bones. I write him back.

I tell him there are two horses outside my window and countless weeds.
I tell him that the train comes by every other hour and rattles the walls.

But how to explain my obsession with destruction? Not self-immolation
but more of a disintegration, slow, like Alka-Seltzer in water. Like sugar in water.

I dissolve. He writes enthralling. He writes epiphany and coffee machine.
He is working in an office, which might as well be outer space.

I am in the mountains. The last time I worked in an office, he was ten.
I was a typewriter girl. I was a maternity-leave replacement for a fancy secretary.

I helped sell ads at TV Guide. I was fucking a guy who lived in a curtain-free studio

above a neon BAR sign on Ludlow Street, and all night we were bathed in pot smoke

and flickering electric pink light. Here, the sun goes down in the flame
of an orange heat-wave moon. The train thrums and rattles the distance,

and I think of his chest with the rounded tattoo in one corner and my youth,
the hollows of his hip-bones holding hard, big-box fluorescent light.
—Erika Meitner

Meitner's poem gets that layered desire right, exquisitely so, especially as she tries to talk about her young male friend's seductive use of big words while trying to study his shirtless chest and bone structure. She dissolves, she says, and her memories are no longer ordered by date, but become, it seems, a series of membranes she passes through. The connection with the actual moment is tenuous as the euphoric recall gives way to biographical detail, wonderfully, enticingly offered up here in the guise of bars, tiki torches, Walmart stores.  The community she lives and works in, for a moment, seem cruelly banal as the light of previous glories of skin loom large. The authority of the senses rules out any other possibility; for a moment, a fleeting moment, the promises one has made and the commitments one has taken matter, not a wit. But one is anchored to the moment they are in--the mate, the job, the children all require your attention. All you can do is step from the time machine, brush off the dust, return to the world at hand.

Not that, but this

I like to write poetry with long sentences, complicated somewhat with line breaks that are short and not precisely sticking with a rhythm a reader can dance too. I enjoy William's idea of the variable foot in reference to the practice of free verse; since he never strictly defined what how that variable foot is to be applied in a composition, I just assume my erratic posture is my variation on that lovely phrase's evocation. But there are doubters, the spontaneous police writing tickets , a violation of a familiar charge; this isn't poetry, it's prose in sheep's clothing. I will  not shrug and say "busted".

There is a  history of poets and critics declaring poetry is something completely other than prose, a separate art approximating a form of meta-writing that penetrates the circumscribed certainties of words and makes them work harder, in service to imagination, to reveal the ambiguity that is at the center of a literate population's perception. An elitist art, in other words, that by the sort of linguistic magic the poet generates sharpens the reader's wits; it would be interesting if someone conducted a study of the spread of manifestos, from competing schools of writing, left and right, over the last couple hundred of years and see if there is connecting insistence at the heart of the respective arguments.

What they'd find among other things, I think, is a general wish to liberate the slumbering population from the doldrums of generic narrative formulation and bring them to a higher, sharper, more crystalline understanding of the elusive quality of Truth; part of what makes poetry interesting is not just the actual verse interesting (and less interesting) poets produce, but also their rationale as to why they concern themselves with making words do oddly rhythmic things. Each poet who is any good and each poet who is miserable as an artists remains, by nature, didactic ,chatty, and narcissistic to the degree that , as a species , they are convinced that their ability to turn a memorable ( or at least striking phrase) is a key with which others may unlock Blake's Doors of Perception.

The lecturing component is only as interesting as good as the individual writer can be--not all word slingers have equal access to solid ideas or an intriguing grasp on innovative language--but the majority of readers don't want to be edified. They prefer entertainment to enlightenment six and half days out of the week, devouring Oprah book club recommendations at an even clip; the impulse with book buyers is distraction, a diversion from the noise of he world. Poetry, even the clearest and most conventional of verse, is seen as only putting one deeper into the insoluble tangle of experience. Not that it's a bad thing, by default, to be distracted, as I love my super hero movies and shoot 'em ups rather than movies with subtitles, and I don't think it's an awful thing for poetry to have a small audience. In fact, I wouldn't mind at all if all the money spent on trying to expand the audience were spent on more modest presentations. The audience is small, so what has changed?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Notes in the night

Richard Rorty, in "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity" defines an "ironist" as someone who realizes "that anything can be made to look good or bad by being re described" (73). Are postmodern writers this kind of "ironist"? No more, it would seem , than any other writer scribing under the modernist tenet of "making it new", or to another extreme, 'defamiliarizing" (from Bahktin) recognizable settings , characters and schemes in a language that's meant to provoke readers to see their world in new ways. This is a modernist habit that the new, cubist, cut-up, stream-of-conscious takes on the world will sweep away past aesthetic interpretative models and lead one to a the correct formation of the world-- there remains a faith that language and other senses can apprehend and describe a tangible , material world and capture its complex composition, a "metaphysics of presence" that art can unearth.

Irony, in this sense, is usually contained within the story, a result of several kinds of narrative operations coming to a crucial moment of ironic intensity that then drives the story into directions one , with hope, didn't anticipate. Post modern writers start off with the intent of being post modern from the start, and rather than have their inventions gear us for a challenge to see the world in a truer light (contrasted against previous schools of lovely language but false conclusions), the project is to debunk the idea of narrative style all together.

Irony is intended to demonstrate some flaws in character's assumptions about the world, a description of the world that emerges contrarily after we've been introduced to the zeitgeist of the fictionalized terrain. Post modern writers are ironists of a different sort, decidedly more acidic and cynical about whether narrative in any form can hone our instincts.  It's a tenet of Modernism that in order for writing to be truly contemporary, it must achieve a level of difficulty that allegedly force the reader to reassess their take on experience. Impenetrability was encouraged, so far as the Modernist project encouraged any specific tendency among its early practitioners.

"Make it new" was a chief slogan at the height of the Modernist literary movement, courtesy of Karl Shapiro, and the works, assimilated into academic study, don't comprise the sort of literature that makes for lazy readers. Rather, it's techniques set up the ideal reader, say, "reared in the Modernist style", to grasp the manner and aim of a Postmodern writing, which again, I believe, in it's best expression, is an extension of the Modernist agenda, albeit tweaked about the edges with a bankrupt critical apparatus. The theory cannot keep apace with the actual imaginative writing: sorry, but many theorists seem like bright children adept at taking things apart who cannot quite put them back together in anyway that's useful, meaningful.

Words and Music

John Barth's short story, "The Night Sea Journey" from Lost in the Funhouse, is a strange little allegory that plays empty when inspected. As Bill mentioned earlier, the Heritage that's supposed to be passed on , in this instance, is only a grab bag of superstition, speculation and teleological gossip.  Substituting , presumably, a species of human fish for Christians and System-locked beings in general, we have a neat inversion of the collective self-denial that keeps a system working, churning.

It's a system here, a faith system pegged on the need to keep the population swimming to the unreachable Shore, that has all questions about existence channeled back to the anonymous need to keep the population treading water in the dark: we get traces of a theology that once might have sounded glorious, an ideology that might have once cast the future as bright and on dry land, but the disillusionment with the process is heard, the skepticism comes forth. It becomes nothing but a process for process sake: exhaustion, which Barth has used a key term in some of his essays on the problems of fiction narrative, hear becomes the theme of things being done for their own sake, unchanged to the conditions that exist at the margins of a self-perpetuation lexicon. The promise that the swimmers hold out, after the poetry of their plighted is played out, is that all will be well when they reach the shore, is revealed as bunk: it is a promise that will be kept only in the dark, when one is still blind, thrashing about.


The Hours works because author Michael Cunningham doesn't try in any obvious way to assert a connection between the women, other than a tenuous connection with Woolfe and her novel, Mrs. Dalloway. It's the skillful use of the stream-of-conscious the connects the stories, really, the women and their time periods, the way in which the on set of depression and slowly inhibiting despair is explored in the ways that these women think about the world they live in.

Family, duty, loyalty to others, all the things that the characters have to be loyal to and whose cause the central figures argue for, are seen to come into a continuing conflict with personalities whose centers are eroding, slipping into darkness. Like Woolfe, Cunningham continually deploys the facts and the images of the external world, a sign that the alert mind is struggling to stay engaged with the world, but we see these images become abstractions, mere definitions , blurry and meaningless as the corridors get darker, colder.
Applying this to Woolfe herself, as a character, was a brilliant touch, perhaps critiquing the notion , the myth that one may write their way out of a chronically dour state. In any case, this trio of tales is delicately rendered, and the author's touch here is sure, if not invisible.
Corea Concerto: Spain for Sextet and Orchestra
--Chick Corea w/ the London Philharmonic Orchestra featuring Origin (Sony Classical)

The word "pretentious" comes to mind, as well as "waste", in so much as Corea, one of the surest and most ingenious musician/composer talents alive, takes one of his most perfect compositions, "Spain" and elongates into a series of "movements", no doubt meant to explore new ideas, poetry, impressions. What he has here is near unrecognizable from the original, except when the orchestra kicks in with some obligatory figures: the improvisations from Corea and the worthy members of Origin are tentative at best--they sound like they are sitting next to insane wrestlers on a crowded bus-- and the piece, long, shall we say, stops and goes with no real dynamic emphasis or emotional wallop delivered, or even hinted at in the foreshadowing. Corea  should have known betterought to know better; he can certainly do better.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Rae Armantrout Wins The Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

Rae Armantrout has won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book Versed; it is a great and glorious event. I became aware of Rae Armantrout's  work in the Seventies while an undergraduate literature student at UCSD, and whatever value or lack of it one thinks the Pulitzer Prize has in terms of distinguishing the best work from the passably acceptal, I am glad that someone I know (if only slightly) has grabbed A Big Prize. It means not only that she will have here tightly constructed poems read and considered in a more mainstream context--the broader readership is now part of a discussion on poetics some of us have been having for years--but it gives the lie to the notion that her work, and the work of other poets falling outside the peripheries corporate press deigns to cover and review, is too difficult, alien, abstract or incomprehensible to bother an over taxed reader with. The idea that Rae Armantrout's work is difficult is, as has been remarked about "Ulysses", is made too much of. There are items, phrases, condensed cadences and references that need to be parsed, examined, considered thoughtfully , but as with Joyce's musicality , wit and sensuality, there is a tangible presence in Rae's work with which a reader can frame their own response.

  1.  It's an old distinction that one notices in the best voices--the emphasis is more on creating a sense of things rather than making sense, "making sense", in this case, being that the one wants to define and contain experience as if it were a commodity. What Rae achieves (and what Stephen Burt spoke to in his New York Times review of  her previous collection "Next Life") is that the facts of our lives, the joy, the agony, the aches and illnesses, are too slippery in their larger implications to place within convenient brackets. She understands what happens when a recollected event and a later idea merge in the stream of the alert psyche.

Her method, perhaps, is the reverse of that of John Ashbery or A.R. Ammons,two poets who have, with frequent inspiration, written at length to suggest the collisions of subjective responses to the material plain.Their musings have different notions--Ashbery is ambling between the perfections of Ideal Types and the contradictions of felt experience and memory while Ammons prefers a direct address of how the senses fail the organizing mind as the years stockpile upon him--both write at length, inspecting each stone and exotic plant on their path, each otherwise unconsidered detail a topic sentence inspires, until they're satisfied that they've explored enough nuance, refined or rough hewed. Rae Armantrout has something more closely resembling radar; she gathers the precise details, chooses the right words; her poetry balances a breath taking clarity with the sense of the ephemeral, that what she isolates is fleeting , soon to be lost amid the stream of continuous thinking.  Rae Armantrout gets the exact moment when a history of impressions meet each other on the long highway. She places the reader in the moment, amid the particulars her poems highlight. The reader finds something of their story in her rigorously pared-back sharing. The readers get it, and it would be nice if her being awarded a Pulitzer indicates that larger media are done ghettozing poets. In the meantime, it's a good thing that she has the award. A very good thing.