Saturday, October 30, 2010

Still more notes

The conflation of reason and emotion is exactly the kind of writing literature ought to be engaged in, whatever slippery pronoun you desire to append it with. Tension, anger, conflict, a war between impulses that are global in scope but local in context. The goal isn't a resolution of conflict, as that would be mere preaching and the extension of convenient dogmas; what's more interesting and likely closer to the cold shiver of recognition is in how things end. 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. The attack on modernism's arrogance that it was the light to the "real" beneath the fabrications that compose our cosmology, is grossly overstated, it seems, vastly over regarded: 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 principal thrust of their work, which was away from the straightjacket 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.

I agree with Fred Jamieson on the point that Postmodernism, in effect, is a restating of the modernist project., although I suspect the critic was as much interested in preserving his own relevance as a critic as he was in establishing new distinctions to a topic that has, if nothing else, perfected the practice of topic drift. His implication is that postmodernism is critical of the culture it ironically reflects; this stance would keep Jamieson, a dutifully abstruse  Cultural Marxist variant, in things to writing about. Or write toward, as the good critic's style is to introduce things he intends to address and then to defer, endlessly it seems, until some clarity is brought, by him, to the terms and context of his impending discussion. He is, it may be said, the image of the lecturer who assumes the podium without his notes organized, assuming he has noted in the first place. Jamieson, in fact, is something of an ironic example of postmodernism less as a stylish choice or determined practice than as result of trying to wear too many hats; it is more important to act as though you have a point than to actually have one to begin with. Jamieson has his insights and critical genius, of course, but too often it takes a good while for him to warm up to his actual set of talking points. Writing is an argument so far that the central impulse to write at all is to make a series of statements about oneself and one's experiences in the world and reach a satisfying conclusion, some "meaning" at the end of the chat.Roland Barthes noted that the effort to achieve fixed meaning is doomed, as experience is not a static event, but a fluid movement through time that a writer's perception of changes moment to moment, text to text. The argument is thus not one-sided, but multi-vocal and relentlessly complex, although that complexity is the layering of endless snippets of conversation, debates and discourses that challenge, contradict  or ignore the tropes of the chatter that coincide with them, simple ideas, cliches and tropes that are given an unintended complication and ironic juxtaposition by simply having all  the talk occur at   once, like a room full of radios blaring loudly, tuned to different stations with an infinite amount of clarity. These are interwoven within perceptions that argue amongst themselves on their pages, in the extension of characters, plot, instances, local, active bits of imagining where the goal, is finally to attempt to resolve contradiction, arrive at something absolute in a universe that seems to permanently withhold its Absolute Meanings during this lifetime, and to achieve, somehow, some peace, some satisfaction. But no: the argument persists, the imagination soars, the old certainties cannot contain either the unset of new perceptions nor can sooth a writer's innate restlessness. In literature, the conflation continues, reason and emotion color each other, the eyes shut, hoping for vision, a clear path, but the writing continues, the sorting through of experience continues, the unease continues, the world changes radically and not at all.  The postmodernism's overall mission is to notify us of the limitations of our tropes, our schemes, and our rhetoricized absolutes seems redundant to what literature already does.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Last stop for a used hankie

At face value, the poem "About My Mother" By Adam Zagajewski appealed to me; I like the idea of the rushing stream of words, breathless and minimally punctuated in their rush to the last crystallizing image; when it's done well, when the subject catches a little considered incident of experience and riffs on it briskly, quickly, ending, finally, on a surprising note in the run, that nuance you didn't know existed between the words you'd use to objectively outline your emotion, the effect is exhilarating. 

When it works, that is. The secret is creating the feeling that the writer, were just as surprised by the ending as you hope the reader will be. When it doesn't work, the effect is a desperate assembling of random clauses, unconsidered, a piling on of things that happen to be in the room of memory one is rummaging through for something to write about. "About My Mother" reads as just that sort of poem, something composed to have written something, a short form limning of a problematic relationship with one's mother. The narrator recalls things said, meals made, silent gestures in response to his presence in the same room, presented in a tone that does not mean quite mute an otherwise undercurrent of anger and regret; you know where this is going, you know the destination this poem has in mind for you-- 

when she
compared herself to Beethoven going deaf,
and I said, cruelly, but you know he
had talent, and how she forgave everything
and how I remember that, and how I flew from Houston
to her funeral and couldn't say anything
and still can't. 

This is meant to take our breath away, to elicit a surprised gasp, to make us feel someone had just walked over the spot we will eventually be buried, but it comes as no surprise. It's unreasonable to think of this poem as calculated; the last image was conceived first, and everything else was composed afterward, the delivery system for the punch line. The details that come before are a conspicuous set up for this melodramatic ending; the reader who has done the due diligence and read and studied the confessional tendencies of Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath might find this template familiar, like a route to work they take five days a week on public transportation. The poet's mute regret at the funeral is merely the last stop through a scenario that scarcely deserves remarking upon.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Salon, take your own pulse

Salon's Mary Beth Williams wonders in a  recent article   if actor Charlie Sheen can be saved from his drug addicted ways. It's a content provider's dream, a topic needing little research, or original analysis. One need only arrange established facts in an accurate timeline and then join the chorus of hand wringers who've been virtually drooling over the actor's repetitive misadventures. Besides the ongoing tales of infamy, it's a depressing sign of what passes for cultural commentary.Where is Dwight MacDonald when we need him, a loud scorn who can beat back the rising tide of  baroque trivia clogging the talk of the town.

 Sheen will likely die a sad and predictable death that awaits nearly all practicing alcoholics and drug addicts (unless he has the fabled "moment of clarity" and achieves the means to keep the epiphany bright, shining and alive), and what I wonder , after all these years, is why this marginally talented actor's relapses are still considered news.True enough Sheen has squandered the considerable resources he has to sober up and clean up, but it's telling that much our entertainment medias squanders it's opportunities to highlight and promote the best of what our artists, authors, poets, film makers, actors and instead maintain death watches over those celebrities who cannot get their lives and careers back on track.

The rise of 24 hour news cycles and instant Internet updating, of course, turns the daily mishaps of Sheen, Lohan and others into something of a low overhead gift for a growing class of journalists, the gift being that of the serial relapser who will dependably screw up again , and again, and provide a meaty grist for the mill. This is the kind of ongoing situation that fills many column inches, fills hours of airtime, and generates unending Internet blather and videos; little investigating, research, or analysis is needed at all.These are the stories that write themselves, and the pity of it all is that this makes the media not reporters of events nor historians, of a sort, who bring coherence to an onslaught of new information, but rather game show hosts officiating over a vulgar, ritualized form of public suicide.

And we? We cease being interested citizens seeking knowledge about how our society works politically, culturally or how it succeeds or fails in it's quest to make ours a more decent place to live.We're reduced to being little more than ersatz sports fans reading insanely irrelevant articles like whether Charlie Sheen is beyond redemption in prestige publications that used to know the difference between what's important, interesting and crucial and what's mere noise, distraction, trivia.

Charlie Sheen is powerless over drugs and alcohol and his life, outside of work, is unmanageable. The phone calls for new jobs, though, will stop coming, sure enough, and this pitiful man's saga will rapidly change from merely sad to being tragically fatal. Our media, though, which is to say the technologized projection of our national conversation, is seemingly powerless over the existence of celebrity fuck ups.
And the inability of any brave editor or owner to change the terms of that conversation suggests a malignant unmanageability; unable to fix what's wrong in our lives, we've been turned into routine bigots exchanging our bad faith over the metaphorical backyard fences and cracker barrels.

Nobody wins.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The DiagnosisThe Diagnosis by Alan Lightman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Out of the DeLillo playbook, a business commuter gradually loses the use of his limbs, and his confronted with medical experts who disguise their inability to treat him and render a diagnosis by having him submit to yet more tests. A novel full of comic moments and sleights of hand-- the father's relationship with his son is sad stuff, two-hankie time-- but there is strong feeling of what the world would be like if all the things that we plug into stopped giving us the illusion of information and clarity and instead added to our anxiety, increased oh-so-slowly another ten or twenty degrees. Lightman isn't the most graceful writer, but this novel works rather well. One will note the shared concern with DeLillo, who wrote a kind blurb for this novel: nominally intelligent citizens who realize  too late their trust in the priesthoods of specialists and jargon masters have not only not aided them in their real or imagined crisis, but in fact made their lives worse.

Feast Of Love 

-- Charles Baxter 

The author-writing-himself-into-the-novel gambit is strained at this time, but Baxter makes it new again but receding, almost immediately, to the background as the chapters give themselves over to the characters' voices that confide their habits and whims of love, the very stuff of their breathing. A surpise, a pleasant surprise, this. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Influences bring us through the future

I've entertained the notion that at some point my writing skills would improve to the extent that I would no longer feel beholden to the many writing heroes who inspired me to pick up a pen and learn how to type. This around my late thirties to mid forties, when  my resume was long with many stints in unrelated trade, a fact that signaled that what I'd live through constituted the fabled "paying one's dues"; I hadn't made a fortune, but I had my own voice, my particular flair , my signature verbal devices, at last.  Thinking that, my prose became bloated and needlessly baroque, and my poetry ceased in large measure to be about expressing the inexpressible in unforgettable terms--John Ciardi's definition--and became, instead,  a pale, if prolix, carbon of John Ashbery.  While I was rethinking my position about whether a former influence still had relevance to my chosen craft, I came across this in a discussion forum about writer's and writing:
Guys like Pynchon and Barthelme are analogous to the Sex Pistols and the Ramones; we owe them a debt, but their art is no longer a relevant response to what is actually happening now.
I  had been going back to my acknowledged masters --Hemingway, Cheever,  Mailer in an effort to learn again what it was they had learned while on their trek toward their famously distinct styles.Some one you owe a debt to is always relevant to your current situation. This is the reason that we acknowledge what we owe.

Thomas Pynchon is certainly relevant to the current situation, and I agreetake Timothy Mallon's comments aboutMason & Dixon: a original take on the historical novel that skews the mouldy texts of mythology and history in a fresh, "made new" manner. Pynchon, along with Don Delillo with his tour-de -force Underworld, are both at the center of American writing, ironic, one supposes, since we are in a time when the current fashion is to insists on the resolute lack of center, or a knowable, defining presence under the surface of things, under the disguises of material.

While it seems to me that Wallace is something of clever if lazy archaeologist writing funny , and long descriptions of snapshots of a reality he barely even tries to understand, Pynchon and DeLillo are relevant to a that search for coherence, the unifying set of references, that might connect the world that's been made with the universe it's been constructed in. Both authors are relevant because , truthfully, the honor the notion of the Search, the Quest for defining, that is literature at it's most compelling, the books that bring generations back to the shelves looking for the titles.

The late work has only gotten stronger, broader, and more concise with the kind of rigor, style and humor, ultimately, it takes to write a literature that brings a digitized culture into the next hundred years.                   

The things of the world we grow up quickly vanish, the language we learned to express the needs of the self in relation to another is supplanted by another species of cant, unrecognizable as to what psychic wire it's supposed to resonate with.

Both writers are intrigued with systems, hierarchies of meanings, colliding matrix's of name-giving authority that makes the explicated terrain, the perfect sphere of a democratic society, a tag-team wrestling match.

Both authors wonder what went wrong, and seek the language, the metaphors, that can describe the loss, and perhaps give us pause to make sense again of the eviscerated cosmology.

That both writers have stressed a quest, of sorts, at the heart of their post modern fictions nails their relevance in place. The search ultimately collapses, as it usually does in credible fictional stretches, but the relevance is that the language of the writers, of their characters in situ gives us ways to think about ourselves: it furnishes us with an imaginative vocabulary that is revitalized beyond the easy-street defeatism that lurks behind the present vogue for unearned irony. Wallace is a good writer when he cares to be, and he may yet find greatness through a long succession of books. But he still riding the coat tails of his betters.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bob Guccione

The passing parade of celebrities passing away makes one sigh, to feel vaguely sad, to feel a tinge of nostalgia when the sensual life was the undercurrent in all our affairs. And then we put down the obituaries, read the entertainment page or write a letter to the editor; we forget who it is has left this thin shell of existence and involve ourselves in all of its immensely complex, nuanced, impractical doings. Yes, I feel saddened, but come one, life goes on, things change no matter what I think of how wretched existence became after I entered my forties. Fuck celebrity worship. And fuck Bob Guccione , the recently deceased publisher of Penthouse, dead as cracked leather at age 79. He was a cartoon of a man, a posturing boor with money. I understand an autopsy has revealed that the man was blind in both eyes and that the palms of his hands were extremely hairy. What I feel sorry for in his case are the years I lost thinking idiotically that women specifically and the world, in general, owed me unlimited riches and pleasure by the bushel. His magazine was concentrated assholism.Well, no, I just made that up, the bit about him being blind, with extremely hairy palms. But it is an apt summation of his contribution to consumer culture, ratcheting up the untouchable, rescinded sexuality offered by Hugh Hefner's Playboy and laying the ground, so to speak, for reducing a generation of young men to masturbating mass of materialistic wanna be's who couldn't come up with a creative idea but who could dream up an endless rape fantasies against women as a kind of revenge against unnamed powers that forced them to live anonymous, mediocre lives. Guccione's product was an escape to some perverse idea of the Good Life where the reader is Man Who Is Owed. What came from that was a sustained vulgarity many of us abide; many of us contributed to Guccione's bank accounts, one magazine purchase at a time.

The NetFlix Report: "Changing Lanes".

Getting around to some old movies , courtesy of the NetFlix miracle, and I decided to catch up on a Ben Affleck/Samuel L.Jackson film form more than a few years ago, Changing Lanes.  It thought it was a decent enough Hollywood "message" film, though it had the dopiest premise imaginable. It's not that I object to happy endings -- in this case, each of the characters played by Sam Jackson and Ben Affleck realize the exact nature of their wrongs and wind up doing the right thing by the world and themselves -- it's that I want the fictional solutions to seem fictionally plausible. The concentration of the events into one day snaps credulity, and while you're wondering whether this is an alternative universe where there are 76 hours to a day, the film drags way too much in key areas. 

Jackson and Affleck are both quite good here, but in the crush of the events that are eating our protagonists up, there is too much reflection, too much self examination, too much fortuitous circumstance for the characters to redeem themselves. Irony is fine, but Affleck's pragmatic do-gooding at the end is too much of stretch, theatrical without being dramatic. Like the film as a whole.  

It's a cinch that Affleck, who is having a comeback lately with a growing reputation as a director--the buzz is that he ought to hang acting altogether and stay behind the camera, calling the shots--has spent sometime pouring over this flawed drama and thinking what might have been better. He, and we, are benefiting from his mistakes. 

New poem

I started blogging about seven years ago as a means to get my unpublished poems on the web, and in the evolution , of sorts, my emphasis shifted to reviewing and commentary, a variation of my activity in the seventies and the eighties when I was a music critic and occasional film reviewer. It was the suppressed academic in me coming forth, a personality trait that wanted nothing to do with the mush and incoherence of poetry (at least so far as writing it myself) that instead yearned for some hard headed clarity. It's not that it hasn't been fun--reviewing is , in itself, an adventure , an exploration in those subjects in which you've been immersed to discover, at last, what your opinion happens to be.

Yes, I love to think, whether good ideas or bad. Writing poetry, though, subsided, I had little to say, my images and ideas repeated themselves, my older material read more like unedited transcripts of inane rants than expressions made in a craft (emphasis on craft). So I stopped, more or less, writing poetry for two years, and concentrated rather on the critical side of things: having an opinion on everything is the easiest job in the world, until you tire of the sound of your own voice. Frankly, my prose had turned into a bleat and bray, a species of barn yard sarcasm. But there is hope, I guess: I've started writing poems again, as a means to loosen up the mental machinery that aligns words with thought. Some of them are not so bad, so please bear with my vanity as I offer this up, a lyric on recollection,
the waiting for the "it" of expectation to come through the door, or to seep under it.

Simple grace would do the trick

Simple grace
would do the trick
if there was anything
simple about grace.
tricky as it is.

I've tried drinking soft drinks
perched like a robin
on a limb, but there is
as much spill as thrill
as the horizon teeters
and telephone poles
out number tree tops
of likely places to land.

Walking on glass and hot coals
likewise get me nowhere near the center of things
where all the tension is released from my muscles,
the headaches abate, and my appetite returns.

You asked me once
what made me happy
and I imagined
an empty glass and
calendars stacked in the attic
next to the noise makers and paper slippers.

Your eyes, I said, your eyes
make me happy, the blue and green pools
I fell into when I lifted my head from
books, magazines, cheap airport novels,
when I turned my face from
the television and saw you writing letters,
talking on the phone,
staring out the window
to what might over the hill,
the tree tops, imagining who makes their way home
and pays what's come due
'though the world seems
to dissolve like
sugar wafers dipped
in angry, boiling water.

Where was the grace we wanted,
walking between bullet streams
and falling bricks to the end of the day
where ever after
was a calendar without pages?

On the other side of the street,
a bike chained to a bus stop signed, waiting for its master
for as long as it takes.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Stuff and stuff

It does no one any good to pretend that Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" is a poem; it is, in fact, a badly aged piece of propaganda that these days radiates the grim nostalgia of an audience that has gone beyond mourning their lost youth and instead wonders who will mourn for them. I was one who took up the cause of rock and pops lyrics being "the new poetry" in the late sixties and early seventies, but I didn't know much about poetry at the time and had no real basis for any claims I made. Poems and lyrics are different crafts, the difference being that song lyrics are not usually interesting, arresting, or effective as language unless joined with the music they're meant to work in concert with. One can't recite "Desolation Row" or "Hey Sixteen" without recalling and missing the original Dylan and Steely Dan melodies. Generally speaking, perhaps too general, a real poem, though musical through various means to achieve euphonious, ringing and hooky results, read very well aloud, off the page, without the music to bolster the effect the worlds would have on the reader's/ listener's pleasure center. Realizing, of course, that poetry and songs are linked throughout history, let us fast-forward to the current situation and realize that poetry is stand alone, by itself, a medium of words, not musical notes. Poems as we regard them, though, do just fine, sans melody, provided the poet does the work of doing interesting things with the sounds of their word selection. That said, Mitchell has a genius of a strong variety, and her lyrics achieve a poetic shading that rises above the host of self-serious tunesmiths who consciously strive for a literary feel; where others sound for the most part as though they're trying in earnest, Mitchell shows no strain at all. There is ease of expression, unusual turns of phrase, remarkable associative leaps. The difference needn't be mysterious. Mitchell is simply a better lyricist than most of her contemporaries, and better than the artist who claims her as an influence.

Written by Melanie Safka

Record people ain't like others
They give bullets to their lovers
They get T-shirts and they get buttons
They go from having to having nothing

Movie people make the moves
Record men live in the grooves
They're always flying to better weather
They go swimming in the middle of the winter

Ma, I'm on the move again
You see, I married me a record man
We gotta move to California
Oh Ma, I guess this is goodbye
You see record folks live very high
To shake the hills of California
Wanna shake the hills of California

I was shot down right in the middle of the fog
Shot down, poor thing
She was shot down, oh she was, poor thing mmm
Was shot down right in the middle of the thought
In the middle of. . .
Shot down, oh, I was shot down, shot down, shot down

Oh Ma, I'm on the road again
You see, I married me a music man
We gotta move to California
Oh Ma, I guess this is goodbye
You see record folks live very high
To shake the hills of California
I'm gonna shake the hills of California

Lawyers who become producers
They schuk and jive the golden goose
Movers and comers who write and publish
Chicken parts, rhubarb, hot ones and rubbish

Ma, I'm on the move again
You see, I married me a session man
We're gonna move to California
Oh Ma, I guess this is goodbye
You see record folks live very high
To shake the hills of California
I wanna shake the hills of California

Record people ain't like others
They give bullets to their lovers
They get T-shirts and they get buttons
They go from having to
Go from having to
Go from having toGo

Melanie is an underrated lyricist, I think, who has cursed her hits Top  "Candles In the Rain" and "Brand New Key"; having pop hits for some songwriters diminishes stature, some critics assume. How could anyone presume to write a song that many listeners wanted to hear more than once? Gauche and gross.  This lyric, though, does yield meaning when merely reads it on the page,  her rhymes are interesting. Her colloquial language fits the narrator's persona well; chatty, catty, just a tad sardonic, someone addressing the myths of Hollywood success through a thinly disguised refusal to suspend disbelief. What the lines cry for, though, is the absent melody. Unlike formal poetry, which would require the writer to make these lines come alive as page poems through a mastery of rhythmic and euphoric techniques that would make the piece a literary object, the lyrics get their push but the lift, lilt and folded nuances of a melody that , in turn, is anchored in place by chord structure. Though the lyrics here, in themselves, communicate the author's intent, the punch, the sweet spot, as it were, is missing. The melody is required for full effect.


Barry Afonso comments: Glad to see someone is showing Ms. Safka some respect, finally. But to your main point … I think the rigid distinction you draw between song lyrics and poetry is just a tad arbitrary. What do you make of someone like Edgar Allan Poe, for instance? By today’s standards, “The Bells” is practically a song lyric; in fact, it has been set to music as recently as the 1960s. Poems published in American popular magazines were often turned into commercially successful songs during the 19th Century. Best-selling poets like Edgar Guest and James Whitcomb Riley likewise wrote the sort of rhymed, sentimental-to-clever verse that is very close to old-fashioned songwriting. As far as I can tell, the modern distinction comes from the loss of rhyme in poetry and the increasing separation of “serious” verse from pop culture. These are developments that did not have to happen. Yes, it is true that pop song lyrics frequently rely upon melody to round out their ability to express themselves. But this is certainly not always true, no more than every mouthful of words spewed out at a poetry slam qualifies as“poetry” according to your definition. There IS a difference between a lyric and a poem, but the line between them can be ambiguous and porous. Art is like that sometimes.

TED: Art is art because it's an expressive mission in constant flux, which means that the definitions are of what a lyric or a poem happen to be are slippery suckers indeed. Fact is, though, is that Poe was a mediocre poet, an arch-romantic rhymester given to obsessive surface effects because, I believe, he realized the vacuity of his content. One never responds emotionally to Poe's cadences; rather we appreciate them for their scansion, which is a distinction as banal as his best rhyming work. For all the talk of poems and lyrics being arbitrary distinctions at best, one needs to admit that the aesthetic of poetry has changed dramatically since the days of yore; reciting rhymed verse is more likely to seem affected and goonishly cute than stirring; there is always the genius who will rhyme brilliantly and with emotional power, but said poets are rare things. The upshot is that rhymes sound stilted, mannered, over thought to the contemporary ear. Recited sans music, one is greeted with the feeling of a peg-legged man pacing a creeky wood floor. As awful as so much free poetry can be, the poets do not, by default, sound ridiculous reading their work. Theirs is a different kind of banality altogether, starting with the waste of their parent's money to send them to a writing program.

Barry: These changes you cite in poetry are not marks of progress, only shifts in fashion. Rhyming seems anachronistic and even goofy in the modern era, but hell, a toga looked pretty good on Caesar Augustus. The times favor the sort of artistic expression that suits them best; the new innovations are not necessarily better, only more appropriate. Eddie Poe (and Eddie Guest, for that matter) may be stilted and corny, but they are still poets. And the likes of Dylan and Mitchell (and Lady Gaga) may well be their inheritors. 

Ted: All the same, the criteria of what makes for credible poems has evolved along with the style in which poems have written; although one may take from the past and revolutionize it to some degree, it's a new set of idioms that make up the current sensibility. Dylan and others may also be the inheritors of what Poe, Crane and still others have done, but they do so in the practice in another art, related to but distinct from poetry, which is songwriting. Dylan is a songwriter, not a poet.

Absorbine Jr: Jack, I must dip my toe into the warm broth of this discussion to bring up the case of Leonard Cohen. Did he cease to be a poet when he began writing songs? Don't his song lyrics echo the same themes and techniques as his work for the printed page? I think these questions need to be faced frankly and squarely, lest we give birth to firing squads.

Man Tied to a Chair: The lyrics to the song "Sisters of Mercy", written as lyrics, remain lyrics. In that case, Mr.Cohen is a lyricist, a songwriter. As the author of the haunting poetry sequence "Flowers for Hitler", he is a poet. He is a poet and a songwriter, and we appreciate what he does in either in both fields by related, but finely distinct standards. Poetry, written for the page, in a tone closer to vernacular speech, has greater range and may make use of more literary devices and is, as a result, capable of greater depth of feeling, allusion, association. Given the skill of the page poet, the poems have a life, a musicality when they are read aloud. Song lyrics, no matter how "poetic" they sound (or indeed, how actually brilliant they may be), are confined to the contours of the melody they accompany. Cohen songs, Costello Songs, Dylan Songs, Mitchell songs, Hendrix songs sound stiff, silly and vaguely pretentious when read aloud, as speech, sans melody. Ours is not an age of great rhymed poetry.

Grelb: Do not forget, my red-combed comrade, that many song lyrics are written first, with melody applied afterward. The confines of the rhyming form are restrictive, but so are many other literary conventions. It may well be true that the lyrics by the songwriters you cite sound silly or pretentious when they are read aloud. This is not, I submit because they rhyme. Rhyming does not damn all of the verse of the pre-modernist era to the realm of non-poetry. The very fact that most critically-accepted poetry does not rhyme today probably means that rhyming will eventually return as a revolutionary gesture. For better or worse/You read it here first.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The death of browsing

Mark Savitz describes and details us in a Slate article about his job as a used book seller; this is not, though, the work of someone who maintains a store front, nor the work of  a local library selling off their excess holdings at a bargain price. Savitz is a professional, as he describes, going through dozens of volumes at time with a scanner hooked up to a PDA advice that, in turn, searches for the book information on various Internet data bases and , in turn, gives him an idea as to how quickly he can turn a particular book, and how much he can mark it up in the process. This is not someone you want to be next to the next time you enter one of the diminishing ranks of used bookstores. The manner, as I've seen, is brusque and professional and , it seems, hoarding,after a fashion.

The change in the business model was expected among book lovers at some deep seated level, but I pretty much concur with the "elderly man"'s that Mark Savitz is an asshole. As informative as the description of his scanning equipment, use of Internet data bases, pricing schedules and work routine were, his article has the reek of a jittery self-defense; he wants us to understand him as a man in desperate times trying to squeak out a living , that he's aware that he's among the bottom feeders in the ailing book trade, that we should understand the reasons for his plight and trust he'll again return to the ranks of normal readership.

It doesn't wash, and Savitz's facile defense/apology of his practice doesn't reduce the psychic stink he and his scanner bring to the sales he shows up to. Browsing the stacks at used book stores was one of my absolute pleasures, and relishing my purchases afterwards an absolute joy. Rubbing elbows with the likes of impatient opportunists like Savitz and his like has soured the experience; that I consider nearly unforgivable.