Saturday, April 9, 2011


Marjorie Garber's The Use and Abuse of Literature: Why does she ask all the wrong questions? - By William Deresiewicz - Slate Magazine
The central conceit of a much contemporary criticism has been to raise the critic's musings on literature to the same level as the literature these folks intensely scrutinize. This seems a ploy to have literary critics form a new priesthood and authoritative to be sought out no less than the poet, the novelist, the playwright, and philosopher. Marjorie Garber is relatively typical of the academic who feels the need to produce a tract, composed almost entirely of weathered, rusty post-modernist adages, that demands that the reader requires the professional critic to open up the text for them and so facilitate a new rigor in how those so blessed think about the world. "The Use and Abuse of Literature," a manifesto intended to convince the readership she condescends to that their particular takes on books they've read and lived with are woefully incomplete, even shallow. We need to stop asking what things mean and investigate instead how they mean. If you labored for some years with attempts to grasp recent critical trends, you no doubt realize this is something that creates topic drift. Garber gives us permission to not debate ideas put forth through narrative conflict and metaphor and instead insists on turning us into mechanics. It's messy and pointless labor, I think.

Anyone who knows me realizes that  I am not anti-critic--my chief concern is that the profession and the practice resist the codification of closed-system terms that want to seal literature from the rest of the universe the art is assigned to engage and to prevent the interested reader from having a nuanced take on a writer's work that can stand beside the effusions of the doctors of literary chatter.  True enough, the critic ought to guide, poke, prod, and urge a reader to think outside the conventional, freeze-dried frameworks an entertainment media foists upon us; the activity, though, ought to be a temporary thing, as the theoretical reader we're addressing should cease turning critics for clarification and consider them, instead, as a means to heighten their own insight. Critics, ultimately, should be a short-lived thing. Garber writes as if she thinks the assignation should be permanent. This is hubris made worse by her habit of asking continuous strings of rhetorical questions about the whys and wherefores of what creative writers do and then slipping away from her bare assertions as she glides to the next issue. It makes for a splendid bit of dancing had one the elegance of a Nabokov or a James to pronounce their vagueness with the sweetest and most distracting verbal music. Garber plays no music; this book is a consistent paraphrase of old notions presented in a droning monotone.

Even a critic I happen to enjoy, Harold Bloom, wrote a little instruction Manuel called "How to Read and Why," a grandiose albeit slim volume where the good critic plagiarized himself from other of his books about and offered up a little mumbling about reading in a correctly guided manner. Oh well, even intelligent people with insight and several levels of wit and discernment can be subject to brief bits of blow-hards. Though I think that there is a variety of "truth" that literature is best suited to reveal and bring forth for discussion, I am not taken with the idea that fiction, poetry, and plays are intended to disclose facts. I have no objection to the questions Garber wants to ask; the reservations come with Garber's seeming need to rush past those questions and hurry instead to the next set of wonderings. She brings forth a continuous stream of inquiries and then defers, delays, goes diffuse at the edges. This book lacks a genuine discussion of any number of issues, contradictions, and controversies the task criticism contains. She resembles critic Fred Jameson in this respect; there is a concentrated period of throat clearing and harrumphing, followed by what can best be described as a gutless strategy of deferral. It makes you want to re-read Terry Eagleton's books on the critical arts, like "Literary Theory," "Problems of Post-Modernism" or "After Theory." Background, thesis, argument. In general, I am interested in how literature works. Indeed I am obsessed by it, but I am not willing to settle for the Professional Critic to be the priestly arbiter of what needs to be noticed, inspected, discussed; her insistence that the general reader's response is useless without a Critic's watermark is implicit in this cozy apology.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Counting one's chickens

"Odysseus Seeing Laertes"has a burdensome title, if nothing else. We are made to think that a cataclysmic revelation is about to make us quake in our boots, that something had been written in a more formal age has resounded through the historical corridors and asserts its truism as prophecy. This isn't the case,  however, and the portentous title does a disservice to the  poem's real merit, which is more in line with sort of slight lyric that attempts to clarify a vague feeling but succeeds instead in producing another  kind of beauty.The thinking here appears to be that this poem would resonate louder, brighter, more deeply if there was a classical gloss laid upon it. As there is nothing within the poem that clicks with the oblique title --no reference, that is, that would trigger the reader's own associations independent of a didactic explanation--the reference is merely decoration. The weight it adds isn't inherent significance , but merely freight. It threatens to make the poem ungainly and unspeakably pretentious; the poem, though, survives the author's striving to insert irony where it does not exist.   All this is a pity , since this poem has the makings of being a nicely controlled bit of observational verse, an adult perspective of a distant childhood perception that has, by chance, influenced the narrator as he was growing up; through the fog of memory poet George Kalogeris could have situated the speaker's current state of mind and shown us what it was that made him grasp this faint memory with such a sudden vividness of recollection. I am thinking , of course, that this could have been an intriguing reconciliation between parts of himself that have never quite been at equipoise. 
The poem, though, does work effectively as a snapshot of a something pulled up from one's distant past--there is that sense of someone going through their family photographs, placing them in the best chronological order they can manage. A narrative forms from the sequence, and what emerges in the telling, wonderfully spare at its best , uncluttered (save for the title) with quaint literary props, is a young mind as a blank slate which the world is writing upon.
he elements from modern Greek culture aren't in dispute and, in fact, make this an interesting contemporary poem. The weak corollaries with classical texts, though, serve the poem not a wit. Themes of absence/presence regarding parent-child dynamics have fairly much been absorbed by the larger culture have, in fact, become common stock for poets, novelists and playwrights to make use of; this poem, as is, is fine as an evocation of an adult attempt to bring focus to a diffuse memory and can stand on its own merits. It does not need the Classical allusion the title provides; it's window dressing, a redundant signifier, an advertisement that the poet is well read. The poem does not need it, the reader does not need it, George Kalogeris didn't need to provide it. 
This is an alarm bell I've sounded before, tiresomely so; my dislike of poetry about poetry.One of the things that have been choking the life from much of the work of poets these days is the habit of many to clog the arteries of their stanzas with entirely self-conscious and self-admiring references to poetry and it's traditions. Indeed, too much of the the subject matter of poetry has been poetry itself; there are some with genius and talent enough to make the self-referential style swing and sing with real verve and brains, but genius is rare. In this case, anything less than that level of genius--of a Stevens, an Ashbery, a Silliman--is to not be a poet at all. It's a different kind of game, and it is fueled by its own waste products.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The way of poetry

I used to insist that poems that didn't have "dirt under the fingernails" were without value, insisting that live as it's lived by working men and women in America were more interesting , more complex and more important than the dense, academic poems one was made to read in contemporary poetry anthologies. In full disclosure, I was an undergraduate at the time, in the mid to late seventies, an earnest poet trying to be relevant who, incidentally, was having problems in literature courses requiring same said anthologies. There might have been a worthwhile insight somewhere in my whining for a polemic I could write if I cared to take the time, but it suffices to say that I was lazy, too lazy to read the poems, too stoned to go to class, far, far too stoned to read the secondary sources to be prepared for class discussions or for the papers I had to write. I did what anyone genuine undergraduate poet/radical/alkie would do; I blamed the system. So there.

It took a bit of doing--sobering up, bad grades, failed relationships--for me to get wise(r) and actually read the work I thought unworthy, and the remarks of critics who've done their own work considering the aesthetics at length, and I've since backed away from trying to shoe horn all poetry into a tight fitting tuxedo. What was learned was relatively small, a revelation for the truly dense; poetry works in many ways, and the task of the critical reader cannot be merely to attack and opine but to make an effort to weigh a poem's elements on their own merits , studying how effects are accomplished, and then, finally, lastly, to offer a judgement whether the poem works . Not that I adhere to this prolix method--I shoot from the hip and often miss the whole darn target--but I try. Now the issue, from Slate's Poems Frame, is whether a poem can work if it lacks the glorious thing called "heart".

Anyone seriously maintaining that a work of art, be it poem, novel or painting is doomed to failure because it lacks this vague quality called "heart" has rocks in their head. Artists are creative people, on that most of us can agree, and by definition artists of narrative arts make stuff up from the resources at hand. Whether the source is actual experience, anecdotal bits from friends or family, novels, biographies, sciences, all these are mere furniture that go into the creation of the poem. The poet's purpose in writing is to produce a text according to some loosely arranged guide lines that distinguish the form from the more discursive prose form and create a poem that arouses any number of responses, IE feelings, from the reader. "Heart", I suppose , would be one of them, but it's ill defined and too vaguely accounted for to be useful in discussing aesthetics. Confessional poetry and the use of poetry books and poetry readings as dump sites for a writer's unresolved issues with their life doesn't impress me generally, as in the ones who do the confessing never seem to acquire the healing they seek and instead stay sick and miserable and keep on confessing the same sins and complains over and over. Journaling would be one practice I would banish from a poetry workshop I might teach. We are writing poems, not an autobiography .

I would say, actually, that one should suspect that poet who claims that every word of their verse is true, based on facts of their lives. I cannot trust the poet who hasn't the willingness to fictionlize or otherwise objectify their subject matter in the service of making their poems more provocative, worth the extra digging and interpreting. Poems and poets come in all shapes and sounds, with varied rationales as to why each of them write the way they do, and it's absurd and not to say dishonest that "heart", by which I mean unfiltered emotionalism, is the determining element as to whether a poem works or not. My goal in reading poems isn't to just feel the full brunt of some one's soggy bag of grief or splendid basket of joy, but to also to think about things differently.

Thursday, March 31, 2011


David Ferry is among the least interesting poets I can think of. He does, though, come with an interesting premise on occasion, although the result is predictably disappointing; what you thought me might capitalize on he instead fumbles, makes dull witted. "Soul", a poem  now on Slate,  is his  attempt here to convey the worries and woes of getting older through the persona of a lobster is flat, humorless conceit that is not helped not at all by the poet's hurried pacing. The punchline seems to be a variation of an old  12 step group cliche about wanting one's insides to match other's outsides,that one wanted the ease and comfort others appeared to have for themselves. Ferry's monologist feels his body falling apart and changing for the worse and  desires a hard shell, something that both protects what is left and which also hides.
All thought, and all digestion, and pornographic
Inquiry, and getting about, and bewilderment,
And fear, avoidance of trouble, belief in what,
God knows, vague memories of friends, and what
They said last night, and seeing, outside of myself,
From here inside myself, my waving claws
Inconsequential, waving, and my feelers
Preternatural, trembling, with their amazing
Troubling sensitivity to threat.
Ferry isn't addressing anything , isn't discussing any points of contradiction, is not attempting to embrace a dialectic in his experience, that is, witnessing conflicting reactions to what his life has come to and witnessing the facts that result from the conflict, the new ground he'll be standing upon. This is  a man reciting a list of talking points  which hastily connects a crustacean attribute with an elderly human foible .  This reminds me  of nothing less than someone reciting aloud key points of an exam they are about to take or an address they are give.  This is not a lobster speaking, but instead a narrator who is musing why a lobster's body would be better for him than the one he actually has. The metaphor, as I said, is an interesting one and has potential, but Ferry doesn't make it work. The tragedies and set backs and declining physical prowess make the poem poignant, but do not, of themselves, make them poetic.
David Ferry hasn't engaged his idea--this is the writing of someone trying to describe in detail the things they see from a moving car's passenger window, the result being a series of quick summaries and ad libs that cannot avoid their essential inanity. Kerouac had written that the first thought was the best thought ,that one ought not refine their "ah-ha!" with refinement, an attractive premise that has , in fact, ruined countless poems. The poet's job, I think, is to put in the work, apply the craft and, like good actors with a superb director guiding them, don't let anyone see you sweating the technique.Empathy is easy for all things related to getting older and feeling less vim and vigor ; I understand Ferry's interest in the topic. Empathy, though, does not by itself grant quality. He had an interesting at the start when he suggested that lobster's body is better suited to a human one since he is feeling less human the older he gets. It 's just too bad that Ferry's resulting poem doesn't rise above a rambling list of aches and frustrations.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Put Your Ipod in the Microwave

I neither own an iPod nor wish to get one. As a user of public transportation to work, it's an expected sight to witness row after row of collage students , gang bangers and men and women in various states of middle age creep sitting or hanging on to rails with the earplugs in, long white wires filtering down to the nearest pocket, staring off into some spot on the bus where there is no gaze coming back, looking nothing less than already defeated and depressed by the day ahead of them, there thumbs dialing the volume of their 85,000 song list up and down. Contrary to what the expectation of solitude they think headphones assure them, they are in fact sharing their music with everyone on the bus; muted bass lines, screaming guitar solos, muffled vocals, thudding drums, sounding as if the iPod were in tin can at the bottom of a storm drain,
blasting away under the batteries went dead. Not a pleasant sound. On one ride a passenger trying to read a newspaper had had enough with this ugly sound and stood up to lean over the aisle and poke a student wearing the device to turn the music down. "Fuck off," said the punk, "I will fuck you up".

"Turn your shit down" the newspaper reader repeated, and at the point I got off the bus to get to work, thinking that it was a low irony that music hadn't soothed the savage beast, but rather only pissed him off royal, all before 8 o'clock in the morning.

I'm not an erstwhile   Luddite,  but I would venture that folks hunched in a seat wearing iPod headphones don't look as if they're having a "more active, enjoyable inner life " as a result of technology. To a man and a woman, they look withdrawn, wan, depressed, and for all the joy having instant access to every song ever recorded is supposed to confer upon them, they, as a class, fidget and twitch. More often than not their music is simply too loud, and the muffled hizzzzzzzzzle of music is forced upon all seated near them while they damage their hearing, oblivious to the rights of others. Music is then merely a garish or inane wallpaper that puts the world in a position to talk to the hand, speak to the fist, mumble into one's Styrofoam cup rather than interact with the world. This isn't to say that each of us needs to greet and discuss their issues with those they don't know in some mistaken idea of participatory democracy; iPods, cell phones, anything form of  headphones frees one from the common courtesies that make life in the city bearable; the small things that keep us civil--the nod, the thank you , the excuse me, the small things that keep our hands unclenched and our limbs relaxed, are taken  from our  interaction toolkit, leaving little else but blunt, stumbling, aggression. As with the cell phone yakkers who fill every public space with the blare of their voice detailing every inane detail of their day , iPods are
evidence that what technology makes it easy for consumers to do is inoculate themselves against the world and convince themselves that there's no need to give a flat fuck about whether others think you're a jerk for imposing your gadget-happy fetishes on their fellow citizen.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lola Ridge claws her way out of the dustbin

I can't imagine anyone considering Lola Ridge a good poet; spare as her images may be, they come off to me as suffering a dual deficiency. First, her language is flat and prosaic, ordinary in the sense that Theodore Dreiser is prosaic, even clumsy in his phrasing. A latter-day generation of graduate students and their topic- starved faculty can easily fall in love with her poems and even generate claims for quality using specialized and wholly incomprehensible criteria, but this fact does not convince me that my horizons are too low.

Ridge sounds like just another tone-deaf poet; I think she is frankly as posthumously overrated as the splintery metal shavings that Mina Loy claimed as her poetry. Even considering the period style, a quality where we're supposed to suspend our notions of fluid, economic expression and accept as an aesthetic plus we've yet to accept in our preferences, this strange mixture of styles just seems like someone who is dedicated to making their work striking, noticeable, singular--there is a perceivable straining toward original style that succeeds, basically, in subjugating interesting material to serve a self-conscious artifice.

Ridge is notable, I think, for having the still-current curse of demanding that you get her drift; writing for the day when centipedes march over false prophets "who will have their hands tied" is one of the worst political tropes I've read from any poet, period. It's a groaner, a gas passed that rips out during a stagnate, soul-killing poetry reading, a cut-doll of a trope, flimsy and blatant.At this point you are reminded of being compelled to  listen to someone go off on a rant about  one injustice or another , weaving a tale that converts the entire fabric of  reality as one streaming conspiracy of bad bad juju , bad faith and paranoia and wickedly ill-executed metaphors making you feel as if someone had just pissed on you, you powerless to respond, to argue or reason with, all you can do is nod, smile, nod, harbor thoughts of violent revenge against what you don't know. I would pray a compassionate God would give me a cardiac arrest on the spot as a blameless way of getting out of this person's presence. Ridge is that awful. You can appreciate, I suppose, why she was popular in her own day; you can understand just as easily why she was forgotten. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Dredging the memory swamp for  a glimpse of how you used to conceptualize the world as a very young person who hadn't, as yet, been incorporated into the tough neighborhoods of  group think and bitter fear  is often times an activity that will suck you down to the  bottomless ooze of wishful thinking and  regret that will, if you're lucky enough to have held your breath long enough and clawed your way back to the rutted surface, convince you that you know nothing of the essentials that make up the meaning and direction your life took on. That can be depressing; for poetry,the matter is better served if the writer realizes what it is they cannot answer; the vague outlines, the nuanced shapes, the sounds and smells that get the mind swirling are all textures to recollected experience. The past is an impressionist painting and the art of it is in the Not Getting It Right. I rather like Kimberly Johnson's poem "Catapult" for that reason --her sonnet promises to capture her object memory in a set of metaphors, but  comes away only with what the images suggest .

The intent appears to be to make things that would other wise be mere remains and relics on the ground on which they were found into heavenly creations by making them airborne, momentarily free of gravity, suggesting that they could ascend directly to the next level just before they reach their penultimate height and give into the call of the flat, hard ground below. It's a fine idea for a poem, I think, bringing a child's idea into view and to capture both the expectation of miracle graces meeting an inevitable fact that gravity always takes its toll; even better that poet Kimberly Johnson has the child blithely ignoring whatever lesson adults might reasonably expect to be learned instantly and instead try the endeavour over and over and over again, until the agent of arced aviation is satisfied with the results, or, in other words, merely bored with her game.  

Bored or not, the child's devices and desires were to see things in transcendence, in flux, exhibiting the glorious suggestions that a light of God might shine on them; I sense a childhood fascination with flying, sensations of weightlessness, the exhilaration of being freed from the grasp of mundane earth with it's regimen of cause and effect and perhaps, as a result of that liberation, becoming empowered to transform the world one sees; this has much to do with magical thinking, I think, a child's cosmology that deals with the dark mysteries about why life is the way it is, hard, without joy, abrupt, the creation of private myth making as to why things are the way they are, locked into position, beholden to arbitrary laws of nature.

Our catapult operator here desires a peak behind the wall that separates her world of neighborhoods, driveways, schools, traffic lights and the higher realm where everything that matters is a manifestation of grace; this could be a child's version of Wallace Stevens lifelong poetic task, to imagine beyond the cruelty of appearance and to get at the perfected state of Things In Themselves. The difference, I think, would be that the intent here isn't as baroque as Stevens' ruminations were; Johnson, young Johnson, perhaps, wants only a glimpse of what things might be like if solid, material things were closer to God's breath, just an idea of what it would be like to tap into a source of great power. Just a glimpse, mind you. Like Stevens, Johnson's young catapult operator wouldn't know what to do with the transcendent state for too long a period; Stevens seemed stunned into awed immobility and, I suspect, our protagonist here might have gone where ever else her curiosity dictated.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A poem should be, criticism should mean

Someone recently broad-shouldered their way into a decent discussion of a poem by David Blair in order to achieve little else than suggest that those present were taking themselves too seriously with all this high=falutin' nonsense. Predictably, he concluded with the stale bromide Alistair MacLeish that a "poem should not mean but be." That, he supposed , would be the end of it, but those who know MacLeish and his Modernist cousins can sniff a misreading when the aroma seeps under the door. It should be noted that what MacLeish intended (or, let us say, meant is that poetry itself ought not mistake itself as an adjunct of philosophy and render what otherwise be formal
arguments in verse form; the modernism he was apart of, along with Pound, Eliot, and especially WC Williams, was to slough off the preceding Romantic tradition , with it's habit of heroically trying to wrestle the existence into order.
Yesterday, 1:15:10 PM PDT
– Like – Reply

The general concern with the early modernist poets was to treat the poem as if were a hard, malleable material and to write poems that , like paintings , sculpture, photography, would get across human perception, with words and phrases that adhered to the cadence of the speaking voice and which used no linguistic buttressing. "The thing itself is it's own adequate symbol"
I believe how Williams put it. This wasn't , though, a proviso against detailed interpretation of poems--Pound, Eliot, and the others obviously wanted their audiences to see the world in new ways, free of the burden of the past. In keeping with their general desire to improve the language and how it can be used, their aim was also to inspire a more vigorous discussion of the work and, in doing so, about the world we live in

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Charles Simic's wake up call

Charles Simic's poems appeal to me for the same reason you might like a wisecrack someone makes as they recall an incident that  turns into one of  life's little lessons:  whether lost car keys, spilled milk, or walking around a department store with you fly open, a terse, casual summary, vaguely self mocking, with an odd detail tossed in for texture, makes the phrase memorable . We can each supply our own example of things a friend has said we wish we could claim as our original wit. Simic, here, has a poem, The Red Alarm Clock, I wish I'd written.

Red Alarm Clock"I want to sail down the Nile
At sunset
Before I die,"
You said once, Cleopatra.
The room, I recall,
Had a plank floor,
A narrow bed, and a window
Facing a brick wall,
Plus a chair where I kept
A pint of bourbon,
The coffee cup we used as an ashtray,
And a red alarm clock.

This is a perfect snippet of a longer conversation, the start of something that makes you lean closer for the juicier parts, the contrasting accounts of what was said and done and how both the narrator and the "you" remember each other's response. It is a vivid, brief, alluring tease of a poem that does not drift off as would a conversation between two people fade as the couple walked further up the sidewalk from where you stood. It is cut off, rather, bright, loud, full of hard things, a tangible place. A room with a skinny bed, a window that gazes upon the grain of brick wall, a chair used as night stand to hold pint of bourbon. Simic has the particulars of a James M. Cain novel, he all but suggests a lustful reunion before and the beginning of a bittersweet dissection of an ended affair in the rumpled afterglow.

 It's not unlike some smooth camera work; you can feel the lens slowing panning the stark room,  ending up in on the coffee cup --the additional bit of it being "used as an ashtray" is a precisely brilliant fit for the situation evoked here--and the red alarm clock,  uncluttered with poetic language, it's color alone setting the tone of  an urgency both these characters would rather ignore. The clock, though, is enough to bring home the fact that the clock is ticking all the same and that  time runs out for everything, even regrets and reunions. Simic  concerns himself with neither the back story nor the tale that continues after the last line, he focuses on this slice and creates, I think, a set of particulars that create a mood, if not a meaning.

The feeling of  that time has expired is made more tangible even by the way the narrator says, lastly, at the end of his sentence, as throw away detail "...and a red alarm clock ."  Unfreighted with meandering metaphors or latch key similes to ham handedly imbue the object with intangible qualities, Simic prefers the physical over the literary and lets the situation as described create the mood from within it's parts; the phone is mentioned,the color is emphasized, like something remembered , suddenly, brutally, an intrusion of truth that seeps into a conversation that reminds you that yes, whatever was the case before is done with and now is the time to move into respective horizons