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, an authoritative to be sought out no less than that of the poet, the novelist, the playwright, even the philosopher. Marjorie Garber is fairly 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 a 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 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 implied 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 of verb al music. Garber plays no music whatsoever; 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 slight volume where the good critic plagiarized himself from other of his books about and offered up an inconsequential mumbling about reading in a correctly guided manner. Oh well, even smart people with insight and several levels of wit and discernment can be subject to a brief bits of blow-hardism. Though I do think that the 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 and poetry and plays are intended to reveal facts. I have no objection to the questions that Garber wants to ask; the reservations comes 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. What this book lacks is a genuine discussion of any number issues, contradictions, controversies the task criticism contains. She resembles the critic Fred Jamison in this respect; there is a concentrated period of throat clearing and har-rumphing, 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 with out a Critic's watermark is implicit in this cozy apology.

In any case, Garber's insistence that the task of the critic isn't to discern what a book means but rather how it comes to mean is a handy method to avoid the harder answers a roving pundit might ask of an author's work; she seems very close to insisting that criticism defer a discussion of meaning produced by the form the author chose and instead shine the big lights on the forces contemporary criticism would insist the author is unaware of and beyond his control. This leaves little room for imagination as subject; it is a word many critics seem to fear. You wonder why, after all this time.

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
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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

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What and Why is Hip?

Lipstick Traces:
 A Secret History of the Twentieth Century
by Greil Marcus
Image result for lipstick traces marcusMarcus is obsessed with secret histories as manifested in the inchoate habits of a populations seeking to amuse and distract themselves, and his decades-worth of rants, ruminations, and reiterations wherein he tried to wed his original concern with rock and roll as an inevitable countercultural force that galvanized various energies that would, finally, transform the world in very Hegelian way with the larger aims of politics and social theory, we are met with decidedly mixed results; lots of insight, extended bits of associative brilliance that only a word-drunk can manage, but a thesis, as an articulated examination of what is happening in our world typified by art, music, demonstrations, technological upheaval, the good author falls short. Lipstick Traces, of all his work, is the best example of what he does, and I would recommend it to the reader is interested in reading the poetic extrapolations of a writer who thinks that he's found something significant in the rock and pop album he bought --things as significant as the books he read in college--who cannot, or will not, stop microscopically examining the examples he brings up and construct a theory on which his metaphors can rest. Marcus seems to assume that the theory is implicit in the examples he pulls from the dustbin, but he makes the mistake of forgetting that he is supposed to be writing criticism, not poetry. Implicit is the idea that there are discrete but discoverable bits of spontaneous resistance in the arts to the dominant ideologies that control the money, the armies and navies, the cops, that are leading civilization to a blind-sided destruction; that it is human nature to reinvent the world informs and concept that attempts to break an enforced world view. Marcus links Cabaret Voltaire, Dada, Rock and Roll, French Cinema and, of course, Situation-ism into this scheme, but he never makes his case convincing beyond the obvious need for him to believe it himself. It seems a beautifully rendered bit of what might have been.

Marcus might have made his task simpler if he simply asked: "what is hip?"  John Leland did that, with better results. John Leland's Hip: The History is the sort of book I like to read on the bus, the portentous social study of an indefinite essence that makes the reader of the book appear, well, hip. This is the perfect book for the pop culture obsessive who wonders, indeed worries and frets over the issue as to whether white musicians can become real blues musicians or whether Caucasian jazz musicians have added anything of value to the jazz canon besides gimmick. What we have with Hip is a what Greil Marcus has been attempting to for decades, which is write a coherent narrative of the margins of American culture, descendants of slaves and the children of immigrant parents, coalesced in ways in which each other's style and manner intermingled even if the respective races did not. The grace moment in history is that some wonderful things emerged from all this borrowing, posturing and tension, the jazz, rock and roll and a genuine American literary vernacular; the tragedy is that it took generations of racism and violence to produce the historical conditions for these vital arts to emerge. The question of hip furnishes the theme that brings Leland's sources together--what emerges is the story of two races that cannot live together and cannot be apart. 

Leland, a reporter for the New York Times, has done his research and brings together the expected doses of cultural anthropology, literature and, of course, music to bear on this sweeping, if unsettled account as to what "hip" is and how it appears to have developed over time. Most importantly he concentrates on the lopsided relationship between black and white, each group borrowing each other's culture and suiting them for their respective needs; in the case of black Americans, rising from a slavery as free people in a racist environment, hip was an an ironic manner, a mode of regarding their existence on the offbeat, a way to keep the put upon psyche within a measure of equilibrium. For the younger white hipsters, in love black music and style, it was an attempt to gain knowledge, authenticity and personal legitimacy through a source that was Other than what a generation felt was their over-privileged and pampered class. Leland's range is admirable and does a remarkable job of advancing his thesis--that the framework of what we consider hip is a way in which both races eye other warily--and is sensitive to the fact that for all the attempts of white artists and their followers to cultivate their own good style from their black influences, the white hipsters is never far from blackface minstrelsy. For all the appropriation, experimentation, and varied perversions of black art that has emerged over the decades, there are only a few men and women who've attained the stature of their African American heroes, people who, themselves, were the few among the many.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Should poems be beautiful?

I like ugly, imperfect, ambiguous art, especially poems, but I also love form, elegance, an ordered pairing of opposing things that once, brought together, gives us a sublime thing indeed. What gets to me is a poetry that gets across what the poet attempts with a mastery of techniques that are true to themselves, not an ideology.Beauty is something that is limitlessly subjective, and as much as a protracted discussion about what constitutes a beautiful object can be, I'm inclined to think that poetry ought to be interesting on its terms, the best effort a poet and his or her craft can create with their talent and personal inclinations. The problem with insisting that a poem should be "beautiful" according to a standard imposes limits on what the poet can do with a work and, in effect, implicitly dictates that a work adhere to requirements that are ill-suited for an emotion, an idea, an event, an experience that would motivate a writer to compose some lines.

The beauty of the best poems I read comes less from their adherence to formalized structures and strategies as it does from those elements that seem to break away from the phrase-making one expects and combine with a writer's honed instincts for developing a rhetoric that allows a poem to stop you for a moment, ponder the phrase, parse the image, appreciate the shifts in tone and sound as layers are added, and appreciate the unexpected places where the stanzas stop, where they jump to, where they land. These are elements achievable in any number of ways. I care less for the aesthetic choice a poet selects from the outset than I do for the results he or she gets when they're finished with work and judge it ready for a reader's appreciation and response. The validity of any idea is in how it works. Henry James said that, in better prose.

"Interesting" might be a mild word, but I used it because I think it encompasses more things for discussion than whether one goes by whether a poem is "beautiful" or not; beauty, I think, is a banal consideration since it funnels one's concentration on the surface qualities of a work. You can discuss only so much about the heroic efforts of writers who desire to make their experiences--or the experiences they would like to have had--stand out because they've mustered up a High Rhetoric and a line of striking, fussed-over images. Beauty, more often than not in my readings, comes down to how well the world is made to harmonize in all its shades, hues, and tonalities, the conversion of notions into ideal types; what makes a poem interesting, the elements that bridge the gaps between experience, a philosophical position and the word choice which produce, in turn, that effect, the irony, the unexpected perception, gets glossed over. Interesting poems for me are those that get at the exactness of particular states of mind, shifts in personality, dissonant situations that are uncomfortably linked, and an understanding of what makes these written expressions fascinating makes for a fuller discussion, or debate, as it were. Beauty, for me, is a vague and useless term when applied on such a broad scale--as I mentioned before it's more compelling to discuss how successfully you think a poet is getting across those inexpressible things in terms of the unforgettable.

Too much of the time "beauty" represents a conservative, repressive and reductionist set of conditions that, at their essence, seek to contain whatever socially provocative or critical aspects a work of art, a poem, in this case, might contain and which could be delivered to a readership. Herbert Marcuse saw "beauty" as having become bankrupt a term in the late global capitalist formations after World War 2, and argued in his book "The Aesthetic Dimension" that the role of art is solely to produce joy, that state which comes from a liberated, enlightened condition, and that society's obligation to the artists was to leave them alone. I would agree with him, since what he wanted was a population that could uncover the wit and wisdom of a piece (in a manner of speaking) by considering the particulars artist's obligation is to be truthful to their gift, their talent, and to apply it fully so that the particular sorts of truth they're capable of sensing and sussing out from the dissonant happenstances that, presumably, are not readily gotten by those of us who go to work, have families, struggle with daily things rather than ponder the big questions.

This is Marcuse's point, in that he believes, quite beyond any political or philosophical predisposition regarding the default job and obligation of being an artist, that they are definitely the antennae of the race, that their senses are enhanced by their being poets, novelists, painters, architects and have the ability to make us aware of nuances and intrigues, truths usually not told nor considered. I would agree with Marcuse that the culture would benefit far greater from the work these folks undertook if the rest us changed the conversation about whether the poems, the paintings, the books , the buildings created by these folks adhere to a shackling set of imperatives and instead considered the work on its own terms--what is that the poem, for example, might be saying about a set of contradicting factors, and is the language adequate to the goal of helping you go further than the received reactions a duller aesthetic would have you settle for. It's a dialectic, to advance a singularly unoriginal idea about the process--I don't think the artist delivers a set of redecorated cliches about affirming life that experience proves to be patently false. Yes, the artist ought to challenge expectations, and the audience would need to argue how well the craftsperson succeeded in the attempt.

Friday, March 4, 2011

David Blair's Argument with Heaven

In some sense most of the poems we read tease the edges of a death wish, not in the sense that the poet desires to merge with the molecules and greet the large dark before him, but rather more like a curious soul daring the unknown and the unspoken dimension of human experience, the end of one's life, to reveal some knowledge. David Blair's  "A Poem About Heaven" poem seems something like that, a fragmented, giddy swirl of associations that have been triggered by his mother's death; what this mind creates isn't a metaphysical speculation on ideal associations remaining permanent while the flesh fails, or an autobiography to where another's mortality furnishes the punch line to one of the chapters, but rather a rush of sensation, of images, associations that bump, careen and otherwise swerve around one another.   As with the issue of rage, unleashed anger, overwhelming the mind to the degree that the world is presented as linked in a sequence of irrational targets that have misery to one's life, the shock that precedes the onslaught of grief is full of sensations of being whisked around a gallery of past events, significant and inane details dovetailing into one another against rational association. The silly and the sublime are not so much linked as they are twined and untwined in what seems like pulverizing vortex.
I am such an impressionist.
My legs get cold;
my arms get cold,
weird thinking of my mom dying
in my old bedroom, now the den.
And kneeling is weird. The northern lights, 
weird. Arcade lights. Wildwood, New Jersey,
weird, inside my eyelids. But I'm not thinking
of Poe again and the dance of colors.
I'm thinking of the hierarchy
that my mind wants Heaven to be.
A house keeping is suddenly in order, a reinforcing of what one knows in their world is required; Blair gives is a hurried desperation of one examining the things of their world, their experience, their accumulation of habits, talents, material things, in an attempt to repair the gap a family death creates. What he does here with the fast jumps between stanzas, the giddy and the reserved clamoring against each other to set the tone for the young man's attention, is create the sensation of being in free fall. It's not unlike being thrust into the reality of an old cartoon where the coyote, during his chase, missed the bend in a mountain pass and finds itself in mid air, falling only when it realizes that there is nothing supporting his feet; I think the feeling of spiraling down, clawing at the air for anything that might be there to grab onto, is unmistakable.
Why else
these figures
from a deck of cards,
kings and queens kneeling down to Jesus
in the neon shoreline,
tunnel of love, of horrors, boardwalk
only these
are blissful religious figures. They kneel 
because they are weak in the knees.
So much goes through the mind, combinations of shock, anger, denial, fleeting relief; the narrator argues against the concept of heaven and assigns the kneeling tribute to a Jesus figurine not as an acknowledgement to divine presence but rather to weak minds or merely fatigue, insist instead that the things in the world he has grown to know, his family, friends, his community, have a significance that provides him with everything with everything Heaven was promised to be. The doubt is palpable, and the argument Blair's narrator tries to make lacks coherence, but this is someone trying to regain their balance, to brace themselves for the inevitable rituals he knows are coming.
<i>I go back downstairs
to a house full of the voices
of all my family, my whole life,
sure, we are going there.
There comes the point in all of this frantic self-scrutiny where one the dissonant, radio like static of doubt, denial, anger becomes white noise of kind and fades and one is left numb, finally, alone with a stark
set of facts that makes the best lyric poetry and most inclusive philosophies seem no more than an archive of chiseled sophistry; there is the irreducible fact that whatever one thinks the meaning of their life happens to be, whatever one thinks about how things should be or how they should turn out, that however high or low one climbs or descends on the scale of measurable things , we all, finally, going to the same place. Blair's protagonist, it seems to me, isn't at this moment convinced that it will be place where they will all meet again; he is convinced, though, that it will be a situation when the arguments stop and there is a peace only eternity, by any definition, can provide.I think of the last lines as a paraphrase of Samuel Beckett's famous line " I can't go on, I'll go on." The whole enterprise of living becomes an intolerable burden, and yet one pushes further and deals with what's in front of them--family, job, friends, --because one cannot simply resign from their commitments. It's not that one cannot resign, of course, only that it's not simple. Blair's narrator by poem's end appears to come out of the conflictied swirl of sensations and decided to return to the family that quarrels, cries and banters, thinking , perhaps, that in the meantime, the time before one's own demise, it's better to be amid the clamor of the irresolute than be be  self-sustaining and isolated.

Monday, February 28, 2011


There were no surprises at the Oscars, and I have to go along with the consensus that "The King's Speech" deserved Best Picture; in a year where there was some strong competition, the "The King's Speech" was seamless perfection in film narrative, from the script, cast, and direction. As much as I enjoyed "True Grit", and admit that I am a Coen Brothers partisan who will find genius more often than not in any of the films they make, there were times in their otherwise inspired remake where their energy, which is to suggest their enthusiasm, flagged. This, I think, was their downfall in the Best Picture category. Also, I was heartened to see Christian Bale get his Oscar for best supporting actor for "The Fighter"; he stole the movie and was blessed with a role that allowed him to show off his considerable acting chops. As with Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman", the role justified the scene chewing; I do hope, though, that Bale doesn't repeat the riff ; it didn't do Pacino that much good in his subsequent films; save for a movie or three since his Oscar win, his RANDOM VOLUME!!!  the method has become a means of self-parody. Give that man a Soma soaked Twinkie. I was especially warmed by Melissa Leo's winning best-supporting actor as the domineering mother in "The Fighter"--I've been a fan of hers since she portrayed detective Kay Howard in the television show "Homicide: Life on the Street"; she was terrific, nuanced, crabby, an emotionally pinched person slow to change her distorted worldview, and Leo played it wonderfully.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The good graces of Mary Karr

I haven’t been to church in decades as a matter of habit, and confess the only time I set foot in a pew is for either funerals or weddings. One will have to take it on faith that while I haven’t renounced God nor made statements to the effect that ours is a reality without a spiritual r recourse, my ideas of spirituality have changed over the last forty years; it just seems to strange to think of God as being willing to be a bully demanding ritualized acts of devotion and loyality while a fate he won’t reveal , the “meaning of life” we drink too much booze and coffee to discern, unravels. Is the All Powerful a vain micro-manager? I don’t think so, and entreaties to Him can be done, I think, without wishing for more for oneself, or wishing harm to befall those who we think smited us. Yes, I turned my back and have little interest in investigating the religion of my youth, but surprise again, sometimes my curiosity is aroused, as it was when I happened across this fine poem by Mary Karr in online version of Poetry Magazine, a sly hymn called “Disgraceland”/Strange and wonderful; I am a lapsed Catholic at best (a curious agnostic, perhaps?), but I recognize the parallels Karr draws here with her truly ethereal poem.
Christ was of this earth and of the human race because his task was to suffer various degradations for preaching a moral philosophy that would, after all, deliver humanity from its base motives and actions, all this so he might transcend and come into that state of grace that is tempered, conditioned by experience. We come to know what it is we are being delivered from, the sins, their consequences, and their horrible toll. Karr's narrator, born into a Christian life, goes her own way, feeling each pain, pleasure, the exact quality of being human:
Eventually, I lurched out to kiss the wrong mouths,
get stewed, and sulk around. Christ always stood
to one side with a glass of water.
I swatted the sap away.

Christ was always there with the glass of water, that thing that refreshes and gives life to tired limbs, but he would not intervene to make Karr's wayward soul come into the house of his father; she must know her own experience, have her own narrative to fasten a merging faith upon, and come of her own accord to another way of being;
When my thirst got great enough
to ask, a stream welled up inside;
some jade wave buoyed me forward;
and I found myself upright
in the instant, with a garden
inside my own ribs aflourish. There, the arbor leafs.
The vines push out plump grapes.
You are loved, someone said. Take that
and eat it.

A phrase you might have heard of; she had to get sick and tired of being sick and tired. This has all the trappings of things I hear at AA meetings, yes, but AA shares are either drunkalogues or hard-core sales pitches that will speak of an intervening Higher Power in Street terms. The quality of a good AA share is that one This poem is jargon free, as I read it, and the mention of Jesus and references to spiritual things are voiced in a tongue that is plain but not dull; her rhythm is sure.
It has been remarked that this poem isn't much more than what you'd get in a better class of women's magazines and that what delivers is a rather conventional story, but I think there are crucial distinctions to be made.This is quite a bit different than what you'd find in women's magazines, in that the ground covered in those articles are tear jerkers, better class or no, and there's an inescapable residue of self pity/self congratulation through out these publications that creates a particular consumer mind set that is perfect for delivering an audience an empathetic audience to corporate advertisers. The swings of the downbeat and the upbeat do not go against the not so subtle requirements of the revenue stream. Karr's poem is somewhat different, and she tells the tale differently as well; it is the form of testimony, of confession and reclamation, and there is no wallowing in the details of a wasted past; as per the requirements of contemporary poetry, pace Pound, Eliot and Yeats, there are associative leaps in the narrative, elisions, ideas contained in images that convincingly, for me, convey the more abstract notions of life with and without grace. Poetry isn't required to dramatically thrust a reader into areas of consideration they wouldn't have thought of or might have been too lazy to explore, but rather work well on its own terms, within its particular structure, congruent with its unique ambition.
This needn't be the grand entrance of Christ as one can read in Flaubert's tale "The Legend of St. Julian Hospitator" from his book Three Tales. Karr , in her own fashion, speaks of the Personal Jesus much is made of these days and finds Him in an unconventional, almost banal manner, after a life that, while not chaste nor righteous, isn't portrayed as especially heinous or glutted with evil deeds. What takes me my surprise is Karr's conception of a savior who speaks not to saving one's soul for eternal salvation but instead a Christ who can help her appreciate the life she has and make something useful of. This is a Christ who wants her to live fully on this earth, not to treat her religious experience like it were an audition for American Idol. Surprise, this is a Jesus who wants us to live as adults, not pavlov'd dolts who drool when a bell rings.
What I especially appreciate here is that Karr
 This is quite a bit different than what you'd find in women's magazines, in that the ground covered in those articles are tear jerkers, better class or no, and there's an inescapable residue of self pity/self congratulation through out these publications that creates a particular consumer mind set that is perfect for delivering an audience an empathetic audience to corporate advertisers. The swings of the downbeat and the upbeat do not go against the not so subtle requirements of the revenue stream. Karr's poem is somewhat different, and she tells the tale differently as well; it is the form of testimony, of confession and reclamation, and there is no wallowing in the details of a wasted past; as per the requirements of contemporary poetry, pace Pound, Eliot and Yeats, there are associative leaps in the narrative, elisions, ideas contained in images that convincingly, for me, convey the more abstract notions of life with and without grace.
Poetry isn't required to  violently thrust a reader into areas of consideration they wouldn't have thought of or might have been too lazy to explore, but rather work well on its own terms, within its particular structure, congruent with its unique ambition. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Used Books: "Pastoralia" by George Saunders

A funny book

Author George Saunders is a crazed ,surrealist comedian who , in his tales of conflated literary genres and cultural traits defying any personalized sense of proportion  you might have and cherish, reminds you in moments of  the three year old for whom there is no required separation between ideas, things and the places where they may belong.  That is to say what ever makes sense in the telling of a tale is okay, is alright, is perfectly natural, "natural", that is , because it occurred to the three year old while his mind gathered it's narrative materials. Nothing is excluded, no matter how out of wac. So it is with Saunders, who's 2001 story collection Pastoralia is simply an inspired and condensed can of insanity.

Something about this world reminds me, fleetingly, of The Bed Sitting Room, a film directed by Richard Lester, where addled Brits go about their business after a three-second nuclear war, as if nothing had happened, unaware that their actions are very odd permutations of old habits. This , along with the fact that some characters are morphing into inanimate objects.

What's similiar is that they way you, like Lester, treat your inventions less as weirdness for it's own sake--Tom Robbins when he's boiling over--but how you keep the descriptions and the details of your character's lives in scale; your tone has the unfoldings and detail bask in the light of their own skewed logic: the details relate to one another. "Sea Oak" , with all it's reversals and inversions , pretty much gets the internalized logic of diminishing returns in strip clubs. The returned aunt from the dead, pissed an aggressive economic agenda for a family of whiners, was genius.His use of brief sentences and jerky dialogue makes this skewed universe clang and clack with a sound and feel not so removed from the actual world: his attention to the banal, and his twisting the items just so, makes this a wonderful set of satires. "Sea Oak" is particularly brilliant.

A basic and important strength in your writing is the spare style you prefer to use, as it allows you, it seems to be, to accumulate the carnivalized strangeness and build on it credibly, if that's the word to use. It gives your zaniness a subtle, additional dimensionality that makes this series of tales read like descriptions of a fully realized universe.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Monkee Grip Glue

The unreclaimable Monkees.
 The Monkees are evidently reformed and touring to cash in the 45th Anniversary of their being manufactured by Hollwywood producer Don Kirshner and his cronies, and an item in The Telegraph would have us believe that the fellows overcame the general scorn heaped upon them and ascended into what there was of the hallowed Rock Pantheon.  At best, the article was a vigorous piece of nonsense. 

Author, please pick up your last check on the way out, as this is the worst sort of puffery one could imagine. Exactly no one took the Monkees seriously as a band, and their chops as a comedians were not held in high regard . Yes, they sold... millions of units, but so has Kraft Cheese, a product who's  popularity reveals how scarce good taste actually is. The Monkees  were a band for teenyboppers with allowance money to burn. It is possible to compare them to the Beatles or the Marx Brothers, but this serves only to demonstrate what they lack. They might have been pioneers of a sort, but they were and remain a fancy you grow out of as your tastes mature; there is the hope that a music fan discovers the good stuff. Theirs was a music glutted by fads , gimmicks and tricks heaped on an albums of songs that were at best cast offs from professional songwriters; it sounded corny back in the day, and the Monkees has aged badly. It sounds pretentious, inane, flimsy constructions gussied up with every studio trick available. The Monkees problem is  worse because, 45 years later, they haven't their youthful cuteness to help get away with the slithering saliva trail they called rock and roll. They are bound to look pathetic. Is this what fans really want to see? 

I should say that the mini-rant was not about these guys individually; Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork have chops, to be sure. But the distinction is that they were members of a combine that was a commercial venture... that was disguised as a rock band,and as far as rock bands go, they were lacking in whatever good graces it takes to be real pantheon members. As an entity, the Monkees were a disgrace. The same may be said of the Sex Pistols, Brit wastrels Malcom McLaren hired to fulfill his fashion sense. The difference is that the Pistols had the integrity to break up unceremoniously. To paraphrase, Johnny Rotten asked the audience at their last US gig if they ever felt they'd been cheated. The Monkees, collectively or individually, never had the honesty to admit that they were a money making fraud.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Art and anger

Anger as artistic virtue is short lived and becomes, too often, monotony. The idea that the artist must get himself into a full , frothing lather, burst out of his clothes while his engorged (and enraged) muscles morph to sizes beyond a believable scale is absurd on the face of it; the writer, the poet, the painter, the sculptor, the photographer,  the artist, whatever the medium, would be too intent on screaming "Hulk Smash Puny Critics" rather than focus their energy on the literal and metaphorical canvas in front of them. 
The artist, if nothing else,is that person who occupies themselves with experssing their sense of things in an externalized manner after  the things that they've taken in--a heartbreak, being fired, a wedding, good sex, a death, a disease, a visit from the In Laws--has gestated for a period, has been assimiliated, so to speak, into one's being and the artist can attain equilibriu, for awhile at least, through the  artistic act. 
The experience, that is, becomes the raw material the artist will use after  the rage has subsided and the painter, the poet, the  novelist has had their offended ego return to human proportions. Passion will remain, to be sure, but the anger, well...I would venture that the anger is an impediment and needs to cool to something that one can pick up and examine and , eventually,  use as something that motivates one to make reconfiguations, not commit homicide. This has presented a credibility problem for both aging punkers and wrinkled heavy metalheads who find themself trying to live up to a past decade's reputation with a gasping exaggeration. 
I find Chrissie Hinde attractive because she never lost her sense of humor or irony. Interestingly enough, she didn't market herself as an angry punk woman; the tone is bitter at times, more often bittersweet, and the attitude of her lyrics is that she pushes on toward the goal of making her life a good fit for the reality she's found herself in.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Target Practice

White European Americans are the only ethnic assortment someone can make fun of with impunity; it's now beyond whatever value it as irony or poetic justice and now exists as a bad habit for taking cheap shots.
A laugh and a good wicked snort can be had making fun of the habits of poets, but limiting the odd ways to white folks alone amounts to taking the easy way out no less than some of the poems that appear on Slate.

 Everyone is in a hurry to get to an easy punchline, not in the interest of having an audience see their own foilbes but rather so the motor mouthing wise guying can jet through another batch of sarcasms so lame that one wouldn't even dare utter them at 1am on a Comedy Store Amatuer Night.

Is someone brave enough to investigate the wierdness that besets ethnic groups in particular once they become infected by the poetry flu? Not really, it seems, and white people remain the easy target one may mock with out the slightest fear of being called to the carpet for the stereotyping disrespect. It's a sorry, lame ass practice.