Friday, August 16, 2013

Genius in a hurry

Jack Kerouac had a native genius for language that I think was, tragically, obscured by the writer's urge to embrace experience in a hurry. In a hurry he was, influenced by both the elusive notion of Zen to be in the moment (or better, be the moment) and the zipping virtuosity of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell's jazz improvisations. 

Up tempo, crazy fast, instant configurations of genius adding up to a pulsing , nerve rattling kind of genius, these elements inspired Kerouac, but even at these speeds his heroes, both musicians, writers and even Zen masters, were required to take their time and learn the dictates of their disciplines; Parker's or Coltrane's or James' fluidity and near perfection of instant creation are the result of endless hours of practice and learning to go beyond one's habit of relying on easy conclusions, tired tropes or fussy, pretentious, hyperventilated phrase making and considering the sound, the effect, the expressiveness of the words their putting together. 


One learns, hopefully, to be elegant, poetic and original with alacrity. Jack Kerouac could indeed be moving and genuinely beautiful in what he wrote, but these moments are exceptions--there is such a need in virtually all his work to make experience more vivid, more real with overwriting that

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Unspooled

 I thought Jackson Brown and Jane Fonda were insufferable when they trotted their famous selves in the service of anti nuke and antiwar causes, but the on going meltdowns of Lindsay Lohan,  Spears, Mel Gibson, Michael Richards among many in the unblinking public eye at least made one realize that Brown, Fonda enlisted themselves in crusades that at least sought justice; whether one agreed or disagreed with their positions was a different matter, because when one overcame their automatic resentment of their celebrity, the merits of their positions were what had to be debated, not their fame. With Lohan, one greets her fame and her actions with bemusement and comes away stupefied by the attention she warrants. She is, shall we say, a pen without ink.What I find despairing is that we seem to  be developing a species of D-List celebrities who aren't merely famous for being famous, but rather are famous for being consistent screw ups, malcontents, kooks , assholes and creeps. We seem to be producing them faster and more bountifully than we ever have. Or it could be that with the advance of media-focused technology and twenty four hour news and gossip venues, those minor celebs who normally would have been forgotten while they got other jobs and otherwise remain obscure now have a second act in the limelight. This says little for the quality of mass audience that seems happy to consume the skankiest details. Lohan, though, will suffer the ironic fate of being merely famous as a result of her antics, fuck ups and spotlight-seeking partying. As with Spears, she can no longer make the specious claim that she's an artist, an actress, someone who makes a living creating entertainments for an audience willing to pay for the privilege. She is a Professional Celebrity, a loathsome distinction. Might we be seeing the emergence of a female Danny Bonaducci? I hope not, 'though there's a reality TV show producer chomping at the bit at the prospect of having Lindsay Lohan drag her increasingly trivial self through a succession of whiny episodes. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

SHORT ORDER

Little Denny kept sliding off the lunch counter stool. The waitress poured his mom another cup of coffee. The waitress laughed, a snorting giggle.

“That’s cute” she said, turning to look at Mom, a young woman in her mid twenties who’d been peering at a magazine as she poked her food. She dropped her sandwich to her plate and grabbed Denny’s arm.
Her voice was an irritated hiss. “Shit” she said, “he’s doing this on purpose, the little weasely rat—“
AS“OwwwwwwwwwwwwWWWWWWW” yelled Denny when she yanked him upright on the stool, forcing into an impossible posture. His face met the edge of the counter half way, where he could see a history of dried and chipped gum wads gum that marked the trim like mountain ranges on molded globes. The hamburger Mom ordered for him sat on its plate in front of him, a mountain of meat and sesame seed buns.
“Now eat” his mother demanded. Her long finger that had been leafing through the magazine pointed to the plate, looking crooked, shaking, with a long, twisting fingernail curling toward the charred patty as if to drop something from a claw. Denny cringed again.


“Eat” she said again “eat and quit fucking around.” Her voice was a hoarse bark.


The waitress, whose smile shrank to a chastised ‘o’ from its cheeky glory, turned to her tasks , minding her own business. She pulled half empty ketchup bottles from a shelf under the counter as Denny reached over the chasm between he and the counter and grabbed the hamburger from the plate. It was the size of a football in both his hands. Squeezing it tight, he raised it to his mouth and then turned his eyes to Mom in order to see if she could see him doing exactly what he was told, a mature boy of 4 and a half!


Mom was sipping her coffee, the sandwich on the plate with two bites out of it, staring at the waitress who was pouring the remains of the ketchup bottles into a single vessel, so to waste not a drop. 


Denny squeezed the burger so tight that the patty slid from between the buns and hit the floor with a wet slap that sounded like a kiss heard in rowdy cartoons. The phone rang, and when the waitress reached over to grab the line, her arm swept into the bottles and knocked them to the floor. The bottles shattered into a hundred red, bloodless shards. Startled, Mom spilled her coffee.

Little Denny fell off the stool.

Monday, August 12, 2013

It comes down to whether you appreciate the conflations Ashbery artfully manages as he penetrates the psychic membrane between Steven's Supreme Fiction, that perfect of Ideal Types and their arrangements, with the material sphere that won't follow expectation, nor take direction. I happen to think that much of the interstices he investigates are results of artful wandering; Ashbery is a flaneur of his own musings, and the Proustian inspection provides their idiosyncratic, insular joys. Had I thought Ashbery over rated and a bore, I'd have turned my back on critical praise of him and left him cold; I have a habit of keeping my own consul regarding reading preferences, as I'm sure all of us do. But continue to read him I do, over several decades.  
Not a rebel, not a polemicist, hardly a rabble -rouser who makes speeches and writes incendiary essays against injustice, Ashbery is an aesthete, a contemplator, an intelligence of infinite patience exploring the spaces between what consciousness sees, the language it develops to register and comprehend experience, and the restlessness of memory stirred and released into streaming associations. Ashbery's are hard to "get" in the sense that one understands a note to get milk at the store or a cop's command to keep one's hand above their head, in plain site. Ashbery's poems have everything the eye can put a shape to in plain site, clouded, however, by thoughts, the cloud bank of memory. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Aristotle's metaphysics, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, a guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgment, and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.One might think that the mtvU audience might be more attracted to arch romantic and decidedly urban poet Frank O'Hara, whose emphatic musings and extrapolations had equal parts rage and incontestable joy which gave a smile or a snarl to his frequent spells of didactic erudition. He was in love with popular culture, with advertising, movies, the movies, he had an appreciation of modern art, he loved jazz and ballads, and he loved being a City Poet. He was more the walker than Ashbery, I suppose, or at least he wrote more about the going to and coming from of his strolls. unlike Ashbery, O'Hara loved being an obvious tourist in his own environment, and didn't want for a minute for his poetry to leave the streets, cafes and galleries where he treads. Ashbery is more the stroller who gets lost in his associations triggered by what he beheld. Ever more the aesthete than his fellow New York Poets, he was interested in things a little more metaphysical, that being that the reality that exists in the inter-relations being the act of perception and the thoughts that are linked to it, which branch off from the perception and link again with another set of ideas, themselves connected to material things observed and remembered. O'Hara was immediate, like the city he loved, while Ashbery allowed his senses the authority to enlarge his perception, to explore the simultaneity of sight and introspection. In a strange way, Ashbery is the more sensual of the two, willing to examine that even the sacrifice of immediate coherence. I’m not a fan of difficulty for the sake of being difficult, but I do think it unreasonable to expect poets to be always unambiguous or easily grasped. Not every dense piece of writing is worthy by default, of course, and the burden falls on the individual talent. Ashbery's writing, for me, has sufficient allure, resonance and tangible bits of the recognizable world he sees to make the effort to maneuver through his diffuse stanzas worth the work. Poetry is the written form where ambiguity of meaning and multiplicity of possible readings thrives more than others, and the tradition is not a parsimonious use of language, but rather a deliberate expansion of what words pieced can do, what meanings they can evoke, and what sensations they can create. Prose is the form that is, by default, is required to have the discourse it carries be clear and has precise as possible. Poetry and poets are interesting because they are not addressing their experiences or their ideas as linear matters subject to the usual linguistic cause and effect; poetry is interesting because it's a form that gives the inclined writer to interrogate their perceptions in unexpected ways. The poetic styles and approaches and aesthetics one may use vary widely in relative degrees of clarity, difficulty, and tone, but the unifying element is that poetry isn't prose, and serves a purpose other than the mere message delivering that is, at heart, the basic function of competent prose composition.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Getting old with Lolita






It's odd to imagine that Vladimir Nabokov's novel of sexual obsession Lolita is over fifty years old this, and it's a little more unnerving to realize that I am the approximate age of that tale's cringe-causing protagonist, Hubert Humbert, that sad, grey character who wooed the twelve year old title figure with such a beautiful and odiously applied poetry. David Gates waxed elegant in an old Newsweek essay on the Lolita effect in American Life five decades after it’s publication, and sure enough on finds in his views that the gamy combination of arousal and repugnance remain the novel’s notable effect; Nabokov, never one to have faith in human motive rising above the blinkered self-seeking, enjoyed having his characters go through their obsessed paces, almost as if they were subjects in a behavioral modification experiment, and I’ve little doubt that he wanted the audience to squirm a little as well, much as Hitchcock would have done with his films. The readership and the film audience are made to feel like voyeurs, and the artfulness of both the novelist and the film maker is creating narratives one can’t turn from easily, unnerving though they may be. Re-reading it, I feel Humbert's physical aches and pains and even some measure of his longings for the touch of a women's skin against mine--I remain a romantic sensualist when all my protesting about the course of the world are said and done with--and yet there is a horror, trepidation in a minor key as Humbert's fanciful seduction of the girl proceeds. I remember reading this in my early twenties thinking it erotic and wonderfully alive with what it made my young soul yearn for, but thirty seven years hence the same novel is a little unnerving. I have lived long enough to have experienced a bit of the adult obsession that our author put to page in 1955, and it's not nostalgia or another manner of euphoric recall. Lolita is Nabokov's peculiar masterpiece that indicts us along with Humbert in the foul pursuit of young Lolita's virtue.

The novel endures because Humbert's interior-designed arousal has not been mitigated by the art of the writing nor a change over time about what is allowable between the sexes. The novel is a joy to read for the rare genius of Nabokov's writing, and the grime-crusted salaciousness of Humbert's game is still revolting. This is the novel's great achievement, a comedy that indicts the reader as being likewise culpable in the seduction of a seeming innocent. I think it's more a matter that Lolita has aged well because the subject of a middle aged man's infatuation with a very young girl continues to give us the creeps fifty years since publication, and that Nabokov's writing remains musical, full of light, and wonderfully seductive in it's conveying of sensation.Nabokov was not an optimist in thinking that his characters would rise above their instincts and desires and do something selfless and noble, and with Lolita he hands us a masterpiece that is ageless because it retains the capacity to corrupt the reader and leave them feeling less certain in their moral stance for the pleasure they've just taken from the author's artful description of gamy undertakings.
The tension is purposeful, I think, to the end that Nabokov's comic pessimism was directed not to instruct a moral lesson, but rather to show that our personalities are problematic things in that we acknowledge what is wrong and what is bad for us and yet pursue our worst inclinations with sweetly rationalized zeal. We are entranced with Humbert's poetics as he waxes about the authority of his senses , and it is there we find ourselves seduced, willingly surrendered to beauty created to describe what is morally unsettling. This is Nabokov saying "Gotcha"!
Where Nabokov got his inspiration for his "gotcha", but all the twists and turns in his relationship (or lack of relationship) with his wife Vera is academic in the most anemic sense, since what we continue to have finely diced ambivalence toward is what he finally imagined in the novel Lolita, as alluring fiction. It remains the job of the indexer and the hagiographer to draw the precise and mathematical formulations as to the relations between the author's failings as a human being and the deceitful decorum of his elegant and untrustworthy narratives; for the reader seeking a distraction and an amusement the important matter is the complexity of our response to Lolita's seamless pulling from two directions.
This isn't the only fiction where he's artfully drawn situations and casts whose multiple duplicities all create mischief of varying degrees of transgression in the erstwhile pursuit of a mutating Ideal. Pnin, Pale Fire,Ada, Look at the Harlequins are all wonderful deliberations on bad faith. I am willing to accept that Nabokov was a personal bastard himself to be able to write so richly and so well of so many spoiled, privileged and vainly deluded creatures; his moral lesson , if there was one he presented, was that one ought not assume that there are firms moral lessons or insights to deep seated truths from the exposure to beauty and elegance; beauty is only a condition of our need for pleasure, and in itself does not make the gamier stuff in this life--the lying, the cheating, the ill will and violence we do toward one another-- sympathetic or defensible merely because it happens to be filtered through an attractive lens. Humbert is a man of self-made pathologies and lacks anything of the Tragic Hero, a great man who, despite great deeds and good works, offends the Universe with exclusionist pride.
He is perhaps a Pathetic Figure, someone objectively without redeeming virtues or qualities who willfully and blissfully contrives a habit of thinking to make their pursuit of gratification seamless and undisturbed by an intervening conscious. Tragic Heroes who started out as individuals who have the potential to make the world a better and more just place, but who have a fatal flaw that will ensure their demise. Humbert is all Fatal Flaw, a ruinous example of errant humanity. The novel is an unrelenting study in sheer pathology, made more disturbing by Nabokov's willingness to grace certain thinking with.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A dry well gets all the attention

Books by Fran Lebowitz, Steve Allen, and Shirley Jackson—one of which I didn’t throw away! - Slate Magazine:

Dan Kois has a blog entry in Slate where he sings the light praises of mass market books for their disposability; if a writer you've selected for your beach reading isn't keeping you enthralled, simply toss the offending book and go on to the next. He cites Fran Lebowitz, fabled New York humorist , and her collection of old magazine columns "Metropolitan Life" as example number one in paperbacks that wore out their welcome. I've watched Fran Lebowitz on a variety of talk  shows for near twenty years and thought she was witty and quotable and all that--she was refreshing in that she was genuinely funny and had no new book, movie or movie to plug--but I thought  she was above her pay grade as a writer. She was a joke teller who seemed to have been bullied by well meaning fans and reviewers into thinking that she was in the higher reaches of the American Pantheon of Funny Scribes. "Metropolitan Life", as described here, was a let down, of course, not enough laughs to justify all the words that came between the punchlines.

 I empathize with the columnists plight of having to write a certain number of words against a deadline pressure with the requirement of being literate, funny, easily editable by  pressed upon copy readers, but my sympathies are reserved for those who have by lines appearing two   or three times a week, plus feature stories, when required. Journalism and not literature you say, and fine, but this does fit my definition of a working writer.

 All those phone calls, all those notes, all those Google searches,  all  that research has to be constantly culled , updated, revised , vetted and finally written up in a timely manner, and be readable as well. Lebowitz had a monthly column, however, and though it's understandable that she may be one of these folks who can verbally sling choice bon mots, insults, quips and curses without the onset of migraines but found it difficult to face keyboard and produce, at will, a stream of words as a writer's job requires, she had very long lead times to develop a topic and create an interesting context for her punchlines; her prose need not have been merely a chatty delivery system for jokes of  inconsistent quality. 

Her reputation endures , which is fine, although I wonder if we are now able to refer to authors who no longer publish as being former-writers. "Write" is a verb, which connotes action , and for clarity's sake we would not be harmed by letting readers now what some celebrity authors used to for a living. A former boxer has no shame being referred to as an "ex-fighter". Why shouldn't writers be just as adult about the matter?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

George Duke

George Duke, a dynamic , versatile and wonderfully imaginative jazz keyboardist, has died. I was fortunate enough to have seen him three separate times with Frank Zappa's various virtuoso ensembles, and with the extraordinarily gifted jazz drummer drummer Billy Cobham in the Billy Cobham-George Duke Band. There wasn't any style or technique that Duke couldn't master and merge effortlessly with his own proclivities as an improviser and composer. He could master any of the ruthlessly complex pieces and arrangements Zappa could toss at him, and he could improvise with lyric grace, funk and deft alacrity over, under and between whatever chord and key changes happened to be in the mix. He was an amazing, under appreciated musician who gave me much pleasure in my concert going days. We've lost a major talent.


Monday, August 5, 2013

The Comings and Goings of Every Tide

Oh, I had thought of getting my thesaurus a good dusting off and making some of you readers work for your clarity, but the truth is that I've nothing critical or insightful to say after two weeks with a summer cold that would not abate, beginning shortly after my simultaneous celebrations of age, my 61st birthday and my  26th year of sobriety, my mind is rusty, crusty and mushy all at once. What is thought of isn't fresh, quick or crisp, in any case, and a quite a bit of air let of the tire that is my metaphorical ego; what I would be a sweet rant or a rapid essay outlining the contradictions inherent in some insanely trivial pop cultural matter is instead just a murmur of words, a rattle of syllables before the   brain begins to shut down again, for the night, delving into the dreams of tinfoil nostalgia and the kind of dread only the snoring and inert can experience. In stead of the rant, here is bit of prose wandering, a poem maybe, or maybe not, but certainly a kind of writing the demonstrates the quality of this flu ravaged stew we bemusedly refer to as a mature mind and personality to boot. Hope you find something to appreciate.-tb
______________________________

THE COMINGS AND GOINGS OF EVERY TIDE

Picture if you will,  full lips wrapped around a pipe denying it's smoky plume, 
Shredded dresses priced as high gear, the possibilities of  wide ties  and thick lapels
and belt buckles the size of home base coming together in an historical turn,
a sartorial demand.


It frightens me to think of these things, nervousness inhabits the veins the blood attempt to pulse through with something resembling a life. Better to be attending an elevated Mass, a refuge from in some hamlet where there are only phone books and want ads, admonishing the earth of slow down, to stay in place, to give a break on the gravity which costs nothing at all and costs us everything to defy as we ease ourselves between mountain ranges \and large bodies of water.

The whole thing sinks, against better judgment, my clenched and shaking fist, acres and acres of  prime land  boast the late bloom of architectural tyranny, coyotes, rodents, families  that have crossed the border seeking work flee the drying cement and are  crushed halfway across  the Interstate as police and

Television station helicopters chase one car full of guys who might or might]   not have done something someone a hundred years ago didn't like when the music
became too much like sex and men and women couldn't help but notice what there was to see beyond the archeology of clothes.  Meanwhile, meanwhile, in all the mean time
that never lightens up to what each hour means it's time for,  whole populations huddle in corners and vote amongst themselves for better dreams, visions from windows overlooking a coast line  where they can live with the comings and goings of every tide and slap of wave against  a white pier.



Saturday, August 3, 2013

FENCE

(a love poem)



A fence runs between
the houses whose rooms
are stacked with boxes of things
that collected over the decade,
ephemera of years that started
when love was love and duty
was a man in a tank watching
Aral mountain ranges on the
other side of a Cold War border,
hands ready for the pistol
and radio at his reach
lest any hoards tried
to dilute the United States of America
in storage,
I slept like a bone in
an airless vault.

But everything
was turned inside out
by the time I woke up,
the fence remains
but everything
I live next to is three stories high,
even TV antennas snatching images
from the sky are  gone from my view,
chimneys are rare
as  honesty at retirement parties,
satellite dishes sneak
the world to
my house of boxes.

And love became duty
to remain on the border
of the bed
my limbs stayed in,
too late realizing that
the line of death was
my breath heavy with scotch and mouthwash
and pithy  perfumes for the tongue
when all my speech became poetry
about duty and honor   while she nodded and brushed her daughters' hair, she takes a loose strand
from her shoulder, she examines the end, the hair is split,
voiceless, she speaks

This where it ends,
I cannot breath,
there are fences running all over the world going somewhere
and all
we do is put the past away
in boxes until the corners of rooms
crowd me
and speaks to me in loops of your language
that's liquid and lost in attention to
details that are about why
you become invisible
even in bed,
which is more like a mining camp
than the place where
dreams slip across the darkness
when we've stopped talking, when our eyes are closed,
when our breathing should be the same,
not a race to the sunrise.

Everything is inside out
and I'm stupid enough
to believe that the man in the tank
loves the world even as bombs go off
around the limits of our fences,

But now I love a room
with high ceilings,
empty corners,
rooms big to swing
a cat by the tail,
where my voice  rises high
and loud and rings against
the pipes and then dies
away like notes plunked
from a fine-tuned piano,
I love the discovery shoes,
sober talk, doors without locks,
windows left open
with every racket of car alarm
and leaf blower
and weekend carpenter
speaking to me in sounds
that bustle
in phonics that flash a language
that words trail
like a dog after its master
where back yards yield to one another
like lovers wearing blindfolds in abandoned parks
horrified that they might
be passing each other as
both their reaches miss their
objects of desire
and both of them walk sightless in the other direction,
around corners
and into busy traffic
before one, and then the other
takes off the blindfolds
to discover that they are
in a different city
than where they started the day,
every one is in another part of
the map, fenced in with invisible lines
that is the borders armies
make whole populations extinct for,
the world
might learn to do something
with fences that run up and down the
avenues and right into the living rooms
so that the couches and beds have
politics in every position you assume
running from stress, I say,

unwind my string
and kiss me, please,
you are a moon I want to have orbit me,
I am a gravity you cannot deny,
you make my fences sway in
your bluster and flower print dresses,
I regret fences I set up the day
you left town,

the last thing to be seen
were you on the other side of the fence
getting into your red Volvo
just before you drove away

with my heart in your trunk.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

There is no noise with out silence

Truthfully, I like noise, dissonance, blistering beats and bangs, cacophony of all sorts, screaming guitar solos, atonal saxophone pirouettes, collision prone drum work, pianistics imposing order onto uncontainable randomness. The scrape and scratch is the cadence of the urban life, due to either traffic congestion, jackhammers on every corner, crimes in progress, or downtown music’s ranging from industrial grate to loft jazz to post-vinyl hip hop; abrupt, big shouldered, bullying, the Futurist dream (or nightmare) of jettisoning the Present and blasting a tunnel through the mountain of complacency towards an unknown future. Or maybe even destroying the mountain altogether; what we can surmise, though, is that it
isn’t the future that is the matter of concern for anyone making this kind of noise, but the noise itself, the badgering, persistent barrage that will not give you a minute of quiet time. There is no room for reflection or  regret, there is only the task of making this    existence so unlivable that we will all eventually rise and demand Eden now, or at least aid in the destruction of those  technologies, customs and accumulated culture that makes the question concerning the quality of life a Moot Point.

But there comes the moment when I have to take a breather from being the frontlines of my combative aesthetic and seek tunes, poems, movies that provide respite from the grind; sometimes I wake up and think clearly for a moment that existence is already noisy and that my abrasive taste in tunes accelerates no inevitable dialectic.Fun as it may be, no universal good is being served. In fact, I am only adding to the clutter, in essence, becoming part of the problem. Sanity, for the time being, prevails , balanced on a thin sting, and my premature jitters seek , for a change, succor, not assault. The quiet side appeals to me as well, much as I love abrasive post-bop jazz improvisation ala Cecil Taylor or the raucous cacophony of Charles Ives;  there are those moods when what I need from art—and art is something which is a need—is a short harmonica solo, a small water color in a simple frame, or a lyric poem that dwells comfortably, musically on it’s surface qualities. One loves grit, but that doesn’t exclude finesse. Mark Strand’s poem here won me over with it’s surely played music.



My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer
by Mark Strand

1.
When the moon appears
and a few wind-stricken barns stand out
in the low-domed hills
and shine with a light
that is veiled and dust-filled
and that floats upon the fields,
my mother, with her hair in a bun,
her face in shadow, and the smoke
from her cigarette coiling close
to the faint yellow sheen of her dress,
stands near the house
and watches the seepage of late light
down through the sedges,
the last gray islands of cloud
taken from view, and the wind
ruffling the moon's ash-colored coat
on the black bay.

2.
Soon the house, with its shades drawn closed, will send
small carpets of lampglow
into the haze and the bay
will begin its loud heaving
and the pines, frayed finials
climbing the hill, will seem to graze
the dim cinders of heaven.
And my mother will stare into the starlanes,
the endless tunnels of nothing,
and as she gazes,
under the hour's spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.

3.
My mother will go indoors
and the fields, the bare stones
will drift in peace, small creatures --
the mouse and the swift -- will sleep
at opposite ends of the house.
Only the cricket will be up,
repeating its one shrill note
to the rotten boards of the porch,
to the rusted screens, to the air, to the rimless dark,
to the sea that keeps to itself.
Why should my mother awake?
The earth is not yet a garden
about to be turned. The stars
are not yet bells that ring
at night for the lost.

Mark Strand is someone who often works overtime to make the small things he chooses to write about into subjects that are poetically overpowering. Though he wouldn't be guilty of some fever pitched overwriting that makes the work of Nobel Prize Winner Derek Walcott seem like a riotous thicket of over simile’d  commonplaces--it has been said that the prize winner has never met a qualifier he didn't fall in love with and promise a home to--Strand has always seemed to fall just short of adding an item too many to his verses.

He does have a leaner, more genuinely lyric movement than does Walcott, whom I find more ornate than satisfying. Strand , to his credit , doesn't obscure the emotion nor the place from which is figurative language is inspired, arch as it occasionally reads. Walcott the poet, the world traveler, the cultivated Other in the presence of an Imperial Culture, reads like someone how is trying to have an experience. Strand convinces you that he has had one, indeed, but that he over estimates the measure of words to their finessed narrative.

That said, I like this, in that Strand trusts what his eyes sees, a series of things his mother was doing in a wonderfully framed triptych that might have been conveyed by Andrew Wyeth. It is a little idealized--the lyric spirit is not interested in the precise qualifier, but that adjective or verb , that rather, that both makes the image more musical and reveals some commonly felt impression about the objects in the frame--but Strand here has a relaxed confidence that is very effective. Brush strokes, we could say, both
impressionistic and yet exact.

Soon the house, with its shades drawn closed, will send
small carpets of lampglow
into the haze and the bay
will begin its loud heaving
and the pines, frayed finials
climbing the hill, will seem to graze
the dim cinders of heaven.
And my mother will stare into the starlanes,
the endless tunnels of nothing,
and as she gazes,
under the hour's spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.

This is the image of someone going about there daily chores and fulfilling their obligations thinking they are out anyone else's view, or better, the agenda of someone who hasn't interest in impressing any set of prying eyes. The mother seems less a figure in solitude than she does to contain solitude itself, comfortable and with intimate knowledge of the grain of the wood the floor is made of, the smell of the changing weather, the different pitches of silence and what the nuances of small sounds forecast for that evening and the following day. Most of all, this is about watching the world, the smallest world , both grow up, grow old, become frail and die, finally, aware of the seamlessness of going about one's tasks and the preparation for the end. This is a poem about preparation, I think; we, like the Mother, come to a point in their life when the gravity of things are finally felt through accumulated experience, as one's responsibilities have been added too over the years, and one develops a sense that what one does isn't so much about setting ourselves up for the rest of our lives, but rather in preparing the ground for what comes next, who comes next.

Somewhere in the work , toil , the bothersome details we get to rest and earn an extra couple of hours to keep our eyes close. The change happens slowly, unperceived, but it does happen, and the planet is a constant state of becoming, of change, and what changes too are the metaphors one would use to determine their next indicated jobs.

Why should my mother awake?
The earth is not yet a garden
about to be turned. The stars
are not yet bells that ring
at night for the lost.

It is much too late. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Tom Jones meets CSN and Y




I saw this when it was first broadcast and thought even then that it was an inspired mismatch of musical sensibilities. Jones is one of the greatest white rhythm and blues singers of all time--range, power, nuance, texture echo Otis Redding, Ray Charles and Solomon Burke with stunning ease and feeling--but he is incapable of just standing still and singing the notes.He oversings this tune--too much melisma on a song requiring a less protective approach is melodramatic, not dramatic, and can seem silly although it  is fun to hear Jones give an overwrought reading of the warning that the listener ought to be ready to cut their hair should things get hairy with the Man.  The swinging, swank,  tight slacks wearing Jones, that guy who has to keep that pelvis in motion regardless of subject matter, mood or prevailing fashion and decor, gets down with The People! Odder things have been aligned, I guess, but not many. Interesting band reactions as well; David Crosby looks amused and looks to be suppressing a snicker, while Stills sounds inspired by Jones' gospel inclinations to be a soul man himself. Neil Young,  the only member of CSN&Y of any kind of brilliance, appears thoroughly unamused.

Friday, July 26, 2013

It used to be that "hero" and "jerk" meant the same thing...

Truthfully, I used to like Aerosmith quite a bit and still get an adrenaline rush when I hear their best tunes. Guitar-centric rock was my preference in the Sports Arena days, but where other bands of the era now bore me and dated themselves badly, AS were pretty much the best at catchy riffs, savage, terse guitar solos and absurdly clever double -signifying lyrics. The words “hero” and “jerk” meant pretty much the same thing, a person, usually male, who lacked social grace and /awareness and would subject the community around him to eruptive demonstrations of a personality that  was the breathing variety of spray-can graffiti, bold, smeared, runny, jagged and stupid as a bag of wood chips. Luckily, yes, luckily, I survived the  best I could do in those days and learned that there were more interesting ways to make art, to have a conversation and woo a potential lover, subtler forms of conversation and chatter, smarter ways of making your presence known. But we all have to start somewhere; I was lucky enough to have wanted to aspire to being somewhat more than a farm-league lout.

The combination of riff -craft and professed cocksmanship was made to order for any frustrated 20-year-old genius yearning to abandon his book learning' and take up the microphone, center stage, instead.  As you know, my tastes have gravitated, gratefully, towards mainstream jazz and blues over the last thirty five years--classic Miles, Coltrane, Mel Lewis, Wayne Shorter, Joe Pass, lots of Blue Note, Atlantic, ECM, Pacific Jazz, Verve, Impulse, Fantasy record releases--and rock and roll no longer interests me in large measure. But I still get a charge when a good AS is played--I rather like Tyler's rusty drain pipe screaming and I believe Joe Perry is one heck of a good chunk-chording guitarist. It helps, I guess, that these guys never got far from some rhythm and blues roots, even if those roots come from the Stones and not Motown or Stax. This may be damning with faint praise, but they were a brilliant expression of a young glandular confusion. 

What makes this art is this band's skill at sounding like they never learned anything fifty feet past the school yard and not much else beyond the age of 25. As we age and suffer the sprains  , creaks and cancer symptoms, inherited and self-inflicted,  our past gets more gloriously delinquent more we talk about it and we find ourselves gravitating to those acts of yore who seemed to maintain a genuine scowl and foul attitude.  Nearly any rock band based on rebellion and extreme bouts of immaturity just seems ridiculous after awhile--Peter Townsend is lucky enough to have had more ambition in his songwriting with Tommy and Who's Next to have lived down the dubious distinction of having written the lyric that exclaimed that he would rather die before he got old.  Aerosmith, in turn, still sounds good and rocking as often as not simply because they have mastered their formula. The sound a generation of us newly minted seniors occasionally pined for  remains the audio clue to an idea of integrity and idealism; what is disheartening, if only for a moment, is that this band's skill at sounding 21 and collectively wasted is a matter of professionalism and not an impulse to smash The State.

Rock and roll is all about professionalism , which is to say that some of the alienated and consequently alienating species trying to make their way in the world subsisting on the seeming authenticity of their anger, ire and anxiety has to make sure that they take care of their talent, respect their audiences expectations even as they try to make the curdled masses learn something new, and to makes sure that what they are writing about /singing about/yammering about is framed in choice riffs and frenzied backbeat. It is always about professionalism; the MC5 used to have manager John Sinclair, story goes, turn off the power in middle of one of their teen club gigs in Detroit to make it seem that the Man was trying to shut down their revolutionary oooopha. The 5 would get the crowd into a frenzy, making noise on the dark stage until the crowd was in a sufficient ranting lather. At that point Sinclair would switch the power back on and the band would continue, praising the crowd for sticking it to the Pigs. This was pure show business, not actual revolutionary fervor inspired by acne scars and blue balls; I would dare say that it had its own bizarre integetity, and was legitimate on terms we are too embarrassed to discuss. In a way, one needs to admire bands like the Stones or Aerosmith for remembering what it was that excited them when they were younger , and what kept their fan base loyal .


 All I would say is that it's not a matter of rock and roll ceasing to be an authentic trumpet of the troubled young soul once it became a brand; rather, rock and roll has always been a brand once white producers, record company owners and music publishers got a hold of it early on and geared a greatly tamed version of it to a wide and profitable audience of white teenagers. In any event, whether most of the music being made by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and others was a weaker version of what was done originally by Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters et al is beside the point. It coalesced, all the same, into a style that perfectly framed an attitude of restlessness among mostly middle class white teenagers who were excited by the sheer exotica, daring and the sense of the verboten the music radiated. It got named, it got classified, the conventions of its style were defined, and over time , through both record company hype and the endless stream of Consciousness that most white rock critics produced, rock and roll became a brand.

It was always a brand once it was removed from the the black communities and poor Southern white districts from which it originated. I have no doubt that the artist's intention , in the intervening years, was to produce a revolution in the conscious of their time with the music they wrote and performed, but the decision to be a musician was a career choice at the most rudimentary level, a means to make a living or, better yet , to get rich. It is that rare to non-existent musician who prefers to remain true to whatever vaporous sense of integrity and poor.

Even Chuck Berry, in my opinion the most important singer-songwriter musician to work in rock and roll--Berry, I believe , created the template with which all other rock and rollers made their careers in muisic--has described his songwriting style as geared for young white audiences. Berry was a man raised on the music of Ellington and Louie Jardin, strictly old school stuff, and who considered himself a contemporary of Muddy Waters, but he was also an An entrepreneur as well as an artist. He was a working artist who rethought his brand and created a new one; he created something wholly new, a combination of rhythm and blues, country guitar phrasing and narratives that wittily, cleverly , indelibly spoke to a collective experience that had not been previously served. Critics and historians have been correct in callings this music Revolutionary, in that it changed the course of music , but it was also a Career change. All this, though, does not make what the power of Berry's music--or the music of Dylan, Beatles , Stones, MC5, Bruce or The High Fiving White Guys --false , dishonest, sans value altogether. What I concern myself with is how well the musicians are writing, playing, singing on their albums, with whether they are inspired , being fair to middlin', or seem out of ideas, out of breath; it is a useless and vain activity to judge musicians, or whole genres of music by how well they/it align themselves with a metaphysical standard of genuine , real, vital art making. That standard is unknowable and those putting themselves of pretending they know what it is are improvising at best. 

What matters are the products--sorry, even art pieces, visual, musical, dramatic, poetic, are "product" in the strictest sense of the word--from the artists successful in what they set out to do. The results are subjective, of course, but art is nothing else than means to provoke a response, gentle or strongly and all grades in between, and critics are useful in that they can make the discussion of artistic efforts interesting. The only criticism that interests are responses from reviewers that are more than consumer guides--criticism , on its own terms in within its limits, can be as brilliant and enthralling as the art itself. And like the art itself , it can also be dull, boring, stupid, pedestrian. The quality of the critics vary; their function in relation to art, however, is valid. It is a legitimate enterprise. Otherwise we'd be treating artists like they were priests

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Photo copied genius

Plagiarism seems a sociopathic activity, like other forms of theft, petty and grand. The thief, due to whatever contorted world view, finely ratcheted system of rationalization and a dependable lack of conscious that they're doing any something wrong, will merely take someone else's writing and assign their name to it, no problem.

The only labor involved was the discovery of the writing that's about to be absconded , and whatever effort it took to cut and paste the material. What is especially aggravating isn't the big names that have been caught pilfering from other authors--Goodwin, Ambrose and Haley can at least fall back on laying the blame on harried research staffs--but rather t

I ran a poetry series for years in the seventies and eighties, where open readings were featured, and among the other poets, good, bad but definitely original in their work, where three regulars who read Dickens, Blake, Eliot, Marvel and Johnson , each of them claiming to have written the poems they just voiced. Others in attendance at these readings couldn't believe what they were witnessing, but no one said anything, fearing a fight or some such thing, until finally I cornered one guy, a forty year old, at the end of the last open reading I would MC. He'd just read a thick, awkward Canto by Pound, and I could see a dog eared copy of Ezra's poems crammed in his backpack. He taken the time to type out what he was appropriating , and introduced the poem as "the hardest thing I've ever composed..." I told him he has to stop taken credit for poems someone else composed. Not blinking, he stared at he, zipping his backpack shut, obscuring the Pound volume I conspicuously made note of. "Fuck, you man," he said,"language is free and genius isn't understood
in it's lifetime."

"Ezra Pound is dead for decades" I said,"and I still don't like him. But you gotta stop saying his stuff is yours."

He walked out, the cafe owner turned out the lights,  and I stopped hosting poetry series that night onward, and that is precisely the reason I'm still able to write and read poetry without losing a lung. 
he thievery of the truly mediocre scribe who continually gets caught using other people's writing as his or her own, and yet continues to claim authorship for the work of others.

A personal note

photo by Jill Moon
Two milestones came and went by earlier this week, the first being a routine promotion in the ranks of early citizenship by my turning 61 years of age, the second being the miraculous achievement of 26 tears of consecutive sobriety. Grouse as I might, my dismay at getting older, of garnering more birthdays while 

I'm still able to breathe, is because of what happened the day after my natal birthday 26 years ago,which was to finally just abandon the jail cell we call the ego and admit that nothing I was doing was working out and that, in short order,

 I would face the likely prospect of joblessness, homelessness, and a likely death. That hasn't happened yet and to this day, despite my frequent eruptions of personality (materializing the form of tantrums, arguments, curmudgeonly lectures and unexpected flair ups of tasteless repartee) I am awe of what happened to me two and a half decades ago; to this day, again,

 I haven't quite figured it out other than I stumbled into a community of sober people whose collective experience matched and exceeded mine and that they had found a solution to their alcoholism and addiction with a spiritual means that they gladly shared with me. This is not to say that I got religion and that's my intent to preach--I am loath to be lectured to, and I remain agnostic with regards to the consolidated concepts of organized religion--but I think it suffices to say that I've adopted a set of principles that have kept me on course for a good number of years through celebrations and tragedies, good news and bad news and no news at all. I look around and find myself blessed with friends, fellowship, good health, a personality that is happier more often than it was no that long ago.

 What a strange ride it's been, what a wonderful journey it remains.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Is anyone else weary of over reaching essays declaring Poetry either dead or hopelessly out of touch? Mark Edmundson takes a turn at being the drudge

This is a spirited response to the 2013 Mark Edmundson essay in Harper's in which he declares American poetry obscure and out of touch. The "out of touch" accusation is legitimately up for debate, especially what that nondescript thing it is poets are supposed to be in "touch" with to begin with, but the charge that poetry is obscure misses the point. Edmundson sounds repulsed that modern in this country has become more difficult in many ways, that the clear vision of someone who can truly see as they are, without filters, is instead beset by clouds. It's the other way around because when it works, poetry is a case of the thing that was formerly being seen finally being given definition although, in the initial perception, that set of elements, the new connections between items that were unknown until the poet's discovery of them, is unrecognizable. Piety is about giving names to things that refuse, so far, to have them. Poetry is poetry precisely because it is more obscure in expression than even the most knotted prose style; it's safe to say that poetry from as early as we decided to subject it to critical agendas has been praised for its ability to avail the poet and thus the reader to witness connections between things--humankind and its experience in the world, whatever ideological or spiritual dogma informs the monologue-- that clean syntax and standardized reason would not.

 The trick Edmundson tries to pull is Intimidation through Erudition--the sheer speed and volume of the writers he cites as evidence of his perceived trend toward obscurity and "being out of touch" and those he mentions favorably are located in the essay to impress, not substantiate. The problem is basically that his subject is too large--American Poetry has a rich and praiseworthy tradition of "difficult" poets and poetry who require more contextualized discussion, and that it is the tendency of serious poets, generally speaking, to address their ideas in ways that challenge conventional language use. He speaks of "us" and other tropes of so-called "real world" touchstones that are ignored in too much modern poetry, proceeding blindly (and blandly) under the assumption that everyone's experience of the world is popped from the same mold. This amounts as an insult to poetry itself and speaks to the limitations of Edmundson's imagination. He makes me think of someone who grabbed too many things from Supermarket aisles who thought he could shop without a basket; the results is that half of what he tries to bring to the cashier is dropped in his carelessness and haste.

The irony of the long battle for concrete and clear expression in poetry only gives rise to new forms of obscurity, for the most part. For all the modernist talk of addressing objects directly, free of literary baggage and abstraction--no ideas but in things, etc--we have instead of new forms of obscurity. But obscurity is a loaded word and I think what Edmundson objects to is ambiguity; whichever one you choose and whatever kind of poetry you’re dealing with, whether light bulb bare or elephantine and dressed in relentlessly hard to place analogies, a reader still needs to work through the poets filters and conceits and put the pieces together. The cry against obscurity, per se, is a straw man--what really counts is discerning and judging how well one uses that innate ambiguity/obscurity, and that is a discussion that needs an actual framework. My basic criteria is how well the poet uses this freedom, this allowance to be off center and slightly vague in his or her argument; does the writer give us a sense of what they are getting at in terms of the memorable, the truly unforgettable, are they original in metaphor and simile, are they a pleasure to parse, or are they merely another slog through trope-heavy ineptitude? Edmundson's point is a non-starter since he insists that obscurity ought "never” to be part of a how poetry is defined and that the principal aim of any valid poetry is to bring "clarity" to its subject. This is a plainly, baldly, stupidly reductionist argument that denies that the world has changed dramatically since the era before prose forms usurped poetry's standing as the dominant narrative form, and that the ways of thinking of the world, of perceiving the bigger picture hasn't been affected by the ongoing flux   of new technologies, economic orders, long and bloody wars, natural disasters. Where the role of art, poetry included, was to reconcile the human race's bad fortune with religious dogma and the like (which promised both purpose and coherence if a subtly and not so subtly shackled population remained complacent and  accepted the status quo), the influx  of rapid change, due, perhaps, with the invention of movable type and the increase of literacy and the general rise of expectations among workers and middle class in their lifetime, not the ones waiting for them in a theoretical heaven, the world came to see as less definite, less clear, in need of a more subjective response in order to connect the raw edge of one's experience against their expectations. Art changed in turn, a natural and right response to the general dialectic that I believe history orders itself as. Edmundson wants the world to remain fixed in the old Platonic notion that there is an immutable reality behind the mere appearances of 

This world and that poetry must continue to seduce us to describe an Ideal that is more perfect, more real (for that matter) than what we have in front of us. This default metaphysics is wishful thinking and a strained argument for the dominance of the sort of window-pane clarity he insists on--it is a dangerous argument because rather than doing the real intellectual spadework of discussing, dissecting, digressing and discerning what is valuable, interesting, notable, entertaining, awful, ordinary, cliched, trite , contrived among the many varieties of poetic forms available to us, he would simply wish that the last  four or five hundred years of the modern era never took place; it is a dangerous idea to try to roll back people's thinking back to before the  16th century. I hardly like every "modern" and "obscure" poem I read--I dislike most poems I come across--but the point is to develop an ongoing critical response where qualities of worth and mediocrity are made clearer with regards to the way the diverse majority of us actually live. What Edmundson proposes is taking us to a land where dead things and ideas, so-called, carry more weight than what is alive, witty, interesting because of the elan that makes it unpredictable. Edmundson doesn’t want to start discussions, he wants to end them.

A localized, qualitative criticism would be better for getting people interested in poets and their work; this debate, about the vitality or sterility of American Poetry, speaks broadly, too broadly on either side. So broad that much is much is undisguised and the point finely lost.  Who are these people yelling into their cell phones about the price of multigrain bread? What does the bread taste like?