Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Google your face

The ripped-seam relativism of Post modernism is evident in the work of so-called New Journalists, whose cultural reporting used fictional techniques to tell fact-based stories, writers such as Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Peter Matthiessen. The school, if there ever was one, has faded as something one claims as current, but the flashy prose style and application of novel-like strategies remains influential. The method has left a trace that seeps upward through the soil and is absorbed, as an influence, by a generation of journalists nee bloggers, historians and social loud mouths who may well be unaware that loud mouthed application of fictional narrative structure to actual events isn’t something that was always with us.

The New Journalist were  post modern in their coverage of events-- whether the writers themselves were modernists in sensibility is irrelevant to work they did. The style defined, in the usual quarters, as the eclectic jumbling of categories and styles, the blurring of distinctions of generic distinctions, and transgressive of boundaries that were formerly considered sacrosanct, immutable, unyielding.  Some years ago that sounded revolutionary and seemed a lethal theoretical blow to the constructs of the vaguely described ruling class controlling the conversation and the terms.  There are masterpieces in the genre, yes, but a good amount of it reads agitated and shrill, written by writers drunk on adjectives and cheesy effects who tried mightily to goose a number of ordinary stories.

The work evident in Armies of the Night, The White Album, In Cold Blood, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, and other sublime and less-sublime examples of the approach fulfill what's come to be the givens, and even clichés of post-modern writing. It's not unreasonable to think that writers normally considered Modernists would take what's thought to be a post modern strategy in order to achieve perspective that normally form would make more difficult. Carrying about the matters involved in a story hardly disqualifies a work, or a writer, from being a post modernists. The cool, ironic stance that is supposed to problematize the conditions of narrative formation seems more as a pose critics who have a curious aversion for writing that is meant to illicit a galvanizing reader response: it sounds more like a good rap than good reasoning. The conflation of the irrational of fictional dynamics and the reasonable presentation of vetted facts is exactly the kind of writing literature ought to be engaged in, whatever slippery pronoun you desire to append it with. Being neither philosophy, nor science of any stripe, fiction is perfectly suited for writers to mix and match their tones, their attitudes, their angles of attack on a narrative schema in order to pursue as broad, or as narrow, as maximal or minimal a story they think needs to be accomplished.  New Journalism seemed, for many, not just history in a hurry but Philosophy on the fly. The attack on modernisms' arrogance that it was the light to the "real" beneath the fabrications that compose our cosmology, is grossly over stated, it seems, vastly over regarded: Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Stein, arguably literary modernism's Gang-Of-Four, did not, I think, tell us in any specified terms exactly what that true reality was, or what it was supposed to be, but only that the by dicing up, challenging, making it strange and making it new could we challenge ourselves, as artists, and as readers that new perceptions, and new ideas about the nature of the world could be had. 

Individually , each writer had a different idea of heaven that they wanted the world to become--Pound was ultimately a befuddled, albeit fascist sympathizer, and Eliot became a conservative Royalist (and their anti-Semitism is problematic for anyone looking for real-time heroes)-- but so far as the principle thrust of their work, which was away from the straight jacket of accumulated literary history and toward something new and different that renewed the possibility of art to engage the times in an aesthetically relevant manner, is scarcely diminished in power merely because it came before.

In any event, New Journalists never as a group never referred to themselves as "post modernists", and the style, now faded some what, has been absorbed by the culture as an accepted style for very mainstream consumption. The news story-literary-narrative scarcely raises an eyebrow today. But the judgment of history has these writers, nominal modernists perhaps, performing the limpest of avant gard  gestures, interrogating the margins of genre definitions, and making impossible to regard news reporting quite the same again. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014


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 audience's 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, the story goes, turn off the power in the 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 integrity, 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.

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 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 a 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 music--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 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. This is not a coherent way to enjoy music. One is assuming that one does, or at one time did, enjoy music.

All entrepreneurs are risk takers, for that matters, so that remains a distinction without a difference. 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. God forbid.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

short exchange

My friend Burt,whose real name is something else, wrote me this:
Talent is something of a cultural construct, is it not? There are times when those who constructed the Western Canon would not allow a work to be entered because of its subject matter and the disreputable pedigree of its author. Standards of talent are hinged to artistic value, which must speak to the concerns of the moment.

The condemnation of risk-takers and canonical violators of all types is as old as written civilization. I have no doubt that the elites of Sumeria smashed any tablets that attempted to challenge the supremacy of Gilgamesh.

True, there is a lot of trivia and self-indulgence clogging up the taste-filters of today.  But the enemy has NEVER been from the outpourings of unfiltered individuals. Those who uphold the rigid standards of the past – whether set by Tender Buttons or the King James Bible – are the foes of a vital cultural life. It's the cultural pontiffs -- not the punks -- who deserve our skepticism and often our disdain. 
I responeded thusly, if not promptly:

I agree with your general assessment of the risk/talent dynamic, but I would venture further and argue that we need to skeptical of anyone's say-so and disdain any set of world-shrinking absolutes. Cultural pontiffs--choice phrase, Ace--often enough start off as punks and wind up giving us revised histories of their salad day heros by arguing at length that the music, the novels, the plays and the poetry they liked in college and early professional life didn't try to smash rules, break forms or set fire to the palace , but rather tried to return art and aesthetics to principles that have been dormant, abandoned, forgotten.

Eloquent apologies for one's formative taste, though, does not constitute a defense of the starker, more brittle frameworks that have dissolved like so much sugar in the guise of avant gard impulse; I am all for risk taking and rule breaking, but even the nastiest, least comprehensible bodies of work created by suitably sociopathetic experimenters there are things that catch your ear, your eye, your fancy as you read what's in front of you, there are measures of genius that find that one thing in experience, that issue that no one had engaged, that combination of forms, ideas and attitude that had yet to be combined that strikes you a get level as real genius.

I think these elements are genetic, organic, a hard to phrase dimension of human experience that transcends , easily , the problematic situation  of social construction and canon making. This is why I tend to support subjective or heroic criticism--the critic less as taste maker than as someone who gathers their responses, knee jerk and reasoned both, and conducts an inquiry to his own first-person criteria as to what constitutes failure or success in a frame, in a line, in a string of musical notes.Delete

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Every Bad Guy Wore a White Hat

On a level more reptile than it is Descartes, I agree with the idea that experience was more nuanced and greater meaning in other years before technology encroached on that private psychic space we and made our pleasures less joyful, cheaper, less resonating, but that level would be emotional, not really sociological. It would be a space where we would subjective to the point that there was only one subject, each of us individually isolated with our harvested anxieties and carpentered neurosis. As metaphor, our existence would be akin to a many storied flop house where you don't see the residents , but you are a witness to other evidence of great minds turning on themselves, mostly with aromas of burnt food, unflushed toilets and what sounds like several people rocking back and forth continuously on noisy bed springs, all night, all day, until the end of time or sleep overcomes  you at last.

History, in a very strong sense, has been technology and capitalism 's constant debasement and de-centering of the personal, the meaningful, the authentic; gadgets of all sorts, whether the printing press, radio, movies, television, public universities, have reduced previous centers of cosmology-cohering , rearranged social arrangements between classes and institutions and made everyone with half a wit rethink what they thought they knew and construct their own version of being thrown out of Eden. And the same naysayers to progress--progress in this sense being neither positive nor negative but rather being inevitable, unavoidable despite the appearance of resistance-- that what was in place was better because things were slower, richer, more nuanced.
Yes, quantity changes quality, but Engels, credited with coining that pert phrase, neglected to add that change needn't be for the worse; in many cases it can be argued that technology , with its capacity to create new kinds of contexts in which experience is had, registered and expressed, has improved quality. More often than not, though, my guess is that what Engels and Franzen miss is that things change because they have to--change is the only constant--and that however much we want to regard ourselves as a culture of educated , discerning individuals, we have a herd mentality; men and women are species being who behave as such.
Our principle difference with other animals in regard to our basic responses and reactions are that we language skills that helps create the philosophy and art that helps us believe that we make everyone of our decisions through the choice use of free will. Some of us are smarter than others, though (yes, I believe that) and one is tasked with making the best choices about what to WITH the new technologies rather than grouse and complain that something need to be done ABOUT the new world that is constantly unfolding. Franzen is not a moralist about good virtues and a better life that is now gone, he is an obsessive crybaby who trades in nostalgia as a means of making himself distinct from other literary sorts who want to be cultural critics . His mourning over an idealized past isn't a moving paean at this point, its shtick.

Finding Corn in the Pone

"Sewage Has It's Say", a poem by Steven Cramer, stinks to the highest reaches of irony, and it's a fine thing too.A monologue in essence, the essence of which is the voice of what we consume processed and reduced to it's fouler essences in turn. This is the food we eat and the drinks we imbibe with all the cosmetics of preparation removed, after all the benefits (nutrition, energy) and debits ( obesity, high blood pressure) have been had. Insulted, railed against, invariably used as a pejorative, equated with the foulest intents and deeds a race is capable of, sewage finds it's voice, it talks back to the world that is other wise obliged to consume and make crap and crud an unavoidable consequence; there is hypocrisy here, the fetid mess proclaims, everything winds up in this repulsive stew:

Give me roots prying into the joints
of your main waste line, Charmin
thickening her web first to a nest,
then to a dam, and I'll sluice in reverse,

top the basement tub and spill
into a poem! Damn! I've sunken
to new heights! Will you take
a hint and stomach your disgust?

What does The Thinker look like
he's doing? How come Luther heard
God's thunderclap of justice via faith
whilst sitting on the privy?

Steven Cramer has an especially acute wit to imagine a dark mass taking on a voice one could imagine being intoned by a hammy Shakespearean actor intent on over-emoting the lines, a misunderstood and maligned end product talking shop with a product , Charmin, that's ostensibly dedicated to wiping it out. But wipe as much you can, the stinking sludge maintains, you will become part of this flushed proletariat, these breakdowns of food stuffs, fecal encrusted tissues, diapers, sanitary napkins, condoms, illegal drugs and syringes.

At the heart of the matter is that is we really are what we eat, echoing an otherwise stale counter culture cliche, and regardless of how we gussy up the chambers with spray-can aroma, disinfectants , no matter how much art and artifice we set around our dinner table preparations, regardless to what extreme we pervert language to raise our collective self image and have our race be at the top of the food chain, we are in the food chain none the less, inseparable, consuming vast amounts of products to keep the mortal body a going concern, producing waste in all varieties, forms.

You know...where love's pitched his mansion, so
don't shower so much. Squeaky clean's
for mice. No soap's got enough tallow
to wash out the mouth mouthing off.

What made you so ... nice? Polite's
kind of like death, isn't it? Okay, not
quite. But consider this, my sweet kin
in excretion: to flies we taste like candy.

Whether it's The Thinker or Theologians considering the feasibility of a personal God, everything resembles the process of taking a dump, a long and ponderous crap, the moment when every idea one has absorbed in passing finally passes through us, if we're lucky enough , leaving only that bit of nutritional purity that has helped us grow, come up with an idea, an invention, a poem that is truly our own. Steven Cramer's personification of an unspeakable and limitless mass of stinking waste as having a voice to raise in it's irony-citing defense is an excellent bit of wit.

The literary references are less self conscious than such citations usually are since his point is to reduce the space between humanity's greatest conceit as an elevated species and the inevitability of it's least appealing biological requirements. Everything is shit, like it or not, all is waste, the finest poems become sludge. One needs to embrace the fact, if not the cistern that contains the messenger.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Perfect Pitch

The similarities between William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost there , indeed, in the sense that we have two poets who have created a style of plain writing–writing, not speech, as neither poets are poets who attempt idiomatic epics– that want to get something of the grit, grime and grumble of life that previous generations of poets had theorized out of countenance, For myself, it is Williams who is the better and more bracing the two scribes, as I remember a passing remark from WCW suggesting (I paraphrase) that the thing itself is its own adequate symbol. Where systems of metaphor, allusion and simile were busy comparing this existence to more perfect orders and had essentially argued that real objects in the material world were irrelevant to the poet’s task of constructing arguments for a more perfect union of elements , Williams and his fellow travelers in Pound, Eliot, HD , Amy Lowell and a host of other nascent modernist bringing their own experience and idiosyncratic notions to the discussion, mutually agreed that metaphysics was suffocating poetry, robbing it all worth and potential to create beauty from freshly expressed perceptions; the perfect world of Ideal Types needed to be forgotten about, at least for a while, while the language poets used was reinvigorated , reapplied, basically reinvented as a creative force. The thing itself is its own adequate symbol.

Yes indeed, and this was a declaration that for the purpose of writing a poem that addresses the actuality of a scene, the phenomenological exactitude of objects and their situations, God was dead and it was the job of the new poet to get it right. Much of this imagism, a splendid but blessedly short-lived movement in modern poetry that wanted to excise extraneous words and metaphors and gutless qualifiers from poems that are tasked with getting this world and its things correctly expressed in unforgettable ways. No ideas but in things was a battle cry they might all have heard in their subconscious at one time; it rang loud, in any case.

in the fleckless light
separately in unison

like the sacks
of sifted stone stacked
regularly by twos

about the flat roof
ready after lunch
to be opened and strewn

The copper in eight
foot strips has been
beaten lengthwise

down the center at right
angles and lies ready
to edge the coping

One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it.

Williams was a superb, brilliant exponent of this pared-down approach; his sentences are prickly, full of splinters, a description of action that contains rhythm , movement, precise descriptions of things that give a strong suggestion that the arrangements of the things in the world are extraordinary as they are, even when they unseen by human eyes and egos that translate the experience into easy narrative tropes; what is splendid about this poem, “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” is the lean and lyrical economy with which Williams gives us a good amount of detail; workmen on a break, the materials, and tools they are working with laying to the side, the light and time of day, the return to work, the steady hand of the workman who lifts a piece of the thing he is working on:
“One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it.”
Without fuss, commotion or straining rhetoric, Williams achieves a stark beauty, with his notion of taking his sentences and breaking them into smaller units of clear signification working subtly and directly to bring us to the startling last lines, “picks up a copper strip/and runs his eye along it.” That, for me, was a dicey image, since it suggests the grim prospect of having an eye poked out with hard, sharp, unyielding thing. But without the blathering on about courage, craft or anything else left and right intellectuals have romanticized about for decades before, Williams accomplishes one small thing that, in turn, went a long way in revolutionizing how poems come to be conceptualized. He achieves that fine balance between hard and soft things, he makes it tactile, he delivers his poem with such skilled brilliance that most readers miss it even after multiple readings.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Ballad of a thin man

The greatest gift the internet has given us is that it has made the stuff of our collective teen years, our conquer-the-world years into the stuff that is retrieved from that attics, basements and from the garages of  memory and posted on the social media one a user’s choice. We get to oohh and ahh   or groan with embarrassment over how wonderful or, on reflection, how preposterous the playthings our younger selves are in retrospect.  Barry Alfonso, writer, journalist and cultural historian par excellence, posted this on a site. I laughed when I witnessed this items reappearance, an album of Sebastian Cabot, gentlemanly English actor best known for his work as Mr. French on the hokey sitcom “Family Affair”, reciting the lyrics of Bob Dylan. This was, of course, intended as an inspired jam session in which Dylan’s worth as a poet was established without equivocation. The equivocation remains, though, as the results are a classic case of belated comedy. That accent and that acting style can't help but sound incurably absurd considering the kind of poetic vernacular Dylan, an idealized form of street jive. 

The problem is made worse in that Cabot's actorly dramatic pauses, his stressing of certain syllables over others in a line, the rising and falling of his voice as though in actual conversation, is just the sort of thing if you're dealing with the multi-rhythmic beats of Shakespeare, Marlowe or, say, Elmore Leonard; there is more for a man with a trained voice to work with. A parallel example would be that it is more interesting to hear Miles Davis improvise on "My Funny Valentine" or "Someday My Prince Will Come" rather than "Time After Time" or "Human Nature." Genius lyricist as he has been over the decades, Dylan’s lyrics is not stand-alone poems, as they require the melodies to achieve their full power. Cabot is game in trying to make these words seem larger than they are, but it is a ridiculous combination. 

The comedy is as unintentional here as it was in "Plan 9 from Outer Space"; since it was a "hip" thing at the time this record was made to insist that Dylan was a poet, first and foremost. Since this was the conventional wisdom at the time, it was also a selling point and doubtlessly some record exec had an idea that they should get a "real”, i.e. British actor to recite Dylan's words. Sebastian did what did best; apply his voice of refined elocution, to what Dylan did best. The results are a conspicuous mismatch, I think, and don't sense anything purposefully subversive, intentionally comic, or post-modernly ironic about this. It is funny in the way the pursuit of an innocently bad idea is funny--the awfulness is obvious to everyone but the participants, who've been seduced by their expectations.

Enigmas don't shop in their pajamas

There is an ongoing project among a current generation of critics and poets to make the ever baffling , provocative and incontestably brilliant poet Emily Dickinson a less problematic figure in the American literary terrain. Famous for her reclusive lifestyle and extremely selective preferences as to who she had personal contact and communication with,  some effort has been made to make  her a more human, more public figure. The publication of the handwritten "envelope poems" is the latest in the trend to bring her into the sunshine. I welcome the addition of more , previously unknown verse to her body of work, but the insistence on publishing them with careful rendered photos of the actual pieces of paper to be evidence of a growing fetishism; it seems less an effort to bring more insight into the words than it is , say, for an obsessed reader to imagine a real person who might have written these things in states of meditative reflection. That makes the book more stunt than an essential unveiling of  unknown poems. I wish there was a book merely with the poems printed, without the clutter. Here the result, for this   reader, is that the more I find out about her, the less is revealed. 

 Emily Dickinson was cryptic for reasons known only to herself, I’m afraid, but I am of the mind that she intended her compact lyrics to be interpreted any number of ways. Irony, contradiction, revelation; her poems move along general the general theme that one’s thinking, Dickinson’s, evolves with time, gently or brutally, and that the time to be a witness is finite. Nuances and whispered implications abound in her work and, beyond a loosely gathered bit of conventional wisdom about ED’s general themes and concerns; there is plenty in her work to warrant continued, fascinating and inconclusive opinions about where the center of the poem, its motivating core and precise particulars lie. But what is also fascinating and important to speculate is what’s not included in the poem; what is outside the text is a worthy subject of investigation/speculation.

 It is an element that makes ED contemporary to this day, as a body of work that still resonates with a modern readership discovering a wit, an insight, a corresponding feeling in her splendidly fragmented manner. My information is nothing else but my own reading gauged against my own experience, both as citizen and poet. What I’ve said I have found in the text, really. Literary commentary, of course, is not science and it is particularly pointless to insist on anything like “back to the data”. Historical context for poems is fine for perspective, but language is a living thing, not stagnate, as you know, and ED’s word choices. I am convinced that there are meanings in great poems that those most great poets were entirely unaware; poetry is an intuitive process however much a crafted discipline comes into play. There is the superficial element, the glitter, the dazzle, the alluring set of phrases that seem to say one thing, and then there are things that combined suggest and point toward matters perhaps the author might not have been aware of, let alone the reader. That is the joy of criticism, a rage of interpretative opinions based on the text. I fairly much reject definitive, “authoritative” interpretations of works of art. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Wings of Desire by Amy King

Wings of Desire  / BY AMY KING

This is what it sounds like outside,
fat geese and guinea hens holding hands.
I am 31, which is very young for my age.
That is enough to realize I’m a pencil that has learned
how to draw the Internet. I explain squiggles
diagramming exactly how I feel and you are drawn to read
in ways you cannot yet. Slow goes the drag
of creation, how what’s within comes to be without,
which is the rhythmic erection of essence.
Life’s little deaths, petite orgasms, as the French nearly said
but never came to. Feathers outstrip the weather
as we stand with binoculars inquiring how
winged creatures can hold their blood to warmth
without a proper insulation system overlaying circulation.
That is, sans fat and simple wooden bones with hair glued on.
Mostly though they pulsate on the horizons of backlit vision,
where we only meet the subways with handshakes,
the rainbow filters of downloaded electronica,
the telephone poles as archaic checkpoints to past cultures.
They don’t have screens to seek their cues in.
We drift from one culture to another and fight
the stitcheries of racism, classism,
anti-Muslim terrorists among us,
with overlaps in the complete dis-ease our bodies
settle into for next to no resistance.
So we create something else.
As in, roughshod moments of fake hate
will position a fluid hello of death rattles
that settle for the injunction of existence and state:
Here am I made manifest by not being you,
by not going in the same unsteady destination,
by not asking the questions or repeating
the paintings that came before me,
by not singing in the register of  your bubble baths
as you hug that person close in a wish to outlast
bullets, even as the light leaves your eyes
just a little next time we overlap paths.
So the hens and geese make us think in terms of help
outside, how they flap and move with fat ease in front of trains,
across the chopping block, to the hungry winters of final leviathans,
even as they land just so on the wires above us,
and we go on complaining, murderous, too far out, unspoken.

Like the man said and the woman toasted, this poem is a stream of hot verbs, adjectives and metaphors that link the perennial  quest for self-definition with the blunt truths about realizing that the world is merely a unsolvable phenomena that cares less of our unique personalities and exists only as a plain where other self-defined entities meet and learn to get along and love or to further dig in their teeth , gnash their respective rows of teeth and fight, with bricks, with bottles, with sex, with words. It is a struggle either as negotiation or war sans army  or navy, the playthings of the interior world come into the waking life and those of us with the habit of insisting that first thoughts are the best and most accurate find out rapidly or in drawn-out decades that it is not enough to express yourself or exclaim your philosophy of the moment to an existence that is abstract and other, it is more a matter of being yourself in  the midst of circumstances that don't know your name, of relating less theory to the community around you and more of the insight of lived experience , of  having been wrong and right in equal measures over the years and finding a true irony that allows you and the world to lean closer together, as if to kiss, to hug, to rejoice in the presence of people and places that don't repel you with secret identities and unspoken alternate plans. Amy King is a fevered search not for the absolute, for the genuine.

 What I love about Amy King's poems is the collisions she sets forth, the speed of her connections, how often her observance of the commonplace strikes a target, how fluidly accurate her remarks are, how truthfully dumbfounding the ironies are.  "Wings of Desire" is all of this, of course, a debate those parts of the self that want to rule an interior perfection where it is always elegance at a whim, and the those other elements of personality that look out the window of the soul to world that it wants to be a part of, to be in love with, to conquer, to change and to merge as one with. Hers is a detailed Baedeker guide at a little over the legendary 45 RPM; it's hardly a matter of noticing telling details of the constructions, social and material, that form the resemblances between our Ideal Types and their expression on the Physical Plain, this is also a series of voices from inside the perception that sees the flaws in the design, the dysfunction of the results, the turmoil the best intentions create. Here is poetry about shaking your head, running your hands through your hair, gathering your wits and deciding, after road-testing your theories for decades, to be yourself, finally, unashamed of your talent, unembarrassed by your desires. You cease to be a problem to solve. Like a poem, you do not mean. You be.

 Amy King is fast and blunt and writes in lovely, magnificently fast lines that are something like the quicksilver bebop of Parker, the modal transformations of Coltrane, the hard-shovel digging of a McLaughlin; in all this accelerated, excited revelation, though, is tenderness, the center of the heart that is at war with its own contrary impulses, a consciousness that seeks the true center of being in the eyes of others it seeks to be connected to. King's is a poetry of that desire and those mad flights. Her poems are about love and touching, groping, kissing, caring, finding a truth beyond words that cures the senses. Her poems are manic and magic and the sort of thing that gets me thinking and back to the keyboard, writing my own crazy language.

Friday, February 7, 2014

At risk

Culture is worth a little risk, as Norman Mailer would have it, but we should add that that we need to skeptical of anyone's say-so and disdain any set of world-shrinking absolutes. Cultural pontiffs often enough start off as punks in the alley hanging out by the stage door and wind up giving us revised histories of their salad day heroes by arguing at length that the music, the novels, the plays and the poetry they liked in college and early professional life didn't try to smash rules, break forms or set fire to the palace , but rather tried to return art and aesthetics to principles that have been dormant, abandoned, forgotten.

 Culture is worth a little risk, of course, but there are times when culture is the risk.Mailer's quote, originating in his seemingly glib response to convict /  author's Jack Henry Abbott's murder of a waiter not long after he'd been paroled on the Authorities belief that he had rehabilitated himself by becoming an author. Mailer, we remember, had stabbed his wife Adele and nearly killed her. The books he wrote following this heinous incident were in large measure sincere and often brilliant mixtures of existentialist self-definition, mysticism and imaginative takes on the psychology of violence, of how it is often the result of the lone m person without means who attempt to berserk themselves into transcendance. He had given us one  fantastically problematic novel, An American Dream, in which his hero defies the combined forces he imagines have conspired against him and aspires to become a "new kind of man". The  consequences of that saga are anything but reassuring , especially for Mailer himself.  One of Mailer's heroes, William S.Burroughs, drunkenly shot and killed his wife Joan i when trying to shoot a glass off her head with a pistol. There have been times, more often than not, that I  wish the pontiffs , the pundits and the writerly men of action had stayed with their pens and pages and left the guns for the truly deranged who didn't care a wit about art or a nuanced philosophy behind their violence. Here we pause and wrestle with our conscious  and ponder if we can compartmentalize our horror for the acts these writers commit and still esteem the  brilliance their writing has challenged our bed rock assumptions with. In either case, these patently evil and insane events were motivations for the future prose of both writers--Mailer commenced on a life long inquiry into the spiritual malady that makes violence the preferred means to move events along in society , and Burroughs, not the most expansively regretful man in show business, as much said that the accidental murder of his wife Joan was the reason why he wrote from that point forward. Wrote Burroughs:

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out..
Both men seemed to continue writing in order to buffer themselves against acts that were  irrefutably ugly, evil, foul; the sheer process of making the world a  new, over and over, with their fiction, of combining different elements, subverting some genres and extending others, of making the fact of existence a cruel and painful process through which we conduct ourselves with some modicum of grace and invention, or relinquish our wits and allow strange and  powerful forces to manipulate our lives and  make a a mockery of what intellectual integrety we thought we possessed. the respective bodies of work of Mailer and Burroughs seem, to me, a heads up to the reader that they are at risk for merely being born, univited, in the middle of someone else's agenda. And the critic, the pundit, the explainers of art that offers no solace nor comfort, make a career practicing an extemporized philosophy that translate the literary horror and bludgeoning poetry of writing that seeks to make the fairy tales and their tragic ends palatable by acting as if there is a lesson to be learned. A doomed practice, I suspect, as I see day when we will have no real use for priests, film reviewers and reviewers who think they are priests . Eloquent apologies for one's formative taste, though, does not constitute a defense of the starker, more brittle frameworks that have dissolved like so much sugar in the guise of avant gard impulse; I am all for risk taking and rule breaking, but even the nastiest, least comprehensible bodies of work created by suitably sociopath  experimenters there are things that catch your ear, your eye, your fancy as you read what's in front of you, there are measures of genius that find that one thing in experience, that issue that no one had engaged, that combination of forms, ideas and attitude that had yet to be combined that strikes you a get level as real genius.

 I think these elements are genetic, organic, a hard to phrase dimension of human experience that transcends , easily , the problematics of social construction and canon making. The secret history of art history, the  secret history of artistic expression, is how much social misery the creative impulse has caused. This is why I tend to support subjective or heroic criticism--the critic less as taste maker than as someone who gathers their responses, knee jerk and reasoned both, and conducts an inquiry to his own first-person criteria as to what constitutes failure or success in a frame, in a line, in a string of musical notes.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Dickinson and Pound: the long and short of it

A major movement in the creation of a modernist poetry was the effort to slough off the well-worn devices of  the last  three hundred years of poetic devices and the creaking, rusting, swerving structures that gave them purchase and replace them with a more direct address of things. One could also maintain that there was a concentrated effort to make the idea behind poems and their subjects clearer and less abstract as well. What was once useful in a world where God was the prime mover and quite nearly each thing and event that was beheld was the result of His good graces and undisclosed Plan was now a quaint murmur of suffocating cliches and half-hearted apologies that obscured the actual world; the phenomenal world was hidden from view , what was considered wisdom was only a means to contain the masses. Robert Pinsky, in an intriguing blog entry, brings to our attention the two poets , Emily Dickinson and Ezra Pound, who had done more than any other in creating the style and means of a  very succinct, blunt modernist verse. One wanted to maintain an internal equilibrium with what she wrote on paper, the other wanted to change the world in something very much like his own image.

This is an interesting connection  Dickinson and Pound, with two unlike personalities. Dickinson didn't care to make her thoughts clear for public consumption or to see the world differently; what she poems were notes to herself , where the solitary but active mind's penchant for irony, contradiction and a changing personal outlook on mortality, over time, were all the mattered to her. This was the poetry of a mind that, by need for personal preference, was solitary much of the time, dwelling, thinking, abstracting on much of the insoluble vicissitudes of life, those matters being nothing less than the self in the world and arguing whether one were merely existing or if the fact of one's flesh and blood constituted a benefit to the world.  

This is the unending introspection that is seamless, without end or beginning, a stream, and her writing, I believe, was a project to pare the  overlapping ontologies that might have driven lesser minds to variations of unhinged utterances and present them as clear perceptions, jewels of irony and reductionist wit. Hers was a desire to make her own notions clear, concise, beyond the confusion a studied rhetoric brings. She was so direct that hers was an abstract art that rejected Abstraction for its own sake. I've always thought of her poems as akin to a view through a microscope, or at least an intense focused  magnifying glass. 

She suggests, I think, the writings of Wallace Stevens decades later, and John Ashbery more decades later still, with her world so closely observed and tersely addressed that her estimations constitute a category of Ideal Types ; certainly her work seems dedicated to the short summations of proposed notions and how those notions come up short;  the elision in her  work , for me, is an absent middle section where the theory was applied and  where it had failed. The third part of the poems are the results, the moral, the larger irony of expectation meeting the unfathomable truth that is existence, replete with a result quite unexpected.  I don't think Dickinson's poems were mere jottings; they are, I believe , products of hard, concentrated reflection and it is the poet's genius that made those leaps of perception into the dense, difficult poems that are her legacy. Hers was a clarity meant for her self alone, a method of reaching conclusions on matters her imagination would not leave alone. Her short hand taught contemporary, by direct readings or the influence of other poets who arrived in Dickinson's wake, how to  turn introspection into an enticingly evocative sort of poetry , a system of insight that challenges philosophy as the best method as to why life is so difficult and why we make ourselves so unhappy with the given strata of existence.
Pound, to the other extreme, was very public , dynamic, restless with his notions and had a life long desire Pound, to the other extreme, was very public , dynamic, restless with his notions and had a life long desire to change the manner in which the masses saw the world. Rid of the culture of outmoded, old, obsolete, incorrect and purposefully deceitful cosmologies and you will improve our collective. His inventions took much from the Chinese poets he admired and claimed to have translated--whether he really understood what they were doing or saying or whether he did any actual translation is another matter. Pound wanted poems to have the ability to get things exactly; there was the appealing idea in the kind of Modernism he proposed that we have to shed the baggage of the past, the useless and irrelevant inventions of antique times and make for ourselves a new way of using language that can pierce the  veil between us and the actual world; he wanted to break the shackles of the overly -referenced Plato's Cave  so we can enter the light, figuratively (I suppose) with a native language that was means of witnessing , defining and molding reality, not masking it in excuses and daydreams.
“Society for me my misery
Since Gift of Thee—”

Dickinson, as I understand her, was not a fan humanity , and preferred her thoughts and her privately considered things to the clamor and debate of the many who would battle over the right to name the world and its contents as they think it should be. She kept her own consul and had no patience for what others thought or thought of her. Being public was a burden beyond what her personality desired; in this couplet, which I suspect is indeed a couplet, she considers the state of being noted, notable, famous for any reason a misery that she ought not suffer . Being known beyond Amherst was an undeserved gift to the world, as reputation that accompanies fame presents the world with a ready made narrative of someone’s life and presented her with the problem of having to live up to a plot line that she felt had nothing to do with her. Being comprehended or understood by the masses was a useless option for her. While Dickinson wanted to everyone to mind their own set of affairs while she tended her own piece of the earth, Pound, again, wanted to have language be capable of getting an image exactly, as would a photograph; the thinking , I think, is that he wanted to get beyond the metaphysical conceits that an older poetics contained. On the face of it this seems admirable, but what he wanted to do was to have the world see the world as he saw it, precisely, without romantic resonance and the nuanced variations that come with the habit (and the political tumult as well). He wanted to settle matters quickly and have folks move into a new, dynamic direction. Essentially, I believe his basic goal with his project of boiling down the language was an effort to turn whole populations into cattle.

This was, more or less, the intention of the Imagists from the start, to write manifestos, to argue actively and loudly against older literary conceits and decadent cultures, to purify the senses and the words used to define the world and to remake  a world for the future.  This is an attractive pitch on the face of it, that art must create new ways of seeing the world, but Pound's poetics were mixed up with his politics which were, we remember , racist, anti-Semitic, and was attractive to various avant gard movements that were obsessed with machines, speed, destruction; the world must be destroyed by virtually any means and available technology so that new ideas of how society is to be structured can arise. 'Structured" is the operative word, as Pound wanted power over people more than control of his own writing;  Imagism, it seems to me, was only a start of growing set of ideas that the world could only be changed through violent dynamics. 

He blamed a lot of groups for what he considered to be the decline of Western culture and it's not surprising that he found a patron in the Italian Fascists , for whom he made propaganda broadcasts during WW2.   Brief, clear, concise descriptions of objects , the hall marks of Imagist poetry, remain in strong evidence in more contemporary work by younger poets.  He had an agenda, though, and his is the case where we can give thanks that poets are not the literal legislators of the world.