Sunday, May 25, 2014

More often than not I defend the "well made" poem if said poem has some things going for it , like a solid construction, an ability focus imagery in a fresh and sparing way that gets across experience and a sense of the irresolution of one conflicting responses to situations written about, either past or current, in an execution that takes one by surprise, leaves you breathless, if only for a second. Like it or not, those poems, scorned by large sections of the post-avant gard who write more "difficult" work ( a worthy endeavor provided the writer has a command of the diffuse material they are trying to deal with, uh, diffusely), are themselves not easy to write; one may speak of technique all they wish, but there is an innate sense, I believe, of knowing how start, what to build with and, most importantly , when too quit, lest one kill a good idea for a poem with the lack of confidence overwriting suggests. Billy Collins has come in for his share of jabs and jibes because of the middlebrow accessibility of his work, he is a poet who has a certain mastery of the everyman voice who writes poetry "for the rest of us" ; his is a poetry is a body of work that forces the reader to think about the world they're already familiar with in new ways.

His is the world of the banal, the small, the incidental, the vocabulary of twitches and tics , but this remains a realm that needs to be written about. Collins is the man to equal the challenge in inspiring a reader to interrogate routines and schedules that guide their journeys from desk to mailbox and back again. Billy Collins, in fact, is the perfect "gateway poet"; when I worked at an independent bookstore for some years in San Diego, several customers over several years expressed a desire to read something more daring, challenging, "edgier" than what the former U.S. Poet Laureate was offering. I navigated them to Thomas Lux, comparable to Collins for clarity and readability, but darker, more ironic, a poet who explores the unintended results of one's best efforts to assert their will on the world.

There are those "well made poems" , however, that strive to hit all the marks that only make you feel that someone is trying too hard for the lead role in play they're not suited for; they dance too fast, they sing too loud, they deliver the monologue without suggesting that they're talking to another person."For D" by Roseanna Warren reads like it were a dull long poem that had been work shopped down to a dull short one; the striking language is all that's left, and there is nothing between the odd phrasings to make this prissy string of worry beads intrigue you. The poem is a dieter who has lost weight too quickly who finds that absence of flab doesn't mean one will find a prince or princess emerging from the flab and stretch marks.

This is one of those poems where you read each line expecting something to happen at the end of each line, and nothing does. It's a fussy poem, full of odd and unnatural words placed in positions where attention becomes focused on the odd sounds the words make rather than the meaning they may suggest or the unresolved feelings being sussed through. Euphony is fine, everyone enjoys rich words and intriguing slang, but there is an expectation that the person writing the poem should have his or her feet on the ground and have a diction roughly like ours (slightly heightened, of course, since this is poetry after all).

The plane whumps down through rainclouds, streaks
of creamy light through cumulus, and, below,
a ruffled scattering, a mattress' innards ripped—

No one talks like this, and no one should be writing poems with this word choices this precious. Whumps is a word suggesting body surfing as a lone man or woman braves the water and rides the momentum of waves coming to crash on a burly shore line, and it also sounds like the sound a drunk uncle might make against a newborn baby's bare stomach; Warren wants to suggest a plane's bumpy passage through some "creamy" clouds , but she makes us think of desert instead of a slow unnerving as she nears her destination. "Innards" is the kind of word one actually speaks, but ironically, in an affected voice to soften the use of a dated colloquialism. The image of seeing a slashed mattress on the landing approach could have been a dramatic one, a choice foreshadowing, but "innards" undermines that.

For the rest, the poem is over arranged, and it occurs to you finally that this reads like someone preparing their responses and  constructing a constipated poetics in advance of the facts; Tilda Swinton's ruthless character in Michael Clayton comes to mind, a nervous corporate crook rehearsing her prepared statements in the mirror with different tones of voice, eye movements, and differing tilts of the head. Her character, like this poem, ends badly.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm -

Should our literary canon come with "trigger warnings", advisories to students suffering from afflictions psychological and otherwise that the material covered in an English class's course reading might cause them pain, anxiety and suffering because of the way the authors dealt with such brutish issues of rape, suicide, racism, misogyny, ie, every fucked thing you could think of? Ought we protect those young people considered damaged or too impressionable from the poetic form of truth-telling that literature provides and dares us, by its existence, to discuss and make sense  of ? A recent article in the New York Times report a movement among some groups, teachers, administrators and students among them, to provide such warning labels: Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm -

The essential point of studying liberal arts and humanities while in college, I believed , was to develop and strengthen one's capacity for critical thinking ; a salient facet of critical discernment is supposed to be the capacity for interrogating those ideas and hard facts of existence and to imagine, that is to say, create a life where truth , justice and fair play can exist. The least of the benefits would be to empower the individual student  with those mental powers to raise above what has impeded them, harmed them, blocked them in some way and enable them to make   better choices, smarter choices, in the kind of life they want to lead in the larger world. Those better decisions would, in turn, benefit the community as a whole,  in all matters, in large and small ways, in a cumulative manner, over time. That, of course , is the ideal. But we see here that there is a rise in the sort of nannyism that seeks, in large measure, of making sure that victims of terrible things--rape, robbery, disease, financial ruin, economic injustice--remain victims and that they remain protected..

 The point of reading tragedies, comedies, plays with cruel , ironic endings is for the readers, whom, we assume, are generally smarter by several points more than would be protectors might otherwise grant them, to face up to the  fact that human beings never rise above the station of  being human and , however rigorous their moral codes, religious beliefs, no matter how rock solid their ethical constructs and principles  be, we are merely people with instincts, urges, itches that cannot be scratched and with instincts to dominate, conquer, hurt. Literature , in this case, is an imaginative way of letting the young adults that there is more in store in the real world than socially constructed Ideals that are perfect in their arguments and imperfect in their implementation. College is the place for young adults to challenge their assumptions with new facts about how humans really behave; protecting the great lot of students who've been convinced they  have been harmed beyond repair and must be warned when course readings might deal with some aspect of existence that has caused them pain, great and small, mental and physical, we harm them even further.

Most important, perhaps , is what comes in the alleged aftershock of having read the works of Twain, Sade, Sartre, Faulkner, Toni Morrison, William Burroughs, et al, the discussion of what  it was just read by a room full of students, each with their visceral response becoming articulate and formed, edited, honed, modified,sharpened through discussion and debate with the readership community that has experienced the same set of  potentially traumatizing fictional happenstance as way not just gauging the human psyche's propensity for provoking unexpected and problem-making actions, but in listening and learning as well from the experience of others around them. The point is to engage the world beyond the cocoon of home and institutions. We need to be able to be able to think about ourselves in the world imaginative writers draw their inspiration from.  Without the kind of engagement critical thinking empowers us with, we are bigger fools, dolts, layabouts and drooling buffoons than we already are.

Monday, May 19, 2014


Innocence, it seems, is a nice way of saying ignorance, which would imply that the gaining of wisdom is a hard process, full of rude awakenings, startling revelations, melodramatic shifts in cosmology as one continually learns that the neat scenario one had while younger , with their neat and simple relationships predicated on convenient cause and effect, is grossly inadequate.

God gave us senses so we may learn from our experience and cobble together as we go along, a practical philosophy of everyday life. Wisdom, if you like. It seems that one is likely to realize that they are a victim whether they like it or not, and that the blissful sleep of ignorance of one's state of being exploited and abused is illusory at best.  I think  stupidity is a choice people make  because it is the closest they will get to absolution for the results of their choices, and ignorance, likewise, often enough seems a willful defense mechanism that relieves one of their obligation to use their senses to grow and work within the world as an active, creative agent. This is the crucial issue for Blake, to believe in a God will intercede and make everything okay with a kiss and a feather or a promise of endless bounty on the other side of this life, or that one is here with the senses a Creator gave him or her, with a brain that can process and organize experience into a framework, narrative perhaps, the keeps the world that is both fluid and coherent.
"The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly." --Wallace Stevens

The belief in a fiction, I assume, is that one believes less in the fiction's generic outline of the relationships between personality and the delicate details of the atmosphere , and more that the fiction works as a means that enables individual and collective imaginations to commit themselves creatively to what other wise would raw, unknowable data. We are the author of our own book, so to speak, we are all writers of a particular fiction that enthralls us, and the key to a belief in an operative narrative form is to realize that we can change, alter and modify the fiction as needed. Not that it's an easy thing to toss off, as an after thought. But we make our narratives from the things we do , and this reminds me of the oft-quoted line from Vico, paraphrased here: Only that which man makes can man know.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Social media is the focus point of where our collective anxieties gather and express themselves in status updates and links and selfies and photos of cats gutting old shoes ; it's an easy thing to damn , it's a  bitch to withdraw from. Jonathon Franzen is having  it no easier than the rest of us with Facebook, Twitter, what have you. And it gives him another chance to become Premature Curmudgeon, the fellow who views the world as little else than a bothersome set of feet in hob nailed boots trampling on is front lawn. His rantings in his book Smarter than You Think highlights his dim view  of the literature possible in  140 characters,The article goes on at length to make an obvious point that should only take a paragraph or two to explain, that nearly every communication technology  has had harsh critics who concocted various scenarios of the end of all that is decent and civil. It does not, though, offer up credible suggestions as to how Twitter, in itself, has improved anything; the evidence , anecdotal perhaps, it that it has allowed more people to indulge in their worst behaviors. The social sphere, such as it is, has become a more crowded, more vulgar, ruder place for the introduction of cell phones and texting. Franzen, hardly one of my favorite writers--he is an incessant worry wart who's prose is elongated neuroses with pretensions to elegance--but on this matter he and other critics happen to be right.
 The comedian Louis CK by referring to a credible, recent past, before cell phones and instant messaging when civilized people learned to how to be alone--millions of us managed to make our way through the day being, at various times, alone with our thoughts, sans distractions. We may not have liked the alone time, but there was a sense of being able to talk to people directly when you needed to, using social skills that reflected a social personality, or lack of it.We are now pulverized by the fear of being alone for even a few minutes--we have to check our status updates, we have to make some kind of noise that others can hear, we have to rattle the proverbial tin cup agains the bars of our our own under  interior prisons. The point is that you were able to handily shift from a silent, interior existence to one that was fully engaged in the public eye without worrying if you're going to cause a car wreck in the transition. 
The pathetic fact of our urban existence is that none of us can escape the sense that the real world has been turned into a  voice mail --talking to people is frustrating because everyone is on the phone and we must wait our turn and , when our turn arrives at last, we rush our sentences, we compress our points, we speak in semi literate half thoughts    because we sense the dread phone will ring again and cut off the conversation before anything useful, either socially or psychically, gets said at all. 
 True, true, the technology isn't going away and that it is a matter of getting used to a new way for the culture to communicate its collective expression, sublime, middle brow or moronic, but that is not a good thing and yes, future devices , codes and technology will , in effect, make these protests seem shrill and silly. That does not undermine the criticism, though; the coarsening of how we treat one another continues. It seems to me that what we do is what any person would do who is too lazy to fix a whole in their living room wall--after awhile you get used to it  being there and after awhile longer to convince yourself it was an ethical, aesthetical, philosophical choice you made. It's a mind fuck , is what it is. It's merely settling for a degraded quality of life.

Questions to me about Me.

1.  What is the best or most meaningful gift you ever received?
For my 25th birthday, a Hohner Marine Band harmonica wrapped up in a bundle of new underwear. This was from a friend of mine who didn't think much of the way I played.
2.  What was the best-received gift you ever gave anybody?
The album "The Photographer" from composer Philip Glass. This was the minimalist's reed-thin commemoration to the photographer Edward Muybridge, whose motion study experiments laid the ground work for motion pictures. My girl friend at the time , a set designer, played it constantly while she cast about her studio, bringing the interiors of a fictional world to life. 3.  What historical figure would you be most interested in meeting?  
John Coltrane. 

4.If you were a country, which one would it be?
The United States of America.
5.  Was there any part of your schooling (elementary, secondary, university, vocational) that you especially liked or disliked?  Why?
My favorite stretch of education was in college, at the University of California, San Diego. This was where I  developed my own voice as  writer and gained the chops to be a poet worth reading. It was right about this time that my experience began to catch up with my aspirations. And I met the woman I would fall in love with , and remain so to this day, over three decades later. 6.  Think of all of the places in which you've ever lived, or visited. Which is your favorite?  If you had one day to spend there, what would you do?
San Francisco. If I had only one day to spend there, I would just want to walk around the neighborhoods and investigate the odd configurations and twists and angles of the blocks. This is a built on hills and the buildings, as intriguing a gathering of architecture one is likely to find in North America,had to accommodate an earth that would not yield short of a declaration of war.

7.  Have you ever Googled the name of someone you hadn't thought about in years?  If so, did the results surprise you?
A woman I dated in high school, my first girl friend. We met after we made contact and communicated for a bit and dated for a short while. It was a nice reunion, short lived, no tears.  8.   If you had the opportunity to become the President of the United States or the Pope, would you take it?  Why or why not?
Neither. It is not in my nature to wish a heart attack on my person. 9.   What is the most surprising or unexpected thing anybody could learn about you?
That I am a good writer,a  great poet, a former carnival worker, an especially talented blues harmonica player, and that I am modest as a ball of string. 10.  If you could bring five books with you to a desert island, what would they be?  What else would you bring?
1.An American Dream--Norman Mailer

11.  Butter pecan, cherry vanilla, rocky road, pistachio or chocolate chocolate chip?
Scotch rocks or nothing.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Christ almight, what now?

I had a professor once point out that something becomes art once it is framed, no matter what that object may be.
This Marcel Duchamps' idea, a classic Dada gesture he offered with his readymades, such as urinals hoisted upon gallery walls, and snow shovels on pedastals. The point , though, was that the object became an aesthetic object,denatured, in a manner of speaking , from its natural context and forced , suddenly, to be discussed in its very "thingness". The object becomes art by the lexicon we wrap around it, a linguistic default.
 Whether the object is art as most understand art to be--the result of an inner expressive need to mold , shape and hone materials and forms into an a medium that engages a set of ideas about the world, or unearths some fleeting sense of human experience -- isn't the point here. Ironically, art, generally defined as something that is absent all utility, any definable function, is suddenly given a use that is sufficiently economic, which is to keep an art industry in motion; it is the sound of money.

Duchamp, and other dadaists who sought to undermine this idea of art and its supposed spiritual epiphanies for the privileged few, instead furnished a whole new rational for art vending. 

Loose ends and asides

 The Spectator is , from appearances, not a fan of philosopher -turned-millionaire sophist Alain de Botton,  having recently ran an online squib questioning his intellectual heft, his actual worth to a thinking readership, and his integrity. "Why Alain de Botton is a Moron" is the title, and not a word of hit is a compliment. My favorite line in this piece describes de Botton as an "egghead", the sort of person who can "beat you in a pub quiz" with their eidetic propensity of remembering every detail they've ever read, but who has a personality that is all but lacking in true intellectual force. That is to say that for all the lifetime of reading across a wide swath of literature, art, philosophy, history, the savant doesn't seem to have synthesized anything resembling an interesting interpretation of what they've gorged themselves on. The knowledge seems only to have made the dull even duller, made their inanities even more colossally vapid. Alain de Botton is a business man who has found out that there are larger paychecks for dispensing bumper sticker adages and homilies than there are in reams of abstraction. Which is fine, I suppose, he has the right to make the best living he can from the materials he chose to master. Funny thing is that this article reminds me of the notorious critic John Simon, a polymath of a nasty-assed reviewer who has an enviable erudition that has, none the less, failed to inspire him to a higher level of negative reviewing; his put downs are cheap, vulgar, sarcastic , mean for reasons that are more venal than they are descriptive of art that fails to measure up. Another "egghead", a large set of references to underscore a resolutely idiotic set of responses.


The Point took on the skeptics who were not so enamored of HBO's "True Detectve" with a  smart defense of the philosophical asides and raspily mumbled disquistions of Detective Rust Cohle on HBO's brilliant series "True Detective". Debate rages as to whether the nihilist outlook he seems to represent are pretentious and not defensible as intellectual concepts, to which this author argues convincingly, I think, that the bleak cosmology Rust is a witness to are in fact, defensible as points of discussion. Beyond that, though, he seems to remind us that "True Detective" is a drama, an inspired work of fiction with a narrative that dwells, physically and psychologically, in dark places, and that fictional characters are allowed to speak with a heightened eloquence.My concern, basically, is in whether the conceit of Lovecraft meets Nietzsche meets James Lee Burke works together as a conceptual mash up. It does, indeed it does.


The thing about heroin is that it at the end , it turns the user into a cliche many of us in our impressionable (and gullible) youth considered to be romantic, a dead junkie found in an apartment/bathroom/back alley dumpster with a needle in their arm. So much blather has gone on about how artists are so sensitive that they have to alter the way they feel in order to merely exist, that they need to take the edge off because the world and their perceptions of how to put it back together again in art work gets to be too much. I call absolute bullshit and say that a gifted artist dying from a self-administered drug overdose is tragic, yes, but also a very stupid , inglorious way to die. What we have is just another dead junkie who could have lived longer and done the world more good with their creativity. It's time for us to change our thinking on the whole notion of Doomed Genius and Brilliant Wastral; it is time for us to arise from the death trap that is the confessional school of poetry and the sex drugs and rock and roll vibe of the sixties and maintain and insist that YOU DON'T HAVE TO KILL YOURSELF IN ORDER TO VALIDATE YOUR ART and that we can STOP CO SIGNING THE BULLSHIT THAT MAKES IT OKAY TO SPOUT CLICHES, PLATITUDES AND OTHER FATALISTIC BULLSHIT ABOUT THE DYING FOR ONE'S ART. Life is a gift and art makes life worth sticking around for and drugs are, plain and simple, a 24/7 example of bad news made real.


 Salon has become of the scold of the online left-leaning press, a humorless, neurotically PC collection of gadlfies and nags tut-tutting the ebb and flow of popular culture.  It's one thing to offer cultural criticism that takes on the contradictions and unintended ironies the enclosed words of Hollywood, literature, technology and the like give us; wit, though, self-effacement of a genuine and stylish sort as well, go a long way in getting a readership to finish your articles and respond to your ideas and not your attitude. What's one to do? Stop reading it, I suppose , and cancel my Facebook  endorsement. In a recent  spasm of strained contrariness, writer Alexander Zaitchik announces that the much heralded new "golden age of television" is a hoax and that t TV remains, in essence, the "vast wasteland" that long-ago FCC head Newton    Minnow declared. The remark has  been a cornerstone of the anti-boob tube harangues for decades, but it is instructive to read the full quote, not the snippet"

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

This piece seems to be more about showing us how much nay-saying media criticism the author has read rather than  being a nuanced and plausible debunking  of the claim that ours is a new “golden age” for television drama. The substance of Zaitchik's argument is substantially the same one that has been made against television since the 50s by cultural snobs on the left and the right; it is a technology that exists only to lull us into a state of illusion and accompanying delusion. Beyond the reiteration of the ideas of Marx, Adorn and Chomsky , the article  is by a tweedy bore dismissing television's contents as a whole, generalizing about the medium in general and failing to cite specific arguments about why  dramatic shows fail to live up to their acclaim. In plain fact television drama has vastly, dramatically changed in the last two decades, and a surprising amount of it is of great quality, complexity, style; drama that is worth talking about is the sort of narrative that takes the classic issues of being human , stories inhabited by characters who are  filled with assumptions of how the world should work and how it should respond to human desire and endeavor, and to view, investigate, explore the responses of characters when their agendas aren't met and their expectations result in circumstances they didn't foresee.

There is a splendid, wonderfully balanced complexity in The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Top of the Lake, Breaking Bad; the early promise of cable was that the increase of channels across would be the medium in which writers, directors, actors, artists    of all sorts would finally find a place to create quality work. The shows I’ve mentioned are a partial fulfillment, and I think the issue is how to make sure this influx of quality content continues. As it goes, I really don’t know what it is Zaitchik is grousing about besides the  currently  trendy refrain of this being television’s genuine magic period. I dislike herd-thinking as well, but when my complaints are        registered and a sufficient amounts of spleen have been vented, the truth remains the truth, unchanged by festering resentment. In this instance, television has become as good as its fan it has.


Monday, May 5, 2014


Nothing clears the sinuses faster than a choice blast of an angry woman's tirade, especially someone who can write sentences that way a butcher wields a knife. Witness this from poet Diane Wakoski , from her 1988 collection Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987:Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch .for my motorcycle betrayer.God damn it, at last I am going to dance on your grave, old man; you've stepped on my shadow once too often, you've been unfaithful to me with other women, women so cheap and insipid it psychs me out to think I might ever be put in the same category with them; you've left me alone so often that I might as well have been a homesteader in Alaska these past years; and you've left me, thrown me out of your life often enough that I might as well be a newspaper, differently discarded each day. Now you're gone for good and I don't know why but your leaving actually made me as miserable as an earthworm with no earth, but now I've crawled out of the ground where you stomped me and I gradually stand taller and taller each day. I have learned to sing new songs, and as I sing, I'm going to dance on your grave because you are dead dead dead under the earth with the rest of the shit, I'm going to plant deadly nightshade on your grassy mound and make sure a hemlock tree starts growing there. Henbane is too good for you, but I'll let a bit grow there for good measure because we want to dance, we want to sing, we want to throw this old man to the wolves, but they are too beautiful for him, singing in harmony with each other.

 So some white wolves and I will sing on your grave, old man and dance for the joy of your death. "Is this an angry statement?" "No, it is a statement of joy." "Will the sun shine again?" "Yes, yes, yes," because I'm going to dance dance dance Duncan's measure, and Pindar's tune, Lorca's cadence, and Creeley's hum, Stevens' sirens and Williams' little Morris dance, oh, the poets will call the tune, and I will dance, dance, dance on your grave, grave, grave, because you're a sonofabitch, a sonofabitch, and you tried to do me in, but you can't can't can't. You were a liar in a way that only I know: You ride a broken motorcycle, You speak a dead language You are a bad plumber, And you write with an inkless pen. You were mean to me, and I've survived, God damn you, at last I am going to dance on your grave, old man, I'm going to learn every traditional dance, every measure, and dance dance dance on your grave one step for every time you done me wrong.What's remarkable is that there is no submerged meaning here, no symbolic hints at the author's ongoing despair and struggles with a festering hurt. Wakoski has no time for that, addressing her anger directly, doing everything except naming name a name. This is a knuckle sandwich of a poem, and Wakoski is one of the few poets whose dedication to getting her emotional currents rightly expressed in her work I can bear to read at length. Over anything else, she is a choice poet, and better, a good writer. "Fun" might to egregious a word to apply to her, but there is that element that draws one to read her again. And again.Motor Cycle Revenge Poems was one of the five essential collections an aspiring undergraduate poet had to have at my school in the late Seventies, and Wakoski's collection holds up well because it was outside the whimsy and cant of the Sixties counter culture from which it sprang and dealt directly with things that were unspoken for women writers, unbridled anger. There was no flower power, there was no easy sex or sandalwood and black light posters, this was a woman's rage tempered and honed by style that only sharpened the wit. That razor's edge could slice and dice her motorcycle betrayer as fat or as thinly as she wanted, and list the crimes, the sins, the absolute arrogance of being the clod-thickened, presumptuous male.

Tellingly, this collection dove tailed with the emergence of feminist activism, when women involved in the movement announced that they were not going to make the meals and run off fliers for the next Black Panther legal fund raiser. Wakoski touched a nerve,lit a fire, she let the dynamite shack explode. I always like a poems by a woman who ends a dedication to a former lover with the deepest hope that he fall off his motorcycle and break his neck.I would assert that Wakoski found conventional poetic styles insufficient for the amount of resentment she needed to express and instead found a way that made unfiltered anger a true poetry. This is not an artless diatribe, a sustained screech or mere primal howling. It is writing, through and through, and what she does here is in an idealized vernacular, the voice of someone who has had no voice other than wimpering submission to a man's will and whim finding one over time and submits an articulate, white hot indictment of the man (or men) who did her ill. There is rhythm her, wit, and the anger is crystallized, etched in acid, phrased in cadences that are memorable and ring true. It is a monologue, and could be in a contemporary drama--Edward Albee wouldn't mind calling these lines his own had he written them. These poems are where rage is tempered and brought to the fine, slicing edge of genius.

The Doors on Ed Sullivan, 1967: "Light My Fire"

The Doors on Ed Sullivan, 1967: "Light My Fire":
Greil Marcus is an erratic rock and roll and pop culture critic, a survivor of the early days of the counter culture who,through a combination of obsessed observation of the rapidly changing terrain of American life and outright careerism, has made himself into The Grey Presence of The Big Beat. I have always imagined him looking into the mirror trying to imagine himself as gnarly combination of Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche, thinking his duty is to rise the discussion of rock music and the other arts that follow in its wake from a mere cataloging of guitar riffs and hidden messages of baroque ,obscure lyrics to a concentrated hermeneutics aimed at clarifying the historical forces that inform the spirit, direction and sheer force of the new arts. 

In  his books "Lipstick Traces" and "Invisible Republic", Marcus has argued that the formerly divided parts of America, the separate strands of it's immigrant population, here by choice, persecution or brute force, were now merging over a long , arduous period, occurring less, he implies, as a decisions of individuals who would like a more interesting , varied, dynamic democracy in which to flourish and be creative, but as an inevitable consequence of processes engineered in the Heavens; History was going toward a long term destination, each period's style , innovations breakthroughs building upon the stale, innovations and breakthroughs of the period that came before it. You get the idea, I think. Marcus writes enthusiastically like a smart undergraduate who had done exceptionally well during a course sequence where freshman and sophomores were required to read and discuss the Great Books in comparatively short order who then sought to apply every basic concept he'd absorbed to every pop culture artifact that happened upon his radar.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The reviewer at the All Music website opines that premiere genius Duke Ellington rose to the occasion when he had the chance to compose a full movie score for Otto Preminger's film "Anatomy of a Murder". This was not a case of saying that Ellington sustains his brilliance as a composer solely already established criteria, the implication that Ellington not just rose to the challenge of writing music for the moves, but showed himself to be the equal of genuine film composing giants, bumping shoulders with Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman. Insert your favorite composer and trust that the music Ellington composed, or had laying around, does not further the story.What bothered me especially was the claim that Ellington composed his music that served the scene and that it was discreet, unobtrusive, intuitively supportive of the narrative and the emotional dynamics under view. I disagree; I do consider Ellington to be America's greatest musical gift to the world in the  20th Century and consider him an American Master of his art, the good maestro doesn't seem to have had any idea of how to compose something that was meant to augment a filmed story. All the classic touches, color, impressionistic sweeps, and slyly insinuated improvisations are here--as an album, this is a fine work of ensemble concert jazz composition--but they don't just intrude on the scenes and sequences, they stomp on them. There is a struggle for attention. The final effect is that of being in a crappy hotel room where the neighbors are playing the radio too loud for too long. It would be nice if this resourceful innovator could claim with pride that he had artistic success in the movies besides all the other forms he greeted and seduced into becoming his very own expression. Some shoulders remain could to the seduction. Remember that the name of his memoir is "Music is My Mistress". Mistresses, in the movies at least, have minds of their own and will keep their own counsel.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Now that National Poetry Month Fever has broken...

Poetry is about saying it as it seems. Saying it "like it is" assumes the Romantic trap of thinking that the final state of things can be deigned by the poet's imagination. The permanent significance some poets attempt to capture is an illusion: word meanings change, cultural habits change, reading habits change, world views change, the meanings of what was formally thought to be a settled affair changes as well. Or rather our attitudes change to the subject changes, which means the object itself is inert, bereft of meaning. The poet, attempting a verse that reaches years , decades beyond it's time, is better served getting his her own properly and artfully qualified perception of events and ideas right. One might not trust meta narratives anymore, but brilliant individual responses are always illuminating.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Fish in the driveway

One of my favorite photographs, a snap I took one night in La Jolla on  a muggy July night on a residential street behind a popular Chinese restaurant . From appearances it looked as if some one were painting some fish-shaped  figurines on their driveway, leaving behind these ethereal traces of what they did. The objects that were painted were, I suspect, the kind of kind of bric a brac one observes in suburban enclaves, waiting rooms and dead gardens, which is to say , tacky. This ghost school, forever in place and swimming against grainy, cracked cement tide,  justifies the probable kitsch from which this resulted.  It made a pleasant summer evening a minor adventure.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Something's happening here...

It's often argued that  Americans are afraid of poetry; a dramatic overstatement, one things, but not without credible residue. Rather it's a matter of not many Americans, comparatively, think of poetry as a resource since we, as a culture, are not an introspective culture, but instead one that continuously looks forward to a future to be created.
Poetry, so far as the general reader is concerned, is a matter of one being alone with their thoughts and structuring their experience in a narrative form, a narrative that not only chronicles events along a time line, but also the nuance of experience, the fleeting sensation of something changing in their psyche. This requires making the language do extraordinary things to accommodate an uncommon interpretation of experience, and Americans, a people reared on the ideology of what can be done in the face of adversity, have no expansive desire to do something so impractical. Language is a thing meant to help us solve material problems, to achieve material goals, and poetry, a strange extension of linguistic twists and shadings, does nothing to put food on the table, put money in the bank, to further the quest to cure an endless variety of incurable diseases.
"Poetry makes nothing happen" is what W.H.Auden wrote as of way of saying that verse is a means of expression that resists attempts to use in the the gaining of power, wealth, prestige. It's use is more intangible and essential and yet it resists the conventional definitions of use. The poem from which the quote is derived reads thusly, partially :

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
This is a war poem, of a kind, and was written at time when much of the avant gard, left and right, were obsessed with how art in all mediums could be used to forcefully change the world and how powerfully, how rapidly we could change the way populations can have the way they see and think and act in the world change permanently. But Auden declares that the poet and his work survives the agendas and the manifestos and that it while it makes nothing happen, it is something that happens, as an inevitable event of nature.Poetry is immaterial to purpose, function, policy; the absence of larger audiences for poetry isn't about fear from a perception that it's a mode of expression that is the least useful among several the lot of us might select on a given day. There are those of us who would argue that poetry's lack of identifiable utility is exactly what attracts us to the form--I happen to think that , like Wilde, that all art is quite useless in practical application (save for the fact that I believe humans crave beauty in form and in expression) and adhere to Harold Bloom's running definition of what literature , in general, avails the reader : to paraphrase, literature (poetry) helps us think about ourselves. Americans , I think it's safe to say in the broadest sense, have no real desire to reside individually and psychically work their way to an "aha" experience with poetry as a conduit. We do think about ourselves, but more in terms of accumulation rather than an inner equilibrium. The measure of a man is his wallet, not the subtlety of his thoughts, and this a form of fearlessness that borders on insanity.

Monday, April 21, 2014

I remain, humbly, a jerk

The "I am a jerk" trope is one I've been using for years , the intention being to remind me that lurking under my heavily worded pronouncements is an otherwise sensibly guy who can indeed take himself too seriously. It's my way , I suppose, of interpreting the admonishments of the 12 Step program I'm a member of that I ought to exhibit a genuine humility. It's a grounding principal, I suppose. I am a writer/bookseller living in San Diego. 

I was a literature major at the University of California, San Diego where I met, took classes from with a good number of poets and writers, Jerome Rothenberg, Michael Davidson, Paul Dresman and Rae Armantrout among them. I had the stupid good fortune of collaborating with some of them, and fell into a great fellowship and larger community of  writers that included Steve Farmer, Shelley White, Richard Astle, Melanie Nielson, David Sternbach, Tom Marshall, the list is long and filled with  amazingly diverse and brillant men and women. Butterfield Blues Band (featuring Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, Mark Natfalin and Sam Lay) at the Chessmate folk and blues club in Detroit , Michigan sometime in the late sixties. 

The club had no age limit, and I consider that one of the luckiest breaks I've ever had.Personally, I think I'm an affable sort, with a clear head most of the time, a good heart, not entirely modest, with a good sense of my talents and my deficiencies. My on going project is to continue to learn how to write and to become a better harmonica player. Over all, I would like to remain engaged with the world I am blessed to be alive in. I wrote music reviews for a number of years for the San Diego Reader, The Door, Revolt in Style, Kicks , I was the arts editor for the UCSD Daily Guardian, I've been active in various poetry and prose projects locally, and I have worked as a bookseller around the San Diego area for the last thirty three years. I have written reviews, short stories and poetry since making the decision to be a writer of some sort in high school and I have, I think, managed to compose a few decent pages since those fateful days of 1969. I am also a musician,a blues harmonica player of forty years experience, having been inspired by the original Paul

Some of my favorite poets were assholes

Ezra Pound,  was a politically reprehensible and one of the worst major poets of the 20th century. Traitor, reactionary, race-baiter, I have no sympathy for a man who's ambition had more to do with having power and influence over whole populations rather than poetry itself.

 He was, though, an idea man about the craft and art of the poem, and some of his criticism remains relevant. The way we discuss the quality and function of the image and the modifiers that do and do not attend it in context draw heavily from his notions about ridding ourselves of the weight of literary history and devising a poetics that can can help the reader perceive the world in new ways.  Pound didn't wan to stop there, of course, he desired to rule the world and aspired to be The Boss. Bully and self-aggrandizing creep he may have been (and traitor) but some of ideas, at least, had value. He wanted poets to have the trifecta of  prestige items with power, the pen, the scepter, the   sword.

 Eliot , Thomas Stearnes, was  in league with Pound as anti-semite and race baiting neurotic who disguised his bigotry in a tradition of genteel Classicism, but I will defend him as a poet; too much of his images, his cadences, his drifting allusions hit the mark ; he is one of those writers who had an especially strong gift for getting the elusive essence of alienation , dread, spiritual desolation in a dehumanizing culture in his poems without turning them into padded, freighted dissertations. It is one of the tragedies of contemporary literature that Eliot, whom I think is one of the strongest poets of the last century, should happen to be, politically,a callous and malicious monster. Even dried up white guys who are lousy with non whites and are barely able to conceal their frothing anti-antisemitism can, at times, describe a mood or provide nuance to  circumstances that transcend their repulsive politics and personalities. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014


I saw the late Lou Reed at the San Diego Civic Theater shortly after the release of his  1974 live album Rock and Roll Animal at a  moment in his career where he was trading on his reputation, getting himself a payday . It was an understandable situation, since other artists, notably David Bowie and Alice Cooper,built large audiences, critical praise and (presumably) fat bank accounts making music that owed nearly everything to the work created by Reed, with the Velvet Underground and in his solo releases, a  decade earlier. 

Rock and Roll Animal was a essential a revved up Greatest Hits album, a collection of in- concert renditions of some  of  Reed's best known and regarded , ably spearheaded by the flashy and elegant dual lead guitar ministrations of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter.  The difference between the original versions of the Velvet Underground songs, which were spare and harshly  textured with the flickering light bulb quality that exemplified much art produced by East Coast weather conditions and critical amounts of meth-amphetamines( and which adroitly  framed the catatonic intensity of Reed's lyrics ), and those of  Rock and Roll Animal. which were rearranged into some of the most elegantly arranged double hard rock guitar this side of the early Allman Brothers, indicated that Reed was ready for his mainstream success. 

He arrived ready to give the audience what he thought they were expecting: a rock and roll show relying on superb guitar work from someone named Danny Weise (ably replacing Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter from the the RR Animal album), and Reed, amped up on ego or something more chemical camping it up mightily, singing his "hits", so to speak, in a voice that resembled the scrape of tail pipe dragged over Manhattan asphalt,  moving about in a twitchy coochie dance that resembled every bathroom mirror rehearsal of Jagger dance moves you or I ever attempted. He was living  up to his perceived reputation as a decadent, near death bad boy that when it came time to perform his masterpiece "Heroin", he wrapped the microphone cord around his arm oh-so-coyly, slowly,  teasing out audience expectations. "He's gonna slam some geeze" someone shouted and the band  ripped into a scalding ten minute bout of riff-mongering while Reed pranced , lit cigarettes and flicked them, one after another, to the  side stage after a drag or two. Reed was cashing in, cashing in on what was left of the charisma he had left, and it took a while to take him seriously again through his stretch of subsequent solo albums. hat turned my mind around concerning Lou Reed was the 1991 publication of the book "Between Thought and Expression", a selection of  of his song lyrics up to that time. 

Yes, the title is as pretentious as anything you can think of--Reed , always an intuitive artist and poet, was not the autodidact (and bore) David Bowie turned out to be--but this collection shows you what a brilliant lyricist/poet he was . Hard life, slums, drug addiction, sexual escapades at the margin, the stretching of consciousness until it was ragged and rusty and ready to break , Reed was a vivid scenarist who wrote lovely images without grandstanding clutter. He was blunt as Herbert Selby, funny as  William Burroughs, succinct as Elmore Leonard; his stanzas got to an emotional center of situations and dealt with the narrator's ability or inability to cope, to hope or give into fatalism and silence. He was a major, major artist in rock and roll,  the latest loss among the diminishing ranks of Rock Musicians  Who Mattered.   There hasn't been an area of  what we lazily refer to as "alternative" rock that hasn't been predated by  the antics,  experiments and bad diets and odd, minimalist tunings that Reed attached himself too; noise rock, punk rock, new wave, grunge, confessional elaborationist. There is not a younger rock and roll musician of any serious intent or reputation who has not fallen under his influence, his long, wide and profound shadow.

In defense of the semicolon - The Week

In defense of the semicolon - The Week:
I use the semi colon quite a bit and I find it quite useful; it gives sentences a sense of rhythm and flow as a new idea develops from another one has already articulated. Sometimes starting a new sentence for the supposed sake of clarity seems arbitrary and makes the reading experience choppy. A well placed semicolon creates a pause in an explication, like an intake of breath, and allows an idea to flow forth rather than come into the world herky - jerky like a driver's ed student learning the difference between the gas pedal and the break. It can get gratuitous, yes, but the semicolon is a device that has particular and desirable uses. 

Kurt Vonnegut, a semicolon naysayer who's dismissal of the punctuation mark inspired the defense linked to here, wasn't a verbose writer and could get across a series of well developed points , in both the plots of his fiction and the substance of his occasional essays, in clear, straight forward language. That was a genius he shared with another Titan of Terse Testifying , the recently departed Elmore Leonard. Leonard had as a goal to not write  prose he would skip over if  he were reading another man's novel.  Semicolons for both writers would have been absurd and pretentious; their prose would have been substantially  over dressed.  It's a matter of what sort of flow and cadence one is going for; without elaborating too much, I will suggest that Vonnegut or Leonard tale set loose into the world with a style more suitable for John Updike or  David Foster Wallace would be, I believe the complete and utter demolition of everything worth waking up to.

No  fun.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Don't ya think?

Salon has in recent years become a shrill, humorless repository of articles by straight-lipped ninnies who try to impress us with how they've dealt with injustice and bad body image. The magazine, a pioneer in online journalism, used to have something on the ball .

 I do a recent article,  which credits the late David Foster Wallace with giving  us advance warning on how irony has evolved from being an effective literary effect in one's reading life to being an empty cultural gesture, less meaningful than a shrug, less committed than snore. Ut is an honest -to -god piece of thinking rather than a become a knee jerk response to situations that won't allowed themselves to be resolved with wishful thinking. It's now a means to distance ourselves from what needs to be addressed politically, socially, emotionally. We are emotionally neutered with all this "distancing" from problematic issues and entities and situations, and hence we become divorced form one another and ourselves. 

The question that is raised is how is art going to respond to this coarsening of our senses and collective personalty and provide a tangible sense that aesthetic thinking isn't just thinking of new ways of expressing how stupid things are and can be; art is also the means of constructing something worth staying alive for, for having purpose. It's a good piece of writing,this piece, and you wish Salon's editors would cease their grimacing and lay off the make believe outrage and publish some more longer-form  essays like this one.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

I own you, don't leave me.

Two sonnets in tribute to ladies the respective poets have taken a fancy two are the subject of Robert  Pinsky's current poetry discussion site. As usual, the discussion that follows Pinsky's remarks and recitations of the works (read in fine manner by Pinsky) is subtle, lively, cordial.  I rather like the wit and spare and adroit verbal sharpness that mark both of these poems; graceful, preening, softly boasting and flattering the women to whom they are addressed in terms that bestow qualities exceptional , unique, miraculous to behold, these are the testimonies of horn dogs working their way into a woman’s favor. And, perhaps, the respective beds they sleep in.
Rather classically, both these quick witted sonnets display less the feeling of spontaneity , of genuine play, than they do the feeling of a well constructed presentation, an argument mulled over, finessed and converted into a poeticized template intended for the means of endearing oneself to women by appealing to their perceived vanity. This makes you consider the old cartoon line when Olive Oyl says to Popeye and Bluto , as they try to woo her , “I bet you say that to all the girls.” The speakers, the wooers, the orators that profess the unqualified beauty , brilliance, charm, grace and sublimity of their objects of affection , deliver their testimonies with it in mind to present themselves in an exceptional light; the sonnets are, in essence, sales pitches, imbuing the speakers with qualities compatible with the ones they’ve ascribed to their ladies dearest without so much as one self-glorified personal pronoun being used in either of these artfully cantilevered proclamations. It’s a subtle argument to be made that requires the most skillful of tongues, that the qualities, the talents that are being attached to the would be betrothed have not been noticed by the rabble, the masses, those who live a penuric existence, and that only the men who have broached and spoke to the subject of the ladies beauty are intelligent, sensitive, caring, dynamic enough to speak these truths. It is artful indeed, requiring a fine a balance, of knowing when to let one’s voice trail off, to end on a soft syllable, awaiting a response. This is bragging through the flattering of another.
(Michael Drayton, 1563-1631)

How many paltry foolish painted things, That now in coaches trouble every street, Shall be forgotten, whom no poet sings, Ere they be well wrapped in their winding-sheet! Where I to thee eternity shall give, When nothing else remaineth of these days, And queens hereafter shall be glad to live Upon the alms of thy superfluous praise. Virgins and matrons, reading these my rhymes, Shall be so much delighted with thy story That they shall grieve they lived not in these times, To have seen thee, their sex’s only glory: So shalt thou fly above the vulgar throng, Still to survive in my immortal song.
Michael Drayton’s ode speaks to posterity, speaking to what he believes is the likelihood that this fair woman will be remembered, gloried and virtually worshipped as womanly perfection in ages yet to come by virtue of his poem. The ladies who now clutter the streets “shall be forgotten” by poets and this miss will be the envy of women of future elegant pretense because Drayton’s directly addressed ideal is “their sex’s only glory”. A harsh judgement, but it plays to vanity and a person’s feeling of being unjustly ignored. There is resentment here to be exploited and Drayton’s technique, effective or not, is a masterful piece of exploitation. It takes a man, after all, to make the world aware of the genius of the woman who has taken his arm in companionship, in romance, in matrimony. The woman is anonymous, a cipher without the right man to make the powers that are innate in her bosom radiate fiercely, proudly, for the world to praise and to cater to. “So shalt thou fly above the vulgar throng,/Still to survive in my immortal song.” This is to cleverly say that the woman will be remembered forever because of the man’s immortal song, which is also to say that only a man, this man, could have written. Without the man’s words, his voice, the woman being seduced is unknown, without the power he extols in the lyric, which is to say that she is without her own voice, bereft of even a language to command.
The intended audience, I’m sure, is for an audience that considers itself literate and therefore possessed of an elevated sensibility regarding what I think both these verses are about, really, seduction. But we do have the experience, as readers, of getting a vicarious thrill and find ourselves imagining being the speaker in either poem, no less than small boys imagine themselves to be a super hero with great powers in the fight against immediate evil. The works seduction both ways, upon the women who are listening and to the readers who are literate and, we might assume, a tad shy and less quicksilver in their effusions of love, honor, and grace. It is a way of being that readers, male overall, can fancy themselves as possessing their object of desire (“object” being the operative term) taking ownership of a would-be lover’s (sexual or courtly) self esteem because the virtues outlined in these cleanly articulated metaphors and allusions would not have come to mind and, further, would not have existed had not been for the innately superior senses of the male. Even the women in the poems, the ones who stand apart from others of their own gender, are chattel nonetheless. While I think the function of the sonnets are morally insidious–this is a world where women are lesser beings and have no selfhood, no definition in the absence of men who control them–it is a kick to realize that it is the male of the readership who is also being played with the sweetness of these words, in the words of internet, “owned”.
By chattel, I mean to say that the women of this historical period, even the ones singled out for plain-though-generous praise in verse, are considered property. From Merriam Webster’s On Line dictionary” something (such as a slave, piece of furniture, tool, etc.) that a person owns other than land or buildings.” While I do believe that the real world sensibilities were a saner as regards the treatment of women, but there is the tendency in cultures dominated by the will, wishes, wiles and whining of men to treat women as if they were accessories, an extension of a man’s personality and little else. In the grander rhetoric of love poems and protestations of virtues bordering on sheer virtuosity, we realize that that the man who seeks to woo may as well be talking to a car salesman as he describes the vehicle he’d like to drive off the lot and bring home where he keeps his other stuff. On occasion I am of the mind that love poems of the period were, in essence, projections of fragile egos confronting a Hobbesian universe where life was nasty, brutish and short. Again, this is a seduction that works in two different directions, to an audience that wishes to think well of itself and the ability of their cultivated readings and wit to make disruptive realities remain at bay, or at least out of mind, and, of course, for the women addressed directly, bluntly and yet with a spare poetry that resembles a truth the subject has denied.