Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Meanest Things Vladimir Nabokov Said About Other Writers | Literary Hub

Book reader website Literary Hub has a recent article that is a generous sampling of the awful things master novelist Vladimir Nabokov has written about other renowned writers.  Interesting and intriguing, as the man, an entitled misanthrope who's lack of empathy for any of  characters turned his wicked tongue into a writerly geiger counter that could capture the damning detail as his myriad of obsessed sycophants , witless housewives and firmly addled head Wasps and create a damning, hilarious, unexpectedly acute tragedies and comedies ; he was a witness to characters of no particular charm engineering the means of their eventual dissolution. But this article is weak in its examples, whcih is to say they suggest Nabokov to be more vain that on target.            One of the best stylist in the English language with regard to his novels is merely chatty and a hazelnut shade prolix in his under-seasoned dismissals of other writers held in critical high regard. The remarks are mean, of course, but lacking is the conspicuous example that exposes the supposed fraudulence. His thrusts do not stab, his parries do not cut , his volleys neither detonate nor decimate. He does not leave the wounds he intended to. This reduces Nabokov's stature, in my judgement. Still, VN remains a splendid , brilliant novelist.

Sunday, April 15, 2018


An admirable facet of Greil Marcus's digressive form of criticism is that he's always attempting--essaying forth, essentially--to demonstrate the unities between the high, low, and middle portions of culture, insisting, with an impressive range of references and reading that the separations between are more argumentative than substantial. Linking mountain and southern music with Dadaism and neo-Marxist student rebellions with Religious bliss with rock and roll and performance art--an exciting project to stake one's career on, which is precisely what Marcus has done. Famously, though, Marcus, one of the first rock critics for the Rolling Stone publication, the author is given digression and historical anecdote, musing and abusing the privilege of making metaphor when proofs of his theory are required. Assuming that he had a theory, to begin with. Marcuse is clearly moving in the dialectical mode, maintaining that opposing forces arise in history that then clash inevitably in the violent synthesis and create a new period of existence with new rules and cultural distinctions, all of which create its opposite and will again clash in violent synthesis. 

But instead of a theory that one can read and argue with, I suppose, a script one can comprehend and modify as new evidence comes to light, Marcus is a more impulsive notion than theoretical rigor. It is the joy of reading him, as he seems to relish the chance to recreate some blessed moment in music history--the Sex Pistols rehearsing "Johnny B. Goode" (in his book Lipstick Traces)  or the tension on the stage at the Newport Fok Festival when Dylan, assuming the stage with an electric band, was booed and called names by a crowd of stalwart folkies. Just when you think he's ready to provide the skeleton key to his musings, the punchline, the point he's taking a good while to get to, Marcus recedes into the mystified murk of his own grandiloquence. That is the joy and the aggravation of reading this writer.   I read Greil Marcus because I love the way he writes and admits that his prose has influenced the way I take fingertips to the keyboard. This is a problematic love of the man's love for five decades. Lately, though, it's been more prolix than persuasion, as his ongoing effort to make Bob Dylan the central factor of the 20th century hasn't struck a believable insightful note in decades. 

The Old Weird America is an extended reflection on the songs on Dylan's famous 'Basement Tapes", which strives to provide the secret history behind the songs. In matters of the cross-pollination of cultures, racial justice, the mashing together of folk authenticity, rock and roll, and Symbolist poetry, Marcus essentially argues that all roads lead to Dylan and lead through him as well. As criticism, it is more an act of imagination than a weighing of elements; Well read and as well listened to as he is across a great spectrum of literature and music types, what is lacking here are the dual duties of establishing how the songs and artists within the folk tradition influenced Dylan and how Dylan assimilated the music who's expressive brilliance he could never equal and yet was motivated by to create his own means and create new criteria by which to discuss the success or failure of the work. Dylan is less the artist to Marcus than a saint or something greater, and, even though there is a pleasure to ride the waves, cadences and well-crafted metaphors and similes of the writer's prose, The Old Weird America is a shaggy dog story at heart. Marcus began this habit of epic digression with Lipstick Traces, a tome not without its pleasures--his connection thereof the efforts of Cabaret Voltaire, the Dadaists, Punk Rock and the Situationist provocations of Guy Debord was especially tightly argued-- but now it seems little else than a practiced spiel that's trotted out and exclaimed, regardless of the topic, not unlike an old timer's AA share that is memorized not just by them but by the entire meeting that has heard them deliver for decades. I am saying that Marcus is writing the same book with diminishing degrees of enthusiasm. His fascination with the idea that there is a Secret History of American culture, where ideas High, Middle, and Low meet and create odd examples of genius and odd, clarifying perceptions to the exact set of ironies that both inspire and hobble us as a collective society striving for imperfectly stated Ideals has gone from an intriguing and seductive conceit where equally obsessed readers, hoping there is more to rock and roll and blues and country music than guitar chords and drunken hard times, can share the idea that there is a metaphysical aspect to the lovingly embraced sounds that defined the childhood of millions of citizens. 

This makes for the diffusion of argument on Marcus's case and leaves us more with the bold assertion that is no longer the poetic effusions of a critic inspired toward a degree of inspiring interpretation; this is the point where the eloquence no longer rings, soars, or makes you want to turn up the volume and study a lyric sheet while scrutinizing the tunes of Dylan, the Stones or the century's end disruptions of Hip Artists and those after them. Rock has its own Harold Bloom, likewise an esteemed critic of literary works who, of late, is an admitted Bardolator who has written some books concerning the essential genius of Shakespeare as being something much more vast and profound and, shall we say, "world creating" than even the wildest essayists have claimed in the centuries previously. Shakespeare, says Bloom, asserts Bloom, proclaims Bloom, created the Modern World, every inch of it, every concept, every psychological profile and alienated nuance we can think of. You can argue with his sweeping conclusions, but the book I'm thinking of, "Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human," is a critical delight. It may be that Bloom is luxuriating in the laziness of a higher caliber. The difference between them is that Bloom has a thesis that he's worked with for decades, a set of subtle arguments crystallized in his landmark book "The Anxiety of Influence," a brief but trenchant discussion where the Professor posits that Shakespeare is the premier genius who casts a long and permanent shadow over the rest of world literature that came before him and that his influence is so pervasive that no poet or other literary artists cannot help but be influenced by him. Those great geniuses who've emerged after Bard's time have either engaged their influence from him and written great works extending, modifying, and altering the system of metaphor Shakespeare changed our collective consciousness with, or there is another genius who've emerged over the centuries who, being painfully aware of the Bard's embedded influence on how sentences about human experience have come to be written, write furiously in the other direction, against his style, assumptions, and rhetoric, experimenting, taking political risks, deconstructing, inverting, abstracting and de-familiarizing the artful language in ways only a new kind of genius would conceive and execute. 

But here's the rub: even for those great writers who've made great art with language that artfully contains the human impulse to go beyond mere descriptions of the world and peer at what is behind the veil of enumerated appearances, Shakespeare is present, his aesthetic, his metaphors, his language influencing new writers in one direction or the other. That is a rather crude summary of Bloom's basic premise, and there are dozens of other notions woven through his life's work. Still, the point is that his a set of ideas that make the ideas tangible and convincing once the initial "aha!"  of flashing insight wears off. It's not science, of course, but it is a craft, a profession, this kind of thinking, and what we have in Bloom who has taken his working theory and tested it against new ideas, new writers who write literature in cultures other than what is routinely aligned in the Western Canon. Bloom, who defended the existence of the canon and wrote a book on the issue, believes that there are permanent genius and masterpieces of Western Literature,  as he is a man who has made a career judging books with imposing standards. The standards are not fixed, though, and Bloom further asserts Test the Canon is a living thing, like the   American Constitution, a category of books and authors that must be continually revised as matters with human existence come to mean something different. 

 Marcus and impressionistic hot takes on matters of music, and culture, in general, have been brilliant at times. Still, the later work is regressive without a central premise or premises. Marcus hasn't put forth a thesis from which his notions can find a more compelling form of argument, a form that would aid others to avoid the frequent bush and thorny bramble that spreads in Marcus's many books and subject his scheme of rock music's claim to art to some respectful but rigorous interrogation. I frankly think he's lost in his thoughts but without a map. The point here isn't to go over Bloom's declarations in, say, Shakespeare and the Invention of Human or Hamlet: Endless Poem, but rather to mention that as in the case of Greil Marcus, we have a critic who has stared too long at the page, listened too long to the same old songs, two critics fixed on their respective catalog of ideas and conceits which are now not speaking to a readership, or at least no readership other than themselves. A pity, of course, since criticism, as practice, is to assert, offer proof of argument from the text scrutiny, and provoke discussion or at least some element of invigorated intellectualizing. 

I don't want to think about anything larger than what's for dinner after reading Bloom murmur through layers of verbal phlegm about the Absolute Appetites of Falstaff, nor do I desire to play air guitar or consider the sweet surrealist mannerisms of Tom Waits after Marcus intones multitudes of repetitively presented riffs, paragraph after paragraph. Instead, possibilities are exhausted in the critic's terms, not those of the book or the disc; I find that this kills enthusiasm for the art itself. Those familiar with how the author thinks on the page will note, also, the lack of real verve in the writing, skilled and flowing as it may be.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

HOT TAKE!!Xiaolu Guo: ‘Dickens is sentimental, clumsy and lacks poetry’ | Books | The Guardian

Xiaolu Guo: ‘Dickens is sentimental, clumsy and lacks poetry’ | Books | The Guardian:

The Guardian posed as series of fast questions to writer Xiaolu Guo, and her answers result in harsh hot take on the writings of Charles Dickens. You can read the answers in full here .Her views on Dickens are so uninformed that I cannot take her seriously as a literary thinker. There is nothing in the article that makes me think that she is subtle and thorough writer, let alone possessing anything like the grace and poetry she maintains Dickens lack. This has nothing to do with gender preference: Dickens is simply a superb writer , a keen observer, a wonderful social critic, an amazing, astounding creator of complex characters from all the tiers of society. Dickens is the kind of social novelist that prolix neocon and former writerly whiz-kid Tom Wolfe extols as the kind of practitioner of the art that younger writers ought to be emulating. Wolfe, of course, goes on to , in his own fiction, imitate Dickens blatantly in several of his baggy monster novels, to paraphrase Henry James, and demonstrates the difficulty in doing what Dickens did with apparent ease; keen eye, sharp, character revealing dialogue, the skill and tact to characterize the privileged and the powerless humanely and fully without a (conspicuous) set of moral/political concerns undercutting the natural seeming flow of the author's many narrative strands.

 Dickens was an observer, which means he took in context, situations, conditions, and he listened as well, closely and intently no doubt, which seems a good way to make your characters complex, , believable and, to use a dread word, relevant. Of course Dickens wrote well and was capable of some the most immaculate and stirring lyric sentences written in English--does anyone doubt a 20th century maestro like William Gaddis didn't pay close attention to the Dickensian cadences as he aligned the many details we gather in Great Expectations, David Coppefield, Bleak House? As a matter of course, not uncommon for a professional, serializing writer like Dickens who wrote many novels and stories over many years, not everything he did was a home-run--neither is everything by Updike or Joyce Carol Oates for that matter. But let us end this rant by completing the metaphor and conclude that his lifetime batting average would make the other would be geniuses of the writerly sort seem farm league , forever up and coming, never arriving .

Friday, April 6, 2018

Smart's Cat, My Mantis

I love cats as much as the next premature curmudgeon, and I can't help but think that Christopher Smart is half pulling our collective leg with his poem, which is rock-slapping waves of adulation for his cat. Years ago I wrote a poem called "The Praying Mantis" that was a list of self-contained sentences, each beginning with the title phrase and then completing itself with some qualitative non sequitur; the point was, of course, was to lampoon the baroquely-phrased claims you come across in self-penned biographies, press releases or eulogies that overshoot the commemorative mark. The challenge was to see how many fresh takes I could get starting from the same premise and at what point would I sense that I was done, winding up the sequence on a diminished, perhaps exasperated note.

The praying mantis returns no phone calls,
The praying mantis will not shake your hand,
The praying mantis does not pay sales tax,
The praying mantis had been to the moon and found it drab and without a bar,
The praying mantis ignores streetlights and no smoking signs,
The praying mantis does not hear what you have to say,
The praying mantis is the other side of the story,
The praying mantis loves a hammer with sturdy, curved claw,
The praying mantis will have lunch when he's done with you,
The praying mantis is a close, personal friend of Sammy Davis Jr.,
The praying mantis directs traffic until it's an atonal film score,
The praying mantis says nothing but means volumes,
The praying mantis cured cooties and shared it with no one...

The litany went on another sixty lines until the absurdity grew tiresome, or my imagination failed, or both, but the point is that it was interesting to witness the momentum one could get attributing huge potential to things of seeming small consequence. I was interested in how the praying mantis could, by his lack of interaction with the larger human world, could seem, given the colliding box car cadence, seem a larger, more powerful force, one mere mortal should respect lest his restraint fall and said insect really show us what for. I had been thinking of every cliche portrayal of hip and badass cool I had come across, from junkie jazz geniuses, the Beats, white Negros and tortured renditions of existential cool; the sort of man who is so in tune with himself-in-the-world that he is privy to great amounts of power, but that power is withheld because there is no need for an ostentatious display. In other words, a state so slippery that attempts to describe it accurately result in growing amounts of absurdity, some of it baffling. Smart, it seems, wants the habits of his cuddly kitty to embody something purposeful with the divine, to reveal a connection with a heavenly agenda that our intellect prevents us from sensing much of the time but which a cat, with senses tuned like delicate instruments, can pick up on and be affected by.

For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon
**his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.

There is a belief that there are absolutely no coincidences in God's Universe, that nothing, nothing at all happens my mistake, that what people and creatures do is, to a greater or lesser degree, the result of a divine intervention against our baser natures. One can see why Smart was inspired by his cat, cats being a creature that, while domesticated, still seem independent, engaged with invisible forces, acting in accordance to stimulus humans have little or no capacity to discern.

Smart injects so much purposefulness and subtle intent in his cat's movements that assuming that he's using the creature to mirror his own self-image is unavoidable. Or at least something to consider as one pursues alternative readings. He seems to be writing about his own lazing about, it seems, his own time eating, musing, writing, taking walks, talking, just being rather than doing something more active, productive and profitable. His cat is connected to a spiritual path, or at least he sees hints of it with each lick, purr, furball and odd reclining angle, and mounts an indirect argument that his very being, those times when he is thinking of the connections between stationary objects, the contemplative mode, is precisely how his God intended him to be in this life. Arguing that God didn't want me to work is something I've never had the nerve to try.

Some had commented elsewhere that these might be called "attention poems", something I like the sound of.I like "attention poem", as in a particular thing--creature, object--getting an unusual and, I think, unexpected focus. I'm one of those who thinks that citizens come to know the world through addressing it formally, "knowing", in this sense, being more than a formal recognition of origins, functions, and utility; imbuing a mantis, a cat, a building with qualities alien to them is a way of developing an intimate relationship with those things that might otherwise be problematic. We give them extraordinary qualities through fanciful rhetoric, itself distorted and careening along the tracks, so that they may become ordinary to us. It may be a shamanistic ritual transposed to the written word, an exercise of the will to imagine a realm of metaphysical propositions in an effort to assimilate a bit of the virtue and power the tropes would imply. It would seem a way of making that which is ultimately unknowable--the thing in itself--less of a concern and more an asset in our way through the day, the weeks, the months, the years.

Thinking again, the use of the word "ordinary" doesn't do justice to Smart's evocation. Nothing in the way Smart describes his cat seems an attempt to reduce something in size. A better phrase would have served the point better, which is my feeling that Smart, on some level, was trying to associate himself with the subtle and sublime qualities he attributes to his dear cat and, perhaps, have those same graces become a part of himself. You could also assert that the very act of sensing these things in his pet and having the language mastery to sufficiently align the motion with the spiritual nuance and attending effect comes from an innate quality, that these conditions already exist within Smart. He would be, then, be in the act of recognizing what he already knows, that part of the shared condition within his God's universe that is within himself and the living things around him. Not that the poem is meant to be the beginning of a campaign toward universal spiritual suffrage for all creatures great and small, but his close reading of Jeoffry's manner offers an enticing clue to his greater cosmological sense.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Aesthetics of Nakedness

Image may contain: textShrillness is not how I'd describe Mailer's late work, since he abandoned addressing himself in the third person with "The Executioner's Song". From that book onward, Mailer's self-announcing presence has noticeably receded and the narrative itself took priority. For something approaching "shrillness", you have to go back to "Advertisements for Myself" and "Why Are We In Vietnam?", writings filled with exuberance, ego, loud clashing verbs and careening metaphors.

 It was a style that worked for Mailer for a long period, and the author was smart enough to have given it up before it became that rote, breathless template that a more promiscuous writer like Joyce Carol Oates relies on. Regardless of what you think of him as person, Mailer's "The Gospel According to the Son" is not a novel inspired by any hysterical force; it is calm, simply phrased, poetically spare, and effective as in result in it's evocation of Christ's burden of being both of heaven and of earth. Mailer's presence and his ideas are always noticeable in his later work, but there's a mature,yes, mature voice at work here which has served him well. 

The problem with much of the nay saying of Mailer's writing is that some act as if he hasn't changed his style. To think so is not to have read him closely at all it seems.Christ has been a character in novels and in film, so Mailer's brief recasting of the Greatest Story Over Told is hardly an exercise in ego gratification. Mailer has some well known ideas about God that he's written about over the decades, and it was rather a surprise that he could weave them into the Christ story as delicately and successfully as he had. Perhaps you should read the book before condemning it out of hand. A little less tub thumping is called for. If you don't like it, at least you'll be in position to discuss the degrees of it's flaws with authority. You'll be in the position to critique it as a novel, not an audacious act. 

Flaubert's notion for the "impersonal artist" is a fine theory and works well with respect to writers with similar aesthetic values as the author of "Madame Bovary". It's not the only idea in how literature and art ought to made however, and certainly applying it to Mailer's aims as a novelist is a bit besides the point. Impersonality in writing is more a goal than anything achievable, I would say, and it's only in the reaching for the result that one might end with interesting results. Genius enters into the equation, as in not all writers have equal abilities, whatever standard they avow. Nakedness as a value in writing works only as well as the writer who decides to make it an operating concern, and it worked well enough for Mailer in the early and middle points of his career, a projection of the self hardly more assaulting than Whitman's or the cynical rumblings of an older Mark Twain. Mailer, as I said before, left this persona behind in 1979 with the publication of his masterful "Executioner's Song",when he he realized that after a couple of decades of theorizing about violence and killers, he needed to conceal his presence and tell the spectacular and complex story in front of him.
A wise decision, and a method he's wisely maintained with each books. "Harlot's Ghost","Oswald's Tale" are not the aggravated spewings of an egomaniac trying to flummox readers with hyperactive vocabularies; the books, central efforts in his late period, are carefully wrought works of historical narrative, brilliant and flawed. For Mailer's ideas, these are not the rants of a young hothead picking an argument, but of a mature artist Making A Case. To say that there are too many books and novels about Hitler is patent nonsense. Hitler was such a monster and pall over the last century that it's at our peril that artists, writers, scholars, novelists stop trying to comprehend him. Mailer's has an eccentric take on the formations of the amoral Hitler's unblinking willingness to bring carnage , and for all the snipes and snips from naysayers ,he does evoke the mindsets of those who's self-infatuation and indifference to the results of their actions makes the Devil's grooming of the child for future mischief seem plausible in a fictional narrative.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Bruno Mars

To the matter as to whether Bruno Mars, who is not black, is appropriating black music and an aesthetic born of African American experience, created by talented black artists, well…I don’t know the man’s music, let alone his version of Black Style. I will him be and not mention him again in this harangue. Appropriation has been with us forever, although I would suggest that the non-black musicians playing music that is African American in origin have, for the most part, a genuine love of the sounds they've been exposed to. 

Theft is theft and black creators must be located, credited and their families paid for the use of the bodies of work that formed the foundation for a huge amount of American culture and a character, but at the same time it seems reductive and ironically bigoted to suggest that only black musicians have the right, let alone the sole ability to make authentic jazz, blues, or rhythm and blues. Forcing matters of creativity into a any kind of requirements for acceptance is absurd and contrary to what art is supposed to do, the process through which an individual--an artist--experiences the world and, through the use of whatever medium moves him enough to create objects of beauty of contemplation that hadn't existed before. Pretty much going with Marcuse on this one, as in his booked the Aesthetic Dimension, where he argues that Society, The Establishment, the Powers that Be, need to leave the artists and allow them to perform their task with their art making, to produce joy. Otherwise, if held to aesthetic principles that are contrary to inspiration, it ceases to be art. It is Propaganda. 

We do not need an American version of Soviet Realism, no matter where it comes from. It goes to authenticity that one writes in a style that is natural to them; whites writing in idioms that makes sense for Mance Liscomb is clearly insulting to black musicians and black culture in general. It is a not so subtle form of racism: it says "I think you're exotic, not quite human, something wholly "other" than normal. I will take your funny sounds and use them to decorate my cosmology." Absent the absolutist argument that only black musicians have the right to play blues and are the only ones who can have anything authentic expression (its' a powerful argument), the bottom line of the blues is the clear, simple, emotionally honest expression of one's experiences. That would mean that one find their own voice, something they can bring of themselves to the music they desire to perform and make it genuinely personal. There is a difference, a fine one, between having a personal style greatly influenced by black music and singers and one that slavishly tries to impersonate the sound, causing all sorts of suspicious Rich Little-isms. 

Those influenced by black artists but who have their own style, free of affectation: Butterfield, Mose Allison, Van Morrison, Tom Waits. Those who fail: Jagger, when he sings blues, Peter Wolfe, others galore. Wolf is listenable and usually effective as vocalist and frontman, but he never convinced me that his style was cleverly constructed, contrived.

 I won't go as far as to say he's guilty of minstrelsy, but his banter where spews hip argot, rope-a-dope rhymes and other offerings of hep-cat impersonation, comes off as cartoonish, stagy, really stereotypical of black performance; whether Cab Calloway or James Brown or an inspired preacher sermonizing from the pulpit of a black church, Wolf's machine gun is appropriation straight out. I had often wished he'd just keep his mouth shut and just sing. Yes, I realize the irony of the last sentence, but I think you see my point even if you might not agree with it. J.Geils is a band I've enjoyed a great deal over the last few decades, but there are times when Wolf's unreconstructed enthusiasm turns into caricature and stereotype. He reminds me of someone trying to beat his influences at their own game rather than forging something that is really his own.

Friday, March 16, 2018


Novelist Dianna Evans writes a fine essay regarding the late John Updike's decline in reputation as a novelist due, mostly, to his over all failure to create fully-formed women characters. Her response is ambivalent, understandably so, as Updike could be mean to his women characters, and yet he wrote so beautifully, lyrically, ingratiatingly. No surprise the late novelist John Updike isn't a favorite among younger readers in this era of "Me Too" and "Times Up". Indeed, the age of men being held accountable for their conduct has come and it's here to stay. A good thing.

Updike was not especially kind in his depictions of women in his fiction, and for that he needs to read critically, but one needs to admire his stated understanding of what his duty as an artist was,"“My duty as a writer is to make the best record I can of life as I understand it,and that duty takes precedence for me over all these other considerations.” The novelist and short story writer wrote elegantly, lyrically, poetically, he had , perhaps, the most perfect prose style of any American writer of his generation, and he created a fictional world of men, mostly heterosexual , fumbling through the lives full of small stakes ambition and fully licensed libidos that derailed their best natures with compromises of opportunism, affairs, self deception, an inability to see larger contexts beyond their perspectives.

The writer was , like many of his characters, unable to see further than his own vision, an aspect that might be called a great writer's failure of imagination,but what he did know he know--a straight , middle class male's world of materialism and lust rationalized into metaphysical permanence--he understood intimately, knowingly, and was aware of how the limits makes perfect plans, perfect plans, fall apart or produce results contrary to expectations. Updike wasn't, I don't think, quite so oblivious to his renderings of women in his tales, but I think his aim, over all, was to imaginatively construct the many scenarios of how the perfect worlds of his protagonists are at odds with a universe that will not obey good or bad intentions. That he wrote about this world so beautifully--there are those times when I pick up an Updike book, say "Rabbit Run" or "The Centaur" or "The Witches of Eastwick" just to have the language figuratively roll of the page as if the words , the sentences or the fleeting notes of a transcendent Clifford Brown solo-- might be a flaw in his art, one could argue.

He makes it attractive, the prose is a seduction of a kind. Fine, that makes him dangerous for both male and women writers, which makes him artist, a great one. That makes him a pleasure to read and a pleasure worth discussing critically, as a means of understanding our own responses to his increasingly problem-making, if still alluring works,

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Well, yeah, I'm grumpy some of the time, and I've been accused of being a curmudgeon in regards to National Poetry Month, the annual  dedication to an elusive art with a small audience that itself is divided among several hundred-seeming schools of thought as to what is genuinely worth reading or promoting. The reservations come chiefly from the attitude that poetry is something pathetic in itself, with Special Needs, and that there is a collective delusion in the publishing world that poetry can be made more popular by hyping the form with the cliched hokum that sounds culled from New Age screeds. It's a little infuriating to witness an art that you believe, at it's best, sparks the unusual idea or the unforeseen connection within a reader be reduced as something that  marketers promise to deliver a consumer to an even deeper vat of circumscribed thinking.

I wouldn't say my remarks about National Poetry Month are grumpy, just realistic. On the face of it I welcome a month dedicated to the art , craft and diversity of poets and their work , and even think that the month might well bring new readers to poetry as something they'd read in their leisure time. The problem is that once we give someone or some thing a special day, week, or month for the nominal purpose of increasing awareness, most of the population bothering to observe what the calendar day commemorates will nod their head, bow their head, read a few poems, maybe buy a single volume that will likely wind up half way finished and atop a coffee table, a page bent down to mark a page,not be picked up again, and then be done with it for the year. It certainly gives major publishers significant favorable publicity so they can present themselves as more than bottom-line obsessed subsidiaries of malignant media corporations: look at what we're doing to support the arts, look at our love of poetry!!There are poets who benefit, many of them I count my favorites, but the fact that poetry in general has a month dedicated to it's supposed welfare seems more to me that the rest of the literary world considers the form a poor, sickly relative; April as poetry month is the metaphorical gulag, a ghetto, a hospice, that space where this art, which no publisher seems to know how to market so it contributes usefully to their bottom line, is allowed to make it's noise, indulge their rhetoric for a short period in the spot light before being ushered from the stage and back to the margins.

Poets, the work they do, the theories they develop regarding their art has been the most rarefied and most diffuse of the arts as it developed since the encroachment of Modernism over turned the conventional thinking about poetry's form and purpose. It's been to poetry's advantage, I think, that the audience has been small, very small, compared to the other genres that help publishers make their payrolls and their dividends, since the relative obscurity has allowed poets of many different styles and concerns, politics and agendas to advance their art and arguments , both Quietist and Post-Avant Gard, unconcerned with a commercial aspect that wasn't theirs to begin with. National Poetry Month is something like a zoo the city folk may visit on their days off , and the poets are the exotic creatures who will perform their tricks, do their dances, take their bows for the smattering of applause and loose coin that might come their way. Generally speaking, poets and their work would be better off, and saner as well, if the illusion that a dedicated month will increase the readership and increase book sales as well.It would be better for poets to stop behaving like their in need of rehabilitation and went about their business, doing what we're supposed to do to the best our individual and collective abilities. If the work is good, interesting, of quality on it's own terms, the audience , whatever the size, will come.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Clapton assessment

Image result for eric clapton sleepingI lost interest in Clapton's guitar work quite a while ago. Post-Cream, his solo work was pretty lazy, with outbreaks of inspiration , such as Layla or his wonderful blues disc From the Cradle. Others may feel differently,but he seems to have recycling old riffs for decades; I count from Wikipedia that he has released 16 live albums under his name over the years, a sign of  laziness, as no new material is coming forth, but also of arrogance, a conviction,if unspoken,that each of his long blues solos is a work of art, ready for prime time. 

This works worth Coltrane to large degree, in my view (and tastes) and much less satisfactorily for Keith Jarrett (who noodles as much as me combusts with inspiration). It's not so objectionable for a jazz musician to have numerous live albums over the course of a long career since a tenet of the jazz aesthetic is that no two improvisations on the same song are alike. 

Each performance is a unique work of art, and able jazz players are able to recast,re-imagine, re-brand their signature songs continually. Clapton,though, is not a jazz musician, but a blues player, with a far more limited vocabulary of ideas that simply repeat themselves. There is redundancy in his execution that becomes wearisome with all those elongated solos. These days, where he gets my attention is less the addition of new musical ideas or context, but rather by the quality of fire he brings to the old material, to the signature riffs and phrases. My favorite example is his reunion with fellow Blind Faith member Steve Winwood from 2009. Clapton's guitar work burns hot,fevered, intense, inspired throughout the two discs. This two disc set more than reclaimed Clapton's greatness from drifting, plodding and dispirited money grab that was the 2004 Cream reunion.

What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?

Following allegations by creditable women that horrible albeit talented Hollywood men  have  harassed, molested, fondled , raped them over long periods of time, it merits asking , as The Paris Review does, what we do with the work of artists who are simply monsters . It's not a fashionable thing to suggest, but I go with Trust the tale, not the teller. I am inclined to think that artists, good- natured or foul in personal relationships, make sincere attempts to make art that represents some better version of themselves. Art making, whether writing or making movies, composing poems or painting in realistic or abstract variations, is a process that, at bottom, tries to make sense of a problematic world and the individual's responses to it. Even terrible people, monsters even, can provide creations that provide insight insight, wisdom, a sense of useful irony in the guise of metaphor and other devices. So yes, we should continue to honor the work of monstrous men who've been long praised as great artists. whoever we happen to be talking about, the critical consensus has long been in place, formed over decades of critical review. 

This assume, of course,that the host of critics haven't been shilling for these horrible males. Let us assume, then, the novels, the movies, the poems, the plays, the paintings, the TV shows that have been highly regarded by critics and audiences are indeed good as quality, worthwhile items of art that have met rigorous criteria. criticism, popular criticism, needs to learn again an old lesson, that depth of talent does not indicate quality of character.Art has a tendency to outlive the awful men who created it. Picasso, from all accounts a genuine creep, remains in discussions and continues to be shown in museums because he was a great artist who changed the way we think about art. Pound remains important as poet and theoretician of art and poetics despite his antisemitism penchant for  treason and racism.Sinatra will likely remain the shining example of what a singer-crooner-interpreter needs to be in spite of his horrendous treatment of women and his tie ins with the Mob.We could go on.Art is long, life is short, and the reputations of truly gifted artists who were, as well,monsters in personal behavior lingers much, much longer in the historical memory than do a ignoble acts. I've no problem factoring personal aspects of artists into discussions of their art as a means to understand how specific works achieve their power, but for flushing whole bodies of work because of vetted and not so vetted accusations of being less than wholesome would remove an unbelievable amount of aesthetic benefit from the world. 

Artists , even on their best days, never rise above the status of being human; there is no requirement for them to be saints. There are requirements,namely laws,for them being acceptable citizens, and they must be held accountable for their actions in the world they live in. The work, though, is a different matter. My nose offends me because I think its too large, but I will not cut it off nor spend the time to repair it through surgery.