Sunday, October 21, 2018


LOOK NOW--Elvis Costello
Look Now, the new Elvis Costello is, at first listening, a highly finessed and fussed -over a collection of songs that seem amorphous, meandering, structurally inert. Lyrically, long Costello's strong suit, in addition to being a strong melodist, reveals a man who has had a few too many harvests from the same un-replenished acreage. Understandably, his vivid imagery has been tamed for decades. Still, we witness here an attempt, over and over, to remain allusive, elliptical, sketching in just enough narrative to provide that this might be a tune that actually has something to say, buried under the happenstance blankness of the lyrics. Those who want to excavate for deeper meanings can leave their shovels and pickaxes in the shed. At age 64, Costello has nothing new to say. Worse, it would seem at his age is that he now lacks the knack, or interest, to finesse his established themes. This is a missed opportunity of somewhat huge proportions, as it's been one of the more intriguing aspects of being a close observer of songwriters as they age and seeing how they deal with the unavoidable of becoming older, less nimble of body and mind, simultaneously confronting the advantages and shortcomings of getting older. 

We had it in the late work of Lou Reed, a writer who regretted nothing in later albums and who tried to extract something like wisdom and balance from his life  of self-created crisis, or from Leonard Cohen, who kept his oddly effective blend of religious undertones and Laurentian erotica while emphasizing the intellectual paradoxes and oppositions of instinct which a longer view of experience make possible; Cohen embraced it, and went on to offer a late body of songs that took the problematic events of a life and ventured into musings that traced a higher, profound kind of irony.Costello does none of this , really, and appears obsessed with the awful curse of Miles Davis, a jazz genius who found his genius for quick changes in styles and manner of presentation resulting, late , late in life, in work that might be better described as collaborations between rhythm sections, synth players, producers and engineers , with cameo appearances by the top-billed trumpeter. Some time ago this artist decided to become a master-of-all-genres and seemingly wanted to be thought of as a Modern Master than as a consistently good-to-great songwriter. This pains me to say this, but this hero of mine has been a superficial, over-stylized drudge for some two decades. There is nothing that was preventing EC from becoming a latter-day Bacharach or Newman, of course. It wouldn't have been an unworthy goal. 

I think, though, that Costello neglected the aspect of both Bacharach and Newman that, except for occasional lapses, neither lost their sense of song construction. Eclectic as both were regarding musical sources, their material was generally sharp and melodically defined. The new record demonstrates his increased interests in vague atmospherics; the introduction of horn sections seems intrusive, an afterthought. Had these songs been tighter in the arrangement, more purposeful, that is too say, "catchier" for the listener to go along with mood, narrative perspective, and psychology, I might have forgiven the slack lyric writing. But I'm afraid this is a case of one bad habit of holding hands with another. Finally, the melodies here are slight and ephemeral, a nod, I suppose, at creating moods dark, opaque, with all things said hanging on the sketchily articulated notes in a manner suggesting the mannered atmospherics of substandard horror movies. They don't linger in the mind, much like an Alka Seltzer tablet dropped in water, fizzy, bubbly, full of hisses and subtle sounds, but gone, finally, unmemorable.


Barry Alfonso:
Sorry to hear it, Ted. You might find this New York Times dialogue between Elvis and Carole King of interest. In his heart, EC was always more like a '70s singer-songwriter than a true punk-rocker, though playing up his Avenging Nerd persona suited him pretty well for a number of albums. He is no longer "fascinated by the weird edge of town" - and more's the pity. I think his best album was Get Happy!!, where he balanced his more conservative and abrasive qualities admirably think EC is trying hard, maybe too hard. There's a feel for melody there, kinda early Bacharach or Randy Newman, the sort of stuff he aimed for on Imperial Bedroom. 

The lyrics are labored, overly clever, with a pang but too premeditated. This isn't a lazy album but maybe an overcooked one. It's a smart person's record that outsmarts itself.  it is generally a really bad sign when a pop/rock musician decides to get SINCERE after building up an audience with the sort of pose or attitude that might be considered theatrical or otherwise self-created. EC seems to have done this in the mid-'80s after repenting various unfortunate public behaviors and outgrowing his angry young man shtick. 
The thing is, sincerity is also a shtick -- its the whole hand-wringing confessional bit where you drop the "act" and show your "real" face to the public (because you love them, of course). Lady Gaga did this a few years ago -- she showed us she was a REAL: singer/songwriter and even posed with a manual typewriter in photos to prove it! Wow! To his eternal credit, David Bowie never laid this kind of bullshit trip on his fans. Bob Dylan has also never made a ballyhooed "honest" record, implying that all of his albums are both honest and artificial. About the only rock artist who ever pulled this off successfully was John Lennon on his Plastic Ono Band album, and that might have been because he actually was going through therapy instead of a bogus act of public self-unmasking.


Saturday, September 29, 2018

Well, of course, these have been featured here before over the years in this space, but someone asked me to assemble a list of authors and books I'd recommend to someone looking for a novel that was both a pleasure to read and satisfied the measures required of being "Literary" . What is meant by the last word in quotation marks is brutally subjective, and perhaps we'll leave it for a future discussion, if not one of my caffeinated and barely comprehensible manifestos, ie, rants. In the meantime, three authors, three books that I enjoyed to a major degree. I hope some of you might read them and find pleasure as well.

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THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta

.I am inclined to agree that the HBO production was one of the best TV series in recent memory, but the novel by Tom Perrotta is no less brilliant, perplexing, comic and able to undermine a reader's sense of metaphysical sure-footedness. Perrotta is a cross between Don DeLillo and John Cheever, someone who brings weirdness into the suburbs and small towns and has us observe how oddly things come unglued. The plot here centers around a small, Cheeveresque suburb, but the difference is that these townsfolk, like the rest of the world, is trying to deal with the unthinkable fact that a quarter of the world's population has vanished, gone, literally into thin air, rapture-like. This is about how the folks try to reconstruct their daily routines both in personal lives in social structures and how different groups come to interpret that event which is, by its nature, sealed off from interpretation.

THE BIG IF by Mark Costello

First, this author isn't to be confused with another fiction writer named Mark Costello, who is the author of two brilliant collections of short stories called The Murphy Stories and Middle Murphy. Those books, a series of related tales involving the title character, is a sort of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for a generation growing up in Illinois, and it is one of the most beautifully written sagas of dysfunction, alcoholism, and despair I've ever come across. This Costello does things with the language that take up where prime period John Cheever or John Updike left off and offer up a virtuoso prose only a handful of lyric writers achieve; it is the brilliance and beauty of the writing that makes the unrelieved depressive atmosphere of the two books transcend their own grimness. The prose in these two books demonstrates the sloppier pretender Rick Moody cannot help but seem. Buy these books and experience a devastating joy.The other mark Costello, a younger writer, has equal genius but a different approach to the world, and his novel Big If is quite good, and what makes it works is that Costello accomplishes the dual difficulty of handing us a small town/suburban comedy the likes of John Cheever would have admired, and the other is with the rich detailing of the other secret service agents who work with Vi Asplund. There is something of a domestic comedy seamlessly interwoven with a skewed Washington thriller, with the elements of each spilling over and coloring the underlying foundations of both. In the first part of the novel, we have an atheist Republican insurance investigator who has a habit of crossing out the "God" in the "In God We Trust" inscription on all his paper money, replacing the offending word with "us". Vi, years later, winds up in a job where "in us we trust" is the operating rational, as she and her fellow agents strive to protect they're protected from the happenstance of crowds, acting out on intricate theories and assumptions that can only be tested in the field. Costello is wonderful at the heightened awareness in the ways he presents his details, his comic touches, A beautiful agent who still receives alimony checks from her smitten ex-husband carries on a correspondence with him via the memo line of the checks, where he continually writes "come back to me". She writes "No, never" each time, deposits the check, knowing that her ex will see the reply when he receives the canceled checks. The book is full of these fine touches. We have a sense that it's the small things, the small frustrations as much as the larger disasters that conspire against our happiness. A fine book.

CRACKPOTS by Sara Pritchard

Brief, beautifully written book about an awkward young girl being raised by an eccentric family. Note that there is no child abuse or other hot-button stuff engineered in to make the book appeal to the Oprah book clubs, just a humorous and bittersweet novel of a girl, beset with any number of glum circumstances and embarrassments, maturing to a resilient adult with soft irony that gets her through the day. Pritchard is especially fine as a prose stylist.

Sunday, September 23, 2018


Robert Venturi
The Dean of Postmodern Architecture, Robert Venturi, has died, gone from the earth who's ideas and practice of architecture he sought to change. Slate, in a fairly comprehensive article discussing his ideas and the controversies surrounding the work, calling him "...the most influential architect of his era." A hard fact to swallow among his severest critics and those who just downright despised his buildings and his theories . There were many of them, more, it seemed, than there were admirers, and yet he continued to work, build, write, and thrive as an artist and as a theorist who's notions of what urban architecture should be, what it should symbolize, what it should be against. Venturi's basic foe was Modernism, all of it, in all manifestations, but in architecture in particular. Though his theories are more nuanced than I'm prepared to summarize here, what the late builder loathed was the whole Bauhaus concern with creating styles and emphasizing materials that would reform the way the working class viewed the world and would then, through some sort of revolutionary revelation, make better choices about their own fate both as an economic class and as individuals. Venturi felt the late stages of Modernism gave us buildings that were monuments to power, to their own form and grandness, to the gigantism of the theory that provided the rationale for their construction. These were not buildings for those who lived in the city; his task was to come up with something more relatable, an aesthetic more in sync with the rhythms and twitches of how citizens lived in the cityscape. true, the late Venturi probably had more influence on architecture than any other practitioner in recent memory, and he was a prickly subject to bring up among fans of Modernist buildings and the theories that attended them. I was hot and cold over Venturi--fellow PoMo-ers Phillip Johnson and Michael Graves were more my taste, in that PJ had elegance as a virtue and MG took his Circus Maximus influences and made the buildings seem like actual constructions, not stage props. Venturi seemed to worship the strip mall, the billboard, the ugly building upon which one later festoons with all sorts of incongruent ornamentation in an effort to make it less a conspicuous eyesore. He saw his post-modern style of architecture (and that of his wife, his collaborator, to whom he gave credit) as means to make architecture less elitist, to make less a process that constructs monuments to entrenched power and make it more relatable to the average Jake and Joanne. His tract "Learning from Las Vegas" is a compelling argument in favor of basic building structures laden with add-ons, but for this boy, much of his work I've witnessed live and in photo essays seem like nothing more than dollhouses on varying scales of obscene density. Oddly, Venturi had a desire for the cityscapes of what seems like an idealized past, where design and function where merged quite well with the lives of citizens living in neighborhoods and business centers that composed the urban landscape; it should be a place of timelessness. His own work is anything but timeless, and is, in fact, inscribed to a specific era, a time and place, with an aesthetic that hasn't produced a body of work that continues to intrigue or enthrall years after the initial rush of excitement. Things that age well, whether paintings or old buildings are those manufactured things that remain astounding to look at decades later without any explanation. One is simply intrigued, beguiled, smitten without needing to be brought up to speed as to what the painter/architect et al happened to be thinking when they took on their project. Hardly so with  Venturi, much of whose work has already started to look dog-eared. The problem, it seems, is that PoMo architecture was more fad than anything else, the structural equivalent of the lava lamp. Future generations will be baffled why so much public and private capital was spent erecting his faddish and flimsy constructions. Once a historical background is explained and the then prevailing aesthetic is outlined, they'll be baffled even more as to why bad taste dominated the last thirty years of the 20th century

Friday, September 21, 2018


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THE BOD ARTIST--by Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo is perhaps the best literary novelist we have at this time, which the career-defining masterwork Underworld made clear to his largest readership yet: at the end of all those perfect sentences, sallow images and long, winding, aching paragraphs is a narrative voice whose intelligence engages the fractured nature of identity in a media-glutted age. The Body Artist has him contracting the narrative concerns to a tight, elliptical 128 pages, where the Joycean impulse to have a private art furnish meaning to grievous experience is preferred over the dead promises of religion and philosophy. What exactly the woman character does with her performance body art, what the point is of the ritualized, obsessed cleansing of her body, is a mystery of DeLilloian cast, but it's evident that we're witnessing to a private ritual whose codes won't reveal themselves, but are intended as a way for the woman to again have a psychic terrain she can inhabit following the sudden and devastating death of her filmmaker husband. 
The entrance of the stranger in the cottage turns her aesthetic self-absorption, slowly but inevitably, into a search into her past in order to give her experience meaning, resonance, a project she quite handily ignores until then. The sure unveiling of her psychic life is a haunting literary event. DeLillo's language is crisp, evocative, precise to the mood and his ideas: you envy his flawless grasp of rhythm and diction as these traits simultaneously make the cottage on the cold, lonely coast seem sharp as snapshot, but blurred like old memory, roads, and forests in a foggy shroud. A short, haunted masterwork. I think what I meant to convey was that the meaning she was seeking, the connection between what she's examining outside herself, the precise moment where existence seemed purposeful, is a mystery. 
The answer is not revealed, if there was an answer at all. What is obvious to the reader is that we are witnessing rituals of some very private sort--the obsessed cleansing of the body, the concentrated on selected external facts, the momentary wanderings of mind that consider what sort of consequence the continued ritual of trying to bridge the gap between the subjective mind and a world external actually has. Evidence of consciousness, a soul, the essence of what makes us human? Or merely the expected habit for sort of creature we are, mere animal behavior, something directed by biology and an environment that shapes our responses to it? A mystery. 
My experience with this book was that it reminded of those times, alone, or in a crowd, when my thinking got the best of me, due to some sort of trauma or illness or some such thing, when the nature of existence became a dominant topic of all my thinking. Concentrated, felt existentialism when all of what seems to be is questioned and nothing seems to fit this world right. It is the nagging sensation that all is mere perception, nothing else. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Power of 3

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The Wayne Riker Tri
Longtime San Diego guitar stalwart Wayne Riker is a very fine musician, a fretster with enviable finesse, fire, and fluidity who’s had his skills showcased in many ways,  in big band setups, country outfits, coffee house duos, straight blues band and more besides. Lately, he’s been pushing the guitar upfront with the Wayne Riker Trio, a blues threesome who make the objects in the room shake with a simple formula: while bassist John Simons and drummer Walt Riker provide the steady, earnest, unflinching rhythmic backbone, lead guitarist Wayne lets it fly, unleashed.  Their new album, Blues Breakout, is literally a series of  5 extended guitar improvisations, each in a different groove, style, tempo, and steadily maintained by the solid rhythm section in unflinching precision while Wayne fills in all the available space. There is a lot of space to fill, but Riker is one of those seasoned players who has listened broadly— traces of BB King, Chet Atkins, Jimi Hendrix,  Joe Pass reveal themselves in Riker’s cascading phrases—and assimilated the variety into a sweetly swift and effortless style. On “Black and Blue Boogie”, the guitarist starts his soloing out the gate, rapid-fire runs dancing along the unyielding precision of the bass and drums, with Riker inserting punishing blues bends that snarl and growl as the mood demands and alternating his approach with each chorus he takes. A jazzy sting of notes is quickly followed by some clean, pointillistic bluegrass/ country playing, followed again by some marvelous juxtaposition between a swampy, bassy sound, a low E string thump, and  casually executed ostinatos, sustained notes that keep all this busy virtuosity in line with certain vocal quality that might otherwise be lacking.  The best of the 5 tracks is “Bleeding Blue”, a six-minute slow blues that highlights Wayne Riker’s superb sense of nuance and phrase-making in a 12 bar format. He is not one of those players who plays a phrase and will pause longishly before he plays another. Like the critically underrated Johnny Winter, Riker follows one idea with another, shifting rhythmic emphasis and varying the voicing of the finite form to create tension. His lines are rapid,  precise, but never sterile.  His ideas cascade gloriously until you think his virtuosity will overwhelm everything else, but there is a canny sense of pacing here.  When you suspect he’s run of ideas, yet new, fresh variations are sounded.  Blues Breakout is more or less a one-man show, with the rhythm section being relegated to maintaining a solid grounding for Riker’s pyrotechnical exuberance. One might wish for stronger song orientation, some vocals, and less showing off. I am pleased Riker chooses to show us what he can do, uncorked, a guitarist unchained.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

A woman rules the blues

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Songstress Whitney Shay has been tearing up the stages of San Diego for a few years now, the petite and elegant songstress applying her impressive pipes to a variety of musical styles in a multitude of collaborations. Show tunes, torch songs, ballads, classic rock and roll and soul, and blues are only some the styles the charismatic Shay selects from; in all of them, her voice wails, growls, soars, whispers and croons as the material requires.  Her tone is rich, her inflection and her feeling for emphasis at key points in her songs keep a listener on edge anticipating the next chorus, the next ad-lib, the next hoop, and holler. Shay keeps it moving, driving,  continually moving the pieces on the chessboard.  Shay consistently works with the best musicians available.

 Her new record, A  Woman Rules the World , is no exception, being essentially a blues and  R&B project highlighting Whitney’s vocals, equal parts sass, brass and an elegant sense of grit, with a band of A-List players, including Christoffer Anderson (guitar), Jim Pugh (organ/piano)  Kedar Roy (bass), Alex Pettersen (drums) and Gordon Beadle (saxophones). The outfit, which handles its duties with a seeming organic blend or swagger, swing, and soulfulness, brings a contagious verve to A Woman Rules the World, a record, that, as the title suggests, is a bluesy, gospel-tinged declaration of a woman's right to exclaim her blues.  Shay co-wrote four of the album's ten songs (with Adam J.Eros) and begins this heated session with the unmistakable assertion 'Aint No Weak Woman”. This is a straight-up strut of self-definition, the band bristles and boils over with a sure groove of assertive funk as Shay delivers the news that you underestimate women at your own peril.

The title song, writing credit to one D.LaSalle, amounts to a feminist version of James Brown's  1966 classic, the fatally patronizing "It's A Man's World"; while JB tried to explain away male chauvinism at his song's midpoint with a haphazard tribute to women for their ability to bear children, Shay's reading of the lyric, slowly and dramatically  paced, pushes the condescension to the side and lays out the facts of being  a woman in the world of men. Shay remains true to the gut-feeling requisite of the blues and conveys all this with the sock-it-to-ya conviction.r It’s not a lecture, but a testimonial. The album isn't just inspired polemic, though, but also funky, joyful, very sexy indeed, sexy as in the case with the "Get it When I Want It”,  a funk blues extravaganza with a trace of New Orleans heat that highlights Whitney wittily making it clear that what she needs from a lover has to  be good, great, greater, greatest , consistent and on time.  The emotions Shay handily , slyly and seductively puts across through the lyrics , of course, run  the full range of how one feels in imperfect relationship and in one of her original songs  “Empty Hand”, a soulful, Percy Sledge/Sam Cook like ballad, she addresses a paramour who’s continually let his end of the bargain fall to the floor. Shay’s reads the lyric with a sense of tenderness and genuine affection tempering the anger. “I’m not done with you baby” she wails, seeming to , just for today, give it one more try.

A Woman Rules the World is full of rocking, stomping surprises, ten hot selections grounded in the up-swinging, people moving traditions of blues, rhythm and blues and gospel. Whitney Shay has a voice that channels these styles and creates her distinct verve and originality on the traditions with each croon, holler, soaring high note and low and slow and sexily turned phrase.  The tight and sublime band and the guest appearances by guest musicians Igor Prado (guitar), Aki Kumar (harmonica) and John Halbleib (trumpet)  have made a record that is fun, feisty, ideal for raising the roof and creating convivial mayhem.

Thursday, August 30, 2018


Image result for JOHN UPDIKEJohn Updike doesn't create characters, just neurosis. That’s what I remember a dinner partner saying a while ago after we finished our deserts and now chatted away the remaining interests we shared. She was not a fan of novelist John Updike. I begged to differ, responding as follows, in a paraphrase of the actual words: Perhaps, but Updike has written much better novels. He's had his share of duds, but an unusually high proportion of his work is masterful, even brilliant. The Rabbit quartet, The Coup, Witches of Eastwick, Brazil, Beck: A Book, The Centaur, Roger's Version. I could go on. It's interesting, too, to note the high incidence of experimentation with narrative form and subject matter. Rabbit placed him with this image of being someone comically dwelling on the lapsed virtues of middle-aged East Coasters, ala John Cheever, (another writer I prize), but he has been all over the map so far as what he's written about and how he wrote about it. The career-long chronicling of men who thought they were driven by a superior purpose and moral clarity only to find themselves undermined by hunger, itches, instincts and unarticulated libidos remain, I think, one of the great accomplishments of  American writing. Although I've cooled on Updike lately--I've been reading him for thirty years--I can't dismiss him nor diminish his accomplishment. He is one of the untouchables. Besides, neurosis is character, and it's hardly a monochromatic shade. It's a trait that comes across in infinitely varied expressions, and we need someone who can artfully exploit their potential. 

Two poems by Paul Breslin

(The two poems ran at separate times in when they actively published poets under the direction of former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. My commentaries were written shortly after they were posted. I've brought them together here for the reader's convenience.--tb).

Paul Breslin is a superb lyric poet, that blessed species possessing the skill to convey complex perceptions and emotional breakthroughs in clean, uncluttered language that brings clarity to what might have otherwise gone unsaid. But not at the sacrifice of the music; there are chimes in the wind in Breslin's best work, grace notes that form the spare but richly evocative melody that might, at times, to underscore and even enhance our shared emotional underground. 

Joy, melancholy, despair, exhilaration, serenity; Breslin is a master craftsman who creates a tangible sense of the ambiguity between the images as they parade by. What intrigues me about his work is the way he is able to write as if he were still inside the experience, not apart from it; there is, almost always, the feeling that the situation is current, ongoing, in-progress. Paul Breslin is not so much reflective in his work as he is intensely aware of the forces that play upon him and the environment, material and emotional, that contextualize them.

"Inquest", a poem that takes the form, I assume, of police or therapist interview of a subject who has, is still processing the loss of a mother or wife or lover, distills his virtues to the cadence favored by a bureaucratic psychology that insists on yes-or-no answers. The questions are direct, blunt, implicit in their expectation of equally terse answers; Breslin's replies are, in fact, brief and concise, but it is a concision that creates even more ambiguity and clarifies the mystery how one responds to life-changing events. These are the replies of a man who had for so long attached his own sense of identity to the personality, pulse, and quirks of another that his responses have the stark clarity that only a good stunning gives you. Suddenly, brutally, life does not make the sense it used to and there is the dread of having to create a meaning existence The images, stark and unadorned, reveal the ground-zero aspect; none of the old comparisons, the easy metaphors and similes that order and index the daily events, are of any use. This is a poem of someone digging climbing from the crater :

Why point to the mirror 
Where no one lives 
And the stars, which see no one? 

I longed to be no one, 
Like her ashes scattered 
Across the parkBetween where our brick 
Apartment had stood 
And the white museum 
That survived it:  
Free to fly 
Where the wind drives, 
Or, mingled with rain, 
Seep under the roots. 

There is no final say to the query, there is not a simple nor tidy rationale. The answer instead instead comes at the point when one considers their loss, ponders their purpose and desires that it all be over in some beautiful way,that the pain be dissolved and his essence be added to the soil, water and rocks that make up the earth from which all of us metaphorical arose from, to not be in the world and experience further pain and loss but rather merely reflect the doings of others, their aches, and joys. This poem presents us continuously with a rich stream of contradictory impulses and desires. I read the nervous, suddenly intense desire for release from the hurtful conditions of being alive and engaged with the world, but Breslin is not without a reality principle that reminds him that we go on, we go on, as Beckett would remind us, no matter the pain nor the drudgery of just waking up and scraping our feet to the shower in the darkest of mornings. He finally asks his interrogator questions and receives an answer in turn:
Am I free to go now? 
What do you think? 

The last question that keeps one awake to late in the night, filters into your dreams, makes your feet drag across the floor. We go on despite our loss because that is what we do.  The last part of growing up is the growing apart from the other and realizing that one will die alone and the purpose of life becomes the effort to not live the same way.


Panic is what I think of when reading our friend Paul Breslin's poem "Siren", that sudden whooshing, spiraling, dizzy-making sensation when some trigger, whether sound, sight, smell or something tactile, cause us for a moment to lose o focus and envision impending disasters that await us. The future is telescoped into a rapid stream of vivid and brief scenarios where all one thinks they should have done but didn't do culminate in irreversible catastrophes. It is the feeling of the floor falling from beneath your feet, your heart dropping to your stomach, your brain taking a psychic blow that rudely shoves the less compelling and more immediate concerns and forces you into a narrow corridor of fear. One's sense of mortality is heightened, every decision one has ever made is lethal and resulting in dire consequences. It's not a pleasant feeling, and it is during these moments, these panics, where one must breathe slowly, evenly. I hate it when that happens.

What is effective in the Breslin poem is that he offers not a long family biography in the way Robert Lowell might have, nor constructs an alternative symbolism to the intangible furies that challenge one's equilibrium, as Plath had done, but instead puts a square in the narrative, as the mania unfolds. Quickly, efficiently, with the fast and smoothly language that characterizes the sensations as accurately as any fleeting vision might have, we are in the midst of a consciousness suddenly sped up, cataloging what has and what might go awry.

I could swear it is saying my name,
a human voice full of pain and anger:
it's the police come to arrest me
for a crime so long concealed
I forget its name. Or my father's ghost,
crying he might have lived
had I loved him better. It's my mother
folding her arms and saying take your anger
someplace else, it doesn't belong to me;
my wife asking Is this good-bye then?
Or my daughter in childhood saying
hoarsely through tears, Dad,
how can you say that to me?

These are the moment when the ongoing dreads, doubts, and self-recrimination, buried, deferred and distracted  by work, projects, and time-being passions, all come to fruition, collected as a chorus; it is that nagging set of voices one hasn't tried to come to terms with that find an appropriate means to confront their owner. The submerged anxieties have been an undercurrent, a distant unease in this narrator's world, and now they have all emerged in a flash, a flashing panic, a siren, so to speak, grounding him on the rocks. Unleashed, they now color his existence, characterizing it as less noble and selfless as one's cover story might have had it.

The lesson , if there is one, is that the mortal coil is only something we visit for a time before we leave , and it's not uncommon for the middle-aged man or woman, the person in their late fifties or so, to review their motivation in the events of their time and to find themselves wanting for kind deeds, encouragements, genuine acts of charity. As friends die, familiar buildings are torn down, styles change, and the people one works with get younger, one feels isolated,able to share in the common stock of memory with fewer people who would recognize references, would chuckle or nod a certain names, dates, movie titles or writers famous in the sixties.

So many things were almost the end.
 At the fire station around the corner,
the engines are pulling away.
 So little to separate us
from the one the siren is for,
whose house flies into the air as cinders,
who lies on his bed turning purple and clutching his heart.
This is beautifully done; the siren is the alarm, it is the summons, it is the warning that something fateful is nearer than you think. One hears for decades that life is a gamble and that we conduct our lives on the general assumption that the odds are in our favor that we won't meet with fatal ends, nor will anyone else in our varying circles of association. What poet Breslin bittersweetly gets across, with little fanfare and not a trace of self-pity, is that the longer we are in the game, the narrower the odds become.

One can take this poem as affirmative if they choose, but I think that skirts the issue I think.Breslin is really getting at, that we are humbled by the encroaching realization that our time is shorter than we thought and we have less power than we supposed. It's about humbling the ego, not empowering, and there is nothing "affirmative" here to transcend the melancholy that settles in after the panic that comes at us in the first half. there are often times layers and meanings in a poem the author didn't originally intend; poetry seems to me closer to improvising jazz than, say, composing a lengthy symphony. My guess is that he had an idea of what he wanted to write about, had some notions of a particular image or phrase he wanted to employ, a loose framework, in other words. From there he constructed his poem and, I would think, judiciously edited it before presenting it for publication. Some things, whether notes played in a musical phrase, or particular images saddled with objective statements or rhythmic emphasis, just sound right together, seem to make sense in ways that are unexpected and not immediately graspable. With a poem, one goes with what a poet seems to be writing about an attempt to show a connection between the parts with reference to different sections of the verse. 

Sunday, August 26, 2018


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No Direction Home, the Martin Scorsese directed five hour documentary on Bob Dylan has finally aired on PBS after much advertising and hype, and those fans eager, as always, to hear the songwriter talk about his music and his life free of evasion and tall tales are treated, again, to another example of how closely Dylan wants to control the public's perception of him. He was, admittedly, quite a bit more forthcoming to questions that he has been in the past, but one never senses that Dylan wasn't done being cagey with his answers; considering that Scorsese himself was brought in late to a project that Dylan's company had been preparing for seven years and that it was Dylan's own employees asking him the questions, it's doubtful we heard everything he had to say about his affairs. 

Chronicles, his memoir, was a best seller, and it is a publisher's desire to save the best of the rest for the sequel. In the meantime, the trade paperback edition has just come out, and sales are brisk. The audience is a curious mix, being primarily baby boomers who want the inside skinny from the man they might well consider the last vestige of authenticity (whatever that is) an American performer has demonstrated, and young people, from teens to those just entering college, either late admirers or the merely curious. I am, for the moment at least, sated with all things Dylan, and hope that my fellow Dylan obsessives feel likewise gorged. I am a strict diet of Bud Powell cool-period Miles Davis. There is little new information in the Scorsese assembled documentary, but there is plenty of rare footage to feast on, all of which gives us a way of studying the history of Dylan's vocal affectations; one might say that the film is Biography of a Bad Singing Voice. Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Irish laborers, blues groaner, gospel exciter, drugged out whiner. Of themselves, the qualities are slurred and nasal, harsh and authentic, as it were, to the degree of being nearly unlistenable. 

His rendition of "Man of Constant Sorrow" from an old tv clip wasn't at all pleasant no matter how I try to approach the sequence. Yet there are wonderful transformations with that voice, when he began writing his own material, his own lyrics. Vowel and voice met and a sound was made, dramatic, effective, beautiful in a new way. His performance of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" at the Newport Folk Festival was riveting, vocally masterful. Nasal, howling, pinched, but asserted, shaped, honed. This wonderful song couldn't have been performed any more effectively with a so-called "better voice". I would say that Dylan is an especially bad singer, but I would also insist that he is an absolutely brilliant vocalist. No one could dramatize a lyric like he could. What he does with a lyric is something other than render cozy rhymes against assuring melodies as sweetly as possible.
There is a point in his career when he eased off topical songs and moved toward more expressive, metaphorical, "poetic" lyrics that his voice became something wholly new in pop music. It's not far off to maintain that what Dylan did vocally between Another Side of Bob Dylan up through John Wesley Harding literally forced us to reconsider what "good" singing was really was.It was Dylan more than anyone else in pop music history who gave license to the singers-of-limited means to take the microphone and create an emotional experience with vocal qualities that were less than perfect. That is fitting for songs that dealt squarely with less than perfect realities, and this an achievement no less profound than any other Dylan has wrought in folk, rock, and pop music.

Friday, August 24, 2018


Image result for chords of fame phil ochs
Phil Ochs hanged himself in mid-78, a fact that makes the second disc of this double record collection even more morbidly fascinating. At the zenith of his popularity, Ochs was a facile protest singer/songwriter during the Sixties, an able rabble-rouser 'at peace rallies and civil rights marchers who . could fire dormant liberal sympathies into anger and shame. The advent of the Seventies meant a total turnaround of musical styles and political attitudes, still, the white knight of worthy causes was considered, passé, and his' music became an object of Instant obsolescence. Not content to be a professional has-been, Ochs attempted on his last few albums (Pleasures of tile Harbor, Tape from California, Phil Ochs Greatest Hits, and Rehearsals for Retirement) to follow the new musical trends, using rock musicians, Sgt. Pepper styled electronic effects, and massive orchestration cast in the mold of Charles Ives. The net result was a confused jumble of affectations, with plenty of good material getting buried under an avalanche of desperate gimmickry. Ochs and his producer absorbed precisely the worst elements of what the Beatles were doing with their in-studio experiments--a convoluted eclecticism that nearly choked the life out of many of their best songs and made the slighter fare they filled their later albums with becoming no just slight, but ineffectively elitist.

His later songs, at their best and most penetrating, were haunting encapsulations, sketching the displaced anomie of his generation found itself in a new set of cultural conditions where people would rather dance than organize, and eerily foreshadowing Ochs' own sense of self-apocalypse. “Tape From California", the song, is a rocking Sojourn through an activist's shattered psyche, someone woken from being from a long sleep and find  a terrain not by a community of authentic people working to change the society for the better, but  rather by hippies, drug freaks, record company PR men, hip magazine writers, scene makers, blow job artists, flunkies, junkies, alcoholic poets without notebooks and self-declared painters of all sorts who never touched a canvas, everyone one of them feigning art and culture by looking , in truth ,all of them, for a cheap thrill to last until the garbage trucks arrive.

"The Crucifixion", Ochs' masterwork, is a complex, extended allegory about the way a culture treats its heroes (Christ and Kennedy); according to the figures the best virtues they'd like to see In themselves, and then watching them with necrophiliac glee as they are systematically destroyed. a process that begins once the heroes encroach too close to where the change must be made. The version here Is, blessedly, live, free of the special effects clutter that ruined the studio original. Ochs' voice Is plaintive an~ unadorned, with an implicit, devastating sorrow to phrasing. "The War Is Over", first seeming like one of the brilliant anti-war tomes Ochs was capable of writing, turns out instead to be a solipsist daydream. Ochs had been a veteran of countless free benefits and was dismayed that he could sing and declare the same worn out polemics time after time and effect nothing, except perhaps eliciting a momentary surge of self-righteous, smug radicalism in his audiences. The war, meanwhile, trudged on, a fact that caused Ochs to throw his hands in the air and declare the war was over, at least as far as he was concerned.

The final number, "No More Songs", concludes the album on a thoroughly depressing note. Voice and melody drenched in a defeated, archly lyric melancholia, he enumerates the people he's known, the things he's believed in, the lovers he's had and moans that all was In vain. With the past being meaningless, he moans that they're" ... no more songs", and then his voice recedes into a numbing orchestral backwash. the first record, comprised of his strictly protest material, is the least interesting of the set. The topicality is dated and irrelevant to anyone's present state of mind, and the enthusiasm of Ochs' idealism comes off as youthfully smug and embarrassing, It is one of the ironies of modern existence and the expansion of all media, all the time that the subjects of protest songs, those songs that are very specific to a cause, to a particular injustice, no longer seem to spark the desire to work toward the better world the romantics among us wish would come to be. The embarrassment has more to do with our own memories than with Ochs' politics, though. Chord of Fame scans the timeline from the way we were, thinking we could change the world with good sentiments if not concrete policies, to the way we are now,' with ideals shattered and wearing a chic cynicism. One hopes we weather future changes better than Ochs managed to do.

Thursday, August 23, 2018


Image result for harold jaffe writer

I took a class with  writer Harold Jaffe ( Mourning Crazy Horse (1982) Beasts (1986) Madonna and Other Spectacles (1988) Eros Anti-Eros (1990) Straight Razor (1995) Sex for the Millennium (1999)[at San Diego State University in early 80s, and he was, as you can expect, a gracious and keen instructor in how to write short, edgy fiction. He has that thing called "flow" in hip-hop culture, a propensity to sling words about things and to expand the line of associations to where the minor grievance or the incidental injustice because of a head-spinning indictment of acquiescing to the consumer culture. Which means that everything gets talked about, or more correctly, everything gets mentioned. Jaffe distrusts longer narrative form, he prefers the punchiness of the headline, the roiling disgust of the rant, the inspired tirade of a person suddenly aware of the truth in one catastrophic revelation.  He is not someone who believes readers and artists and assorted and sordid intellectuals can make this a better world because the shrieking tones he parlays speak blunt truths. Jaffe, I believe, thinks we're much too late for that; the truth overwhelms us, finally, it flattens us, it makes us aware that we are mere grist, both material and the resulting slag, sluice and dross. The cynicism runs deep in Jaffe's fictions concerning the fictions we have been telling ourselves. This is Baudrillard's world where resistance is merely another corporate logo, priced accordingly. We are all King Lear, stripping our clothes off in the rain, gone mad with the revelation, doomed to see nothing that matters come of our deluded narratives.

Friday, August 17, 2018


No automatic alt text available.Debates about literary worth often become perfectly ridiculous, a blurry food fight at best, playground taunts of a lower grade. On the subject of the greatest 100 novels written in English this century, I was momentarily smug when I realized that I'd read 75 of the bunch, but appreciated the misgivings of reader factions who felt that their groups, their "voices" had been ignored, shunted to the side, 'marginalized" , with the editors making inadequate efforts to broaden the Canon. But the real use of such list, I think, is to start a controversy, to get a debate going about what makes a good novel, and, I suppose, to have at least part of the public sphere be about something other than whether a sitting president did the wild thing with an intern in a broom closet just off the White House pantry. Not least of all, I've had more conversations, well-mannered debates (!) as to what constitutes a great novel, and most of these chats have gone a step further and dealt with, oddly, why literature is important to a society and culture such as ours. The talks have been stimulating, and, since I work in a bookstore, sales of novels have been brisk, and this due to a high-flying list that pleased no one. Let's have more, and let's rescue literature from the academics, who've abandoned any certainty in their analysis. 

For the greatest novel in America, I vote for "Underworld" by Don DeLillo. Really, no one writes better prose than he does, and the scope of this novel, comprising a hidden history of America in the second half of the century, races past Pynchon and Gaddis and Mailer and Oates, all writers deserving of Nobel Prizes. DeLillo's efforts to show America as a multi-platformed myth is grand and achieves a sustained poetics. DeLillo's plotlines mirror a sense of America itself, being less a collection of lines that meet to some pre-determined point where greatness is conferred at the completion of heroic tasks, but rather than as mass of intersections that criss-cross one another, each with a version of the story told in a personalized language that stems from a world that is complete unto itself, a race of voices and noise that is a churning vat whose parts won't meld. DeLillo's work, it seems, will survive the withering dismissals of affected yokels, and "great American novels" continue to be produced yearly, quite despite our obsession to narrowing the field to only a handful of worthies who fulfill criteria no can state for sure. But DeLillo stands poised for world-greatness because he brings Americans into the larger world, where qualities of being American, imagined by our civics teachers as being divinely granted, has no bearings in a world that seems incoherent and supremely foreign. DeLillo's work, in "The Names", "Mao II", "Players", have Americans of a sort--professionals, artists, intellectuals, poets, usually white, privileged--losing themselves amid the shifting and renegotiated narratives, collective and personal, that are repeated, all mantras, to give the world a sense of reason and purpose beyond the hurly-burly of the phenomenal world. This is a sphere where the sense of the world, our strategies, and accounts to deal with it, are fed to media and then sold back to us with conditions attached. I imagine a work that is equal parts Henry James, for the aspect of Americans confronting the non-American world, and Orwell's "Animal Farm", where we have the pigs, in the dead of night, with ladder and paintbrush, changing the wording on the social contract painted on the side of the barn. 

DeLillo, as well, deals with Americans in America, thankfully, and masterstrokes like "White Noise", "Great Jones Street" (an amazing rock and roll novel whos"Underworld e hero could be Dylan, Bowie, or Cobain), and ultimately " sift through the loss ourselves in our own country. Our stories are modified and changed; our Gods change their minds about ultimate truths as technology forces more secrets and incompressibility upon us. "Underworld" is a tour where history is not just forgotten, is not just pushed to the margins in favor or a Grand Narrative, but is in fact disposed of, thrown away when the metaphysical argument no longer suits the immediate need. The search for the baseball is analogous to a journey back to some Eden that never existed. DeLillo, to my perhaps exclusionist sensibilities, has all these elements. But topicality is not what DeLillo is about; the currency of his plots is believable starting points for his investigations into the nature of our language, of how we address ourselves. His books, I think, have enough for generations of readers and critics to study and discuss for decades to come. He writes broadly enough, and well enough, to sidestep victimhood as a consideration and force readers, and critics for that matter, to study the performance of literature, the literary act itself. There is no "last analysis" to be had just yet, and for DeLillo's sake, I hope he writes a few more novels before we start issuing forth career-ending appraisals of his body of work. I am an obvious DeLillo partisan, but I don't think everything he's done is fully rendered, satisfying every idiosyncratic standard a "serious" reader might contrive, but the fact is that DeLillo is not a novel-a-year contestant with Updike or Joyce Carol Oates, or recently, Mailer, all of whom seem in a rush to consolidate reputations and make themselves nice and shiny for Nobel consideration. DeLillo has published a mere 11 novels since 1969, hardly an overload for almost thirty years as a professional writer. 

That he has themes that re-emerge from work to work is to be expected from a writer, and for DeLillo, his investigations into what we too- easily refer to as post-modernism (yes, I am guilty as charged) and its accompanying paranoia have produced major fiction, which is about, in too-broad a summary of his work, the difficulty of living in a world that has been stripped of any resonance of meaning, any suggestion of Truth, capital "t". This is a kind man-made environment that stems from the make-it-new innovations of High Modernism, and entering the next century with a sense that we have not learned anything despite high-speed technologies that shoot raw and indigestible mounds of data from one place to another. 

It's not a matter of us finding our "Moby Dick" for this century, because that places a false premise from which we expect writers to operate from. Yes, there is the anxiety of influence and the desperate writing younger scribes do to escape from under the long, inky shadow of the geniuses of the recent and less recent past, but I think each period is unique, and that great work is produced in some concentration of creative frenzy that dissolves the anxiety. Readers looking for another "Moby Dick" for this century are better served to consider their period unique and regard the tradition as a lineage that is not a straight, paved highway that vanishes into a classically defined set of particulars every would be master adheres to, but is rather a broken, dotted line that threads and weaves through a loose cluster of tendencies in the culture, filled with writers who redefine themselves and their art each time out. Melville himself had to break with his own habits, transcending his discipline as a clever crafter of sea stories, a venerable genre he arrived at, to write the masterpiece called "Moby Dick". The best writers today do no different, living up to the nothing else other than the authenticity of their process. Faulkner and Joyce have comparable greatness, I feel, but I cannot escape the feeling that Joyce was the brainier of the two. Joyce’s' infinite layering of literature, history, theology, and myth into the molecular structures of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake demonstrates someone with a sensibility that subtly wishes to have Art supplant the Church as the institution men may comprehend a Higher Truth( whatever it turns out to be). 

His own dialectic method, perhaps. I tend to agree with the remark of Faulkner being much blunter, though he is scarcely a brute: the sensationalism Faulkner could give into was also linked to a patch of the swamp that released his language, and allowed him to master the interior monologue. This gave us novels like "Light In August" and "Absalom, Absalom" that had with diverse psychological density.” The human heart at war with itself.  “Bullshit has its place, and in fiction, it can be the sole redemptive element of any other questionable writing enterprise. Depends on the bullshit being slung, I guess, which again reaches back to how well one can sling a yarn. What Joyce slung certainly vanished over the horizon and broke some windows in transit. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Jazz Forward!

A book I'm currently reading, "Playing Changes" by Nate Chinen, is a fascinating argument that we are currently in an age of amazing new jazz artists and an equal amount of amazing innovation and new ways for jazz composers and soloists to further this resilient art of musical improvisation. The premise is not one I'd bicker with--ours is a time when the "jazz is dead" club needs to just be silent for a very long time and listen to the creativity that abounds. But, as the review points out, author Chinen, a critic with a forward-thinking preference for new and temperamentally sounds, writes in a such a way that he makes you think of the guy who must have been the least interesting student in a seminar on post-modernism. He does not, as the reviewer suggests, at times sound like Derrida; rather, he seems more like a person who thinks he sounds like Derrida. Which is a shame, because although Chinen writes about important artists and at times makes crucial distinctions in what is happening in the ever-evolving jazz timeline, it seems that the premise of the book is that the music exists only to be co-opted and made to dance between inscrutable phrases and descriptions that don't really intrigue a reader to actually go out and purchase some of this fine new music. Tellingly, Nate Chinen chides the older critical establishment, those who would have jazz become a formalized canon, set in place, with boundaries and inflexible boundaries, yet he seems to be working to construct his own fiefdom of critical imperative. Meet the new boss...In any case, all this begs the question to be asked, which is why can't there be a working idea of jazz that doesn't require anyone going to war against other schools of thoughts on the music, or specific ways of playing. A jazz fan can enjoy both and not be betraying whatever "true spirit" of jazz the critical camps think. Seriously, one occasionally feels that some critics, whether Leonard Feather , Amiri Baraka or Nate Chinen, despite his protest to the contrary, wish they could be in the studio, instructing the musicians in what their note selections and points of creating tension and release should be.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

54 year old lunch break.

It's been fifty-four years since the publication of Frank O'Hara's seminal book "Lunch Poems:, which means that I was twelve when it first appeared. It was a small book, part of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Pocket Poets series on his City Lights imprint, and it was one of those books you saw everywhere you went as a young person in search of experience, ideas, and kicks  of a sort; it was on bookshelves and stuffed  in back pockets all over the map, especially the city map. Reading Frank O'Hara was one of those authors you had to read in order to feel current with the alternative culture. Despite the book's ubiquity when I was a teen and a young poet/musician/critic looking to make a mark, I didn't read the volume until I was in my late twenties, after a couple of other poets I'd made friends with strongly suggested that my own work resembled O'Hara's. Curious, of course, I dug up the copy of "Lunch Poems" I bought a couple of years earlier, along with a stack of other assorted texts and which I had also left in said stack.  How much my work resembles O'Hara is something for others to suss out, but I will say that I had made a new friend ; the poet's ebullient breeziness, his disdain for the formal conception of profundity, his ability to write a poem that seems wonderfully to capture the sense of an alert mind noticing the city and its citizens and the work and play they do simultaneously is, I think, one of the miracles of modern poetry. With its abrupt beginnings, swooning affection for the tacky, the tarnished and frayed, with its emotions obviously and playfully at the surface of all things engaged, O'Hara transformed the lyric poem; he brought the lone voice speaking of its adventures closer to the thriving verve of accelerated jazz.

Frank O’Hara published a poem he wrote in 1964 about where he was and what he was doing when he heard that fabled jazz and blues singer Billie Holiday passed away. There is temptation to scratch your head after you read and offer a dumbfounded groan, wondering what the hell this babbling prattle might be. I had the same response, but repeat readings of the poem gave me a blue, as second and third readings of verse that reveal themselves like opened Christmas gifts often do. The poem isn’t about Holiday, it does sing her praises or moon over the soul and genius that is no longer hours to witness live and suffering for our entertainment. What had been remarked about her was already said, what she had done was well known fact and the stuff of legend; her music was the kind that seeped into the soul and played the over tuned strings of your heart, as was the case with O’Hara. The city poet was going about his business scurrying New York City getting things done, crowding his hours with chats, errands, music, a drink, more chatter, a day like another, indistinguishable until the the latest of worst possible things that could happen , happens:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton   
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun   
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets   
in Ghana are doing these days
                                                        I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)   
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life   
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine   
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do   
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or   
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and   
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue   
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and   
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

A perfect monologue of someone's hurried, distracted trek through a bustling city scape , attempting to get things done and then prepare themselves for later pleasure or duties performed , an accounting of inane events, a list of stupid rituals and stop overs that merge suddenly with news of incredible sadness, a deep sharp wound that is made that brings  on the ironic counter effect, a recollection of joy. Frank O'Hara's tribute to Lady Day makes sense and it is one of the very few that people remember from poetry because, I think, you have a sense that he is a friend who was standing next to you when first heard of the tragic passing of someone close to your heart. It's a poem that you re-read, over and over, through the decades. Frank O'Hara wrote more than a few poems like that.

It's been fifty years since the publication of Frank O'Hara's seminal book "Lunch Poems":, which means that I was twelve when it first appeared. It was a small book, part of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Pocket Poets series on his City Lights imprint, and it was one of those books you saw everywhere you went as a young person in search of experience, ideas, and kicks of a sort; it was on bookshelves and stuffed in back pockets all over the map, especially the city map. Reading Frank O'Hara was one of those authors you had to read in order to feel current with the alternative culture.  Despite the book's ubiquity when I was a teen and a young poet/musician/critic looking to make a mark, I didn't read the volume until I was in my late twenties, after a couple of other poets I'd made friends with strongly suggested that my own work resembled O'Hara's. Curious, of course, I dug up the copy of "Lunch Poems" I bought a couple of years earlier, along with a stack of other assorted texts and which I had also left in said stack. How much my work resembles O'Hara is something for others to suss out, but I will say that I had made a new friend ; the poet's ebullient breeziness, his disdain for the formal conception of profundity, his ability to write a poem that seems wonderfully to capture the sense of an alert mind noticing the city and its citizens and the work and play they do simultaneously is, I think, one of the miracles of modern poetry. With its abrupt beginnings, swooning affection for the tacky, the tarnished and frayed, with its emotions obviously and playfully at the surface of all things engaged, O'Hara transformed the lyric poem; he brought the lone voice back from its time in the wilderness of  the deepest part of downtown and gave it the swing and brackish grit of fast, rapid played  bebop.

Monday, August 6, 2018


The Nation published a poem by a white poet, Anders Carlson-Wee, written in an idiom likely influenced by black American speech, and the result was a loud and sustained clamor of discontent, protest and other varieties of outrage from some readers. The Nation did a horrible thing; they allowed the poetry editors to apologize for a provocative poem obviously intended to provoke a discussion. The poem that riled so many:
If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.
                                          --Anders Carlson-Wee
Progressives get upset when they are called snowflakes, but the poetry editor's knee-jerk reaction to the critical reception to this poem is nothing less than a spineless surrender to the encroaching tyranny of politically-approved language. The editors , in their apology, tell us that their first reading of a poem was that it addressed, in idiomatic language, the problematic circumstances of disenfranchised Americans and the privileged elite that either ineffectively tries to help them or ignores them outright, about how the oppressed would advise others in the same circumstances to work around the obstacles that impede them. Their first assessment was the right one, and consider the poet's effort to compose the poem the way he did a brave and purposefully provocative one. Sadly, those looking to be offended dragged out their bullhorns and vehemently announced their hurt feelings, to which poetry editors Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith sheepishly said: " We can no longer read the poem in that way." Bear in mind, this reversal was not the result of a critical reexamination of first impressions or a philosophical discussion as to why they believe their first view was in error. The strong implication is that they didn't want to be yelled at anymore, This would have been a great moment to turn this poem into a fruitful discussion of the many perceptions might engender, about the role of voice in political poetry, about the validity or vapidity of negative capability, about how the author's persona in the poem advances the invisible cruel ironies of daily life for the marginalized or how it fails. It might have been the discussion this poem was meant to provoke. The editors write that they " ...recognize that we must now earn your trust back. " 

As poetry is an art meant to compel the reader to think about the world in different ways and to consider that matters between human beings are much more than mere sentiment, and given the editor's cowardly about-face on this issue destroys what trust I might have placed in these two. Worse, far worse is that they've destroyed their creditability as poetry editors. They are afraid of poems that might disturb readers. This is careerist ass-saving at its most loathsome. Burt and Smith should resign their position and seek less stressful work. Shame on them and shame on the Nation for allowing this flight from free expression.