Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Poetry, of a sort

Someone I met found out that I've had some poems published in a few journals over the long and dreaded decades of trying to be clever, and asked how one goes about writing a good poem. That is, a poem others would want to read, not just your wife, mom or drinking buddies. Read poems by good poets and if you're able, take a poetry writing class in to learn the finer points and  techniques of the art. That was what I said, not inspired or inspiring, but practical. Here are a few more thoughts, offered here before the muse catches me unaware and transport me to a zone of poetic reverie and thus make me of no earthly use  until the poem is written and the mood again goes from miraculous to banal.

If you have any desire to write poems that are distinctive, fresh and are notable for having a language style that is interesting and able to “express the inexpressible in terms of the unforgettable “, you have to cleanse yourself of the vanity that everything you write as a poem is precious and must remain untouched. You have to read what you’ve written with a critical eye and find out what it is you’re trying to say, and then chip away everything that in the draft that does not add up to a convincing poetic sequence. Having favorite poets and being aware of the techniques that make up their style is a must; if you understand why particular poets appeal to you, have an effect on you, cause you think about your world in a more nuanced way, then you have the start in developing a good critical ear for your work. 

There are things that great poets like Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Eliot, Laux, Wanda Coleman, O’Hara  make their poems memorable and a proper and alluring expression of their personalities. It wouldn’t hurt   expression to get into the weeds a bit and study precisely HOW your favorite writers are achieving the resonance that comes from a well-considered poem. This will likely improve your habit of mind as you compose and will strengthen your creative flow while writing. Along that line, you have treated your first draft as a first draft and realize that half of what goes into a poem, more often than not, is rewriting, revision, correction, editing.I was told by a poet fifty years ago that to make something wonderful in the form of a poem, the “best writing has to be removed.” For me, this was getting rid of didactic language, lectures, pointless literary allusions, and concentrating on what is truly “poetic” in something I’d just written. This next point has an endless stream of variations, theories, styles, and the lot and each has a coherent aesthetic, but any poet worth reading over time realizes the difference between poetry and prose. 

They do different things. As a wise writer named Clyde Hadlock once said of the two, “Prose is the photograph, poetry is the x-ray.”

Sunday, January 23, 2022



I worked at the Birch Aquarium Bookshop for 12 years until I finally retired in 2015. In that time I saw the shop evolve into a gift shop, full of toys, games, artwork, delicate glass items, and hundreds of impulse  boy toys for the kiddies. And yes, they kept books around. But parents with mewling toddlers were the rule of the day, the Aquarium needed their purchases to support their grand efforts to educate the public about Ocean preservation. Among the kiddie toys featured in bins at the cashier stations were these items, rubber spheres composed of suction cups, which of course stuck to smooth flat surfaces. We called these things "sticky balls" (insert snicker here) and accepted that when school groups came through the store from the aquarium, toddlers, and teens would grab the balls and throw them at the counter glass. There was a large painting of fish hanging behind the counter which was protected by a large pane of glass. Of course, a flurry of sticky balls would be tossed at it  and we would look behind us after a rush and to see the painting  covered with the multicolored spheres to protective glass; it looked as if it had broken out in Technicolor gin blossoms. Both the sound of them hitting and adhering to the surface of  the glass they connected with and the stubborn, resistance they gave when pried off, replete with each suction cup giving a popping rat-a-tat-tat with each cup that was suddenly reintroduced to air, a lip-smacking gasp for air, seemed to give the sales floor staff an low-grade variety of post traumatic stress. I know I tended to instinctually cringe and grit my teeth when I  realized the sticky balls were about to fly as a whole yet another  time before the   workday was done.They were among the many banes of my long-term Aquarium employment, and had gratefully forgotten about them. That is, forgotten about them until the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. The nightmares haven't stopped since.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Davidson on Age and Disability on Poets

Here is a brilliant essay / poem / talk piece by poet and critic Michael Davidson, one of my  professors at UCSD when I  was becoming involved with poetry and poetics. He writes here of the effects / influence of aging and /or having a disability has on a an artist's work . I read this with great interest because I've sufficiently aged to the extent that I've noted a change in the tone and subject of my poems and found insight in how my lifetime hearing loss formed in large measure my sense of poetic process. I've called it the Norm Crosby Aspect. Crosby was an old school comedian I had seen on  the Ed Sullivan Show a dozen times at least, an affable presence whose shtick was the mispronunciation and punning misuse of language.  It turns out that the Crosby was very hard of hearing, wore two hearing aids, and like me often tried to bluff his way through social situations when younger and pretended to understand what others were saying. When responding to what he thought he heard, he related, his answers seemed strange and surreal and non-sequential.  He turned into a comedy act and I, who also tried to fake my way through encounters I could only make out half of,  started to write poetry. Wonderful essay from one of the best contemporary critics writing.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022



Most of the time I write to find out what comes after the sentence after the one I just wrote. I have a particular set of strategies, notions of musical phrase , cadence, rhythm and structure I’ve developed over a good many years—and this isn’t imply that I’ve mastered this form of poetry, free, at all — and I’ve internalized these linguistic habits much as a jazz musician internalizes his training and notions of theory; I come up with a first line and consider what object, word, image, attitude it contains and try to imagine what sounds musical and rhythmic and a logical expansion on the details the first sentence contains. It’s theme and variation, improvisation of a sort in the moment of creation, seeing where the initial idea takes me, stanza to stanza, until I come to a place to a poem where it can end with a resolution (or irresolution) that satisfies me, and perhaps satisfies a reader. What I discover about myself is that there is another way to explore emotion, experience, spiritual and philosophical concepts without resorting to the mechanical language of the academy.

If you want to write good poems, poems that even readers you don’t know personally would want to read again, you must read poetry, lots of it. It’s tempting to dismiss that advice and insist that you want your vision of life to be unique, wholly your own, untainted by the form or reason of other writers, but we go back again whether you want your verse to be read and read again by the widest possible number of people who have an interest in poetry. Reading other poets, published poets, and discussing their work is the best way to get a workable (and surprisingly adaptable) idea of the general form and flow that good poems have. The impulse to merely gush emotion and to attempt to enhance every emotion with qualifiers and ineffective cliches looms large in the young poet, and the key lesson is the learning of craft. Writing good poems—in this case , let us say those works that strike you as fresh, free of cliche and cant—is no less a craft than writing good , effective prose. Most effective for many poets is a starting point of an image, which may be a something that strikes them as odd, out of place, or extraordinary in some peculiar way that the observer, the writer in this case, needs to write around the mute object (the unspeakable uniqueness of natural and material phenomenon which defy description and which taunt the limits of language to contain) and create a conversation with this rediscovered sliver of the world with new ideas and phrases that might ,perhaps inspire the population to engage with their reality more creatively, assertively. 

T.S. Eliot commented in an essay that poetry is a means for the poet and eventually get beyond their emotions and gather something like an elevated grace by means of their purely human perceptions (of not from the intervention of a god of their diffuse understanding). The quote, frequently extracted from his book  The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), is precisely this passage: 

"Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves."

    I would agree, yes, generally, but I would also say that good poems, good art can help the mind join a person’s random collection of half processed and ill-remembered experiences and produce a feeling —sensual, spiritual, political, romantic, philosophical—can did exist within the person before
reading and considering a poet’s (or artist’s) work. Much of the time I believe poems, when they are good and evocative , from the pen of a master, can cleave together, the dissociated bits of memories and create a new sensation. It is often said that a poet , novelist, songwriter writes and finishes their individual projects because they want to find out what happens, to discover how it ends. 

Monday, January 17, 2022



So much of this project depends on the use of actual clips from the first three films that you're not convinced that director Lana Wachowski didn't have much faith in the ideas that are haphazardly strung together here. To be expected, the action sequences are well-made. The look of the film is dark with desaturated color in all shots to give this enterprise an oddly fetching grubbiness. Still, when they are not fighting, the characters are talking, talking, talking, talking and talking and then talking some more as they hash through plot points and concepts of the three previous films, indulge themselves in some very 90s Baudrilliardisms and stale deconstructive bromides, all of it given with a hurried, breathless pace, none of it really makes any sense in ways that you care about. What you realize is that this whole reshuffling of the Matrix mythology is to set us up for another trilogy of movies, or more even, if this current effort justifies its expense and hype financially. It's not without some laughs, some cool moments, some genuine surprises, but as with most franchise films these days, it's drawn out, it drags too often, you find yourself fast-forwarding to the next action sequence because of all the chatter amid the expressionless looks of sleepy eyed actors cannot keep your attention.


 A well-made piece of action-adventure, and a unique premise, to my mind, but nothing to brag about if you're the screenwriter or the director. There is nothing technically amiss with the motion picture; every scene set up achieves what it's supposed to do, the actors are fine , the pacing and editing keeps matters moving along. The problem is that the matters that are kept moving are hackneyed tropes. You can only repaint an old wreck of a vehicle so many times before the dents , scratches and pockets of rust show themselves through the thickest coat you can put on it.


A fine , dark comedy that presents audiences with characters viewers want desperately to relate to in some way, an urge the filmmakers deny. There are times when you feel inclined to cheer for Rosamund Pike's character as the heartless and irrationally ruthless tries to surmount grim challenges the tautly constructed plot foists on her, only to have your heart strings strummed, more than just a little, but the sad eyed frustrations of Peter Dinklage's portrayal of a deep- souled yet equally heartless Russian mob boss. But filmmakers are quite adept at intervening at those plot points where viewers might invest there sympathies in a single character's plight: at crucial points we get reminded that although there is a veneer of "relatability" to all protagonists and antagonists (Pike's and Dinklage's personas switch positions a time or two here) we get reminders that these folks are monsters, sociopaths, dedicating themselves to doing awful things that ruin the lives of innocent people. The ambivalence adds to the tension and makes the comedic critique of corporate capitalism effectively cutting.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022



Richard Goldstein, among the first rock critics ever and a long time writer/critic and editor at the Village Voice, as written his take on the passing of author Joan Didion. In  keeping with a well-developed skepticism that's been his trade-mark, the writer goes after the recently -sainted Didion . She was lacking in her support of the feminist movement is one point he points out, and homophobia is another. These failings make reading Didion's books and essays a problematic experience for feminist and LGBT readers , as well it should be. Goldstein is a brilliant critic, always has been; he has the conviction to go against the conventional wisdom and bring a well-considered argument to the discussion. Remember that he was among the very few pop critics to give a largely negative review of Sgt Pepper in a 1967 issue of the NY Times. Other pundits, both lit majors starting careers in commentary and older scribes eager to be on the cutting edge of something and thus up their hip cred, had rushed to say that Pepper was the advent of a whole new art form, the new poetry, something fresh and collectively brilliant. Goldstein was less eager to go with herd think and was, in retrospect, refreshingly skeptical of claims made for the disc. 

His argument was a reasonable one, and had some points that still stick. In further retrospect, Sgt Peppers emerges as still though flawed effort of its period that has a good many tunes that are actually listenable. Was Goldstein wrong? That's arguable, but I am grateful for the perspective he provided, For Didion, he does largely the same thing, and is right to point out her skepticism of feminism and the elements in her work that weren't precisely acceptable to all facets of her readership.

 She had failings, if we want to call them that, but Goldstein takes a tone here that informs his argument against the late writer's sudden deification, that he expects writers to be perfect in sync with some fluctuating concept of how the world ought to be. Didion was a literary writer of all else, and the only requirement asked by the readers who kept her in the writerly trade is to convey the world as she intuited it, in her essays, her novels, her journalism, in a style and manner of characters, real or imagined, trying to make their way in a reality (real or imagined) will not behave. She had a voice, she had a style, she had an elegant and powerful skill with words that could bring significance to the most inane detail, gesture, environment. Her genius as a writer was taking the perennial discomfort with people, places and things and creating a body of work that made the discontents of the city, the disaffection of the citizens within, and the narrator's weariness, dread, paranoid of venturing again into the convulsions of post-war America a tangible experience. I would admit to what Didion didn't do for the Good Fight many of us thought we were mounting, and forgive for writing for William Buckley's National Review. But actually, there is nothing to forgive; rather, I would thank her for being imperfect in print.

Thursday, December 9, 2021



Tom Waits is one of the finest lyricists, colloquial without being bucolic,  reflective without self-pity, poetic without forcing a rhyme or an image. He succeeds where  other “storytellers”--Harry Chapin, Billy Joel--flounder. Where others abuse  tired qualifiers and moldy tropes that make their tales little more than cold soapy water, Waits had the instincts of a good short story writer, a John  Cheever, a Flannery O'Conner, a Nelson Algren. 

A character, a journey, a timeline, telling and terse details, just the right number of qualifiers, wisdom to not fill in all the spaces nor to betray his mood and artistry with a convenient “moral.” At his best, he conveys emotions of all sorts--rage, joy, sorrow, regret, celebration, lust--and allows the listener to experience them fully, with minimal manipulation. What has occurred during his many mini-sagas, for both the protagonist and listener, remains a mystery; the meaning and the lesson to be learned is deferred except, perhaps, to resonate in the interstices of one's own memories that the story isn't over yet. 

Joyous or at randomized saturation of despair, melancholy, or anger, one goes to work, to the next town, to the cemetery to respect, going on with what we're doing because that's what we do. Still, the sense, somehow, with all the pain, disappointments, and mundane travails that one is richer, wiser, or wizened, for all the acute sensations a memorable time awards us, That makes him an artist. A fine fellow.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021


 THE LOCUSTS HAVE NO KING a novel by Dawn Powell

A New York comedy of manners set in the Forties concerns a married couple comprised of a famous playwright and her husband. This academic labors at his specialty in obscurity. While successful in this discipline, the husband works away in his obscure scholarly endeavors, known by virtually no one, saves for a handful of peers. At the same time, the wife is the toast of Broadway, blessed with hit after hit, loads of favorable reviews, and admiring tidbits in all the newspapers. Fate, or some other cruel force that loves to upset the smug and arrogant expectations, works so that the husband gains incredible notoriety for the research he's been pouring over for years, even breaking through to what was then the mainstream media. 

At the same time, the wife must deal with a box office bomb and negative reviews, items that have her reputation sliding quickly down the social ladder. Powell is one of the better comic writers we've had --a spikier Edith Wharton, shall we say, a funnier Thomas Hardy (think of Mayor of Casterbridge)--who provides momentum, atmosphere, and rich, crackling dialogue in this many -charactered satire. This would be the sort of novel Tom Wolfe has been trying to write for years. Powell's conference is crisp, curt, and telling in what it reveals about the characters, and the prose has a jazzy feel to it, a lightly worn eloquence that doesn't smother the momentum. Tall buildings, over-decorated apartments, and rattan-tat bustle of agendas being advanced abandoned Big Apple-style brings us a comedy of hubris. This is a city full of schemers and naifs, whose respective social positions are not repaired. Powell understands irony and contrives its use beautifully toward something resembling poetic justice.

More about Wolfe-as-novelist, he lacks the precision of detail, character quirks and reveals himself to be a rather drifting plotter. The arcs of his novels lack the efficient forward movement of Powell, who has the sense along with the Hardy as mentioned above that fate, triggered by seemingly insignificant gestures, remarks, or stray, condemning thoughts, results in reversals of fortunes, either comic or tragic. We are fortunate that Powell opts for the comic. Wolfe piles it on, sentence after sentence, clause after clause, until he suffocates the good ideas he might have hard. Powell keeps us intrigued as to how much deeper the characters in question can deepen the hole they're in. We have here a situation where the fortunes of a famous wife and unknown husband are suddenly and realistically reversed, a turn that reveals the external relations and loyalties tied as they are to one's fortunes. Or lack of them.

Saturday, November 27, 2021


 Some who admire David Foster Wallace assert that those who don't "get" him or are guilty of misunderstanding what he's doing as a writer. If they are missing the point so often over the entire length of his talk, the fault is not entirely theirs. DFW had a habit of reflexively resorting to a passive "ironic" tone when the ideas in his work piled up under the weight of his un-diagramable sentences, which is a handy way of getting a laugh and riffing on end.

His point, his warnings, his insights became nearly unnoticeable for all his showing off. If there is a disconnect between audience and speaker, Wallace shoulders much of the blame. He was a fascinating writer and occasionally brilliant, but his lack of emphasis when it counted did him no favors. He did so many digressions as a means of revealing what's behind the narrative curtain, analogous, I suppose, to the grand scene in Wizard of Oz as Toto reveals that the Great Legend is both social construction and a fraud, that the brilliance is made indistinguishable from the exuberant and chatty bullshit that glut Wallace's writing. Wallace couldn't resist the impulse to comment, dredge for ironies when natural contradictions didn't avail themselves, serve heaping amounts of what read like undigested research. It was such a massive dump of information that what he'd written in his fiction transformed from the precious element of "telling detail"--that bit of commentary on specific items in a room and the speech acts of characters revealing some submerged desire to contradict and flee the world they've created or have selected--into mounds of unconsidered data.This always struck me as a species of hording, if you will; perhaps he was a rigorous editor of his own material in ways unknown to us, far too much of his work reads like a man who couldn't throw out paragraphs or pages that didn't bring quality to the reading experience.

There's a "look-ma-no-hands" showiness about his books, Infinite Jest especially. I suppose that as one who has made his way through a bevy of Henry James, James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon novels, all thick, labyrinthian, very extended in their conditional constructions who managed both to comprehend (I think) and enjoy the deluges of word virtuosity, I guess it's ironic I'd find Wallace's prolix tiresome. Not really. The other three were (are) better writers who wanted their sentences to contain surprise and ideas while not sacrificing the providence of tale they were engaged in telling. I never thought Wallace graduated beyond the status of being a loquacious verbal show-off.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

An old review of a fine Chet Baker album

 Trumpet player Baker has a relaxed, lyrical, muted style superficially like Miles Davis's from his Kind of Blue. Indeed, a first impression makes you think the resemblance is vital, not a little. But Baker has a voice very much his own. On You Can't Go Home Again, he applies himself more tactfully and imaginatively than a dozen other flashier players could. The benefit of Baker's technique is the hushed tone, the muted sighs and near whimers of emotion that emerge from the trumpet's bell. Where others like Freddie Hubbard attempt and often succeed in creating beauty with reams of unapologetic bravado and virtuosity--even Hubbard's wonderful treatment of ballads resemble nothing less a gauntlet being thrown down to anyone else who thinks they can do better--Baker is the romantic who has a hard time coming up the right words to profess a feeling. But when he does, the build up, the pauses between his short phrases, his whispering rasp of a tone rises eventually to full sonnets of sound, phrase after phrase coaxing unintended nuance from a composer's melody. An easy sound that's difficult to come  by.  The music is lyrical and moody with heavy orchestration by Don Sebesky (whose career as CTI house arranger has converted many a talent into a white-faced, mass-market commodity). Still, Baker's pensive, searching emotionalism transcends the limits, as well as the efforts of an excellent group of sidemen.  Drummer Tony Williams, saxist Michael Brecker, bassist Ron Carter, guitarist John Scofield, and guest musicians like Hubert laws, Paul Desmond, and Alphonso Johnson, charge ahead, relax the tempos, and pivot to new cross-rhythms and chord combinations that remain infectious throughout. Sparking moments abound particularly in the solos of Scofield, Desmond and, Brecker. The lyricism here is managed without the goo of sentimentality: Baker's power seems to come from a deeper source that can't be diminished.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021


In a feature in the current issue of Slate, Jack Hamilton adds some lighter fluid to the controversy slowly boiling over who was the better wordsmith for the Beatles, Paul McCartney or John Lennon. Not coincidental with the release of the pricey two-volume, slip-cased set The Lyrics where McCartney describes his authorship of  150 songs both for the Beatles and other projects, Hamilton, as one could expect, bucks conventional wisdom and argues that Sir Paul was the superior lyricist. Do you remember your younger life when you waxed incessantly, continuously, and oppressively about one album, one exceptional album that was the greatest album ever made, a work of art unlike any other we've ever seen as a species and the likes of which we will ever see again? Do you remember forgetting about that extra-fantastic disc and then listening to it again  decades later,  realizing it hasn't traveled through the years as well as you claimed? And remember what you said at the time? 

I remember my hyperbolic tantrums arguing for the genius of many records I've since abandoned. That is what Hamilton's defense of McCartney's lyrics for the Beatles read like, a gushy mash note. Of course, the man had a way with words, but…please calm down… Like anyone else obsessed with what the Beatles have accomplished and how it was that they created a body of work without peer, I've dived into the weeds to determine who had the more outstanding mind and pen, John or Paul. After much scrutiny, cogitating, late nights scanning lyric sheets wearing headphones while the Beatles blared loudly and made my hearing even worse than it was, my conclusion is that it's a draw between the two. 

As for songwriting partners and as lone authors of single songs while in the Beatles, Lennon and McCartney seemed an evenly matched pair as lyricists, with McCartney having a substantial edge for composing engaging and deceptively simple melodies. Lennon, to be sure, could write a lovely song as well and do so throughout the band's lifetime, but  McCartney has the advantage. As Beatles lyricists,  one can strongly argue that the two were equal for fluidity and agility of expression. Their distinct personalities gave the metaphorical Beatles Universe (with some exemplary additional contributions from George Harrison) a remarkably fresh and finally unpredictable take on the human experience.  McCartney was a fine lyricist with the Beatles, and I'd even agree brilliant at times. Still, I believe the old saw that Sir Paul's best abilities as lyricist and melodist may well have remained dormant if Lennon hadn't become such a significant presence in his creative undertakings. And yes, I would agree, Lennon might have remained yet another Rocker doomed for inevitable anonymity if he hadn't made McCartney's acquaintance.  This will, undoubtedly, be argued about until the end of time.  Notably, McCartney has been showing concern over his legacy as he gets older. He wants the world to realize the weight of actual contribution to the Beatles' longevity, perhaps even a desire to take Lennon's reputation as the superior lyricist and intellect down a peg or two. 

'Though fueled by resentment, I suspect,  there is no getting away from the fact that the solo efforts by Lennon and McCartney, including struggles with Plastic Ono Band and Wings respectively, are depressingly substandard considered against the work they'd done for the Beatles.  Of course, both bodies of post-Beatles music have pockets of the old magic, charisma, wit, and melodic bite. Still, Lennon had descended from the ranks of an artist to becoming merely a Professional Celebrity, an amazingly clueless personality whose lyric acumen was now little else but sloganeering no more subtle than a bumper sticker. McCartney, in turn, couldn't seem to write a cohesive song anymore; his song structures were erratic, jarring, disjointed, too often coming less well than office buildings abandoned during construction. His lyric writing was gibberish, and those who want to defend the words he wrote for Wings come off as wishful thinkers.