Saturday, August 8, 2020


Readymades, an idea from artist Marcel Duchamp idea, a classic Dada gesture he offered with urinals hoisted upon gallery walls, and snow shovels on pedestals. The point , though, was that the object became an aesthetic object, denatured, in a manner of speaking , from its natural context and forced , suddenly, to be discussed in its very "thingness". The object becomes art by the lexicon we wrap around it, a linguistic default. We are forced to look at what has been gathered together and view them as phenomena instead of as common place things we use, pass by and think nothing otherwise. Quite remarkably, things intended for specific uses become extraordinary, we study them intensely and notice things that otherwise eludes us.That may or may not play in the aesthetic of poet Bob Perelman, a poet associated with the Language school and a sharp critic of poetic processes and priorities (The Trouble With GeniusThe Marginalization of Poetry. Not to speak too generally of what the Language poets have committed themselves to , it is safe to say that their project has been to foreground language we use as subject matter, freeing the constructed, all inclusive , autobiographical "I" from the rhetorical practice, and presenting a body of work investigating the ways our given tongue has been formalized and arranged so that only  so many concepts of what a writer, or an individual , can accomplish are available to the imagination. Dry as that sounds, the Language poets are a rich and varied lot with quite a range of ideas about their work, and methods of writing their ideas down; Ron Silliman, Rae Armentrout,Michael Palmer, Barrett Watten , Carla Harymann, just a few among a good number of others, are distinct poets with their own methods of dismantling and reassembling the factory-issued approaches handed to us since grade school. Bob Perelman appeals to me in particular because it seems he gets into the Dada mood and welds the hard, metallic surface of the phrases that spin about in the advertising culture. Phrases , slogans, bits of instruction manual babble, a quote from a philosophical essay, tangential lit-crit speak--divorced from a context that apologizes and smooths over their laconic lack of meaningful signifiers , becomes a poetry in themselves, strange phrases and neologisms full of unspoken promise and potential, liberating forces and keys to imaginary heavens.

Bob Perelman has the satirist instinct and has the skill to compose in these tongues , these conflicting pitches for one's attention and wallet, with an assured tone that tames the contradictions and inconsistencies, converts an unsubstantiated claim into finely honed vowels and syllables for an announcer to intone with his or her resonating, sweetly cadenced voice. Finding ourselves in a world where very few sentences that are written are understandable in themselves, as remarks who's meaning and purpose can be inferred, Perelman is our spokes-poet, the first poet to understand that the entire culture and the population's attention span has been colonized by advertisers, banks, nervous senate committees. But there is more to Perelman's poems than merely shoving the phrases back into the mess from which they came-- there is the human part as well, the emergence of someone discerning themselves among the constraining turns. "Trees" is a fascinating, layered lyric of a camera, a family situation, the capture and use of an image. Through it, one loses the sense of what just happened; are we all together in this place to be together, or to have our picture taken, and in turn have our experience and perception managed for us?

A melody composed of solid obstacles
Dictates itself onto paper. The sky adjusts
Automatically. The most popular prison
For sight is imagery. Light separated

From matter shines on a parking space,
A lane change. I think
That I shall never see without
Nameless grasses whispering generalities

Inside the object code which colors
Once removed at various distances
Spray onto my retinas. The proper
Study of trees is trees. A live-oak leaf
Lands upside down on a madrone branch.

Inside the curve of an ear
Each point contains all lines
Drawn through it by the insistence
Of a complete world of days. Any word

Flowers in the face of the climate's
Ornamental attacks. Moving parts
Produce the voice, the airplane,
The frenchfry. The baby on film
Wants to play with the camera.

" The sky adjusts/Automatically." And what we are to take away from this encounter with one another is adjusted automatically as well, as the images of ourselves , the trees, the baby reaching for the camera, pivots on how well a designated technology works. If everything operates as the instructions promise, all is well and good, and it's possible to walk away from what should be a joyful encounter untouched by anything. It is a memory because we have right here, on film. If the camera failed, though, we need to ask ourselves, will be remember it at all? And would be worth recalling if our camera didn't capture the image. Perelman seems aware, under the calm of his style, that we are after strange gods here. He suggests, softly but insistently, that we look at the phrases we use to describe our presence in the world, and to find our where those phrases came from. We are turned into objects ourselves, ready to have something sold to us, receptive and pliant. Whether the object is art as most understand art to be--the result of an inner expressive need to mold , shape and hone materials and forms into an a medium that engages a set of ideas about the world, or unearths some fleeting sense of human experience -- isn't the point here. Ironically, art, generally defined as something that is absent all utility, any definable function, is suddenly given a use that is sufficiently economic, which is to keep an art industry in motion; it is the sound of money. Duchamp, and other dadaists who sought to undermine this idea of art and its supposed spiritual epiphanies for the privileged few, instead furnished a whole new rational for art vending. Duchamp and Perelman might share the desire for another kind of heaven, a space where concepts ,structures and the like weren't handed to us like crisply packaged uniforms.

Thursday, August 6, 2020


About David Lehman | Academy of American PoetsDavid Lehman gets a tip of this writer's hat if I wore a hat. Poet, critic, biographer and an editor who has done more good work in bringing the problematic pleasures to a wider audience than anyone I can think of. Among the things I respect about is his refusal, as a popularizer of art the public steadfastly resists (and one who's poets resist being corrupted by something as defiling as popularity) for refusing to write consumer -friendly verse.His work is not the work of a Billy Collins, who composes one masterful bit of middle brow irony after another. Lehman rather likes the idea of using words as if they were things, malleable and ready to be shaped in mode and manner that makes the interested reader do a little bit of their own work. He gets respect for not dumbing down the poetry he writes, or the poets he presents in the anthologies he brings to the world annually.
David Lehman’s poem “November 18”, from his collection Evening Sun, was the subject of a dispute among some fellow poetry readers, half of whom liked the poet’s disjointed connections, and others who thought the poem was dated because of a seeming lack of unity and the use of dead American artisan’s names. The conversation became rather steamy. All the same, the poem is hardly dated.

Because it mentions people, places and things that are equated with the '50's? An arbitrary habit of thinking, I think. Lehman essentially creates a medley of voices, different streams of language that melt into one another, and with he balances the texture of associations the references bring; this is very much in the modernist mode, especially as practiced by The New York School, who, through the work of O'Hara and Ron Padgett, made a city poetry from an everyday language of the noise of the city, it's billboards, magazine stands, grand hotels, loud radios, and sports extravaganzas.

November 18 By David LehmanIt's Johnny Mercer's birthday from Natchez to Mobile in the cool cool cool of the evening very cool with Barbara Lee singing Marian McPartland playing the greatest revenge songs of all time hooray and hallelujah you had it comin' to ya and a bottle of Rodenbach Alexander red ale from Belgium with cherries and "Tangerine" inthe background in Double Indemnity he had a feel for the lingo, "Jeepers Creepers"as Bing Crosby sang it on my birthday in 1956 I just played it three straight times and an all-American sense of humor what does Jonah say in the belly of the whale he says man we better accentuate the positive that's ithappy birthday and thanks for the cheer I hope you didn't mind my bending your ear

It is a particularly American sound that Lehman lays claim to here, starting with Whitman's barbaric yawp, coming up through William Carlos Williams, and finding itself resting next to other high art forms that found much to use, exploit and find glory in from popular culture. It had been mentioned that Langston Hughes did this sort of thing” infinitely better”, but that’s an assertion meant to distract. Hughes never did anything remotely like what Lehman succeeds in doing here, I'm afraid. He sought a blues cadence, a gospel resonance, and a voice based on an idealized African American idiom, but what his brilliance is a separate set of accomplishments. They are simpatico on a number of points, but to weigh over the other on the merits of a fictitious objective standard is spurious. The terrains are different -- Hughes rural and black, Lehman white and urban -- and the motivations behind the experiments vary dramatically. Lehman is an inspired heir to the mood and tact of the New York poets, and what he is able to do he does cogently, with humor and a love of making language behave in ways that are poetic for the sheer ingenuity that cogent barbarism can bring.

Hughes was quite a different case. the poem can't make up its mind as to whether it wants to be urban jazz or rural blues. The poem is about, among other things, the thriving, buzzing, and churning diversity of noise and music and tempos that one finds spread out across the American landscape, and what happens is a nice medley of musical emulations. If you've driven across country with the radio on all the way, you'll have an idea what the poem manages, the layering of music, voices, references all on top of one another, some fading to the background, others picking up as you near the transmitters, everyone in competition to be heard on the limited bandwidth. Charles Ives once hired two brass bands to march into the center of a town square from different directions, both playing entirely different pieces of music, just so he could sit there and find out what it all sounded like. You pick up this curious, adventurous, experimental verve in his brilliant music. Lehman is in much the same American Grain. 

Have you been there? Now, Natchez to Mobile certainly gives us a slice, but few would say that it's a particularly urban slice. Yes, I've been there, and as I've said prior the poem is about creating a feeling of the vastness of America; part of the way you create that feeling is with place names, time-honored and effective. One has the feeling of pointing at a map, seeing an odd sounding name that has native-sounding exotica, and telling your traveling companion "let’s go there." It's texture, and it adds this pieces city/country/city layout. The poem I argue is not outdated because it deals with the '50s (a straw man argument you create for me - and by the way, I wish there were more historical poetry), it is outdated in style and tone. Hardly outdated, I think, since lyricism in any guise that effectively makes a reader forgo reason and engage emotionally, more "felt" associations from what the language highlights cannot be said to be antiquated; it is always timeless. This poem is perfectly comprehensible to anyone who cares to read it with open ears. The language school you reference is petering out - Ashbery and Graham, the two best-known poets to emerge from the school, no longer associate themselves with it - Ashbery always (wisely) kept a careful distance from the label.

Well, I didn't reference the Language Poets in reference to this poem , because it adheres to the New York School of Poets, a group of poets known for their friendships and alliances with painters during the late fifties and early sixties, a food decade and a half prior to the emergence of the Language Poets. John Ashbery is not a language poet, as he believes, however obscure and private may be, that there is a core personality at the center of his poems, a diffuse "I" perhaps, but an "I" none the less. The Language Poets, many of whom are cursed with theoretical baggage they've borrowed from Marxist criticism and French structuralist linguistics, deny the capacity of language to accurately present the world through an egocentric notion of "the author". Some of this work and theory is interesting and brilliant, but Ashbery isn't in their company. He's an aesthete and has produced a brilliant body of work in his lifetime. Not for the last ten years, perhaps, but his strong work is plentiful. Jorie Graham, I find just abstract and dull and unable to write an interesting line or image. There is perhaps some hope for it in a handful of figures, some of which you've noted in a previous post. You left out there the individual who I think holds the most promise - Lyn Hejinian. Last point - The point on the contrast between Hughes and Lehman is that both have the similarity in wanting to use an idea spoken cadence and musical phrasing of a sort in their writing, areas where they are simpatico in the abstract. What each poet has produced, practically, as writing, is vastly different, in style, range, notions of place. All one need do is read them side by side and become aware that each are doing different things, and that a qualitative comparison is tenuous. Better you match Lehman against O'Hara or Kerouac, two poets who are stylistically coherent with Lehman for the purpose of critical contrast. The Langston Hughes option is merely strained, and requires too much fancy footwork to make an argument stick even loosely. The fact remains that Hughes and Lehman are miles and miles apart in their approaches toward what one might call common goals; theirs are different methods to similar, but not identical ends. Belaboring similarities or the lack of them as a way of attempting to hoist one over the other simply accentuates the meaningless of the comparison in an attempt to discover which poet has more merit. Both got to what where they wanted to go, accomplished what they wanted to accomplish in decisively different ways.

Another, better poet ought to be mentioned before this aspect of the conversation goes anywhere useful. What Lehman does in the spirit of Whitman, and there is traceable stylistics in this and other poems he's written. Loose-limbed, ready to take a barbarism and make it poetic in spite of its vulgar intent, colliding impulses, drives, ego, instincts, pleasure zones. The poem has the senses reeling, on the kind of overload that Whitman neared and reached in the few truly amazing works he composed. This a poem about spreading oneself over the map, to assume the personality and vibration of all that makes up the world one is surrounded by; it is an impulsive bit of lyric acceleration of the spirit that strives to know things in a hurry, to understand the life and style of the obscure corners of America in a manic flurry of celebration that life itself is vital and finite and cannot be curtailed or compromised by form or structure. One can argue if they wish with the irrationality of this idea, with the informing subtext that drives the glancing mentions and riffs drawn from the music of place names and advertising coinages, but this is a universal spirit none the less and well worth expressing because it is a poem, ultimately, of witness. Whitman claimed he contained multitudes, Lehman's smaller set of provisions asserts that he is multitudes.

This is a fine, concise and swift waxing on the fury and rapidly changing shape of our National Self Image. Everything here comes together in one gasping, groaning, singing, chanting, snare drum rattling orgasm that says everything in this life, the only thing we can be certain, is needed and wonderful and full of lessons we've barely the time to learn. It's a textured and rushing chorus that says that all we hear is music, and all music is beautiful if our ears are open enough to allow the notes to hit the heart and revive the memory of all the things that make life worth living, which might be songs of love, lyrics of love, choruses about love found, lost or broken, but it is these thoughts that however perfect or malformed our notions of affection, belonging, attraction, love finally have come to be, it is the final idea that it is love in any way that makes life worth living, and that it's the lack of love that kills it. Lehman chooses to remember and to love and live in the sunshine of the moments that pass and will never be again. There is music in every crowded line, there is music in every broken rhythm, and there is music in every car alarm and train whistle and a blast of radio static. There is music everywhere. do believe that music exists in ways we've yet to discover, but I’m speaking of Lehman's intent with the poem, not my personal and unbending view of the world. Poetry can be written in many ways, in my many styles, with many different criteria for successful work; it's a versatile medium, yes? Criticism needs to also be as flexible in how work is read, in order to make a coherent statement about them. I am not hard-and-fast in any regard about how I want poems to work, just as long as they are successful in their uniqueness and provide a sense of the predicaments they might be addressing. My critical practice is pragmatic and my ears are wide open to the sorts of sounds a manipulated rhetoric can make. The validity of any idea is in how it works, to crib an idea from William James. I can like the idea that "music is everywhere" - but I cannot live it and so cannot truly hold on to it as a valid tenet in my own critical approach.

I believe that a good critic ought to be willing to suspend their disbelief ala Coleridge and expose themselves to some forms they might not otherwise be prepared to have a truck with. As an argument for the musicality of November 18, you essentially claim that everything is musical. Sorry, I made no such claim. Rather, I was talking about the operating psychology I sensed in the poem, a Cage /O'Hara/Mingus/Ives stream of ideas that finds tonalities, timbres, pitches, and harmonies in city and country, and what I further described was that there is beauty in the clashing, contrasting sounds; composer, improviser and poet can find the music in it all and place it on paper, and can further exclaim their work into the air as a celebration of the amazing forms available in the 20th century.

The same amazement, as typified by the poem, is no less contagious for many readers in the early part of the 21st century. In any case, my remarks were poem/poet/styles specific, and I've already made clear that although I think this is a naive way for one to approach the practicalities of life as we must live it, it remains a successful tact to lure the lush and lyric from our ambiguous language. The claims for what is, after all, a very modest piece, might seem hyperbolic and grandiose.

So be it, guilty. I'll accept sounding momentarily grandiose and perhaps hyperbolic; under the overstated is the truth about Lehman's poem, which is that it's good, successful, and works in its neatly modest way. It's that odd layering of references, one on top the other, like shards of per of varying colors, shapes, and grades of translucence, that gives me the Aha! sensation, something accidental in its arrangement but stunning in how the plain and inane is made into a configuration that stops you, makes you turn your head and requires you process what's been seen/written.I think Lehman himself would blush as the poet deliberately eschews that high prophetic voice of poets like Whitman and Ginsberg. My guess is that Lehman would appreciate the fact that I picked up on the poets who've influenced him and continue to motivate his best work. I thought it was about Johnny Mercer - more a tip of the hat than anything else - a brief acknowledgment of a musician who "had a feel for the lingo,” and who was therefore simpatico with the poet. Mercer is the starting point, but the poem moves on, along the roads, through the towns, the meals, the intriguing place names. Lehman addresses Mercer's lyrical, vagabond spirit. In doing so, the poem, like travel itself, moves from where it starts and becomes about something much larger, and harder to define. The final definition is impossible, more than likely, but what we have is the realization of one of my favorite clichés, it's about the journey, not the destination.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

a few notes on JACK SPICER

Jack SpicerIn 2009, poet and critic Ron Silliman commemorated the 9/11 anniversary on his blog yesterday with a gruesome photograph of ground zero with two poems by Jack Spicer superimposed over the carnage. It understandably caused a minor tempest among a few readers who thought we'd had enough fetishism over the attack , and that it was a use of Spicer's work the late poet might not have approved of. I thought it fine and appropriate; Spicer equated God with a Big Radio, and seemed taken with the idea of a poet's inspiration being transmissions from far off places, old voices of dead poets in turn who find their metaphors turned into apt descriptions of current circumstances. By the time the hidden essence, the secret nuance of what a poet was talking about catches with a culture's experience, their original intent, while interesting, is not relevant as to how their words make our lives comprehensible, even if only on a visceral level. You could argue that the correlative intimations older poems have on the range of contemporary events is coincidental irony, but there is a saturation point when the lines, intended for what's implied , hushed and only vaguely graspable on specific subject matter, become instead the needed at-hand phrases that get the ideas that elude you when tragedies or windfalls of good fortune intervene on the come-and-go. The poet loses control of what his poet is supposed to mean as history adds associations to the syntactical skin. Spicer, I suspect, might well object to the use, but there is a savage bluntness about poets and their varied attempts to find a greater resonance from the obscenity of violence that resonates loudly with what we're remembering today. What Spicer intended is a moot point, and in this instance, inconsequential. Today was the day everything changed, as they overused phrase went, and that meant everyone had to take a hard look at who they were, who they said they were, and why that mattered in the face of such insane destruction. Spicer, not the least, likely would have considered long and hard; there is the notion that what you've said in a situation you want to clarify gets repeated against seemingly opposing backgrounds. The voices from out of the air, from the radio of memory, are triggered by extraordinary events that transform our regualar which, after all, are not static in any sense. Silliman's collage is an inspired combination of histories; they are no longer mutually exclusive.
__________  My Vocabulary Did this To Me, an anticipated republication of the poems by the late Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, and I have to admit that Spicer’s writing has me momentarily forgetting my prejudice against poems about poetry and poets and allowing myself to be knocked by the author’s third-rail wit. A singular figure who didn't fit in well with the Beats, the New York School, nor the San Francisco Renaissance, Spicer’s poems were a set of marginalia at the edges of the principle discussion as to what poetry was and ought to be, and as becomes clear as we read, his counter assertions, his asides, his declarations had more self contained clarity and vision than much of the stuff he looked askance at.
Interrogation of received notions was his on going theme, and ‘though the practice of making literary practice the unifying metaphor in a body of work tends to seal off poetry from an readership that could benefit from a skewed viewpoint—unlocking a door only to find another locked door, or a brick wall, ceases to be amusing once one begins to read poets for things other than status—Spicer rather positions the whole profession and the art as an item among a range of other activities individuals take on to make their daily life cohere with a faint purpose they might feel welling inside them. Spicer, in matters of money, sexuality, poetry, religion zeros on the neatly paired arrangements our language system indexes our hairiest ideas with and sniffs a rat when the description opts for the easily deployed adjectives, similes and conclusions that make the hours go faster.

Thing Language
By Jack Spicer

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.
There is reservedly antagonistic undercurrent to Spicer’s work, the subtle and ironic derision of the language arts that, as he sees them practiced, is locked up in matters of petty matters of status, property, the ownership of ideas, the expansion of respective egos that mistake their basic cleverness for genius. The world, the external and physical realm that one cannot know but only describe with terms that continually need to be resuscitated, is, as we know, something else altogether that hasn’t the need for elaborate vocabularies that compare Nature and Reality with everything a poet can get his or her hands on. What this proves, Spicer thinks (it seems to me, in any event) is that we know nothing of the material we try to distill in verse; even our language is parted out from other dialogues.
The Sporting Life
By Jack Spicer

The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios
don't develop scar-tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a
transistor, which most souls are, the battery or diagram
burns out replacable or not replacable, but not like that
punchdrunk fighter in a bar. The poet
Takes too many messages. The right to the ear that floored him
in New Jersey. The right to say that he stood six rounds with
a champion.
Then they sell beer or go on sporting commissions, or, if the
scar tissue is too heavy, demonstrate in a bar where the
invisible champions might not have hit him. Too many of
The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
counterpunching radio.
And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even
know they are champions.
Spicer is an interesting poet on several levels, all of them deep and rich with deposits that reward an earnest dig. He is , I think, on a par with Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams with the interest in grilling the elaborative infrastructure of how we draw or are drawn to specialized conclusions with the use of metaphor, and it is to his particular brilliance as a lyric poet, comparable to Frank O’Hara (a poet Spicer declared he didn’t care for, with O’Hara thinking much the same in kind) that the contradictions, competing desires and unexpected conundrums of investigating one’s verbal stream are made comprehensible to the senses, a joy to the ear. No one, really no one wrote as distinctly as the long obscure Spicer did, and editors Gizzi, Killian and publisher Wesleyan Press are to be thanked for restoring a major American voice to our shared canon.
__________Jack Spicer was an odd and inspired contrarian in place during the San Francisco Renaissance, who conceived poetry as "dictation" of a sort. He had gone so far as to refer to the poet as a "radio", a living device able to intercept transmissions from an other wise invisible world of sharper, bolder, more original combinations of sound, rhythm, form. This is a unique way of insisting, again, that the artist is the "antenna of the race", and there is room enough in his thought to wonder if he considered the poet the one in particular who could touch Plato's Ideal Forms, or if thought he had te ability to peak behind the curtain to espy the furniture of Stevens' Supreme Fiction. Spicer was a troubled man, though, an alcoholic, someone at odds with the poetry community he lived in, but he was a serious, sometimes brilliant poet who could calm his erudition and gives us a poetry of propositions, what ifs, things thornier and much less sweet than the soft candy a few dozen celebrity poets win awards for. Here's a a fine poem, a brief lyric essay considering the likeness of some unlike things.

Book Of Music

by Jack Spicer

Coming at an end, the lovers
Are exhausted like two swimmers. Where
Did it end? There is no telling. No love is
Like an ocean with the dizzy procession of the waves' boundaries
From which two can emerge exhausted, nor long goodbye
Like death.
Coming at an end. Rather, I would say, like a length
Of coiled rope
Which does not disguise in the final twists of its lengths
Its endings.
But, you will say, we loved
And some parts of us loved
And the rest of us will remain
Two persons. Yes,
Poetry ends like a rope.
A cynic's view, perhaps, where the picture that's painted first has the gasping awe of young love, perfect, endless like a circle, the world itself, and later, destroyed, cut at the vital moment of greatest vulnerability, merely a thick string that starts at one end and merely ends, absent glory or beauty, at another. Even after the twists and turns of the thing itself--love, the foiled circle--to restore itself in reactionary spasms, things just end, and rapture and passion are replaced by bitter memory, a bitterness that gives way to a mellowed skepticism, if one is lucky to live long enough to be a witness their own foolish expectations of people, places, things, and especially the foolishness one might have said about poetry in whatever earnest declarations one uttered in classrooms, dorm rooms, cafes where the intelligent and underpaid gathered for a cheap drink and company.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Seemingly from an Underwood 5

 I used to dash off fast poems from an Underwood 5 manual typewriter and then quickly show them or read them indulgent friends who were kind enough to put with my assumptions about how flawless my  writing talent was. The response wasn't always pleasant;  one friend told me that the quick verse I had him read made him think that I spent no more than ten minutes writing it.  "Slow down" he said, and handed me back the sheet of paper . Pain I Did Not by Sharon Olds has that ten minute feeling to it, something produced in a hurry, not an inspired hurry. I've read this a few times and sought out some of the subtler virtues, but nothing I could come up with got beyond the gut feeling that this is an awful poem. It is awkward in the first sentence, yes, but it is awkward through out the paragraph--I can't bring myself to dignify this piece as anything other than a botched diary entry. It has the dull , familiar echo of a traumatic experience one has pondered and talked about for an inordinate amount of time that has lost its resonance ; rather than helping to recognize the variables involved in a recent history of erring assumptions , disappointment and bad guesses, the grim sequence of words and deeds said and done as people grow apart, and then move forward with the next chapter of one's life, it instead becomes standard operating procedure.

When my husband left, there was pain I did not
feel, which those who lose the one
who loves them feel. I was not driven
against the grate of a mortal life, but
just the slowly shut gate
of preference.<o:p>

Olds perhaps wants to suggest  the stammer of someone reaching within themselves to find phrase formations to give voice to things she’d rather not talk about, a sidelong approach to the sensitive  parts of the living memory,  but there is a stumble here;  she gives us  fog when a clear situation should be visible. The summation comes first of all instead of developing organically from a sequencing of  events and words—the concrete is subjugated to a murky tone that is announced instead of presented. Olds evinces a conceit that  mental construct precedes materialist; there are no things  but in ideas.

And so he went
into another world—this
world, where I do not see or hear him—
and my job is to eat the whole car
of my anger...

There is the attempt to add a mystifying layer over banal detail , the effort just goes slack. It is the same as the mumbling teenager who can’t explain why he or she lied to their parents ; the poem , like the teen,cannot look straight in the eye.  There is a sense that this abstruse memory of dissolution has something to do with a car that was a potent sticking point between her and her ex husband, and that the car here should operate as a metaphor for the narrator having to accept what has happened, to stuff her resentment, to  regret the emotional qualities she invested in this thing that’s come to symbolize their life together. Bad writing wins out, though, as the phrase “ eat the whole car of my anger” is comically overwrought  and resolutely imbalanced; it is not a phrase that comes off the tongue without the reader sounding as if they’re prone to emotional bombast. It also provides misdirection that undermines any potential effect—one can’t help but make light of  phrase that invites snickering  remarks auto-eroticism or, more cleverly, whether the poet’s imagined meal  was an Oldsmobile. The last item, to be sure, suggest  a self-consuming obsession with what went wrong, but that suggestion lacks power due, sadly, to  ill-fated wording. What you end up discussing here is what Sharon Olds meant to say . This is poem requires not an interpretation, but an autopsy.The poem hasn't a clear insight or a perspective altering metaphor or image in it; the inclination here is not clarity but rather obfuscation. The rationale,perhaps, may have been to give this wedge of irritating syntax an air of abstraction, the hope being that the unmoored and imprecise metaphors might add mystery to this misery and hint at larger traumas within the family, the neighborhood, the culture at large. Credible abstraction,though, evokes at things larger than the concrete particulars on the page; Olds simply had nothing to say and appears guilty of padding this poem with the extraneous , the gratuitously odd. It is pretentious and dishonest , from the readings. Something leaner, starker, more skeletal would have suited the topic; a marginal wave of regret , post-marriage, needn't be propped up with a writing style that only buries whatever idea might have been worth a poem of its own.


In theory I ought to like Alan Michael Parker's poem "I Have Been Given a Baseball..." more than I do because it exhibits traits I find appealing and find not often enough; straight, unpretentious language, a knowing details about a world we might recognize from our own experience, and a deft hand of knowing when to give the details and when to hold back,  
 to let mood and substance fill in those details that plain narrative facts cannot express. Still, Parker's poem leaves me with that after taste one might associate with Sharps or Odouls or some other fake beer they might deign to sample and find themselves having to comment on what the faux ale tasted like. Gamy, I'd say, no pun intended.

You can taste the resemblance to actual lager, but what you take away is how the simulation jumped the rails and gave you a cotton tongue and a mouth that felt like it had a long drink of your mom's shampoo. Similarly, Parker's piece reads like a poem and does it's paces very well--pause, sit, speak, roll over, go abstract, give a glimpse of something comprehensible, now conclude, wistfully, whispering--but I can't get over the gutlessness of the enterprise. The problem might being with the subject itself, baseball and it's relation to the collective consciousness of how we'd like to regard ourselves; so much has been made of this over the century, supported, amended, expanded, contracted, with limitless layers of irony and outrage that one is hard pressed to name a particular emotion or dramatic trope that hasn't through baseball's diamond-formed symbolism. The sheer attraction of the game, how it appeals to the perceived American virtues of openness and fair play and playing by the rules, that agenda after agenda, attitude after attitude have been pushed through it's fabled fields in the order of making a point, of laying out how great we are or how debased we have become. There's not much chance of using baseball again as a means to underscore points of pain of injustice or unspoken joy without having one's poetic feet snap the worm-eaten structure on which this mythology lies. Parker, though, is game and gives it a try, lowering his sights smartly enough , to a set of hieroglyphs mysteriously set in front of him, the base ball of the title

emblazoned with a map
of the New York City subways,

a novelty item complete with the violet
No. 7 line, the train that clatters out to Shea.
Too often in the '70s in the rain

I saw the Mets lose there,
among anonymous fans
under orange and blue umbrellas

or the occasional grocery bag.

There is splendid compression here, wonderful enjambment of details, a rush of words of someone speaking in a hurry, bringing us to their concern in the mid thought; the way these opening stanzas first describe the map sketched on the ball (smartly omitting how the author came to be given the object) dissolves into local New York history. This is the stammer and stream of a local who has shared in the accumulated heartache and rage of being a Mets fan. Parker echoes on of the ongoing themes of Don DeLillo's novel Underworld, which follows the trading of a particular baseball that his passed along father to son, son to collector, that is reputed to have been the ball that was knocked out the Park during a crucial baseball game, "the shot heard around the world". There is no documentation to authenticate the claims of historical significance by the sellers, but what becomes more important aren't traceable facts and measurable evidence but instead the selling itself, the story telling that goes with the baseball, the language that seduces one into believing that this is indeed the baseball that was the decisive factor in the critical game, and that it radiates its genuine , extra material attributes; the buyers want this ball to be there connection to a time when baseball was played when America and Americans were good and open, playing by the rules. Parker has his character recall his own game where so much depended on the quality of a play the Mets would make that he is moved toward a slight bit of charity when he recalls a woman who's son had taken ill and died:

There's a woman I know now
whose son has died:

she should have the ball.
In the stadium this evening
the anonymous fans are hiding

under orange and blue umbrellas
or the occasional grocery bag,
and I can see her son

happy there, at last,
fidgety in the bleachers.
The lights light up the field

perfectly in the buggy, humid night—
it's like being inside a pretty thought.
When the small, sodden crowd—

are they angels?—
begins to chant Let's Go Mets,
someone changes the chant to Let's Go Home.

This is where I get the real sense that Parker had lost interest in the poem and turned instead to a scenario that could have been cribbed from the limitless number of baseball scripts that have gone unproduced over the last twenty what was effective, telegraphing compression at the start, careening nicely with a sauntering swagger that gave off a sense of big hand gestures moving about to emphasize finer points, or a detail of a dint upon a type of car or baseball hide being described, turns into a crammed last segment you get on Law and Order. This affair has to be ended now, let me out of here, get out of the way! On Law and Order they've taken to having someone get shot to death in the courtroom , the court building or in the hotel room where Police were stashing a People's witness as a means to resolve what dramatic problems they've set up for themselves when the clock urges them to quit finessing the details and to sew it all up, no matter how irrational or how ugly it becomes. Parker's narrator is motivated to hand the ball to the mother for reasons undisclosed, with the results being likewise sidestepped because the poet has discovered the writer's favorite trapdoor from a corner they've painted themselves into: ambiguity saves the day:

What would she do with the ball?
Whatever she wants,
whatever we do with anything.

 This is the effect of the poet sneezing at a crucial moment, turning his head to think of something else, mentally balancing his checkbook in the middle of delivering a simile. Parker wants us to use our own powers of streaming, steaming metaphor to read in all sorts of implications , invisible and unverifiable, that this cheat of an ending might signify, but what this evokes for me is a sight of a man walking away from an accident he caused. There is no meaning here beyond the disorderly exit of the last verses other than Parker hit the exits before this ball game was over.

Monday, July 27, 2020


I stopped going to open readings about twelve years ago for a combination of reasons, lack of time foremost among them, but coming up near second was the weariness of being subjected to a continuous stream of encrypted banality.

Not to grind this axe too long nor too loudly, what What is most striking about the assembled grossness of over-reaching testaments is it no one seems to have had an interesting take on what muse-inspiring incident happened to them. Too often , too often indeed, the epiphany moment seems to drive the earnest amateurs deep into the Archive of the Already Said Too Often , which dampens my enthusiasm for the notion that an introduction to good poets and their work will, by default, improve and hone the attributes of a readership who would likewise enjoy contemplating existence in unique combinations of metaphor and simile. Rather than broadening the perspective, as had been hoped, many become entrenched in bad ideas. It's like a cold one can't quite rid themselves of, I guess, doing so at last after rest and a vacation from taking one's seriousness too seriously, but the bad taste also acts like a virus, incubating for quite a while and effecting the senses in ways that seem to lay an irreversible tendency to grandiloquence, truism, bathos, rugged individualism. Some of this is inevitable in the course of being human with the conceit of being sensitive creatures with something to say--God knows I am an insufferable jerk when it comes to the sanctity of my own poetry which is, let us say, looking increasingly hokey as I get older.If that were the case, the reader and the listener would have the sense that some fact, independent of the narrator's expectations, has been acknowledged and that the speaker is ready to change their thinking. Yet another reason I gave up doing public readings as a matter of habit: my good poems are few, really, and repeating them bores the fuck out of me.The sort of tract many readers come across in airports and the shelves of bookstore self-help sections , though, resemble a poems less than they do knotted strings of re-fitted clichés that lacking value of irony or circumstantial variation .

These are more things one would say after an accompanying string of disasters and disappointments that work not to comprehend experience and, perhaps, gain a perspective on why things don't go according to plan, but rather to rationalize and reinforce one's attitude and manner of moving through the world.When all is said and done, Frank Sinatra said the same thing, but with more style and less pop-psyche cant: I did it my way... Not that Sinatra's croaking croon makes this a desirable way to go through life.We are who we, sure, but a large part of being human is our capacity to change our behavior based on experience. Existence is not something you experience passively, or an event that merely happens to you. It is something you participate in. One is powerless in controlling final outcomes of events, but within the larger picture, we can change our actions, we can change the way we think. We do, more often than not, influence the results.

We are who we, sure, but a large part of being human is our capacity to change our behavior based on experience. Existence is not something you experience passively, or an event that merely happens to you. It is something you participate in. One is powerless in controlling final outcomes of events, but within the larger picture, which this poem attempts to present to us, we can change our actions, we can change the way we think. In doing so, we can, more often than not, influence the results one gets. Such poets come across as defeatists in a Hemingway ammo belt.Poetry is fun when it is good. This was not good.

Those who write poems , I think, are obliged to write the poems they are able to, whatever their style, and that they ought not be surprised when they are criticized for using clichés and glittering generalities in place of real craft or inspiration.One's inner most thoughts, of themselves, are often not interesting as poetry. Whether the young poet admits it or not, they have a responsibility to express their inner lives in a fresh way that it's interesting to readers in the outer world.Small thoughts are perfectly fine, and one need only inspect Emily Dickinson, or the imagist poems of Pound or WC Williams for examples.Even the "less than earth shaking" poem has a bar to reach; it should none the less be exquisitely expressed. Those who participate in their lives are not passive, they are engaged with it.Even the shy, weak, infirm, modest and laconic among us take pro-active roles in the directions we take, and take responsibility.Most of all, there is the capacity to remain teachable, to learn from experience and change behavior and mindset; this is what keeps people interesting and useful to their fellows.Those who refuse to change their ways, to use experience merely as rationale to reinforce ineffective methods to coping with existence, are jerks much of the time, or just irredeemably clueless. One stays away from these people, and their poems.

Sunday, July 26, 2020


2,833 Poem Background Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos ...Kim Rosen of the Huffington Post wondered in a 2010 article if Americans are afraid of poetrysome of the essay is a warmed over a collection of the usual symptoms, and some of it is intriguing, worth a gander. I don't think Americans are afraid of poetry; rather it's a matter of not many Americans, comparatively, think of poetry as a resource since we, as a culture, are not an introspective culture, but instead, one that continuously looks forward to a future to be created. Poetry, so far as the general reader is concerned, is a matter of one being alone with their thoughts and structuring their experience in a narrative form, a narrative that not only chronicles events along a timeline, but also the nuance of experience, the fleeting sensation of something changing in their psyche. This requires making the language do extraordinary things to accommodate an uncommon interpretation of experience, and Americans, a people reared on the ideology of what can be done in the face of adversity, have no expansive desire to do something so impractical. Language is a thing meant to help us solve material problems, to achieve material goals, and poetry, a strange extension of linguistic twists and shadings, does nothing to put food on the table, put money in the bank, to further the quest to cure an endless variety of incurable diseases. 

Poetry is immaterial to purpose, function, policy; the absence of larger audiences for poetry isn't about fear from a perception that it's a mode of expression that is the least useful among several the lot of us might select on a given day. There are those of us who would argue that poetry's lack of identifiable utility is exactly what attracts us to the form--I happen to think that, like Wilde, that all art is quite useless in practical application (save for the fact that I believe humans crave beauty in form and in expression) and adhere to a running definition of what literature, in general, avails the reader: to paraphrase, literature (poetry) helps us think about ourselves. Americans, I think it's safe to say in the broadest sense, have no real desire to reside individually and psychically work their way to an "aha" experience with poetry as a conduit.

Americans are not introspective people, a national habit that infects all of us; it seems, regardless of race, skin color, religious choice, cultural formation or any number of things. I might suggest prevailing conditions of isolation, anomie, alienation and a host of other diagnostic words that have lost their punch and are now mostly free of meaning, but what it comes down to, basically, is that it seems most of us in this stew, within these borders don't like to think any harder than it does to make a peanut butter sandwich; we want things given to us in images, sound bites, we want things "broken down" into simple parts and not actually explained. Our psychic well being depends on how the world affects our material status; that is the equation we prefer, with a massively huge collective case of denial that there is any need to plumb the depths of the soul, those elements of imagination, spiritual worth, of being willing to consider one's place in the universe and how they might better live in it. Poetry, when the desire for poetry arises, is not the "aha" experience, but for the blandishments of "there, there", the mother or the nurse stroking your hair, feeding you chocolate, assuring you things will balance out and that one's bad dream will soon be over. It's not surprising the poetry that is the most popular, while routinely competent as crafted compositions and generically clever with insights and surprises you sense coming as one does traffic lights are therapy rather than art. We like the illusion of being deep while continuing to view the universe we are in as no complex than a daily comic strip. This is a bad thing, absolutely horrible.

We do think about ourselves, but more in terms of accumulation rather than an inner equilibrium. The measure of a man is his wallet, not the subtlety of his thoughts, and this a form of fearlessness that borders on insanity.