Saturday, September 18, 2021

POETRY CRITICISM AND LOG ROLLING: short fused rant


Do artists get unfair summaries from mean spirited critics. Yes.That's the risk you take if you're an artist and are inclined to have your work experienced by as broad an audience as possible; getting reactions and responses, good or bad, is part of the game. Most times, critics can fall back on the defense that most of the work they review is being sold to the public, that it's a consumer product and honest takes by knowledgeable reviewers or fervent consumers are legitimate ways of conducting business in the marketplace. That's no excuse for the nastiness the perennially sour rock critic Robert Christgau offers up too much of the time. Though I think he's among the best critics, there has always been a feeling that he's impatient, even the artists and albums he likes. There exists, however, a general feeling that some art forms get an available pass when it comes to reviewing the work. Theater, music, books, and films pretty much get the brutal hammer of judgment from critics to damn what they claim is mediocre work. Poetry criticism, though, tends toward the gentle hand, the supportively spiritual, the reconditely impenetrable. The tell-tale tendency with that method is to declare a poet's work is impressive without being exactly forthcoming about why.
On the one hand, poetry is fetishized even by astute reviewers as a precious and personal expression. The reader must empathize entirely with the poet's set of issues, demons, and prayers for transcendence from the pains of the flesh. Generally, the poems are prosaic, clotted with conventional "poetic" turns, without rhythm or pulse, wallowing in the memory of past hurts, real or imagined. Calling out such these traits or the lack of craft and true lyric sense marks the reviewer as a meanie, a vulgarian, an elitist snob. You either relate and praise the expanse of self-involvement, or you, the critic of verse, are a bloodless leech.And on the other hand, we have the reams of experimental poetry where it seems the theory of which exists before the poem itself. Jargon, modernist cant, and postmodernist relativism dominate the discussion by those poetry critics who deign to assess the doings of poetry that claims to want to change the way readers see the world but which only frustrates and blinds them. Announcing tripe when tripe is served, to cadge the best line from the play "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," invites the discerning reviewer to be hailed as a boob, ignorant, racist, homophobic, the whole shot. William Logan, a poet and not a mean man, is the only reviewer of poets who gives an honest and knowledgeable review of what major and lesser-known poets offer the readership. And he gets it from both sides. The point of all this is that being a working critic is an occupation that requires a tough skin and a Trump-like refusal to back down from past judgments their readership disliked. Being an asshole is part of the critic's skill set: the fearless review that might offend or intend to offend fans is the very reason one reads criticism. But alas, I'm afraid the days of the brilliant contrarian criticism are very numbered and that music criticism will become as useless and choking on meaningless platitudes and gutless abstractions as poetry criticism has become.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

HOORAY FOR DYLAN

 Dylan is a word slinger to be, maybe a genuine poet during some parts of his oeuvre. Still, he is not a writer, not as we understand the word, a craftsman, an artist, a professional of expressions, instructional or artistic, who crafts sentences that start someplace and create precedence for the sentence that follows, one idea organically following another until the journey of words, paragraphs, pages, concludes somewhere far from where one started to write. That is, writers, write things that make sense in some respect, as in you understand clearly the thing being described, or that you understand it more abstractly and realize that the writer is undertaking a task that tries to deal with several things--philosophical notions, contradictory arguments, overlapping historical data --and bringing a coherent framework to understand complex matters, or at least come away with a sense of what the writer is getting at. Even Dylan's wildest lyrics, from Desolation Row to his more recent brilliance noteworthy Rough and Rowdy Ways: surreal or nonsequitur as the stanzas may be, the line limits and the need t rhyme imposed restrictions on Dylan's musings. Hey needed to wrap up his investigations into his more obscure imaginings. He gave you something to talk about. Tarantula was written on the road, in hotel rooms, on tour, rattled off in high doses of speed, and maybe other drugs too inane to bother talking about, and it indeed reads like it, snub-nosed Burroughs, Kerouac without the jivey swing. Some parts make you laugh, some good lines abound. Still, it suffers in that readers wanted their hero, the poet of their generation, to write a genuinely good of poetry or some such thing, with true believers tying themselves in self-revealing knots to defend the book that is interesting as an artifact to the historical fact of Dylan's fame and influence and not much else. There is a part I like, effective as poetry, a bit of self-awareness that shows that Dylan realizes that his persona is false, a conspiracy between himself and the major media, and that he might have to account for the construction somewhere in the future of the whole matter.

Monday, September 13, 2021

MUMBLING SMALL TALK AT THE WALL

 

Charles Bukowski is one whom very little of his work goes a very long way. I admire the absence of unneeded images and place them somewhere in the Hemingway league as a writer who can be spare without being chintzy. That said, his minimalism gets monotonous after a while. His lonely-drunk persona, grousing continually to speak for the dispossessed and the marginal, becomes its own sort of sentimentality: the fact that Bukowski became aware, early on, that his constituency expected certain types of poems from him forced him, I think, to stylize himself into a corner he never managed to get out of. Not availing himself of different kinds of writing made him, finally, a bore. The truth of his loneliness, of his drunkenness, made him into a patsy for an audience that was too young, by and large, to have enough life to write their own stories. Bukowski became a one-trick pony: his best material is his earliest, like Henry Miller, and like Miller as well, became a self-parody without knowing it.


Ezra Pound is out of fashion these days, but I enjoy his adaptations (translations are too generous a word) of different oriental writers. In fact, I think that before Pound's adaptations, oriental poets and poetic forms were largely unknown in the West. I know it's an anthology warhorse, but I love "The River Merchant's Wife." I just find the way her feelings change towards her husband throughout the poem so touching--first, they're childhood playmates, then she's a frightened, ignorant bride, then she falls so deeply in love with him that she longs for her dust to be mingled with his forever. I also get a kick out of the line, "The monkeys make sorrowful music overhead." The bar is almost comic to us, but obviously, monkeys had very different connotations for the Chinese at that time. An interesting example of cultural differences. Ezra is someone who has given me eyestrain and headaches in college, something I can't forgive him for. He didn't give me anything remotely connected to the idiomatic language he idealized, the truly modern voice that was to be of its own time, a period sans history. It's a totalitarian impulse to try to live outside history or to lay claim to its reducible meaning, both matters Pound thought he adequately limned. Still, the problem was that his verse is leaden, dressed up in frankly prissy notions of what The Ancients had been up to aesthetically. The effect was perhaps a million dollars of rhetoric lavished on ten cents of inspiration. I didn't like him, I'm afraid. 

Unlike Frank O'Hara, dead too young, but with such a large and full body of brilliant--yes, brilliant--lyric poetry left in his wake. O'Hara, influenced by some ideas of modernists, got what Pound tried to do exactly right: he mixed the dictions of High and Low culture in the same stanzas with an ease that seemed seamless, he juggled references of Art, TV, movies, jazz, theater along with the zanily euphemized gossip of his love life, and was able to render complex responses to irresolvable pains of the heart--and heartbreak is always close kin to his rapture--in lines that were swimming in irony, melancholy, crazy humor. This is a poet as eroticized intelligence.

If Pound's poems work for reasons other than how he wanted them to work, fine, that can be explicated interestingly enough with entirely new criteria extraneous to the author's aesthetic/political agenda, but it begs the question, really. It confirms my belief that Pound was talking through his hat most of the time. In this case, based admittedly on my learned dislike of his poetry, I think he gussied up his theories to usurp the critical commentary he knew would follow his work: no matter what, all critics had to deal with Pound's flummoxing prose before they could render an assessment, a trick he garnered from Poe, and one deployed by Mailer, a somewhat more successful artist/philosopher/critic (though failed poet). 

Eliot had better luck combining the two virtues: The Sacred Wood and some of his other critical assessments have merit as purely critical exercises, self-contained arguments that don't require Eliot's work to illustrate the point. Eliot's poems also stand up well enough without his criticism to contextualize them for a reader who might otherwise resist their surface allure. The language in both genres is clear and vivid to their respective purposes. Pound, again, to my maybe tin-ear, really sounded, in his verse, like he was trying to live up to the bright ideas his theories contained: The Cantos sound desperate in his desire to be a genius.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

PAT TRAXLER LAYS HER HEAD ON THE PILLOW

 In one of his essays, Edgar Allen Poe summarizes one of the essential elements of his philosophical musings by asserting that we are cursed with "the memory from before birth," a slight and wavering recall of a time when calm and serenity were in place. Nothing of the distortions or crass money, family, or religion made us nervous, devious, only half alive (if "alive" at all). The ideas concerned our constant and, at times, overwhelming desire to return to such a nocturnal, darkened, stress-less state. It was a yearning to return to the womb, perhaps. Whatever the motivation, these were longing for death-like sleep, a patent serenity. Following suit are Poe's peculiar interest in things decadent and decaying, those thin, reedy and tubercular characters of diseased gentry and errant aristocratic stock who hang on to the waking life by a mere thread, effete and defeated and gracefully blended into the material realm, waiting for gravity to take its toll and to become themselves receivers of the dirt nap, free of the binds that only punish you for having nerve endings.


Among the decadent writers and artists following Poe, there was literal worship of an aesthetic principle that the most remarkable beauty was in a person or a thing in its decline when it was letting go of the struggle and was reduced to its basic, most faithful and frailest form. An aspect of this, I suspect, was the envy of the declining aesthetic object, be it a human or a diseased elm; a deep and permanent rest awaited them, and death would be that thing that gives the lie to the certitude of philosophy or economic determinism that insist that life must forever be thus, a certain way, without change. Those who die have escaped, and there are no arms to bring them back to suffer more with the rest of us pining over a grave.

Poet Patricia Traxler gets all this wonderfully, succinctly in her poem, The Dead Are Not, published online this week at Slate; the poem is brief, and each finessed line conveys the complicated, conflicting, and confused set of emotions one journey through as yet another death comes closer to one's inner circle of confidants and family. Indeed, the dead are not dead yet,

Always they take
their time and we wait
politely, dreading
how real it will
have to be, sooner
or later, and at the
same time longing
to know that reality.



One has arguments with the departed, negotiations still in session, curses and protests of undying love are uttered, self-recrimination and blaming goes on for days and nights until one tires of their tears and breathes easier sunrises still come in spite the weight of grief. We mutter to ourselves that the dead are "in a better place," that they "felt no pain," or that.
"...at least they died quick..." all so we get on with our lives and our responsibilities. Yet, an echo of our accepting rhetoric stays with us as we shoulder our daily duties. That "better place" doesn't sound so bad. We become envious and petty all over again, we blame the dead for being cowards and laggards who would do anything to shirk their duty, and we come to envy them and that place they've gone. Gravity takes its toll, our bones ache, the mailbox is filled with bills, someone else you know has told you they have a fatal disease, your back hurts like shit:

Nights, as we reach
to switch off our bed lamps
and close our eyes,
we dare it to take us
into its mouth
that smells of tar,
saltwater, sludge,
take us up, then let us
tumble endlessly,
blameless again
and helpless as any new life
forced out for the first time
into the terrible light.

Traxler gets to the center of that guilty little secret at the core of grieving, the scourge of envy, and the many faces and tones of voice it takes. Without metaphysical baloney, faux piety, or even a tone of anger, she writes in the cool, reflective calm of someone who has investigated their feelings and discovered an unknown fact about their thinking. This poem has the remarkable clarity of genuine self-sight, unnerving in its tone, beautifully expressed. Her skill gives us the chance to see something very private, unobscured by wishful thinking. An excellent poem.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

BACK DATED HIP

 


Cody Walker is a joker, it seems, given to giggles, giddiness, and guffaws in the pursuit of cracking himself up on jokes perhaps only he and a select coterie of friends and fellow travelers would get. His poem "Update" is an exercise in a man chortling loudly in the back row. And even if a reader was fortunate to "get" Walker's interior monologue of skipping rhymes and cross-referenced literary forms, it's my fair guess the number finding this bit humorous would be lesser still. No matter, since I am also in the habit of cracking myself up, imagining lines of dialogue among unlikely characters and personalities in dubious circumstances, chewing the fat on absurd and discreetly vulgar subjects.

It would be something like a three-year-old playing with his toy cars, conjuring one automotive disaster after another on a strip of the wood-paneled floor quickly imagined being a ten-lane interstate, or a six-year-old, when the young mind grows out the crashing spectacle of accidents and now imagines characters, recognizably humanoid, with distinct personalities, representing abstract, if two-dimensional virtues, with attending voices. All this fills a mind with busy talk and scenarios, in the casual preparation for engaging the real-life imagination will help them, with prayers, survive and thrive in.

Later still, in the far throws of adulthood, there come the private totems, the hallowed reference points, the memorized conventions of morning cartoons, biographies of great poets and advertising jingles, conflated to essential absurdities one tears down and reconstructs and tears down again as the surging mood to distance oneself from the drudgery of work and obligations; one takes flight, throws water balloons at the canon, paints the icons in garish colors, makes unlikely partners of different virtues reveal some space in one's consciousness where logic and hard rationale haven't invaded and tamed. Then comes the "eureka" laugh, that fast, hard snort of being elevated above the physical place where you stand, momentarily transcendent, untouchable. I do this often enough alone, at home, whether writing or reading a book, and too often, perhaps, at work, where such outbursts are evidence of a mind being on other things other than the bottom line, and it is for those seconds when all items are reduced in stature, made equal in size. It doesn't last, of course, and soon enough, the euphoria evaporates into the hard facts in front of you. But it is nice when it happens.

I should also make it a point to relate that I just about never try to describe what I found so funny to anyone I'm around; the description defies anecdotal reiteration, most times seeming sketchy and bizarre when I try. The punch lines are too private, the references mired in that roiling swamp of a consciousness that cannot be brought to public view without the mediation of
thoughtful consideration and editing. And even then, it would be dubious whether an audience would find the reason for my fleeting giggle worth the effort to listen to me bray on.

Cody Walker has decided to bray on. Walker's poem isn't a great one by any means and is such that you wonder once again what Pinsky's attraction to it was. The rhymes are trite, the subject attempting to lane-change across style barriers with the worst kind of ham-handed self-referentiality found in the most grating post-modern poetry. We have a scenario where a bright boy, trying to regain his equilibrium after the departure of his girlfriend/wife/significant other, invests himself with the powers and abilities of his great heroes from comic books and the scant readings of top-shelf authors. There is what can be a smugness saturating this straightforward operation.

"I've also rerouted... my neural pathways..." and Superman, with a mention that he has also re-routed "fjords," an oblique reference to the opening of the fifties TV program where the Man of Steel is said to be able to "...change the course of mighty rivers..."

And so it goes through this short poem, a desperate playfulness abounds, a growing hysteria mounts, a breakdown threatens, all this stewing. At the same time, the narrator seeks the blessing of the over-cited Nietzsche guarantee, to paraphrase a paraphrase, that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. What Walker intends is unclear--that the social constructions that result from our innate need to have life have purpose and meaning are finally inadequate? That mistaking experience as merely the means with which we test the veracity of our philosophical models is to lose sight of actual value?-- but what there is here is minor, indeed, worth a laugh, perhaps, but worth a laugh in the sense that what's funny is a reader's belief this over-packed suitcase of a poem merits close reading.

Walker wrote this as a knock-off, I suspect, something to be put deep inside a collection as an off-key note, a character-giving bit of dissonance.
The insanity it suggests is disturbing, and it makes my case that mental anguish does not necessarily result in good poetry.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

 A problem of being a self-appointed culture critic is that the longer you hang around the planet breathing the air, the faster it seems your heroes seem to die. That’s a generational thing, your elders and your peers start to pass on, and your tribe is just a little smaller every few weeks. Of course, the cure for that sort of minor depression is getting new heroes, reading new artists, listening to music by younger musicians, and, most obviously, making more friends.  Iggy Pop is over 69 years old, and it’s an irony upon an irony that he enters the last year of his 6th decade of life on the same day we find out that Prince has passed away at the age of 57. Iggy survived the morbid predictions that insisted that he would be the next major edgy rock star to go, joining Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, Jones, and others as having a bad end to an edgy life lived in the spotlight. Nihilism was at the core of his act, both as Stooges frontman and as a solo artist. It seemed that the fabled mixtures of teenage impulse and fantastic amounts of methamphetamines and heroin were willful tools he was using to describe life not just at the edge of existence but also, if he were lucky, a will to narrate the passage through the thick shroud of unbeing. It’s a classic conceit in modern arts that an artist’s demise confirms their greatness/genius/cutie-pie factor; what have you. It’s a species of pornographic thinking, and shame on us for egging it onward in the culture.However, something intervened in that cliche, and Pop has been one of the more interesting elder statesmen for some time, always worth a listen. We benefit from his persistence to remain creative, not to be too terribly sentimental about it. Still, Pop’s longevity improves the quality of my life by his example that you can continue to respond creatively, with imagination, to the short existence we’re allowed to have. Like Bowie, Prince was one of those people you assumed would be around for the final mile of the long haul, a genuinely gifted polymath who would make music into his dimmest twilight. From this fan’s view, what hurts the most is that we won’t get to hear the grander, more experimental adventures Prince would have had as a musician. A straight-ahead jazz album. A record of guitar blitzing? Serious classical endeavors? Movie soundtracks? Big Band Music? A blues thing? Reggae? A stage turn as Othello?His androgyny/sex fiend persona aside, I marveled at the chameleon nature of his music, the jumping around from style to style. Unlike Bowie, equally eclectic in taste and output, there was a substantial musical virtuosity to Prince’s switching up and mashing up and fusing the elements of rock, fusion, Philly/Motown/Memphis/ soul, jazz, and the occasional bits of classical allusion. Though he never spoke much of his training, self-taught or schooled, he had as solid a grasp of the mechanics of music and controlled his virtuosity like it were a tool to be used judiciously, in service to the music. There was little that was excessive in his music, and I rather liked his singing, which was far from your traditional rock or soul voice; thin, reedy, nasal, limited in range and color, he still molded it convincingly over his melodies and lyrics, sounding wise, insinuating, dangerous, alluring, nearly any persona he wanted to get across. Anything seemed possible for him because he was spectacularly good at the varied projects he’d already finished and released.Alas, but no. This makes you want to pause a few moments and consider the breath you are taking at that instant and recognize that life is a gift we are given but don’t own. Embrace the days we have and do something with the hours while we have them.

Friday, August 27, 2021

JIM POWELL

 Jim Powell has a finely tuned ear for voice, place, and period, which we can see with his poem "The Seamstress," which can be read here in Slate. Good poetry, but it's nothing special in the long run. Still, Powell does a neat and not-so-obvious job of creating parallels between a holiday that commemorates the dead and, in so doing, preserving some order in the minds and morals of those remaining alive. Women trying to bring a decorative skeleton figuratively "to life" might add impact and meaning to the celebration. Powell is good at implying that it is all for naught, under the noise and decoration. The dead will remain in their graves as dust despite collective conjuring, and the skeleton will just continue to look limp and tattered, a rattling assemblage held together with costume thread and brocade. 


Powell's poem "First Light." and so it sits as well with the seamstress, herself old, creaking at the joints to finesse a stitch, squinting in the night light as the seams get wider, less tight, loosened with age. Her bones ache, her eyesight fails by degrees, the skeleton is a limp and tattered symbol whose power has waned, and meaning has lessened to the level of Saturday morning cartoon. The dead themselves are even more deceased than they were before. Memories of their existence buried under the same ground the children dance upon other than that children love to the dance for any reason or no reason at all because being alive is only its most fun and enthralling at those times and moments when there is no knowledge of limits, of what you can't do or what can't be done. What about it? Ideally suited for a slice-of-life poem, an observational piece focusing on the workplace, though it's problematic that the job described turns out to be in a bakery, alone baker just beginning his workday before light. The situation is a shade archetypal, and what has noticed in the lines, "tufts dusted with a snow of flour," and especially "thick arms cradling rolls and crusty loaves, a gift for late-returning revelers..." for the derelict who washes in the creek under the bridge his daily bread at daybreak come off more as wish-fulfillment than an inspired vision.

The setting is too ideal; everything that you would expect to be in an early AM bakery tableau just happen to be there, right down to the homeless man who picturesquely "washes his hands under the bridge." The stops being a poem at this point and become instead one of those faux Impressionist paintings of Parisian cityscapes in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, filled with blurry, alienated figurines in their shops and on the slippery hued streets going about their anonymous chores. There is an idealization in this well-crafted piece that strikes me as wrong and inappropriately dreamy. This may be because Powell gave us one painterly detail too many in this hyper-literalized diorama. Had he omitted the line "under the bridge" -- the problem is that bridges and rain are ever such ready poetic words to use when inspiration falls midline -- and substituted another tactile element, something plausible, recognizable yet unexpected (garden hose, a playground water fountain, a janitor's mop, something that could credibly be in the scene), the poem may well have worked. Even so, one expects something more to be said about this situation than the idea that it swells, dreamy, and meant to make you go "oooooooohhhhhhh" and "ahhhhhhhhhhhhh." There is an underside here that is ignored, and Powell shuns an urge to get beyond his cozy poetics to discover something remarkable, disturbing, and finally memorable. This poem is not unlike those previously mentioned faux Impressionist paintings produced by the hundreds for tourist dollars. Powell's verse reads as if he's written dozens of variations on it. That isn't writing; it's merely production.

Not every poem clicks, of course. Another poem published in Slate, "Two Million Feet of Vinyl," worries an idea instead of bringing it to life. A bit laborious, heavy on the obfuscated detailing of industrial manufacturing in the attempt to let convoluted descriptions yield strange, alienated poetry. But one sees rapidly where this going, where everything, including workers, is mere materials to be converted in endless, brutal processes and wind up as dust. Powerful, perhaps, in a poem that doesn't telegraph its tragic punchline so much--you can see it coming like the Underdog float in the Macy's Holiday Parade--but here it just hangs there. You want more, and it doesn't come. It appears that he's seen "Things to Come" recently and is enamored of "Modern Times" and tried to emulate their effects with his own reassembly of the deadening effects of a technologized economy. But this is not a journey where Luddites and technocrats haven't gone before; it's a setup for a joke; man shapes his tools, after which the tools shape man. It's a poem based on first-semester political science lectures. The level of discourse is acceptable for freshmen. Still, by the time one gets around to be a published poet, there is the reasonable expectation that there's more than the gasping gee-whiz of it all occupying the writer's worried mind. 

What's being delivered is the moldy metaphor of alienation in Modern Times, that repetitive and mechanical means of production have made a man a part of the machines he invented to save him labor and time.  The facile equations between machine processes and the rescinded world are irksome at best. I don't know if he intended this to be ironic, a parody of futurist rhetoric, or whether he merely wanted the glorification of a brute, soulless contraption would itself yield remarkable poems of the "found" variety. This isn't the kind of ambiguity that makes for great art because it would have to at least point toward something, give a sense of direction if it were worth discussing longer than a terse dismissal. But this points nowhere other than at its clipped locutions. Powell is a good poet who must have dashed this off in an odd mood and didn't see fit to change it. Fine, I have dozens of poems that are exactly like this; cryptic, spacey, unyielding in their impenetrable weirdness.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

JACKSON MacLOW

 In the late seventies, Jackson MacLow came to read and lecture at the University of California, San Diego. At the same time, I was an undergraduate there, a benefit of having a Literature Department whose poetry doyens in presenting experimental artists. The reading was in a basement room of a large University facility that doubled as an undergraduate art gallery, with Mac Low, in a dark coat and a fine head of long hair, standing before a screen as slides of odd numeric and word sequences and arrangements flitted by when he clicked on a control. 

The reading, we can say, was not the sort of thing that would- be Ed Dorns or erstwhile Ginsbergs had been prepared for; the word combinations came in spurts, punctuated, quite literally, with silences, stammers, elongated repetitions, until it became clear (to the few in the room who might have been truly curious) that Mac Low had his allegiance with the earlier Modernist poets, especially William Carlos Williams. Although latent with meaning and associations that cannot be completely deferred, words still have tonal properties that can be organized in ways other than literal meaning. 

MacLow's "chance system" theories of composing verse satisfied few readers/listeners, but there is a rigor in the method he used in a lifetime of work and a genuine curiosity of what one can do with poetry than reaffirm the old themes. At the time, I was more or less baffled, taking it in as future banter and bullshit for a student party, and the others of my station seemed to be smiling a little too hard, too earnestly as they jotted various notes in the crowd, making smart talk with their attending faculty. MacLow, as I remember, seemed perfectly amiable, although he seemed not to feel compelled to explain his ideas in simpler language. Good for him.  Stating that poems are "unreadable" is slippery here since it's an accusation tossed about by too many readers describing difficult poets. As an experimentalist, Mac Low hardly forgot about aesthetic pleasure; in fact, it's safe to say that he was bored with the standards that were in front of him, had no use as to what the general concept of beauty was, and went about seeking the company and energies of others who shared an interest in seeing how new art can be created. Granted, there is nothing less appealing than yesterday's Avant gard, but there are some artists, Cage, and MacLow among them, who merit serious attention after their passing. 

 Mac Low is hard to read--a better term-- largely, he was given to experimenting with new compositional techniques, "chance systems," as he called it. The result was meant to challenge the reader/listener to approach the work differently. I happen to think that quite a bit of his writing is perfectly readable if approached on its own terms. But Mac Low's work, like Cage's, wasn't about delivering pleasure wrapped in a consumer-friendly package, but rather about the incidental things, the noises, the random words, the accidental pairings, the overlaying of contrary sounds, that lay in the spaces between the words and the notes on a page. One either opens up to the possibilities, or one does not, but even here, one's reservations and resistances are important to explore. 

Cage and MacLow both to read about and around, if not through, and look at. Cage was among those, like Mac Low and earlier modernists like WC Williams and Stevens who thought that a poem "...should not mean but be..." (Archibald MacLeish, "Ars Poetica"). Cage, of course, was less materialistic than his earlier American poets and was attracted to the chance formations that Zen study gave him the stamina to imagine containing in particular compositional systems wherein the innate sound and tonal value of each element in a limited terrain find a new aesthetic arrangement, the aesthetic of what the eye sees and the ear beholds for that fleeting moment and then vanishes. In any event, Mac Low's work as a poet, composer, and collaborator was a lifetime endeavor; in his own fashion, he sought beauty and new perception for his work.

 My favorite thing about that McLeish quote that gets trotted out all the time is how its mania for defining poetry defines itself right out of the category. That is exactly the meaning of the quote: poets have to write their pieces "out of the category" of conventional verse and create new ways of writing and reading poems instead. It's about ways of seeing the world and recording the experience in a manner that would revolutionize perception.  Bob Perelman addressed this whole notion of experimental geniuses who sought to revolutionize the way readers came to experience the world in his book The Trouble With Genius; sussing through the writing and aims of Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, and others, Perelman caught the usually undiscussed detail that these experimentalists, 

preparing the literate world to reshape their thinking about writing sequence, had in fact isolated themselves with their own genius from the public they wanted to influence. The bold originality of their work had made them geniuses, but of a different sort than one regards DaVinci, Einstein, or even a Henry Ford. Perelman’s modernists were writers and aesthetes and were geniuses of poetic form, not practical application. It might be said that there was advancement in the sort of difficulty poetry and prose could encompass. Still, these were problems of interest to already marginalized audiences, other aesthetes, poets, and academics. For reconfiguring the world through a radical expansion of the senses, the modernist project was a failure. But as literature, this generation produced their masterpieces, problematic though they were for a wider audience. This is the great conceit of the experimental artist, a project doomed to failure so far as the universal revolution is concerned, but what remains in the resistance to old categories are, nonetheless, new ideas of what poets ought to be doing for their own time. 


Modernism's experiments with imagism and vorticism and a host of other revolutionary projects might not have reconfigured our audio and visual senses. However, they have given us some newer ideas about image, idea, rhythm, scope, and subject matter.   Much of what we take for granted as the given of modern, conventional verse wouldn't be possible sans these seemingly indecipherable experiments, which isn't to say that poetry not have changed with the times. Without our savant grades and experimentalists, though, it would be substantially different.  Well, let's look at the poem itself. The spirit is the same for Mac Leish as with Cage and Mac Low; poetic language needs to find new ways to address the world we experience. Mac Leish wants words to have a particular "thingness" that can get the substance of the objects it strives to be about; that the thing -in and of itself is its own adequate symbol. MacLow and Cage were more interested in the lost arrangements of the hidden world, the sounds and objects one finds in those odd moments where the mind fixes on seemingly ephemeral details of daily endurance. In either case, there is a search for a truer way of getting perception across to a reader. What separate them are strategies, not sympathies.


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Ars Poetica 

Archibald MacLeish   

 A poem should be palpable and mute 

As a globed fruit,  Dumb As old medallions to the thumb, 

 Silent as the sleeve-worn stone Of casement ledges where the moss has grown--  

 A poem should be wordless, Like the flight of birds.  *

  A poem should be motionless in time 

 As the moon climbs, 

 Leaving, as the moon releases 

Twig by twig the night-entangled trees, 

 Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,  Memory by memory the mind--  A poem should be motionless in time. 

 As the moon climbs.  *  A poem should be equal to: Not true. 

 For all the history of grief 

An empty doorway and a maple leaf.  


For love 

The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea-- 

 A poem should not mean But be.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

BEEN READING JOHN ASHBERY

 

John Ashbery, America's greatest, most singular, and most entrancingly elusive poet, has passed away today, age 90. The glory of Ashbery was that he didn't seem to care whether others found his poems attractive or not and cared not a whit for what dubious critics and other species of know-it-alls who habitually found fault with his confounding mixture of lyric diction and confounding segues, abrupt transitions, zany intrusions of cartoons movie lore and sports weaving there way through hermetic anecdotes,  sudden confessions, astute observation, quick-witted jabs and softly emerging tones of melancholy and a need to fill the emptiness with talk, ideas, beautiful ideas, things, beautiful art, and beautiful people who could shoulder the burdens of the world preferred a harsher, more blunt way of unfolding. He was content with how he wrote and was puzzled why many readers were bewildered by the non-sequitur surface of his poems. He drew pleasure from the writing of the lyrics. He felt readers ought to derive pleasure from reading something interesting, provoking, poking one's own memories into their own cascading and overlaying associations, the material and the abstract contemplated at one instant. 

His task, his project, was less the hidebound and starchy resolve to make sense of the world, to convene a narrative where every bit of happenstance and coincidence falls prey to a divine hand moving the worldly pieces around a cosmic chessboard, but instead developing a sense of the world as it happens, as it has happened, accepting celebrations and mistakes, youthful and elan and the aches of aging as matters to be marveled at and no more minor a part of one's definitive biography in this existence than the names we are given us when we are born. Discussing Avant gard art in an essay, Ashbery gave us a quote I find wonderfully wise and innocent even though it's meant to unfasten the grip of arthritic thinking from our habitual ways of thinking about how artists should deal with the fleeting phenomena of life itself. Behave  and feel as if there is no certainty to any proposition regarding the metaphysical structure of the seen world: "We would all believe in God if we knew He existed, but would this be much fun?"  Ashbery wrote believing that how he wrote mattered and that it would change the way this life is regarded, but never without the lurking suspicion that his true kingdom might well be the fool's paradise. That is what made his poetry, unfathomable though it may seem when wading into its currents, a sustained joy to read. This paragraph follows bits of other pieces on Ashbery I've published before, revisited my best words for a great artist.
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It comes down to whether you appreciate the conflations Ashbery artfully manages as he penetrates the psychic membrane between Steven's Supreme Fiction, that perfect of Ideal Types and their arrangements, with the material sphere that won't follow expectation, nor take direction. I happen to think that much of the interstices he investigates are results of artful wandering; Ashbery is a flaneur of his own musings, and the Proustian inspection provides their idiosyncratic, insular joys. Had I thought Ashbery over rated and a bore, I'd have turned my back on critical praise of him and left him cold; I have a habit of keeping my own consul regarding reading preferences, as I'm sure all of us do. But continue to read him I do, over several decades.  

Not a rebel, not a polemicist, hardly a rabble -rouser who makes speeches and writes incendiary essays against injustice, Ashbery is an aesthete, a contemplator, an intelligence of infinite patience exploring the spaces between what consciousness sees, the language it develops to register and comprehend experience, and the restlessness of memory stirred and released into streaming associations. Ashbery's are hard to "get" in the sense that one understands a note to get milk at the store or a cop's command to keep one's hand above their head, in plain site. Ashbery's poems have everything the eye can put a shape to in plain site, clouded, however, by thoughts, the cloud bank of memory. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Aristotle's metaphysics, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, a guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgment, and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.One might think that the mtvU audience might be more attracted to arch romantic and decidedly urban poet Frank O'Hara, whose emphatic musings and extrapolations had equal parts rage and incontestable joy which gave a smile or a snarl to his frequent spells of didactic erudition. He was in love with popular culture, with advertising, movies, the movies, he had an appreciation of modern art, he loved jazz and ballads, and he loved being a City Poet.  
He was more the walker than Ashbery, I suppose, or at least he wrote more about the going to and coming from of his strolls. unlike Ashbery, O'Hara loved being an obvious tourist in his own environment, and didn't want for a minute for his poetry to leave the streets, cafes and galleries where he treads. Ashbery is more the stroller who gets lost in his associations triggered by what he beheld. Ever more the aesthete than his fellow New York Poets, he was interested in things a little more metaphysical, that being that the reality that exists in the inter-relations being the act of perception and the thoughts that are linked to it, which branch off from the perception and link again with another set of ideas, themselves connected to material things observed and remembered. O'Hara was immediate, like the city he loved, while Ashbery allowed his senses the authority to enlarge his perception, to explore the simultaneity of sight and introspection. In a strange way, Ashbery is the more sensual of the two, willing to examine that even the sacrifice of immediate coherence. I’m not a fan of difficulty for the sake of being difficult, but I do think it unreasonable to expect poets to be always unambiguous or easily grasped.

Not every dense piece of writing is worthy by default, of course, and the burden falls on the individual talent. Ashbery's writing, for me, has sufficient allure, resonance and tangible bits of the recognizable world he sees to make the effort to maneuver through his diffuse stanzas worth the work. Poetry is the written form where ambiguity of meaning and multiplicity of possible readings thrives more than others, and the tradition is not a parsimonious use of language, but rather a deliberate expansion of what words pieced can do, what meanings they can evoke, and what sensations they can create. Prose is the form that is, by default, is required to have the discourse it carries be clear and has precise as possible. Poetry and poets are interesting because they are not addressing their experiences or their ideas as linear matters subject to the usual linguistic cause and effect; poetry is interesting because it's a form that gives the inclined writer to interrogate their perceptions in unexpected ways. The poetic styles and approaches and aesthetics one may use vary widely in relative degrees of clarity, difficulty, and tone, but the unifying element is that poetry isn't prose, and serves a purpose other than the mere message delivering that is, at heart, the basic function of competent prose composition.

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A poem should not mean, but be.---Archibald MacLeish


That's what MacLeish said and that's what Ashbery holds to, which places smack in the middle of a tradition in American poetry that's been with us since the rise of Modernist practice with Pound, Eliot, and especially the esteemed Wallace Stevens. I find it puzzling that there are those who continue to harp on Ashbery's difficulty and summarily dismiss him as an enemy of "meaning"; it's hardly as if the poet is a foe of the capacity of humans to make sense of their lives through language, and that such use can furnish oneself and one's community with purpose and, perhaps, an ethical structure that would instruct and aid said community against expressing it's worst instincts. What Ashbery would opposed, if he were a polemicist (which he is isn't) is the idea that the "meaning" that language is capable of creating through writing and, in this instance, poetry, is the final destination, the last stop on the route. 


Ashbery isn't interested in the hidden meanings that one might pull from a text like it were an archaeological artifact, but rather in the fluidity of perception; his poems are filled with man made things in a natural world , and it's here his power as a writer, for me, takes hold. Our homes, our cars, factories, the shape of city streets , are custom designed with purposes to help us settle and "conquer" a raw landscape, nature, who's metaphysical presence eludes our conventionally dualist approach to dealing with the world. The contradiction between our ready made distinctions and a Nature who's essence is constant change unmotivated by rhetoric comes clear. We age, we change our minds about ideas, our store of memories expands, and we cannot view the same things again the same as we had; Ashbery's is a poetry of the concrete world,solid, dense, of itself, and the consciousness taking it in, associating sights, smells, gestures, personal possessions in conflations, synthesis. Wallace Stevens imagined the Supreme Fiction and wrote of the balances the perfect shapes of the objects and attending senses in his most ecstatic work, and Ashbery effectively extended the project. The supreme fictions and the imperfect physical things that represent them commingle, inhabit the same space. The result is not the easiest of writings to parse , but what the poet is doing is less undermining the province of language to provide meaning and structure useful for both community stability and expression than it is an affirmation that the singular idea of "meaning" , often times spoken of as if such a thing were a monolith on which all communities and individual sensibilities can ride, does not quite exist. Social constructions have a stronger hand than some folks would care to examine. Examine Ashbery does, and brilliantly at that, if confoundedly so. 

For me, poetry is very much the time it takes to ;unroll, the way music does..it’s not a static, contemptible thing like a painting or a piece of sculpture. – John Ashbery 

Exact meanings of things, of this world we live and grow old in, changes with the introduction of both our years and new social arrangements brought on by new technologies, wars, any number of things. But the aim of Ashbery’s poems isn’t to declare that legitimate meaning cannot be had; he wants to instead to inspect the way an interaction between our thinking, our interior life, and the world external to it exists as a kind of permanently placed negotiation between our expectation and the change that comes and which is inevitable. Ashbery embraces process more than anything else, but not at the sacrifice of a meaning that makes what’s desirable and repugnant to us recognizable. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of  Platonic form,  that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, an guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgement, and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.

What Poetry IsJohn AshberyThe medieval town, with friezeOf boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow That came when we wanted it to snow?Beautiful images? Trying to avoid Ideas, as in this poem? But weGo back to them as to a wife, leaving The mistress we desire? Now theyWill have to believe it As we believed it. In schoolAll the thought got combed out: What was left was like a field.Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around. Now open them on a thin vertical path.It might give us--what?--some flowers soon?


This poem talks about representations of things captured at particular moments of aesthetic iteration and speaks to our expectation that things, as we actually experience them, adhere to a narrative we’ve assigned them. But where many despair at how real places, things, people stray from the fine lines that tried to get at their essential nature, Ashbery wonders and finds something remarkable . There is that “it” that we’ve been instructed to seek out, the moral, the lesson to be learned, but the poem asks us, in oblique yet alluring images, are we to give up the quest for meaning because the world is not the static place one might have assumed it was the goal of poetry to confirm? He calls it here, as close as he ever has in his career, when he writes “In school / All the thought got combed out: / What was left was like a field. “ We have been trained to quantifying the content of our experience, we have been instructed in many ways of quantifying sense perception and turning into data that, in turn, is given over to endless narrative strategies –literary, scientific, ideological, economic—that promise a lump sum of a Larger Picture. The task after that, the obligation of the poet afterwards, is to know something more about experience by gauging the fluid nature of our responses to it. Ashbery in his many good moments gets the dissolution perfectly.





Thursday, August 12, 2021

CUMMINGS THE PATRIOT

Mailer opined in Why Are We at War that"... America" had become America's religion, referring to the supporters of the Iraq War who would invoke the safety of the nation when defending our right to invade and occupy nations that had never attacked the United States." Insane, he thought, and I agreed and wondered what other diagnosis from a literary figure I could find to support my notion, stolen from W.C.Williams, that the pure products of America go insane. And then I happened upon this poem from e.e.cummings:

“next to of course god america i 

love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh 

say can you see by the dawn’s early my 

country ’tis of centuries come and go 

and are no more what of it we should worry 

in every language even deafanddumb 

thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry 

by jingo by gee by gosh by gum 

why talk of beauty what could be more beaut- 

iful than these heroic happy dead 

who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter 

they did not stop to think they died instead 

then shall the voice of liberty be mute?” 


He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water 


- ee cummings 

This keeps with his concentrated genius for putting back in the politician's faces with their own politicized babble, but only after taking a hammer to it. Under all the huff and puff about God, glory, and country stands revealed forces that would have us all fearful, in debt, and apathetic to calls for change. How appropriate for the current climate; the poem, though, does not let us off the hook; we are complacent with the fools for letting them have their way. The shock of this poem is that there are many of us, these days, decades after this was written, who recognize our own voices saying moronic things like this. Might there come a time, should the Obama initiatives work and Our Country again starts to fulfill it's promise, that some good poets would feel moved to write something positive about America and mean it, without commission, salary, title? Will we have a poetry again that speaks truthfully of our virtues rather than our insanity?


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Tuesday, July 6, 2021

OF WOMEN AND THEIR ELEGANCE

Lots of unmitigated gall went into Norman Maler's fictional presentation in what he imagines a diary by doomed film star Marilyn Monroe might have read like. Of Women and Their Elegance, the very book, is what I consider this to be Mailer's "lost" novel, out of print for years and not discussed often in critical piece's of Mailer's fiction. I was surprised by it when I finally read it; it is, I think, a very good , minor short novel by the author, an inspired extension of the under rated novelistic biography he did of Marylin Monroe. On the one hand he wrote an interpretive biography in novelistic form, and then he took the same research he did and wrote a fiction with Monroe as the narrator. Contrary to some critical fashion, Mailer could imagine complex women characters in his masculine universe, and this brief novel has an imagined MM relating her struggle to become an artist by using her wits and will to channel the essence of aura of sheer sexual allure into a persona that can be effectively used in film. That is the gist of Mailer's theory of why MM was a significant screen actress. As he explains it, is more subtly explained than my crude summation. What's appealing in the book is the voice Mailer creates for her; intelligent, intuitive, self -doubting, establishing and leaving relationships, making decisions and falling prey to media frenzies that finally overwhelm her and diminish her capacity to work or function at all. It is a good read, well done generally. It's a solid part of Mailer's body of work.

THE MEMORY FROM BEFORE BIRTH

"When in the Uterine Empyrean They Told Me" by Patrick Donnelly is one of the more intriguing poems I've come across in the last couple of years, a recollection of someone trying to bring coherence of things he has heard in the ether, whether words themselves or the sensations that suggest them. There is that feeling that the narrating consciousness is off stage, trying to remember his lines and the marks they're supposed to hit, trying all this time to integrate the warnings, advice, and sensory overload that accumulate as the cue for the narrator's entrance onto the life's stage draws near. Somewhere in his writings(in his story/essay "Eureka," I believe), Poe writes of the "memory from before birth," a metaphysical riff he practiced as he waxed grandiloquent about Aristocracy and their fated superiority in the material world; his idea, if memory serves, is that there are those among us who are born with a knowledge of who we are and what we are to do in the ordering of the dimensions balancing the physical and ethereal plains. 

For Poe, this was an attempt to buttress his obsession with decadence and degeneration with a philosophical waxing, and it gives the whole notion that souls about to be born have a whole and lucid set of instructions with them as to their purpose, their manner, their temperament and the talents that will emerge as a result. His theory and his tales and poems are a package deal. Donnelly's poem, though, is decidedly non-determinism in its vision of the pre-life, a terrain not misted but corporeal, fluid, a drift of nutrients and sensations that carry a medley of voices that seem to stream audio of generation-ally expressed family personality. It's a flaky design of the unseen path to this life, but it does make poetic sense considering Poe's conviction that only that which is in the last moments of life, the precise moment before skin goes brittle and breaks, can be truly beautiful.

When in the uterine empyrean they told me 
of love, they named it a sickness, fever, impediment
to enlightenment. Some swore it could make you wail
over hills of hell in a long black veil, defenestrate
yourself in a Second Empire gown, or stand
wringing-wet at the intersection with a cup and a sign
reading COMFORT ME WITH APPLES.


"They" are not named. They are faceless. They are without form but are vivid like the kinds of love this family has expressed, experienced, had lost. These are phrases and clipped whispers that might be trying to give warning of what lures will chain you to drudgery and hardship or a promise of what joys and pleasures await that will make the crushing physicality of life worth the struggle. The signals are crossed, confused, and there is pleasure in reading these lines; this is a consciousness that is attempting to come up with a finite picture of what's to come based on bits and pieces that drift boy on the blood flow. But there is clamor, more noise, and what seems to get louder are fewer warnings about what one will materially wed to once they emerge into the hard light. Still, rather grand and anonymous forces will seek to rule one's existence, enforcing a quizzical Will with vague threats:

There were a few, humiliated and exalted, who rose
like comets in yellowy tiers, to sing in Proven├žal
of the Name, the Name, the same longing Name.

But others warned that whom He loves, He corrects,
of "friendship with benefits," balcony scenes, mad scenes
in all-white restaurants, of the turned back in bed.

It's an argument that's overheard, bickering the yet undelivered is being drawn into even before one gets the chance to master their language or gather experience from which to assert themself as fresh, independent, unsullied. This is the bickering and division of Original Sin, and one is brought into the world suddenly, painfully, protesting and ready for battle. So our soul is already propagandized, seduced, ready for the battle; Donnelly suggests that there is the moment when a choice is given, that one might miscarry them self and defer their emergence or dive, so to speak, right into the rumble and bustle of the messy world that awaits. Our narrator is primed for action and responds to a genetic inevitability: 

But when they said I could remain behind
if I chose, like an unlit lamp,
sounding my brass and tinkling my cymbal,

I didn't think, I seized
the bloody flag of my attachments
and tore down the tunnel of what I couldn't know

was my millionth birth.


Donnelly sets up an interesting parallel to Poe's essay and gives us a rich imagining of how our deeds, rationalizations, and best motivations might come to influence generations to come. There is something reminiscent of D.H.Lawrence in this poem in that the novelist had a theory that the best virtues and worst traits of men and women are exchanged through lovemaking and that the qualities or infirmities are passed on "in the blood." It had been suggested that the poem was Donnelly's attempt to write about the tension between being gay and trying to abide by a spiritual doctrine that considers your very being an abomination, but I demur. It's there if you're determined to find it, but it seems a stretch. What I picked up on was the embattled spirit coming through some convulsively argumentative and contradictory loop from which it attempts to make sense of, coming into life already fated to be self-seeking and self-defeating. This, for me, suggests an absent God whose plans have gotten static and stripped of anything like grace or transcendence. The generationally collected consequence of ill will and meanness congests the air, as it were, of the elevated plain. It's an existentialist situation mixed in with a notion of eternal recurrence, reincarnation; Mailer does something similar with his novel Ancient Evenings in which a magic-dabbling Phaero manages to extend his lineage through the ages but grows increasingly distraught that his version of immortality morphs in meaning and uses beyond his grandiose scheme. Homosexuality might well be one thing Donnelly intended for his stew of tensions and bad faith results, but I don't the poem is about the problematic nature of being gay and attempting an authentic, loving life; the narrator's dilemma, I think, is more open-ended than that, and this is where the power of the poem lies for me, in the way the language can be so vivid concrete, and yet remain oblique. 

The notions are repellent, sure, and there are grounds aplenty to attack them, but the case here is that Donnelly has taken the overriding idea and made it much less abstract, given us a scenario in an actual voice, and provokes from our sympathy for the newborn who must emerge from the chaos and struggle against the bitterness that has already been foisted upon him, 

Saturday, April 3, 2021

FERLINGHETTI

\
Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away last month, age 101 years, and what we’ve lost is a great American voice.  His poems were written in a wonderfully amorphous American idiom, his rhythms were light, quick, jazz like, his patois seemed to come from anywhere in 50 states.  His poems were vocalizations of the man on the street who appears to be always next to you at the end of the bar, on the subway car, the city bus, in line for a hot dog at a ball game, the next guy holding a picket sign in front of city hall, speaking with a tone sturdy but quickly uttered, starting in one  area with an observation but morphing through the chain of associations to  areas you didn’t know were related in any way.  You read him, you listened to him read, you were never sure where the poems would go but you knew there would be a point, an irony, a moral certainty tempered with good humor.

 Due to his being based in San Francisco and proximity to the city’s edgier literary community, Ferlinghetti is often grouped with the generation of Beat writers and poets who flourished in the 1950s. He balked at the inclusion, remarking that he was “…the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the Beats.” Even so, it’s arguable that he did more than anyone else to usher in the Beat Era in the 50s with his Pocket Poets Series printed under the City Lights imprint. The first in the series was own book 1955 poetry collection Pictures of the Gone World, with subsequent volumes introducing the world to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Anne Waldman, Frank O’Hara, Gregory Corso and many other voices, Beats and non-beats, who poked holes in the quilt of Eisenhower’s America. In 1956 the publication of Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems found publisher Ferlinghetti in court on obscenity charges, due to Ginsberg’s frank and comparatively specific 

depiction of homoerotic content. With the aid of the ACLU, Ferlinghetti won the case and continued to publish and nurture writers from the margin’s society with his press and bookstore and extended his own writing further into the soul of America, a great country that has done remarkable things, but which could do far better. He was writing that he was waiting for the promise of freedom and justice for all to come to be fact, not fantasy, his activism revealed a character of  that wouldn’t abide by the idea that the   Artist was at a remove from the public, inoculated against controversy. He knew art wasn’t a commodity to insulate citizens from the harsher facts of war, racism, poverty; his poems didn’t blind us with banality. Art was not a thing to make us “ feel good”; it was a way to make us feel, fully and painfully if need be. It was a tool to nag, prod, provoke, elicit a response, to get readers out of their seats and into the streets to work for that Better Day. Many an effective activist from the era had their moral compass fine-tuned and enhanced by the effusive, chatty, astute poems of Ferlinghetti and the quarrelsome songs of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti thought about things he liked and even more about things that bothered him, that bothered millions. He was a worldly man, and he was the man who lived in the upstairs apartment, who owned the shop on the corner, he was a citizen poet waiting for and working toward the Better Day.  His persona was a sublimely self-effacing Everyman, less grandiose and bombastic than Whitman, wittier than others by far, the man in a government waiting his turn at the DMV, for jury duty, and while he waits, he muses about what else he and the rest of us are waiting for besides for our numbers to be called.

I am waiting for my case to come up   

and I am waiting

for a rebirth of wonder

and I am waiting for someone

to really discover America

and wail

and I am waiting   

for the discovery

of a new symbolic western frontier   

and I am waiting   

for the American Eagle

to really spread its wings

and straighten up and fly right

and I am waiting

for the Age of Anxiety

to drop dead

and I am waiting

for the war to be fought

which will make the world safe

for anarchy

and I am waiting

for the final withering away

of all governments

and I am perpetually awaiting

a rebirth of wonder

--“I Am Waiting” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (from  Coney Island of the Mind, 1958).  

 Lawrence Ferlinghetti is the greatest Public poet America has in the second half of the 20th century. Poet, novelist, playwright, travel writer, bookseller and publisher of the revered City Lights Books press, Ferlinghetti wasn’t a dry academic composing intangible lines of verse about impossible metaphysics. His feet were on ground along with those of his fellow citizens, trudging and grunting along that road, a man with an unshakeable belief that the world can be made better even although a   “perfect one” seems beyond our reach. He wrote to his reader’s ear, seeming less to intone from the deadness of the page and more to speak to you directly.  “In Goya’s Greatest Scenes”, one of his best-known poems from his landmark 1958 poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind we hear the unique voice again, leaning over to our ear and remarking sotto voce:

In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see

                                           the people of the world   

       exactly at the moment when

             they first attained the title of

                                                             ‘suffering humanity’   

          They writhe upon the page

                                        in a veritable rage

                                                                of adversity   

          Heaped up

                     groaning with babies and bayonets

                                                       under cement skies   

            in an abstract landscape of blasted trees

                  bent statues bats wings and beaks

                               slippery gibbets

                  cadavers and carnivorous cocks

            and all the final hollering monsters

                  of the

                           ‘imagination of disaster’

            they are so bloody real

                                        it is as if they really still existed

 

    And they do

 

                  Only the landscape is changed…

 

This works as a mast  

Lawrence Ferlinghetti is in that tradition of the public poet, no less than Vachel Lindsay or the wonderfully expansive Whitman; less a man to complain about how the world doesn't fit comfortably around the skin he was born in, or muse long and serially on fragments of memory and half recalled cliches that never crystallize as a perception. His poems a force of personality that eschews introspection and opts instead to verbalize, extol, berate, rant and rave in a lyric vein at once lyric, cranky, ecstatic, lustful and very much in love with the senses that bring him the full force of the beauty and ugliness that is life. Ferlinghetti was not a ruminator, a worrier, an introvert, a sad soul contemplating many shades of despair. He didn’t decorate the walls of his inner life with gloom. There is no melancholic wallpaper in the world the poet finds himself in, there is no metaphysics of gloom and regret.  We need to recall that one of his poetry collections was  titled How to Paint Sunlight. Not that Ferlinghetti's poems are bluster or weakly transpired musings on a beauty obscured urban density; his lines are confident, sure, idiom matching rhythm, not lapsing into a self-parody of hip argot except when he deigned to do so. His images are fresh and electric, encompassing emotions and the consequence of things done to seek truth, beauty, a reason to celebrate the fragile miracle that is life.


There is little in the way of introspection, and that, I think, is the secret of his endearing popularity, and why his poems remain readable decades after the Beat craze has passed on into history. These are poems that like a good friend, a very good friend, who talks to you at the bar and pokes you in the shoulder, the man who would not let you get away with lying to yourself, the second opinion you constantly get, like it or not, that is a crude but freshly phrased thing we can call the truth, of a sort. It is, I think, a voice attached to an imagination that realizes that there are not enough years in any lifespan to not live fully, senses engaged with the raw stuff of existence.

These poems are jazzy, a crafted idiom that rings with the swinging chain of associations that cut through reams of rhetoric and regulation and get to the pulsing heart of the matter, birth, sex, death, joy, sorrow, glee, calamity. It all hurts, it all brings sensations we don't want, but this is a man who rolls with the punches, knows when to duck, writes as though he's astounded that he's still drawing a breath and walking still without a crutch or cane, that he has a voice to speak words of yet new seductions to come or already underway. It's worth noting that there was a selected poems edition of his work published in the 80s called Endless Life, which included a section of newer works, including a long piece that served as the collection's title.

What interests me isn't so much the quality of the poem but the  concern it expresses, to stay engaged with the doings of citizens he shares the planet with, to keep doing what a poet should be doing at all times when they choose to poke their muse and write in those irregular line breaks that are most people's idea of what poetry is; even as he ages and friends die and institutions and personalized traditions come to an end, the world goes on with things to do, people to know, controversies to become a part of. The conversation doesn't end until the tongue can no longer flutter about , the eyes cannot see and the mind cannot parse.

. I am signaling you through the flames.
The North Pole is not where it used to be.
Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.
Civilization self-destructs.
Nemesis is knocking at the door.
What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?
The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.
If you would be a poet, create works capable
 of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times,
 even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman,
you are Poe,
you are Mark Twain,
you are Emily Dickinson
and Edna St. Vincent Millay,
 you are Neruda and Mayakovsky
and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American,
you can conquer the conquerors
with words....

From Poetry as Insurgent Art by Lawremce Ferlinghetti  

The first time I saw Lawrence Ferlinghetti was during a pilgrimage to San Francisco with two other writer friends of mine in the mid-1970s. The three of us( Steve Esmedina, David Zielinski, and this guy)-- were eager to garner some literary authenticity by visiting the places where famous scribes read . City Lights in North Beach was our first stop, and it was something of a surprise when we walked into the crowded shop, to see the Ferlinghetti behind the front counter chatting with customers, answering the phone, and ringing up sales.The last time I saw the poet was at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla, 2005, where I was working. Ferlinghetti had just published a new book, Americus Book 1, something of a continuous, epic-length poem, which he described as

 "part documentary, part public pillow-talk, part personal epic--a descant, a canto unsung, a banal history, a true fiction, lyric and political," combining "universal texts, snatches of song, words or phrases, murmuring of love or hate . . . that haunt our nocturnal imagination."

Whatever this turns out to be, it was an inspired summing up of the spiritual state of affairs of America, a bittersweet and often comic recollection of the poet’s long journey and long life on the front lines of culture and politics. He was the featured poet at the 2005 Border Voices Poetry Fair at San Diego State University, an event organized by poet and journalist Jack Webb. D.G.Wills Books previously hosted Beat poets Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg , Michael McClure and Ted Joans, and Wills had the idea that having Ferlinghetti read at the bookstore would be a fitting and important addition to the roster of poets and writers who had read in the past . Wills contacted Webb and arranged, with Ferlinghetti’s assent, to have the Maestro read at D.G.Wills Books following his appearance at San Diego State.

To be expected, it was a wild and crowded scene, every seat in the  bookstore filled with, poets, fans, the merely curious. The front and side doors of the shop were open, an outdoor PA was mounted, and chairs were set up for attendees unable to sit inside. It was a crowd nearing three hundred.  It was a cramped situation where everything that could go wrong didn’t. Except one thing, to be sure, there’s always one thing that goes askew. In the flurry of overseeing the set up and directing the volunteer staff, Wills forgot to disconnect the business phone.  Twenty or so minutes into the reading, Ferlinghetti is reading an especially lush passage from Americus,the audience is leaning toward him to heart, there is a pause, an intake of breath, Ferlinghetti begins to read again. Then the phone rings.Wills was at the end of the store’s front counter and pounced on the phone before it could peal again.Ferlinghetti didn’t miss a beat.

“Is this Manny’s Bar and Pool Hall?” he asked. The accent was East Coast, New York perhaps, American. The audience inside and out gave a nice laugh.

 Lawrence Ferlinghetti grinned and continued to read, a man who will continued to be read in bars, pool halls, bus stops, libraries, quoted in academic papers and by bus boys and waitresses.