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

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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.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

WILLIAM BRONK

 

Metonymy as an Approach to a Real World
William Bronk

Whether what we sense of this world
is the what of this world only, or the what
of which of several possible worlds
--which what?--something of what we sense
may be true, may be the world, what it is, what we sense.
For the rest, a truce is possible, the tolerance
of travelers, eating foreign foods, trying words
that twist the tongue, to feel that time and place,
not thinking that this is the real world.


Conceded, that all the clocks tell local time;
conceded, that "here" is anywhere we bound
and fill a space; conceded, we make a world:
is something caught there, contained there,
something real, something which we can sense?
Once in a city blocked and filled, I saw
the light lie in the deep chasm of a street,
palpable and blue, as though it had drifted in
from say, the sea, a purity of space. 


William Bronk is a good companion poet to read along with Wallace Stevens, as both concerned themselves with our ideas of a world unspoiled by skewed perception. Both were poets you could imagine walking among their gardens and cities of perfect forms, the ideal types and not the inferior, material imitations, chancing some thoughts beyond the gravity of the actual planet.

Helen Vendler asserts in her review of new "Selected Poems" that Stevens disguised his true hurts and sorrows with symbolism, merging his high, English inspired cadences with a Yankee's habit of plain speak. His was a seamlessly expressed struggle between the ideal relationships among things or the ideas of things finding harmony among their distinct qualities, and the tense world he must return to. He was a vice president of an insurance company, after all, an institution designed to protect and amend the quirky happenstance between gravity and clumsy people.

Bronk, in contrast, seems to be in one world who is constantly thinking of the other, and here suggests that it is our ability to coin words or vary our linguistic references to known, quantified qualities that recreates our world constantly, in terms of a musical score, with beats, rhythm, a narrative line that flows or gets jagged according to the tone each moment might take. And it is that skill, developed through various layers of frustrating experience and states of monotonous torpor, that we can again think of what we see as too familiar and what we see as alien and strange as intrinsically exciting, full of intrigue, it's own vital elements we can learn about and learn from. We come to think of the world in other words and not by the clinical terms they're assigned by dictionaries. This availed Bronk to see that light in the street he trudged every day, palpable and blue, as though it had drifted in from say, the sea, a purity of space. Our language needs to remain vital and up to the task of re-inscribing conventional experiences, lest we miss the whole point of having senses to begin with.

Friday, February 26, 2021

THE MEAT SECTION STARES BACK AT US

 The small yet dread thought most of must struggle not to give an ear to as we pass the supermarket meat section is exactly how did all those fine sides of beef, ham, chicken, turkey, lamb get to where they are, from animal to shrink wrapped packages kept cool under glass or dangling from hooks, ready to consume. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb among other books, phrased it well in speech I saw him give in the Seventies at an Earth Day rally, declaring that Americans are willfully ignorant of the costs involved in the manufacture of prepared food; as we roll our carts down the aisles, we assumed the shelves "are restocked by God." Ehrlich was speaking of the economic costs and how the waste was straining the resources the planet has to sustain life, but on a less alarming level there is the refusal of many of us to face the truth that animals are killed, slaughtered in cruelly efficient ways in order to speed the delivery of the meat to the grocer shelves at a reasonable for the hope of garnering a reasonable profit. Norman Mailer, in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, gives an especially focused account on the mechanized brutality afflicted on the gathered cattle to a community can kept and content: 

"Well the smell of the entrails and that agonized blood electrified by all the outer neons of ultimate fear got right into the grit of the stockyard stench. Let us pass over into the carving and the slicing, the boiling and scraping, annealing and curing of the flesh in sugars and honeys and smoke, the cooking of the cow carcass, stamp of the inspector, singeing of the hair, boiling of hooves, grinding of gristle, the wax papering and the packaging, the foiling and the canning, the burning of the residue, and the last slobber of the last unusable guts as it went into the stockyard furnace, and up as stockyard smoke, burnt blood and burnt bone and burnt hair to add their properties of specific stench to fresh blood, fresh entrails, fresh fecalities already all over the air. It is the smell of the stockyards, all of it taken together, a smell so bad one must go down to visit the killing of the animals or never eat meat again. Watching the animals be slaughtered, one knows the human case--no matter how close to angel we may come, the butcher is equally there. So be it."

Upton Sinclair, before Mailer, wrote about the splattered ugliness of the slaughterhouse in The Jungle, and in both books the point of the acute depictions of grizzly meat processing is to reveal what it is that we are shielded from and what we continually deny , that there is violence, death, what activists would call murder involved in each steak, hamburger and hamburger we buy or make for ourselves, that our feeding on meat to both sustain ourselves and enjoy, as a residual result, as an aesthetic experience, is inextricably linked to death. An old equation, perhaps, a faint point to make , but the intent with Mailer and Sinclair's writing was to connect their readers with the thorough unpleasantness of food production, in short, disabuse them of the idea that where the delicious preparations come from is none of their concern. Disgust was a probable goal, outrage another, all with the hope that a head long stare into the abyss would enable consumers to make better decisions about how they want to live. 

An experience like that does change lives. I was talking to a friend last night about thanksgiving, and he told me about how, as a boy of nine, he went with his parents to aunt and uncle's farm for Thanksgiving and, after being allowed to play around in the farmyard and the barn with his cousins, saw his uncle bring the turkey into the barn, place the neck on a stump like we've seen in cartoons, and lop the creature's head off with an axe. The turkey flailed and ran around a bit before keeling over. That night, my friend said he couldn't eat the chicken. For what it's worth, he became a life long Democrat. 

Kimberly Johnson's poem "Marking the Lambs" fairly much covers this territory, highlighting narrator, sounding as if recovering from a dull shock to the system, recounts the subjugation of the lamb. The effect is something like a camera zooming in with suffocating closeups of struggle,carnage and turmoil, with a narration that itself is distanced and dazed, yet putting together a sequence from the jerking commotion


As crickets geiger-up for spring, we corral

the ram lambs. They stutter and dense against the fence

wheezing for the ewes. Down wince,

down retch: up one and flip his back to mud,

knee to sternum. The banded tail will black

to wizen, prune off easy. But marking is all trespass:

thumb the soft belly to pop the scrotum out, then lunge and turn

the mind away, teeth working, working, to snap back and spit


This voice is fractured, given to half phrases and short bursts of detail, given to obscure and unexplained usages (They stutter and dense against the fence wheezing for the ewes. Down wince,down retch: up one and flip his back to mud,knee to sternum. ) leavened with inner rhymes that rise when the description of the carnage threatens to take on momentum and overwhelm and give the lie to whatever holiday spirit a waiting family used as a pretext to gather together. Johnson, though, does not preach, nor proclaim, nor climb on a soapbox to dispense a moral lesson. The horror, the disgust, the aforementioned outrage, is buried, repressed. What the poem lacks in an obvious explicit philosophical/moral point (which some readers would prefer ) is made up in power, as witness the narrator's attempt to consume and enjoy the flesh of the creature she subjugated and mutilated : 

I try not to taste but I am

all mouth, all salt blood and lanolin. I hear

their bleatings through my tongue. 

The poem is called "Marking the Lambs", a practice not of slaughtering lambs for food but rather a hard scrabble bit of anatomical clipping and slicing to ensure the lamb's health in the production of wool. Johnson,though, makes what I take to be an associative leap and becomes weary with the violence visited upon the meekest of animals. Clothing , food, good times, all enjoyed from the privilged position of uninterest. Awareness of how the pantry and the closet become so well stocked changes our relationship with the things we purchase; we can no longer be nonchalant about it.This had to have the loneliest dinner table this narrator had ever sat at, before a table of ridiculous bounty and a family acting out the spirit of Holiday joy (and I am assuming the poem is inspired by Thanksgiving/Christmas seasons past and present) with the taste and sounds of the sacrificed lamb protesting it's coming demise all too recent and vivid to deny. It's a moment when one realizes that the Great Chain of Being we muse over after hours in cafes or in discussions of vague spirituality is , in fact, a Food Chain, each link unbreakable and forever. 

What we eat comes back to back to be that Thing That's At Us, which we tried to assuage with poems as skilled and powerful as Kimberly Johnson's.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

AMERICA'S MOST UNDERSTOOD POET

 

Sometime back in the Seventies, Dick Cavett introduced the late Rod McKuen on his show by quoting a critic's left-handed compliment regarding the writer's work, "The world's most understood poet. “That was not intended as praise, and anyone in the business of writing what’s regard as serious poetry, whether a runny-nosed Beat or a hardened Modernist , would take a the description of their work being accessible as an accolade. Poetry in the 20th century had become increasingly odd and without noticeable rules, a development that marked the work of many a genius poet at the time, but the facts is that fewer people read poetry as consumers of printed books, and fewer still seemed to understand what the new scribes were going on about.

And so, poetry became the new scripture and critics, in a sense, became the new priesthood, discoursing on texts that allow no conventional entry point in terms that were equally cryptic. McKuen dared to be direct, simple in language, easily understood, trafficking much of his writing career in maudlin, mawkish, garish sentimentality. It worked, to be sure, as he went off to conquer the publishing world, motion pictures, the music industry. It worked and he built a huge audience that did not read poetry nor had the slightest idea of the medium's standards of quality might happen to be on any given day. He made a lot of money and in the making of his millions, he inspired young people, like myself, to become a writer myself. To be clear, it was a chorus of writers that got my fancy and stirred in me the desire to string words together and indulge in metaphor, not just the recently deceased McKuen. But McKuen was in the gallery of faces that had my attention. My tastes simply matured beyond what he was capable of writing about. Honestly, I had a man crush on him as a sensitive mid teen desiring to express wonderful things myself--he was part of the collective of Dylan, Ginsberg, Eliot, and Paul Simon that made me want to say things that were significant in ways a reader wouldn't expect. 

McKuen did have a knack for slinging words--his much-anthologized poem "Camera" is good at the plain-speak verse later adopted by the ever-accessible likes of Billy Collins. The poem, though, was clean and lacking the sentimentalism that made McKuen a standing joke and, eventually, an overripe expression of every unconsidered emotion. I should clarify that I went the middle period Dylan/TS Eliot route in poetry and came to prefer a more surreal and harder edge verse. The change, of course, came around when I had some genuine emotional upheavals and realized that experiencing, processing, and recollecting such events in the process of forming a real personality trying to engage the world wasn't as simple as McKuen's McPoems would have us think. Though I harbor a soft spot for him, I think his "poetry", such as it was, was indefensible on any grounds as verse. It scratched those places before you had an itch. I hate to seem harsh, but his writing was slick, and it was awful. Now and again he could write a few lines that were acceptable because they weren't dripping with the goo of his onerously bathetic persona, but he'd soon enough lard up his line breaks with a defiantly defeatist attitude ---lost again at love,)--and would have us believe that he spent decades turning up his collar and walking the San Francisco water front in the rain and fog, looking for bar to nurse his pain at. Though he was an influence on me as a writer, I consider his writing everything that's wrong with the idea of expression for its own sake. 

From an audience perspective it is a sign of cultural arrogance to think of them as dumb or less than bright because they enjoyed McKuen's writings and his songs. The bald truth of the matter is that academics and the self-assigned elite readership of "quality" poetry (a set of poets that varies, depending on what kind of critical codification you prefer) read poems for the same reasons, to find in words something that corresponds with their own experience and the inchoate emotions that are the result of them. Many feelings are hard to put into words even for the most savvy of tongue and wit, and poets have been the Culture's traditional medium for being the antennae of the race, gathering half thoughts, conflicting urgencies,  the ironic ordering things that don't jibe in how we view the world, the whole play of happy/sad/ambivalent  and getting it all in writing;  the goal is to speak to people about things that they cannot talk about themselves. That said, though, poetry is also a medium that wants to speak of things inexpressible in unforgettable terms.  That is where it becomes an art, as such, which requires more reflection, deeper consideration, better word choice and image creation in the attempt to make a reader feel more than mere happiness. It also requires a higher critical vocabulary into order to parse the poems, which is an irony in itself; the language created to discuss the movement of more challenging stanzas is as abstract, obtuse, as difficult poems themselves. 

So, poetry, as a form, does not win in this discussion.  McKuen was sincere in his quest to get at those things he needed to clarify for himself, but I am convinced that he became a salesman as much as an artist (in a sense) over time, representing Rod McKuen Inc. Over the decades I poked my nose into the unending stream of books he produced with stunning regularity and concluded that he had stopped any honest writing years ago and was composing verse he knew his audience wanted. He was writing for the marketplace, whether he was aware of it or not. But while McKuen can be listed as trader in the mawkish, the trite, the bathos-ridden, one cannot with ease point toward a commonly agreed upon example as to what constitutes a clear and substantial alternative in the quality field .Billy Collins and the wonderful Dorianne Laux come easily to mind, however, both skilled with accessible senses of language and the additional sense of how to write about what's recognizable in one's life and helping a reader through a series of perceptions where their world is more extraordinary than it was before. Their likes are rare, too rare, though, in the field of poets with followings--the notion of quality poets is an idea that is a muddy pond.  

While I enjoy a good many "difficult poets", I have to say that mine is the situation shared with academics and the self-appointed readership elite I've already mentioned; I know the critical language, I know the theories, I know the standards of consideration. It's a trap that one cannot see they're falling into which bedevils Modern Art across the board, in writing, visual art, what have you:  you cannot "see" (or "get") unless you "know" the theory and the historical forces that have brewed and seduced each other to make that theory possible. Knowing the rap about an art that is, by definition, supposed to deal with hard to express perceptions, is more important than either the art and, most tragically, the human life it is supposed to augment and bring quality to. In this regard, McKuen wins the argument as to the value of his work; he was awful as a poet, but the alternative was smug and something of a private club that few in our population found worth the bother to apply for membership in.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

GALWWAY KINNELL, LARRY LEVIS, ONE POEM EACH

 


Galway Kinnell is as free as verse might get, and it's a wonder that his poems contain so many memorable lines when considering that one might at first mistake him for prating rather than poeticizing. Kinnell does have a habit of elaborating longer than a detail requires, a habit he shares with novelist Russell Banks; word choice ceases to be a criteria for slicing beyond the phenomenological divide and capturing a sense of an experience, replaced with the conceit with a prolix eloquence, of a sort, makes a culminating narrative more real. I see it as a stalling action, personally, and I often think that the overwriting is some hedge against death or, at least, a buffer against the fear that one has reached the end of their word rope. One might add, though, the same might be supposed of those writers who specialize in composing dozens of short lyrics at a time, continuously ,over the years. The dread that equates long silence with being finished, as well as the idea that if one isn't writing, one isn't a poet after all. It goes on, and one wishes we had editors who were more discerning , let us say demanding, when it came to putting together major collections of a poet's work. Still, in all that mass one finds fine works, and Kinnell , again, surprises you with poems that exactly right in length, tone, confession, and insight that doesn't conclude but properly defers a closing on the author's emotional conflation.

The difference is that his poems have a mood and a destination he seeks in his inclusion of every day things and events and his self-conscious interactions with them. All the choice ironies he writes in this poem, poem are fluid and presented with a rhythm that combines of someone recalling a recent set of experiences and sensing the arrangement of the details. It's not unlike watching someone unpack boxes in a room of empty shelves, arranging the books and bric a brac in positions that highlight priority of detail. -- 

SHEFFIELD GHAZAL 4: DRIVING WEST
A tractor-trailer carrying two dozen crushed automobiles overtakes a tractor-trailer carrying a dozen new.
Oil is a form of waiting.
The internal combustion engine converts the stasis of millennia into motion.
Cars howl on rain-wetted roads.
Airplanes rise through the downpour and throw us through the blue sky.
The idea of the airplane subverts earthly life.
Computers can deliver nuclear explosions to precisely anywhere on earth.
A lightning bolt is made entirely of error.
Erratic Mercurys and errant Cavaliers roam the highways.
A girl puts her head on a boy's shoulder; they are driving west.
The windshield wipers wipe, homesickness one way, wanderlust the other, back and forth.
This happened to your father and to you, Galway -- sick to stay, longing to come up against the ends of the earth, and climb over.

All speak of the contradictions of travel and the false hopes that lie in the speed and distance one can personally attain. As with his father, Kinnell finds he can not travel out of his own skin or his awareness of who he is and suggests that his attempts to out pace his demons merely fed their flame. 

______________________

Normally I dislike poems that use poetry or the fact that the writer is a poet as their subject matter because it smacks of a chronic elitism that kills the urge to read poetry at all, but Larry Levis in the poem below attends to the task with humor and a willingness to let the air of out of the practitioner;s inflated sense of importance. He is of the mind that poems have to "hit the bricks", get road tested where people live and work. What makes his writing remarkable is his ability to be straight forward without being literal minded. 

The Poem You Asked For
by Larry Levis
My poem would eat nothing.
I tried giving it water
but it said no,

worrying me.
Day after day,
I held it up to the llight,

turning it over,
but it only pressed its lips
more tightly together.

It grew sullen, like a toad
through with being teased.
I offered it money,

my clothes, my car with a full tank.
But the poem stared at the floor.
Finally I cupped it in

my hands, and carried it gently
out into the soft air, into the
evening traffic, wondering how

to end things between us.
For now it had begun breathing,
putting on more and

more hard rings of flesh.
And the poem demanded the food,
it drank up all the water,

beat me and took my money,
tore the faded clothes
off my back,

said Shit,
and walked slowly away,
slicking its hair down.

Said it was going
over to your place.


Poets often enough try to use idiomatic language with the intention of using the vernacular to suggest dimensions of significance only a select priesthood of poets can decipher, if only barely; too often all the reader gets is a lugubrious meandering in the mother tongue of something that cannot decide what it wants to be. I suspect many take themselves to be latter day Ashberys or keepers of the Language Poetry practical/critical attack, but this would a defensive reflex, I think, a wall around an ego that cannot concede that it's owner has written a body of poems that mistake being dense with density. Dense merely means impenetrable, which means nothing , ideas in this case, get or get out. Density is somewhat more of a compliment, implying, as I sense it, that there lies therein a series of perception and interestingly worded ideas that cling to solid images in a lean, subtle, nearly invisible way--intellection and detail find a perfect fit--that one can draw series of readings from the work, if not a final verdict. Leavis shows that it's possible to elude having to explain yourself and be suggetively vague to intent without sacrificing the illuminated surface of the poem.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

 Musaic - Simon and Bard (Flying Fish)

Fred Simon and Michael Bard, a pianist and multiple reedman respectively who' ve been around jazz circles in seeming anonymity  the past few years, here emerge from relative obscurity with their first record Musaic It's a release that  plays-it-safe: the melodies are pleasant and draw on a number of recognizable sources, the rhythm section does its chores competently, and the solos display the requisite knowledge of technique. But, the music never takes chances. Technical competence aside, the moves are second guessed and have a familiarity to them not unlike a song you've heard too often for too long and desire nothing less than to be rid of the  tune for your remaining lifetime. It does not move this listener, who may be accused both of jazz snobbery and, no doubt, of having listened to too much solos that have more to do with practice than performance. To restate, the skill is is high among the particulars, but this is more paycheck than pay off.  Simon and Bard s insistence on maintaining a· status quo - their sources sound like an overly-familiar crossbreeding of Paul Winter, Oregon and Brubeck: with a dash of Ellington thrown in for good measure - makes the stuff on Musaic merely run of the mill. Even Larry Coryell's appearance on the funk jam "Fancy Frog"  fails to rise this effort above the level of shallow breathing. Coryell is his generation's essential jazz guitar innovator  who  has recorded an impressive array of off-the-grid improvisations in an increasingly  restrictive jazz-pop-rock genre. Simon and Bard's preference for the most somnambulant  variation on that once galvanic arena seems to lull the guitarist into an uncharacteristic stupor. The music is not atrocious. It's nice and would make the ideal backdrop for when your mother was over for dinner. This is the music you put on when you're loading the dishwasher.