Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Revelle Campus Cafeteria at UCSD, 1970, was the first time I became entirely aware of folksinger/anti-war activist and counter culture hero Phil Ochs. He was performing to a full house of hippies, New Left agitators, Marxist professors with a collective lapse of enthusiasm for talk of revolution, rattled undergraduates, and unsmiling advocates for black power and feminism at an anti-war fundraiser, organized by one of the many ad hoc coalitions that attempted to join the far-flung nether regions of the counterculture in common cause. Ochs made a name for himself as the genius pamphleteer among his generation of left-leaning folkies that he was a part of. Considered by the critical mafia to be the heir to Bob Dylan’s protest throne, an easy assumption might be that Dylan ceased writing topical protest in favor of more personal and sort of surreal existentialism in his lyrics. Ochs was a hero of mine, the poet and the wise guy who stirred up audiences with a critical rhyme, a sly smile, a riveting argument you couldn’t ignore.

Born in 1940 in El Paso, Texas, a young Ochs showed musical promise as a clarinetist, eventually becoming the principal chair on that instrument with the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Ohio. He also picked up on the pop and rock music of the day, ranging from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash and became fascinated with the movie rebel icons Marlon Brando and James Dean. After a two-year stint at a military academy, he became obsessed with current events, deciding that he wanted to be a writer, a journalist specifically. His interest in politics moved him to take up music again in the form of an acoustic guitar and to become heavily involved in the pervasive folk boom of the time. Gravitating toward the anti-war and civil rights movement, Ochs learned a rich catalogue of old folk songs in myriad traditions and to started writing the most poetic, powerful, and passionate protest and topical songs this side of Dylan himself. Ochs performed everywhere he could for the cause of justice, whether it was in clubs, concert halls, anti-war rallies, or civil rights marches of all sorts. He was a romantic, a visionary, a starry-eyed optimist who believed that the oppressed people of America would throw off the chains that bound them and would one day walk into the horizon as free brothers and sisters. The optimism, seemingly resilient and unbreakable at first, yet frayed the longer the Vietnam War dragged on and the persistence of racism remained. Depression became a more pronounced part of his personality—alcohol became a more constant companion, and his songwriting became darker, more fatalistic, hinting at several instances of his own coming demise. He was delusional and paranoid. Making his depression more severe was an assault on him by robbers when he was visiting Tanzania.  His vocal chords were damaged, and his voice never recovered. The inability to sing brought him deeper despair.

·         At the zenith of his popularity, Ochs was a facile protest singer-songwriter during the Sixties, having written perhaps his most famous song, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” He was an able rabble rouser at peace rallies and civil rights marches who could fire up dormant liberal sympathies into anger and shame. The advent of the Seventies meant a total turnaround of musical styles and political attitudes. Still, the white knight of worthy causes was considered passé, and his music became an object of instant obsolescence. Not content to be a professional has-been, Ochs attempted on his final album trilogy (Pleasures of Tile Harbor, Tape from California, Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits, and Rehearsals for Retirement) to follow the new musical trends, using rock musicians, Sgt. Pepper-styled electronic effects, and massive orchestration cast in the mold of Charles Ives. The net result was a confused jumble of affectations, with plenty of good material nearly smothered under an avalanche of desperate gimmickry. Ochs and his producer absorbed precisely the worst elements of what the Beatles were doing with their in-studio experiments—a convoluted eclecticism that nearly choked the life out of many of their best songs and made the slighter fare they filled their later albums with becoming not just slight, but ineffectively elitist.

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

“The Crucifixion,” Ochs’ masterwork, is a complex, extended allegory about the way a culture treats its heroes (Christ and JFK), according to the best virtues they’d like to see in themselves and then watching them with necrophiliac glee as they are systematically destroyed, a process that begins when the heroes encroach too close to where the change must be made. The version here is, blessedly, live and free of the special effects clutter that spoiled the studio original. Ochs’ voice is plaintive and unadorned, with an implicit, quivering, devastating sorrow to phrasing.

“The War Is Over,” first seeming like one of the brilliant anti-war tomes Ochs was capable of writing, but rather turns out to be a solipsist daydream. Ochs had been a veteran of countless free benefits and was dismayed that he could sing and declare the same worn out polemics time after time and effect nothing, except perhaps eliciting a momentary surge of self-righteous, smug radicalism in his audiences. The war, meanwhile, trudged on, a fact that caused Ochs to throw his hands in the air and declare the war was over, at least as far as he was concerned.

The last song on the compilation, “No More Songs,” concludes the album on a thoroughly depressing note. Voice and melody drenched in a defeated, archly lyric melancholia, he recalls the people he’s known, the things he’s believed in, the lovers he’s had, and moans that all was in vain. With the past being meaningless, he complains that there are “... no more songs,” and then recedes into a numbing orchestral backwash. The first record, comprised strictly from his protest material, is the least interesting of the set. The topicality is dated and irrelevant to anyone’s current state of mind, and the enthusiasm of Ochs’ idealism comes off as youthfully smug and embarrassing.The song is transcendentally tragic and precise in its sense of despair and crushed idealism that I begin to tear up every time I hear it. It was the last song on his final album, the ironically titled Greatest Hits. Released on the heels of the presciently named Rehearsals for Retirement in 1969, the songs on Greatest Hits was a combination of remembrance and morose reflection upon a world that could not match his greatest hopes for the future; it seemed a final bow, the lyrics of a man saying goodbye to all that. Ochs did, in fact, take his own life by hanging himself on April 9, 1976. He was 36 years old

Late in his career, Ochs had taken to dressing up in a gold lamé suit and famously telling a booing audience in Carnegie Hall that America could only be saved by a revolution, which wouldn’t have happened until Elvis Presley became our Che Guevara. Ochs, who was a true romantic, believing that Great Men with Great Causes can change the world for the better, was also an alcoholic and a man gave to depression that deepened as he got older. Much of his songwriting became a series of melancholic laments that dwelled on the smashing of the idealism that had fueled his songwriting as an anti-war and civil rights activist earlier in the Sixties and the failure of his personal relationships.

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?
I’ve only called to say, I’m sorry
The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone
And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a girl, she was a flower in a flame
I loved her as the sea sings sadly
Now the ashes of the dream, can be found in the magazines
And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a sage, who sang upon the stage
He told about the world, his lover
A ghost without a name, stands ragged in the rain
And it seems that there are no more songs

The rebels they were here, they came beside the door
They told me that the moon was bleeding
Then all to my surprise, they took away my eyes
And it seems that there are no more songs

A star is in the sky, it’s time to say goodbye
A whale is on the beach, he’s dying
A white flag in my hand and a white bone in the sand
And it seems that there are no more songs

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?
I’ve only called to say, I’m sorry
The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone

And it seems that there are no more songs
It seems that there are no more songs
It seems that there are no more songs

Strangely, bizarrely, and fantastically out of context, I saw Phil Ochs perform this song on a Cleveland dance TV show called Upbeat, hosted by a local DJ who was desperately trying to comprehend why Ochs, acoustic guitar in hand, was on a teen dance show along with a parade of bubblegum rock and pop-soul bands that performed bad lip sync renditions of their regional hits songs. The DJ knew enough about Ochs to know that he was a protest singer by trade and mentioned that, with recent civil rights legislation and with the Paris Peace talks taking place in an attempt to end the Vietnam War, the otherwise gutless host said that Ochs might be out of a job unless he sang more upbeat tunes or words to that effect. Ochs just smiled and said that he hoped for the best, and then performed “No More Songs” live, on acoustic guitar. I remember this being one of the few songs that haunted me and continued to haunt me for decades.

At his best, Phil Ochs was stunningly brilliant as singer and songwriter and especially as a lyricist, a true poet. He was someone who could easily belong to the songwriter branch of the Confessional Poets like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, writers of odd mental activity who were compelled to write their demons into verse in perhaps some effort to extract their awfulness from their souls. It has been suggested that writing is a species of self-medication, a means to alleviate distress without the means to grow stronger and find hope. It’s been suggested as well that this was a school of writing and a habit of thinking for which early death, either by one’s own hand or through the degenerative results of copious alcohol and drug abuse, was how a poet of this description achieved a reputation and legitimacy as a poet. This was something that had repulsed me as I parsed 20th-century poets in college, my idea at the time being that one had to insist that art embrace life and affirm its vitality. I didn’t read confessional poets for years but came to a change in my thinking that effectively set aside my previous conceit that poetry, let alone any art, was required to advance any one’s preferences as an arbitrary standard. Each poet, painter, writer, dancer had to live up to that standard; the muse to create came from whatever source it came from, manifesting its inspiration in our personalities and our need to express our comforts and misgivings as creatures in this sphere of existence. It was under no requirement to make our lives better, let alone save ourselves from a wicked end or at least the bad habits that can make lives sordid, squalid endurance contests. Everyone is different, everyone has their own story to tell, everyone’s fate is their own and no one else’s. Most live more or less normal lives, wherever that is on the continuum of behaviors, no matter how good or bad or how many poems they write. Others are just... doomed, in some respect.

I am reminded of Harold Bloom’s assertion that literature’s only use is to help us think about ourselves in the world, the quality of being nothing more nor less than humans struggling through life with wit and grit, creating and failing and destroying with an array of emotion and words to give them personality. The job of the poet isn’t to instruct others in how to live a full life, but rather chronicle the unending problematic situations of the life were are constantly trying to negotiate a contract of conduct with, only to find, again, that life is a pure, unceasing process, churning, burning, destroying, and creating from the ash and mire. The poet records the ironies that will not stop coming, the lessons that will always be taught to the same romantics, adventurers, would-be saints, and dime store dictators. It is one of the ironies of modern existence and the expansion of all media that the subjects of protest songs, songs that are very specific to a cause or to an injustice, no longer seem to spark the desire to work toward bettering the world that the romantics among us wish would come to be. The embarrassment has more to do with our own memories than with Ochs’ politics. A posthumous collection of his songwriting, the two-disc Chord of Fame from 1976, scans the timeline from the way we were, thinking we could change the world with good sentiments if not concrete policies, to the way we are now, with ideals shattered and wearing a chic cynicism. For my part, I continually thank Ochs for being a major influence in forcing me to confront and accept social justice as a living principal and work mightily to avoid the fatal view that claimed this brilliant man’s life.

Friday, April 19, 2019


Kim Rosen of the Huffington Post wondered in a 2010 post if Americans are afraid of poetry; some of the essays is a warmed over a collection of the usual symptoms, and some of it is intriguing, worth a gander. I don't think Americans are afraid of poetry; rather it's a matter of not many Americans, comparatively, think of poetry as a resource since we, as a culture, are not an introspective culture, but instead, one that continuously looks forward to a future to be created. Poetry, so far as the general reader is concerned, is a matter of one being alone with their thoughts and structuring their experience in a narrative form, a narrative that not only chronicles events along a timeline, but also the nuance of experience, the fleeting sensation of something changing in their psyche. This requires making the language do extraordinary things to accommodate an uncommon interpretation of experience, and Americans, a people reared on the ideology of what can be done in the face of adversity, have no expansive desire to do something so impractical. Language is a thing meant to help us solve material problems, to achieve material goals, and poetry, a strange extension of linguistic twists and shadings, does nothing to put food on the table, put money in the bank, to further the quest to cure an endless variety of incurable diseases. Poetry is immaterial to purpose, function, policy; the absence of larger audiences for poetry isn't about fear from a perception that it's a mode of expression that is the least useful among several the lot of us might select on a given day. There are those of us who would argue that poetry's lack of identifiable utility is exactly what attracts us to the form--I happen to think that, like Wilde, that all art is quite useless in practical application (save for the fact that I believe humans crave beauty in form and in expression) and adhere to Harold Bloom's running definition of what literature, in general, avails the reader: to paraphrase, literature (poetry) helps us think about ourselves. Americans, I think it's safe to say in the broadest sense, have no real desire to reside individually and psychically work their way to an "aha" experience with poetry as a conduit.

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

Monday, April 8, 2019


More often than not I defend the "well made" poem if said poem has some things going for it, like a solid construction, an ability focus imagery in a fresh and sparing way that gets across experience and a sense of the irresolution of one conflicting responses to situations written about, either past or current, in an execution that takes one by surprise, leaves you breathless, if only for a second. Like it or not, those poems, scorned by large sections of the post-avant gard who write more "difficult" work ( a worthy endeavor provided the writer has a command of the diffuse material they are trying to deal with, uh, diffusely), are themselves not easy to write; one may speak of technique all they wish, but there is an innate sense, I believe, of knowing how to start, what to build with and, most importantly, when to stop writing, lest one kill a good idea for a poem with the lack of confidence overwriting suggests. Billy Collins has come in for his share of jabs and jibes because of the middlebrow accessibility of his work, he is a poet who has a certain mastery of the everyman's voice who writes poetry "for the rest of us" ; his is a poetry is a body of work that forces the reader to think about the world they're already familiar with in new ways.

photo by Joel E. CohenHis is the world of the banal, the small, the incidental, the vocabulary of twitches and tics , but this remains a realm that needs to be written about. Collins is the man to equal the challenge in inspiring a reader to interrogate routines and schedules that guide their journeys from desk to mailbox and back again. Billy Collins, in fact, is the perfect "gateway poet"; when I worked at an independent bookstore for some years in San Diego, several customers over several years expressed a desire to read something more daring, challenging, "edgier" than what the former U.S. Poet Laureate was offering. I navigated them to Thomas Lux, comparable to Collins for clarity and readability, but darker, more ironic, a poet who explores the unintended results of one's best efforts to assert their will on the world. There are those "well-made poems", however, that strive to hit all the marks that only make you feel that someone is trying too hard for the lead role in play they're not suited for; they dance too fast, they sing too loud, they deliver the monologue without suggesting that they're talking to another person."For D" by Roseanna Warren reads like it were a dull long poem that had been workshopped down to a dull short one; the striking language is all that's left, and there is nothing between the odd phrasings to make this prissy string of worry beads intrigue you. The poem is a dieter who has lost weight too quickly who finds that the absence of flab doesn't mean one will find a prince or princess emerging from the flab and stretch marks. This is one of those poems where you read each line expecting something to happen at the end of each line, and nothing does. It's a fussy poem, full of odd and unnatural words placed in positions where attention becomes focused on the odd sounds the words make rather than the meaning they may suggest or the unresolved feelings being sussed through. Euphony is fine, everyone enjoys rich words and intriguing slang, but there is an expectation that the person writing the poem should have his or her feet on the ground and have a diction roughly like ours (slightly heightened, of course, since this is poetry after all).

The plane whumps down through rainclouds, streaks
of creamy light through cumulus, and, below,
a ruffled scattering, a mattress' innards ripped—

No one talks like this, and no one should be writing poems with these word choices this precious. Whumps is a word suggesting body surfing as a lone man or woman braves the water and rides the momentum of waves coming to crash on a burly shoreline, and it also sounds like the sound a drunk uncle might make against a newborn baby's bare stomach; Warren wants to suggest a plane's bumpy passage through some "creamy" clouds, but she makes us think of dessert instead of a slow unnerving as she nears her destination. "Innards" is the kind of word one actually speaks, but ironically, in an affected voice to soften the use of a dated colloquialism. The image of seeing a slashed mattress on the landing approach could have been a dramatic one, a choice foreshadowing, but "innards" undermines that. For the rest, the poem is over-arranged, and it occurs to you finally that this reads like someone preparing their responses and  constructing a constipated poetics in advance of the facts; Tilda Swinton's ruthless character in Michael Clayton comes to mind, a nervous corporate crook rehearsing her prepared statements in the mirror with different tones of voice, eye movements, and differing tilts of the head. Her character, like this poem, ends badly.


In church, you lay in a casket open to your waist
as if you were in a ticket booth tipped over on its side,
selling tickets for an unearthly show. Your domed, bald
head, smooth cheeks, globed eyes, and modeled chin
were frozen into ideal shape as by Parmigianino.
You, in life all smiling quickness, now slept severely.
You had completed your lesson plans, handed back all corrected assignments.
Your hands rested one atop the other on your chest
guarding your final assessments. We shuffled by but you ignored us
as you ignored the massed bouquets and the preacher's manic grin
when he declared that Heaven was a retirement home
with plenty of vacancies. In the graveyard, they had closed you up.
The undertaker flicked at your gleaming mahogany coffin with his hanky.
The pallbearers placed their red and white carnations. The prayers
went on, and then they didn't. We left the box
on a gurney perched over a green rug atop the grave. We were not to see
you descend. A train chugged by
the full length of the country graveyard by the stone wall and the line of oaks,
freight car after freight car huffing with afflicted lungs
hauling behind them a long, ribboning wail.
                                                                -"FUNERAL" by Roseanna Warren

When in doubt, find an unnamed person to talk to and address them as "you" through out your poem, taking care to make sure that this person is deceased . Emphasise the ritual and the props of a funereal send off, imply in tone that you think the prayers being said aloud sound pro forma, unfelt, lifeless as a voice mail entreaty.Toward the end, as the funeral slowly winds down and the mourning procession passes the departed, introduce yourself with a third person pronoun and vent just a little about the deceased and how it came to be that your dead friend was someone  you thought of a soul mate, a confidant, someone you could confess your worst thoughts to and not judged or held accountable to a moral philosophy both irrelevant and absurd to your way of being and doing. Then confess your worst sin, that of viewing them as an intimate who betrayed your  trust  you know not how; regardless , you are they did and  your soul will not be satisfied until  you have thought, uttered, wrote and disseminated the articulated poetry of dull-witted rage that has been stewing. Make videos explaining all this and post it to You Tube.Twitter yourself stupid with 140 characters of rancor and bile. Text people you don't know and threaten to disrupt what remains of their must see tv if they don't get their goddamned shit together and stay the course, maintain, obey orders, leave you alone, stop ignoring you, or  whatever else you can imagine .  Demonstrate at last that language fails  you and your  ears and eyes are lying to you in capital letters. Realize  you have no friends , finally, and this makes for the best of all worlds you put the effort into create. Wonder why you     are still unhappy and who's to blame for that.

Stare at a garden too much and too long the garden, in turn, will stare back at you, which will cause you sensibly self reflect and transmit your paradigms straight into the plumes, the foliage, the draping ribbons of grass and the rioting colors of the petals. Not a bad thing, if the result is Roseanna Warren's delightful and wry bit of anthropomorphizing "Hydrangea". The billow-bloomed plant is viewed as king, a tyrant, a vain and commanding lord overseeing the minute arrangements, tilled and incidental,of the plot of earth, assessing what he owns in his realm. Office Manager you know? Arrogant Shift Leader? Power drunk Lead Cashier? All manner of a closed-system tyrant can be wedged into Warren's winsome ode, as this personality is the one that forgets that it has no real power in its current existence, has no input as to the determined processes by imagining instead that it is King of All. This would a superb example of what it might be like if a self-flattering dolt happened into the Supreme Fiction of Wallace Steven's terrain of lyrically perfect Ideal Types. The most foolish of creatures assume the credit reserved for God it cannot be:

The central path leads straight to him. Behind,
a stained mirror and mossy wall back up his power.
Thousands of crinkled, tiny, white ideas occur to him
with frilled and overlapping edges.
As with the best-tended gardens, Warren shapes her phrases, tends to the placement of her words and select verbs; she gets to a vision of delusional grandeur as well as the snapshot of the same situation going about it's business unmindful, ultimately unconcerned with the royalistic projections of a preening ego.

No one else
deploys such Byzantine metaphysics. No one
can read his mind. Only he remembers
the children's secret fort by the cypress tree
among fraught weeds, rusted buckets, and dumped ash,
and how lost the grown-ups sounded, calling, as night came

The Byzantine reference can be puzzling, as it implies conspiracy with the other plants to conquer, rule and regulate this garden. Warren sees this in simpler terms.  this being, rather, a projected image of the poet imaginings the vanity of the Hydrangea. It is the title flower's delusion that it is the lord of the loam that nourishes it. The above passage removes us from  the bloom's point of view and establishes that none of the other plants, the previously regarded "minions", haven't the former plant's frame of reference, as in "No one can read his mind." What is Byzantine here are the layered rationalizations that allow the Hydrangea to over-estimate its importance in this small patch of the planet. The voice surely shifts from the pithy and fussy realm of the king Hyrdangea to the reality of the rest of the garden, it's rooted citizens, all involved in their own bits of business within the loam-filtered niche. Handily, smartly Warren doesn't disabuse us from viewing the garden as a sphere with human qualities--she rather sustains it as she debunks the assumptions of the title plant. There is a skillful sustaining of the metaphor while the slight lesson is made, suggesting a world with an unending line of cosmologies coexisting in the resonances of private thoughts. Closely observed, crisply described, thoroughly unpretentious.

Friday, April 5, 2019


Image result for its go horizontal leslie scalapino

Poet Leslie Scalapino passed away unexpectedly in 2010, a significant loss to American poetry. I had a good fortune some thirty-plus years ago to do a reading with her at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco at a task-organized by friend Steve Farmer, and I've been a fan of her writing ever since. Her particular genius brought the language to the forefront. It investigated how accounting for what one perceives isn't a cut-and-paste process as we would generally believe, but something actually more complex, elusive, and wonderfully confounding. There is a sense in her work of experiencing many emotions simultaneously, and the notion and well of feeling the various reasons fire up in sequence. She presented her poems as variations on the small things heard, seen, felt: it seemed that it was the most minor matters for her that evoked the most significant response. Coherence for her was more nuanced than what the mainstream culture would have us think. She was a poet of accumulating power. I am grateful to have read with her. I am thankful for the books she wrote and published. 

Laying out a poem like a trail of bread crumbs, a reader would to the more enormous feast of The Point Being Made, is not how writer Leslie Scalapino writes. As we find ourselves in a time when the popular idea of the poet and their work they compose seems slanted toward the lightly likable Billy Collins and others writing poems that can be grasped, shared, written out in a delicate hand on perfumed paper and preserved between the leaves of a dictionary of quotations. Scalapino requires not the casual gaze but the more complex view, the more inquisitive eye. Scalapino brings a refreshing complexity to her work. This sanguine yet interested intelligence is restless and dissatisfied with the seemingly authorized narrative styles poets are expected to frame their ideas with. The framing, so to speak, is as much the subject in her poems and prose. The attending effort to interrogate the methods one codifies perception excluding other details that don't fit a convenient structure, Leslie Scalapino has produced a body of work of rare and admirable discipline; the writing is a test of the limits of our generic representations, and an earnest inquiry in how we might exist without them. In a series of over nineteen books over published since the seventies, she has been one of the most exciting poets working, an earnest inquisitor of consciousness and form, blurring and distorting the boundaries that keep poetry, prose, fiction, and autobiography apart. It's Go in Horizontal is a cogent selection from three decades of writing. The distinction blurring is not a project originating from her. Still, in Scalapino's work, the sense of a single voice rather than the expected “car radio effect,” the audio equivalent of Burroughs' cut-up method that would make a piece resembles an AM dial being moved up down a distorted, static-laden frequency. Leslie Scalapino's writing is one voice at different pitches responding to an intelligence aware of how it codes and decodes an object of perception. Her writing is a fascinating interrogation of intelligence that wrestles with an image that is received and with the act of witnessing itself. 

 Traces of Gertrude Stein at her most concentrated linger here.    The beauty of the project is that the abstraction it produces in the work of the Cubists and with sympathetic experimental writers like Stein allows for things that are usually hidden or ignored in favor of more flattering detail to be brought to the forefront. The world is less smooth and elegant as the former restraints are removed, and it becomes a vast space filled with objects of infinite shape. Stein, though, was principally intrigued with the visual, and Scalapino's writing concerns itself with an investigation of one's own perception. 

Scalapino's writing is a study of the mind conducting a habit as a device that forces order on an infinitely complex rush of details that would otherwise overwhelm the senses. There is a fracturing of narrative flow, a rephrasing of what was formally said, a studied trek through a temporal sequence of events full of random images, smells, and sounds, any of which trigger associations linking the speaker, the witness to the phenomenon, to personal history and future one speculates about in limitless wondering. Hers is poetry examining the canvas on which one draws their conceptualization of the world, a worrying presence on the margins of conventionally consolidated personality that is aware of the filters one applies over a phenomenon that occurs unexpectedly, and considers the concrete again and yet once more as the variations and tones of the details are exposed. I haven't excerpted any of Scalapino's work here because the formatting of this blog wouldn't do justice to the arrangements of her lines on the page; the spatial arrangements are crucial in many of her poems for each sliver and shaving of nuance to fully work. But there are some choice links here you can follow to some of her works online, presented, I assume, as the author intended them to appear.

Monday, April 1, 2019


Well, yeah, I'm grumpy some of the time, and I've been accused of being a curmudgeon in regards to National Poetry Month, the annual dedication to an elusive art with a small audience that itself is divided among several hundred-seeming schools of thought as to what is genuinely worth reading or promoting. The reservations come chiefly from the attitude that poetry is something pathetic in itself, with Special Needs, and that there is a collective delusion in the publishing world that poetry can be made more popular by hyping the form with the cliched hokum that sounds culled from New Age screeds. It's a little infuriating to witness art that you believe, at it's best, sparks the unusual idea or the unforeseen connection within a reader be reduced as something that marketers promise to deliver a consumer to an even deeper vat of circumscribed thinking.

I wouldn't say my remarks about National Poetry Month are grumpy, just realistic. On the face of it, I welcome a month dedicated to the art, craft and diversity of poets and their work, and even think that the month might well bring new readers to poetry as something they'd read in their leisure time. The problem is that once we give someone or something a special day, week, or month for the nominal purpose of increasing awareness, most of the population bothering to observe what the calendar day commemorates will nod their head, bow their head, read a few poems, maybe buy a single volume that will likely wind up halfway finished and atop a coffee table, a page bent down to mark a page, not be picked up again, and then be done with it for the year. It certainly gives major publishers significant favorable publicity so they can present themselves as more than bottom-line obsessed subsidiaries of malignant media corporations: look at what we're doing to support the arts, look at our love of poetry!!

There are poets who benefit, many of them I count my favorites, but the fact that poetry, in general, has a month dedicated to it's supposed welfare seems more to me that the rest of the literary world considers the form a poor, sickly relative; April as poetry month is the metaphorical gulag, a ghetto, a hospice, that space where this art, which no publisher seems to know how to market so it contributes usefully to their bottom line, is allowed to make it's noise, indulge their rhetoric for a short period in the spotlight before being ushered from the stage and back to the margins.
Poets, the work they do, the theories they develop regarding their art has been the most rarefied and most diffuse of the arts as it developed since the encroachment of Modernism overturned the conventional thinking about poetry's form and purpose. It's been to poetry's advantage, I think, that the audience has been small, very small, compared to the other genres that help publishers make their payrolls and their dividends, since the relative obscurity has allowed poets of many different styles and concerns, politics and agendas to advance their art and arguments, both Quietist and Post-Avant Gard, unconcerned with a commercial aspect that wasn't theirs, to begin with. National Poetry Month is something like a zoo the city folk may visit on their days off, and the poets are the exotic creatures who will perform their tricks, do their dances, take their bows for the smattering of applause and loose coin that might come their way. Generally speaking, poets and their work would be better off, and saner as well, if the illusion that a dedicated month will increase the readership and increase book sales as well.
It would be better for poets to stop behaving like they're in need of rehabilitation and went about their business, doing what we're supposed to do to the best our individual and collective abilities. If the work is good, interesting, of quality on its own terms, the audience, whatever the size, will come.
The hope is to get folks to change their reading habits to include poetry volumes along with their steady diets of mysteries, romances, celebrity cookbooks, and memoirs written by people who will soon to be exposed as liars and cheats. Is there hope for the General Audience? The divisions in the Poetry War are drawn, both sides will wage battle for the soul of the book buyer, but the pathetic truth is that vast promotion and arguments as to the worth of verse are to no avail. Literally, no one is buying it. Or buying too little of it for the fuss and bother of having a month out of the year dedicated to poets and their obscurities.
The General Audience I speak of is vague, purposefully so, as it speaks to anyone who has an amorphous notion of how to generalize about poetry readers share in common. The war between various schools, groups and the like strikes me as more bickering between the professionals, poets, critics and academics (some of whom happen to practice all three occupations) who have status and power on the line as they advance their agenda and create an enemy camp in the interests of bolstering whatever claims can be made for a particular group's alleged superior aesthetics. Some of this ongoing disagreement is fascinating and useful since the distinctions as they’re clarified can be informative and the criticisms each has of the other’s perceived shortcomings can potentially yield insight on issues a writer might otherwise be too close to.

I have my preferences, sure, and I subscribe to a particular set of principles, but these rules of poetry are worn like a loose suit, not a straight jacket. Most readers who general interests in poetry, contemporary and older, will like or dislike a variety of different approaches to verse for an equally varied set of reasons, most of which, if asked, our hypothetical General Reader would be able to explain if asked. The basic question of a poem, whether written for the lyric voice, the vernacular rant, or the experimental rigorist, is whether it works or not, both on its own terms and in terms of whether it gives pleasure or joy. Someone might suggest that teachers could increase the audience for poems if they taught the material better, but this is a strawman.We can't lay this at the teacher's feet because it's my firm conviction that most poetry, ambitious or otherwise, isn't going be the thing the large majority of their students will take after in adulthood, regardless of how good or bad a job the instructor might be. We're talking about adult readers here, those who have reading habits formed and in place for a lifetime; some are more curious about more ambitious forms, most who read poetry prefer the greatest hits of Whitman, Plath or Dickens, if they read poetry at all, and the General Audience, as we've been calling them, has not interested in poetry what so ever, except when they need a quote for a funeral or a wedding.

In other words, people who might buy a book of poems do so for reasons that are the same as they always have been, word of mouth, display, book review, and so on. Things like National Poetry Month do so very little to increase the fraction of the book-buying public to have even a casual appreciation of poetry; they simply don't care for those things that are not measurable by generic conventions. Charles Bernstein wrote a cogent if slightly smug essay in 1999 called "Against National Poetry Month As Such" in which he derides the notion that publishers and a clutch of state and federal arts czars can increase interest in and sales of poetry collections by reducing to the level of the contrived New Age/faux mediation groupthink that would have us read the literature with the hope that stress and pain will go away.(I am thinking myself of Roger Housden's odious collection "Ten Poems To Change Your Life", which abuses the work of good poets by presenting them as accessories one buys on impulse at the cash register). Bernstein's main point is well taken with me, that poetry is being sold as something it isn't, like the volumes poets publish are good for you in the way that pop -psych and New Age literature claim to be. What is being sold are the specious promises of poetry, not the poetry itself which, of all the literary arts, should stand alone, unencumbered by political or therapeutic contrivance. National Poetry Month is a hypocritical waste of time, I think, a commercial venture born of the kind of cynicism that enables corporations to manipulate buyers into purchasing things they haven't an honest