Monday, November 18, 2019


Ron Silliman (University of California Press)

Ron Silliman, an envelope-pushing writer whose unmoored referents are written with a rigorous methodology and purpose, uses images and image-born phrases in long successions that are seemingly separate from the sentence before it and the sentence that follows. In this poet's case, though, his method isn't isolating sentences as autonomous language units in a gallery-lit vacuum, but rather to bring the rest of what's said in a place to bear. One has the dizzying sensation of hovering overhead a crowded train station at Holiday time; chaotic though it seems, )one does understand that conversations continue, jarring contexts are rattling side by side like boxcars, images and remarks on physical things--a sign, a face, the light of day--are dropped and reappear, changed by response and changed as well by conversations around it competing for the human ear. Silliman's new collection, Age of Huts, brings together several books he's published as a long standing project. It makes for alternately exhilarating and exasperating reading. Those who stay with Silliman and his task are rewarded with what is really the most thorough ongoing examination of the American vernacular since William Carlos Williams composed and assembled his central epic poem Paterson in 1963. Silliman's is the language of a place, and there is a logic as the streams and eddies of unassigned sentences the blended variations at once rich, dissonant.The pieces are independent of their human personalities and the disparate subjects, an olio of the philosophical and inane, autobiographical and picaresque, the snapshot summary and the extended and unmoored disquisition , are materials that are not so much "mashed together" (as the current and lazy parlance has it) but rather layered, tangled together, interacting in phonemes and bits of invested rhetoric that suggest a great , breathing beast, a language that collides , contradicts, clarifies and is, in effect, constantly making absolute statements about character and the nature of place, only to have the declarations modified, adjusted, changed into new discourses. Each line can well be said to be the start of another poem, and although the approach , which foregrounds language as subject matter, and while the aesthetic effect of Silliman's poetry is a collection of the unchained references --there is a cubist perspective that arises when one gets a hint that each of the writer's pieces, non sequitur that they may seem, have physical locations, sites, real people with whom he's had real conversations, and there is stammering and stuttering rhythm which is oddly musical as he works through his variations of chosen icons--tone appreciates the length to which Silliman has continued his course of examining the dictions and tropes that constitute the way we address experience and position ourselves in the world.Anyone who thrilled to the shredded surrealism of Bob Dylan's liner notes for Bring It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited (or found themselves laughing out loud or being stunned with the cranked up mix of roadhouse wit and word-salad in his lone book Tarantula) will find a kindred spirit in Age of Hut (Compleat);Silliman loves language enough to take it apart to see where in the language the stress of personality comes in, the irreducible trace of individual intent that survives a language fragment being wrested from a larger context. That is the difference between Ron Silliman and others. The sound of the words as they're spoken and linger in memory seems to be Silliman's central fascination, and to say the least, Age of Huts provides the shock and surprise of hearing ourselves speak in our plenitude, variously manic, reserved, joyous, cranky, curious all in the same clusters of utterance.

Some work by Mark Strand

Image result for mark strand
Mark Strand is a poet whose work I've gagged on when I had to read him in college thirty years ago, and the effect is the same this morning with "Mother and Son". There is often something patently fake about  many of Strand's poems --so much exclaimed angst seems over rehearsed, severely so at times--and the sentiment he tries to get across, and for all the signposts that signify misery and hurt that crop up in this poem there is not a sense that he believes a word of it. He tries to be surreal and hushed in his lines, but his business is stagy and arch instead of evocative. He approaches his scenes as a scenarist would trying to pitch a movie idea to a potential financial backer.

The son enters the mother's room
and stands by the bed where the mother lies.
The son believes that she wants to tell him
what he longs to hear—that he is her boy,
always her boy. The son leans down to kiss
the mother's lips, but her lips are cold.

There is no empathy here, only declaration and instruction about how to appreciate what he intends. It fails even as journalism.This isn't poetry, but rather stage directions. In another medium, theatre, this might may add up to powerful, wordless acting, but it is without resonance as a reading experience; these are jottings, you think, notes at the margin of a page that might find themselves elaborated upon later, in a stronger, more vivid context.It has the feeling of summer reruns, something you've from this author before, and each exposure is more listless and bored than the last. Strand cannot purge himself of childhood images of death, and has used this seemingly autobiographical element as a running gag through his decades as published poet; there is a stifled fear and dread of death , detectable here in "My Mother on a Late Evening In August " and in "The Dreadful Has Already Happened" .The earlier poems are stronger , with greater vigor; despite the conspicuous aspects of wallowing in the mythology of traumatic childhood, Strand still writes with a power that achieves the quality of stifled terror. It becomes a different story decades later, when the sure footed moves of youth loose their grace and what was once grace of a sort becomes a leaden shuffling, wMithout uplift or rhythm. "Mother and Son" is the premise worn to it's thinnest , least viable point; if this poem were a floorboard, it would give under the weight.

The burial of feelings has begun.
This is not just a bad line, but resembles as well a grunting short hand of a writer who is too familiar with the situation he's committed to verse about over and over. In other genres Strand would be called a hack.
The son touches the mother's hands one last time, then turns and sees the moon's full face. It is a sure sign that a poet has nothing new to say about a subject if he or she employs "the moon" as the means to create an eerie mood, or suggest realities that mere human senses cannot register. One can't really ban the use of the moon as an image for poets since the phenomenon of the thing has so saturated our reference points that we would likely lose an entire literature if it were no longer available to writers to use at will, but one does expect some real work to go into the employing of such an accessible symbol. Strand's moon is something of a prop, a deux ex machina in which the white orb in the black sky makes things poetic and pregnant with nearly unsay able knowledge sans a human intelligence creating the psychological frame work for the aesthetic operation to achieve an effect of real meaning. That is the staginess of Strand again, directing our responses instead of engaging. He can be a bossy poet. For Strand, though, it has gone on too long, and it's unseemly that a poet his age still hangs around dead things in the night, refusing to let an old wound heal. But then again, more than a few poets enjoy picking at their scabs when they're looking under rocks for smoking guns.


Mark Strand's  prose poem The Enigma of the Infinitesimal  shows us a poet who want us to consider those people we all have seen (as he claims) who have a purpose driven life consisting of one goal, to get to the nothing between the noisy and multiple somethings the rest of us have to navigate with purpose:

You’ve seen them at dusk, walking along the shore, seen them standing in doorways, leaning from windows, or straddling the slow moving edge of a shadow. Lovers of the in-between, they are neither here nor there, neither in nor out. Poor souls, they are driven to experience the impossible. Even at night, they lie in bed with one eye closed and the other open, hoping to catch the last second of consciousness and the first of sleep, to inhabit that no man’s land, that beautiful place, to behold as only a god might, the luminous conjunction of nothing and all.

It seems clear enough for me that Strand is talking the desire for a personal oblivion without having to do any of the heavy lifting, that is, he wants to witness the area between the crowded materialism of the earthly plain and the over lit expanse of whatever form of Heaven is in the collective thinking. I think what he means is that he notices his own concentration on the scant inches between things piled on one another, the remaining centimeters of space that still exist before leviathans, politics and economics crowded up the earth with a seamless babble concerning what's important. No business, no church, no politics to decide for you how to spend your time, your imagination; he wants a momentary respite somewhere that is not sleep nor death but still free of static and the overflow of voices and traffic sounds. 

This , ironically, becomes something of a reason to live, to go on despite the horror of life's eternal drudgery; in a sense that seems very much like Samuel Beckett, these numinous creatures seek that space and that state that cannot be found nor reached even with the wildest imagination; all one can do is hatch new schemes, seek new cracks in the architecture, attempt to lose a little more of themselves in the details and the grain of existence in some wan hope that they might transcend the cluttered bounds of earth and witness the perfection of nothing there at all. It would be a kind of Heaven, unspoiled, unassigned, unreconstructed, not blemished a bit by any one's lisping conceit as to how the space is to be used, purposed, designed. 

One might imagine that this  Death Wish defined, the desire for death institutionalized in our personal rituals, but what we have, I think, is Strand grabbing onto to something that Beckett surveyed so well ; the desire to live becomes, instead, the obsession to keep the ritual in order and the tedium in place; while the waking ego expounds a poetic urge to escape the mundane and to live in radical proximity to the sublime elegance of negative space, the body knows more than the spirit and maintains the grind one would other wise claim murders the soul. The soul flourishes, the body would say, because of the tedium, the grind, the unending repetition of habits we've filled the world with; without the tedium there would be only a life that is nasty , brutish and short. The same old same old is the foundation on which our hopes of deliverance rest; without it, there would be no yearning for impossible things.What the poem implies is not an envy for the otherly shadow people seeking that negative space between the brick and mortar, but rather a desire on Strand's part to achieve something like death so as to be relieved of the grind and grunt of daily life. He speaks of them in the third person, but the awareness of their routines and their desires is intimate, it has the lyric yearning of someone speaking from their own experience.  

Even at night, they lie in bed with one eye closed and the other open, hoping to catch the last second of consciousness and the first of sleep, to inhabit that no man’s land, that beautiful place, to behold as only a god might, the luminous conjunction of nothing and all..  

The "lovers of the in between" seek to "inhabit that no man’s land, that beautiful place..." which , to my mind, indicates an obvious desire for something permanent. Not death, but death like, as I mentioned before. "Oblivion" , "near death" and the like are synonyms for Mark Strand's concept of "...the luminous conjunction of nothing at all." Strand's desire is for a permanent condition, what some might consider a zen condition where the ego vanishes and there is only oneself and the verythingness of the world, unadorned by materialist clutter. Still others might equate the poem's yearning with Pink Floyd's song title "Comfortably Numb". The idea is closer, in my reading, with the poems , plays and novels of Samuel Beckett, who managed to extract a dynamic literature from the monotony of existence; as with Strand's reluctance to embrace death by name, Beckett's characters become obsessed with an irresistible urge to transcend their bounds and yet refuse to upset the stratification they claim is killing their spirit. These people Strand speaks of , meaning the poet himself, are pursuing what they know to be an impossible goal; that way means that nothing in their life has to change.

It's one thing to imagine a fictional aberration, a shadow person, lying in bed , still awake, but Strand's detail belongs to someone who them self has spent nights half awake , half dreaming of a perfect, painless oblivion. This is not a prose poem expressing envy of anyone; although he furnishes distance with by avoiding first person in the telling, this poem is a confession, a bittersweet gushing of an impossible dream that underlies all other motivations to get through another day.

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying this poem, as Strand, since I first read him in the Seventies, has never been one of my favorite poets; he continually demonstrated a rather fine lyric sense that could make the banal details of a street, a room, a sound transcend their roots in the commonplace and suggest something more behind the utility of mere definition. His world seemed to pulse with significance that was tangible , conspicuous, yet hidden.

 He has been, though, too much of a worry wart for me, there was nearly always something terrible that has happened or about to happen or that didn't happen at all but the thought of which gave his poems a nervous, anxious quality that stopped being exhilarating after a few dozen poems . This, though, is a collected bit of consideration, a pause to remark on a personal mood that has nothing to do with catastrophes of fact or fiction and wonders instead not about the awful things that might befall his surrogate narrators but rather what it might be to consider a space that is perfect solely because it vacant. The nervousness, real and feigned, gives way to a poem perfect for someone who is tired of holding on to the hand rail too tightly.   I am not, though,thrilled by Strand's preference for the paragraph form--I have a fondness for prose poems and enjoy the writings of Whitman, Silliman, Bernstein, Goldbarth and Gertrude Stein precisely because the paragraph is the perfect way to have unlike things collide , conflate and fuse together in radically transformations; there is a sense of havoc being visited upon a number of worn out referential templates that are suddenly made to make sense in ways no one intended.

 The language gets a long and severe road testing there and we, I think, are better for it. Strand's poem, though, is not accumulation, not collision, but a pared down consideration, observation, revelation: I am convinced the poem would be more effective, powerful, lasting in memory if there were line breaks . I hear cadences that the paragraphed original cannot suggest. There is a human voice here, detectable, vulnerable and surprised at what it finds itself talking about, and one wonders about the breathing space between the sentences, the pauses. Line breaks would have the effect of slowing down the poem, to bring to the piece a tentativeness that is already there, waiting to be discovered by the reader who has an ear for such things. The paragraph is airtight and deadens the effect, at least at first. That first impression likely prevents more than a few readers from giving it a second scan.

Here is my version of Mark Strand's poem, "The Enigma of the Infinitesimal", with traditional free verse line breaks:  
You’ve seen them at dusk,
walking along the shore,
seen them standing in doorways,
leaning from windows,
or straddling the slow moving edge of a shadow.

Lovers of the in-between,
they are neither here nor there, neither in nor out.

Poor souls, they are driven
to experience the impossible.

Even at night, they lie in bed
with one eye closed and the other open,
hoping to catch the last second of consciousness
and the first of sleep,
to inhabit that no man’s land,
that beautiful place,
to behold as only a god might,
the luminous conjunction of nothing and all.

I understand the attraction of a paragraph over line breaks for a reader; Strand may be intending a seduction of sorts with the form he chose, luring an audience with something that looks familiar. The effect is that they would read something unlike what they usually come across in a brief, stand alone prose block.    A free verse form suggests the in-between state or nothing at all state that Strand addresses in the poem. On the left, there is an elegant murmuring about the neutral zone as a kind of mythic Eden , and on the other, the emptiness of the right hand margin, the white space. This would suggest that the world of things , noise and motion is along side the "the luminous conjunction of nothing and all".

Truthfully, I like noise, dissonance, blistering beats and bangs, cacophony of all sorts, screaming guitar solos, atonal saxophone pirouettes, collision prone drum work, pianistics imposing order onto uncontainable randomness. The scrape and scratch is the cadence of the urban life, due to either traffic congestion, jackhammers on every corner, crimes in progress, or downtown music’s ranging from industrial grate to loft jazz to post-vinyl hip hop; abrupt, big shouldered, bullying, the Futurist dream (or nightmare) of jettisoning the Present and blasting a tunnel through the mountain of complacency towards an unknown future. Or maybe even destroying the mountain altogether; what we can surmise, though, is that it
isn’t the future that is the matter of concern for anyone making this kind of noise, but the noise itself, the badgering, persistent barrage that will not give you a minute of quiet time. There is no room for reflection or  regret, there is only the task of making this    existence so unlivable that we will all eventually rise and demand Eden now, or at least aid in the destruction of those  technologies, customs and accumulated culture that makes the question concerning the quality of life a Moot Point.

But there comes the moment when I have to take a breather from being the frontlines of my combative aesthetic and seek tunes, poems, movies that provide respite from the grind; sometimes I wake up and think clearly for a moment that existence is already noisy and that my abrasive taste in tunes accelerates no inevitable dialectic.Fun as it may be, no universal good is being served. In fact, I am only adding to the clutter, in essence, becoming part of the problem. Sanity, for the time being, prevails , balanced on a thin sting, and my premature jitters seek , for a change, succor, not assault. The quiet side appeals to me as well, much as I love abrasive post-bop jazz improvisation ala Cecil Taylor or the raucous cacophony of Charles Ives;  there are those moods when what I need from art—and art is something which is a need—is a short harmonica solo, a small water color in a simple frame, or a lyric poem that dwells comfortably, musically on it’s surface qualities. One loves grit, but that doesn’t exclude finesse. Mark Strand’s poem here won me over with it’s surely played music.

My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer
by Mark Strand

When the moon appears
and a few wind-stricken barns stand out
in the low-domed hills
and shine with a light
that is veiled and dust-filled
and that floats upon the fields,
my mother, with her hair in a bun,
her face in shadow, and the smoke
from her cigarette coiling close
to the faint yellow sheen of her dress,
stands near the house
and watches the seepage of late light
down through the sedges,
the last gray islands of cloud
taken from view, and the wind
ruffling the moon's ash-colored coat
on the black bay.

Soon the house, with its shades drawn closed, will send
small carpets of lampglow
into the haze and the bay
will begin its loud heaving
and the pines, frayed finials
climbing the hill, will seem to graze
the dim cinders of heaven.
And my mother will stare into the starlanes,
the endless tunnels of nothing,
and as she gazes,
under the hour's spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.

My mother will go indoors
and the fields, the bare stones
will drift in peace, small creatures --
the mouse and the swift -- will sleep
at opposite ends of the house.
Only the cricket will be up,
repeating its one shrill note
to the rotten boards of the porch,
to the rusted screens, to the air, to the rimless dark,
to the sea that keeps to itself.
Why should my mother awake?
The earth is not yet a garden
about to be turned. The stars
are not yet bells that ring
at night for the lost.

Mark Strand is someone who often works overtime to make the small things he chooses to write about into subjects that are poetically overpowering. Though he wouldn't be guilty of some fever pitched overwriting that makes the work of Nobel Prize Winner Derek Walcott seem like a riotous thicket of over simile’d  commonplaces--it has been said that the prize winner has never met a qualifier he didn't fall in love with and promise a home to--Strand has always seemed to fall just short of adding an item too many to his verses.

He does have a leaner, more genuinely lyric movement than does Walcott, whom I find more ornate than satisfying. Strand , to his credit , doesn't obscure the emotion nor the place from which is figurative language is inspired, arch as it occasionally reads. Walcott the poet, the world traveler, the cultivated Other in the presence of an Imperial Culture, reads like someone how is trying to have an experience. Strand convinces you that he has had one, indeed, but that he over estimates the measure of words to their finessed narrative.

That said, I like this, in that Strand trusts what his eyes sees, a series of things his mother was doing in a wonderfully framed triptych that might have been conveyed by Andrew Wyeth. It is a little idealized--the lyric spirit is not interested in the precise qualifier, but that adjective or verb , that rather, that both makes the image more musical and reveals some commonly felt impression about the objects in the frame--but Strand here has a relaxed confidence that is very effective. Brush strokes, we could say, both
impressionistic and yet exact.

Soon the house, with its shades drawn closed, will send
small carpets of lampglow
into the haze and the bay
will begin its loud heaving
and the pines, frayed finials
climbing the hill, will seem to graze
the dim cinders of heaven.
And my mother will stare into the starlanes,
the endless tunnels of nothing,
and as she gazes,
under the hour's spell,
she will think how we yield each night
to the soundless storms of decay
that tear at the folding flesh,
and she will not know
why she is here
or what she is prisoner of
if not the conditions of love that brought her to this.

This is the image of someone going about there daily chores and fulfilling their obligations thinking they are out anyone else's view, or better, the agenda of someone who hasn't interest in impressing any set of prying eyes. The mother seems less a figure in solitude than she does to contain solitude itself, comfortable and with intimate knowledge of the grain of the wood the floor is made of, the smell of the changing weather, the different pitches of silence and what the nuances of small sounds forecast for that evening and the following day. Most of all, this is about watching the world, the smallest world , both grow up, grow old, become frail and die, finally, aware of the seamlessness of going about one's tasks and the preparation for the end. This is a poem about preparation, I think; we, like the Mother, come to a point in their life when the gravity of things are finally felt through accumulated experience, as one's responsibilities have been added too over the years, and one develops a sense that what one does isn't so much about setting ourselves up for the rest of our lives, but rather in preparing the ground for what comes next, who comes next.

Friday, November 8, 2019


ODALISQUE--poems by Mark Salerno
Mark Salerno offers a selection of noir-inspired sonnets that tell a tale of cop and a hooker who start up a relationship that takes us on a tour of a mythical, distant, black and white Los Angeles of contemporary time. Shifting voices, locations, presenting the city as an amorphous spread of contradictions--a site where generations have settled, started anew and quite completed the paradises they tried to construct for themselves--Salerno offers up a terse diction that works splendidly in the sonnet form. Like the champion scribes of The Big Orange  Raymond Chandler and John Fante ,Salerno has created his texture and tone as he writes of the places and things his erstwhile lovers encounter and pass through; a squandered chance, an exhausted idealism, a world view made directionless by relentless short term pragmatism. This is the poet's ear for the language we all speak that has continually denies and embraces the cluttered and conflicted urban chaos that distracts and drives them at the same time.
To be without believing or just forget the dreamas when a former odalisque too late to get luckysettles on a set table in a dingy outlying suburbshe told her soul to leave her alone and it did sochastened by the memory of true life in the far westand a little roughed up in consequence of feelingwhen giving up becomes one way of staying aliveI was M. dilatory in my wanderings and a lost manhustled by a cutie girl and drenched in flop sweatfor my anxiety to know the really real or breathe airbetween seeming and being of the way she said couple-yalong with all the other beauty school graduatescooped up and portioned out running gags and shtickto save a fairy tale as I have scrupled to aver.
There is a particular punch and power to Mark Salerno's sonnet style, at first reading as if it were an incoherent clash of radio stations competing on the AM dial. But as one reads, as one absorbs the terrain, the local businesses and street names, the voices emerge, masculine and feminine identities switching sensibilities, the monologues revealing all the moods, every defense, every method of inoculating oneself against the prevailing truth that greets many a visitor , many a person who has come to stake their claim on a landscape of slippery concepts.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019


Well, not dead, but in danger of losing street credibility because of its growing popularity as a default style among a generation of urban, street oriented poets. Like hip-hop, it's a brand name, not an attitude anymore, a commercial idea, no longer a community ideal. Slam poetry has arrived, and it bothers more than a few. The New York Times recently worried whether slam poetry was going soft and in danger of losing whatever potency. The slammers are virtually everywhere you go when you investigate the further reaches of what comprised the unincorporated, un-assimilated branches of contemporary poetry, but like rap, the style has become just that, a style, another among many.The anger, rage, the colloquial playfulness and in-your-face strategy that had made these bracing bards a phenomenon worth considering has become predictable. A large cause of slam's deadening is the monotony of presentation--choppy, click-track, scratch-popping momentum, hip-hop style, almost invariably defines the poets 'performance style. One tires of being exhorted to, waved at, lectured, or otherwise badgered to show the poet some love. The School of Quietude could offer a lesson to the young, the eager, and the impatient: dial it down, quiet it down, and don’t forget to breathe.
One poet after another seem to ape the maneuvers of the one who'd been on stage before them, only with their gestures, nonsensical accelerations and ramping down of recitation temp, their whoops and hollers, their sudden gushes of near rhymes and forced analogies pouring forth, unguided by nothing but gravity, like a collected detritus falling from a crowded closet. As with listening to streaming heavy metal rock on satellite radio, might have spent their time listening to the machines in a laundry mat. At least some clothes could get washed in the bargain.
What further kills the buzz with slam poetry is the incessant, braying, unreconstructed egotism of the poets who cannot leave the autobiographical style behind and place distance between themselves and the world they live in. Even in the bleakest situations, the sorriest locals, a poet worth their good graces could drop the personal pronouns and study the relationships of people, places and things without the need to intervene with declarations, objections, ineffective protests. As with the pacing and the cadence, the effect of nearly every poet delivering a hasty rant glutted with self referencing becomes an ironic form of group think--think of the old joke about someone attending a convention of Independent Thinkers.The poet has the right, sure thing, to talk about things in entirely whatever fashion they choose to, and solipsism isn't rare at all in the far-ranging universe of poets and their assorted schools, but variety, we think, would be expected from an emerging school of poetry. One shouldn't feel compelled to write and perform in the same manner. The might as well be wearing school uniforms, complete with a crest.Slam poetry gets tedious quickly, the reason for which is that it's a style that knows one style, one attack, one speed, which is staccato, in your face, and angry. This isn't to say that there isn't a good slam poet here and there, but so much of what gets called poetry in these settings (that I've seen anyway) is an unfocused rant declaring independence in what sounds little more than a string of bumper sticker and T shirt slogans focused on a particular audience who are in the early stages of developing their poetry taste. It's the conformity of non conforming, rebels gathered together in the same room, aggressively agreeing with each other.The in-your-face style and anger dominate , yes, and serve the purpose of drawing attention and making the speaker's agitation obvious, but with respect to the crucial matters slammers say they're dealing with, whether social justice, racism, rape, the performance style wearies the observer who isn't part of the mosh pit mentality that makes up a slam community . The injustices one tries to expose and address and the humanity they try to reclaim is more than obscured by the fidgeting exclamations coming from performers uttering their slogans at unnaturally high levels of throat stripping volume. The issues you bring up are reduced to an equivalent selection of talking points the RNC fashions when they sick their attacks on Democrats. At any point, the central theme of slam poetry is me and my anger and my right to express myself and you're not going to tell me what to do , man... It's a kiddie thing.
I would say that poetry is not supposed to do anything other than be a poem, to paraphrase Archibald MacLeish. You can't write a poem with it in mind that your successfully living up to a strict set of requirements; not and remain an interesting poet.I would say that emotions are what motivates the writing of poems in many instances, not the other way around as you perhaps mistakenly phrased it. An emotion, a mood, a thought comes prior to the writing, which is the poet's attempt to frame their experience , their perception. Some might argue that slam poets take the emotional subjects and seek to make the audience feel something beyond the page and podium from where the poet recites, but often as not the feeling is like getting hit by a car over and over again.Emotions are fluid , mercurial, gracing and cursing us with an infinite stream of sensation sublime, miserable and limitless variations in between, and the poet who seeks to do justice to the nuance of the feeling and their perception of it would attempt to find a language and the phrases that would get that fleet sensation across to an empathetic reader. In your face is fine if that's what is called for, but the constant barrage of anger, drum line pieces of rage, anger and pain makes one assume that perhaps some writers are cultivating their pain , refusing to allow their wounds to heal in some productive way, or that they pursue new miserable experiences for the sake of having something else to fit into their templates.
Anger dominates the idiom, and even it doesn't the pace has one speed, rapid, frenzied. It becomes monotonous; the real test of how good individual poems are is how they survive committed to the page, where the rhythms , cadences, pauses and euphonious effects resound in some idiosyncratic way in the reader's private sense of music. It should be, I dare say, something akin to a composition from which there are firm cues and structures that survive as literary art separate from the the author's / reader's projectile recitation. Even in the gentler, kinder, more ecstatic moods slammers might attempt, there is a feeling of wanting the experience to be over with. Rather than do justice to an experience, an idea, an emotional complex, too many slammers sound as if they prefer the crowd pleasing line, the cutting analogy than the sustained mood, which makes me think that the concern is less art than it is acquiring bragging rights. It's a tradition related to toasting, hip hop and such, and while it's a tradition of it's own making and standards, it's cursed with a monolithic ally monotonous style that seems more like the way Detroit used to think about the way they made and sold cars; the packaging was more important than what was under the hood.

Monday, November 4, 2019


photograph by Jim Marshall

An old peeve, this: Bob Dylan is not a poet.He is a songwriter. What he does is significantly different than what a poet does. In any relevant sense, the best of what poetry offers is read off the page, sans melody from accompanying guitar or piano and a convincingly evocative voice. The poet's musical sense, the rhythmic properties and other euphonious qualities, are derived from the words and their clever, ingenious combinations alone. A reader may appreciate the words, the rhymes, the cadences, the melodious resonance, and dissonance, as the case may be, but all this comes from the language of the poem alone, on the page, without music.The musicality we speak of when addressing such rich and soul-stirring sounds of nouns and adjectives conjoined has everything to with the poet extending the limits of everyday speech. You are able to read Shakespeare to full literary potential,I think, because his verse, in the guise of dialogue, still satisfies as writing , with metaphors, rhythms, cadences swirling and ringing to a heightened sense of what the complexity of human emotion can sound like if there were words, allusions, similes, and metaphors that could give life and texture for what are, in his plays, inchoate feelings brewing at some base level of the personality before the mind can give them an articulate, if flawed rationale.

It was the task of Shakespeare, the poet and the playwright combined, to give verbal music to what were speeches that made private thoughts, half-plotted schemes, inarticulate resentments, paranoia, the whole conflicting brew of insecurity, self doubt and malevolence into something that was the equivalent of music, a sweet and stirring sound that bypasses the censoring and sense-making intellect and which makes even the foulest of schemes seem just and only natural. The writing, that is to say, approximates music, from the page, and provides for a more complicated task when considering our responses to a provocative set of stanzas. Dylan is a songwriter, a distinct art form, and his words are lyrics, which cannot be experienced to their fullest without the music that goes along with them. One may, of course, hum the melodies while pouring over the lyrics, and mentally reconstruct of listening to songs off an album, but this proves the point. Of themselves, Dylan's lyrics pale badly compared to page poets. With his music, the lyrics come alive and artful, at their best. They are lyrics, inseparable from their melodies, and not poems, which have another kind of life altogether

Of themselves, the lyrics are flat and unremarkable save for their strangeness, which is not especially interesting in verbal terms. With music, voila! transformation. This is a condition that makes what Dylan does songwriting, not the writing of poetry. These are distinct art forms with features and rules of composition that are crucial and non-negotiable. Cohen is an interesting case, since he inhabits several writing mediums, IE, novels, poetry, plays music. He's not especially prolific in any of these areas--over the forty plus years that he's been on my radar his output has been meager, albeit high quality--but it occurs to me that he's more of an actual writer than Dylan is. They are different sorts of geniuses. Cohen, of course, is a novelist overall—“Beautiful Losers”, “The Favorite Game”--and a poet, someone wholly committed to making the words form their own music, rhythm and power so that the sort of splendid, soul-racked suffering he specializes in, that deliciously wrought agony that's midway between spiritual experience and sexual release, is fully conveyed to the reader and made as felt as possible.

Cohen tends the words he uses more than Dylan does; his language is strange and abstruse at times, but beyond the oddity of the existences he sets upon his canvas there exist an element that is persuasive, alluring, masterfully wrought with a writing, from the page alone, that blends all the attendant aspects of Cohen's stressed worldliness-- sexuality, religious ecstasy, the burden of his whiteness-- into a whole, subtly argued, minutely detailed, expertly layered with just so many fine, exacting touches of language. His songs, which I find the finest of the late 20th century in English--only Dylan, Costello, Mitchell and Paul Simon have comparable bodies of work--we find more attention given to the effect of every word and phrase that's applied to his themes, his storylines. In many ways, I would say Cohen is a better lyricist than Dylan because he's a better writer overall. Unlike Dylan, who has been indiscriminate for the last thirty years about the quality of work he's released, there is scarcely anything in Cohen's songbook you would characterize as a cast-off.

Cohen takes more care in the words he selects to tell his tales, as he creates his moods, as he provides a sense of location, tone, and philosophical underpinning while also working subtly working to suggest the opposite of whatever mood he might be getting at. Cohen is simply more careful than Dylan
in word selection, more discriminating; the architecture of literary influence is on display in the disciplined rhymes of Cohen's parable-themed lyrics, elegantly so. It is, to be sure, a matter of choice how a writer manages their word flow. Cohen's writing has a sense of someone who labors hard to make the image work, to have that image compliment and make enticingly evocative a scenario that starts off simple and then arrives at a moment of fatalistic surrender to powers greater than oneself, both sensual and spiritual. My feeling for Dylan's method is that he is an admirer of what Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac regarded as Spontaneous Bop Prosody, a zen-like approach to an expression where it was regarded that the first thought was the best thought one could have on a subject.

Good poets, great poets, are writers when it gets down to what it is they do, and it’s my feeling that  Cohen’s experience as a novelist, short story writer and playwright has given him well-honed instinct for keeping the verbiage to a minimum. This is not to say Cohen is a chintzy minimalist, such as  Raymond Carver, or that fewer words in a piece are, by default, superior to longer word counts; rather, Cohen just has a better sense of when it’s time to stop and develop a  lyric further.

Dylan's genius is closer the kind of brilliance we see in Miles Davis, where the influences of unlike styles of music and other elements-- traditional folk, rock, and roll, protest songs, blues, country, French symbolism, Beat poets--were mixed in ways that created a new kind of music, and required a new critical language to discuss what it was he had done with the influences he'd assimilated, and the range of his influence. It is possible to look at aspects of Dylan's art and find individual strands wanting--his lyrics may be unfocused or strange for their own sake, his melodies are either borrowed or lack sophistication, his singing is nasal and grating--but taken together, music, words, voice, instrumentation fused, one experiences catharsis, power and galvanizing mysticism in the best recorded moments. "Ballad of a Thin Man" is a flat, curious scribble of a lyric read by itself, but with the minor key intonations of Al Kooper's keyboard and Mike Bloomfield's interned guitar, coupled with Dylan's leering, snarling dramatization of the lyric, we have an art that is riveting n terms that are purely musical; yes, one might go on at length and create a cosmology of what Dylan's lyrical creations make of experience, but the emphasis needs to remain on the whole.

" It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"is a terrific, innovative song lyric, and as a lyric does not have the same power as a well-written poem has on the page when that lyric hasn't the music to give it momentum.The power of the lyric has a sustained "oh wow" element, one line after another summarizing the sad state of the Perfect Union, the Idealized world in harsh, ironic terms, each image and beat of the intoned images, critical, lively, surreal in a seamless mash-up of dissimilar concepts, are lifted, foisted, tossed to the listener by the steady and firm strums of the simple guitar Dylan maintains . Lyrics have their advantages and can be quite artful and subtle, but I maintain that they're a different art form; the words are subservient to the song form, where poems of every sort are autonomous, structures made entirely of language. (Unless, of course, you're a Dada poet just arrived here with a time machine).

"Desolation Row" and "Visions of Johanna", two songs from what I think is the center of Dylan's greatest period as a song-poet, if you will, likewise are not to make their fantastic excursions through Daliesque landscapes alone on the page, as flat print. Dylan's chords, his voice, and his forward-march rhythms are what make these extended lyrics become crisp and suggestive of metaphysical chaos under a thin the thin guise of civility and reason. Drums, organs, twangy and tuneless guitars, police sirens, his braying voice bring a dimension to the lyrics that aren't there without it. Dylan's lyrics especially--more so than Cole Porter, more so than Chuck Berry, more so than a host of his contemporaries--are not self-sufficient as page-poets are with their work. It can be argued that what Dylan has done is more complex, subtler and requiring a new vocabulary to discuss than what poets have done, and something I would subscribe to on principle. Dylan remains a songwriter first and foremost, and a poet only through loose analogy. In all, Dylan's lyrics serve the musical experience, the concept of a song, which makes Dylan a songwriter of genius, but not a poet. Poets, when they are writing poetry and not novels or songs of their own, are committed to making language, and language alone, the means through which their ethereal notions will be preserved. Success or failure on their part depends solely on how well they are able to write, not strum a guitar or croon a tune.

 I do admire the work of artists who remain interesting as they get older, but it is a fact that many writers, poets, songwriters do their best, most compelling work in their early years. Dylan is one of these--the greatest songs, in my view, were those that combined equal elements of Surrealism, Burroughs inspired language cut-ups, blues and rural south music vernaculars, and heavy doses of French Symbolism by way of Rimbaud and Mallarme. This gave his stanzas a heightened, alienated feeling of sensory overload, making him principle Lyricist of the bare existential absurdity that life happens to be. No one got to the infuriating heart of the sensation that life had ceased to mean anything after those matters that "mean" the most to us--marriages, friendships, tastes, financial security, spiritual or religious certainty--were changed, destroyed or simply vanished. Dylan's writing was of the individual suddenly in the choking throes of uncertainty, batting back encroaching gloom with the kind of swinging, poetic wit that reassembles existence. It is stance, a state, an aesthetic state of being that made it possible for him to fire on all cylinders for a good run of time. Generally, the poetic quality and intensity that Dylan produced in the longs on the list I made are a substantial body of work that lines up perfectly with and matches the strongest work by Eliot, Pound, WC Williams, Burroughs, Ginsberg. It is also not the kind of work you can keep doing for a lifetime; like Miles Davis, he had to. His mature work has quite often hit the mark and offers the long view of experience in an especially moving way. Just as often, I think he misses the mark and overwrites or is prone to hackneyed phrasing. 

There is much quality to the later songs, but as a body of lyrics, they are not among Dylan's greatest.
Dylan is called more often than not a poet because of the unique genius of his best lyrics; I don't think he's a poet, but a songwriter with an original talent strong enough to change that particular art forever. I do understand, though, why a host of critics through the decades would consider him a poet in the first place. My list are the songs I think that justifies any sort of reputation Dylan has a poetic genius. I like most of the songs mentioned above for various reasons other than the ones on my initial 35 choices; the longs there manage an affinity for evoking the ambiguities and sharp perceptions of an acutely aware personality who is using poetic devices to achieve more abstract and suggestive effects and still manage to be wonderfully tuneful. No one else in rock and roll , really , was doing that before Dylan was. On those terms, nothing he's written is quite at the level of where he was with the songs on my list; this list consists of the body of work that substantiates Dylan's claim to genius.
"Just Like a Woman" is one of the finest character sketches I've ever heard in a song. What's remarkable is the brevity of the whole, how much history is suggested, inferred, insinuated in spare yet arresting imagery. I rather like that Dylan allows the mystery of this character to linger, to not let the fog settle. It is the ambiguity that gives it's suggestive power and there is the whole element of whether the person addressed is a woman at all, but rather a drag queen . It's an open question, it's a brilliant lyric.

"Drifter's Escape "was on twice and is now a single entry. There is a concentration of detail in the lyric, a compression of Biblical cadence and sequence that makes the song telling and vivid not in it's piling on of stanzas, but in its brevity. He does the same for "All along the Watchtower", which I regard as a condensed "Desolation Row," a commentary, perhaps, from the tour bus just passing through; the tour guide finally tells the driver "there must be some kinda way outta here." What I regard as the true "poetry" of Dylan's music is in the earlier music, where he is spectacularly original in how he forced his influences to take new shapes and to create new perspectives. Post JWH, I just find too much of his lyric writing prolix and meandering, time-filling rather than revealing; the surreal, fresh, colloquial snap of his language has gone and is replaced with turns of phrase that are trite, hackneyed, ineffective;' they strike my ear as false. Even "Blind Willie McTell" , a song  that has been persuasively  defended by intelligent fans of Dylan's later work, strikes too many false notes for my tastes  Musically it  drags  and philosophically seems a victim of convenient  thinking,  a PC version of Song of the South; some of the imagery is simply cloying and seems more suitable more for Gone with the Wind than a poet of arguable worth
...See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell...
Really, that is awful, a dreadful presentation of atmospheric detail meant to create historical context and mood, but it trades on so many received ideas of slavery, racism,the south, et al, that the intent no longer matters. It strikes as more minstrel show than tribute. Had anyone submitted this to a serious poetry (or lyric) writing workshop, it would have been handed back to us for revision, with the advice that we rid the narrative of the creaky, questionable window dressing? "When I Paint My Masterpiece", in contrast, works wonderfully because of its lack of any messages about social justice. It works because it is a sharp, terse, vivid travelogue, vague and evocative in equal measure. The ambiguity and absence of relevance to anything other than Dylan's need to speak offhandedly about an in interesting time in the life of a particular character is what makes this song memorable.
Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece
She promised that she’d be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece

Perfectly natural language here, good and unexpected rhymes, telling use of local detail that give us color and history without sagging qualifiers to make it more "authentic", the lyrics are recollection of a trip, of places visited, of perspectives changing, a nice string of incidents in a language that sounds like a real voice telling real things, with genuine bemusement .
 Well, I had a feeling that the general good feeling this album conveys is that Dylan wasn't trying too hard to prove he's a genius. The record is straightforward and the language is remarkable free of affectation, a tendency that has plagued him, post-JWHI especially like "Sign in the Window"; it has the sincerity an actual and momentary acceptance of where one happens to be in a certain part of life, and offers a new set of expectations.  


The good news is that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The bad news is that the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Bob Dylan. Good because it gives an American the prize after a long wait for one of our own writers to be acknowledged. Bad because I have a difficult time thinking of Dylan as a writer as we normally think of them — poet, novelist, essayist, playwright.
Stephen Metcalf, writing in Slate, argues that Dylan, despite the conspicuous profundity of his innovations and the global, generation spanning reach of his influence, did not deserve the Prize because Dylan is not a man of literature, but a rather a songwriter, a lyricist, not a poet. I wrote long and agitated on topic in 2007, which you can read at length here .To summarize ,Dylan is a not a poet, but a songwriter who writes lyrics, an art now distinct from poetry which he has taken apart and reconfigured and put back together as no one else has done. Yes, I realize many will make the argument are historically connected in past ages, but that there has been a split between what’s done in song and what is done on the page quite a while ago and Dylan , for all his revolutionizing, did not bring poets back from under the shadow of Whitman. Dylan’s words really are stationary by themselves. Stationary, as in lacking rhythm, cadence, music intrinsic to the words themselves, not the strum of a guitar and the decoration of a piano.Reading them out loud, just reading, not singing, as if you were trying to recite a poem , and you’ll realize that they sound flat, non propulsive, absent of anything stress points or enjambments that make the lines soar of their own accord. There are a number of songs through his career that absolutely soar when recited yes, but hardly enough to convince me that his lyrics are a par with innumerable poets deserving of larger readerships, emphasis on reader.What Dylan lacks a proper category and here, I think, the Nobel folks shoe horn him into a classification that is and will remain an awkward fit.
I can’t buy into all that talk of “expansion” of a genre until it becomes transformed into another art. Going by that logic, we might as well award Literature awards to genius film makers and performance artists , just so long as there is some arguable aspect of writing involved. Dylan did revolutionize songwriter and is now one of those Bloomian giants casting a long shadow over a generation or five of songwriters to come, but his achievements are in music, not literature, the simple proof being that his lyrics, no matter the period or even the admitted genius of the material, is inert when read without musical context. Literature, the writing the Nobel should have been considering this year, does not do that. Regardless of the style or the politics or the aesthetic conceits of the author, words alone make the case, create the narrative, create the music that sways the reader toward an experience they’re unlikely to find in another medium. Dylan’s achievement is profound , I admit that, but he is a musician and a songwriter, grand and nuanced art in itself , and it’s cheating, essentially , for them to clumsily and arbitrarily give him an award he’s not actually suited for just so they can satisfy a fantasy of giving BD a Nobel Prize. The committee in Stockholm, of course, have the power to interpret their terms of qualification and then issue their justifications in the typically thin rearrangement of utopian cliches that would claim a connection between Dylan’s musical achievements and the already tenuous connection between the agonies of “serious” novelists, poets, playwrights and such and the Utopia creative acts will allow us to witness. As the Prize in Literature slides into further irrelevance, it seems that the legacy here is that we will offer Dylan a pass from harsher judgements (much of his post- John Wesley Harding output is over valued by critics and fans who dread the thought that Zimmerman was capable of trading in gibberish, cliches and plagiarized sources) and the debate will center instead on what cross section of bad judgments inhabited the judge’s collective mind set when they made their choice.
This is like a sports statistic with an asterisk after the name. It could be , as well, a slap to our face, considering a Nobel Judge Horace Engdahl, famously remarked in 2008 that American writers are second rate compared with their European counterparts” The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.” So rather than deal with our rich selection of poets, novelists, playwrights who are deserving , the award goes to Dylan. What this means is that given the amount of time its taken the Nobel Committee to come around and present one of our own as worthy of being a Nobel Laureate, we are pretty much assured that Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth are forever out of the running.