Monday, June 29, 2020


The tendency most bad modern poets have is the habit of spending too much time thinking of the right word instead of seeing what it is they're trying to describe. The problem is the idea of waking up and going into "the world" in order to find new ways to describe it. This turns phenomena into mere abstraction, detached lacking the means to inspire a fluid, convincing rhythm. I am hardly a nature boy, but I this is not just backward, but wrong, a rather thickheaded kind of approach to habits of mind that seduces the man or woman with the pen that they have, somehow, conquered the world and the universe beyond,and that they, the observer with dictionary, will order their precise words of their cement-laying impressions that will color their approach to existence in ways that too often are nearly always overdone, rarely undone. More useful, I think, is to ease off on the deadline pressure of feeling "required" to write so many poems on so many things over so many days because I am a "poet" (a term that has the fatal and forever reek of privileged, pseudo-spiritual narcissism I find myself forced to accept when asked the question "are you at poet?") and instead go about my affairs, be they financial, for pleasure, business, a hobby, a distraction, a bit of romance, bits of anger, selfishness, self-pity, selflessness, all the fluid qualities we have in day's work of being human--and then regard the experiences themselves, the details, the rhythms, reflecting in turn on the sorts of interactions I've had with the materialism of the day, how moods change, tempers soared, laughter rang out, sorrow conquering all. I try to write it down in ways that brings a sense of the kind of day it's been , not the the kind of day I bagged with a twelve gauge set of metaphors and easy verbs. The point of this, I think, is remind myself that "the world",whatever it happens to be under that pile cosmological blankets we've buried it in conceptually, does not care, as such, what I think, and that I've found another way to find surprise , beauty, humor in the otherwise strict monotony of each twenty four hours, or at least accept the lack of inspiration, which is is often, when this raw "world" I sing of seems merely flat and inane.

The walking companions , he hopes, continue to be interested in the bits and pieces of facts and mythical factoids even as he falls backwards, tripping over a rake, a tree root upending a chuck of sidewalk, a rake left by a homeowner gone to the backyard to fetch a basket for the leaves he's raked up. This poem stumbles greatly and does easily blend the informative, the mythic and the incidental and the   mythic, say literary, into the sort of casual, seamless streamlined elegance we praise Billy Collins or, even better, Thomas Lux. There are too many grace notes for this poet to include, I think. 

To walk so long with her in so much quiet
Then hear that unseen bird, whose name
I don’t know, wouldn’t know where to find,
Singing somewhere among the leaf sheen,
Was to realize why, when his beloved hero-killer
Resolves at last to die, Homer gives us
Not the laments the sea nymphs wail
But the nonsense song of their limpid names
He makes up: Limnoreia and Doto and Proto
And sometimes there are no words
And Kallianassa and Kymodoke and Maera
And sometimes no words could be sad enough.
Ashwing, Seedquit, Spotted Larmer:
Tee-way tee-wee tee-wooo you sang to us.

This is less about what the poet found out during a walk or what they saw that they hadn't seen before than it is about the poet's education; this is a world where everything he sees reminds him of something he's read , a tendency that seems like a condition rather than a bad habit. This poem is another bulging, overstuffed suitcase of intelligent chit chat, not a matching sock in the lot.A writer making use of other writer's work is not a tragedy in itself, but it is something that is fraught with risk. It's a delicate operation, as it goes, and it seems to work best when used with only the lightest, glancing touch, and the effect that works best, that is, seems the less preposterously over-thought, is when it produces an irony that might reveal how idealized and fallible our initial takes on people, places and things happen to be. Ideally, it achieves some insight about one's place in the world that does not bend obediently at the altar of art. Too often, though, the mentioning of other poems, poets, philosophies, spiritual precepts, traps the writer in an large, sealed container; he or she tends to mistake the sound of their voice echoing a stream of heady names and quotes to the the task at hand.

Spelman uses only one allusion, to Homer, in the work, and one can the problematic and brilliant TS Eliot as a poet who courted toxic levels of literary reference in is masterpiece "The Waste Land".One allusion this manhandled is too many, and I think the Homeric turn is a decisive move to force readers to consult old Penguin editions or Wikipedia. A poet as tin-eared as Spelman , as least tone deaf to euphony in this piece, seems to have a reflexive action that compels the writing to become about what he has read before, not about he is ostensibly trying to address .

 Harold Bloom has the idea of the anxiety of influence, a life long theory of his that states, simply expressed, that all writers are writing in the shadow of Great Writers before them, and that every poet, bar none, is writing in the shadow of Shakespeare. What makes the difference, though, is to what extent does one stop using literary allusions like badly planted foot notes along the stream of association and instead use the ideas as tools to tangibly pierce the veneer that cloisters our responses to events and circumstance. 

I would imagine greatness as being those writings that aid readers in imagining reality, life-in-itself, outside Plato's fabled cave. TS Eliot, with all his allusions criss- crossing each other in his non-linear lyrics, was obsessed with seeing the world as no one else had seen it;l he had a vision of it being arid, sexless, full of the desiccated ruins of religious , political and aesthetic dogmas that failed to keep the world vital , full of purpose, meaning and order. Antisemitic and racist though he was, his poetry is a beautiful expanse of mood and dour music. Unlike so many others, including Pound and the majority of his American and English contemporaries, he had grit, he had gumption, he had an ear for a world he heard spinning off it's gears. 

Sunday, June 28, 2020

a note for C.K.WILLIAMS

The publication of  C.K.Williams poem in Slate in 2012, before the online publication still had a tolerance for the most important art, generated this sentences, uncomplainingly succinct comments. I wouldn't even call it commentary, not at criticism. This is someone on bus talking too loud on the phone.

A sad fact is that we are a nations of shut ins, finally, no matter how much our media informs us that we love to go places and see things and get to know the doings of the indigenous in neighborhoods not our own. Perhaps we are, to a large extent, desperate for vacation and the illusion of having enough walking around money to spend some days in a generic hotel room, visiting corporate water parks in all fifty states.

Millions of us, though, are the sort who just channel surf until the end of the day, from time we get out of bed to the conclusion of all things concerning the twenty four hours that has just ebbed away like so many dust motes floating half seen on a breeze in a darkening twilight.  This where millions of us have our discussions of things going on, things that have happened, the political low down, the double crosses,the trends and the fads that make us stupider and less likely to call bullshit when bullshit is served. This is , perhaps ,a rich source for monologues among discontents who are on their  way out the door to the Big Room, and it has been explored to wonderful results in the work of Beckett--he had the genius to verbalize the death rattle in which the significant parts of a man's life is reduced to a repetitive , percussive stammer that never articulates as a memory truly forged.As I’m dragged down again into the ocean of cathode image-scum pumping out at me
    from the sewer-screen,rendering me gloomy beyond gloom, not beyond Berryman’s, please, but still, my tail is    lashing,fangs are unsheathing in the lining of my heart … Better turn it off—all of it, off.  Jesus    Christ, off!

C.K .Williams , though,in the grouchy poem linked to in the post title, merely seems in a hurry to deliver caustic comment on everything his gaze glazes over; everything is a target, nothing is sacred, nothing is revealed but a crank with a remote control and a room full of books. I imagine the cliched image of someone in a study full of books , piles of them, and and unsorted papers, unfinished writing assignments. The windows all have the shades drawn, save a tear or too that allows a thin beam to play intensely on a picture of an insane German philosopher who could never quite make himself understood. What I enjoyed about the poem was the exactness Williams captured the agony of the procrastinator who has increasing anxiety the more he plies himself with the internet, cable tv distractions and other items before he cannot stand anymore and summarily shuts down the monitor.

Thursday, June 18, 2020


It's a scene any introspective sort will recognize or feel empathy for; one is alone in a cold, dark room, staring out of the window, gazing at the stares and the spectral clouds passing over the face of full yellow moon, contemplating what there is beyond this existence. Is there something one goes to and finds an ironic eternity tailored by one's decided deeds on earth, or is there only dust, silence, a blank slate of non-being? 

This isn't comedy for self-infatuation by default, but exactly the kind of exercise the mind plays at when there isn't the opportunity to engage with the world beyond one's own skin, and it's not uncommon to wonder, once one is done with the cerebral gymnastics to sort through their obsessions, loves and losses, to finally ask the variations on The Question: when does this all end? What will I say if there is someone /something waiting for me? What legacy will I leave? What will the consequences of what chose to do and refused to do?

One wonders, one pauses to refresh themselves, one ponders, one writes a poem , one dreads, one begins a hundred different projects for fear of wasting what time remains on the Big Stop Watch.Thanatos brought to the personal level, where it hangs alongside the day's activities at work, lovemaking, paying bills, visiting museums and playing with grandchildren, is that chill one cannot shake from the bones. It is a tone in one's voice that one cannot rid themselves, it is a low grade depression that lingers no matter how hard we laugh. Death doesn't so much stalk us as it waits,in an inside coat pocket as an envelope we cannot open , containing the expiration date of our lives. The sum of many a man and woman's life has been how well or how badly they've adapted to the knowledge of the inevitable deletion of their life force; literature, in it's limitless styles, rationales, intentions, aesthetic rules and origins, chronicles to greater and less greater degrees how well one lives with the sour taste of their own death forever under the savoring of each bite of food and drink. 

Death's Doorman by David Bosch, turns this theme into a two voice theater piece, and it works, surprisingly enough, for such a gimmick-tending conceit. I well imagine the introspective sort I described earlier in the bathroom, late at night (although a sunny mid afternoon would do just as well) staring at the mirror , envisioning all sorts of after life scenarios, asking every question , poetic or merely dumb, that he or she can muster, trying to arm themselves with a knowledge where an unavoidable fate can be made tolerable. It's as if the interlocutor is trying to reserve the best seat on the last plane out of Hicksville. What returns , we see, are one word answers, like echos coming from a long , deep cavern, warbling refractions of what he or she had just asked, the keywords distorted and changed.
Would this be ambience, or atmosphere?
I hadn't expected such an emptiness!
An empty nest.
Do you open up before or after a good pandering?
Book, Web site, infomercial. Edginess must be catching.
So let me be the first to congratulate—
Too late.
What is it people seek in your utterances?
Other answers.
You knew Mozart. Before he decomposed—
He composed.
And Freud was your plumber. Conscious or unconscious?
Kein Anschluss.
But have you ever crossed over? You know, necrophilia?

This becomes a brief and bitter comedy, and is something Samuel Beckett would have written as one one of his radio plays, the usual scenario of a character frozen in habit or ritual , redundantly trying to revive some earlier sense of coherence from situations or things. Bosch's second voice offers no inside information, provides no clues, but rather deflects the inquiries with accidental puns. This is a piece that doesn't so much ends as it does stops , cold. It's seems that this inquiry could go on indefinitely, right to the grave, as the peculiar narcissistic loop provides just enough variation in the malformed responses, the echos, that one can proceed with it forever as if they were indeed closer to a Big Secret. Bosch is wise to leave the scene when he does, leaving us with a funny , if minor melodrama .

One can, of course, seize upon any of the questions and their responses and find layers of implication and hence unearth every deferred meaning, but I think that's part of what makes the poem work so well. Bosch plays on the human brain's insistence on making utterances contain more than surface references, and it is a nice trick he's pulled. The character, the interlocutor , is trapped in infinite regress with his questions, and the reader, as well, might be compelled to parse each pun and skewed return. This might ,then, be a comedy with two acts performed simultaneously.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020


An Emily Dickinson poem, No.443, has the cloistered poet speaking elliptically, mysteriously about her duty to her small labors and benign daily obligations in the wake of a personal catastrophe; her resolve to stick to her routine with an even greater conviction is an extraordinary will to power. Rather than surrender to grief and a long, tedious death knell, she confirms her existence by tending to the world that is left to her. It’s less than she is chained to her routine that she is liberated by them, elevated even. It’s a way to be engaged with things not related to matters of personal misfortune; through the tasks, small and inconsequential as they seem, are a boon to her. There are sound echoes of Samuel Beckett in this arresting poem, the similarities between a shared theme that we are creatures of habit, routine and appetite, that the motions we go through are the irreducible fact of our human condition. 

A Beckett reader from years back was called I Can’t Go On, I Go On, and bitter-sweetly so, as it is a phrase that summarizes the dry, splintered core of the Irish writer’s worldview. Without the compelling vision, let us say delusion of an overriding ideology, whether religion, political, economic, aesthetic, life is really little else but an eternal return to repetitive functionality. Even in disillusion, Beckett’s characters do not transcend, they do not change, they go back to what disgusts them and lose themselves in reveries of a past that seems to be only something they’ve read; the redundant tasking is the only anchor in the present time. Dickinson, though, was aware of the sheer repetition of her daily tasks and took them to be the things that make this life purposeful and with a shred of meaning, small and banal her small chores might be. It is the doing of the tasks, the chores, the run of things it takes to keep her household in order, that creates purpose — the well-worn existentialist notion that one accepts the consequences of one’s action through a form of creative commitment to the results — and it is in those moments, giving oneself over to a string of small matters that require daily attention, that she is engaged and for a moment outside herself, in service to something greater than herself.

The time ‘twill be till six o’clockI have so much to do —And yet — Existence — some way back —Stopped — struck — my ticking — through —We cannot put Ourself awayAs a completed ManOr Woman — When the Errand’s doneWe came to Flesh — upon —There may be — Miles on Miles of Nought —Of Action — sicker far —To simulate — is stinging work —To cover what we areFrom Science — and from Surgery —Too Telescopic EyesTo bear on us unshaded —For their — sake — not for Ours —

It is at that moment when matters are concluded for the day that our psychic bearing ebbs and we are returned again to the trembling , merely mortal flesh that trembles from the ceaseless self-awareness that one is alone and not the recipient of glory or attending serenity from on high; the mind chatters to itself, contemplating the stark uselessness of things; the more we find out about ourselves from the sciences, the lesser we seem in the grand scheme of an unknown god’s cosmos. Dickinson, the philosopher of the closed space, the metaphysician of precision, refuses to think of herself as lesser in comparison with the vast and unnervingly incomprehensible existence that lay far outside the walls of her Amherst home — this life of hers, these things in that life, were no less consequential as the rage for big ideas and larger, more complex constructions; her life was a matter of fact, of record, and it was for her to tend her minuscule bit of the world and finds with her dutiful attendance elements that link her with the larger chain of American endeavor, a culture and economy that’s locked itself in the present tense, defining itself with the tasks they undertake, the ones they finish, the new ones they begin. There is the question if Dickinson is speaking of herself alone or instead turns the person into a general worldview, as in the way she skillfully switches from the first person to plural in her narration. I think that Dickinson’s subject is herself alone and that the I and we of her poems — when both occur — are interchangeable; it’s not an uncommon trait that those who prefer their own counsel and company would refer to themselves in the third person. Caesar did it with powerful effect in his De Bello Gallico, Henry Adams revived the technique in his Education of Henry Adams, and Norman Mailer exploited the style wonderfully until he wore it out in an intriguing series of autobiographical testaments. It’s a wonderful device, as it allows one the distance to address speak of themselves with more intimacy and less modesty than a first-person narration might. It can also be a convenient way to ease the reader into a writer’s point of view by treating oneself as if he or she were a fictional character; it eases the sting of obnoxiousness, provided there’s an attractive style. Dickinson, though, wasn’t concerned with an audience and seemed, in my reading, to switch to a Victorian plural to dig a little deeper, prod her memory a little harder. It was a technique with which she could crystalize her contradictory responses to her still universe. Nothing went unnoticed, everything was framed in the narrative distance, amazing things from the minute domain were revealed.

Where Beckett offers us a body of literature that informs us that the condition of humankind is a prison house of rote tasks performed without variation by a species that’s been harassed and hazed to a devitalized race of doddering amnesiacs, Dickinson is of heartier stock, a chronically depressed Irish cynic contrasted against a Yankee that will not lay down and die and which embraces Life however insignificant it might seem. Some junior high school existentialism creeps into this cursory discussion: The central issue comes down to the essential existential paradox, from either the spiritual or atheistic; one is ever not free, regardless of circumstances or forces that one finds themselves subject to. There is always a choice that can be made in even confined and restricted circumstance that cannot be taken away. Sartre, from whom I first gleaned the idea, exaggerated in his emphasis in his attempt to undercut determinist currents thought to rule human behavior — religion, economics, biology — and insist that man is ethically bound to make his creative choices and accept responsibility for the results and consequences. He sounds a bit like the lunk-headed Ayn Rand represented this simply, and there are far subtler aspects of his thought as you know, but the point here might be that Dickinson saw her closed in circumstances in the aftermath of her catastrophe but instead as the time to reconsider and reclaim a life that is hers and which has only the meaning and purpose she brings to it. It was her way, I read, of refusing to languish on a past she might be chained to, and to free her, as well, from the anxiety of a shadow future. She frees herself by giving herself over to her present circumstances, attentive, aware, alive, small as that life might be. Small, yes, but her life, uniquely Emily Dickinson’s.


Emily Dickinson was cryptic for reasons known only to herself, I’m afraid, but I'm of the mind that she intended her compact lyrics to be interpreted any number of ways. Irony, contradiction, revelation; her poems move along general the general theme that one’s thinking, Dickinson’s, evolves with time, gently or brutally, and that the time to be a witness is finite. 

Nuances and whispered implications abound in her work and, beyond a loosely gathered bit of conventional wisdom about ED’s general themes and concerns; there is plenty in her work to warrant continued, fascinating and inconclusive opinions about where the center of the poem, it's motivating core and precise details lie. But what is also fascinating and important to speculate is what’s not included in the poem; what is outside the text is a worthy subject of investigation/speculation. I've heard it remarked more than once over a few decades that Dickinson appears to be talking to the air around here, oblivious to whether there are others around her who might hear her address intangible thing about equations that can't be quantified with locked-down certainty. 

 It is an element that makes ED contemporary to this day, as a body of work that still resonates with a modern readership discovering a wit, an insight, a corresponding feeling in her splendidly fragmented manner. My information is nothing else but my own reading gauged against my own experience, both as citizen and poet. What I’ve said I have found in the text, really. Literary commentary is not science, and it is pointless to insist on anything like “back to the data”. Historical context for poems is fine for perspective, but language is a living thing, not stagnate, as you know, and ED’s word choices. I am convinced that there are meanings in great poems that those most great poets were entirely unaware; poetry is an intuitive process however much a crafted discipline comes into play. 

There is the superficial element, the glitter, the dazzle, the alluring set of phrases that seem to say one thing, and then there are things that combined suggest and point toward matters perhaps the author might not have known of, let alone the reader. That is the joy of criticism, a rage of interpretative opinions based on the text. I fairly much reject definitive, “authoritative” interpretations of works of art. I do, though, welcome contrary views and insights. 

That's a major reason why I finally surrendered to the singular genius of this poet as a poet of ideas; where the descriptions of manufactured melancholy and text book irony wore out with the idioms they rode in in, Dickinson , like Shakespeare , to a large  degree, remains contemporary with a language that is unique, in a form that eschews what formal instruction demands and which services a poetry that remains relevant to the modern age, what ever decade a reader is sitting in, reading a poem off the page or device; the mystery of existence is intact and vital. Dickinson still provides the reason to say aha, she still creates the chill of recognition. 

Society for me my miserySince Gift of Thee—” 

Dickinson, as I understand her, was not a fan of humanity, and preferred her thoughts and her privately considered things to the clamor and debate of the many that would battle over the right to name the world and its contents as they think it should be. She kept her own consul and had no patience for what others thought or thought of her. Being public was a burden beyond what her personality desired; in this couplet, which I suspect is a couplet, she considers the state of being noted, notable, famous for any reason a misery that she ought not to suffer. Being known beyond Amherst was an undeserved gift to the world, as a reputation that accompanies fame presents the world with a readymade narrative of someone’s life and presented her with the problem of having to live up to a plot line that she felt had nothing to do with her. Being comprehended or understood by the masses was a useless option for her. 

While Dickinson wanted to everyone to mind their own set of affairs while she tended her own piece of the earth, Pound, again, wanted to have language be capable of getting an image exactly, as would a photograph; the thinking is that he wanted to get beyond the metaphysical conceits that an older poetics contained. On the face of it this seems admirable, but what he wanted to do was to have the world see the world as he saw it, precisely, without romantic resonance and the nuanced variations that come with the habit (and the political tumult as well). He wanted to settle matters quickly and have folks move into a new, dynamic direction. Essentially, I believe his basic goal with his project of boiling down the language was an effort to turn whole populations into cattle.


Emily Dickinson, the mistress of compressed reflection, advances her belief in the probable darkness that follows death when she write on the subject of the immortality of poetry. As with much of her work through her harbored life, there was a preoccupation with the concept that sheer nothingness awaited each of us. There was no "passing over", there was no seat next to God despite sermons and summons to behave righteously, there was no ethereal vantage point to see what writings were still read, which had been scrapped, which we rediscovered. Death was not a "state" one lapsed into as if it might be something one might come out of again; it was entirely non-being, bereft of potential. The fate of a poet's work, in popular regard and currency, were to be unknown once the lights went out. She doubtless refers to her own work with these lines:

The Poets light but Lamps—Themselves—go out—The Wicks they stimulate—If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns—Each age a LensDisseminating theirCircumference—

She seems to assert that the poem survives , if it is vital, and with that the meaning of the poem changes with each generation that it passes through. Author intentionality is relevant only when the poet is still alive and is around to make further arguments, write more poems to expand or contract their original thesis. Afterward, what the author intended to say, what they originally meant, becomes merely historical, and the poem assumes a life independent of it's author's particulars. The poem, because it is vital, is adapted and absorbed by each succeeding "lens" "circumference" it passes through; vital poems and vital literature in general are a means for which the intellectual and cultural givens of age can confirm or critique the legitimacy of their habits of mind.
The text of the poem, or the author's thinking and intentions, cease being the end-all and be-all of interpretation, since the work's passage through generations of readers and discourse presents a contemporary audience with something layered and laden with meanings and associations that are not easily dispensed with.

The dialogues of a vital work have become as much a part of the poem as the actual words on the poet's tablet, freshly writ. This makes Dickinson quite contemporary in her thinking, since it reveals an awareness that there is no metaphysical certainty that will lock her work's definitive and final meaning into place, for all time. Rather, she was aware that, seemingly, that so long as a poem continues to be read, it continues to be changed, revised, altered. She would have been an interesting person to discuss reader-reception theory with. I don't mean to say that what trying to grok what Dickinson is driving is impossible or useless; I think I overstated that part of my rant. Rather, I think it's impossible to read the poem in situ, by itself, sans outside references, which is how New Critics would have us take up the text. Generations of discussion and interpretation have become inextricable from a vital poem and, though one may well re-establish a poets original set of concerns and the gestalt from which their poetics originated, that is not a place modern readers can profitably dwell for long. Our readings must engage decades of previous readings that have become inseparable from the vital work.

The goal is comprehension, in terms of making a poem mean something to readers beyond the poet's imagining, and that means creating new contexts and criteria for relevance. That is something I positive Dickinson, always one aware of the nearness of death, had on her mind. Or something akin to it. I don't think Dickinson anticipated immortality, but it seems likely that she wondered how her poems would be interpreted beyond her life. She seems to have been of the mind that the poems ,'though fixed, as such, in the same scale of words, wouldn't be quite the same poems she'd written. Absent her voice to correct an erring view, she was aware that the poems would come to mean different things to commencing generations 

don't see ED as romantic either, but rather as someone who was doing the best they could do with a personality and temperament she couldn't help but have. Her reclusive life was her choice, and in that decision she was fulfilled, with her books and her writings. It's unfair to characterize it as "wasted" if she didn't strive for anything beyond her home in Amherst. It may well be that she was incapable of adding to the social good beyond her writing; not being a social creature, reticent to meet others and loath to travel , she wasn't inclined to engage others with ideas, projects or causes. There was nothing there to waste. Some folks are just like that, I'm afraid, shut ins with their hobbies and obsessions, doing the best they can do with the solitude they crave. The judgement of history is that Emily Dickinson has done substantially better than most who don't often venture into the light, whether sunshine or moon glow. Since her poetry is the direct and desired result of the reclusive life she chose, it really is impossible to contemplate how her extraordinarily odd and often brilliant verse without considering, speculating and opining what that life was like. She is Emily Dickinson, who left the world a bounty of work that's been mainstreamed more than any other American poet and, as such, she has no right to privacy. I am of the school that says that a poet on her level of recognition needs to have everything about their life and work scrutinized so we can a better idea of what that greatness is. This includes her sex life, or lack of it: it has a bearing on the tone and style of her work.


There is an ongoing project among a current generation of critics and poets to make the ever baffling , provocative and incontestably brilliant poet Emily Dickinson a less problematic figure in the American literary terrain. Famous for her reclusive lifestyle and extremely selective preferences as to who she had personal contact and communication with,  some effort has been made to make  her a more human, more public figure. The publication of the handwritten "envelope poems" is the latest in the trend to bring her into the sunshine. I welcome the addition of more , previously unknown verse to her body of work, but the insistence on publishing them with careful rendered photos of the actual pieces of paper to be evidence of a growing fetishism; it seems less an effort to bring more insight into the words than it is , say, for an obsessed reader to imagine a real person who might have written these things in states of meditative reflection. That makes the book more stunt than an essential unveiling of  unknown poems. I wish there was a book merely with the poems printed, without the clutter. Here the result, for this   reader, is that the more I find out about her, the less is revealed. 

 Emily Dickinson was cryptic for reasons known only to herself, I’m afraid, but I am of the mind that she intended her compact lyrics to be interpreted any number of ways. Irony, contradiction, revelation; her poems move along general the general theme that one’s thinking, Dickinson’s, evolves with time, gently or brutally, and that the time to be a witness is finite. Nuances and whispered implications abound in her work and, beyond a loosely gathered bit of conventional wisdom about ED’s general themes and concerns; there is plenty in her work to warrant continued, fascinating and inconclusive opinions about where the center of the poem, its motivating core and precise particulars lie. But what is also fascinating and important to speculate is what’s not included in the poem; what is outside the text is a worthy subject of investigation/speculation.

 It is an element that makes ED contemporary to this day, as a body of work that still resonates with a modern readership discovering a wit, an insight, a corresponding feeling in her splendidly fragmented manner. My information is nothing else but my own reading gauged against my own experience, both as citizen and poet. What I’ve said I have found in the text, really. Literary commentary, of course, is not science and it is particularly pointless to insist on anything like “back to the data”. Historical context for poems is fine for perspective, but language is a living thing, not stagnate, as you know, and ED’s word choices. I am convinced that there are meanings in great poems that those most great poets were entirely unaware; poetry is an intuitive process however much a crafted discipline comes into play. There is the superficial element, the glitter, the dazzle, the alluring set of phrases that seem to say one thing, and then there are things that combined suggest and point toward matters perhaps the author might not have been aware of, let alone the reader. That is the joy of criticism, a rage of interpretative opinions based on the text. I fairly much reject definitive, “authoritative” interpretations of works of art. 


Writer Charles Bukowski spent several decades writing about three or four things, which were drinking, staying drunk, screwing drunk women, playing the horses, and drinking. His was not a large world, and after reading a raft of short stories,three novels and five of his plenitude of poetry collections, it's safe to say that he'd run out of things to say about the redundant activities of his life. Hence,his redundant themes and the waning energy of his work as his life wore on, with he waiting for it all to be over with. Young people love him because Bukowski is as close to an actual nihilist any of them are likely to encounter in American fiction and poetry. His principle failing is his unwillingness to think harder or differently about the world of drink, cigarettes, whores,race tracks and flop houses and bad sex. This poem, as it goes, goes through the typical moves and ends on some winsome sigh about lost opportunity, faded youth, mauling over of some psychic pain that is somehow aimed at making us understand why he is such a luckless asshole. Ironically, few writers have been as lucky as this guy, lucky in that the game he ran on us held up all these years, and that it still has enough allure to sucker yet another acolyte who just entering their drunken -brutishness- is -authenticity phase. Bukowski was good at one point in his life, but his lack of interest in the word outside is few blocks of Los Angeles made him progressively less interesting as his years and books wore on.What is distressing is that he decided rather early on his career to rewrite "Love is a Dog from Hell" and "Ham on Rye" for the remainder of his life, marking his work as the stuff of a man who whore'd his talent to become salable to an audience wanting to seem literate without actually doing any reading beyond a certain depth or page length.I just can't shake the feeling that Bukowski's version of despair and beatitude is more a symptom of cornball fantasy than something felt from the gut, or the heart. He exhausted that vein long before he passed away. He makes me think of someone who creates enormous amounts of anxiety because his life essentially static, full of non-events, sad variations on daily behavior, and rather than go mad and destroy something, he tries to pass off the nagging vibe by writing alot, in a reserved, occasionally effective prose; still the, fantasy did not resolve what I think were his real symptoms. The themes did not change, the moral of the stories were the same funny/sad/fuck you bits of flophouse grit. One realizes, after a bit, that the only thing Bukowski did successfully, besides write the same story over and over, was grow old.


Some remarks from Barry Alfonso, writer, scholar, college chum, in parentheses. He was responding to an earlier post, The Tedium of Bukowski.Barry is, I need to say, one of the smartest scribes on matters of literature, culture and music, and that world needs more of his brand of nuanced clarity:

BA:Mostly, Charles Bukowski must stand guilty of the primary charges you level against him. I would question whether he truly prostituted his talents – there is something obsessive and nearly pathological about his concentration upon his themes and (I suspect) widening his subject matter would’ve been the true act of selling out. On his spoken word album Hostage, you can hear him snapping back at his bum-bating audience in an act of both self-exaltation and self-abasement. He allowed himself to be everyone’s pet wino and rages at his captors even as he allows them to pet and tease him.

TB:Vincent Canby once described Heaven's Gate as being, to paraphrase, a forced tour of your own living room, and in that vein I think that after we've gotten well acquainted with the contents and results of Bukowski's chosen life and have gone through our phases of admiration and praise for his integrity, we have the author continuing to go on and on further still about his drinking, his hangovers, his loses at the break, his broken heart, his bittersweet take on the daily grind. His poems are in a minor key. It's ironic that a writer who projected the air of wanting to have nothing to do with people couldn't help but fulfill audience expectations.

BA:But what I REALLY want to remark about here is your comment that young people continue to love Bukowski for his near-total nihilism. Complete negation of all values except grim survival and base self-indulgence is one way to term his philosophy. But I would also say there is an astringent quality to his work, an attempt to scrub away things false and unnecessary, akin to the Clorox used to bleach out piss and vomit stains from a skid row hotel.

TB:I'd say that "astringent quality" and the principled refusal to buy into a Big Lie are best evidenced in is novels, like "Ham and Rye" and "Hollywood", where there is less chance to sneak out of a scene on the slippery ellipsis his sort of free-verse poems provide him. Biographical detail and a sure eye and ear for making something artful, humorous and moving from a life of squalid fact forces him to finish a scene and develop a story. It's his poetry that presents the problem, mostly because it's these things by which his reputation is made and through which his readers, old and more recent , know and remember him: a one and half dimensional character who reiterates variations of the same monologue. You can make the case that his poems are appealing because of their bare-light bulb nakedness--a harsh light thrown on the tawdry, tacky, pathetic skid row of emotion that lurks in the looming shadow of corporate versions of American prosperity--but by my thinking Bukowski's repetitive themes and outcomes constructed another sort of false front, albeit one less crushing than the weight of a collapsed financial system. He goes on as the fatalist, on and on about how he cannot escape basic intractable facts, but he made a reasonable amount of money from his writing and could well afford to do something things other than exist at a minimal level and continue to wallow in a misery he nurtured as though it were a prized animal.I wouldn't say that he was dishonest--that's too harsh--but I think he lacked a courage to try something different as he aged. He suffered the consequences for his failure to change; he became predictable and without a fresh insight , the feeling he might have surprised himself.

BA:I will go a step further and assert that this commitment to the absolute minimum of what it means to be human is far, far more moral than, say, the philosophic assertions in the work of T. S. Eliot. Eliot used his erudition and great stylistic gifts to support a world-view of sweepingly negative and unwholesome dimensions. By mocking modernity and extolling an imaginary idealized past, this para-fascist did far more damage to the values embraced by the literary-minded than anything Bukowski could ever hope to do.
Eliot is frequently condemned as an anti-Semite (which he appears to have been), but his even greater crime is to slash away at the values of democracy and individualism in the service of submission to empty authoritarian symbols. In one of his critical pieces, Eliot condemned “the myth of human goodness which for liberal thought replaces the belief in Divine Grace.” This is not nihilism – it is worse than that. The fact that this arch reactionary used the techniques of modernity against modern society itself makes him all the more destructive and, in a real sense, hypocritical. By celebrating a pseudo-theocratic Shangri-La, he set up High Church so lofty as to make aspirations to progress and social improvement by mere humans seem futile. Bukowski’s bleakness is something for the reader to internalize and pass through – it can be recognized for the street-level, hard-knocks musing that it is. Eliot – the high brow snob who probably never puked on his shoes in his life – dishes out something that sticks in the mind far more insidiously.

TB:Eliot is one of the less-appealing poets I can think, in terms of what I can draw from his personality, and his antisemitism is a loathsome thing one cannot ignore, but we're confronted with a nest of conservative, anti-democratic, anti-Semitic vileness as regards the generation of poets he came up with , so one go to the work itself and find what there is in it that transcends (ugh, what an awful and nearly bankrupt word) their worst habits of mind and stands out as something that assigns a clarity to those unnameable shifts in mood and tone that would characterize a historical moment. Eliot, I think, does this well enough and gets across the pervasive soul sickness and profoundly alienated response resulting from the accelerated expansion of technology into economics, the home, the fighting of war, matters that those philosophers from the right and left were attempting to comprehend and do something about. Eliot the critic has been a hodgepodge of notions that argued quite against his own innovations--he longed for an orderly world where everyone simply did as they were told in their assigned life stations while they blessed and brilliant left to do their bit unfettered and undeterred—and it's noteworthy that he couldn't quite come up with a theory of literature or culture that could sustain itself beyond its parochial set of assumptions about The Fall of Man from Grace.He wants to lay the blame on democratic institutions and longed for a charismatic personality in politics to assume the force of Christ, less for salvation than to enforce an order on a chaotic planet.

He was a pruned up little fuck of a human being, of course, but in his poems, not his theories, we get his genius in full play, where he vents an honest vision of the disconnected and splintered feeling Modern Times forced on bulging populations. His poems were subjective, yes, but this was an element that had been ignored and overlooked or otherwise discounted as indulgent by many a poet taster of the time, and it was Eliot's general intent to give voice to the "rhythmic grumbling" , a voice that struck a wide cord of recognition among a growing body of readers. So that's his worth, found in the poems, "The Waste Land", "Ash Wednsday", "The Love Song of J.Arthur Prufrock", and so on. It gets said at times that if one talks long enough , they will happen upon some language that's free of an unmentioned agenda and express something resembling actual speaking truth to power. That is what Bukowski and Eliot have in common, having a body of work that contained the stuff from which a reader can know something about a world that will not conform to their expectations. My basic point is that Eliot had the larger gift and less in his actual poetic work that betrayed itself.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020


I was glad to read that  Louise Bogan remark that her poem, ‘Women, was written when she was in her twenties and revealed what, she infers, is a not-unusual bitterness of intelligent young women feeling frustrated, restricted, defined and contained by her gender. Reading the poem, and listening to the audio kindly provided, it was a relief knowing in advance that her views of her own sex “had improved”. What Bogan provides is a sharp and sure blade of metaphor against women in general, for their willingness to participate in their own oppression.

“Women have no wilderness in them,
They are provident instead,
Content in the tight hot cell of their hearts
To eat dusty bread. … ”

image of Poets Prose: Selected Writings Of Louise BoganThis is as an acute damnation as I’ve read, wickedly sharp, delivered in a masterfully sure stroke; there is an anger here that has sharpened her swing, The spare, cleanly delivered lines and uncluttered imagery reflect an irritation that has been mulled over and considered, pros and cons measured, the complaint reduced to a neatly consolidated statement to which response is difficult. Women have no fields in them, no inner sense of the world outside them, nor a curiosity of the lives that are outside their sphere of self-reference and gratification. They are, rather, provident, little else but skeletal abstractions of consciousness unto which the ideas of others, by implication the doings of men of industry, political where with all and sexual domination, are grafted upon, seeded upon, constantly turned over as the musings and distractions of Masters change at the slightest whim. Bogan’s judgment is severe and short-sighted as to the extent women allow men to define, contain and direct their lives, but this is an account of someone who, though perhaps too close to the contentiously emotional heart of the issue has, ironically, learned her lesson from Master Hemingway, delivering with relish a superbly honed rhetoric that condemns a self-induced stultification of her gender. Rather than take the plow and make use of the field for their own desires and pursuits, she finds her sisters

“They wait, when they should turn to journeys,
They stiffen, when they should bend.
They use against themselves that benevolence
To which no man is friend.
They cannot think of so many crops to a field
Or of clean wood cleft by an axe.
Their love is an eager meaningless…”

They wait for the muse not to come them, like their own idea, hunch or inspiration, but instead to be given to them, like school uniforms and a script to follow. They are consumed with fear, the fear of a loss of security and someone else’s idea of their worth, creating a collective anxiety that converts the collective anger about the oppression into self – hatred, self-debasement. The poet sees this clearly and what Bogan does is present images that imply nothing else but a serial sacrifice of personal ambition, desire, and potential. The inner life of women, this poem, is barren, there is no wilderness to conquer and define in one’s own image, women exist merely as an adjunct quirk of the collective male psychology, a means to gratify an odious male end. Bogan’s poem, years after the heat and convulsions of the blended Civil Rights movements–blacks, women, gays–has subsided and whose goals and values have lodged, to a degree at least, in the mainstream of the culture, this poem remains a potent polemic. It is political without didactic-ism, it is philosophical without abstraction. It has a direct language that finds profundity in the absence of profound sounding words. It is a poem of a near-perfect craft. This is not craft at the sacrifice of emotional power, though; the ire has the sting of a bad memory as the narrator announces her grievances about the seductive fallacy of women making themselves lesser than men.I was just entertaining the idea of adding more to my post here, emphasizing that what Bogan has done is create craftsmanship without sacrificing the heart of the matter, her heart, her feelings. I find the poem wholly convincing as felt experience; the resentment is palpable.

 So many poems, particularly those of the New Formalists, are flawless in their structure and technique but lacking in emotional resonance or even give any idea that the poet knew what it was he or she wanted to talk about. The points in that kind of poetic origami are minor at best, outlines of an experience otherwise sacrificed on the altar of technique. Bogan does not vanish from the poem, her voice is there–I would that her speech in the poem, her cadence, is that of someone who, while angry, wants to make a declaration that is clear, articulate, and understood, in a spare language that is accurate. It is a fire that continues to burn and still ignites passion, debates, discomfort in the reader, from then to the current day. Her accomplishment is that her craft turned into her irritation into an accurate diagnosis that has not lost its relevance. That is not an easy thing to get across.

Monday, June 15, 2020

BORN INTO THIS: a documentary on Charles Bukowski Bukowski - Born Into This: Charles Bukowski, Bono ...Bukowski: Born Into This on DVD, a documentary on the writer by John Dullaghan demonstrate why fans should be leery of meeting a writing hero, especially if said writer specializes in writing about boozing, whoring, bad jobs, pain, despair, bad luck and bad faith: fairly soon the charm of the man falls away during the classic interviews collected here, and we're given a grim picture of an irritating and maddening personality who could do one thing well, which was to write about his life long fuck ups and regrets. Bukowski's writing was limited and his books are something a reader wanders from after an infatuation of the one-trick genius,but the film leaves you with the feeling that way he wrote about the world he knew was singular and will survive many coming trends and fads in writing life.I'd never say that Bukowski was without art or the transcedent grace of the true poet.Lew Welch said you don't write unless you can't do anything else, and in that sense I suppose suppose the one thing the man could do was understand his pain to it's sharpest , needle point jab and then to tell the truth of it all in a voice that was undercoated and splintered. There is beauty in his verse, but his scope was so narrow that I fear over the years he began to write poems and tales according to what he knew were audience expectations. It's an over cited quote from Frederich Engles, but it bares repeating here; quantity diminishes quality. The poems , I think, were a bit too easy for him to compose on the fly, and this is why I think Bukowski's lasting contribution to American letters is his fiction, especially Post Office, Ham on Rye and Hollywood. Fiction is harder to write, and the world of Henry Chinasky, as Buk imagined it, avoids the easy outs the later poems are won't to have.

For hard core fans only , perhaps, but worth catching or getting on DVD. There was something as touching as revealing about the scene where the monster inside him bubbles up while he's sparring with his wife.It's doubly moving when you recognize Buk's flair ups of rage and aggression from your own experience, if you happen have a back ground involving more-or-less alcohol consumption; it's the urge to destroy everything that's important in one's life, to drive off anyone that cares about you because under all the bravado and gallows humor lurks profound self-loathing that will manifest itself at exactly the wrong moment. Not that there's anyone good moment for booze-fueled flare ups to occur. Writing seemed the one thing that was unconditional in his life, and it is the one thing that kept him either blowing his head off or killing someone else. The rare , black and white footage in the movie was amazing, and it was appropriate to open the film with Buk at the Poet's Theater in San Francisco, puking his guts out before going on stage to read to a packed auditorium. The footage I thought was effective was Buk driving his VW bug, taking his interviewer of the mean streets he roamed. Favorite moment: Buk is going off one anecdote/philosophical tangent when a siren drowns him out. Buk falls silent, the camera captures an ambulence speeding past them, cutting through the traffic to some life and death situation, and then Buk resumes his story as the siren fades, not missing a beat. A perfect counterpoint. I thought Barfly was a blown opportunity, mostly due to Micky Rourke's cryptic stylization of the Bukowskiesque protagonist, who seemed to stuck somewhere between an SNL-quality impersonation of Brando's Godfather performance and DeNiro's habitual screw up in Mean Streets. Faye Dunnaway was a revelation, though, giving a performance that didn't need to be propped up by some by-gone idea of glamour. She did well with the film's tone of washed out naturalism.

One thing that I'm grateful to Buk for is his convincing Black Sparrow publisher John Martin to reprint the novels and stories of John Fante. Fante seems to be the biggest influence on him as a writer, and after reading several of his books-- Ask the Dust, 1933 Was a Bad Year, Brotherhood of the Grape, Wait Until Spring Bandini-- I'm firm in my opinion that Fante is the better writer. A better prose style, a funnier sense of humor, a hardboiled lyricism that rivals the best flights of Chandler. The republication of his body of work, I think, was a significant restoration to the American canon. Fante was a writer of the Last Stand , 
of flawed yet ambitious men advancing toward vainglorious dreams despite repeated wounds to their romantic, out sized egos. What gives Fante his edge is his refusal to soften the blows as he writes about the vanities and fuck ups of instinct driven men;the hurt is palpable, the humor is deadly, the situations believably human.

STEELHEAD by Dave Lucas

Steelhead", a poem by Dave Lucas, is a not-bad addition to the mass of fishing literature that we've read over the decades, a splendidly compact version of Old Man and the Sea or the fishing stories of Jim Harrison (to name but a few). A lone man in the morning fishing the cold lake waters engaged in an activity that's both meditative and primal, and then snap! the line goes taut and there is a magnificent animal at the end of the strand, reeling against the deep gash of the hook, battling to survive with instincts that are beyond the fisherman's ability to adequately turn into a phrase. But phrase it he does, and what we have after the struggle, the splashing, and the final landing of the fish is the inevitable regret not he part of the fisherman, who speculates rather mystically about the cycles of life and death and what it was in him that brought him, against all cultivation and sophistication, to participate in hunter/gatherer behaviors one would have thought had been refined out of him.

If we could see the eyes
or the blunt spade
of its head, we might claim
to see courage in them,
or spirit.

It is this turn where poet Lucas drives off the cliff with a rather labored Laurentian valorization of the Steelhead's spirit and spirit. Lacking tea leaves or a human palm to inspect, he sounds as if he's peering deep into the soon to gutted gills for The Lesson that The Poet is supposed to have. It comes off as some as someone looking for their misplaced cell phone as it rings and keeps on ringing
somewhere nearby. Lucas does not leave it there, though, and continues to sift through the thrashing animal for footnotes and emendations to his discovery of the fish's courage

But what propels its
ten slick pounds
through the water is beyond
what we know of ourselves,

the education of the angler,
who lets out the line, then
pulls back, the give and take
of two odd lovers, until
the moment

when he jerks back,
when the water gives up
its silver cache.
And then the hollow drum
of fish

on boat. Now we can see
the black eyes, the snub-
nose and gunmetal scale,
the prehistoric fins
that keep on

treading phantom water.
The gills gape. It flips
itself over once, and stares
back with what must be called

It would have been fine if Lucas had pondered the sadness, if sadness is the word, in terms less lofty, but he ruins, utterly ruins his effect by the ham-handed and equivocating insertion of "...and stares back with what must be called defiance."
Well, no. We shall call it a dead fish and admit that fish eyes are expressionless, in fact, they exhibit no nuance of emotion, and that the term "fish eye" is synonymous with a stare that is seemingly without life, emotion, or empathy.

I can see why this would strike readers as a powerful poem, but it reads to me more an exercise on a subject that's hardly unrepresented in literature. Lucas is a good writer and I rather liked the leanness of his descriptions, but what I couldn't escape was the expectation that there would come, toward the end, something Lucas learned from
hooking this particular fish. It's obvious, and it seems false in execution. One would imagine people this given to revealed truths from common events would be too sensitive to fish in the first place.

This might have worked better had Lucas given us a proper parallel set of events. Imagine this poem's narrative commencing without the attempted anthropomorphizing, just told straight faced, and then we have the fisherman involved in his own struggle that he would struggle with, seemingly in vain, such as trying to get out of snowed in parking lot, or being at the end of a very long line for gas. Just a suggestion, but the point is that the comparison between the fish he hooked and human qualities would be more plausible, less strained.
The steelhead is imbued with human characteristics such as "spirit", "courage" and "defiance", which indicates that the narrator his comparing his lot against that of the creature hooked on the line. It's not far fetched to assume that the narrator assumes the fish to be in a state of shock, to be at the end of a line, on a hook, unable to breath, and that the empathy extends further to the irony of his own situation; a sophisticated person indulging in primal activities where raw survival is the only matter at hand. In any regard, I think the implicit message is more of a package one deals with when they decide to write this kind of poem, which is to say that it's less Lucas doing the talking/musing than it is a fulfillment of genre expectation.

Which makes it frustrating because this poem almost works. A bit of indirection instead of a direct address of his idea might have given us a surprise instead of disappointed groan. Lucas's narrator is looking for a human quality when
the regret of winning the battle hits him. What it comes down to was that what he might have seen--Lucas is smart to hedge on his qualifications-- , whether courage, spirit, defiance, are intended as a Lesson. Lucas wants the lesson to be a military one; given the choice of qualities he tentatively assigned the Steelhead. All this is certainly implied, and it's worth bringing out.

I tried thinking of the poem as a lean metaphor for invasion and defense of territories and to think of it as a critique, somewhat, of the current failure of American foreign policy, but that it became a labor-intensive riff as I worked on it. Sure, the elements are there in order to make the case, but I still think Lucas is wandering through Rousseau's neck of the woods and imagines himself in battle with an ennobled animal. Lucas is a good writer, but I'm not enamored of the mythology he wants to handle with a straight face here, unless, of course, he were willing to step several miles further than the conventional  struggle/victory/winner's remorse scenario these pastoral situations must have and instead do something truly remarkable. There's a Paul Auster novel I can't remember the title to in which the point of view is the dog's who, credibly, is burdened with the task of finding a new master when it realizes his current one is dying. A remarkable read for a straight-forward novel.