Monday, July 27, 2020


I stopped going to open readings about twelve years ago for a combination of reasons, lack of time foremost among them, but coming up near second was the weariness of being subjected to a continuous stream of encrypted banality.

Not to grind this axe too long nor too loudly, what What is most striking about the assembled grossness of over-reaching testaments is it no one seems to have had an interesting take on what muse-inspiring incident happened to them. Too often , too often indeed, the epiphany moment seems to drive the earnest amateurs deep into the Archive of the Already Said Too Often , which dampens my enthusiasm for the notion that an introduction to good poets and their work will, by default, improve and hone the attributes of a readership who would likewise enjoy contemplating existence in unique combinations of metaphor and simile. Rather than broadening the perspective, as had been hoped, many become entrenched in bad ideas. It's like a cold one can't quite rid themselves of, I guess, doing so at last after rest and a vacation from taking one's seriousness too seriously, but the bad taste also acts like a virus, incubating for quite a while and effecting the senses in ways that seem to lay an irreversible tendency to grandiloquence, truism, bathos, rugged individualism. Some of this is inevitable in the course of being human with the conceit of being sensitive creatures with something to say--God knows I am an insufferable jerk when it comes to the sanctity of my own poetry which is, let us say, looking increasingly hokey as I get older.If that were the case, the reader and the listener would have the sense that some fact, independent of the narrator's expectations, has been acknowledged and that the speaker is ready to change their thinking. Yet another reason I gave up doing public readings as a matter of habit: my good poems are few, really, and repeating them bores the fuck out of me.The sort of tract many readers come across in airports and the shelves of bookstore self-help sections , though, resemble a poems less than they do knotted strings of re-fitted clichés that lacking value of irony or circumstantial variation .

These are more things one would say after an accompanying string of disasters and disappointments that work not to comprehend experience and, perhaps, gain a perspective on why things don't go according to plan, but rather to rationalize and reinforce one's attitude and manner of moving through the world.When all is said and done, Frank Sinatra said the same thing, but with more style and less pop-psyche cant: I did it my way... Not that Sinatra's croaking croon makes this a desirable way to go through life.We are who we, sure, but a large part of being human is our capacity to change our behavior based on experience. Existence is not something you experience passively, or an event that merely happens to you. It is something you participate in. One is powerless in controlling final outcomes of events, but within the larger picture, we can change our actions, we can change the way we think. We do, more often than not, influence the results.

We are who we, sure, but a large part of being human is our capacity to change our behavior based on experience. Existence is not something you experience passively, or an event that merely happens to you. It is something you participate in. One is powerless in controlling final outcomes of events, but within the larger picture, which this poem attempts to present to us, we can change our actions, we can change the way we think. In doing so, we can, more often than not, influence the results one gets. Such poets come across as defeatists in a Hemingway ammo belt.Poetry is fun when it is good. This was not good.

Those who write poems , I think, are obliged to write the poems they are able to, whatever their style, and that they ought not be surprised when they are criticized for using clichés and glittering generalities in place of real craft or inspiration.One's inner most thoughts, of themselves, are often not interesting as poetry. Whether the young poet admits it or not, they have a responsibility to express their inner lives in a fresh way that it's interesting to readers in the outer world.Small thoughts are perfectly fine, and one need only inspect Emily Dickinson, or the imagist poems of Pound or WC Williams for examples.Even the "less than earth shaking" poem has a bar to reach; it should none the less be exquisitely expressed. Those who participate in their lives are not passive, they are engaged with it.Even the shy, weak, infirm, modest and laconic among us take pro-active roles in the directions we take, and take responsibility.Most of all, there is the capacity to remain teachable, to learn from experience and change behavior and mindset; this is what keeps people interesting and useful to their fellows.Those who refuse to change their ways, to use experience merely as rationale to reinforce ineffective methods to coping with existence, are jerks much of the time, or just irredeemably clueless. One stays away from these people, and their poems.

Sunday, July 26, 2020


2,833 Poem Background Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos ...Kim Rosen of the Huffington Post wondered in a 2010 article if Americans are afraid of poetrysome of the essay is a warmed over a collection of the usual symptoms, and some of it is intriguing, worth a gander. I don't think Americans are afraid of poetry; rather it's a matter of not many Americans, comparatively, think of poetry as a resource since we, as a culture, are not an introspective culture, but instead, one that continuously looks forward to a future to be created. Poetry, so far as the general reader is concerned, is a matter of one being alone with their thoughts and structuring their experience in a narrative form, a narrative that not only chronicles events along a timeline, but also the nuance of experience, the fleeting sensation of something changing in their psyche. This requires making the language do extraordinary things to accommodate an uncommon interpretation of experience, and Americans, a people reared on the ideology of what can be done in the face of adversity, have no expansive desire to do something so impractical. Language is a thing meant to help us solve material problems, to achieve material goals, and poetry, a strange extension of linguistic twists and shadings, does nothing to put food on the table, put money in the bank, to further the quest to cure an endless variety of incurable diseases. 

Poetry is immaterial to purpose, function, policy; the absence of larger audiences for poetry isn't about fear from a perception that it's a mode of expression that is the least useful among several the lot of us might select on a given day. There are those of us who would argue that poetry's lack of identifiable utility is exactly what attracts us to the form--I happen to think that, like Wilde, that all art is quite useless in practical application (save for the fact that I believe humans crave beauty in form and in expression) and adhere to a running definition of what literature, in general, avails the reader: to paraphrase, literature (poetry) helps us think about ourselves. Americans, I think it's safe to say in the broadest sense, have no real desire to reside individually and psychically work their way to an "aha" experience with poetry as a conduit.

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

We do think about ourselves, but more in terms of accumulation rather than an inner equilibrium. The measure of a man is his wallet, not the subtlety of his thoughts, and this a form of fearlessness that borders on insanity.

Saturday, July 25, 2020


Ezra Pound: Poet. Volume I: The Young Genius 1885-1920Pound the poet, the propagandist, the editor, the talent scout, all dutifully reported and examined by A.David Moody, a literature professor and literary biographer. William Carlos Williams had opined that the self-created Pound was certainly a genius but added that he was, as well, “an ass”. His biography and considered study of the poet, Ezra Pound: Poet. Volume I: The Young Genius 1885-1920 , is a potent examination of this man's progression to maximum bad faith.

I was grateful to read this in this slow moving biography , if only to know that it wasn’t just me that thought him as someone who it was more work than it was worth to know.Moody's thesis seems to confirm my suspicions that the greater part of Pound's genius, as it were, lay in his massive appreciation in the genius of others. He was, in my view, a first rate talent scout and an enthusiastic supporter of new and revolutionary work. I will admit that there are those few poems written by his hand that I've actually liked, but as the review suggests, his most radical writing wasn't just dense difficult by a daunting erudition, but because the writing was a melange of styles , emulations, parodies and voices that collectively couldn't pierce the veil of self-imposed obscurity.

The difficulty seems a self-fulfilling prophecy; purposefully abstruse verse with little aid to the curious, and a built in rationale for further lacerating the rubes for their failure to "get" what he was getting at. Like Ayn Rand, Pound's central belief was in genius that was dictatorial and not obliged to make the new ideas comprehensible . One got with the program or be trampled by the revolution to follow. Pound is one of the most fascinating men in American literature, and he'll no doubt continue to vex generations of bright poets to come. But that is something we who think literature should , by default, have "progressive" leanings will have to grin and bear. Like or not, Pound revolutionized Poetry coming into the 20Th century just as D.W.Griffith created the modern film narrative style with his epic and naively racist Birth of a Nation. Much of the time great work doesn't come from morally unambiguous personalities 


I'd normally put this poem at the bottom of things to be read and evaluated, given that it is yet another poem in a long string of tributes to jazz legends; the results I've read or heard from thirty years of open readings, workshops, and editing anthologies are that most of the attempts to get to the core of the improviser’s art are ham-handed and none-to-fresh (nor particularly musical). Davis, Parker, Ellington, all have had their names evoked and their legends dragged through a white jazz critic's generalizations about music, suffering, and black folks and their innate "soulfulness" and rhythm, through which a sort of benevolent racism can be viewed, the mythical good intentions of the humane plantation owner who sought to be kind to "his children". It's not a topic category that's ever yielded much in way of revelation or poetic effect for me; the revisionist poems, ostensibly written by mostly white poets to honor a black American art form, made me think of the stale paternalism that was, after all, is said and done, merely another attempt to define non-white traditions within American history and defuse them of any quality a group might take to define their experiences in terms other than what the Caucasian canon

That said, I think Peter Balakian’s poem “Blue” almost works as the poetry equivalent of the sound of Davis’ trumpet. Void of the generalizations and ersatz sociology that have made this sub-genre in urban poetry a laughable species of verse, Balakian approaches the poem much the same as Davis might have approached his solos, focusing on the mood of the moment, the suggestive textures of a note bent against a modal piano figure and the quiet rumble of bass and drums creating a host of alluring shades, tones and coloration , a space that is about the problematic personality rising above and over defects of character and external hindrances to happiness and creating those series of moments that are sublime, pure, unaffected bits of harmony and beauty, albeit a loveliness tempered with the doings of a scornful cityscape. Balakian chooses interesting words for his impressions of listening to the Davis group; the city is transformed, it becomes something new, if briefly, for Balakian’s rhapsodic narrator and this must be the transcendence Davis himself must have felt when this music was played.

Light we pulled into a string of glass
that seeped out of the long vibration

of Miles' Blue in Green
like slow time in the empty lot

after soot and rain and rush,
the Ferry out of sight,

my bones electric with the hum
of the cable of the Bridge at 3 a.m.

and the dying lights of the Bowery.
Bill Evans making the rain thin

to a beam of haze before the
horn comes back from underwater.

New York seems lovely and quite habitable even by the timidest of us; it becomes not the most sophisticated and elegant place in the world, but rather, with the music from Miles' transubstantiating phrases, is the world where each and every crook, thief, liar, cuckold, and cheat assumes grace, finds a place, blends in with a rich backdrop of wise, somber hues that make up the thick and awe-inspiring skyline. The city with its traffic, racist cops, crowds, posers, slums, jerks, geniuses, writers and money-grubbing capitalist becomes transformed, cast in a softer light, rinsed with soft rain, tall buildings seen in water puddle reflections and blurred neon nightclub signs burning away the mist just enough for you to who is furnishing the soundtrack. This is a cityscape that exists only in black and white photographs carefully framed to produce an effect, but Balakian is writing about how Davis’ music from this period made him feel about the quality of his life in a dense urban center. That he does it with a modicum of hyperbole is a wonder, and the final lines about Bill Evans clearing away the rain and Davis’ horn resurfacing after an absence is the subtlest description of a jazz group’s interaction I’ve read in years. Of course, it makes no literal sense. It’s a poem, and a good one.

Friday, July 24, 2020

YOU KNOW THIS MAN: Robert Creeley

I was recently asked :"What’s the shortest and most impactful poem you have heard?" My response began with a smart-ass riff, quickly got away from me as I continued to type away. That’s two questions, actually. As phrased, the shortest poem I’ve heard and the most influential  poem I’ve heard exist as separate items. It suffices to say, if not already obvious, that my first few words were a species of throat clearing, rhetorical stalling while coherent ideas were forming. Soon enough I had an idea and managed a reasonable response, not far from the truth as I liked to tell it. The shortest poem that has had an impact on me, that is, has influenced the way I view modern poetry, is this:

I KNOW A MAN by Robert Creeley:

*As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
*can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
*drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going. *

This poem, with its terseness, interruptions, seeming overlap of conversations, was important in college because it got me away from the verbal excesses of beat poets Kerouac and Ginsberg. Not to lecture on Creeley but rather to stick with the method of this poem and his poetry in general, the poet prefers a more taciturn approach express what is perceived in the world he finds himself in. There is more flavor and variance in Creeley’s poem than the latent punk rock crash this poem suggests, but here we observe that the writers is aware of the limits of speech , that rather than consisting of beginning a thought and developing it until a point is reached, verbally, often times speech, transcribed speech, as we read off the page, is discontinuous and disjunctive, resembling less a dialectic toward which a final synthesis of ideas emerges but instead a series of preliminary statements that begin and are rapidly derailed. The poem is jittery, hard edge in the way it breaks off from one statement to another, giving evidence of a speaker constantly backtracking to something said earlier that would be the key to an original statement one wanted to make but which only adds to the series of deferments that make a parse-able sentence come to being.
For Love by Robert Creeley

Everything is about to be said, a big question is about to be asked that would challenge the premise under which we conduct our lives in bad faith, a distraction is proposed, a big car is purchased, but the thrill of the highway joyriding veers too close to fatality for our narrator cares to experience. Again, there is a nervous, jacked up quality here, a jump-cut element that would remind those who have familiarity with various stages of being under the influence of high powered stimulates and the consequences therein will recognize, meth-heads, potheads, hooch hounds laying around some sorry den waxing and waning , yammering away with plots, plans and brilliant ideas that quickly circle the drain. Creeley’s creates this but splicing the evidence of what was heard together in a fast, jagged mosaic of speech, effectively giving us a poem that provides a structure all the same, a narrative that has the old fashioned ingredients of a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a monologue of a kind, with huge gaps of logic, a string of non-sequiturs, but what was made an impression on me in trying to bring order to this seeming random vocal spasm wasn’t what was being talked about or the logical connection between the tangible bits of the poem, bur rather how it was said. We have a voice narrating a sequence of things that are obscured, but the telling makes one wonder, ponder , what exactly is at the margins of this narrator’s world.

My grandfather once allowed me to have his 8 mm camera when I was nine or so during a family get together, a 1st Communion Party I think, and the result of me running around with the camera, stopping and starting the camera to film random activities around the backyard— my brother jumping from a tree, a neighbor’s dog snarling through a cyclone fence mesh, a swing-set with all the chained seats twirling by themselves, blinding shots of the July sun, my sister with chocolate stains on her confirmation dress, many shots of drunk aunts and uncles inexplicable happy to see me—seemed to me, seeing this decades later at another family get together after my father pass on, to be as edgy , purposeful and  beautiful as I had imagined it. And that’s how I KNOW A MAN struck me back on that fateful day in a poetry composition class taught by Paul Dresman; instead of trying to play every note you know or are still trying to hit because you think the number of things done equates with quality, play just the right notes, the ones that serve the moment of perception. Miles Davis said something like that, or so the story goes. Creeley ignored the larger vocabulary and went instead for sentences and that sounded interesting, that intrigued him when they were stripped of context. Form, logic, coherence? That was for the reader to bring to the work.