Monday, November 9, 2020



Meghan O'Rourke offered a credible description and defense of our of past U.S. Poet Laureate, but as much as I enjoy the reasoning, I find the idea of Kay Ryan , Poet, more interesting than Kay Ryan's poetry. I'm not a fan of ornate language, since most poets do it badly, even those who are praised for it as a default remark, including our drifting poet Laureate Derek Walcott--if similes were empty wine bottles , he'd have drunk himself to death--but I would like some elegance and lift in the briefer lines as well, some polish besides the formulations Ryan offers us from the page. The poems are lean, yes, clever with their internal rhymes, slants, conceits and all the rest, but there isn't the stamp of a personality to enliven these dry dictations. She is compared to Dickinson rather excessively, since Ryan's aim is to move toward a point she's cutting through the underbrush toward; she seems to know before hand what she's driving at, and for me so much of what she does amounts to seeing a neighbor park their car in the same spot for years after the work day is over. 

Dickinson's minimalism is a slippery stream to wade into; her habit was to meet herself coming the other way while on an investigation of a nuance; she contained and expressed her own contradicting assertions. Dickinson is the more interesting poet for all the material she implies, suggest, touches up with the minimum of space her poems consume; the dashes and asides still bother us, provoke discussion. Ryan is of the generation that thinks poetry has to have a point to make , a purpose to reaffirm. This makes her work, finally, fatally forgettable.

I'd be pleased if a poet preferring small matters to large themes became our Poet Laureate, but in the matter of Kay Ryan, I find her work malnourished, under muscled, simply lifeless and still as a rusty coin in a cushion crack. She is part of what is termed The School of Quietude, a dismissive term coined by Ron Silliman to describe the poets of the larger market place who concentrate on approaches to poetry that will not attempt to tackle more than one idea at a time. I have less animus toward poets who desire to do one thing well before moving on the next matter at hand, and have taken more than a bit of joy reading Billy Collins, Robert Haas. Collins, though, is someone whom you "get" in short order , amused , shall we say, but his stylish effects but with no compelling reason to revisit the poem. Dickinson, certainly not a Quietuder (although she has been mentioned in conjunction with Ryan's name) , shows all of us that compact does not mean straight forward; whole philosophies and shades of far reaching intellection exist between those dashes. We read her because she's not easy to reach; with each re-reading, the reader tends to bring more to their experience of her work. Collins gets paraphrased, like a joke one half-recalls. The impression he leaves is soon smooths out into a general nothingness like the white noise that makes up radio static.

The compressed diction, the ruthlessly scoured syntax and sparse, clean rhythms (or rhythm- less, at times) is breath taking when it works in the world of single-subject poets, analogous to rare moments when a perception, an odd and unplanned arrangement of things, surprises you when your eyes come to rest on them. It's the sight of surprise, the aha!, and the short formers, the Quietuders likely excavate against excess rhetoric and come upon the one thing they are writing about. It's not an easy thing to do well. But more often it is mere shtick, a form of slick aptitude for evading the harder edges a poet would be expected to walk on. One idea, maybe too, a fine turn of phrase, a quick exit. Ryan, though, isn't even this interesting. My problem with Ryan is that too often she seems to be getting started on an idea , about to unravel some mystery of a material thing and connect it with an ongoing argument each poet has against Platonic idealism, but she leaves, she darts away, she is elsewhere after her aggravations are generated.

Bad Day 

Not every day
is a good day
for the elfin tailor.
Some days
the stolen cloth
reveals what it
was made for:
a handsome weskit
or the jerkin
of an elfin sailor.
Other days
the tailor
sees a jacket
in his mind
and sets about
to find the fabric.
But some days
neither the idea
nor the material
presents itself;
and these are
the hard days
for the tailor elf. 


From Say Uncle, 2000 
One admires skeletal purity and an aesthetic that won't be overstated or festooned with gamy rhetoric, but there are some things Ryan might have taken from the more formal approaches she turned her back on, central among them the need to finish a thought. As with the above, the ganging up of internal rhymes makes this poem cute as a button, but not effective as a poem. It would serve, I suppose, as a set up for a longer set of complications with the size of the clothes one is supposed to wear, but the theme is rather banal, that one grows out of their clothes as they age and gain weight, and complications don't seem to interest Ryan anyway. Incompleteness can indeed be appealing in a poet who provides a strong sense of the absent details they address elliptically--strong points for Dickinson and the fascinating Rae Armentrout--but Ryan's is not that kind of poet.Her poems make you lean in so you can hear this soft voice suss through contradictions and the follies of fanciful thinking, but it ends in a mumble.

One should consider the work of a lesser known but though brilliantly clear eyed poet named Kate Watson, a writer I know and was was featured with in a 1996 anthology Small Rain: Eight Poets from San Diego (D.G.Wills Books). Her tone is modulated, her sentences balance tactile adjectives and purring verbs with an uncanny equilibrium, and her quiet moments transcends the perceived banalities of the School of Quietude and actually enters into perceptions that sweetly unique, clear, aesthetically riveting. Something is arrived at. The rare thing about my friend Kate is that her version of considering the thing-in-and-of-itself is without the faux profundity so many other poets would evoke inspite of their best efforts to rein in their egos; poets by nature have a hard time stepping from being the Arnoldian seer/priest. Kate Watson's is a poetry that is in large part free of those posturing suppositions. 


pink eared, squints
in the sunshine,
sniffing flowers.

Button-eyed, she
purrs and
furlicks my legs
in the kitchen.

Four years ago, four
kittens born
in a drawer, smelled
of a barnyard.

Mature, she sleeps
in a circle,
the slope of her head suggests--young doe.


She meets I
in the body
which is one
with my mother

I can see
where sits by the blue fire
flame-quick knitting
Is she sighing
shall I sing
she is I
am a long way away
when the wind blows

white wall coal black
light grey hair

my mother winks
from the middle of the flame
and I rise up
and leave her
In the fire a reflection

coming home?

(C) 2008 Kate Watson 

This is just a way of saying that the Library of Congress could have made a better choice. Saying that they could have done worse than Ryan doesn't say much for for the office nor for what good graces are to be found in her conceit-laden lines.

Sunday, November 8, 2020


Ron Padgett is every bit the off -hand and fresh-phrasing poet Billy Collins wants to be, and it's his particular genius to write in such a way that he hears what is truly and spontaneously poetic in actual speech and yet has the sense to contain the vernacular with real cadence and rhythm. Though he is eager to avoid the idea of being the Poet/Priest officiating over the mundane life oracle-like in his verse depositions of the every day and the noticed and familiar, Collins seem The Professional all the same, and not in a way I intend as complimentary. Admirable though it is that he seeks to be remain approachable to a reader with only a glancing interest in poetry, his poems are too neat, orderly, the illogic that ought to be at work behind the machinery of language operating much too logically as they arrive at those last stanzas, last lines, and concluding images that are supposed to make you gasp so slightly, close your eyes and wonder how it was the poem started with a man getting his mail or paying a bill and winding up in some other part of the world playing jazz records and reading airport novels. 

Collins delivers,, he makes you laugh, cry, coo and ooh on schedule: in another existence I think he might have been the local human-interest columnist for a hometown newspaper, cleverly discussing characters community and bits of homelife three times a week, one thousand words a column, clever, effective, predictable in their habit of surprising people. Much as he likes jazz, there is not a moment of surprise in Collins' poems. But Padgett? He writes what he sees, he sings what he reads, he paints what he talks, which is to say that this poet, a grand figure in the New York School of poets, has a a genuine feel for the city vibe, artists , writers, trashman bar maids, cab drivers and street corner preachers and  influencing his multiple-tongued qualities as a poet so that discourse in his poems, all discourse, whether dissertations or cookie recipes, become idiomatic and equal in their expressive and poetic potential. Padgett is a counter-puncher, a riffer, someone approach the chatter  and prate of the big city leaning a little to the side, and back, as though anticipating a swing for his jawline. 

  Only a poet tuned into the weights and varying degrees of gravity a line of phrases and images can sound like if they're managed well can write these types of visual astute poems. His is a poetry of framing a perception at the moment it occurs, a sense of the banal giving rise to new formations of thought; the world is askew despite what appears to be sameness and order, and Padgett's method of ordering it all is askew as well. There is in him a capacity to be surprised without sounding like he's a taffy-headed cretin. There is wonder here, not wondering, which is to say he provides the reader with a clarity that incredibly manages to add to the mystery of the thing or emotion he's trying to contain.

When my mother said Let’s go down to the Rialto
it never occurred to me that the name Rialto

was odd or from anywhere else or meant anything
other than Rialto the theatre in my hometown

like the Orpheum, whose name was only a phoneme
with no trace of the god of Poetry, though

later I would learn about him and about the bridge
and realize that gods and bridges can fly invisibly

across the ocean and change their shapes and land
in one’s hometown and go on living there

until it’s time to fly again and start all over
as a perfectly clean phoneme in the heads

of the innocent and the open
on their way to the Ritz.
Padgett has a contagious high spirit , and a large part of what attracts the reader to him is constant sense of surprise; right at the point when matters of thought, situation and action tend towards a fatal gravity, we come across one of his zany associations. The effect is of driving for a long period while listening to an earnest, or at least a belligerent discussion on talk radio when your passenger suddenly changes the changes; sometimes it’s sudden and hard, like the hard jab of fingertip to radio button, or screeching, chaotic and questing, like someone turning the knob up and down the AM dial. A mixture of different measures and accents of modulated speech covering news, weather and traffic conditions and a class struggle of music zips by you while the world the car barrels through promises only more commotion, kinetics, and, for Padgett, surprise and joy .

It's not that hard to climb up
on a cross and have nails driven
into your hands and feet.
Of course it would hurt, but
if your mind were strong enough
you wouldn't notice. You
would notice how much farther
you can see up here, how
there's even a breeze
that cools your leaking blood.
The hills with olive groves fold in
to other hills with roads and huts,
flocks of sheep on a distant rise
Padgett’s poems at their heart expose the commotion we set ourselves off on as we struggle with what we think existence is doing to us, leaving the effect of a supremely comic sense that’s been honed, whittled and made coolly efficient by pratfalls and even further extremes of snit-fueling agitation. Every nick, dent, gaffe, scrape and scratch that appears in the sentences he writes ,for their sharp transitions, non-squitor leaps of association and the AM radio declarative voice that seems to render past and present and future into a jazzy continuity,  Padgett lets it fly, love lyric or joke or something improbably beautiful that capture an image that itself contains a universe of incidents that puts the reader at the scene.

Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
There is in him a capacity to be surprised without sounding like he's a taffy-headed cretin. There is wonder here, not wondering, which is to say he provides the reader with a clarity that incredibly manages to add to the mystery of the thing or emotion he's trying to contain. Padgett is inside his engagement, not separated from it; what works in his poems is his capacity, like Frank O'Hara in his best, unguarded moments, to remained stunned at a flashing perception; a dozen or so combinations of thinking about what's unfolded in front of you rush by like so many film frames even as the phenomenon is still in the process of revealing itself. This is meant as a compliment, as sincere praise; Ron Padgett reminds of someone who is constantly gathering his wits.

Monday, November 2, 2020



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

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

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

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

“The Crucifixion,” Ochs’ masterwork, is a complex, extended allegory about the way a culture treats its heroes (Christ and JFK), according to the best virtues they’d like to see in themselves, and then watching them with negrophilic glee as they are systematically destroyed, a process that begins when the heroes encroach too close to where the change must be made. The version here is, blessedly, live and free of the special effects clutter that spoiled the studio original. Ochs’ voice is plaintive and unadorned, with an implicit, devastating sorrow to phrasing. “The War Is Over,” first seeming like one of the brilliant anti-war tomes Ochs was capable of writing, but rather turns out to be a solipsist daydream. Ochs had been a veteran of countless free benefits and was dismayed that he could sing and declare the same worn out polemics time after time and effect nothing, except perhaps eliciting a momentary surge of self-righteous, smug radicalism in his audiences. The war, meanwhile, trudged on, a fact that caused Ochs to throw his hands in the air and declare the war was over, at least as far as he was concerned. 

The last song on the compilation, “No More Songs,” concludes the album on a thoroughly depressing note. Voice and melody drenched in a defeated, archly lyric melancholia, he recalls the people he’s known, the things he’s believed in, the lovers he’s had, and moans that all was in vain. With the past being meaningless, he complains that there are “… no more songs,” and then recedes into a numbing orchestral backwash. The first record, comprised strictly from his protest material, is the least interesting of the set. The topicality is dated and irrelevant to anyone’s current state of mind, and the enthusiasm of Ochs’ idealism comes off as youthfully smug and embarrassing. 

This song is so beautifully tragic and precise in its sense of despair and crushed idealism that I begin to tear up every time I hear it. It was the last song on his final album, the ironically titled Greatest Hits. Released on the heels of the presciently named Rehearsals for Retirement in 1969, the songs on Greatest were a combination of remembrance and morose reflection upon a world that could not match his greatest hopes for the future; it seemed a final bow, the lyrics of a man saying goodbye to all that. Ochs did, in fact, take his own life by hanging himself on April 9, 1976. He was 36 years old. Late in his career Ochs had taken to dressing up in a gold lamé suit and famously telling a booing audience in Carnegie Hall that America could only be saved by a revolution, which wouldn’t have happened until Elvis Presley became our Che Guevara. Ochs, who was a true romantic, believing that Great Men with Great Causes can change the world for the better, was also an alcoholic and a man given to depression that deepened as he got older. Much of his songwriting became a series of melancholic laments that dwelled on the smashing of the idealism that had fueled his songwriting as an anti-war and civil rights activist earlier in the Sixties and the failure of his personal relationships. 

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home? 

I’ve only called to say, I’m sorry

The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone

And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a girl, she was a flower in a flame

I loved her as the sea sings sadly

Now the ashes of the dream, can be found in the magazines

And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a sage, who sang upon the stage

He told about the world, his lover

A ghost without a name, stands ragged in the rain

And it seems that there are no more songs

The rebels they were here, they came beside the door

They told me that the moon was bleeding

Then all to my surprise, they took away my eyes

And it seems that there are no more songs

A star is in the sky, it’s time to say goodbye

A whale is on the beach, he’s dying

A white flag in my hand and a white bone in the sand

And it seems that there are no more songs

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?

I’ve only called to say, I’m sorry

The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone

And it seems that there are no more songs

It seems that there are no more songs

It seems that there are no more songs 

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

At his best, Phil Ochs was a subtle and brilliant singer and songwriter and especially as a lyricist, a true poet. He was someone who could easily belong to the songwriter branch of the Confessional Poets like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, writers of odd mental activity who were compelled to write their demons into verse in perhaps some effort to extract their awfulness from their souls. It has been suggested that writing is a species of self-medication, a means to alleviate distress without the means to grow stronger and find hope. It’s been suggested as well that this was a school of writing and a habit of thinking for which early death, either by one’s own hand or through the degenerative results of copious alcohol and drug abuse, was how a poet of this description achieved a reputation and legitimacy as a poet. This was something that had repulsed me as I parsed 20th-century poets in college, my idea at the time being that one had to insist that art embrace life and affirm its vitality. I didn’t read confessional poets for years but came to a change in my thinking that effectively set aside my previous conceit that poetry, let alone any art, was required to advance any one’s preferences as an arbitrary standard. Each poet, painter, writer, dancer had to live up to that standard; the muse to create came from whatever source it came from, manifesting its inspiration in our personalities and our need to express our comforts and misgivings as creatures in this sphere of existence. It was under no requirement to make our lives better, let alone save ourselves from a wicked end or at least the bad habits that can make lives sordid, squalid endurance contests. Everyone is different, everyone has their own story to tell, everyone’s fate is their own and no one else’s. Most live more or less normal lives, wherever that is on the continuum of behaviors, no matter how good or bad or how many poems they write. Others are just… doomed. I am reminded of Harold Bloom’s assertion that literature’s only use is to help us think about ourselves in the world, the quality of being nothing more nor less than humans struggling through life with wit and grit, creating and failing and destroying with an array of emotion and words to give them personality. The job of the poet isn’t to instruct others in how to live a full life, but rather chronicle the unending problematic situations of the life were are constantly trying to negotiate a contract of conduct with, only to find, again, that life is a pure, unceasing process, churning, burning, destroying, and creating from the ash and mire. 

The poet records the ironies that will not stop coming, the lessons that will always be taught to the same romantics, adventurers, would-be saints, and dime store dictators. It is one of the ironies of modern existence and the expansion of all media that the subjects of protest songs, songs that are very specific to a cause or to an injustice, no longer seem to spark the desire to work toward bettering the world that the romantics among us wish would come to be. The embarrassment has more to do with our own memories than with Ochs’ politics. A posthumous collection of his songwriting, the two-disc Chord of Fame from 1976, scans the timeline from the way we were, thinking we could change the world with good sentiments if not concrete policies, to the way we are now, with ideals shattered and wearing a chic cynicism. For my part, I continually thank Ochs for being a major influence in forcing me to confront and accept social justice as a living principal and work mightily to avoid the fatal view that claimed this brilliant man’s life.