Saturday, September 18, 2021


Do artists get unfair summaries from mean-spirited critics? Yes. That's the risk you take if you're an artist and are inclined to have your work experienced by as broad an audience as possible; getting reactions and responses, good or bad, is part of the game. Most times, critics can fall back on the defense that most of the work they review is being sold to the public, that it's a consumer product and honest takes by knowledgeable reviewers or fervent consumers are legitimate ways of conducting business in the marketplace. 

That's no excuse for the nastiness the perennially sour rock critic Robert Christgau offers up too much of the time. Though I think he's among the best critics, there has always been a feeling that he's impatient, even the artists and albums he likes. There exists, however, a general feeling that some art forms get an available pass when it comes to reviewing the work. Theater, music, books and films pretty much get the brutal hammer of judgment from critics to damn what they claim is mediocre work. Poetry criticism, though, tends toward the gentle hand, the supportively spiritual, the reconditely impenetrable. The tell-tale tendency with that method is to declare a poet's work is impressive without being exactly forthcoming about why. On the one hand, poetry is fetishized even by astute reviewers as a precious and personal expression. The reader must empathize entirely with the poet's set of issues, demons, and prayers for transcendence from the pains of the flesh. 

Generally, the poems are prosaic, clotted with conventional "poetic" turns, without rhythm or pulse, wallowing in the memory of past hurts, real or imagined. Calling out such these traits or the lack of craft and true lyric sense marks the reviewer as a meanie, a vulgarian, an elitist snob. You either relate and praise the expanse of self-involvement, or you, the critic of verse, are a bloodless leech.

And on the other hand, we have the reams of experimental poetry where it seems the theory of which exists before the poem itself. Jargon, modernist cant, and postmodernist relativism dominate the discussion by those poetry critics who deign to assess the doings of poetry that claims to want to change the way readers see the world but which only frustrates and blinds them. Announcing tripe when tripe is served, to cadge the best line from the play "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," invites the discerning reviewer to be hailed as a boob, ignorant, racist, homophobic, the whole shot. William Logan, a poet and not a mean man, is the only reviewer of poets who gives an honest and knowledgeable review of what major and lesser-known poets offer the readership. And he gets it from both sides. 

The point of all this is that being a working critic is an occupation that requires a tough skin and a Trump-like refusal to back down from past judgments their readership disliked. Being an asshole is part of the critic's skill set: the fearless review that might offend or intend to offend fans is the very reason one reads criticism. But alas, I'm afraid the days of the brilliant contrarian criticism are very numbered and that music criticism will become as useless and choking on meaningless platitudes and gutless abstractions as poetry criticism have become.

Thursday, September 16, 2021


 Dylan is a word slinger to be, maybe a genuine poet during some parts of his oeuvre. Still, he is not a writer, not as we understand the word, a craftsman, an artist, a professional of expressions, instructional or artistic, who crafts sentences that start someplace and create precedence for the sentence that follows, one idea organically following another until the journey of words, paragraphs, pages, concludes somewhere far from where one started to write. That is, writers, write things that make sense in some respect, as in you understand clearly the thing being described, or that you understand it more abstractly and realize that the writer is undertaking a task that tries to deal with several things--philosophical notions, contradictory arguments, overlapping historical data --and bringing a coherent framework to understand complex matters, or at least come away with a sense of what the writer is getting at. 

Even Dylan's wildest lyrics, from Desolation Row to his more recent brilliance noteworthy Rough and Rowdy Ways: surreal or nonsequitur as the stanzas may be, the line limits and the need t rhyme imposed restrictions on Dylan's musings. Hey needed to wrap up his investigations into his more obscure imaginings. He gave you something to talk about. Tarantula was written on the road, in hotel rooms, on tour, rattled off in high doses of speed, and maybe other drugs too inane to bother talking about, and it indeed reads like it, snub-nosed Burroughs, Kerouac without the jivey swing. Some parts make you laugh, some good lines abound. Still, it suffers in that readers wanted their hero, the poet of their generation, to write a genuinely good of poetry or some such thing, with true believers tying themselves in self-revealing knots to defend the book that is interesting as an artifact to the historical fact of Dylan's fame and influence and not much else. 

There is a part I like, effective as poetry, a bit of self-awareness that shows that Dylan realizes that his persona is false, a conspiracy between himself and the major media, and that he might have to account for the construction somewhere in the future of the whole matter.

Monday, September 13, 2021



Charles Bukowski is one whom very little of his work goes a very long way. I admire the absence of unneeded images and place them somewhere in the Hemingway league as a writer who can be spare without being chintzy. That said, his minimalism gets monotonous after a while. His lonely-drunk persona, grousing continually to speak for the dispossessed and the marginal, becomes its own sort of sentimentality: the fact that Bukowski became aware, early on, that his constituency expected certain types of poems from him forced him, I think, to stylize himself into a corner he never managed to get out of. Not availing himself of different kinds of writing made him, finally, a bore. The truth of his loneliness, of his drunkenness, made him into a patsy for an audience that was too young, by and large, to have enough life to write their own stories. Bukowski became a one-trick pony: his best material is his earliest, like Henry Miller, and like Miller as well, became a self-parody without knowing it.

Ezra Pound is out of fashion these days, but I enjoy his adaptations (translations are too generous a word) of different oriental writers. In fact, I think that before Pound's adaptations, oriental poets and poetic forms were largely unknown in the West. I know it's an anthology warhorse, but I love "The River Merchant's Wife." I just find the way her feelings change towards her husband throughout the poem so touching--first, they're childhood playmates, then she's a frightened, ignorant bride, then she falls so deeply in love with him that she longs for her dust to be mingled with his forever. I also get a kick out of the line, "The monkeys make sorrowful music overhead." The bar is almost comic to us, but obviously, monkeys had very different connotations for the Chinese at that time. An interesting example of cultural differences. Ezra is someone who has given me eyestrain and headaches in college, something I can't forgive him for. He didn't give me anything remotely connected to the idiomatic language he idealized, the truly modern voice that was to be of its own time, a period sans history. It's a totalitarian impulse to try to live outside history or to lay claim to its reducible meaning, both matters Pound thought he adequately limned. Still, the problem was that his verse is leaden, dressed up in frankly prissy notions of what The Ancients had been up to aesthetically. The effect was perhaps a million dollars of rhetoric lavished on ten cents of inspiration. I didn't like him, I'm afraid. 

Unlike Frank O'Hara, dead too young, but with such a large and full body of brilliant--yes, brilliant--lyric poetry left in his wake. O'Hara, influenced by some ideas of modernists, got what Pound tried to do exactly right: he mixed the dictions of High and Low culture in the same stanzas with an ease that seemed seamless, he juggled references of Art, TV, movies, jazz, theater along with the zanily euphemized gossip of his love life, and was able to render complex responses to irresolvable pains of the heart--and heartbreak is always close kin to his rapture--in lines that were swimming in irony, melancholy, crazy humor. This is a poet as eroticized intelligence.

If Pound's poems work for reasons other than how he wanted them to work, fine, that can be explicated interestingly enough with entirely new criteria extraneous to the author's aesthetic/political agenda, but it begs the question, really. It confirms my belief that Pound was talking through his hat most of the time. In this case, based admittedly on my learned dislike of his poetry, I think he gussied up his theories to usurp the critical commentary he knew would follow his work: no matter what, all critics had to deal with Pound's flummoxing prose before they could render an assessment, a trick he garnered from Poe, and one deployed by Mailer, a somewhat more successful artist/philosopher/critic (though failed poet). 

Eliot had better luck combining the two virtues: The Sacred Wood and some of his other critical assessments have merit as purely critical exercises, self-contained arguments that don't require Eliot's work to illustrate the point. Eliot's poems also stand up well enough without his criticism to contextualize them for a reader who might otherwise resist their surface allure. The language in both genres is clear and vivid to their respective purposes. Pound, again, to my maybe tin-ear, really sounded, in his verse, like he was trying to live up to the bright ideas his theories contained: The Cantos sound desperate in his desire to be a genius.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021


 In one of his essays, Edgar Allen Poe summarizes one of the essential elements of his philosophical musings by asserting that we are cursed with "the memory from before birth," a slight and wavering recall of a time when calm and serenity were in place. Nothing of the distortions or crass money, family, or religion made us nervous, devious, only half alive (if "alive" at all). The ideas concerned our constant and, at times, overwhelming desire to return to such a nocturnal, darkened, stress-less state. It was a yearning to return to the womb, perhaps. Whatever the motivation, these were longing for death-like sleep, a patent serenity. Following suit are Poe's peculiar interest in things decadent and decaying, those thin, reedy and tubercular characters of diseased gentry and errant aristocratic stock who hang on to the waking life by a mere thread, effete and defeated and gracefully blended into the material realm, waiting for gravity to take its toll and to become themselves receivers of the dirt nap, free of the binds that only punish you for having nerve endings.

Among the decadent writers and artists following Poe, there was literal worship of an aesthetic principle that the most remarkable beauty was in a person or a thing in its decline when it was letting go of the struggle and was reduced to its basic, most faithful and frailest form. An aspect of this, I suspect, was the envy of the declining aesthetic object, be it a human or a diseased elm; a deep and permanent rest awaited them, and death would be that thing that gives the lie to the certitude of philosophy or economic determinism that insist that life must forever be thus, a certain way, without change. Those who die have escaped, and there are no arms to bring them back to suffer more with the rest of us pining over a grave.

Poet Patricia Traxler gets all this wonderfully, succinctly in her poem, The Dead Are Not, published online this week at Slate; the poem is brief, and each finessed line conveys the complicated, conflicting, and confused set of emotions one journey through as yet another death comes closer to one's inner circle of confidants and family. Indeed, the dead are not dead yet,

Always they take
their time and we wait
politely, dreading
how real it will
have to be, sooner
or later, and at the
same time longing
to know that reality.

One has arguments with the departed, negotiations still in session, curses and protests of undying love are uttered, self-recrimination and blaming goes on for days and nights until one tires of their tears and breathes easier sunrises still come in spite the weight of grief. We mutter to ourselves that the dead are "in a better place," that they "felt no pain," or that.
" least they died quick..." all so we get on with our lives and our responsibilities. Yet, an echo of our accepting rhetoric stays with us as we shoulder our daily duties. That "better place" doesn't sound so bad. We become envious and petty all over again, we blame the dead for being cowards and laggards who would do anything to shirk their duty, and we come to envy them and that place they've gone. Gravity takes its toll, our bones ache, the mailbox is filled with bills, someone else you know has told you they have a fatal disease, your back hurts like shit:

Nights, as we reach
to switch off our bed lamps
and close our eyes,
we dare it to take us
into its mouth
that smells of tar,
saltwater, sludge,
take us up, then let us
tumble endlessly,
blameless again
and helpless as any new life
forced out for the first time
into the terrible light.

Traxler gets to the center of that guilty little secret at the core of grieving, the scourge of envy, and the many faces and tones of voice it takes. Without metaphysical baloney, faux piety, or even a tone of anger, she writes in the cool, reflective calm of someone who has investigated their feelings and discovered an unknown fact about their thinking. This poem has the remarkable clarity of genuine self-sight, unnerving in its tone, beautifully expressed. Her skill gives us the chance to see something very private, unobscured by wishful thinking. An excellent poem.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021



Cody Walker is a joker, it seems, given to giggles, giddiness, and guffaws in the pursuit of cracking himself up on jokes perhaps only he and a select coterie of friends and fellow travelers would get. His poem "Update" is an exercise in a man chortling loudly in the back row. And even if a reader was fortunate to "get" Walker's interior monologue of skipping rhymes and cross-referenced literary forms, it's my fair guess the number finding this bit humorous would be lesser still. No matter, since I am also in the habit of cracking myself up, imagining lines of dialogue among unlikely characters and personalities in dubious circumstances, chewing the fat on absurd and discreetly vulgar subjects.

It would be something like a three-year-old playing with his toy cars, conjuring one automotive disaster after another on a strip of the wood-paneled floor quickly imagined being a ten-lane interstate, or a six-year-old, when the young mind grows out the crashing spectacle of accidents and now imagines characters, recognizably humanoid, with distinct personalities, representing abstract, if two-dimensional virtues, with attending voices. All this fills a mind with busy talk and scenarios, in the casual preparation for engaging the real-life imagination will help them, with prayers, survive and thrive in.

Later still, in the far throws of adulthood, there come the private totems, the hallowed reference points, the memorized conventions of morning cartoons, biographies of great poets and advertising jingles, conflated to essential absurdities one tears down and reconstructs and tears down again as the surging mood to distance oneself from the drudgery of work and obligations; one takes flight, throws water balloons at the canon, paints the icons in garish colors, makes unlikely partners of different virtues reveal some space in one's consciousness where logic and hard rationale haven't invaded and tamed. Then comes the "eureka" laugh, that fast, hard snort of being elevated above the physical place where you stand, momentarily transcendent, untouchable. I do this often enough alone, at home, whether writing or reading a book, and too often, perhaps, at work, where such outbursts are evidence of a mind being on other things other than the bottom line, and it is for those seconds when all items are reduced in stature, made equal in size. It doesn't last, of course, and soon enough, the euphoria evaporates into the hard facts in front of you. But it is nice when it happens.

I should also make it a point to relate that I just about never try to describe what I found so funny to anyone I'm around; the description defies anecdotal reiteration, most times seeming sketchy and bizarre when I try. The punch lines are too private, the references mired in that roiling swamp of a consciousness that cannot be brought to public view without the mediation of
thoughtful consideration and editing. And even then, it would be dubious whether an audience would find the reason for my fleeting giggle worth the effort to listen to me bray on.

Cody Walker has decided to bray on. Walker's poem isn't a great one by any means and is such that you wonder once again what Pinsky's attraction to it was. The rhymes are trite, the subject attempting to lane-change across style barriers with the worst kind of ham-handed self-referentiality found in the most grating post-modern poetry. We have a scenario where a bright boy, trying to regain his equilibrium after the departure of his girlfriend/wife/significant other, invests himself with the powers and abilities of his great heroes from comic books and the scant readings of top-shelf authors. There is what can be a smugness saturating this straightforward operation.

"I've also rerouted... my neural pathways..." and Superman, with a mention that he has also re-routed "fjords," an oblique reference to the opening of the fifties TV program where the Man of Steel is said to be able to "...change the course of mighty rivers..."

And so it goes through this short poem, a desperate playfulness abounds, a growing hysteria mounts, a breakdown threatens, all this stewing. At the same time, the narrator seeks the blessing of the over-cited Nietzsche guarantee, to paraphrase a paraphrase, that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. What Walker intends is unclear--that the social constructions that result from our innate need to have life have purpose and meaning are finally inadequate? That mistaking experience as merely the means with which we test the veracity of our philosophical models is to lose sight of actual value?-- but what there is here is minor, indeed, worth a laugh, perhaps, but worth a laugh in the sense that what's funny is a reader's belief this over-packed suitcase of a poem merits close reading.

Walker wrote this as a knock-off, I suspect, something to be put deep inside a collection as an off-key note, a character-giving bit of dissonance.
The insanity it suggests is disturbing, and it makes my case that mental anguish does not necessarily result in good poetry.