Sunday, March 27, 2022


  Conventional thinking about Joni Mitchell has it that she's not just a songwriter,  but a poet as well. So be it, I retire from the debating society for a brief spell to offer this extended commentary about her on a poetry blog.Brilliant as she has been, Joni Mitchell has also had made nearly as much music that is, shall we say, in equal measures underwritten, bombastic, pretentious, just plain pretentious? She coveted the sobriquet “genius” more conspicuously than any pop star I can remember--even self-mythologizer Dylan rejects the application of the word to his name. And has suggested. She complains of Dylan's lack of authenticity, when the whole notion of art and being an artist is  creating things that are inauthentic. The very words “art” and “artist” are intrinsically linked with the word artificer, a term that means, in general, some designed, made manually, an unnatural addition to what is already in place. She bemoans the lack of authenticity and forgets, perhaps, that she, Simon, Dylan and Leonard Cohen, poet-songwriters of the Sixties, were storytellers more than anything, fictionalizing their feelings, their politics, their biographies in the interest of a good yard, a good line, a good insight. Authenticity, I would argue, has more to do with the feeling that a writer succeeds in creating, not the emotion he or she, in fact, felt. She is grumpy, to be sure, but this will not suffice as a justification for her ire. She is famous and cranky, and frankly it's a tedious dirge she replays every chance she gets. Likewise, she virtually demands that she be taken seriously as a musical artist, and she has produced albums that have set out to force the issue. 

Her stabs at art song, serial music, jazz material, and feminist surrealist have given us mixed results at best. The fatal flaw in these ambitious efforts were that the worst elements of them were so impossibly precious and self-important that they summarily dwarfed what fresh ideas she might have had at the time. Her ongoing arrogance and bitterness leaves a bad taste. Listeners have taken joy in Joni Mitchell's continual insistence on changing her musical approach, so it wasn't unusual that the release of Hissing of Summer Lawns was hailed, for the most part, as a bold step towards personal and artistic growth. But while Hissing, and her subsequent and less successful Hejira, did indeed show Mitchell expanding herself to more adventurous motifs -- broader song structures, an increasingly impressionistic lyric scan, jazz textures -- the trend toward a more personalized voice has virtually walled her off from most of her fans. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, her now double record effort, takes the ground gained from the last two albums and converts it into a meandering, amorphous culmination of half-formed concepts. The primary emphasis, musically, is towards jazz modernism, with several songs exceeding ten minutes in length as they ramble over Mitchell's vaguely comprehensible piano chords. She reveals a tendency to hit a strident chord and to let the notes resonate and face as she vocally ruminates over the lyrics while her side players--, Jaco Pastorius and Wayne Shorter from Weather Report, and drummer John Guerin,--do their best to add definition. The lyrics, following suit, are an impressionistic hodgepodge, a string of images, indecipherable references, and gutless epiphanies that should have been edited with a blue pencil. While the more hard-nosed defenders may defend latest with the excuse that a poet may express his or herself in any way they see fit, one still must question the worth of any effort to dissect Reckless Daughter the way one used to mull over Dylan albums. Though any number of matters that Mitchell chooses to deal with may have value to her audience -- spiritual lassitude, the responsibilities of freedom, sexuality into the Middle Ages—she doesn't supply anything resembling hooks, catchphrases or accessible points of reference for them to latch onto. Instead, she gives them art, whether they like it or not. The paradox in Mitchell's stance is that she has thrown craft well outside the window while endeavoring to measure up to “Art” in the upper case. 

She has gone from being an artful songwriter to being merely arty, which is a state of mind that takes hold of many of the public personalities who think they know it all and who conceive themselves as no longer bound by conformity. In her own way, Mitchell has joined the ranks of John Lennon, Yes and other bright talents who've over-dosed on their importance.  With her subsequent album Mingus, we find ourselves having to admire Mitchell’s willingness to expand and reach beyond the merely chatty confessionalism she’ come to be known for and serve up art that is truly artful. “Arty” is a more telling description, though, as her ambition to impress outstrips craft. There is an aroma of the untutored dilettante banging away on a piano she (or he, for that matter) doesn’t know how to play; the smarty-pants assumes we’ll think it bold and experimental. 

But she is not Mingus, the composer, the musician, the artist, and I pray she doesn’t think she is his equal because no one is.  I've nothing against an established artist setting out to break away from the stuff they've already done so that they might “advance their art,” but I protest artsy experiments in areas where an artist has no business being. To be specific, Joni Mitchell has little justification to be futzing around with the moody expressionism of jazz, as she does on Mingus. Though the music and lyrics gel better this time than on her previous Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (a bottomless pit of muted, foghorn atonality and free-associative lyrics that expressed the forgettable as to the incomprehensible), Mitchell's primary problem on Mingus is that she's not much of a jazz singer. Her voice sounds thin and attenuated when it should sound alive, brassy, and full-bodied, pallid when it should have color. You find yourself longing for Annie Ross, or Patti Waters. And as a tribute to the late Charles Mingus, this record doesn't quite wash. The bits of dialogue between songs, featuring Mingus reminiscing with the musicians and ever pondering his death, don't give the album any more depth than what the music -- some of it excellent, most of it half-baked -- already supplies. It smacks of tackiness.

Mitchell and other women musicians have are held to another standard, a standard that kept getting moved around I will, though, stand by my view that the kind of artist she wants to be is frankly out of her grasp--if we are to rely on the art, the art has to be good or demanding in ways that amount to an effort that enriches us, not demanding in manner that we create clever euphemisms to describe efforts that are frankly half-measured, half-baked, half-hearted. I was intrigued by and actually enjoyed quite a bit of Hissing, but thereafter, I think her work became spotty and a grind to listen to. I would say the same of Elvis Costello, whom I used to adore and was fairly obsessed by for quite a while, but who, for the last 15 – 20 years, has made music that is diverse, experimental, undercooked, under considered, a facile and heartless eclecticism. Tom Waits, contrarily, is someone whose work has gotten deeper, more profound, musically complex and more emotionally engaged with the characters and the narratives. I used to hate Waits for his Beat pretensions and Bukowski mannerisms, but now I regard him as one of our finest songwriters of the last half decade. I could go on, but my issue with Mitchell is that every interview I've read with her for the last couple of decades has her pissed off about something, something that is unfair to her, and it gets to be a drag to behold when what she's been releasing reeks of the kind of pretentiousness I'd accuse most progressive rock bands of being. Same with Zappa, whose cynicism and slap dash and unending guitar solos spoils a body of work I might otherwise enjoy. For me, it's not about gender, it's about the individual talent.

It's a matter of one expanding into areas what their technical capacity can genuinely, tangibly make new, exciting, hopefully original. Dylan is not a virtuoso nor a composer of extensive technical and imaginative range--he expanded into country, into rock, into reggae, into blues, soul, standards--forms that are mostly folk-based. His results varied, of course, but Dylan had the humility to not try to become something beyond his capacity. Mitchell can expand all she wanted, and the point I'm making isn't whether she should experiment. We're talking results, which have been uneven at best when in her attempts to work with jazz ensembles and symphony orchestras and the like, and her repeated complaints to interviewers that she's being treated unfairly in reviews.

Friday, March 25, 2022



Image result for billy joel
Slate contributing editor Ron Rosenbaum asks rhetorically early in his   hissing 2009 hate – note on Billy Joel about why he should spend a column excoriating the songwriter who's already had his reputation vandalized by critics, snobs and lipless influencers for decades? Well, yes, why another hate jerk off at the expense of the much and justifiably maligned Billy Joel? The author needed something to write about that would less use of brain power and more use   of embedded knee-jerk responses to Billy Joel's name. This wasn't an overview of a bad musician's career; rather, it's an allergic reaction expressing itself with words  instead of hives and welts. Rosenbaum couldn't help himself, Joel is that rash, he was incapable of not scratching.  Truth needs to be told, though. Billy is a bit better than naysayers would have you think. Joel is not the genius he presumably thinks himself to be, but he does merit a measure of defense .  Billy Joel is a mixed blessing. An effective and versatile vocalist, a genuinely gifted writer of not so obvious pop melodies, a frequently maudlin, pretentious lyricist (although he redeems himself when his pop sensibilities rule over his desire to Be Meaningful), a technically proficient pianist, a smarmy ham bone. One may not like him on principle--I don't care for him--but I have to admit he's done some work that merits a second and a third listen. He's a cross between Harry Chapin and Elton John, I guess, with a strong aftertaste of the worst brands of smugness that typifies pop music in general. What sinks Joel is his lack of any ironic sense of himself and the material he writes to address foul matters brewing in the world; despite his working-class roots, the idea of an unfathomably successful pop star sing a catchy--hummable, all so meaningful ballad to the laid off factory workers of “Allentown” informs us that his protest songs are not about the poor nor the destitute, but in making Billy Joel feel good about himself and looking good to the fan base at the same time.Joel's sins of pretentiousness are numerable over a long career , something I noted with his first hit “Piano Man”, a bloated imitation of  Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man” , to the point where I stopped paying attention to him altogether with the name-checking orgasm that comprised the hit “We Didn't Start the Fire". The obviousness of his conclusions, the cartoon likenesses of his characters, the clichéd contours of his examples, the barely concealed arrogance of his narrative air are the kind of thing that makes the smart people like you, Rosenbaum and I slap our foreheads and make us desire to grab either a gun or a cold beer. Unlike Rosenbaum, I'm unwilling to muster the indignant heat it takes to do another body slam on Joel's oeuvre . It's a matter that I've done so in print and online repeatedly, and that comes a moment in any writer's career when he or she realizes they're merely rearranging all the old complaints. I'll forgo the oratory and leave my summary judgement on B.J.'s body of work as this, a skilled journeyman with delusions of being something greater. I relate on an emotional level to that status, and I don't think it unlikely that many of us wanted to go beyond our limits and reach for the greatness of giants. The difference , the not-so-sour truth, is that Joel was actually fairly good at putting together a memorable melody and an occasionally astute rhyme. And middle brow as he might be, he got paid handsomely for the effort. 


Once upon a time there was an irrate participant on Slate's now-defunct   Poems Said discusser was apparently disgusted with poetry editor Robert Pinsky's weekly selections of featured poet and let the readership know his displeasure with a post titled provocatively “Bring me the head of Robert Pinsky”. This brought a smile to my face, less for the sentiment than the paraphrase of a little known Sam Peckinpah western Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.I would just assume to allow Robert Pinsky to keep his head, since I have no need for it, nor have the room in my freezer to store the severed dome. I can't help but think of the cartoon show Futurama where 20th Century celebrities and politicians  kept alive as talking heads only, perfectly sane and full of their trade marked quirks, although they live in life-sustaining jars. Might we imagine if Pinsky had been one of those preserved, decapitated heads, continuing his celebrity shtick as he promotes poetry to the remaining half dozen readers in the 26th century? Depressing to think about, I guess, even after a guilty laugh after the grisly fantasy. Better to allow the former US Poet Laureate to literally to keep his head and wonder instead why he loses it figuratively over poems that couldn't raise a belch from the most sodden of open reading attendees. Hmmm, still too grisly. Maybe a cliché is more fitting: "why does Pinsky flip his lid over poems that are duller than a pig farmer's shoe shine." Better? Good. My apologies to pig farmers, though; you are not the ones who lay these tinker toy poems at our collective doorstep.

It's interesting, I think, that Pinsky has selected poems two weeks in a row that are, by comparison, clear and easy to parse in their language, swinging from the extremes of presenting us with work that was notably for their impenetrability and compressed incoherence, swinging from the spirit of TS Eliot on the one hand to the daisy-chaining clarity that resides on the other. What I'll say is that he has an inconsistent ear when he selects from either side of the big river that divides the approaches. The Room by Michael Chitwood seems to be after the spirit of the brilliant poet Charles Wright, with a plain diction that wants to consider the nearly ineffable in this existence in a cherry-picked locution that might manage to vividly suggest the sorts of chills and rushes contemplation and recollection can give a fellow. It starts off well enough:

One way or another, we must all leave
I said to a room, a room empty of people,
save for me. There were two doors to the room,

ample avenues of departure. A small town.
A family. A faith. A marriage. A career.
The dailiness of days' work done for years.

Even though the last line of the second stanza, The dailiness of days' work done for years. is one of the most awkward alliterations I've read, one does expect the build up, to move with clear purpose to the physical details that flesh out the abstracted , cut-up quality that begins the poem. The staccato , slide show like visualization should merge and blend with the narrator's re-imagining of a scene, a series of scenes perhaps, that have formerly been sketchy, elusive, and only now, just presently, come together as sensations connected finally to biographical details.But it doesn't, and it's a shame because what he get again is a poet who prefers the linguistic shell game to defer clarity rather than feel deeply and embrace the likelihood that what is now felt so keenly cannot be undone,neither remembered completely nor resolved. Chitwood gets caught in a series of puns, dualisms, parallel associations suggesting preferred narratives, all of which could be intriguing if linked to the telling detail that evokes the larger view, the coincidences, the bad timing, the missed chances that seem to be the motivation of this poem, but which are absent and so useless to making this poem breathe something greater than the brief signs and whimpers that make up these lines.

We are leaving even as we speak I said to no one
in the room with me. To whom did I speak?
To ones already left, though left can mean

both to remain and to depart? Dearly departed
you remain here with me in this empty room,
room enough for you, empty in my aching thought.

Leavings are that scatter, those remaining remnants,
our language littered with what can't be gotten rid of,
our thoughts, our bodies ghosted, the leavings remaining.

Who the narrator is talking to is the reader, not the person or persons gone from the room he finds himself within, and this is the problem, I think, since I haven't been able to shake the feeling that Chitwood is rehearsing what he considers his best lines, lining them up with just enough of an arc to make these stanzas thematically consistent and leaves it all there, not so much impenetrable as it is unfinished. This is the kind of writing lesser, Language School inspired , usually undergraduate poets do, teasing a readership with the lure of autobiography and serving them a half-baked piece of poststructurualist ambiguity instead. One may, if they wish, dwell on the purpose for the lack of details beyond the taciturn murmurings Chitwood, but that, I think, would be an activity that would be more interesting and illuminating than the poem one was trying to explicate.


 A few years ago poet Robert Pinsky gave Slate readers Marianne Moore's widely anthologized "Poetry" as a topic of discussion some years ago. It was a joy to read again/It shouldn't be a mystery as to why this poem among the hundreds she wrote is the one that an otherwise indifferent audience remembers: it's a poem about poetry. She rather handily summarizes an array of clichés, stereotypes and received misgivings about poetry a literal-minded readership might have ,feigns empathy with the complaints, and then introduces one crafty oh-by-the-way after another until the opposite is better presented than the resolution under discussion.This is not a subject I warm up to in most circumstances--poets, of their accord, have demonstrated the sort of self-infatuation that many of them, left to their means-to-an-end, would remove themselves from the human scale and assume the ranks of the divine, the oracular, the life giving, IE, develop themselves into a priesthood, the guardians of perception.

Moore's poem, though, presents itself as a contracting string of epigrams that seem to quarrel, a disagreement between head and mind, body and spirit, and a larger part of her lines, as they seemingly across the page away from the statements preceding the line before it, is that no really knows what to make of poetry as a form, as a means of communication, as a way of identifying oneself in the world. It frustrates the fast answer, it squelches the obvious point, poetry adds an ambiguity that would rile many because of lines that start off making obvious sense but which leave the reader in a space that isn't so cocksure. Little seems definite anymore once a poem has passed through the world, and the reassembling of perception required of the reader to understand a bit of the verse (the alternative being merely to quit and admit defeat) is bound to give a resentment. It's a headache one would rather not have. Moore's poem seems to be a response to Dorothy Parker's ironic declaration "I hate writing. I love having written". The reader may hate not understanding what they've read, but love the rewards of sussing through a poem's blind alleys and distracting side streets.

    POETRY /    Marianne Moore

    I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.

    Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in

    it, after all, a place for the genuine.

    Hands that can grasp, eyes

    that can dilate, hair that can rise

    if it must, these things are important not because a

    high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are

    useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,

    the same thing may be said for all of us, that we

    do not admire what

    we cannot understand: the bat

    holding on upside down or in quest of something to

    eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under

    a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base-

    ball fan, the statistician—

    nor is it valid

    to discriminate against "business documents and

    school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction

    however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry,

    nor till the poets among us can be

    "literalists of

    the imagination"—above

    insolence and triviality and can present

    for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them," shall we have

    it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,

    the raw material of poetry in

    all its rawness and

    that which is on the other hand

    genuine, you are interested in poetry.

The agony, the contradictions, the dishonest sleights of hand that deceive you in the service of delivering a surprise, an irony, an unexpected image , all of this is worth the resentments readers suffers through. One is , after all , improved, strengthened by the exercise of the will to read and confront the poem on its own terms. Moore is a shrewd rhetorician as well as gracefully subtle poet. Clever, witty, sharp and acidic when she needs me, Moore is clever at playing the Devil's Advocate in nominally negative guise, saying she dislikes it but mounting one exception to the rule after another until we have an overwhelming tide of reasons about why we as citizens can't exist without it's application.

It works as polemic, indeed, crafted as she alone knows how, and it adds yet another well-phrased set of stanzas that want to turn poets into more than mortal artists, but into a priesthood, a race of scribes attuned to secret meanings of invisible movements within human existence. It stops being a poet after the first jagged stanza, not unlike all those pledge breaks on PBS that tirelessly affirm that network's quality programming while showing little of it during their pleas for viewer money. It's not that I would argue too dramatically against the notion that poets and artists in general are those who've the sensitivity and the skills to turn perception at an instinctual level into a material form through which what was formally unaddressable can now find a shared vocabulary in the world-- egalitarian though I am, there are geniuses in the world , and those who are smarter and more adept than others in various occupations and callings--but I do argue against the self-flattery that poems like Moore's promotes and propagates.I wouldn't regard this as a polemic of any sort, nor a manifesto as to what the writer ought to do or what the reader should demand. Reading it over again, and again after that makes me think that Moore was addressing her ambivalence toward the form. After one finishes some stanzas and feels contented that they've done justice to their object of concentration, some lines appear contrived, other words are dull and dead sounding aligned with more colorful, more chiming ones, an image seems strained and unnatural, an analogy no longer seems like the perfect fit.

She, too, dislikes it, I think because poetry will always come up short of getting to the world without our censoring buffers; Wallace Stevens solved the problem of cutting himself from the gravity of his real life by no attempting to launch his persona , via metaphor, through the imagined barrier between our perception of events and what is there, sans a mediating ego, and landed himself among his Ideal Types, his Perfect Forms and Arrangements, but the strength of his language. The metaphor he would have used to address qualities otherwise unseen of a thing her perceived became, in his method, the thing itself, a part of his Supreme Fiction. William Stevens voided the decorative phrases and qualifiers that he felt only added business to the world a poem endeavored to talk about and made a verse of hard , sharp, angular objects. Moore, though, seems to insist in Poetry that however grand , beautiful and insightful the resulting poems are in a host of poetic attempts to resolve the problem the distance between the thing perceived and the thing itself, we still have only poems, words arranged to produce effects that would appeal to our senses that are aligned with this world and not the invisible republic just beyond our senses. Poetry is a frustrating and irritating process because it no matter how close one thinks they've come to a breakthrough, there is the eventual realization of far one remains from it. Poetry as Sisyphean task; one is compelled to repeat the effort, and not without the feeling that they've done this before.

The commotion of the animals, the pushing elephants, the rolling horses, the tireless yet immobile Wolf, seem like analogues to the restless mind Moore at one time might have desired to have calmed by the writing of poetry. There is the prevailing myth, still fixed in a good number of people who go through various self help groups, that the writing of things down--poetry, journaling, blogging, writing plays or memoirs--is a process that, in itself , will reveal truthful things one needs to know and thereby settle the issues. Writing, though, doesn't “settle”, finalize or cement anything in place, it does to set the world straight , nor does it resolve anything it was addressing once the writing is done with. It is, though, a useful process, a tool, one may use as a means to get one out of the chair, away from the keyboard, and become proactive in some positive way.

The expectations of what poetry was supposed to do--create something about the world that is permanent, ever lasting, reveal a truth whose veracity does not pale with time, whether a century or hour-- are crushed and a resentment when realizes that the world they're attempting to conquer, in a manner of speaking , will not bow to one's perception, one's carefully constructed stage set where the material things of this earth are props to be arranged on a whim, and that the mind that creates the metaphors, the similes, the skilled couplets and ingenious rhyme strategies is not calmed, soothed, serene.The world continues to move and change, language itself changes the meaning of the words it contains, the mind continues to tick away, untrammeled. Moore's animals, in the restless paradise , are themselves restless, non-contemplative, instinct driven toward species behavior that is about propagation and survival, creatures distinct from the contemplative conceit of the poet who thinks he or she can sift through the underbrush for secret significance. I've always heard a weary tone in Moore's poem; a mind that in turn wrestles with matters where poetry doesn't reveal what's disguised, but only what the poet can never get to. Her poem echos Macbeth's famous speech rather nicely:


She should have died hereafter;

    There would have been a time for such a word.

    To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

    To the last syllable of recorded time,

    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

    And then is heard no more: it is a tale

    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

    Signifying nothing.

She seems not a little dismayed that poetry is only part of our restless species behavior and that the language we write and expound to bring coherence to the waking life are only more sounds made in an already noisy existence.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022


 St.Patrick's Day is here again to make us rue the day.  . Whose party are you going to, what Irish Pub will you be drinking at, what Irish poet will you recite at the Open Reading of Irish Poetry? Attending the idea that you would want to celebrate a culture rich in the greatest ringing glories of the English language comes the question about how drunk you intend to get, and will you remember the way back to your bedroom at your mother's house if you're unable to utter a comprehensible sentence. There are times I hate being Irish; the jokes at the expense of this culture make it obvious that White European Americans are the only ethnic group one can offend with impunity. The Holiday is a match to a conspicuously open can of gasoline. 

On The Day itself, many will inquire “Where’s your green?” All these questions on the single topic become nagging of a kind, the persistent inquiry into what someone else takes as an imperfection. My imperfection seemed to be that I didn't feel Irish enough. I don’t wear green on any day, it’s not my favorite color, and there’s a deep resentment at others who expect me and any other Irish American to play the shaleighlei -stroking trick monkey with green paper hats, green beads, and affecting brogues as bogus as paper forks.There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s movie “Annie Hall” when his character Alvy Singer berates a woman’s Jewishness with several wisecracks at the expense of the ethnic heritage he imagines her identifying with. The woman says nothing and Singer, feeling he’d crossed the line, gives a half-hearted apology for his jokes, to which she replies (and I paraphrase here) “No, it’s alright, I don’t mind being reduced to a cultural stereotype” 

This was a “eureka” moment since it articulated a foul mood I’d been in for years each time St. Patrick’s Day rolled around and Americans, of Irish Lineage and otherwise, rolled out their boxes of stereotypes: green beer, whiskey, green beads, glittered cardboard shamrocks, the whole disgusting offensive lot. St.Patrick's is a day on which those of us with family connections to the Emerald Isle are to relish the contributions of Ireland to the world by way of its poets and dramatists and novelists, whether Joyce, Yeats, John Millington Synge or Roddy Doyle and Seamus Heaney, an activity of worth if the proceedings were low key and attentive to what Irish writing sounded like and what cluster of emotions and experience it collectively expressed; it's literature at war with itself and, as such, conflicts and tensions such as that results in major poetry. Bombast, bottles, and bullshit about all things Irish follow the lip service to the Literature, and St.Patrick's Day becomes no more than respectful of its cultural namesake than does Cinco de Mayo or Halloween. It's an excuse to drink to excess and behave badly and be a lout. It was assumed that because of my last name and that I made a living both writing and selling books I would be all over the Holiday and partake in the lugubrious, drunken wallow. I remember yelling at some partying moron with an Italian last name who was doing a miserable Barry Fitzgerald impersonation that I had it in mind to come to his house late at night and do some patently offensive immigrant through a bullhorn if he kept up with what I thought was a cultural slander. Of course, he didn’t get what I was getting at, and I never showed up in his driveway to deliver on my promise, but the upshot is that he's never forced his face into mine after that with that wavering brogue. 

 I resisted the temptation to ask if he did Minstrel Show impersonations for black people on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, as the point was both overkill and would be lost on him. Say what you might about me, but I pride myself on the quality of issues I waste my breath on, a perverse pleasure that might reaffirm the cliche of the Irish being masters of futile eloquence. It's doubtful. I  love hearing my voice and  I don't feel compelled to credit cultural determinism for what is either a gift or a curse. (Depending on the circumstance, inspiration, and the quality of the coffee I might have been drinking when inspired to place a few words on the page, in rhythmic order, declaring war on the latest peeve or pestering pustule of aggravation). It must be said that despite that small country’s amazing contributions to World Literature, I’ve never felt much kinship with Ireland, nor with the native Irish I’ve met. What I've felt through my life is a middle-class white guy, Irish American, emphasis on the American. Irish-American. It's a different tribe.

IT'S GO IN HORIZONTAL, Selected Poems 1974-2006 by Leslie Scalapino

Leaying out a poem like it were a trail of breadcrumbs, a reader would to the more giant feast of The Point, is not how writer Leslie Scalapino writes. As we find ourselves in a time when the popular idea of the poet and their work they compose seems slanted toward the lightly likable Billy Collins and others assembling stanzas that are easily grasped, shared, written out in a fine hand on perfumed paper and preserved between the leaves of a dictionary of quotations. Difficulty or the second look, beyond the festooned surface, is not for this audience, which wants, one thinks, poetry to be a prettified version of obvious literary sounds. Scalapino requires not the casual gaze but the harder view, the more inquisitive eye. Scalapino brings a refreshing complexity to her work, a sanguine yet inquisitive intelligence that is restless and dissatisfied with the seemingly authorized narrative style readers expect.  The framing, so to speak, is as much the subject in her poems and prose, and the attending effort to interrogate the methods one codifies perception excluding details not fitting a convenient structure, Leslie Scalapino has produced a body of work of rare and admirable discipline; the writing is a test of the limits of generic representation. Her work as well as an inquiry on how we might exist without them.In a series of over nineteen books over published since the seventies, she has been one of the most interesting poets working, an earnest inquisitor of consciousness and form blurring and distorting the boundaries that keep poetry, prose, fiction, and autobiography apart. It's Go in Horizontal is a cogent selection from three decades of writing.

The distinction blurring is not a project originating with her, but there is in Scalapino's work the sense of a single voice rather than expected "car radio effect", the audio equivalent of Burroughs's cut-up method that would make a piece resembles an AM dial moved up and down a distorted, static-laden frequency. Leslie Scalapino's writing is one voice at different pitches responding to an intelligence aware of how it codes and decodes an object of perception. The work is fascinating, interrogations that wrestle with the act of witnessing. In the best sense of the comparison, her writing has traces of Gertrude Stein at her most concentrated, when she had considered the Cubism of Braque, Picasso, and Leger and sought an equivalent in writing of the effects they achieved in their painting and sculpture; a disassembling of the usual way that orders visual experience the effect of which reveals each perspective at the same time. This simultaneity of witness presents problems at first--head-scratching isn't an unusual response to first-timers even these days--but the beauty of the project is that the abstraction it produces in the work of the Cubists and with sympathetic experimental writers like Stein is that it allows for things that are normally hidden or ignored in favor of more flattering, svelte detail to be brought to the forefront. The world is less smooth and elegant as the former restraints vanish, and it becomes a considerable space filled with objects of infinite shape. Stein, though, was principally intrigued with the visual, and Scalapino's writing concerns itself with an investigation of one's own perception; there is a sense of frantic and sharply applied cuts in a film , different angles juxtaposed against one another, ideas revealed in contradictory shades of light. The poet pauses, repeats a phrase, restarts the narrative from the beginning, jumps to the end and then inserts the middle section. The jump cutting, the shuffling of details, repeated, reworded, the same scene addressed in all conceivable tenses--it's all dizzying, remarkable. 

There is a fracturing of narrative flow, a rephrasing of what was formally said, a studied trek through a temporal sequence of events full of incidental images, smells, and sounds, any of which trigger associations linking the speaker, the witness to the phenomenon, to personal history and future one speculates about in limitless wondering. Scalapino's writing is a study of the mind conducting its habit as a device that forces order on an infinitely complex rush of details that would otherwise overwhelm the senses. Her poetry examines the canvas on which one draws their conceptualizations, a worrying presence on the margins of consolidated personality, ever aware of the filters one applies over the phenomenon.I haven't excerpted any of Scalapino's work here because the formatting of this blog wouldn't do justice to the arrangements of her lines on the page; the spatial arrangements are crucial in many of her poems for each sliver and shaving of nuance to fully work. But there are some choice links here you can follow to some of her works online, presented, I assume, as the author intended them to appear.

Sunday, March 13, 2022


Lisa Russ Spaar’s poem "I Consider My Mother's Mind" makes me think of something that that has been suddenly and violently emptied after a long time of neglect, a wallet crammed with too many business cards, gummed encrusted post-it notes, receipts, expired credit cards and coupons, small scraps of paper with phone numbers attached to first names whose faces you've forgotten. Or maybe a drawer in the farthest end of the kitchen, just over the lower shelves with the cooking irons and sauce pans , with the evidence of a life lived for decades in the same four walls, with more receipts, creased photos, frayed or snapped rubber hands, recipes clipped from Family Circle, report cards, bank statements, more photographs, notes of congratulation and condolence, an overwhelming mass of paperwork  confined and added to by a stern-fingered determination to consign these things to the margins, documents of no practical use which one keeps nonetheless and despite the clutter for fear that their presence and life force will be diminished, fall under erasure. There is a considerable amount of unattended facts and figuration stored, unrecorded, experience really unspoken, now faded, faint, vanishing with the failing of memory, whole chunks of decades missing between what is remembered not so much as memories but rather as sharp, clear, bright and sense-compelling parts of an incomplete narrative; there is the sense here of what the daughter hears an aging parent telling here, visualizing the details , hoping the tactile bits, the tangible references, can somehow become clear and full in the mind's capacity to form an oracular whole;

Stars of the Great and Small Bears, 

lost in a cobalt padlock above Detroit,

the orient coruscations of car factories,

skating ponds, six-lane highways,

now lumbering across decades

into my childhood suburb, that rimed ruin—

picnic table, dispirited shucks and obeisant leeks of our winter garden, homunculus at the mind's edge--

Spaar’s narrator seems to be interiorizing hours of listening to the sort of wandering, diffuse, grasping monologues an elderly parent might drift into when endeavoring to respond to simple , direct questions; the process of endeavoring to remember what is nearly gone from recall creates intriguing associations that are verbalized and followed on their own. Soon the answer to the question is not the point, and one is left to confront a narrative that is being told, spoken before it fades and is lost with the dying brain matter. One is witness to a personality trying to recreating one's life , to remember and perhaps feel something from the past yet again before the last moments of coherence are over, and the daughter, finally, accepts , grudgingly brutal facts of what happens with aging, and attempts to see the terrain of the decades her mother mentions in various pockets of lucidity.

The landscape is an intense blur , a montage; Spaar captures the feeling of Detroit I remember flying into my hometown where one can, if fortunate enough to have a window seat, witness the industrial city and it's suburbs, a gray, flat spread of factories, suburban sprawl, highways the width of mighty rivers, a hard land to raise a family in; I am impressed with Spaar's masterful contrasting of elements with simple put details, the faceless city stooped shouldered and hardened through bitter weather and economic disaster, and a terse description of a family garden that attempts to thrive regardless of a downbeat outlook. The human element is many-layered here, struggling through the impersonal forces of inevitability and insisting that such a life matters; the mother who speaks of her life in defiance of the loss of re-collective powers, the daughter who attempts to imagine her mother's life as full and real based on the fractured and collage quality of the recall, and a family giving the home a human, “homey” touch that expresses the need for an abode to be welcoming , even in a city as violent and embittered as Detroit.

At this point I get the sense that Spaar’s narrator has wandered the tableau she has mentally constructed from her mother’s tersely phrased murmurings, has allowed herself to feel a rush of sensations the streets, the factories, seasons, and winter gardens might arise, and to become overwhelm, melancholic in what becomes a witnessing of another’s life caught in the movement of small-scale history, formed from coincidences of context and personal choice. There is a feeling of helplessness, of wanting to give warning and consul and coming to the sober realization that there is nothing to do with the past except remember, draw from it what lessons one can, and try to use the experiences as useful touchstones for living in the present tense. But living in the present tense, in the now of the noun, does not sever one from the past and the sway it holds over us, no matter how much be busy ourselves with hobbies and acquiring more material things we don’t need. Some almost forgotten thing will make the knees buckle, cause the eyes to blur with tears that form, something will remind you of who you are, what made you, and will make you feel vulnerable and sense regardless of the layers of maturity and autonomy we grant ourselves.

I can't return to you, though I believe you're calling me

from the polar house of hibernal fear

with its skirted vanity table, its angry mirror

& Bakelite brush, bristles up, still fleeced

with a child's hair, a wavering frequency

in the key of oblivion, mammalian, contracting.

This is the “Rosebud” scenario, where an insignificant detail, a banal trace of material good, arises and is amplified in the waking mind, setting forth a cascade of sensations and impressions that humble you inspite of the strength of your limbs or the power of your will. One learns , if one is fortunate , that the past is always present and constantly influencing the future. The death of one’s kin does not mean that they’ve moved out of our lives.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Poems by Barry Goldensohn

 Somewhere in space the tempest of intellection vs emotion in contemporary poetry ensues, participants more passionate than habitual losers at downbeat racetracks.No one walks away happy from these discussions, of course, and although common sensethe proper place for one or the other of those qualities lies in the middle, with dominant tone depending on what is being composed, matters get sidetracked to issues that leave aesthetics behind and land somewhere in the swamp of Deeply Held Personal Beliefs. The outcome from that kind of morass, in extreme, are crusades, jihads, and obsession with celebrity murder trials. Every so often, it’s harder to stay in the center of a discussion than on other occasions:

Reading Faust When Young
for David Mamet

I remember only the leap from the bridge
into the turbulent river after knowledge,
but not what special knowledge or what power
ever came his way in the old story.
I was young when I read it. Immortality
meant art, and Faustus was never an artist.
And as for girls, you didn't need the devil,
when you offered everything. What did he really
need to know? Something about the girl—
what she felt and could never say because
she had no words for it? He had little
to say to the Greats. Helen was a peep-show.
And the stuff about his soul—
well, that was religious and historical.

Overreaching for me was natural. I wanted
to know everything, to stay forever in school
taking courses. God and the devil
never figured in. With his snaky tail
the devil was too fanciful to explain
the lines waiting for gas or a bullet and ditch
and firebombs and carpet bombs and the icy
rapture of ideologues shouting about whom to kill
and whom to save. My fellow humans were real:
their evil was sufficient. The sacred
was love and art and the political dream.
The world-drunk heart was what I took for the soul,
which dulled the edge of Faustus' sacrifice
and god was never real enough to love or lose.

All told, this is an acute recollection, but it seems a fanciful evocation of some delayed connection of points whose effect ought to have a less earth-shaking idiom. There’s a lot of throat clearing harrummmmmphing going on in the lines as I read them, where a slighter, more minuscule rhetoric could have prevailed.There's something to be said for distanced irony, the now-I-get-it school, but since the instances were fleeting, minor, gradients of perception building to a larger, if not earth riving sharpness, a voice less swaggering in its couched self-loathing would fit the material better. It would seem a better idea if Goldensohn hadn't mentioned Faust or Jung at all but in the title, and instead placed us smack dab in the action of his past thinking, the incidents as he vividly recalls doing them in his earnest, youthful practice of applying his hormone-fused enthusiasms upon his world. The mention of historically loaded names and sufficiently parsed ideas, though nicely arranged and phrased, are too precious for me to take this as anything more than an occasional poem that would normally find its way to the bottom of a drawer: it fairly gloats with its knowingness, and the author sounds too close to thinking that his eventual lesson learned is something to glory in. Look at me, I am wrong on a higher plane.

The piece is over-loaded with awkward references and glancing mentions of religion and myth; the poet's voice aside, this poem reads like an abstract of a freshman's ill-crafted term paper. A reader might object to Goldensohn's irony with the insistence that a lyric poem supposed to be about emotion. Ironic observations, they might insist, are not emotions, merely cruel juxtapositions of unfortunate inclinations.The lyric poem is the verbal equivalent of a musical evocation of intense feeling that defies the logic of words to express adequately. Thus, the looping chains of association, the constant comparisons of unlike things, including the sounds of the words creating euphony. Intense emotion colors the entire world, cast it in all engrossing tint. The perceived world makes a certain kind of sense, though the sense eludes us more often than not; there is even an element of paranoia that can come to play here, as in the notion that everything in the world, be it people, places, things, institutions, weather, are all somehow connected to the internal transformation.

Irony alone isn't an emotion, but because it has something to do with an individual's perception, whether the poem's speaker or the reader themselves, it can become a key and determining factor in how hot emotion might boil or cool off, whatever the case may be. Irony concerns the incongruity between what is said and what actually is the case, and since a lyric poem operates on the transcendent level where emotion bypasses logical argument pursuing impossible language capturing the inexpressible, conflicts, disjunctions, distortions, and contradictions between myth and fact, action and deed are likely to happen as default conditions, and will ratchet up the energy a lyric swoon requires.

I do think that my work and explications regarding verse aim toward a Dionysian expansion, but unlike a host of others before me who pursued that expansion into sheer incomprehensibility --Kerouac, late John Ashbery, Pound, Language poets who've pushed at the margins of prefabricated resolution and took the entire enterprise of American poetry off center--I think the image, lines, and music need to be reined in, operate within strictures, Jazz is hardly a formless expulsion sans melodic infrastructure, since the quality of the best sets of spontaneous composition require suitable composed materials to contextualize the extrapolation; the form of the melody being extrapolated upon gives shape to the musician's improvisations.

There's a point in the kind of poetry I find appealing and the poets I think do interesting work where they have to acknowledge something a real subject set in the material world, the physical world, and that there is a need to link the most fanciful forays and high-flying linguistic maneuvering to real emotion, producing something at the end resembling whatever effect the writer thinks he's working for. It's a dialectical process, lacking another term, thesis, antithesis, synthesis.Goldensohn's intellection resembles a tight suitcase about to burst open on the bed; the epiphany is too slight for the evocation of a top-heavy name like Faust. Faust, of course, could have been used effectively as a reference serving a satisfying conclusion, but the hand is heavy here when the name and its cache is played. Irony trumps everything, as the saying goes, but it can also kill everything that's going on in a work, and the willingness to abstract compulsively here makes for a small work that is all over the map. It's an over packed suitcase. Stevens’s strategies better, in so far that his work is about experience, presently, in the intelligence of a perceived who is in witness to things that will not yield their essence in the metaphysical sense. Stevens, though not overtly emotional, crafts a supreme fiction he often spoke of to take the place of the secrets that are forever unknown, a dramatized system of perception that acknowledges the world as its own adequate symbol.

Wallace Stevens believes in the adage that there ought to be “no ideas but in things…”(concisely phrased and explained by William Carlos Williams). Stevens, with compatriots Williams, Eliot, et al, were, in their varied ways, obsessed with making language a hard, malleable material no less than clay or steel, and they wanted to write and elaborate upon images that didn't obscure the fantastic qualities of the world their language was supposed to be writing about. Perception is a dominant concern for this generation of modernist poets, and Stevens, I believe, followed the loose dictates brilliantly and developed a methodology of processing the world that could capture in it many of its amazing juxtapositions. What is outstanding about Stevens' work is that he develops a philosophy of perceptual imagination from the world as it already is.This terrain has a permanent equilibrium; the roiling core of a man's irrational impulses become abstracted, formalized in a design where language absorbs, fragments and restructures the shape of our meaning as days , months, years pass by. Stevens was entering the world, and to have the world he experiences shape and form his readings and his writings; he wrote, I think, as a man who was in that legendary of state of constant becoming. Goldensohn sounds lost at best, though I am sure he can write a decent poem. This isn't one of his better ones.

Goldensohn offers up a poem titled War Work”. Here, the intent being to bridge childhood memories of Manhattan thunderstorms that he mistook for a nuclear attack, and how his parents consoled him that his small world still held its comforting center. A moving sentiment, perhaps, if told in real life, but horrid and malnourished as a poem. The poem confirms the tired complaint that too many poems are bad prose broken into irregular lines--the reader is given the worst qualities Of both forms and must surrender to vague critical asides that claim there is more in the ambiguity than the unguided eye can connect. Or the reader must suffer the personal insult, by implication, that manage to live, although they have no heart. I suppose I have no heart. This poem is so weak that if on the off chance that this incident is true, I hope his parents made fun of him from that day forward, into his adult life. Writing this poem the way it is seems like an attempt to ennoble a childhood embarrassment by dressing it up in the unseemly character warping issue of Nuclear Destruction and General Apprehension. This has interest if one were to read it as a single entry on a blog, or paragraph out of a long letter, but as a poem is slight and repulsive for being so unambitious. It's the equivalent of being in a bad mood while on the way to work early one mid-week day and seeing homeless men gathered at bus stops, smoking mooched cigarettes and drinking, and then having your mood uglier.

You want to throw these guys in jail for being lazy, shiftless, drunk, and leisurely at 7 in the morning while you and your fellow wage slaves go off to work to make a wage and eventually pay a tax that pays for the bench that has become their reclining point. It has nothing to do with fairness, logic, the like, and it goes against my professed belief in social justice, it's just an emotional response, hitting me like a sucker punch. I feel the same way about this poem; it irritates me that this half-baked pot of gummy sentimentality gets the exposure (and the poet gets the paycheck) while the rest of us work hard for our muse, producing better work in the responses to this gruel than what the actual poem contains.

Again, fairness, balance, reason has nothing to with this reaction, and it's obvious there are other things under the tight lid of my personality that makes me want to slap Goldensohn for being so shiftless in my presence (in a manner of speaking). Envy, resentment, arrogance? Well, yes, all those pesky defects. But beyond it all, beyond all my failings on this issue of being a wordy critic of other people's poems, this poem has the appeal of a small toy after a baby as finished slobbering and puking over it. It might be the bag, it chews the root, it sucks long, deep and with braced teeth.Fog has its appeal because we’re interested in the idea of a nether world coexistent with our own, where things are less definite, less material, able to appear and vanish into other details, or into vapor altogether. It’s a filter over the hard edges of what we see and take for granted and perhaps even curse for being solid, precisely drawn, an arrangement of three-dimensional things we have to walk around, not through. Walking in the fog, through the woods is what Barry Goldensohn fancies with his poem “Walking In Fog”, a jaunt that has one feeling that one is walking through unforgiving barriers, penetrating unseen membranes. There’s that twilight, near dark feeling of the world one knows becoming vaporous and translucent, less fixed on names and definitions that are written down and conveyed by way of essay and routinely complicated system-making, and which seem more than ideas in themselves, the notion of things that hover over our straightforward lives whispering subdued captions of what our lives and our contexts are like free our fear of not having enough or losing what we have.Goldensohn’s trek through the forest, through the signifying fields, has something in common with the dyes of a madras shirt; everything, from detail to the slightest glimmer of joy or foreboding trilling lightly at the delicate edge of the paradigm, it all bleeds together.

Everything looms at me. Hound's-tongue
with wet doggy leaves and blue flowers
starts up from the mist-streaked hillside.
Standing by itself, framed in fog
the live oak twists black arms above me,
an embrace, free of the crown of leaves that hides
the outlines of limbs in the crowded background view.
The canyon and the next hill disappear.

There is a dream logic at work, not the rational cause and effect a more stainless-steel mind requires, but instead the logic, intuited sense of how elements fit together; Goldensohn has an especially balanced poem here, the physical details veering toward the surreal but never escaping the atmosphere so as the poem is made weird and overwrought with metaphors that might have sunk the poem. There is , with sincere thanks, a lack of explanation about any of this means, and the power of the poem draws from the way things appear and vanish in this verse, from looming branches and wet leaves; things emerge as one comes closer, things that one has just past vanish into the cottony mist. There is the feeling of being drawn in, embraced by all that one sees; animals and their habitats . I come away with the feeling of being absorbed.

Plunging into dense puffs and gusts of fog
along the road a dying friend wheels
and lunges from cliff wall to cliff edge
in a bright yellow blouse and blue jeans
joyous with losing herself and coming back
in daily magic, you see me then you don't.

It comes to death, of course, the fascination with it, the thinking of whether this life is worth the struggle and the pain and the sheer labor just to be current with one’s accounts and relationships, and the thought does arise among many of us, musing at twilight, at dusk or dawn, in fog near the cliffs where the songs of sea maidens and powerful water gods offer their promise of rest and deep, coral toned symphonies, that the transition from this life, the hard life, the life where everything has density and measurable weight, to the life where gravity takes no toll , would be simple, ease, painless, natural beyond nature. The final image of the dying friend wheeling herself to the cliff edge, decked out in a bright blouse as she considers going over the edge and then returns from the fog, as if by magic, surprised me, it stopped me, it fairly stunned me. Writers, the sort we like to discuss, the introspective and the thoughtful and the perennially worried, are most comfortable on the smooth, stainless-steel surface of given meaning, but they (we?) are cursed (blessed?) with the impulse of analyzing where they stand, why, and how it might be otherwise if there rules of gravity weren't an imperative.

The speaker here is someone noticing how things familiar and commonplace appear to be at once ethereal and somewhat supernatural given the change in atmosphere, light; the density of things gives way to diffusion and there is the feeling that you're walking through the material world and travelling great distances in no time at all when you stroll through the forests; our narrator observes what things appear as, notes the change in a personal psychology, the rise of comprehensible feelings, but never gives way to the seduction of his mood. He is firmly rooted, and wonder as he might about another plain his language is inadequate to describe, he remains on the soil he landed at birth. He has much he wants to do, and hasn't the hankering to consider other options; the wheel chaired friend, though, has the luxury to wonder, to play games as described, coming so close to a mystical abyss only to back away from its yawning gasp. Giddiness is the mood, finally, the thrill of having trekked alongside certain fatality only to walk away from it, if only by mere inches. It is one of the benefits of not taking the Leap, the reminder that one is alive, undoubtedly when every sense is going off like fire alarms.

The fog, with what its qualities suggest about being a portal to some greater realm above our own, is something we journey through, absorbing the associations, daring to think of a life free of the dreariness of making a living and keeping your word and thinking perhaps further that passing on would be so bad, and then coming back, an aberration in the mist, slightly crazed, energized, fresh from the foxhole, ready to shoulder the weight of the world , realizing there are still some things one would like to attempt before presenting a boarding pass.