Saturday, November 27, 2004

 

An image from a different era:

 

salute

 

L to R: Allen DeLoach, Tom Pickard, RS, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Creeley.

 

I never did figure out who this photographer was. This was in Buffalo, early in the Reagan years.



Friday, November 26, 2004

 

 

 

I was reading Latchkey.net & came across the poems of Elyse Friedman, a Toronto poet whose work I’d not encountered before. Her pieces immediately appeared to be short, direct, deeply ironic & risked being confused with comic one-liners, sort of Deborah Garrison or Sophie Hannah with a mind. To wit:

 

Screenwriting 101

In movies
characters must always have an
arc.

 

Canada's Greatest Living Poet

We're at the Imperial Pub
for a reading
I expect little
and there's even less

 

Defending Rebecca

At a cafe on Queen
girl says:
"Sherry's got the dirt on
Rebecca E."

 

Sad but True

there was plenty of fucking
but very few words
hardly any talk at all
except about work
which made sense
since he was my boss

 

It was at this point that I realized that there was a hyperlinked word – Read – at the foot of each piece & that the titles were themselves hyperlinked to other pages. These were not, in fact, complete poems, but rather just the opening lines. Thus, for example, that last piece really reads as follows:

 

Sad but True

 

there was plenty of fucking
but very few words
hardly any talk at all
except about work
which made sense
since he was my boss

 

i would crack jokes
he would laugh
then go about his business
and me about my worshipping
later, we'd meet in terrible restaurants
then off to my place before home to wife

 

he was remarkably shallow
smart in some ways
stupid in more
but much charisma
i'd never encountered
anything like it

a monstrous light and shake
every time he entered a room
cigar in one hand
drink in the other
each time I heard that voice in the hall
i would pull myself up and prepare

petty, vapid, cruel
and i revered with every drop of blood
every cell
like never before
completely content to be in orbit
around the dark star

 

once only, genuine bliss
stretched out on a warm island in july
miles from work and city
squinting at the sun and the silhouette of a man
gathering blueberries in a cup
for my lips

 

Sadder, certainly. Truer? I don’t know. But not the kind of poet I was expecting at all. And I felt disappointed, ultimately. It’s not that I don’t have my problems with the poetry-as-one-liner aesthetic, something that’s rather disappeared here in the States in the past 15 years or so. But that sort of poetry, when done well – think of the poems of Richard Brautigan as sort of an apotheosis – demands an efficiency of language that is exceptional, and which I can admire in poem after poem. Those excerpts above all function like just such poems, only to become aired out & far more sentimental & puffy over the course of, say, 36 lines. I feel as if I’m trapped in the underworld of lesser values – the short takes aren’t necessarily the world’s greatest poems, but each is notably stronger than the longer poem that is hiding underneath.

 

What does that mean? At some level, Elyse Friedman is an exceptional poet, but not necessarily of the kind of poems she appears to want to write. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt that a poet was somehow missing a tremendous opportunity in or with their work – Jack Gilbert, to pick an example, has often struck me as somebody who should have been a language poet. In what other context does something like Helot for what time there is in the baptist hegemony of death come across as anything other than posturing? I’ve sometimes felt that the vehemence with which Jack has opposed language writing over the years is fueled by just such a recognition. Like Brando’s Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, he “coulda been a contender.”

 

Friedman would appear to be a poet with far more of a future. I wonder if she will ever recognize what little gems are hiding there in her poems, in plain sight.

 



Thursday, November 25, 2004

 

 

 

Thomas Jefferson was an enormously complex man – bankrupt slaveholder, inventor, the finest architect in the new world, founder of institutions, translator of what is still the most radical Enlightenment version of The Bible, author of the most important document in American history We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . .

 

So many of the web photos of Monticello are of its outside, which is certainly magisterial, but not, for me, the best way to see this building. For it is inside this structure that the polymath is revealed – the bed built into the wall so as to render bedchamber & study equally accessible, the maze of underground rooms in the mountain that meant that servants didn’t have to trek through snow in winter to reach kitchen or wine cellar (but which also contributed greatly to the cost of running the home). In the entrance hall is an exhibit on the wall of artifacts brought back by Lewis & Clark, as well as, if I recall correctly, the jawbone of a wooly mammoth & a clock that tells the days of the week (but does so with some difficulty, so that some of it literally descends into the floor). There is a part of Jefferson that is absolutely resonant with William Blake as well as with Simon Rodia, visionary junk architect of the Watts Towers. Yet there is a side also entirely practical & grounded. That is the aspect of Jefferson closest, say, to Walt Whitman. The words he chose for the obelisk over his grave give you a sense of his priorities:

 

Here was buried

Thomas Jefferson

Author of the

Declaration

of

American Independence

of

the Statute of Virginia

for

Religious Freedom

and Father of the

University of Virginia

 

The most important thing I’ve done thus far this year was to step into this house – the tour is quick & it’s impossible to pause long enough in any one room. But you don’t really need a lot of time – the comprehensiveness of his vision strikes you immediately. I burst into tears, or very nearly did, just standing in the very first room. Once in this nation’s history, the president was also the smartest person in the country.

 

Now we do it just the other way around. The decadence at the heart of the present regime is not to be underestimated. Roger Griffin, writing of an earlier form of this same phenomenon, nailed it:

 

Fascism was no freak display of anti-modernism or of social pathological processes in the special paths of development followed by a few nation states. Its raw materials were the forces of militarism, racism, chauvinism, charismatic leadership, populist nationalism, fears that the nation or civilisation as a whole was being undermined by the forces of decadence, deep anxiety about the modern age and longings for a new era to begin, all of which are active ingredients in contemporary history...what made it possible for these ingredients to be forged together into popular, and even mass movements in the inter-war period and for two of them, fascism and nazism, eventually to erect a new type of single party state, was an extraordinary conjuncture of acute socio-political tensions....fascism is best defined as a revolutionary form of nationalism, one which sets out to be a political, social, and ethical revolution, wedding the ‘people’ into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with new heroic values. The core myth which inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement offering cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem to tide of decadence... the whole thrust of the fascist revolutionary programme is anti-conservative, though not in the same way it is anti-liberal or anti-marxist...” (The Nature of Fascism, 1993)

 

We haven’t arrived as yet at a “single party state,” tho W appears to want to govern is tho we have. Concentration camps, “ghost prisoners,” humans placed outside of the reach of the law – none of this is even remotely constitutional. I don’t think any of us understand yet just how far apart at the seams the American “experiment” has truly unraveled. Nor do I think any of us know whether or not it will ever be possible to put the genii of unbridled power back into the bottle. History does not counsel optimism.

 

Yet history does offer counter examples & Jefferson, for all of his flaws, is one of the very best. There are moments when I think that the whole of human history can best be viewed as an evolving understanding of the potential contained inside that phrase of Jefferson’s, that all men are created equal. That’s the hopeful side of me, and when I see the degree to which people under 30 could care less whether or not gays marry, I can see that this evolution of understanding is relentless.

 

So today feels like an appropriate one to give a nod to Tom Jefferson, tho we have so very far to go.

 

 



Wednesday, November 24, 2004

 

From Steven Fratelli in Taiwan comes a question with a challenging tone:

 

Your Blog seems devoid of any mention of Kerry's disappearance from the scene -- rather like Dracula into his crypt at first light of day.

 

I was wondering what you might have to say about that. {aside from pulling his picture down -- if that says anything.}

 

Where do you stand re the whole vote recount effort?

 

I should note, I suppose, that I didn’t pull down the picture of John Kerry – that was a link directly to his own campaign website. The campaign pulled the photo down, along with Kerry’s blog. Kerry’s campaign – and this was always its great weakness – was never about building a movement.

 

However, the idea that Kerry (or Edwards, for that matter) has disappeared from the scene is, I think, nonsense. Kerry no doubt recalls the degree to which Al Gore was received with revulsion by many in his own party after the debacle of the 2000 campaign. Having said that he may well run again, Kerry has returned to the Senate & will be a significant figure there.

 

Where I stand on the “whole recount effort” is a little more complex, tho not far from where David Corn of The Nation seems to be. Do I think that there were instances in which shenanigans went on with voting? Absolutely. Do I see any evidence that it took place to such a degree that it may have determined the outcome in any individual state? Nope. What this new cottage industry of “Kerry Won” websites is, to my mind, is an index of the deep distrust many in this country have concerning the Bush administration and the Republican party in general. The 2000 election was stolen, no question about that. Ergo, the presumption is guilty until proved innocent. Yet the 1960 election was stolen also, that time by the Democrats, and yet one sees no subsequent pattern of presidential thefts on their side during the ensuing campaigns. Both 1960 & 2000 took place in large part because they could be stolen, the race was so tight that the change of a single area could flip a state & with it the entire electoral college. 2004 wasn’t that close.

 

So I do think that every instance in which some sort of fraud or questionable behavior or return is being alleged should be investigated diligently. But unless & until it actually forces a change in the return in a given state, I’m not going to get excited about it.

 

At this point, I think that progressives have more important fish to fry. The first is the creation of a broad, long-term antiwar movement. If you think Iraq is a mess now, wait until 2008. Actually, I don’t want to – I would much prefer to force the administration’s hand and get it to pull our troops out sooner rather than later. This is especially true if one buys George Friedman’s argument that America’s true goal in Iraq is to force a Pax America on the whole of the middle east and that the real target of the invasion wasn’t Hussein so much as it was the Royal House of Saud – that suggests a military presence that would stretch out for decades. While I don’t buy Friedman’s optimism on the state of things overall, he’s on target as to the reasons for the Bush administration’s actions . . . and the long-term implications (a world war with Islam) scare the shit out of me.

 

There is an ancillary benefit to a vigorous anti-war movement as well. W will become a lame duck president even sooner if he faces stiff opposition to whatever he does. The sooner he becomes irrelevant, the better we will all be.

 

Progressives’ second major task is to prepare right now for the 2006 midterm elections. In particular, progressive forces need to focus on gubernatorial races. The next Democratic president – whenever that person is elected – will almost certainly be a current or former governor. Senators have been elected president only twice in the entire history of the United States (and watching what the Bush machine did to Kerry’s record explains why). The punditocracy of the media are always in favor of nominating senators because it’s the senators that they know. It would be a disaster to nominate a sitting senator in 2008, but a functional problem the Dems have to overcome is their weakness in leading states. As of this moment, only two current or former Democratic governors appear to be contemplating the race in ‘08 – Howard Dean & Bill Richardson. Richardson makes Kerry look like Bruce Springsteen when it comes to charisma and presence, Dean comes with his own considerable baggage. Electing more governors in 2006 won’t improve the candidate pool in 2008, but it will move the left toward a position where its choices down the road aren’t so grim.

 

The third task is to stop Rick Santorum. Santorum, the junior senator from Pennsylvania, the top fundraiser for the far right in the Senate & the leader of the “pro-life” coalition in congress, thinks he can take his (and my) blue state red & ensure an even more reactionary administration. None of this Compassionate Conservative crap for him. Santorum runs for re-election in 2006 and there is one only candidate who could derail him in Pennsylvania . . . Chris Matthews of Hardball. Santorum is one of only two senators – the other is John McCain – who could conceivably trounce my “senators don’t win” principle, especially in a wide-open race like ’08. Matthews, a native Philadelphian, has thought before of running – he worked for Jimmy Carter, Edmund Muskie & Tip O’Neill in his pre-TV days. If Matthews doesn’t run in 2006, tho, Santorum will get a free ride & we yet may live to think of W’s kleptocracy as the “good ol’ days.”

 



Tuesday, November 23, 2004

 

Last year, on the week before Christmas, I began the third volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, The Guermantes Way. On June 10th, I noted that I had finally passed the halfway mark in that volume, “a rate that suggests that I should finish this volume just around Thanksgiving.” Sure enough.

 

Eleven months reading a novel, especially one that is really just one-sixth of a much larger project – and the end of The Guermantes Way especially gives one a feel for just how deeply these volumes are not-quite-arbitrary slices from a larger pie – is a significant commitment of time. While it will be awhile before I begin on the fourth volume – I’m telling myself to give it a year, at least – the urge is strong to “just keep reading.”

 

As indeed many faster readers would do. My friend, Pam Rosenthal, began reading Swann’s Way, the first of these books, just about the same time I did a few years back, although, rather in typical Pam fashion, she created a Proust reading group to give the process more of a social cast. The last time I checked, she had not only completed the whole darn thing, but the group (or possibly a different one) was now halfway through reading it a second time.

 

But I’m not a fast reader & Proust of all writers is a not a “fast read.” If ever there were a novelist whose work was like watching clouds form & shift & reshape themselves across a nearly windless sky, Marcel’s the guy. I always have problems with writers whose prose I am forced to read in translation, since so much of what I read for is precisely that which gets left behind in that process, but even in the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation as revised by J.D. Enright – which sounds as much like a committee as one can imagine – Proust’s prose makes one linger. It has been rare for me to read a sentence in this book only once – rather, one lingers and goes back over it, savoring phrases, noting its turns & hesitations, not unlike Faulkner, tho never with quite the Gothic Swamp Thing feel that the Mississippi author gives to some of his prose, especially when writing of the Snopes. There is a new translation in the works – Lydia Davis has already done Swann’s Way & I believe some of the others may already been in print – but from my perspective it makes no sense to read a translation that is not entirely the work of a single translator, even tho I enjoy Davis’ own prose a lot.

 

Proust, tho, does for me something that I think all great art should be able to do – he alters my sense & perception of time. Specifically, he expands it and slows it down. This is something I never really understood until I saw Jean Eustache’s 1973 film, The Mother and the Whore. In it, the two-timing protagonist, Jean-Pierre Léaud, a perennial grad student who is stuck in the failure of 1968 to transform the world, finds himself trapped between two women, a politically naïve nurse & a far too-savvy-for-him entrepreneur (the one ’68 radical in the film who has had the ability to move on, but who clings to Léaud as tho he were the promise of an uncompromised life). Late in the film, Léaud finds himself in a crisis with the entrepreneur at a exactly the instant the nurse needs him most. As he flees the confrontation & heads to the nurse, the abandoned woman sits atop the mattress on the floor of her impeccably unadorned flat, puts a 78 of Edith Piaf on the record player and puts her head in her hands & then doesn’t move for the entire length of the song. It’s a stunning scene precisely because it suddenly brings cinematic time into real time, something that almost never happens (consider just how badly Spielberg handles his homage to this same moment with the Piaf song in Saving Private Ryan). It’s a great test for any art that occurs in time – you can find it in Visions of Cody, Moby Dick, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, Underworld &, I would argue, in any poem of substance as well (hence the greatness of “A” 22-23, and of The Pisan Cantos). Proust does this better than any novelist I’ve read. That he can do it in a way that comes through translation is amazing. He makes it feel so very simple. Perhaps it is, but only he seems ever to have figured out that secret.

 

 



Monday, November 22, 2004

 

 

 

 

Rae Armantrout read at Penn last week, and got one of those great audiences – at least in terms of quality – that Philly can offer up from time to time. In addition to all the usual suspects, Dan Bouchard arrived from his home in Red Sox Nation to give Chris McCreary competition in the shaved cranium category. It’s all about competition here in the poetry marketplace. Armantrout read from Veil, her selected poems, Up to Speed, and a manuscript still in progress, tentatively titled Twizzle.

 

By “great audience,” tho, I don’t mean necessarily who was there, either in terms of quantity or notoriety, tho it was a good turn out on both those scores as well. What I mean, really, was an audience that can listen with enough attention & sympathy to the poet to laugh at the funny parts.

 

If there is a single thing that differentiates readings in major urban centers & those on most college campuses, that’s it. The ability to laugh. So many audiences on campuses tend to sit & listen to poems as if they’re at a funeral. This is true not just when there is a langpo who has a sense of humor – Armantrout, Perelman, Watten & even Bernstein can be total crackups, tho no two of them are alike in their humor or anything else – but even with poets, such as _____ _______ or ____ _____, whom one might call stand-up comics seeking the cred of a linebreak.

 

I always take that as a sign that the listeners in a campus setting – most of whom will be students – are in some fashion intimidated by the poem. Or maybe not by the poem so much as by the fact of poetry. Either way, the result is a hierarchical relationship between the poet & the listener, even if the former doesn’t intend it as such.*

This has all sorts of consequences, of course. One of the reasons that Allen Ginsberg – who was about 90 percent satiric poet, 10 percent lyric one – got treated as the Great Oracle (to the irritation of Jack Spicer & no doubt others as well) – has a lot to do with that. He may have let the students in Prague crown him King of the May, but ultimately he spent a lot of time throughout his career defusing that defusing nonsense. At Naropa, he was the one who taught the classics, who felt that contemporary poets needed to know their Campion & Wyatt. In his readings – the ten or so I saw during my lifetime – he tended to foreground everything but the works on which the Ginsberg Guru edifice had been constructed, saving Howl for a closing or encore after many poems whose flatness & comic mode were not accidental.

 

So how, then, actually to hear the poet? I got an email Friday from Kevin Thurston wanting to know if, having heard a poet read, I tended to hear their physical voice as I read their words on the page in the future. Good question! There is no doubt that I hear Rae Armantrout when I read her words. Ditto for David Bromige, Bob Perelman, Bob Creeley, Robert Duncan, Harryette Mullen, Robert Grenier. Even, I daresay, for Olson, whom I never heard in person, but have heard on tape so often that his husky stage whisper comes immediately to mind the instant I confront his words. I can do an impression of Pound, trilling my rrrrs throughout the text.

 

Thurston had a further question that warrants a response: were there instances where I disagreed with how a poet read his or her own work? I recall Creeley recounting how stunned he was, on first hearing William Carlos Williams, realizing that the doctor did not voice his linebreaks when, for Creeley & so many other poets during the ensuing decades, that appeared to have been the very justification of those linebreaks. I also recall tracking a recording of Zukofsky once, noting that his characteristic mode was to pause after every second line break. And I’ve heard some of the Gnu Formalists complain that one reason pomos like myself think of their work as “tub thumping” is because we read it as verse, with voiced endstops, whereas they read these metrical rhymes as if they had been prose, muting that which seems otherwise foregrounded.

 

Well, I have seen poets mumble their way through a text so that nobody could make out what was going on and there is a southwestern poet who memorizes her works and declaims them aloud without recourse to printed page in a way that comes across as utterly pompous & silly. And there was Larry Eigner, whose speech had been compromised by cerebral palsy & was often unintelligible to first-time listeners, even with the text projected onto a screen.

 

So the range of what can happen is various. That is why what the audience brings to the reading is so very important, I think. The poem is not complete without the reader, existing only as potential, hidden in the pages of a closed book. So I was really pleased to be a part of an audience that could, literally, hear the humor in Rae Armantrout’s work, responding more like an urban audience than a campus one. That, I thought, is just how it ought to be.

 

* One possible side benefit of poets blogging eventually might be to dissuade readers & listeners of the exceptionalism of the poet. Let’s face it – if you’re going to let Jim Behrle intimidate you, you are in trouble.

 



Sunday, November 21, 2004

 

 

One website that every American should have to see: Falluja in Pictures.

 

Thanks to Chris Murray for pointing this out.



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