Saturday, January 22, 2005

 

A couple of people who should be turned over to their parents will discover that their right to post to the commentary tool has been suspended. There is a difference between spirited debate & an abusive one. Figure it out.



Friday, January 21, 2005

 

On the flight between Chicago & San Francisco, I pulled a book by Jesse Seldess out of my laptop bag – O’Hare airport must literally have been the prod – and read it straight through while the rest of the plane sat entranced by Bernie Mac in Mr. 3000. I wanted to read it aloud but had to settle for that interior reading one does in public spaces. I also wished that I had had some work by John Giorno with me, something from his reiterative phase, because a strict comparison of the two would be instructive.

 

In Contact is a gorgeously printed chapbook from David Pavelich’s Answer Tag press up in Madison. The edition is just fifty copies & you’ll have to ask Pavelich whether or not any still remain to be had. The single poem it contains is extremely aural precisely because, like Giorno, it makes great conscious use of repetition. Yet where Giorno’s work always struck me as be vaguely assaultive in its stance toward the audience, attempting to unlock some psychic barriers, Seldess’ work turns on minute variations of syntax & meaning. Here, for instance:

 

To be close

Or face

 

 

For here instance

 

To be close

For here face

 

 

To stretch over

Or close

Or face

 

 

To be close

Or sketched over

Or face

 

 

To be close

Or sketched

Or face

 

To be sketch over

Or close

Or face

 

 

 

To be sketched

Over face

 

 

In contact

To be close

Or face

 

 

To be close

 

In contact

Sketched over

Or face

 

This isn’t reiteration for the sake of reiteration, only, but rather seems to sketch out a space (forgive me that verb) halfway between Giorno & Zukofsky, an axis I don’t think anyone has ever before suggested. And whereas Giorno’s poems would have been pretty straightforward monologs if you removed the repetition, Seldess’ poem continually angles off in different directions, some using far less reiteration than the section quoted above (which appears early on in the poem, primarily I think to set up the central theme around which the variations all occur). The result is a beautiful, extraordinarily gentle poem – one would never call Giorno’s work gentle – and I smiled at the end of the 22-page book to read the author’s note:

 

In Contact grew from my interaction with members of the Council for Jewish Elderly’s Adult Day Service and is dedicated to these individuals, the workers and families serving them, and all people suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia resulting from other conditions.

 

That comment reminded me, I must say, of just how much of my own sense of time in the poem – expressed most clearly as “the new sentence” - derived from my work with prisoners and their families in the 1970s. Out of just real-world interactions are our perceptions woven.

 

In Contact is a wonderful work, rare in that it is at once both simple and complex. That is a combination that is rare in the world, but is one of the possibilities that poetry is particularly well suited to expose.

 

I suppose that I should also note that I’ve used the words reiteration & repetition here rather than rhyme, in good part because a book like In Contact reveals precisely how blunt an instrument something like vulgar rhyme actually is. This book expands the potential of recurrent sound in a dozen different directions.

 



Thursday, January 20, 2005

 

On the road to Moe’s

 

I’m on the road & will be traveling for about a week. During this trip, my laptop is also going to be either replaced or upgraded, so it’s anybody’s guess as to how long it will be before I can easily get back online.

 

On Monday, January 24th, I will be reading with Kit Robinson at Moe’s in Berkeley, California, 7:30 PM local time. The address is 2476 Telegraph Avenue and the phone is (510) 849-2087.

 

Kit is one of my favorite poets in the entire universe – it’s no accident that I took the title for In the American Tree from one of his poems – and it ought to be a great event. If you live within 100 miles, I hope to see you there.

 



Wednesday, January 19, 2005

 

I will wager that when Bob Dylan turned in the manuscript for Chronicles: Volume One to the editors and Simon & Schuster, it contained four, not five chapters. The fifth, "River of Ice,” originally must have been woven into what we now have as the first chapter, “Markin’ Up the Score.” Both cover the same territory – Dylan’s time in Minnesota prior to his arrival on the streets of New York. What remains of that first chapter up at the book’s front is anticipatory, the excitement of embarking on the great adventure of a young man’s life. What is now the fifth chapter covers Dylan’s initial discovery of the music of Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson & Brecht's Pirate Jenny, coming to realize what Dylan’s commitments to music really mean, "loading up" as he says in advance of finally becoming a songwriter.

 

While Dylan was already committed to folk music – it’s guitar-centric acoustic tradition fit in better with a kid fresh out of high school living in a $30 a month apartment better than attempting to be a pianist who only knew how to play piano in the key of C, backing up Bobby Vee; Dylan was already playing around Minneapolis with Spider John Koerner (later to be part of Koerner, Glover & Ray, the best of the white-boy-play-country-blues acts in the folk revival of the sixties) – what Guthrie meant to Dylan wasn’t an extension of folk nearly so much as it was the idea that a man could write his own music & sing literally about current events. (About the only pop singer who sang his own songs during that period was Neil Sedaka.) Dylan describes his recognition of the possibility as if it were Ginsberg’s vision of William Blake. Suddenly Dylan’s impulses all fit together.

 

Dylan had already assumed that he would be using a stage name – elsewhere in Chronicles he discusses the logic by which Robert Allen Zimmerman took on the name Bob Dylan – he wasn’t even used to being called Bob at the time – tho he never mentions why. It was, of course, common enough in the 1950s for actors to turn themselves into different persona (Marion Morrison becoming John Wayne, Norma Jean Archer becoming Marilyn Monroe). Blues musicians had their own tradition – McKinley Morganfield becoming Muddy Waters, Chester Arthur Burnett turning into Howlin’ Wolf, Riley B. King taking on the nickname Blues Boy, then shortening it to B.B. When Dylan, on the spur of the moment, turned himself into Elston Gunnn in order to back up Bobby Vee’s band, The Shadows, Vee & his brothers were still going by their real surname, Velline.¹ Dylan had expected, he writes, simply to call himself Robert Allen. Then he became conscious of just how common that combination was & thought to change it instead to Robert Allyn. The “y” tho made him aware of how the last name had no strong consonants, all liquids & schwas. So he took Dylan Thomas’ first name & tried that. Now the hard “D” made him rethink the more formal two-syllable Robert, & thus he arrived at Bob.

 

The process, as Dylan describes it, is exactly how a poet thinks through the composition of a line or phrase. Dylan doesn’t seem to recognize this as an instance of writing, any more than he acknowledges that the name’s biggest effect – at least at first – was to make a WASP out of a kid who had grandparents who had been born in Odessa & in Turkey.

 

Dylan’s prose has improved immensely from the days of Tarantula, which I recall as being weak, even as an imitation of William Burroughs. It’s still rough hewn, tho, and very much a creature of an education that coalesced in the 1960s. Almost any paragraph will demonstrate my point:

 

One time Clayton and myself came in late and Ray was asleep in a big chair – he looked like he was asleep in the room with the light on his face – dark hollows under his eyes, face caked with sweat. It looked like he was dreaming a dead dream. We just stood there. Paul is tall, has dark hair, Vandyke beard, resembles Gauguin the painter. Paul takes a deep breath and seems to hold it forever and then he turns around and leaves.

 

This is part of a longer passage focusing on Ray Gooch, an opium smoker with a serious gun collection & a fondness for Faulkner & Marx with whom Dylan stayed for a time in the early 1960s. Paul Clayton was a folksinger in the circle around Dave Van Ronk. The paragraph itself makes no narrative contribution to the larger story Dylan is telling – it’s just coloring. Its purpose seems to be to capture a visual image Dylan wants to convey. Yet Dylan never develops his relationship with Clayton in the book – tho he seems to have gotten the tune for “Don’t Think Twice” from him – and the total lack of any detail on Gooch or his girlfriend Chloe Kiel anywhere outside of Dylan’s book has caused some reviewers to presume it’s a pseudonym or composite. It looked like he was dreaming a dead dream strikes me as being a very typical Dylan move: evocative without actually providing content. Its prosody is strong, based on hard consonants & reiteration. Further on, Dylan needs to spell out not just that Clayton resembles Gauguin, but Gauguin the painter, as tho the allusion might be obscure. This is not the prose of somebody who’s read a lot of deconstruction, or so far as I can tell, any serious writing not already widely in circulation among college students in the 1960s. On the one hand, this keeps Dylan’s prose from coming across as tamed, but on the other it has a curious time capsule quality to it, as tho you’d just discovered a new book by Hubert Selby, Jr. or Edward Dahlberg.

 

Like these depictions of Gooch & Clayton, Dylan’s book is filled with colorful characters, quite like his songs, tho in fact only once does it really engage even half seriously with his relationship with another person, Daniel Lanois, who produced Oh Mercy. Dylan never sees eye-to-eye with Lanois, before, during or after the recording & much of the chapter named for that album is about learning to give up control in the process of collaboration. Even here, Dylan offers no real insight into what he means by “I was incapable of taking a lot of his emotional trips seriously.” And a reader who comes to this book with no knowledge of Dylan, whether from another culture or some distant future, is apt to come away with the presumption that there has been a single, unnamed wife referenced throughout the book. It’s not that Dylan is not forthcoming, but rather that the horizon is always so claustrophobic. It’s not so much that hell is other people, the way Sartre puts it in No Exit, as it is that they remain the great mystery for Dylan: colorful, attractive, but impossible to know.

 

Reading Chronicles & watching Don’t Look Back again after all these years made me reassess some of my thinking vis-à-vis Dylan. For one thing, I think a lot of what gets taken as being very metaphorical in his music of the late 1960s can also be understood as being very literal, if you’re just willing to accept the vocabulary in which he works. This may make Dylan far less of a poet, tho it may also make him an even stronger songwriter if you stop to think through its implications.

 

 

¹ Dylan also told them he had been touring with Conway Twitty, which wasn’t true. Even then, the mysterious embellished past was at work. Vee insists on the third n in Gunnn, tho Dylan in Chronicles only uses two. When Dylan & other sources conflict, I follow the rule of always going with the other source. The third n makes perfect sense for a man who soon would add an internal y to his name.



Tuesday, January 18, 2005

 

 

Reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One, you realize that Dylan is never going to let you see the source of the residual, simmering anger that has always been so close to the heart of everything he has ever done in the arts. It’s visible here too, directed now at the excesses of his fans in the 1960s, even at himself, especially in the 1980s – his presentation of himself as a burned-out has-been is especially convincing – but these are in fact far later appearances of an emotion that shows up so fiercely in an early song such as Masters of War, even in the justice-tinged sarcasm of Hattie Carroll. As much as his ability to bring collage to pop song-writing along with a post-surreal sensibility, it’s Dylan’s anger that always has given his music such an expressive range. He’s not the only musician with this dark aspect – it’s what separated out John Lennon as an artist from the rest of the Beatles, it’s why Neil Young is still capable of producing new work as vibrant as anything he was doing with Buffalo Springfield way back when. Dylan likewise.

 

But it’s rare &, if Chronicles is to be believed (for what it does far more than for what it says), has much to do with the elaborate wall of persona Dylan has constructed all these decades, the better to protect whatever is hidden within. Yet like any actor who’s played the same role endlessly for four-plus decades, Dylan himself may no longer be able to separate out himself from the sad-faced harlequin he inhabits on stage night after night.

 

Chronicles is, as the reviews have suggested, pretty much a terrific book. It’s episodic rather than comprehensive, focusing on hinge moments in Dylan’s life & career. What’s telling is which ones. It’s the exact opposite of the celebrity I wrote this & then I sang that kind of narrative. With the exception of Dylan’s presentation of his life in New York City before he’d recorded even his first eponymous album, he is more interested in moments of great frustration. What makes the book terrific is not just the counter-intuitive approach, but also Dylan’s writing skills. To say he has the eye of a novelist, as virtually every review of this book has done, is just part of it (which I hope to get more into, tomorrow). Dylan conflates elements – a careful reader will note that events ranging from 1960 through ’63 are presented in one chapter & everything from 1967 to at least 1970 in another. These episodes are less the representation of events than balled-up figures for larger emotional nodes.

 

The one that has gotten the greatest attention in the media – a large chunk of it was excerpted in Newsweek as the book came out – is Dylan’s allergic reaction to the problems of celebrity, the post motorcycle crash period of the late 1960s. Reading it made me dig out my DVD of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, the documentary made of Dylan’s May, 1965, tour of England. May, 1965, is an extraordinary moment in Dylan’s career – Subterranean Homesick Blues has already been released & Dylan finds himself climbing the pop charts just one month before he will bring up the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to back him up at the Newport Folk Festival, which history has anointed as the moment that folk plugged in to a loud chorus of boos. It is less than six years since an 18-year-old Elston Gunnn¹ was briefly the piano player for Bobby Vee’s band, The Shadows. Within another year, Dylan will have transformed rock & roll, joined the Beatles & Stones in putting the final nails into the coffin of Tin Pan Alley, becoming a far larger cultural figure than any folksinger would ever prove to be.

 

Already in 1965, the critics are struggling to pin Dylan down to a manageable journalistic trope & he is doing everything he can to avoid cooperating. Even as he’s able to fill venues as large as the Royal Albert Hall, and has the usual screaming girls waiting to throw themselves over the hood of his limo, what’s instantly audible to the critics is that when he plays, quite unlike the Beatles, the audience is absolutely silent, listening with rapt attention. Indeed, by 1967, the Beatles have abandoned concerts altogether simply because they can’t even hear themselves playing over the screams & wails of teenyboppers. Not so Dylan.

 

Not yet 24 when this film was made, Dylan’s feints with the press corps lack the upbeat humor that characterized the Beatles’ version of verbal sparring. Yet the underlying impulse is identical – the press are seen as nothing other than a necessary evil, a channel for marketing one’s records & events, but one that is apt to swallow up the unsuspecting. Dylan is both amused & appalled as he reads aloud his press reports in the British media to Joan Baez, Bobby Neuwirth & Albert Grossman. He is presented as the Mystery Spokesman, his least favorite role, and the reports clearly want to set him up against a young Scottish newcomer, Donovan. Throughout the movie, Dylan jokes about & sort of half-trashes Donovan – “the next Bob Dylan” – yet when he meets him, Dylan listens attentively & with respect. He might not care for Donovan, the persona, but he makes no assumption that this has anything to do with the real Donovan Leitch

 

Like the Beatles, whose first trip to India was motivated as much by a desire to flee the media as it was a curiosity about Eastern culture, Dylan seems to have been unprepared intellectually for the very same celebrity he so calculatedly sought. It’s as if none of them had ever contemplated what was already happening to Elvis – or were living in some “it can’t happen here” sort of fantasy – so that when the tour buses dumped fans on your doorstep, this was a big surprise. Dylan’s own reaction to it, by his own account, was horror – the image he presents of himself by the 1970s comes off like a cartoon of Munch’s The Scream. His strategy was to do everything possible to alienate his fans – change his song style, his singing voice (on Nashville Skyline), even his religion, anything to snap the connection. The problem was that his very persona had been built around inscrutability – any new shift away from the predictable simply fueled the mystery. Dylan was no more able to get away from it than was Elvis, and still isn’t, tho the really nutsy parts of megafame mostly abated for a reason Dylan seems also not to have anticipated. He got old.

 

The question that Chronicles poses, for me at least, and never quite answers, is whether or not Dylan still lacks those intellectual resources. For a musician as famously as well read as Dylan, his prose style wavers between Charles Bukowski & Jack Kerouac. He admits not never being able really to read Pound. He is surprisingly silent about his relationship with Allen Ginsberg (someone who, even before the Beatles, sought & found refuge from sudden fame in India), about whom, if we are to believe Marianne Faithful, Dylan penned the ballad Just Like a Woman. Indeed the poet whose presence in this book is front & center is not Rimbaud, McClure, Ginsberg or any of the Beats, but Archibald MacLeish, who approached Dylan for songs for his play Scratch, an adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benét’s The Devil and Daniel Webster. After penning a few that would end up on his album, New Morning, Dylan senses that his vision & MacLeish’s really don’t mix, even if he likes the man & is awed to see photographs of MacLeish accepting the Pulitzer on the walls of his Uphill Farm study. But it’s precisely the awe that is telling here. Even with 30-years hindsight, Dylan can’t really separate received culture – that veneer of media – from the work itself. Given the role of media in his own life, that’s a gap worth exploring.

 

 

¹ That third n is not a typo. Vee insists that this is how Dylan spelled it.



Monday, January 17, 2005

 

 

Colin & Jesse turned 13 last Thursday, pleased to have become teenagers at last. Having twins is, as you might imagine, a bit of a challenge. Right before the boys were born I ran into Peter Quartermain at the 1991 San Francisco MLA. He reminded me that he had twins & that they were just getting to an age “when things are finally beginning to settle down.” Great, I said, how old are they? “30,” he replied.

 

Having children is one of those great hinge events in any individual’s life, regardless of whether or not they’re a poet. For poets, however, they represent a particular challenge, just as they offer special rewards that might not be as deeply appreciated by non-writers.

 

Everything in a poet’s life – I mean this more or less literally – is an incentive to stop writing. For many, the hinge event that turns an active writer into a former one is simply leaving college, which may also mean no longer having the social context in which one wrote. For others, it’s that first full-time job. For still more, it’s easy to be a poet in the setting of an active & lively literary community like San Francisco or New York. Move to Portland or Columbia, Missouri, however, and you suddenly find yourself in a setting in which there are few external supports for a writing habit. But there is nothing more disruptive of your prior routines & daily habits than having kids. With Colin & Jesse, I know that I was happy to be able to return to work after three weeks, just because going into the office meant being able again to distinguish, more or less, night from day.

 

When I was younger, I knew a fair number of poets in & around San Francisco who actively avoided full-time jobs because they thought it would get in the way of their writing. I myself hadn’t really clicked with employment until I had to take some time off from school to work in the post office & then later left Berkeley to perform alternative service as a Vietnam-era conscientious objector. The Selective Service – great euphemism in that name – made you take socially benevolent work at little or no pay. I was in that latter category, working with felons & their families, which meant that I had to find a night job in addition to the day one in order to make ends meet. Which is how I ended up doing layout and paste-up, plus some occasional writing, for gay bar newspapers in San Francisco. That was the introduction of the 70-hour workweek for me, but even that would have unsustainable had not rents in the 1970s in San Francisco been so incredibly low. I had half of a three-bedroom flat in Pacific Heights for $67.50 a month in 1973 & some four years later was paying just $50 a month for one-seventh of a large Victorian house in the same neighborhood. Somehow I managed to write several books under such circumstances.

 

What strikes me as much more remarkable is that young poets today – confronted with a $1400-per-bedroom housing market in a place like San Francisco – can still do the same. To try & be a poet in the Mission District or in Brooklyn or in any number of other major urban areas today, is to take on some of life’s most complex economic challenges. I’m not at all sure that I would have been up to that when I was younger.

 

Anyone who has children must reprioritize their time & their lives. In my case, I cut back on political activity & stopped writing criticism for five years. Those were predictable choices, ones that I understood I would be making when Krishna & I decided to try for kids. What neither of us could have foreseen was that having children would be an important factor in making the further decision three years hence to move to Pennsylvania. As it turns out, our current home in Paoli is now where I have lived the longest in any single place since I left high school. Has having children transformed our lives? You bet.

 



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