Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Many thanks to Red State Librarian for bringing this novel to my attention. In spite of the cute title this is a richly detailed, nuanced story of the Vietnam experience of Army linguists that is humorous, heartwarming, and sad. The author, Richard Galli, is a former Vietnamese linguist that served around Hue,working with Vietnamese and Montagnards helping them to increase rice production and grow peanuts and watermelons. Seriously. Galli, in a powerful afterward, writes that it took him over thirty years for his frustration and anger to subside in order to control his cynicism about his experiences and tell the story he felt best captured what he wanted to say. I started reading this yesterday and except for a visit to doctor's office did not put it down until I finished it.

As a former Army linguist, albeit one that was not under imminent threat of death from all sides at all times, I can say that that it was at times a surreal job in an absurd atmosphere and that having a sense of humor and the support of comrades, like Red State and Pho and others, were the best ways of dealing with being a stranger in a strange land without going nuts. Or becoming a raging alcoholic. Okay, maybe not the latter and the jury is probably still out on the former.

This book doesn't just stand out because I can relate to it personally. It is a moving portrait of people that actually wanted to help and thought that they could make a difference. A study in the loss of innocence and naivete. I think this book holds up well with some of the other Vietnam tales: Tim O'Brien The Things They Carried, Stephen Wright's under-appreciated Meditations in Green, James Crumley's One to Count Cadence, and the short stories of Thom Jones to mention only a few. Did I mention that it is also very funny?

Friday, February 24, 2006

Three from "180 More"

Mrs. Darwin

7 April 1852

Went to the Zoo.
I Said to Him-
Something about that Chimpanzee over there
reminds me of you.

Carol Ann Duffy

An Apology

Forgive me
for backing over
and smashing
your red wheelbarrow.

It was raining
and the rear wiper
does not work on
my new plum-colored SUV.

I am also sorry
about the white

F.J. Bergmann


My philosopher friend is explaining again
that the bottle of well-chilled beer in my hand

might not be a bottle of beer,
that the trickle of bottle-sweat cooling in my palm

might not be wet, might not be cool,
that in fact it’s impossible ever to know

if I’m holding a bottle at all.
I try to follow his logic, flipping the steaks

that are almost certainly hissing
over the bed of coals – coals I’d swear

were black at first, then gray, then red –
coals we could spread out and walk on

and why not, I ask, since we’ll never be sure
if our feet burn, if our soles

blister and peel, if our faithlessness
is any better or worse a tool

than the firewalker’s can-do extreme.
Exactly, he smiles. Behind the fence

the moon rises, or seems to.
Have another. Whatever else is true,

the coals feel hotter than ever
as the darkness begins to do

what darkness does. Another what? I ask.

Philip Memmer

All of these are from the volume 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Everyday Life selected by Billy Collins for his project of having a poem a day read with the morning announcements in schools. While some of those included I don't think would pass many a board of ed. scrutiny due to their overt sexuality and ribaldness that would cause some parents to revolt there are some excellent and amusing ones. The online archive of poems is available at link below. Many of the poems in second book are not included on the website although some are.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Brooklyn Is

I was going to post a few poems etc... but I started reading a brief treatise on Brooklyn by James Agee, Brooklyn Is, and could not put it down. I found this perusing the new book shelf at the library and it caught my eye because the introduction was by the writer Jonathan Lethem of Motherless Brooklyn fame. I have never read anything by James Agee as far as I can recall. He is one of those writers whose name I recognize but could not put a book to. I am suspicous of little volumes published of late as it seems a design by the publisher to grab a quick buck. (This fifty page hardcover retails for $16.95). But as I thumbed through introduction I was hooked. Lethem starts thusly:

"I want to try and sing back James Agee's astonishing song of Brooklyn, this astonishing secret text which like the heart of the borough itself throbs in raw shambolic splendor, never completely discovered, impossible to mistake... He writes as though drunk on matters of space and geometry and distance, always seeing the life of the city whole and in microscopic miniature at once, and persistently smashing together architechure and emotion, conveying in the grain of 'scornful cornice' or a 'blasted mansion' or a 'half-made park with the odd pubescent nudity of all new public efforts' or 'drawn breathing shades' or an 'asphaltic shingle' (his neologism suggesting 'asthmatic,' 'exalted,' 'sephardic.' and who knows what else) his sense that the archipelago of islands settled by the mad invaders of this continent and the refugees who followed, and the nature of the buildings, and the streets, and the signs the arrivistes constructed everywhere upon these New York islands, are in evert way implicated in the experience of any given life lived even temporarily within their bounds, including his own."

Hagiography, idolatry, and Lethem's own strong prose aside it still does not prepare one for the seductive power of Agee's own words. I felt as if I should be reading this book aloud, singing like Brooklynite Walt Whitman, but I have been warned about doing that in public before. This slim tome encompasses a semester of instruction in prose in less than fifty pages. As has been said before there may not be prose in poetry but there will be those whose prose is poetic.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Frans Snyders .Market Scene on a Quay, about 1635
This week's New Yorker in the "Shouts and Murmurs" section has a piece by David Sedaris on art collecting. Sort of.

A family of experts.
by David Sedaris

"Before it was moved out near the fairgrounds, the North Carolina Museum of Art was located in downtown Raleigh, and often, when we were young, my sister Gretchen and I would cut out of church and spend an hour looking at the paintings. The collection was not magnificent, but it was enough to give you a general overview, and to remind you that you pretty much sucked."

The rest is continued here.

I can not recommend going to to see New York Doll enough. Thanks to the commentator that suggested the rockumentary film series. The movie will be playing here in town through Wednesday and I think it will also be on DVD fairly soon. While the film has some flaws its strengths far outweigh the negatives. I was never a big NY Dolls fan considering they broke up when I was around 7 but did I listen to some of their things and some of Johnny Thunder's post-Dolls projects and the Dolls influence on many bands in the '80s is undisputed. I don't want to spoil anything so if you want more info click on the poster. But you are better off seeing it cold.

We watched this film before going to see Wilco front man, Jeff Tweedy. It was an awesome solo set with some encore assistance from the band's drummer, Glen Kotche, who also opened up with a solo set. While Kotche is obviously talented (his set sounded like a cross between Mike Oldfield and Olatunji) and was interesting for about 15 minutes, I started feeling like it would have made a nice soundtrack instead of a stand alone thing. The Tweedy show was incredible and I hope this shows up on the internet sites for download sometime soon. As always his crowd banter was amusing and he played songs from full spectrum Uncle Tupelo, Woody Guthrie stuff etc... The crowd was incredibly well behaved probably, as was noted by Tweedy, due to the lack of alcohol available. Still definitely one of the better shows I have seen.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Rumors of my demise last night were in large part exaggerated. Thanks to K. and Pho I am a new man or at least repaired. I love Rhino Records . They are masters of box sets and reissues. Since the local Sam Goody store is closing I treated myself to the above box set as a birthday present at 30% off. It is a treasure trove of alternative 80's stuff. 82 songs and some good liner notes talking about the battles of who made the cut and why some did not. Named after a 'Mats song and including my faves Husker Du and Pixies I will be rocking out for a while.

Musical tastes are difficult largely formed by outside impressions and then culled to fit one's persona. Was it in High Fidelity where Rob Gordon said you are what you listen to? Parents I suppose are the first impressions either in compliance with or avoidance of. My mom was Elvis all the way in her youth and my dad was old school country like Hank Snow or Sons of the Pioneers. I find I have a greater appreciation for country now and my aversion was probably just an aspect of the larger conflict between father and son. Peers and trends dictated my teens as my collection was ripe with the likes of Boston, Scorpions, Iron Maiden & Pink Floyd's The Wall was probably first album I bought in store after my ordeal with Columbia House finally ended. I eventually gravitated towards Adam & the Ants other pseudo- alternative tunes. It is always interesting to look back on era and see what has survived. I just wish the Misfits song included had been "Where Eagles Dare". I think I will go play it on the jukebox now.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

38 Years Later

"Reprobate scion of doomed Saxon clans, out of the rainy day surmised. " -
Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

Since having a blog is the internet equivalent of sporting a goatee, I might as well use the space for a big Happy Birthday To Me. This poorly scanned image of myself is from a family photo album my sister, Beth, put together and mailed to me while I was far away from home in the Army. It was the best gift I could have received. It also included a running commentray of post-it notes which were pretty funny. A mug shot of my father in a dark suit said something along the lines of "Dad (after the trial)". ( I guess you had to be there.) In lieu of flowers, pints will be accepted at the Dublin Underground at a to be determind time tonight.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Happy St. Valentine's Day

open your heart:
i'll give you a treasure
of tiniest world
a piece of forever with

summitless younger than
angels are mounains
rivery forests
towerful towns(queen

poet king float
sprout heroes of moonstar
flutter to and
swim blossoms of person)through

musical shadows while hunted
by daemons
seethe luminous
leopards(on wingfeet of thingfear)

come ships go
snowily sailing
perfect silence.
Absolute ocean

E. E. Cummings

I found this at library and then ordered it as a gift. E.E. Cummings is one of my favorite creator of love poems. This volume includes the standards since feeling is first and somewhere i have never traveled. It is ostensibly a children's book with the images from the artist Christopher Myers accompanying the poems. While I am not certain the poem may i feel is appropriate for children at least they left out the boys i mean are not refined and i sing of Olaf glad and big. Someone has compiled an extensive no-frills archive of many of his poems here.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A Contribution to Statistics

Out of a hundred people

those who always know better
-- fifty-two

doubting every step
-- nearly all the rest,

glad to lend a hand
if it doesn't take too long
-- as high as forty-nine,

always good
because they can't be otherwise
-- four, well maybe five,

able to admire without envy
-- eighteen,

suffering illusions
induced by fleeting youth
-- sixty, give or take a few,

not to be taken lightly
-- forty and four,

living in constant fear
of someone or something
-- seventy-seven,

capable of happiness
-- twenty-something tops,

harmless singly, savage in crowds
-- half at least,

when forced by circumstances
-- better not to know
even ballpark figures,

wise after the fact
-- just a couple more
than wise before it,

taking only things from life
-- thirty
(I wish I were wrong),

hunched in pain,
no flashlight in the dark
-- eighty-three
sooner or later,

-- thirty-five, which is a lot,

and understanding
-- three,

worthy of compassion
-- ninety-nine,

-- a hundred out of a hundred.
Thus far this figure still remains unchanged.

~ Wislawa Szymborska ~

Ah, middle age. I was a little woozy after going to Mercy today for endoscopy this morning. Although thanks to anathesia I can't recall the actual procedure but my sore throat does not feel as if the camera was the 'pill-sized' object described prior to procdedure. It seems as if a hital hernia was responsible for food becoming lodged in throat. I have to admit though since taking pills and watching the late night eating habits I have not had the need to pop antacid tablets like pez. Follow up in two weeks.

So while laying about on the couch and between naps I started reading the latest collection of poems from Polish Nobel laureate Szmborska, Monlogue of a Dog. A very slim volume of poetry inflated a bit by its being a dual-language edition with Polish versions of poems on facing pages. Her poems, like the one above , occaisonally show up in New Yorker. Billy Collins writes the introduction and notes that it was frequently the poets of Europe that Americans turned to post 9/11. This volume is a good albeit brief introduction to her work and I also recommend her collection of essays, Nonrequired Reading. (Which I managed to find remaindered at Prairie Lights, might still be some left.)

Finished reading A Tender Bar and enjoyed it. (Although part of me will never feel totally sympathetic to a Yale grad. Envy? Perhaps.) It was a poignantly written memoir about growing up and what it means to become a man without a father and the search for paternal role models.

Tried to start reading another memoir, Time was Soft There, A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co but due to proximity and or similarity of previous book. I was a bit put off by the narrator. Particularly when he refers to his book thusly in the preface, "...liquid truth....events have been distilled and condensed and then distilled again." While I do admire the disclosure, I think I will wait on this book for a while. Maybe read Sylvia Beach's book or A Moveable Feast again.

So I moved onto another memoir...Jacques Pepin's The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. I love the stories of him growing up and the associations of simple dishes that his mother made that still burn strong after sixty years. There are several recipes included and little bon mots like the fact that Kaye was not only a close friend but one of the finest cooks Pepin had ever known, Chinese being Kaye's speciality. This will bide me over until I decide to shell out for a copy Larousse Gastronomique. Bon Appetit.

Friday, February 10, 2006

It's Polamalu

This one's for the DisplacedRiverRat....

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Nicknames or Never send a Ferret to do a Weasel's job

"I listened to the conversations of the men, my head whipping back and forth as though I were watching four tennis matches at once. Reading between the lines I gathered that they all worked at Dickens, as bartenders and cooks and bouncers, and therefore Steve was The Boss. They revered Steve. When speaking of him they sounded less like employees than apostles. It wasn't always clear they were speaking about Steve, however, because he had a number of nicknames, including Chief and Rio and Feinblatt. Each of the men also went by a nickname Steve had bestowed, except Uncle Charlie, who had two- Chas and Goose. After ten minutes I was juggling so many nicknames that I felt as if there were a dozen men in the car instead of the four I counted. The men confused me further by rattling off a list of other nicknames, people who stopped into Dickens the night before, like Sooty and Sledge and Rifleman and Skeezix and Tank and Fuckembabe."

Reading Tender Bar the other day I came upon the above excerpt and it reminded me of college. When I first arrived at UConn in fall of '90 I applied for a workstudy job in the VA office on campus which was sort of a part of the Student Affairs Office. One of the guys that worked there and eventually took over the office was Joe. Like Steve in the above story he had a dizzying array of friends, coworkers and ex-Army Ranger buddies all with nicknames bestowed upon them for various reasons. Eventually everyone who worked in the office (including El Duderino) had a nickname. Joe also had friends like Preacher, Ferret, and Lurch; whose personal creed I will never forgot; "After two flushes, it's managements problem."

Later I also started working for Joe when he was an Asst. Hall Director and I was an RA. Another pile of nicknames followed, Small Change, Blaze, and Doolittle. (I was under the impression that this was her last name until it was revealed that it was a reference to her somewhat untamed hair).

Still later Joe went to law school in Vermont and we visited several times to meet future district attorneys and corporate lawyers with monikers such as Coolio, Dangerous D, and Pan the Man. I know I am forgetting many other names but it was to a point where I knew some of these people for five or six years before I learned their actual first name. I recall running into Lurch in Cancun in one of those random encounters far from home and trying to introduce him to someone and struggling to remember that his name was Tim. Good times.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Realm of the Aesthetic

Apologies for the length. I mostly wanted to capture this in case it is unavailble online in the future. The poems Harold Bloom refers to are from a volume of poetry for which this essay was written as an introduction, The Best of the Best of American Poetry. Bloom's philosophy of art and literature is one that I admire . I also appreciate the criticism of Micheal Dirda, whom K. has heard me praise way too often. More on him tomorrow.

They have the numbers; we, the heights
Harold Bloom

My title is from Thucydides and is spoken by the Spartan commander at Thermopylae. Culturally, we are at Thermopylae: the multiculturalists, the hordes of camp- followers afflicted by the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists--all stand below us. They will surge up and we may be overcome; our universities are already travesties, and our journalists parody our professors of "cultural studies." For just a little while longer, we hold the heights, the realm of the aesthetic. There are still authentic poems being written in the United States. Elizabeth Bishop, May Swenson, and James Merrill are gone, but two great poets remain in John Ashbery and A. R. Ammons, and there are a score of contemporaries almost of their eminence. This anthology cannot assert that it contains all of the best poets and poems of the last decade. My charge was to select seventy-five poems out of seven hundred and fifty, and not to look outside of the volumes of this series. There is thus nothing here by Edgar Bowers in an older generation or by Henri Cole in the middle one, to mention just two poets whom I greatly admire. Nor would I suggest that all seventy-five poems I have chosen are going to be permanent achievements; I have made a heap of all the best I could find, where I was instructed to search. Nevertheless, there are poems here that should be perpetuated for future generations. These pass my personal test for the canonical: I have reread them with pleasure and with profit.

One of the ten volumes is not represented at all; I failed to discover more than an authentic poem or two in it. The series editor, David Lehman, kindly suggested some possibilities, but the poets involved had done better work elsewhere in these volumes. That 1996 anthology is one of the provocations for this essay, since it seems to me a monumental representation of the enemies of the aesthetic who are in the act of overwhelming us. It is of a badness not to be believed, because it follows the criteria now operative: what matters most are the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be poet. I ardently wish I were being hyperbolical, but in fact I am exercising restraint, very difficult for a lifelong aesthete at the age of sixty-seven. One cannot expect every attempt at poetry to rival Chaucer and Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth, Whitman and Dickinson, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane. But those poets, and their peers, set the measure: any who aspire to poetry must keep such exemplars always in mind. Sincerity, as the divine Oscar Wilde assured us, is not nearly enough to generate a poem. Bursting with sincerity, the 1996 volume is a Stuffed Owl of bad verse, and of much badness that is neither verse nor prose.

How could this have happened? The last thirty years of intellectual decline provide the answer: cultural guilt. Enthusiastic young men and women (and some of their middle-aged gurus) rushed forth in a Great Awakening of Rock Religion in the closing years of the 1960s. Their immediate provocation was the obscene American slaughter of the Vietnamese, but the Saturnalia that reigned for a few years, from Tokyo to Paris, quickly transcended the occasion. The epiphenomenon of the Revival went by soon enough, but it was clear to discerning spirits in 1968-70 that the consequences, though minimal for our capitalist society's ruling powers, would be endless for any cognitive and aesthetic activities throughout the Western world. Robber barons, in all countries, were immune from the contamination of the New Enthusiasm. Nothing has changed, except perhaps for the worse, in our political and economic life. The true legatees of the mock-Revolution were Ronald Reagan and now his parody, Bill Clinton. The change, all but catastrophic, instead afflicted our intellectual, cultural, educational, and aesthetic spheres, in a kind of Creation-Fall. Robert Hughes has termed what was born "the Culture of Complaint," whose hucksters--academic, journalistic, pseudo-artistic--I've named "the School of Resentment," a rabblement of lemmings leaping off the cliffs into the waters of oblivion.

Perhaps none of this matters, since good poems continue to be written, printed, and sometimes even read (whether well or not, few seem to care). Yet it will matter to some young people, as once it did, when we went to the poets to make our souls, as Yeats said. My mind was formed by Blake and Hart Crane, and then by Wallace Stevens and Shelley. The uses of great poetry are manifold, provided that an educated readership survives. Criticism, both academic and journalistic (a distinction that now scarcely exists), is dying, mostly because the universities have replaced literary criticism by "cultural criticism," a would-be social science. To survive, criticism would have to move outside the academy, but it certainly can find no home in the media. If what Walter Pater called "Aesthetic criticism" dies, then what he termed "Aesthetic poetry" must in time die also, since we will cease to know good from bad poetry. By "Aesthetic" in regard both to poetry and to criticism, Pater simply meant "authentic" or "good", since he kept in mind always the Greek meaning of aesthesis: "perceptiveness." If we lose all sense of the aesthetic, then we scarcely will see the difference between Emily Dickinson and Ella Wheeler Wilcox, or between John Ashbery and his weaker imitators.

Scolding the universities, or the media, is useless: enormous social pressures--that do not affect the people in general, or the Republican Congress and not very Democratic president the people elected--have been loosed upon institutions hopelessly vulnerable to cultural guilt. Every variety of "studies" at last will be housed: if sexual orientation is to be placed with race, ethnic group, and gender as sources of aesthetic and cognitive values, then why should we not have "Sado-Masochistic Studies," in particular honor of the god of resentment, the late Michel Foucault? If there is a Homosexual Poetic, then why not a Poetics of Pain? If representation-by-category is to be the law of the universities, and of all those they influence, what "minority" is to be excluded? Shakespeare and Dante were European males; is that worth remarking? William Wordsworth invented modern poetry. I do not know whether the more than fifty poets I anthologize all have read Wordsworth, but if they haven't, they have anyway, since all but a few write Wordsworthian poetry, in the broad sense. Even where they have ostensible subjects, almost all of the poems in this volume manifest Hazlitt's characterization of Wordsworth's work:

He takes a subject or a story merely as pegs or loops to hang thought and feeling on; the incidents are trifling, in proportion to his contempt for imposing appearances; the reflections are profound, according to the gravity and aspiring pretensions of the mind.

Hazlitt's personal ambivalence toward Wordsworth is palpable, but so is the critic's realization that Wordsworth reinvented poetry. Yet nearly all current published criticism of Wordsworth and almost any class taught on him at our universities and colleges now actively condemn this greatest of all modern poets on political grounds, because he "betrayed" his early allegiance to the French Revolution! By our means test, Wordsworth cannot pass. So absurd have the professors become that I can see no way to salvage literary study except to abolish tenure. Tenure is an archaic survival anyway, but it becomes pernicious when faculties are crowded by thousands of ideologues, who resent Wordsworth even as they resent Shakespeare. When I was a young teacher of poetry at Yale, the English Romantic poets were Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Keats, as well as Blake and Shelley, whose place in the canon I helped restore. On hundreds of campuses now, these poets have to share attention with the "women Romantic poets": Felicia Hemans, Laetitia Landon, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Tighe, among some others. These were, to understate, justly neglected verse writers, though superior to many in The Best American Poetry 1996. Anthologies of seventeenth-century English literature now give us, side by side with Donne, Ben Johnson, and Milton, a group including the Duchess of Newcastle, Lady Mary Chudleigh, Anne Killigrew, and the venerated Aphra Behn. I have seen my profession dying for over a quarter century now, and in another decade it may be dead. If its function is to appreciate and teach Laetitia Landon and Lady Mary Chudleigh, then the demise cannot come too soon.

One asks again: How could this have happened, and not just in the universities but in the publishing world and in the media? The New York Times essentially is now a countercultural newspaper. When Maya Angelou read a poem for Clinton's first inauguration, the Times printed the text, a monument of sincerity, and in an editorial praised this effusion for its "Whitmanian amplitudes." Recently, one of the Times rock critics proclaimed our contemporary Mozart to be the glyph formerly known as Prince. Literary satire is impossible when the Times exceeds Nathaniel West and Terry Southern in outrageousness. If all aesthetic and cognitive standards are abandoned by professors and journalists alike, then the tradition of American poetry can survive only by a profound inward turning.

Walt Whitman was not only the strongest of our poets (together with the highly antithetical Emily Dickinson), but he is also now the most betrayed of all our poets, with so much of the ongoing ideological balderdash being preached in his name. Whitman's poetry generally does the opposite of what he proclaims its work to be: it is reclusive, evasive, hermetic, nuanced, and more onanistic even than homoerotic, which critics cannot accept, particularly these days when attempts are made to assimilate the Self-Reliant Whitman into what calls itself the Homosexual Poetic. If we are to have gay and lesbian studies, who will speak for Onan, whose bards include Whitman and the Goethe of Faust, Part Two? The most figurative of all our poets, Whitman eludes every effort to entrap him in an ideology. As elitist a democrat as his master Emerson, Whitman continues with his ideas of representation to outwit his historicizing and eroticizing critics. The crucial figure in Whitman is neither his self--Walt Whitman, one of the roughs, an American--nor his soul, but "the real me" or "me myself," a conceptual image that prophesies Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and particularly John Ashbery:

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looks with its sidecurved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.

That Whitmanian "what I am," his "real me" or "me myself," is both an inspiration to strong American poetry after him and a reproach to the cultural and erotic dogmas now circulated in his great name. It is no accident that the best American poets who have emerged from Whitman--sometimes insisting that they owed him nothing--are formalists, major artists of verse: Stevens, Eliot, Hart Crane, and even Ashbery when at his most gravely traditional. Cast out the aesthetic, and you cast away Whitman, who was a major poet and a poor prophet, and who was, above all else, a very difficult poet, whose synecdoches do not unravel without very frequent rereadings. Authentic American poetry is necessarily difficult; it is our elitist art, though that elite has nothing to do with social class, gender, erotic preference, ethnic strain, race, or sect. "We live in the mind," Stevens said, and our poetry always is either Emersonian or anti-Emersonian, but either way is informed by Emerson's dialectics of power:

Life will be imaged, but cannot be divided nor doubled. Any invasion of its unity would be chaos. The soul is not twin-born, but the only begotten, and though revealing itself as child in time, child in appearance, is of a fatal and universal power, admitting no co-life. Every day, every act betrays the ill-concealed deity. We believe in ourselves, as we do not believe in others. We permit all things to ourselves, and that which we call sin in others, is experiment for us. It is an instance of our faith in ourselves, that men never speak of crime as lightly as they think: or, every man thinks a latitude safe for himself, which is nowise to be indulged to another. The act looks very differently on the inside, and on the outside; in its quality, and its consequences. Murder in the murderer is no such ruinous thought as poets and romancers will have it; it does not unsettle him, or fright him from his ordinary notice of trifles: it is an act quite easy to be contemplated, but in its sequel, it turns out to be a horrible jangle and confounding all relations. Especially the crimes that spring from love, seem right and fair from the actor's point of view, but, when acted, are found destructive of society. No man at last believes that he can be lost, nor that the crime in him is as black as in the felon. Because the intellect qualifies in our own case the moral judgments. For there is no crime to the intellect. That is antinomian or hypernomian, and judges law as well as fact.

That does not allow any room for the false generosity of any Affirmative Action in the judging of poetry. Printing, praising, and teaching bad poems for the sake of even the best causes is simply destructive for those causes. "We believe in ourselves, as we do not believe in others" is a truth that makes us wince, but no one ever can write a good poem without it. Tony Kushner, who could be a greater playwright but for his obsession with the ideologies of political correctness, ought to ponder Emerson's "Experience," from which I have just quoted. Every attempt to socialize writing and reading fails; poetry is a solitary art, more now than ever, and its proper audience is the deeply educated, solitary reader, or that reader's sitting within herself in a theater.

It was inevitable that the School of Resentment would do its destructive damage to the reading, staging, and interpretation of Shakespeare, whose eminence is the ultimate demonstration of the autonomy of the aesthetic. Cultural poeticians, ostensible feminists, sub-Marxists, and assorted would-be Parisians have given us French Shakespeare, who never wrote a line but instead sat in a tavern while all the "social energies" of early modern Europe pulsated into his quill and created Hamlet, Falstaff, Iago, and Cleopatra, with little aid from that mere funnel, the Man from Stratford. It has not been explained (at least to me) just why the social energies favored Shakespeare over Thomas Middleton or John Marston or George Chapman or whoever, but this remarkable notion totally dominates today's academic study of Shakespeare. First, Paris told us that language did the thinking and writing for us, but then Foucault emerged, and Shakespeare went from being language's serf to society's minion. No longer can we speak of the best writer--Auden's Top Bard--and if Shakespeare recedes, why call a volume The Best American Poetry? Certainly the 1996 volume should have been retitled The Most Socially Energetic American Poetry, and if I were not Bloom Brontosaurus, an amiable dinosaur, we could have called this book The Most Socially Energetic of the Socially Energetic. The madness that contaminates our once high culture cannot be cured unless and until we surrender our more than Kafkan sense that social guilt is not to be doubted. No thing can be more malignant than a disease of the spirit that sincerely regards itself as virtue.

Shakespeare, precisely because he is the only authentic multicultural writer, demonstrated that our modish multiculturalism is a lie, a mask for mediocrity and for the thought-control academic police, the Gestapo of our campuses. Each time I make the mistake of glancing at the Yale Weekly Bulletin, I shudder to see that the dean of Yale College has appointed yet another subdean to minister to the supposed cultural interests of another identity club: ethnic, racial, linguistic, with gender and erotic subsets. Shakespeare, performed and read in every country (with the sporadic exception of France, most xenophobic of cultures), is judged by audiences of every race and language to have put them upon the stage. Shakespeare's power has nothing to do with Eurocentrism, maleness, Christianity, or Elizabethan-Jacobean social energies. No one else so combined cognitive strength, originality, dramatic guile, and linguistic florabundance as virtually to reinvent the human, and Shakespeare is therefore the best battlefield upon which to fight the rabblement of Resenters. Our multiculturalists are reductionists; the 1996 volume actually is asserting: "Our bad poets are just as good as your bad poets." Shakespeare, pragmatically the true multiculturalist, is the least reductive of all writers; his men and women never invite us to believe that when we know the worst about them, then we know exactly who they are. Emerson, in Representative Men, caught this best:

Shakespeare is as much out of the category of eminent authors, as he is out of the crowd. He is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato's brain, and think from thence, but not into Shakespeare's. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakespeare is unique. No man can imagine it better. He was the farthest reach of subtlety compatible with an individual self,--the subtilest of authors, and only just within the possibility of authorship. With this wisdom of life, is the equal endowment of imaginative and of lyric power. He clothed the creatures of his legend with form and sentiments, as if they were people who had lived under his roof; and few real men have left such distinct characters as these fictions. And they spoke in language as sweet as it was fit. Yet his talents never seduced him into an ostentation, nor did he harp on one string. An omnipresent humanity coordinates all his faculties. Give a man of talents a story to tell, and his partiality will presently appear. He has certain observations, opinions, topics, which have some accidental prominence, and which he disposes all to exhibit. He crams this part, and starves that other part, consulting not the fitness of the thing, but his fitness and strength. But Shakespeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic; but all is duly given; no veins, no curiosities; no cow-painter, no bird-fancier, no mannerist is he: he has no discoverable egotism: the great he tells greatly; the small, subordinately. He is wise without emphasis or assertion; he is strong, as nature is strong, who lifts the land into mountain slopes without effort, and by the same rule as she floats a bubble in the air, and likes as well to do the one as the other. This makes that equality of power in farce, tragedy, narrative, and love-songs; a merit so incessant, that each reader is incredulous of the perception of other readers.

If this be Bardolatry, then let us have more of it, for it may be the only medicine that can cure us of the French blight that afflicts our culture and our academies. It is no accident that poetry is the principal victim of the decline and fall of our literature faculties. Almost no one these days is taught how to read a poem; there are very few who know how to instruct in the difficult art of interpretation, and the going ideologies distrust poetry anyway. How do you politicize this?

All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creak'd;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek'd,
Or from the crevice peer'd about.
Old faces glimmer'd thro' the doors,
Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices called her from without.
She only said, "My life is dreary,
He cometh not," she said;
She wept, "I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!"

The sparrow's chirrup on the roof,
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-rooted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
Then she said, "I am very dreary,
He will not come," she said;
She wept, "I am aweary, aweary,
O God, that I were dead!"


It is ironical that, in this bad time, American poetry is of a higher quality than our criticism or teaching of poetry. Four major poets who appear in this book--Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, Amy Clampitt, and the still undervalued May Swenson--are gone, yet there are poems here by Ashbery, Ammons, and at least a dozen others that I think will endure, if only we can maintain a continuity of aesthetic appreciation and cognitive understanding that more or less prevailed from Emerson until the later 1960s, but that survives only in isolated pockets. While it is true that several of the greatest American poets--Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Hart Crane--had either no or little authentic critical response during their lifetimes, they at least did not have to endure a cultural situation fundamentally hostile to aesthetic and cognitive standards of judgment. I marvel at the courage and desperate faith of our best younger poets, who have to withstand the indifference or hostility not just of society in general, but also of the supposed defenders of poetry, who now will advocate it only as an instrument of social change. If you urge political responsibilities upon a poet, then you are asking her to prefer to poetry what can destroy her poem. Emily Dickinson had the inner freedom to rethink everything for herself and so achieved a cognitive originality as absolute as William Blake's. She had economic and social advantages that Walt Whitman did not enjoy, yet like Whitman she did not have to confront ideological persuasions either irrelevant or inimical to aesthetic ambitions. Wallace Stevens could take for granted the autonomy of the aesthetic; how would Harmonium otherwise have been possible, or Hart Crane's first volume, White Buildings? I write this introduction out of the conviction that a literary critic has no political responsibilities, as a critic. My obligation is only to help (if that I can) make it possible for another Elizabeth Bishop or May Swenson or James Merrill to develop without being impeded by ideological demands. I am more than aware that the Resenters speak constantly of "the ideology of the aesthetic" and of "the Romantic ideology," but that is simply a playing with loaded dice. The only pragmatic aesthetic I know is that some poems intrinsically are better than others, while Romanticism, as I apprehend it, is a discipline in sensibility and in perception.

In his essay "Politics," Emerson provides a spark for these times:

It makes no difference how many tons weight of atmosphere presses on our heads, so long as the same pressure resists it within the lungs. Augment the mass a thousand fold; it cannot begin to crush us, as long as reaction is equal to action.

The Resenters prate of power, as they do of race and gender: these are careerist stratagems and have nothing to do with the insulted and injured, whose lives will not be improved by our reading the bad verses of those who assert that they are the oppressed. Our schools as much as our universities are given away to these absurdities; replacing Julius Caesar by The Color Purple is hardly a royal road to enlightenment. A country where television, movies, computers, and Stephen King have replaced reading is already in acute danger of cultural collapse. That danger is dreadfully augmented by our yielding education to the ideologues whose deepest resentment is of poetry itself. What John Hollander remarks of Whitman--"The poetry, like its title, looks easy and proves hard"--is true of almost all great or very good poets. But there, I hope, will be one of the crucial uses for us of the best American poems: more than ever before, our situation needs aesthetic and cognitive difficulty. The mock poetry of Resentment looks easy and proves easy; unlike Whitman, it lacks mind. When I think of the American poets of this century whom I myself love best, I begin always with Wallace Stevens and with Hart Crane. Stevens subtly gives us what be calls "the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind," and Crane urges us to the most difficult transcendence ever visualized by any American poet. Their heirs, including Elizabeth Bishop, Merrill, Ashbery, and Ammons, have carried forward this mingled legacy of thoughts available to us only in poems, and yearnings made palpable only in complex imaginings. Mastery of metaphor and power of thinking are the true merits of the best American poetry of our time. I give the last words here to the sacred Emerson, from his Whitman-inspiring essay "The Poet," where the freedom of poetry is ascribed to "tropes" and to "thought":

The poets are thus liberating gods. The ancient British bards had for the title of their order, "Those who are free throughout the World." They are free, and they make free. An imaginative book renders us much more service at first, by stimulating us through its tropes, than afterward, when we arrive at the precise sense of the author. I think nothing is of any value in books, excepting the transcendental and extraordinary. If a man is inflamed and carried away by his thought, to that degree that he forgets the authors and the public, and heeds only this one dream, which holds him like an insanity, let me read his paper, and you may have all the arguments and histories and criticism. All the value which attaches to Pythagoras, Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, Cardan, Kepler, Swedenborg, Schelling, Oken, or any other who introduces questionable facts into his cosmogony, as angels, devils, magic, astrology, palmistry, mesmerism, and so on, is the certificate we have of departure from routine, and that here is a new witness. That also is the best success in conversation, the magic of liberty, which puts the world, like a ball, in our hands. How cheap even the liberty then seems; how mean to study, when an emotion communicates to the intellect the power to sap and upheave nature: how great the perspective! nations, times, systems, enter and disappear, like threads in tapestry of large figure and many colors; dream delivers us to dream, and while the drunkenness lasts, we will sell our bed, our philosophy, our religion, in our opulence.

from The Boston Review

Monday, February 06, 2006

Poetry, Schadenfreude, and an Excerpt


This happens in Schubert
And elsewhere,

Iowa, for example.
There is something incomplete that lingers,

Trails off
And a pause --

That lengthens
And goes on -- and on.

Strand by strand,
The rope breaks.
The fingertips cannot remember
The last thing they touched.

The boat pulls away from the dock --
The old confusion

Between forgetting and loss.
Then a series of notes played more slowly,

Echoing -- remotely, precisely --

The previous phrase,
Almost a melody,

On the edge --
A very slow waterfall

Suggesting completeness,

In the interstices of the stars.

Robert Rehder
The Iowa Review
Volume 34, Number 3
Winter 2004/05

Back to back poetry posts. This poem showed up in my inbox. Poetry Daily emails a weekly reminder of poems and also includes poems being retired from archive (poems are usually kept for a year). This is one of poems to be retired.

I have to admit I have been enjoying James Frey's excoriation by Oprah and her book club over his memoir-with-'truthiness'-issues book. I have little sympathy for Oprah as she defended this pile of dung on Larry King long after it started to stink. In the end it won't matter as Frey will still be very wealthy when it all blows over and will be dining out at trendy L.A bistros and cashing in on his new found notoriety for years. Maybe this saga of tainted success will lead to addiction problems, a further fall from grace, salvation, followed by another memoir with the subtitle 'This Time I Mean It! ', a triumphant return to the book club with a teary-eyed Oprah giving the poor embattled Frey a hug. Actually, she would have been better served selecting John Albert's Wrecking Crew for her book club. At least the web site Smoking Gun was able to scoop the print media and raise their status as journalists instead of merely as a repository for mug shots of the rich and famous and trial transcipts.

Not wanting to give up on the genre I just started reading a memoir that was well reviewed and a few friends have recommended as worth reading despite its appearing on several year end 'Best of' lists. A Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer, is a coming of age tale centered around a bar in Manhasset, Long Island (also the model for F. Scott Fitzgerald's East Egg). I just started it so can't really comment except to say I like the writing so far and excerpts like the one below leave me wanting to leave work early in order for me to get back to reading it...

"Seated around the lopsided dining room table, we'd all talk at once, trying to distract ourselves from the food. Grandma couldn't cook, and Grandpa gave her almost no money for groceries, so what came out of the kitchen in chipped serving bowls was both toxic and comical. To make what she called 'spaghetti and meatballs,' Grandma would boil a box of pasta until it was glue, saturate it with Campbell's cream of tomato soup, then top it with chunks of raw hot dog. Salt and pepper to taste. What actually brought on the indigestion, though, was Grandpa. A loner, a misanthrope, a curmudgeon with a stutter, he found himself each night at the head of a table with twelve uninvited guests, counting the dog. A Shanty Irish reenactment of the Last Supper. As he looked us up and down we could hear him thinking, Each of you has betrayed me tonight. To his credit, Grandpa never turned anyone away. But he never made us feel welcome either, and he often wished aloud that we'd all just 'clear the hell out.'

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn't last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he's done.

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can't wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs--
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won't fall finally down.

Isn't this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn't this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don't empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I'll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You're talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it's mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

Richard Hugo

I wanted to share the poem from where I took the title of blog. I first ran across it because James Crumley had used Last Good Kiss as title for one of my favorite books. It is a modern day noir with solid prose and compelling characters. Several novels in a series of two of his characters exist solo and together. Start with The Last Good Kiss or The Wrong Case and read them in order. You will not be dissapointed.

Site here has video clips from film with poems being read.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006