Thursday, December 29, 2011

In the Presence of Art

The future's always bright for someone.

When I started this blog, I thought of it as something of a vacation spot.  It’s been good this last week or so to turn the tables, and take a vacation from it.  And, as with most vacations, I arrive back neither refreshed nor with new perspective, but, like with most vacations, I’ll fake it in the name of narrative coherence. 
I suppose it’s inevitable at this time of year to think of the future: New Year’s Resolutions, and all that. This year, however, we have the added bonus of entering 2012, the apocalypse year for Hollywood and various other sales forces.  
So here I am in central Texas, in what will, apparently, soon be ocean-front property, and I’m wondering if I should make some sort of resolutions of some kind.  Not much is arriving.  But it does leave me thinking about my personal relationship to art. As with personal relationships in general, our relationship with art is at its core irrational. But just because our personal relationship with art is based in the irrational, doesn’t mean we can’t have productive conversations about art with others, we just have to remember that at some point our conversations will get absurd if we press them.  
What's not to love about the future?

It is through our need and desire that we participate with art, and as our needs are not solely aesthetic, we will fall upon various rocky shores when talking about art with others. Two of these shores, these irrational stances toward art that I come across often are easy to fall into: 
1.The new’s the only thing. This is the much talked about “Cult of the New” stance, and it’s especially easy to fall into, as every year a new group of poets comes out with their first books. Look! Ah, that new poet smell! Publishers make most of their money off books in their first year of publication, so it’s in their best interest to push the new line. AWP is another great mover of the new.  Buzz is the word. “Relevance” the obfuscation, as what’s relevant is a social construction, one that feeds on what it tells itself to feed on. Nothing is relevant by itself, and everything is potentially relevant.  
I come across this often in music criticism. Sometimes I get myself so interested in finding the newest exciting band, that I find myself in a constant state of downloading, without actually listening to most of what I accumulate. The poetry world can get like that. How many nickels would each of us have if we got one for every time we were in a conversation where people are talking about poets they haven’t read?  
That will be my first resolution then, to remember that NEW is a social act, bound in time, and that it isn’t itself a sign of artistic value. It seems like such an obvious thing, but “The Next Big Thing” is a seductive brew, and to be the first one on your block to have it is a special thrill that lasts close to fifteen minutes, until the chase begins again. But in the chasing, we’re new too.  And to be new is to be relevant and free and young.  Who wouldn’t’ want that?  
2.One of the flip sides to this, that is a devastating over-reaction, is the “Cult of the Old,” where nothing new or recent is of any value in the face of an older, pure order. This is a self-congratulatory, nostalgic stance that allows the person who holds it to dismiss anything and everything current or made after some date where everything stopped having meaning.  
The joke is that we all get to this point at some time. In music it happens usually just after high school, where we suddenly stop listening to new music, and our tastes keep getting reinforced by repetition of the old and further remove from everything else.  
This stance can take several forms. In music, as above, it takes an autobiographical form. Music was great when I was young and full of potential, but now . . . .  Sometimes in art it follows a similar path: “When I was young I read ________, and all was excellent, and now that I’m older . . . .” This stance often comes masked under the standard of “standards,” where the passing of time has dulled cultural, aesthetic, political, and etc, values. It’s a cry against change, because change means we disappear, and it’s not fun to disappear.
Both of these stances are apocalyptic, in my view, as they chase the ever-receding new or balkanize the ever-receding old. But then again, as the future is coming at each of us with a use-by date, they’re both understandable stances, and two of many, equally (in the abstract) apocalyptic stances.  Perhaps all stances are apocalyptic?
There’s stance three, for instance, that I come across more often that I would think from artists themselves.  This is the “The Only People Who Make Good Art Are My friends” stance. It’s a very limiting stance, depending on how many friends one has, both in its narrowness and in its weird aesthetic inclusions and exclusions. And then come stances four and five, the critical stances of “Everyone Who Writes Well Writes Well All of the Time” and “People Who Don’t Write Well Never Write Well” that can make book reviewers and apologists get all pretzel logic in unintentionally humorous ways.
So is there a New Year’s Resolution in any of this? To continue to value what has come before, and to also remain open to the new?  To continue to experience art in two directions? To not just read my friends?  To read honestly and critically?  Don’t we all try to do that already?
The problem for me is that I have a pretty large bookshelf (and music catalogue) and I like to hear from my friends, so most of my energy, my energy for finding things, is going to be directed at the new, and what people (my friends) tell me about.  I feel that’s probably the case for most of us? So maybe here’s my New Year’s Resolution: For every couple new books or albums I read or listen to, I will read or listen to something old. And I will continue to look again at books from poets I, in the past, haven’t cared for. I’ll start with my favorite Frank Sinatra tune that I haven’t listened to in some time, as a token of my sincerity. 
Frank Sinatra
That’s Life

Sunday, December 18, 2011

All the Art that Fits

All boxed up and ready for the future?

All my books are packed up. Actually, most all of the house is packed up. So I don’t have many texts left to hand. I saved out a few books for travel purposes. But not John Cage, and it’s suddenly John Cage I’m wanting to look up. That’s how it works, right? I remember (In either SILENCE or A Year from Monday) him writing about one of the necessary aspects of an art, that it fits the sound of its time. That you can place it next to an open window, the sounds from the street, and the two blend together as a concordance.

I’ve always liked that. The sound of the context. But that’s just the first push. The art must fit its time, yes, but it must also push it, move it along into the future. The way The Beatles “fit” 1963, but then pushed into 1967. Or how Picasso pushed the 20th Century forward, after first, fitting into it. Anyhow, it’s a pleasant idea, as I’m sitting here surrounded with boxes wanting pleasant ideas. So many boxes.

I was thinking about this while reading John Ashbery’s “Grand Galop” this morning over coffee. Or actually, I was thinking about wanting to find the John Cage, and then picked up Ashbery’s Selected Poems, and there was a bookmark on page 172. It’s all chance operations.

And here’s what I read:

                                                            Better the months—
They are almost persons—than these abstractions
That sift like marble dust across the unfinished works of the studio
Aging everything into a characterization of itself,
Better the cleanup committee concern itself with
Some item that is now little more than a feature
Of some obsolete style—cornice or spandrel
Out of the dimly remembered whole
Which probably lacks true distinction. But if one may pick it up,
Carry it over there, set it down,
Then the work is redeemed at the end
Under the smiling expanse of the sky
That plays no favorites but in the same way
Is honor only to those who have sought it.

And I’m thinking right now that this is why critics (us) can never truly see the work that will continue to be present in the future. Because our knowing is always outdated. We can only pick up what we’re going to pick up. We can’t know what the future will pick up, will, literally, hold. In regards to art, we are always chasing it as it runs away from us. As critics (each of us is an art critic [lucky us]), we can only speak from experience, which is, we can only speak from out of the past.

Some work speaks well with its present but doesn’t help carry the present forward. It reflects the present upon itself, or as its real or imagined past. That’s one thing. A thing of comfort or value to the present, but not of much value (necessarily) to the future. Poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay or Archibald MacLeish seem to be falling into that category, perhaps, while others mirrored their time while also mirroring a consciousness that will be. The plays of Shakespeare are good examples of this.

In the current conception of things, there’s little doubt that Wallace Stevens is this type of poet—but there’s no guarantee that this will continue to be the case. We’re still so close to the 20th Century. In my lifetime I’ve already seen the rising and lowering of several poets (Robert Lowell!).

Back to the “Grand Galop”:

As long as one has some sense that each thing knows its place
All is well, but with the arrival and departure
Of each new one overlapping so intensely in the semi-darkness
It’s a bit mad. Too bad, I mean, that getting to know each just for a fleeting second
Must be replaced by imperfect knowledge of the featureless whole,
Like some pocket history of the world, so general
As to constitute a sob or wail unrelated
To any attempt at definition. And the minor eras
Take on an importance out of all proportion to the story
For it can no longer unwind, but must be kept on hand
Indefinitely, like a first-aid kit no one ever uses
Or a word in the dictionary that no one will ever look up.
The custard is setting; meanwhile
I not only have my own history to worry about
But am forced to fret over insufficient details related to large
Unfinished concepts that can never bring themselves to the point
Of being, with or without my help, if any were forthcoming.

Still other artists speak less to their own time than they speak to a future time. Surely Gertrude Stein is more talked about now as an important writer than she was when she was alive (and maybe our present will become her end point, or maybe she’ll go one), while Pound has less and less to say to us each year, and seems—so far at least—to be staying that way for some time. Melville is perhaps the most recent famous example of this, much more major in the 20th Century than he was in the 19th. Or the transformations Emily Dickinson’s poetry went through in the 20th Century.

The great machine of our listening continues. Who is the Ezra Pound of the future? The Gertrude Stein? We’ll never know. So we play at guessing, for in guessing we imagine we’re making the future, and in guessing, we don’t have to continually feel ourselves and our age ending. We ruffle the hair of our children. We see them on their way.

I’ll give Ashbery, as these are questions people are asking of his work often,the last word. Back to the “Grand Galop” one last time:

                                                                  It is this
That takes us back into what really is, it seems, history—
The lackluster, disorganized kind without dates
That speaks out of the hollow trunk of a tree
To warn away the merely polite, or those whose destiny
Leaves them no time to quibble about the means,
Which are not ends, and yet . . . What precisely is it
About the time of day it is, the weather, that causes people to note it painstakingly in their diaries
For them to read who shall come after?
Surely it is because the ray of light
Or gloom striking you this moment is hope
In all its mature, matronly form, taking all things into account
And reappropriating them according to size
So that if one can’t say that this is the natural way
It should have happened, at least one can have no cause for complaint
Which is the same as having reached the end, wise
In that expectation and enhanced by its fulfillment, or the absence of it.
But we say, it cannot come to any such end
As long as we are left around with no place to go.
And yet it has ended, and the thing we have fulfilled we have become.

Friday, December 16, 2011

There’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going.

Today’s Specials: e.e. cummings / Megafaun / Eleanor Friedberger

“You’re going to love this. You’re going to just love it.” –Willy Wonka

This conversation with a silent man, this continual conversion of principles, of what we think doesn’t make any sense . . . of what we say is brand new and what we say is the same old thing and what we say is not as good as what was done in the past and what we say is better than ever before. One person’s inscrutability is another’s, well, something else. Such has always been the case. It’s why I keep going back to this issue. The reception of e.e. cummings is a great example.

Here are a few negative things written about his poetry, circa the 1930s:

Harriet Monroe, while editor of Poetry, wrote of his poetry: “Mr. Cummings has an eccentric system of typography which, in our opinion, has nothing to do with the poem, but intrudes itself irritatingly, like scratched or blurred spectacles, between it and the reader’s mind.”

Another reviewer went further: “His typography is so perverse that the reader is scared off before he has gone very far. The puzzle of his punctuation is not even an amusing one; it certainly is not worth solving.”

So there we have it, right? Such run the lessons of the past.

And then, revisiting one’s decisions, I instantly want to change my mind about my favorite albums from 2011. Over the last few days, looking at the lists of others, I’ve really been enjoying the albums from Megafaun and Eleanor Friedberger.

Here are a few songs, to give you something of a feel for them:

Megafaun by Crammed Discs

06. Eleanor friedberger - My Mistakes by Republic of Music

Eleanor Friedberger - Owl's Head Park by MergeRecords

[concise outline of some reflections concerning fire]

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Radiohead 'Rehearsing New Songs' for 2012 Tour

What is this man thinking?

Radiohead’s The King of Limbs ranks up there with some of the biggest “how to mess up a great album so that it's only a good album” examples of all time for me.  First, the album is short, eight songs. Second, the first few songs are exercises in song deconstruction, which is fine, and I like them, but they are wearisome compared to the second half of the album, which contains some very fine songs: “Lotus Flower,” “Codex,” “Give Up the Ghost,” and “Separator” are top-shelf Radiohead. 

These two things are not deal breakers, it’s still a good album and all, but once they started shelling out more songs, the songs that didn’t, I suppose, make the cut, I really had to wonder what they were possibly thinking.  What was it that kept “Supercollider,” “The Butcher,” “Staircase,” and “The Daily Mail” from the album (all of which are better songs than the opening four tracks of the official album, in fact, “The Daily Mail” is one of their finest of all time, in my opinion), and had them put “Feral” on?

So, as a 12 song album, this is one of Radiohead’s finest, but it’s officially an eight-song album. I have the twelve songs on my media player, and I’ve called them The King of Limbs. I’m happy now, but still with a shake of the head at what it could have been if they’d’ve just gone ahead and put it all out as a regular album and not had me go through all this trouble.

And then now, as it always is with me and Radiohead, all is forgiven, as I’ll be seeing them perform some new songs this spring when their tour stops in Kansas City:

from SPIN

Radiohead plan to preview some fresh material on their upcoming tour. "We've been rehearsing about four or five new songs this week," guitarist Ed O'Brien told XFM's Mary Anne Hobbs today (via Consequence of Sound). "So we're going to try to take those on the road."

O'Brien offered additional details in an interview with BBC 6, and hinted at a potential 2012 studio release. "We haven't got anymore stuff left over but we are rehearsing at the moment and we are rehearsing new songs because we want the tour to be creative," he said. "So if that means at the end of the year we might have nipped into the studio for a couple of weeks and done an EP or something else then it could be, but the thing is to keep it as fluid and flexible as possible." Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke has previously said the band would hit the studio this month and next.

The U.S. portion of the tour kicks off on February 27 in Miami and is currently scheduled through March 15 in the Phoenix area, after which Radiohead will head to Mexico City and then Europe. In the BBC interview, O'Brien acknowledged the band will also be playing some British dates but said he couldn't share the details just yet. He did say the band would prefer to play arenas rather than festivals, citing the "quite detailed" sonics of The King of Limbs.

In the meantime, Radiohead will release a pair of outtakes from Limbs, "The Daily Mail" and "Staircase," as a digital single on December 19. That's also the digital release date for the band's The King of Limbs: Live From the Basement performance video, which will also be out on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The 20s Generation at the End of the 60s

Far and wee.

I enjoy reading old books of criticism. It’s illuminating to see the ways that poets were talked about then versus how they’re talked about now. Who gets mentioned when. How some are dismissed or lauded. That sort of thing.

This week I’ve been reading the Twentieth Century Views collection of critical essays on E.E. Cummings, edited by Norman Friedman. It’s fascinating reading to see how they’re dealing with the 20s generation by mid-century. Cummings is the poet under discussion, but the side comments on others of his generation and the general comments on his generation as a whole make for an interesting narrative of how the 20th Century was seeing itself as it was just past the midway point.

Here’s a bit from Barbara Watson’s essay (first published in 1956):

The post-war (WWI) artists accepted this liberation [of artistic means] without necessarily realizing that it was itself a part of the past to which, in its own language, they were saying good-bye. They spoke as though the Victorian and Georgian ways had been the last efforts of a moribund society to hamper the free development of each human being. I would argue that, in fact, they were the posthumous children of that era.

World War I, which rebellious men claimed as their cradle, was not the beginning of the upheaval, although it was the bloodiest and most destructive stage. The causes of the war, whether analyzed according to Marxist, patriotic, or more inclusive theories, had already been the causes of a revolution in the arts, long before cracks appeared in the surface world . . . to the sheltered children of these “good” families, as part of a pre-ordained scheme of the universe.

[. . . .]

Their response to the war and to France was probably heightened by the fact that these young intellectuals went to war conscious of their own ripeness for rebellion. These clever adolescents had by no means invented themselves. Already at hand was the whole machinery of modernism, so complete that, even for their exceptionally inventive work, they would never really have to retool. The new painting and the new music were no longer new. And every old literary convention had been mined, if not already blown sky-high.

Even the jazz age, which seems to be so tidily explained as a reaction to the war experience . . ., began before the war.

Then they had come through the war, with suffering that was real and disillusionment that was real, but neither of the most damaging kind, and none of it unselfconscious. Cowley has pointed out that what these writers called “disillusionment” was really a rebellion which “implies faith in one’s ability to do things better than those in power,” a quite different feeling from the disillusionment of the Fifties. Full of what now seems like optimism, and a characteristic product of the time called “pep,” they came home to protest against a world of hypocrisy and brutality. They set themselves up as a new kind of coroner’s jury, to declare the past dead and thus to kill it.

[. . . .]

Why is it not possible, at least in theory, to produce excellence by the conventions of the past? Perhaps it is that the writer is then paying tribute to literature, not to life, admitting an inability to be moved to creation without the aid of a printed go-between, and that initial dependence mars the performance in some mysterious but deadly fashion. . . . [T]hese same lyric emotions, having come . . . unsolicited on Eight Street, neither need nor could be cast from an antique mold.

If lyric impulses are found alive in the modern world, though naked, toothless, and illegitimate, it must be possible to render them by a new validity in modern forms.

[. . . .]

[I]f you are speaking, as William Carlos Williams suggested in the Harvard Wake issue, “a Christian language—addressing the private conscience of each of us in turn,” you do not try to be “readable,” because then you can say only those things which are already so well known they will be dead upon arrival. If you want to say something new or forgotten, you must demand attention.

[. . . .]

Kenneth Burke says, “An art may be of value purely through preventing society from becoming too hopelessly, too assertively, itself.”

[. . . .]

The more rigid the external order, the more complex and deep a resistance style must convey.

The most extreme form of such resistance will seem at first glance to have been Dada. This movement which desired not to make sense did make sense in one sense: it pointed to the meaninglessness of the meaningless. And Dada sanctions play, absurdity, and exuberant free association for their own sake. . . . One way to mock the meaningless is to be still more meaningless. Once done that is done.

[. . . .]

The individual must not demand for himself what seems like a manageable or systematic world. He must take his chances on the broad directions of flow, willing to endure the confusion of myriads of idiosyncratic beings and events, which are absolutely necessary if we are not to press toward conformity and sameness. “You and I wear the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming.”

[. . . .]

If, that is, the criteria given us by Tate and Brooks are important ones, we must admit that Cummings has some of the attributes of greatness which best balance each other in the formation of a major talent. If he nevertheless falls short of that kind of achievement, it may mean that this time and this place do not permit it. Perhaps all such large accomplishments have sprung from a ripe society and a literary tradition matured in long and careful use. On this question, it may be wise to take refuge in Cummings’s formula for continuity with the unknown:

“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question”


Isn’t that lovely in its way? I’m glad to have stumbled back upon it.

A few things that crossed my mind while reading through the collection as a whole.

Wallace Stevens is almost completely absent from the conversation of the 20s generation, as is Robert Frost.

In making the case for Cummings, which is the goal of the collection, Cummings doesn’t come off all that well, in total, but is seen as an energetic humanistic force against the distance of Eliot and Pound, who are continually brought up as the poets with whom everyone has to deal. But they seem to be little more than an idea by this point. As well, the poet who seems to get the most air time is William Carlos Williams. He's all over the thinking of the time, it seems. There's a mention or two of other poets (Hart Crane, Marianne Moore).

At mid-century they were still very interested in who was the major poet of the age, and the Pound assertion of Make It New is still hard at work. They're starting to see cracks in Tate and Brooks, though.

The collection itself was published in 1972, which doesn’t feel all that long ago. And several of the questions raised in it about Cummings and the other poets of his generation seem to still be in the air now regarding poets of more recent generations. The sense of belatedness. The question of how to revolt against a strict order without folding into meaninglessness (“Once done that is done.” Indeed.). The problems of complexity and simplicity. The question of if our time allows for greatness or not. How no movement or spirit of the times ever seems to have an agreed upon point of origin. And the call of the past: how we are not new, but instead, how we’re always at the end of the old. The continual feeling each generation seems to have of the innocent past and the disillusions of the present . . . How every time we say the past is gone we seem to sentence ourselves to repeat it.

Such were the joys.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place

Julianna Barwick - Vow by Artur Smejalsja

Every year, there’s always something I miss. This year, it seems to have been Julianna Barwick’s transcendent The Magic Place.

From the record label: Asthmatic Kitty Records debut, The Magic Place, a nine-piece full-length album of magic and solace, bursting joy and healing tones. Julianna's mostly-a-capella music is built from her voice multi-tracked through a loop station. There's more backing instrumentation than on previous albums but it's the vocals—soaring high in reverb-drenched, wordless harmonies—that matter most here. It's the layered fragments and pieces that become an intricate pattern through technology; it's the sound of a rising thing, a big group harmony as a splash of sunlight through a car window, a sound that feels like hope and ascendance and patience and intimacy. (Pitchfork called her 2009 self-release, Florine, “bracingly intimate” as well as a runner-up for “album of the year,” giving it a glowing rating of 8.2. Her 2007 debut, Sanguine, is more of the same. Her sound, it appears, was born fully realized.)

Here’s a link to hear more full tracks from the album:

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Albums I liked from 2011

In 2011, I ended up with 213 hours worth of music. Here is my list of the 20 albums I listened to most. There were other albums I liked a lot, but usually for only a song or two. It was a good year for music.

In alphabetical order, then, I give you my 2011:

A.A. Bondy – Believers

A.A. Bondy - Believers (Album Preview) by PIASGermany

Blind Pilot – We Are the Tide

We Are The Tide by Blind Pilot Music

Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Bon Iver, Bon Iver by boniver

Caveman – Coco Beware

Caveman -Old Friend by emn2

David Bazan – Strange Negotiations by David Bazan

Destroyer – Kaputt

Destroyer - Kaputt by The Line Of Best Fit

East River Pipe – We Live in Rented Rooms

East River Pipe - Cold Ground by fearurself

Elbow – Build a Rocket Boys

Elbow - Lippy Kids by gwehen

EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints

EMA: California by -gaga

Feist – Metals

Feist - Graveyard by Arts & Crafts

Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

vomit // girls by sexmusic

Lindsey Buckingham – Seeds We Sew

Lindsey Buckingham - Seeds We Sow by ronnierocket

The Middle East – I Want That You Are Always Happy

13 Deep Water by themiddleeast

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Pj Harvey Let England Shake 2011 by gaia-clerici

R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now

R.E.M. "Oh My Heart" by Warner Music Group DE

Radiohead – The King of Limbs /
Radiohead – The King of Limbs (Live from the Basement)

Radiohead - The Daily Mail (From The Basement) by amomentofclarity

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

St. Vincent - Cruel by Posh Magazine

Viva Voce – The Future Will Destroy You

Viva Voce - The Future Will Destroy You by LANDSHARKPromotion

The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient

The War on Drugs by NYLONmag

Wye Oak – Civilian

Wye Oak by -gaga

Monday, December 05, 2011

Row Row Row Your Boat

Call it whatever you want, but don't call it Fight Club. That would be easy. And we so hate easy.

There’s a fascinating conversation going on around post-modern New Orleans trumpet player Nicholas Payton’s blog post “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore . . .” circulating. I’ve never been much interested in the term “Jazz,” because when I’m talking about music with someone and I say I like Jazz, they will get a very wrong idea of what I like. What I like in “Jazz” is instrumental bebop from almost exclusively the 1950s. That’s a pretty narrow slice. I pretty much am ambivalent to actively disliking the most of the rest of what is called Jazz. So I’m pretty fine with Payton’s manifesto of freeing ourselves from the constraints of terms. The jazz part of this for me, then, ends there.

Why I’m thinking about it this morning is the possibility of overlap into the problems and fights surrounding contemporary American poetry. A lot of the problem Payton has with “Jazz,” and the reactions to such problems, is something of a cognate for contemporary American poetry.

Here’s Payton’s post:

Here’s a reaction to his post, talking about race in jazz:

And here’s the NPR aggregation:

OK, so now, the link to poetry.

First off, to echo Payton, something has happened to make poetry no longer hip in the way it was for people who carried around copies of Howl or Ariel or something by Robert Lowell or Charles Bukowski. And what it is isn’t about the quality of contemporary writing, or what poets are writing about, but instead about what’s hip to do. In some circles, it’s hip to carry around something by Tao Lin or Zachary Schomburg or Heather Christle, true, but these poets aren’t as culturally noticed as Ginsberg/Plath/Bukowski were. What’s hip is now hip on a much smaller stage. Why? How?

Should we talk about that, or should we pick up our horns and blow? Yes, that’s what we should do. But as soon as we do, we begin setting something down. What is it we’re setting down? Does it reflect the loss of possibility that the past has closed off? Are we limited by what has happened before? Or are we trying to preserve and extend the past? Because the past was so grand, right? Where do we remain? Where do we attempt to go? Where can we attempt to go? Are we to attempt ignore the past, or to better it, perfect it, extend it? Do we believe there is such a thing as the future? Are we being culturally relevant? Should we be worried about being culturally relevant? Whow decides what’s culturally relevant anyway?

And what do we call what we’re doing?

So here are a few of Payton’s points (I’ve collaged them into an order that best [in my mind] reflects the cognate problems in contemporary American poetry. To get the flavor of his intention, I direct you to the link above.):

A glaring example of what’s wrong with Jazz is how people fight over it.

Jazz was a limited idea to begin with. Jazz is a label that was forced upon the musicians. The musicians should’ve never accepted that idea.

Jazz is incestuous.

Jazz is only cool if you don’t actually play it for a living.
The very fact that so many people are holding on to this idea of what Jazz is supposed to be is exactly what makes it not cool. People are holding on to an idea that died long ago. Jazz ain’t cool, it’s cold, like necrophilia.

Jazz worries way too much about itself for it to be cool. You can be martyrs for an idea that died over a half a century if y’all want. Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt from looking back. Playing Jazz is like using the rear-view mirror to drive your car on the freeway.

Jazz is haunted by its own hungry ghosts.

People are too afraid to let go of a name that is killing the spirit of the music.

Some people may say we are defined by our limitations. I don’t believe in limitations, but yes, if you believe you are limited that will define you. Some people may say we are limited. I say, we are as limited as we think. I am not limited.

Jazz has nothing to do with music or being cool. It’s a marketing idea.

Jazz is a marketing ploy that serves an elite few. The elite make all the money while they tell the true artists it’s cool to be broke.

People are fickle and follow the pack. People follow trends and brands. So do musicians, sadly. Jazz is a brand. Jazz ain’t music, it’s marketing, and bad marketing at that. It has never been, nor will it ever be, music.

Our whole purpose on this planet is to evolve. Jazz has proven itself to be limited, and therefore, not cool. Existence is not contingent upon thought. Life isn’t linear, it’s concentric. When you’re truly creating you don’t have time to think about what to call it.

Definitions are retrospective.

Too many musicians and not enough artists. Not enough artists willing to soldier for their shit.

I am not speaking of so-called Jazz’s improvisational aspects. Improvisation by its very nature can never be passé, but mindsets are invariably deadly. Not knowing is the most you can ever know.

I believe music to be more of a medium than a brand.

You can’t practice art.

I create music for the heart and the head, for the beauty and the booty.

Silence is music, too. It’s where you choose to put silence that makes sound music. Sound and silence equals music. Sometimes when I’m soloing, I don’t play shit. I just move blocks of silence around. The notes are an afterthought. Silence is what makes music sexy. Silence is cool.

- Nicholas Payton

[JG: I’ve taken several important things to consider out of his post. One strand I’ve taken out is the topic of race, and the history of race in Jazz. Race is also an important topic in contemporary American poetry, but it’s different enough from that of the Jazz conversation, that I thought it could be left out. A good question that is asked now and then is how race plays into the cultural practice and reception of poetry in general, and in what is termed Post-Avant and Experimental poetry, as well. And there’s the empty space Payton doesn’t approach, the problem of gender and sexuality in Jazz . . . ]


Incestuous . . .

It’s only cool if you don’t’ read it . . .

What he’s striking out at the most is the problematic nature of the term, and the power and aesthetic economies that term sets up. And then, how the fight about the term itself (what we’re doing and what we should be doing) is sucking the life out of what could be a better conversation on the art. I think of it as passengers on a leaking lifeboat. Some are pointing, blaming the sinking of the ship on each other, while others are consumed with deciding on a name for their new vessel, and still others are saying a different boat would have been better, and yet others are complaining about the paintjob. Who’s rowing?

I’ve felt uncomfortable calling myself a poet in something of a similar way that Payton would feel uncomfortable being called a Jazz musician. I rather dislike what that term sets up. I’d rather call myself a “Word Artist” but that sounds pretentious, so I don’t. I’m OK saying I write poetry, so that’s what I try to say when I can. Fewer people think of black berets and finger snaps or Romantic visages of standing on the Alps. It’s the same problem Payton has. But what use can he possibly get out of saying he's a Post-Modern New Orleans Trumpet Player? That jsut sounds silly. Like walking around saying "I'm a Hybrid, pleased to meet you." There are cultural expectations of Genre, and those expectations, if we let them, make us do things. Nothing should make us do things but the art itself. Not the names or the sub names of the art. And then the aesthetic camps and all the blah blah about what’s this or that about styles and groups. If you just ignore all that and do what you do it'll at least makes sense to you. All this hoard mentality and then anti-hoard hoard mentality. Bah and fie.

And then there are some people who are still saying prose poetry isn't poetry? Really? And on. Whatever is done will become the past that will become the problem with which the future will have to deal. And to go forward, it’s important to go back, but it’s impossible to stay there, no matter how beautiful, for in the end, what strength an artist has is that artist’s alone.

Enter Prospero in his magic robes:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

William Logan on Third (or Fourth) Generation American Surrealism

Off to a sleepover at William Logan's house!

Well, it’s not very much he says about Contemporary American Surrealism, really, but it was enough to get me all up and stomping around the room this morning. It comes in one of his New Criterion reviews. Logan’s not always wrong about poetry, but he often is. (This time I think he’s being too hard on Michael Dickman and too easy on Henri Cole and about right on Billy Collins, but that’s beside the point of what bothered me this morning.)

Here is a bit from Logan on what he sees going on in Surrealism these days. He’s using Dickman as the example, but he could be talking about any number of people, from Zapruder to Schomburg to Christle to Doxsee, or anyone even lightly (me and you?) inspired by Surrealism.

“Dickman represents the third, possibly the fourth, generation of American Surrealism, a style (or perhaps a sect) that has always seemed rather mushheaded in a hardboiled, go-ahead country addicted to facts, facts, facts. With its whiff of anti-religious sentiment, Surrealism may look revolutionary in France or eastern Europe—what better threat to Christians than visions that aren’t Christian? In America, it’s more like middle-class self-indulgence.

Dickman has little to add to the droopy watches of Surrealists gone before, but, now that the movement has grown ever more attenuated, he sees its possibility as a manner without a lick of necessity. If he says, “I was just whispering// into my glass// pillow” . . . you don’t think, “Oh, the young Apollinaire!” You think, “Cinderella!”

With his rabbity enjambment and insistent double-spacing, the poet tries a little too hard to be outrageous.”

First of all, Logan says this tendency “has always seemed rather mushheaded in a hardboiled, go-ahead country addicted to facts, facts, facts.” I agree with that assessment of its reception. It’s that mushheadedness that stands against the American tendency to “facts”, that throws that addiction back in the face of American culture, and does it with a healthy dose of absurdity in the context of the American fact fantasy complex. This alone, this “mushheadedness,” seems to me reason enough to investigate its power to reveal. It’s one way, there are others, of course, but it’s also a way.

Logan takes this notion in two equally simplistic directions. The first, the “revolutionary” look of Surrealism in “France or eastern Europe” because its “visions” aren’t “Christian.” I missed that memo that said Surrealism necessarily had this whiff of an anti- or other than Christian vision. I wonder what Max Jacob would have to say about that. Maybe it does have such a whiff, but if so, it could be said that American Realism also has that whiff in its anti-transcendent assumptions. Surrealism can, of course, be a contrary vision to the vision of Christianity, just as it can be a contrary vision to Capitalism or Socialism or the Moonies. But it isn’t necessarily so. Where one person sees “oppositions” another could say “complexity” or “complications of,” so that Surrealism could easily be defended as a complication of Christianity rather than an anti-Christian posture.

This leads me to my next point. Logan doesn’t allow this opposition into America: “In America, it’s more like middle-class self-indulgence,” he writes. OK, but isn’t that’s just another version of saying that people who write in this manner are rather mushheaded? This is the kind of accusation that’s been leveled at everyone from Eliot and Stevens to the language poets and everyone who does anything outside of the “facts, facts, facts” addiction that Logan first pointed to. Leisure-class fiddling. La la. If I had a dime, that sort of thing. Some poets, of any aesthetic flavor, could be described as writing from a position of self-indulgence. But this is “middle-class self-indulgence.” There could also, then, I suppose, be such a things as “high-class self-indulgence” or “low-class self-indulgence,” but no one ever seems to mention them. Why toss the class issue into it? Is self-indulgence at the middle-class level something especially ripe for Surrealism, or for critique, or for being tagged as a class issue at all? Ah, the poor maligned, shrinking middle class. It was such a good idea, to have one, and now look what we’ve done with it!

But say that Contemporary American Surrealism does have such an air. It would seem, then, if Surrealism can be seen as oppositional, as parable, satire, psychological enactment, then it would seem to be that Surrealism would be a useful and valid a way to talk about the psychological issues of the middle class. Or is Surrealism only to enact the self interest of the more (I suppose?) officially validated issues of the upper and lower classes? This is a tangent from what Logan was speaking about, but it’s in such moments, such transitory moments in reviews and essays and blurbs on books where biases and positions are reinforced, and there is also, often, a kind of sneering directed at the middle class while at the same time a kind of valorization of some abstract idea of a “real” American. The middle class is a cultural straw dog, draped with kitsch and narcissism.

“All my problems are meaningless. That doesn’t make them go away,” Neil Young sang, back in the 1970s, which was his version of whispering into his glass pillow. Which reminds me, Logan would have had a better case, but less of a Surreal one, by sticking with Dickman’s bit on Dickinson, for when he goes to the “Whispering into glass pillows,” it, for me at least, rather unmade his point. “I was just whispering// into my glass// pillow” is a good send up of what it means to disclose, to be a teller, of fact, fact, fact. I was thinking about that when reading it, not about Apollinaire or Cinderella. (I also apparently missed the memo that said Cinderella was now unsuitable landscape. I live and I learn.)

Just my two cents.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Heather Christle - The Difficult Farm

“I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately.”  I wish I would be walking down the street and overhear that sentence, and have it sound common.  Oh well and anyway, we’re moving this month, from one side of town to the other.  This is going to be a good thing, we know, but right now, it’s mostly just daunting. 

So I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately.  New (to me) things that I bought but didn’t get to or finish.  Old things I’m finding again as I clean off my shelves . . .

A prize was finding my copy of WCW’s Spring & All right after it was mentioned in the comments on a post on this blog.  It was great sitting with it awhile.  If you haven’t seen it, and your version of WCW is just from anthologies or his selected poems, reading Spring & All will be a revelation (or maybe a disambiguation). 

The most depressing thing I found by far was The Achievement of Richard Eberhart.  I had not thought of him in years.  And here was a book on his achievement.  A salute to the dust bin to which we are all destined, I thought, which was quickly reinforced by the numerous volumes of poetry I came across from poets I really liked and of whom I’ve not heard again.  Where do they all go?  (Where we all go.) 

Yikes, and all that.  But it’s a good project, going back through one’s bookshelves.  It’s a lot like going through one’s High School yearbook.  But it’s better than that, mostly, as I was pleased to open some of these books at random and find good things there once again. 

One of the books I read this week is Heather Christle’s The Difficult Farm.  Being enjoyable and likeable was one of the goals of The New York School poets, in my reading of the way they used the voice, the speaker, to move the reader through the poem.  It was not a Poetry of Wisdom they were interested in, though there was plenty of wisdom and intelligence, but a poetry of friendliness.  That means a lot to me now as it did when I first came across Ashbery and then O’Hara, and later, the rest (and then the second generation of Ron Padgett, et al). 

Heather Christle uses that chatty, friendly voice, that charming voice, but often (or even usually) connected to more problematic content.  Hers is a poetry of constant, unrelenting cleverness, wit piled on wit.  It makes for an exhilarating ride, which at times, feels devastatingly satirical.  Her poems accelerate, so just picking one or two to read is not going to give one the experience that is the best way (to my reading) of encountering her work.  Just as every sentence is a turn, every poem is also. 


Can-can dancing just won’t stop
hurting its women.  France
is full of stories and women.
Once in Calais three women
lost their money and had
lunch later.  Dancing the can-can
shows resilience more clearly
than ever because women have
less money and less strength.
This sounds ugly but my legs
don’t want much, except
for clean pants and stuff.

No way is that cowpoke
bringing me home.  He wants
someone to fix his religion.
Believe me, I love religion
but he’s too quiet when
he’s praying.  Look, he left
and the bar left and the jukebox
fixed everything.  I love this
music and I love this land,
so empty of real trees and hymnals.

Charge! I said, but nobody
heard me, because they were all
listening to their mother, the iPod.
Their mother said a lot of stuff
I didn’t hear.  Magnificence comes
in a small car, but we all fit.

Democracy stinks.  My classmates
elected the hamster.  Teacher
doesn’t vote and can’t change
anything.  Hamsters die all the time
for good reasons.  Once I was
a hamster who loved waterparks
but nobody ever knew.  Secrets
are also for presidents.
Teacher knows very little.

Northern states.  Eastern states.
Where are the armies?
One soldier means trouble.
Five soldiers make a party.
War never means much.
Let’s bring the soldiers
somewhere they might like.
Let’s go to Pizzeria Uno
and not eat anything.