Monday, December 20, 2010

Hey, Hollywood! I Got Your Next Blockbuster Right Here!

Recently, surfing the 'net as oft I do, I read about a couple of upcoming movies, both based upon one of my favorite childhood toys, Rock'em Sock'em Robots.  One, Real Steel, stars Hugh Jackman & the other,  directed by Wolfgang Peterson, is not yet titled.

Ahem.  Apparently Hollywood has discovered my blog.  As any loyal reader can testify, if not indeed the heretic casual skimmer, I put forth the idea, as well as a detailed plot, for the Rock'em Sock'em Robots movie in a post on this very blog in May 2009.

Listen, I think it's fantastic that Hollywood is finally listening to me, but c'mon fellas, in the immortal words of Billy Jean (the legend, not the song), "Fair's fair."  Which is to say, I want my cut!

As a show of good faith that the good, decent, honest folks in Hollywood will (as Spike Lee reminds us) do the right thing--& to show you I'm no one trick pony--I'm pitching my next blockbuster here & now.  Do we have a deal?  I'll take your silence as a tacit agreement as legally binding as a copyright.* 

Anyway, given the industry's infatuation with old TV shows, retro toys & other nostalgia, may I suggest exploiting a mostly untapped resource, namely, classic commercials.  It's product placement & innovative cinema in one fell swoop!

Idea 1Why Do You Build Me Up, Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, Baby?  Dubbed in trailers as "love at first bite,'" the story of chocolate & peanut butter comes to the big screen at last in a sweet romantic tale that makes Romeo look like a homo & Juliet like a slut in comparison.  Peanut Butter, colloquially P.B., is adorably cute.  When Chocolate--Choc, for short--a rich kid trying to make it on his own, moves into her apartment building, his furniture gets delivered to her place by mistake--he's in 6, she's in 9, only a loose nail away, you see.  Such yougotyourchocolateinmypeanutbutternoyougotyourpeanutbutterinmychocolate stuff keeps happening, so much so that they meet up every evening to swap what would be an alarming in real life number of misdelivered things.  (Somebody could lose a job is all I'm saying.)  Lots of batted lashes, lots of nervous prattle, lots of exchanged exchanges later, they become an item--one which, need I remind you, can be purchased in the lobby.  But just when you think what could be better, one night, while the two great tastes that taste great together are out on a late date, supersexy Ally Monde (Megan Fox is perfect), needing to crash but not wanting to shell out cash for a room, sneaks into Choc's place, thinking it's her cousin P.B.'s apartment.  The comedy of errors continues as Choc's older brother Dark suddenly turns up for no apparent reason at P.B.'s door.  What happens next . . . no, I'm through giving away my ideas for nada, but if you'd like a hint, who can resist chocolate?  (Also, before I forget, I recommend signing Reese Witherspoon onto the project in some capacity to provide a name tie-in to the product.)

Idea 2:  Wendy's Where's-the-Beef? lady & Alka-Seltzer's I-Can't-Believe-I-Ate-the-Whole-Thing guy come together in a remake of Oedipus Rex.  Actual commercial footage, digitally remastered & colorized, will be seamlessly incorporated into the flick.  Think Sophocles meets Forrest Gump.  Cameos by Susie Chapstick, the Wrigley Spearmint twins, the Ty-D-bol man, Mr. Whipple, Arthur Treacher, Mother Nature (as envisioned by Imperial Margarine), the Right Guard Hey Guy guy, the Noxema girl, the Coppertone girl (her little dog too), the Gerber baby, & a special appearance by Orville Redenbacher, as well as numerous immediately recognizable advertising icons from the past, pepper this tour de force that redefines tragedy.

Idea 3:  I haven't thought this one all the way through, but do you remember Mr. Microphone?  Well, he's baaacccckkk! I'm thinking a slasher flick.  It starts with my wrists--I've drawn dotted lines as a guide.

If none of these ideas suit your tastes, perhaps you'd be interested in a trilogy based upon Dante's The Divine Comedy.  Or what about Homer

Ok, the ball's in your court, Hollywood.  Feel free to contact me via this blog.  One more thing, if you check the comments section of the Rock'em Sock'em Robots entry, you'll see I suggested Twister:  Quest for the Big Yellow Dot.  If you want to go with this, you need only pay me a nominal fee, for I wish to move away from this particular movie as quickly as possible.

* Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.  17 U.S.C.102(a)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

2nd Verse, Different Than the 1st

As I come to the conclusion of the second cycle of my reading poets in an ABC manner, some readers may be curious as to whether I plan to begin a third cycle.  Frankly, it's none of your business & I would thank you not to pry into my personal affairs.  The relationship between blogger & reader is not without boundaries, you know.

Nice guy that I am, however, let me just say that I consider this reading experiment a mostly positive experience.  By narrowing the choices of what poet to read to a single letter of the alphabet, I spend less time deliberating, especially when I come to the inherently less poetic initials.  (If your last name begins with an I, for instance, research shows you probably should choose a line of work outside of poetry.)  This time-savings contributed to making this a 100 book year

Winnowing my selection process in this manner has also led me to read poets I woudn't necessarily have chosen at that particular point in my life--or, in some cases, ever.  For example, I probably wouldn't have read John Updike's Verse if I had more variety of U-poets on my shelf.  This experience alone has caused me to question my alphabetic course.

Whatever I decide, I doubt that I'll always post comments on everything I read, so just because I don't blog my opinion of Apollinaire's Alcools doesn't mean I'm not reading it (I'm not--I'm reading The Poet Assassinated) but rather, need I remind you, what I read is not your business.  Who are you--the NSA?  Recognize & respect the boundaries--please!

Truth is, instead of this rambling spiel, I'd planned to write a detailed essay comparing & contrasting William Stafford's Even in Quiet Places & The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, but it entailed far too much effort to say they aren't very much alike.  Besides, the Stafford title isn't one I'd recommend.  You'll like Stories That Could Be True, Stafford's collected early works, better.  Also, in lieu of the one I didn't write here, read Stafford's essays about poetics, Writing the Autralian Crawl, a book I enjoyed as a young poet, though even if you're a skin-sagging human fossil, you'll probably still like it. 

Whereas Stafford's poetry, unadorned with traditional poetic artifices, is deceptively simple, bombastic Thomas loves, as sullen leaves undie with sawn & splay sounds, his dogdayed adjectives all the numberless days of his cold, kind death, which makes his poems deceptively difficult.  (That, in case you're curious, is my non-existent essay in a nutshell, in which I could, as Hamlet says, "be bounded & count myself king of infinite space if not for these bad dreams," e.g., being stuck inside a nutshell.)  Thomas wrote a number of memorable poems--I have his reading "Fern Hill" on my iPod--as well as a good many forgettable ones, examples of which I've forgotten.

John Unland, legend has it, gave up a successful practice as a proctologist to become a poet.  Why is that funny?  Bottom line, too many of these poems--collected, edited & published posthumously--while showing flashes, seem unfinished.  That's my analysis, though in hindsight, perhaps I should say "half-assed,"  assuming it's okay to crack asinine proctology jokes.  But--& this is a big but--there are moments that The Sea Beneath the House makes me think:  How terribly sad to be an unknown poet, which, in the end, I'm already painfully aware of.

Mona Van Duyn--for the sake of my project, I hope Van Duyn is her last name--won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for Near Changes.  Other than the title poem & maybe a couple others, I found myself mostly uninterested--except for her technique, in which she exhibits her skills as a craftsman.  Er, craftswoman?  Crafts-individual?  In particular, I tire quickly, if not angrily, of name-dropping poems written to, for, about other acclaimed poets of one's acquaintance, especially when the point is--I don't know--to tell everyone that Anthony Hecht lays a mean spread--as if those not invited care.

That's not to say there's nothing good to say about acclaimed poets.   Asphodel, That Greeny Flower & Other Love Poems may be my favorite book by William Carlos Williams.  If you're not familiar with this bibelot, then get it, read it, love it.  You can thank me later.  Williams shows the full range of his considerable poetic skills, as well as exercising a well-tuned, yet subtle funny bone.  I also recently enjoyed William Butler Yeats' Easter 1916 & Other Poems.  Thing is, I have several books by Yeats, half of which intimidate with their scholarly covers, but this Dover Edition is topnotch.  One buck for really great poetry!

Paul Zimmer's Big Blue Train is simply his best book.  If my calculations are correct, he refers to himself as the third person "Zimmer" only once thoughout 70 pages, which results not only in my unsolicited thanks, but some good poems like the angry, not quite elegaic "A Rant Against Losses," a title which doesn't disappoint with its awesome "piss on you, death, and fuck you" ending.  Put that on a sympathy card, Hallmark!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Prolegomenon for Any Furious Readers

It's come to my attention that I may have misled readers in my previous post about my current situation.  While elements of the entry are at least based upon fact, I took poetic license to embellish certain aspects in order to serve my artistic purposes.  I'm sorry if I caused undue concern, but I don't apologize. 

One would do well to remember that statements made in this blog are not necessarily part of what pragmatists entreat us to accept--given their contempt for insolvable metaphysical questions--as reality. 

I'm a poet--& not the virtuous kind who praises gods & heroes, but the other sort, that scurrilous ilk whom Plato in The Republic regards with such suspicion & hostility that he banishes them from his ideal society.  To put it simply, poets are liars & as such, detrimental to the state. 

Not surprisingly, in his lengthy discussion of absolutes & forms, Plato neglects to mention that this harsh censorship is a form of totalitarianism.  Viewed in that light, isn't his much ballyhooed discourse just an ancient percursor to Mein Kampf?  Isn't Plato himself little better than Hitler in a tunic, a wreath of laurel leaves adorning his big tyrannical head? 

Absolutely yes--or no--whichever supports my point, which is one needs to read this blog not merely as a source of entertainment, but in the proper perspective, as something incredibly rare & noble, a bastion of resistance against iron-fisted philosopher-kings.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Books of Joblessness

One of the perks of being unemployed--besides the obvious plus of no pain-in-the-ass bosses--is the surplus of free time I have. By "free," I mean disencumbered, as in spare time, though a case could logically be made that "free" simultaneously refers to my not making money.

In my unemployment, I've questioned a bunch of stuff that people hold as true, but upon reflection, isn't.  Turns out, for instance, time isn't money.  Also, despite the often bandied about expression "it's a free country," truth is, it's not even moderately priced.

That said, perhaps I could use this time more productively had I money for the luxuries like food & a roof over my head, but ever the optimist, I appreciate the "freedom" I have to go to the public library, log in to update my blog--you're welcome--& of course, read great authors such as John Steinbeck.  Did you know he believed the American Dream is mostly unattainable?

For those who wonder, yes, I have a card.  I hope you don't think less of me if I let you in on my minor deception:  I gave the library a fake address in order to secure it--96 Riverside Lane (a half-lie, actually, because I live in a '96 Kia by the river).

Here's hoping you'll forgive my peccadillo when I tell you that over the past year I've read over 100 books, some at night, the riverbank lit by fireflies.  Some may wish to denigrate my accomplishment by reminding me that half of those books were poetry. To which I smugly reply, despite my creeping case of scabies: "More than half."  Those of you who follow my blog doggedly know that to be the case, given the reviews & remarks I've posted.  However, I've also read my fair share of non-poetry over the past year, including the following:

2.  The House of Seven Gables.  Can seven Gables live together under the same roof without driving each other crazy?  Also, what about young Ned's incorrigible sweet tooth?  Weaved within the story is a fairly accurate depiction, one assumes, of the lifestyle of early 19th century poultry.

9.  Letters to a Young Poet.  Each letter doles out excellent advice that, sadly, given my age, no longer has any application for me.

12. Pnin.  The story about an eccentric middle-aged professor (whom students like but administrators don’t) hits a little too close to home. At least he has a job, I thought, but then--spoiler alert--he lost it. We never find out what happens to him–just as I don’t know what happens next for me.

19.  The Dharma Bums.  Everything is empty.  Life is a dream, so you may as well live in a shack way back in the woods, drunk, penniless, homeless, yab-yumming & writing awful poetry.  (Sorry, Japhy Ryder--or should I say Gary Snyder?)  In this subjective reality, everything is beautiful, every morning the best morning ever, every meal the best goddam meal ever, every biscuit made with Buddha’s flour.  Richard Scarry is the best Buddhist ever!

25.  Cubism.  Unfolding like an umbrella dipped into an overflowing Picasso of light, the bowl turns into a moon, an idle moon.  A smudge marks the place where something was, a negation insisting on the existence of Braque, Leger & Gris.

32. Sputnik Sweetheart"What's profoundly sad," the poet writes "is often beautiful."  I'm that poet & I could have been writing about this novel.  I wasn't, but I'm just saying.

39. Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?  I like The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Harry Waugh, Prop. better, but I like this book's discussion of sculpture, obviously a synecdoche for art in general–or should I say "at large," given the size of his gigantic metal Gorky. Is that a metaphor or are you just happy to see me?

43.  Introduction to Postmodernism.  The book begins with interesting dinner table talk of Baudrillard & Saussure & semiotics, but devolves into parody or pastiche with the sudden injection of Madonna, Beavis & Butthead & MTV.  My main complaint is that this book contains no dominant narrative, but only lots of micro-narratives, none of which legitimizes or explains the others.

47.  Moby Dick.  I'd heard this was a Scaife publication about how in the early '70s the liberal media--this close to making us lose the Vietnam War--concocted a scandalous story about Nixon's presidential re-election campaign in order to ruin him politically & personally, but it's actually an explicit narrative exploring the  relationship between seamen & sperm whales.  Rather than Googling "sperm lovers," which I'm guessing it won't be what you expect, read this book. 

52.  Tess of d'Urberville.  After reading this novel, which hammers home that double-standards are vastly unjust, I penned my parody, Bess of Tuberville, in which our heroine falls big time for Frisch, the Boise chapter president of The Society for the Prevention of an Unwholesome Diet, but will his digging into her past unearth her dark secret?  Do potatoes have eyes? 

68.  Ethan Frome.  Moral:  If you want to kiss your sickly wife's fetching cousin, well sir, I reckon you ought to get about doing it while there's time enough.  After, I reckon, you can tend to the horse.

71. Dali. Sleep, a heavy monster "held up by the crutches of reality," turns the knob & collapses like a dancer, tall & slim, against the summer sky, dissolving into an empty landscape.  Based on The Matchmaker, the musical features the number one hit song by the late great Louis Armstrong.

82.  The Aeneid.  Ok, I'm know this is poetry, but I just wanted to comment quickly that I'm sorry Vergil met an untimely demise, but if it kept him from revising the totally awesome ending, then so be it.

90.  Autopsy on Surrealism.  The body was that of a normal art movement with no lasting effect.  The eyes belonged to Marquis de Sade.  Irises sang like blue milk.  Removal of clothing promoted a near dream state.  Breasts were the palpable stuff of noir, abdomen a socialist map unfolded, genitalia that of an exquisite corpse remarkably intact.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Top 10 Poetry Posts Ever & More


Surfing the Web recently, I stumbled across a rather presumptuous list called 100 Best Poetry Blogs.  What can I say?  I got big feet & fat fingers, so I can be clumsy.  Luckily, I caught myself before I fell headlong into my ceramic menagerie, a virtual bookcase of classy stuff.  (As the sample picture shows, it's erotica, not porn.)  Anyway, the, um, "horn" of my satyr saved, I gave the list the old once-over. 

Well, well, well.  Hmm.  Interesting choices, interesting for substance in some cases & for sheer befuddlement in others.  For example, how does Poetry Hut top the list?  More like Poetry Huh?! 

Ok, it's easy to criticize others--& as Homer reminds us--fun too.  Yes, Homer Simpson.  However, rather than waste time launching verbal kill shots at some crappy blogs, my energy would be better spent directing ridicule at the listmakers & list itself.  After all, the omission of my blog renders the list irrevocably absurd.  

Yes, that would be rewarding, I'm sure, but more productive still would be my pointing you, dear reader, to posts on my blog that perhaps you in your busy days--which I understand completely, for every atom belonging to me yadda yadda yadda et cetera et cetera--may have all too regrettably overlooked.

Therefore, I've provided below a few links to some of my personal favorite blog entries.  I've not arranged them in any particular order, so feel free to click willy-nilly about.  Whatever floats your boat.  Once you've finished with your willy-nilly, however, I hope you'll find time to read my blog.

Civil Defense of Poetry
Frost Warning
Verse & Adversity
Richard Lovelace, Vaudevillian
Song of the Open Form Road
I Call Copyright
Rock'em Sock'em Robots:  The Movie
Composition of Parody
Poetic Reaction
Poetic Truth

If you enjoy these--how could you not?--then maybe you'll like some blogs from earlier this year:

W: What Oliver Stone Didn't Tell You
How to Make The Divine Comedy Relevant to Today's Audiences
Going Ballistic
Emily Dickinson Post
Homer's Space Odyssey.  Also, The Iliad

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Q: What Do Nabokov, O'Hara, Poole & Rimbaud Have in Common?

A: I recently read each poet!

In Poems & Problems, Vladimir Nabokov's playfulness often results in great lines, if not great poems. Take, for instance, the following from “Snow”:

Whenever I’m falling asleep
I cannot help think:
Maybe you will find a moment to visit me,
My warmly muffled up, clumsy childhood.

Generally speaking, I prefer his translated Russian poems to his English verse; that said, “An Evening of Russian Poetry,” in which he fields questions from presumably American students, is two thumbs way up.  Higher, higher!

*         *          *
Many of the selections from Voice of the Poet are accompanied, as one may have guessed, with recordings of Frank O’Hara reading his poetry. In my early twenties when I discovered O’Hara (yes, in the same way Columbus discovered America) it changed my poetics dramatically. I began to see how material from my own life held enough significance to be part & parcel of my poems.  Furthermore, I learned that I didn’t need to stifle my sense of humor, which for better or worse, is a big part of my personality. Of course, O’Hara should have revised more, but as he says, in his own defense perhaps, in “Naphtha”:

you can’t make a hat out of steel
and still wear it
who wears hats anyway

*           *           *
Scott Poole (The Cheap Seats) is a bit of a minimalist, not in the creepy Robert Creeley sort of way, but he writes short poems with short words & short sentences to describe, in short, life in suburbia. His poetic sensibilities grant him the ability to write such lines as:

But as I crossed the river
the tombstones were not tombstones
but chimneys,
and houses all alike had grown beneath them.
It was not the death I had expected. (“The Crossing”)

I wish this collection had more like examples, but to make a long story short, The Cheap Seats keeps my interest, though only minimally.  Ha!

*           *           *
A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat, by Arthur Rimbaud (trans. Louise Varese) signals a significant departure from First Blood & its many sequels. A Season in Hell poses the question of how many MIAs can a poet save, even if said poet is a berserk one-man-army with highly volatile verse strapped to his chest?  Stallone's never been this good. My favorite lines occur early in “The Drunken Boat,” in which the boat, like me, is only slightly tipsy:

Light as a cork I danced upon the waves,
Eternal rollers of the deep sunk dead . . . .

Saturday, October 2, 2010

James Joyce Kilmer Was Here

I wish that I’d never seen
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan

There at the stairhead, bearing
A bowl of lather, lifting

His big leafy arms to shave!
Slovenly as a tree that may

In summer wear a yellow,
Holey, flowing dressing gown,

The not-so-sweet earth’s bosom
Ungirdled, nest of robins

In tangled curls, dark & bared
For all in mid-morning air,

He, like a fool, greeted me:
Introibo ad altare Dei.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Notes from My Reading List

Terrance Hayes's Muscular Music has too many poems about being a poet without ever mentioning me, the one true poet, but read it if you like. Familiarity with late 20th century pop culture recommended.

Selected Poems shows off Donald Justice's well-deserved reputation as a talented craftsman; on the other hand, while I wouldn't call him boring, I might have thought it.

In Criminal Sonnets, Phyllis Koestenbaum uses crimes ripped not from the headlines so much as the police blotter as starting points, but she quickly diverts to details of her, I assume, personal life, so the sonnet sequence reads like a diary. Enjoyable enough, though the disregard for conventional sonnet development, as well as the admittedly (& thankfully) loose rhyme & meter, renders the form arbitrary.

I like Vanitas Motel.   Here are some nice lines from John Loomis:

Do the shoes fret
by the door? Does the rosebush worry?

Or the daylight, rising pale behind the hills?
(“The Way”)

Finally--yes, finally--I have, after years of not, finished Archy & Mehitabel. It’s not great-- Mehitabel the Cat’s rhymes border on tripe & Archy gets a tad repetitive--but at times, Don Marquis writes something that is, if not exactly poetry, of poetic interest.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Homer's Space Odyssey. Also, The Iliad

So many authors have tried to rewrite Homer to relate his epics to their own time, but most have failed. Probably the most well-known example is James Joyce's famous botch-job, Ulysses. However, not many people know that Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, in which Jimmy Stewart plays a retired detective who trails Kim Novak for what seems years across San Francisco, is a subtle take on The Odyssey. Sadly, not even the great Hitchcock's penchant for cheesy music & extra cheesy special effects nor Novak's exceptional derriere could make this adaptation work.

Perhaps the easiest fix for The Odyssey is to Star Wars it. Instead of a boring story about boring wooden boats & boring crap that nobody cares about, it becomes an imaginative tale about magnificient spaceships, miraculous technology & exotic planets inhabited by strange aliens. So instead of the siren song luring sailors to their deaths, Odysseus must guide his spaceship through a virtual minefield of beautiful fembots who, if he gets too close, BOOM! No more UFO!

To help this epic get off the ground--literally--let's begin with young Captain Odysseus leaving his wife & baby behind to lead the invasion of Troy, a distant planet known for safe sex, horses & universities. Following a montage of space battle imagery, replete with spectacular explosions, the story begins anew some twenty years later. Telemachus, the son Odysseus left behind, has become the man of the house too soon, for his father never returned from war. Although never confirmed, most people believe Odysseus died in battle, but Telly–as he’s called–believes his father still lives.

Indeed Odysseus's shape-shifting alien patron, Princess Athena, disguised as an intergalactic intelligence agent, urges Telly to look for his father. She arranges a starship & crew for Telly, who shortly discovers, much to his chagrin, that Calypso, fabled dominatrix, has held Odysseus captive for seven years, her sex slave. Upon this discovery, the scene shifts to the lush beauty of Ogygia, past throngs of nimble nymphs & towering fragrant flowers of every color to the blue ivy twining around Calypso's palace, where coming into focus is but a glimpse of Odysseus, clever spinner of yarns, cunningly plying his gifted tongue.

You get the idea. If not, I've provided the following tips to help guide you: Imagine Zeus as a powerful computer that rules the universe; Hermes, an intergalactic Twitter; Poseidon, a sort of bad-ass Southern space sheriff (think Max Baer, Jr. in Mason County Line) out for Odysseus's blood for poking out his son Cyclop's one good eye; Charybdis, a huge black hole; Scylla, well, still a six-headed monster, but now with the added awesomeness of being in space. If you need help deciding how to remake Odysseus confronting over a hundred of wife Penelope's suitors, I suggest watching Caligula for inspiration.

As for the Iliad, maybe script it as a World War 2 D-Day story. Or a Western. Wait--samurai!

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Few Words, A Few Poets

In Then, Suddenly, Lynn Emanuel is "the writer/trying to unwrite the world” (from "Homage to Sharon Stone"). In a sense, she does just that in the title poem:

I erase a dog named Arf;
I erase four cowboys in bolas and yet in
the diminishing bustle of these streets I
nevertheless keep meeting People-I-Know.
I erase them.

Later, she “wind(s) rivers back on their spools, . . . unplug(s)/the bee from the socket of the honeysuckle” until the page is “as bare and smooth as a bowling alley.” However, it is lush imagery that makes Emanuel a pleasure to read, such as "the janitor pushes the big mustache of his broom across the floor" (from “Halfway Through the Book I’m Writing”) & "the voice of the dead man limping/down the long dark corridor of my throat" (from “Persona”).

When this book was first published in 1999, I really liked it. I still do.


There are times in Carolyn Forche's The Country Between in which the writing is lucid as in:

Tell them how his friends found
the soldiers and made them dig him up
and ask forgiveness of the corpse, once
it was assembled again on the ground
like a man. As for the cars, of course
they watch you and for this don’t flatter
yourself. We are all watched. We are
all assembled.
(“Return”)

However, there is also this rambling sentence from “Ourselves or Nothing”:

I have come from our cacophonous
ordinary lives where I stood at the sink
last summer scrubbing mud from potatoes
and listening to the supper fish
in the skillet, my eyes on the narrowed
streets of rain through the window
as I thought of the long war
that misted country turned to the moon’s surface,
grey and ring-wormed with ridges of light.

All in all, though, a good read.

Of Jorie Graham's Swarm, I like the white space, of which there is a lot.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Emily Dickinson Post

As an Emily Dickinson impersonator (see photo, left), I’m often asked questions about the Woman in White, the Nun of Amherst, the Eccentric Recluse, the New England Mystic, or simply Daisy as she was known, not for her well-honed gardening skills, as is commonly held, but rather for her fanatical devotion to multi-pump pneumatic firearms, such as the popular Red Ryder model, featured in Dickinson’s beloved classic, A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge learns the true meaning of Christmas after being pelted by a BB gun. Based on her childhood in Indiana, I guess.

A major misconception about Dickinson persists that she published only a handful of poems. Where such an egregious lie started, if not Fox News, is difficult to say. In truth, she’s published well over a thousand poems–hell, nearly two thousand! Seriously, you can find collections of her poetry almost anywhere, even at crappy bookstores like Books-A-Missing. Here’s a link in case you’re an idiot.

Though she never married, it wasn’t for lack of opportunity, but personal choice. In “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” Dickinson perhaps alludes to an ill-fated affair with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, his name, one may infer, a laughable misnomer.

Rumors of Reckless (for she was only ironically a recluse) Emily’s involvement with Nathaniel Hawthorne swirled like “butterflies, off banks of noon” at the House of Seven Gables, Nantucket’s oldest guest house, conveniently located within walking distance of beaches, tennis courts, restaurants & unique speciality shops. To this day, no one has thought to provide any serious discussion of the notion that Dickinson wasn’t the inspiration for Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.

Some have speculated on Dickinson’s sexuality–as if it matters–construing her correspondences to her close friend, Sue Gilbert, as love letters & reading between the lines of a handful of poems. Personally, I have my doubts. If true, wouldn’t someone have posted a video of them on YouTube or whatever by now? However, in hopes of finding direct evidence, I’m currently conducting a far-reaching internet search, beginning with the broadest of terms for such a hot-button topic, “hot lesbians.”

After her death in 1863, Dickinson penned several of her most well-known works, including a couple of my personal favorites, “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” & “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” In early versions of the former, she nails the fly with an air rifle–a remarkable shot–while in the latter, she pops Death with a pellet gun, dead in his tracks, if you’ll pardon the expression. She died again in 1886, but deteriorating health prevented her from writing much thereafter.

Well, that’s about it. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask, but for now, if you’ll excuse me, I must return to my research.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

How to Make The Divine Comedy Relevant to Today’s Audiences

Hellscape: In this remake of Dante’s Inferno, the remains of post-apocalyptic Earth live underground to survive the radiation-poisoned surface world. So many centuries have passed since humanity has moved to the Underworld that no one remembers what life above was like. No written history exists, having been lost in the nuclear holocaust, but images of a world with green flowered fields, rolling mountains, bright blue skies, swirling sun & ocean stretching to the horizon persist in stories passed down through the generations. Most believe these are myths, but a teenager named Dante, tormented with dreams of Beatrice, a beautiful mythic goddess, believes he–as Beatrice has instructed–should leave the Underworld for the surface. Everyone thinks he’s crazy to try such a thing–everyone except a “mecha” called V.I.R.G.I.L. (a Virtual Integrated Robotic Gizmo Intelligence Learning unit) who, having been to the surface on military reconnaissance missions, says he will serve as guide. In a nod to the poetry of the Inferno, as well as Willy Wonka’s beloved Oompa Loompas, V.I.R.G.I.L. will often impart great wisdom in rhymes. Battling through legions of doomed humanity with explosions of sheer pyrotechnic artistry, Dante & his mechanical guide–with the invaluable advice the ghostly vision of Beatrice provides–eventually reach the surface, where it’s just like the teenager’s dreams, all beautiful & stuff, with flowers all over the place & puffy white clouds tumbling by, one of which, taking Beatrice’s benign likeness, smiles knowingly. As the credits roll, a kick-ass rock ballad plays.

Limbo: In this adventure, two insurance executives–Virgil, vice president of Fidelity Life & his young protégé, Dante–set out on a mountain climbing expedition of Mt. Purgatory, a pre-wedding gift to the latter, who next week plans to marry his longtime sweetheart & total hottie, Beatrice. Unlike most action movies, Limbo (which may not mean the same thing but is a catchier, hipper title than Purgatory) will be shot in a formalist style, rendering surrealistic images that readily lend themselves to allegory. For instance, shortly after the avalanche, symbolically wrath, Virgil & Dante fortuitously meet Sordello, a sort of Sherpa of the Pacific Northwest, his own party lost in the falling rocks of pride, who, after helping the two friends through the treacherous crevasses of sloth & the ice slopes of envy, joins them. At the movie’s climax, as they dangle by a single rope from the snowy peak of lust, Dante must either cut the rope to survive or die with his companions. Seeing that his young friend won’t save himself, Virgil implores the teary-eyed Dante, his tormented mind a virtual slide show of sexilicious Beatrice seemingly projected on the snowy mountainside, to “kiss her for me,” then cuts the rope. Sadly, Dante watches Virgil & the incredibly unlucky Sordello plummet to their deaths. As part of the story’s denouement, Dante–having saved the company a fortune by declaring Virgil’s death a suicide–receives a huge bonus from Fidelity Life, which he spends on a honeymoon in Hawaii, where the movie ends, with scrumptious, bikini-clad Beatrice removing her top in the cherub-adorned hot tub as Dante, clipstick extended, tackles her as easily as a climbing wall. (Note: If you’re wondering how Dante was rescued, please remain seated for the duration of the credits. Your patience will be rewarded when the movie resumes with Dante, his partially snow-covered body still on the mountainside, barely breathing, muttering sweet nothings to no one. So the previous ending was merely an hallucination? Apparently, yes!)

Paris Disco: Ever wonder why Dante called his masterpiece The Divine Comedy when there’s not a laugh in the whole damn thing? That all changes in this final remake. In late-70s Paris, Dante & Beatrice want nothing more than to be with each other–well, that & to dance at the hottest discotheque around, Paradiso! However, a mix of hilarious hijinks & kooky characters, including a comically time-warping appearance on the dance floor by Dante’s crazy grandfather who thinks he’s Fred Astaire, conspire to keep them apart. On this particular summer night, Dante plans to ask Beatrice to marry him during the laser light dance. He’s bought a ring from his shady friend Don, unfortunately stuck across town “in traffic,” he says, though he’s secretly wooing Dante’s sister Pia. To complicate matters, Dante has competition. Justin, a transplanted American, is muscling in on Beatrice, threatening Dante privately while acting conspicuously generous & charming in Beatrice’s presence. As if that weren’t enough, the voluptuous duo of Venus & Cleo never tire of tempting Dante with their tight tube tops, red hot pants & seductive moves which Beatrice always seems to stumble upon at the most incriminating moments. Of course, everything works out. Don makes it to the club in time, Pia sheepishly on his arm. Dante gives Cleo & Venus the slip, finds Beatrice hurling–along with a lengthy string of insults–a banana daiquiri in Justin’s face, sweeps her onto the dance floor & just as Donna Summer sings “MacArthur Park,” busts the biggest move of his life. Rated PG-13 for language, adult content & stupidity.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Going Ballistic

I like Billy Collins, despite the horrible rumors I've heard about him. I enjoy his poetry, especially Nine Horses, which he graciously signed for me when I met him several years ago at a writers conference.

Given his remarkable popularity, I find myself in the minority about his latest effort–& I use that word ironically–Ballistics, which The New York Times calls a “supple collection” & Vanity Fair describes as “Killingly clever,” both facetiously, I’ll assume.

While he's often praised as casual & conversational, Collins is also wordy. Take “January in Paris”–please! The first four stanzas serve merely to set the scene. This seems particularly excessive in that most readers are familiar, if only vicariously, with Paris. For me, the poem begins somewhere around line twenty with Valery’s abandoned poems “Wandering the streets of the city half-clothed” in need of “a final line/or two, a little verbal flourish at the end.”

This “little verbal flourish at the end” brings me to another problem: Such “flourishes” are to Collins as schmaltz is to Spielberg. Rather than relying on a signature sense of closure, perhaps Collins should consider cutting his poems two or three lines short, if for no other reason than to reject his current, albeit successful, formula. As for Spielberg, if he were to remove the schmaltz, he would essentially stop making movies altogether, a splendid idea in itself.

Another problem in Ballistics is that nearly every line of every poem ends with a noun/pronoun. "Aubade"--to choose at random as example--opens:

If I lived across the street from myself
and I was sitting in the dark
on the edge of my bed
at five o’clock in the morning,

I might be wondering what the light . . .

Each line, if not technically an end stop, is virtually so, lacking any thought-provoking enjambment. It’s as if Collins means to dumb down poetry in hopes of reaching a mainstream audience.

Perhaps to this end, Collins often inserts himself into the poem--zing!--not merely as the first person speaker, but as the poet in the act of composing. This nod to post-modernism may work at times, but generally speaking, I’d like to see more distance between Collins & his subject.

While it may seem creative to muse on what one may erroneously think a term, such as "Baby Listening" or "Bathtub Families," means, Collins decides that he also needs to explain what the term actually means. Gentle reader, I’m not violent by nature, but I can be provoked. To assuage my anger, I suggest Collins--giving the reader credit for at least enough intelligence to know how to Google--omit the explanations, combine the two poems into one & never show anyone.

That goes for “The Golden Years” as well as “Despair.” My research indicates that Collins invented the fictitious Chinese poets Wa-Hoo & Ye-Hah in the latter for “cutting-edge comic effect,” according to their imaginary contemporary, Fuk Yu, an interpretation shared by phony Russian literary critic, Yuri Dumaski.

Add to the better-never-seen list “Hippos on Holiday,” in which Collins concludes that “Only a mean-spirited reviewer/Would ask on holiday from what?” Actually, that’s the nice reviewer. However, so as to not to cast myself in the role of curmudgeon, I'll barely mention "The Day Lassie Died," a half-assed parody of Frank O'Hara.

If I’m overcritical, it’s because I expect more from the former U.S. Poet Laureate. Besides, he shows no compunction when pointing the gun at an anonymous poet in the title poem or when he speaks of “the intolerable poetry of my compatriots” in “Le Chien.” On that point, I may have an inkling, as in “The Effort,” as to what he’s trying to say.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In Memory

George S-- was the son of a bishop (identity undisclosed by the church) who abandoned him in a thicket of pawns to avoid checkmate. Officially, his birth certificate names John Milton as the father. Experts generally discount this, given that Milton, who died in 1674, over 250 years before George's birth, allegedly went blind due to a chronic condition colloquially known as whacking off.

Raised on a trout farm somewhere near Lake Erie possibly, George began writing poetry at an early age, publishing a handful of poems under the name of Pope John Paul II. These early poems appeared on billboards, benches, the backs of buses & just about everywhere he pretended. However, his main ambition remained being an excessive pain-in-the-ass.

From 1954 to 1961, many people died, some mysteriously. Posing as a doorman at an out-of-the way hotel, George met T.S. Eliot, a secret cross-dresser, there for a massage only, according to police records & the two men argued over poetics & a fair price.

George’s first collection of poems appeared on a business trip, so he was reimbursed for the cost. In a private letter to his wife, the former Elsie Borden–if you can believe Wikipedia–Wallace Stevens called it “brilliantly clear & intensely blue . . . beyond what you have ever seen,” referring not to George, whom he considered an utter lout, but to Key West, which he, having recently passed, dubbed paradise.

George worked a variety of jobs, none particularly long or well. He was in New York making helicopter sounds when he formed a group consisting of fellow poets Ted Berrigan & Charles Bukowski to purchase stuff. That group, having jettisoned George after his lobotomy, later enjoyed success as The Captain & Tennille.

He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for New & Collected Poems when former U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur, leaving the room for a quickie, mistakenly trusted George. Afterward, he ran. His rumored love trysts with Richard Nixon were probably untrue.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Ball of Poetry

Angela Ball's Night Clerk at the Hotel of Both Worlds, winner of the 2006 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, while driven by strangeness, is easily navigable by anyone willing to travel with her down the road to absurdity (as I did once as her student at the University of Southern Mississippi & I think we hit a deer).

“So fragrant am I that bees/Follow me day and night,” she writes in “Someday I’ll Take Again My Lightning Drive Through Love,” in which troubled dreams about food & Home Shopping Club gadgeteer, Ron Popeil, transform into a trip into the country past “fruit stands and roadhouses” which, in turn, become “Accidental ballrooms” in the sleeper’s mind.

If Ron Popeil can’t sell the book, what can I possibly do? Perhaps I could mention Ball serves such literary bigwigs as Shelley, Lord Byron, Apollonaire & Borges in delicious slices the whole family will enjoy, as well as poems about fences, dogs, power steering, high rises, inadequacy, divorce & spring, each with her characteristic comic aplomb, perfect for holidays & special events.

Were I to offer a criticism, I'd say line breaks often seem flat--that's phlat for the hipster in you. If you have a hipster in you, it may be the sign of a more serious condition. Please see a doctor immediately. I'm not a doctor.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

ABC of Poetry II: This Time It's Personal

John Ashbery's Shadow Train consists of fifty 16-line poems, just like George Meredith’s Modern Love, sometimes described as a novelette in verse, but no one has suggested Ashbery has provided a storyline here. If so, it’s even less discernable than the thin thread of plot of his later book, Girls on the Run. Does it matter if a storyline exists, given that Shadow Train, as no one in particular stated on the cover, is about “language on a very plain level” & “the truth inside meaning”? Also, is that really an accurate description of the contents?

Obviously, you can't judge a book by its cover, as they say, whoever they are, the phony bastards, but the recurrence of the second person pronoun in each poem–whether addressing the plurality of readers or a singular, personal you–lends the work at least a hint of serial quality. Do these poems, then, detail a love affair, as in the Meredith poems? If so, why don’t I, a devotee of the New York School, know anything about it?

My main complaint is that I'm old & lonely, but as for Ashbery, too many of his poems are essentially the same. For instance, which is better–“Some Old Tires” or “Indelible, Inedible”? Either choice is based more on preference than objective criteria. Furthermore, remove “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” & what’s left but a rather pedestrian collection of poems? No, leave it in. As far as modes of locomotion go, it's the book's cilia & flagella.

A personal, rather petty complaint about J.A. involves my acceptance in the MFA program at Brooklyn College when I was in my early 20s & Ashbery was director of creative writing. I needed financial assistance to attend, so I wrote to ask him about a graduate assistantship, work-study or the like. I closed my brief letter by saying I greatly admired his work–indeed, he was the sole reason I’d applied at BC. In return, I received a crisp letter from his assistant–Anther Smugsworthy, if I recall, which clearly I don’t–not only instructing me to address all future inquiries to him, which, ok, I get, but also explicitly stating, in his most Smugworthian tone, that I was not to write directly to Mr. Ashbery again. Omigod, I thought. What a snot!

So there. After many, many years, I finally, finally got it off my chest, but the question remains: where do I keep it now?

A: My blog, where it will surely remain secret.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Final Chapter: Exhibiting Your Zither

Charles Xavier, X-treme Measures. Before I begin discussing Xavier’s poetry, I should point out the difficulty in finding an X poet. At first, I considered reading The Brand X Anthology of Poetry, an uneven collection of parodies, but neither the authors nor the editor, William Zaranka, have names that begin with X, so I would be selecting it based on its title, which doesn’t, in case you’ve forgotten, comply with the guidelines of my project. Besides, to be honest, that rather bulky anthology is best encountered in bits & pieces rather than as a whole. I also thought about substituting any poet who has X as an initial somewhere in his/her name–for instance, X.J. Kennedy or Frank X. Walker–but again, such alternatives seemed to bend to the point of breaking the rules, however arbitrary they may be (the rules, not Kennedy & Walker).

Rather than calling X an unsolvable variable in an algebraic equation, I decided to look to other genres on my shelves in hopes I could reclassify any of these works, which is to say, honor them as poetry. I thought about The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but as it turns out, X isn’t actually his last name. (True story–in reality, Malcolm is the mysterious Racer X, who, unbeknownst to all, is Speed Racer’s older brother Rex, believed to have died in a car crash.)

Finally, as I determined nothing fit the bill, an inner voice, not mine, reminded me that “any dream worth having is a dream worth fighting for.” Yes, that voice belonged to Charles Xavier. As a mutant poet, Xavier says his book, X-treme Measures, remains unpublished–out of necessity.

Why? According to Xavier in “Imagine That,” written on my mind’s blank pages:

Poetry has the power
to crack the firm-
ament & extinguish
suns. Imagine that
in the wrong hands.

His point–he must keep his poetry out of print for the sake of humanity–of which I am in complete agreement. However, that doesn’t mean he’s abandoned his poetic dream. In “Parting Gift,” he explains through metaphor & telepathy, opening my mind to the appropriate page: “It appears if I am ever/to achieve my dream I will/need you to walk me there.” Ultimately, he concludes, “The greatest power is the magnificent/power we all possess–the power/of the human brain!”

This telepathic transmission lends the book an eerie, dream-like quality, for only the mind's eye can read it. As you may have guessed, because of my agreement with Xavier, I can’t share the whole of his collection, but he has consented to allow me to reprint, along with the above snippets, the beginning lines from “Mutant Heaven”:

Death & birth are the same. When one
stops, new possibilities open up.

No pearly gates, but revolving doors.
No species rule. There’s room for all.

Truth is, I don’t recommend X-treme Measures; even its title comes across as juvenile. But–I hasten to add before inflicted with a mega-migraine–it’s strikingly memorable. Indeed, it often proves impossible to get Xavier’s verse out of your head, even if you don a fancy state-of-the-art helmet like Magneto. Obviously, you must first train against telepathic attacks before the telepathy-blocking technology will do you any good.

Dean Young, Elegy on Toy Piano. Full-disclosure: I’m a big fan of Dean Young, which is, in fact, how I introduced myself when I met him at the 2000 Vermont College writers’ workshop, which you may read about in one of my previous blog entries ("D'oh," May 19, 2007). In the ensuing conversation, I erroneously attributed a David Lehman poem to him, which apparently made an impression. For in “Lives of the Mortals,” he uses the idea I presented to him:

If only.
And that’s all the further that sentence goes,
a dependant clause with nothing to depend on,
a ladder with nothing to prop against but clouds
which are a form of emptiness
made opaque.


Clouds, then, serve as the antithesis of Marcel Duchamp’s La Boite-in-Valise in which the contents are visible, but the meaning, as Tim Martin says in Essential Surrealists, is opaque--but I digress, which is Young’s forte. In this book, Young, a virtuoso not unlike Schroeder (Peanuts) in skill & stature, plays the toy piano as if tinkling the ivories of a baby grand with his characteristic wit & intelligence, as in the title poem. But that isn’t to say that he never hits a sour note. “Learn by Doing,” for instance, reads like a failed automatic writing experiment:

The device in the last line recalls Pope but the aftertaste is purely Crabbe.
You don’t want to know.
No, really.
The one with hearsay through the head like the body politic.
You and whose army
?

Later, he continues to mail it in–or as he might say:

Let them eat fakery.
Touch my eel.
The electric guitar parts confiscated by elevators.
The naked parts intercepted by disclaimers WHAM.
Why bother lyrics.
You write like you don’t know the meaning of a single word.
Singed world.


My favorite books by Young are Strike Anywhere, Skid, & First Course in Turbulence, in which Young seems to actually–if I may split an infinitive–care with an almost Kenneth Koch-ian passion about poetry. That said, a few bad to innocuous poems don’t put me off Young. If his poetry is on the menu, I still recommend it, though you may want to ask Nick, your server tonight, who, after some thought, will no doubt suggest “Lemon Garlic Duck,” which I also like, but, to be different, I’m going with the chef salad, “Bathed in Dust and Ash.”

Paul Zimmer, The Great Bird of Love. This book received praise from likes of Raymond Carver, Susan Sontag, Hayden Carruth, Maxine Kumin & William Stafford (who selected it as part of the 1989 National Poetry Series). These “quirky” poems are, according to Stafford, “full of surprise, variety, humor.” All true–when Zimmer succeeds (“Zimmer Succeeds,” feel free to use it as a title sometime, P. Zim) as in the title poem, but at other times, his predilection for referring to himself as Zimmer sounds a little too much like Henry Pussycat-speak to my ear. Did Zimmer have Berryman’s Dream Songs in mind? Eh, whatever. I view this collection as a mixed bag, in which some poems work better than others & some, like my relatives in Bluefield, barely work at all. Personally, I like the short poems, “Winter” “How Birds Should Die” & “The Tenth Circle,” all of which appear 100 percent Zimmer-free. Ultimately I may not necessarily recommend The Great Bird of Love, but it honestly wouldn’t kill you to read it.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

W: What Oliver Stone Didn't Tell You

C.K. Williams, A Dream of Mind. Edward Hirsch calls Williams a "poet of disquietudes," an assessment I find myself in agreement with, but for different reasons. No book that I've read in many a year agitated me quite as much.

When I read "History," for instance, in which Williams, no doubt pursued in a dream by a giant thesaurus, finds himself "in danger, at peril, at immediate, furious, frightening risk," I caught Barkley unsuspectingly across the snout with the rolled book, wagging my finger & shouting over & over about the needless repetition, the redundancy, the senseless repeating of the same idea in different words. Even a stray dog should know better, I scolded. No, Barkley wasn't the one who in the very next line "evaded the risk, eluded the danger, . . . conned the peril," but he fled the room anyway, tail between his legs, whimpering.

Before I could apologize to my imaginary pooch, albeit still wronged, the situation worsened. As I read "Helen," a 10-page poem divided into 5 sections, not even the rain could stop me from heaving a perfectly good living room set onto the lawn. Crazy? In my defense, the sofa was a little worse for wear, though not nearly as bad as the 1st section of this poem, in which Williams takes 12 to 24 lines (it depends on how you count them) to say, if I may summarize, "She tried to speak but started to cough."

In fact, throughout this poem, we discover very little about the title character, other than she was married to the speaker; once timid, she became sensual; later, she got sick &--spoiler alert--died. The poem seems more about the speaker--an acceptable narrative strategy, I suppose, except we mostly learn that he's dull & self-absorbed. Which, if this is the same speaker who delivered "Soliloquies" earlier in the book, I'd pretty much gleaned that tidbit of information already.

Ironically, I could go on & on about his verbosity, but that alone isn't what turned me into some sort of cartoon caricature of raving lunatic Glenn Beck, who, by the way, is a cartoon caricature of himself. No, that's not it. What I'm complaining about has merit; Beck is full of shit.

If I were to narrow my criticism of this book, I'd focus on the lack of imagery. The book's title section consists of 30 pages of Williams analyzing, inspecting, reflecting on dreams, which he does almost to the complete exclusion of images. This strikes me as odd--it also makes me angry, but who hears my Munch-like scream in the blogosphere? One dreams not verbally, but visually. In fact, when most people recall their dreams, they remember bizarre images. I would expect a poet writing about dreams to delve into the surreal & symbolic, to make hunger a skinny buffalo perhaps, or to show inner drive as a dark blue Delta 88. Given a world in which all things are possible, the closest Williams comes to images, strange or otherwise, are such weak examples as "bridges of innocence" & "shells of fearful insensitivity."

When I think of Williams, I think of William Carlos Williams & his oft quoted axiom, "No ideas but in things." Instead, as if the weird love-child of Edward Lear & Edward Cayce, C.K.Williams gives us such lines as:

I dream a dream of method, comprehending little of the real forces or necessities of dream,
and find myself entangled in the dream, entrapped, already caught in what the dream contrived,
in what it made, of my ambitions, or of what it itself aspired to for its darker dreaming.
("The Method")

When I bought this book during the past millennium, I enjoyed it. To be sure, Williams has written some outstanding poems ("The Question" remains a particular favorite). So what has changed my opinion of the collection on the whole? Have I, as I've grown older--gracefully & ever so slightly--become infinitely wiser? I don't know, maybe, sure, I guess so.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Return from the Himalayas, Part 3

The world is filled with pain & sorrow, the Buddha teaches--yeah, I kind of already knew that, ok?

Friday, April 16, 2010

R-S-T-U-V, Find Out What It Means to Me

Barbara Ras, Bite Every Sorrow. No wonder this book won the 1997 Walt Whitman Award. Ras “unscrew(s) the doors themselves from their jambs,” welcoming all things into her poetry in lines that, if not sprawling, are sprawl-ish. I like Ras’s poems, so it may seem contradictory to admit that I had difficulty reading this book. So many words, so many ideas, all presented in lines that stretch & yawn across the page. Too often, I found myself shortening--I like to think--strengthening lines. (I filled a notebook with alternate line breaks--if interested, text me.) At her best, Ras displays a flair for metaphor, giving it multiple layers, braiding imagery together: "not the flash in the pan heat that turned shrimp pink, but steady/pie-cooking heat, the kind that would make meringue rise, confessions falter,/heat that made the horizon burn unattainably beyond the water where the sun/laid itself like gooey sequins, like Pizarro's dreams of gold." Needless to say, this example has nothing to do with the fun fact that you can sing the book title to the tune of Chaka Khan's hit single, "I'm Every Woman."

Charles Simic, That Little Something. My initial reaction to this volume was, “Doh! I meant to read Shelley!” Aside from that, Simic is an exceptional poet. I’ve read many of his nearly 30 books, my favorites being his earlier works, such as Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk, Charon’s Cosmology & School for Dark Thoughts. He’s won numerous prizes & has served as U.S. Poet Laureate, so far be it from me to criticize such a distinguished poet. Well, not so far actually. Most of the poems in the collection lean toward the forgettable, but there remains some quality material here, like “Doubles,” “Walking” & the title poem, each reminiscent of the kind of work that has landed Simic a Pulitzer Prize & MacArthur Fellowship. However, other pieces don’t meet expectations, great or otherwise. For instance, “Metaphysics Anonymous” & “The Ice Cubes Are on Fire” disappoint, neither living up to the tease of their tantalizing titles. Worse, “Ghost Ships” regrettably begins, “The soul is a ghost ship/Set adrift on the seas of eternity . . .” You’re trying too hard, I imagine myself telling a student who’d written those lines in creative writing class, to make the poem important. For my money, an implicitly soulless ship sailing on a specific ocean, maybe the Pacific, can express the same idea. Of course, I don’t actually have money. I’m a poet.

James Tate, Distance from Loved Ones. On the poetry Mt. Rushmore carved in the granite slab inside my ego-inflated noggin, James Tate occupies the spot afforded in the real world to Washington or Jefferson, but not Lincoln or Roosevelt. Tate’s my favorite living poet. (I’ve heard he’s not in the best of health these days, which saddens me. Get well!) I selected Distance from the Loved Ones (1990) because of all of Tate’s books, I remembered the least about this volume. It doesn't contain any miraculously great poems, but there's still enough of Tate’s characteristic wit, non-sequiturs, charm, & absurdity to feed a multitude of literati. If you'd like to sample a few of the poems, I'm providing a link to an abbreviated online copy of the book here. I highly recommend this & all of Tate's books.

John Updike, Verse. This 1965 Crest collection of Updike’s two early books of poetry, The Carpentered Hen (1958) & Telephone Poles (1963), isn’t the worst poetry I’ve ever read. That distinction belongs to Michael McClure’s September Blackberries. I bought Verse at a used book store for 50 Cent, but the Grammy Award winning rapper & actor threw it back in my face. To be fair, Updike earned his stellar reputation mostly as an author of short stories & novels, some of which–the blowjob scene from Rabbit Run, for instance–once gave me pleasure, maybe twice. However, if Stephen Crane & Gunther Grass, both better known for genres outside of poetry, write competent verse, why not Updike–especially considering nearly 3/4 of these poems appeared in The New Yorker? Updike, at least in his early work, saw himself as a writer of light verse. Indeed, at times, poems like “Umbrella,” “Stopper,” “Vacuum Cleaner,” & “Wheel,” read a little like Ogden Nash--or rather his less amusing cousin, Oddjob. I can’t stress the depths to which I hate, loathe, despise “Publius Vergilius Maro, The Madison Avenue Hick,” written in dialect, as if Updike were a wannabe Whitcomb Riley. If you're like me, reading “Reel,” you’ll probably contemplate different ways to kill yourself, such as flinging yourself headlong from the literary heights of Updike’s lifetime achievements. Of course, you could choose the slow, torturous death of continuing to read this volume. It’s not that Updike has written no good poems (“Sonic Boom”), but to paraphrase “Hairbrush”: “ . . . here,/my son,/you have a book of poetry,/but not much of one.”

The Last Neanderthal, Michael Van Walleghen. I thought it might be funny to call the author Philip Levine Lite, but it would be more ironic than funny. Both Van Walleghen & Levine come from the same geographic area, which they write about in a similar style down to their compact lines, but while Levine is not known for his sense of humor, Van Walleghen might not know what humor is. Don’t misunderstand me: he isn’t funny. He has obvious skills as a poet–I can’t complain about his craftsmanship–but this volume, consisting predominantly of nostalgic poems of his childhood & early adulthood, desperately needs comic relief. Let me give you a few examples of the associative process at play: 1) accordion music leads to the remembrance of an unknown man crushed in Calumet; 2) snow stimulates the relatively (it was his mother's recollection) happy thought of not starving because of the family cow; 3) the general impression of the Upper Peninsula in three words: diphtheria, typhoid, lice. That's just from one poem! Speaking of nostalgia, I'm reminded that as an undergraduate, I garnered the nickname of Matt “Morose,” because, believe it or not, my poetry used to be dark & moody. I imagine we'd have called Van Walleghen something fittingly witty too, like Michael “Hey Lighten Up You’re Really Starting to Bring Me Down” Van Walleghen. Seriously, a better book by Van Walleghen, poet lauraete of Illinois, is his 1980 Lamont Poetry Prize winner, More Trouble with the Obvious. If you've not read Van Walleghen, that's the place to start.

Coming soon: W, X, Y, Z!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

An Important Message for Poets & Their Loved Ones

This coming Sunday afternoon at 2, the mixed media poetry troupe I perform with--I juggle pantoums while riding a mad ghazal up a Burmese climbing rhyme blindfolded--presents an encore showing of Poems in an Exhibition at the Cabell County Public Library at 9th St. & 5th Ave. in Huntington, West Virginia. Most of the verse is free, though authors will have selected volumes of their work for sale.

If you've not caught this act before--or even if you have--bob & wheel downtown for an aesthetic movement you don't want to miss. Fabliau, professor emeritus at the Fleshly School of Poetry, will reunite with his longtime partner, Little Willy, Crown Prince of Syzygy, to present the burlesques & clerihews that made them household words in Tornada & the tri-state area.

Macaronic verse & molossus will be served. Couplets welcome. Parataxis & quatrains are conveniently located within walking distance of the library.

Epic fail if you're not there.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mind Your Ps & Qs

Linda Pastan, The Five Stages of Grief. Borrowing from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s popular On Death & Dying–& how could it not be popular with an upbeat title like that–Pastan arranges poems extraneously related to the five stages of grief--Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance--which serve as section headings. The title poem, at just over 60 lines, is one of the longest & best pieces in this easy-to-read collection. A minimalist--i.e., one who exerts minimal effort, zing!--Pastan relies primarily on imagery to convey complex ideas–sometimes in a poem of a single sentence or a few fragments–with varied success. Some, like “A Short History of Judaic Thought in the Twentieth Century” & “The Mirror,” work well enough, but others, such as “25th High School Reunion” & “Caroline,” seem incomplete–more like starting points than finished poems. To be fair, I’m glad she didn’t expound upon “25th High School Reunion.” I’m not interested my reunions, much less hearing the details of someone else’s. Of course, if I were so inclined, I could watch Archie: Return to Riverdale, Beautiful Girls, Class Reunion, Class Reunion Massacre, Grosse Point Blank, Just Friends, National Lampoon’s Class Reunion, Peggy Sue Got Married, Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion, Something Wild, Terror Stalks the Class Reunion, Zack & Miri Make a Porno or any of the fine selections available at Netflix. Not a member? Sign up for your free trial today!

Carol Quinn, Acetylene. As winner of the 2008 Cider Press Review Book Award, Quinn has a good ear--her left, I think--for poetry. I like “Sequoia” in particular. However, I have a problem with this collection. Out of thirty poems, thirteen begin with an inscription. In baseball, that sort of average would threaten Ted Williams–I mean, of course, before his corpse was frozen & his decapitated head used for fungo, but still not in a good way. Additionally, following quotations from Anne Dillard & Federico Garcia Lorca which open the book, the Proem (a short poem, "Afterimage," allotted a section unto itself) precedes the “actual” poems. To put a cherry on it, Quinn includes a page of notes to elucidate further upon her work. At times, such notes & inscriptions may be vital, but too often–& Quinn’s not alone in this respect–they seem pretentious, as if the poet were Charlie Tuna, propping up poems with scholarly ornamentations. For instance, Quinn describes “Chaconne” in her end notes as “a response to J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from Partia No. 2 for Solo Violin in D minor.” Speaking of, my “response” is to ask if I don’t get the reference to Bach from the title, can I appreciate the poem without listening to, let’s say, Itzhak “Trust your ability!” Perlman? If not, perhaps Acetylene should be published online so Quinn can provide links, which would be, if I may defer to Urban Dictionary, “god pimp perfect.”

To be continued . . .

Sunday, March 7, 2010

O for Ovid: Losses in Translations

“One morning, as Publius Ovidius Naso woke from anxious dreams, he found that he had morphed while asleep into a monstrous insect.” So begins Ovid’s ambitious fifteen-book epic, Metamorphoses. Rife with tales of creation & destruction, love & war, weddings & wakes, songs & festivals, gods & heroes, nymphs & naiads, centaurs & satyrs, suicides & suitors, rape & incest, cannibalism & rape, marriage & rape, rape & birth, drunkenness & drunken rape, rape & rape & lest I forget, rape--it's kind of like the Bible sans the preachy stuff.

I read two translations of Metamorphoses, one by Rolfe Humphries (1954) & the other by Allan Mandelbaum (1995). Neither text is bilingual, so it’s difficult for me to say with certainty, but it might seem that Mandelbaum, judging by the stilted, if not awkward phrasing, adheres to the text fastidiously–which is not to say that’s how Ovid wrote, but that often literal translations read that way. In the past, I’ve always enjoyed Humphries' translation, which, perhaps because of its colloquial tone, I’ve assumed to be more impressionistic than literal. However, appearances–as the old chestnut, apropos of the poem, would have us believe–can deceive.

According to Sara Mack in The New Criterion, “Humphries probably comes close. But Humphries, while offering us a readable poem, doesn’t give us Ovid–he prunes Ovid’s luxuriance too drastically.” Whereas Mack may be slightly critical of Humphries, she deems Mandelbaum’s translation as “so heavily padded that he isn’t always recognizable as Ovid at all.” She cites as example Mandelbaum needing seven lines (51 words) to render Caenis’s response to Neptune, though Ovid required only two & a half (18 words). That, sorry to say if you’re Mandelbaum--& if you are, welcome to my blog!--proves to be one of Mack’s milder criticisms, as she expounds upon such errors as misused or misunderstood idioms, inaccurate word choices, mistranslations, misspelled names, mistaken characters, sporadic rhyming & tedious poetics. Mandelbaum, she concludes, “has done Ovid a great disservice.”

More recently, Charles Martin's translation of Metamorphoses appeared in 2003, which Mark Jarman, writing in The Hudson Review, praises wholeheartedly, saying it “reminds us that in these tales Ovid remains our contemporary.” To illustrate his point, Jarman writes:

One of Martin’s numerous tours de force, as he transforms Ovid into contemporary American English that dogs, cats, and the hip can understand, is to depict the daughters of Pierus challenging the Muses to a poetry slam, as follows:

“‘We’ll show you girls just what real class is
Give up tryin’ to deceive the masses
Your rhymes are fake: accept our wager
Learn which of us is minor and which is major
There’s nine of us here and there’s nine of you
And you’ll be nowhere long before we’re through
Nothin’s gonna save you ’cuz your songs are lame
And the way you sing ’em is really a shame
So stop with, “Well I never!” and “This can’t be real”
We’re the newest New Thing and here is our deal
If we beat you, obsolete you, then you just get gone
From these classy haunts on Mount Helicon
We give you Macedonia—if we lose
An’ that’s an offer you just can’t refuse
So take the wings off, sisters, get down and jam
And let the nymphs be the judges of our poetry slam!’”

Sigh, I hardly know where to begin. Well, how about for starters we “recognize” this passage is about as “hep” as a Toon Disney promo telling all the kids to “posse up” for the upcoming Hercules episode. Aw, yeah. Corn factor aside, it's not translation--it's paraphrasing. Not even that really. My Latin may be limited to translating inscriptions from statues in the park, but I’m pretty damn sure Ovid doesn't write rhyming couplets or portray the daughters of Pierus as crappy wannabe rappers from the suburbs. To be fair, I haven't read the Martin text, but if the idea is to bring Ovid into the 21st century, then shouldn't he be on Twitter?

Monday, March 1, 2010

I-N Like Flynn

Early last month, as I cleaned my glasses before settling in for the evening with Mrs. Dalloway–as if I were that doting dolt, Peter Walsh–my frames snapped like a twig. Efforts to repair them myself, however nerdy or valiant, were in vain, as Scotch tape proved futile & over the next couple of weeks, I was forced to wear “loaner” frames (I never knew such things existed--they were like ligers, cockapoos & sewer gators all rolled into one) fashioned not from titanium like my lightweight pair, but from cast-iron salvaged from the Titanic, heavy & ironic. Anyway, despite the obstacle of impaired vision, here are the poets I read in February as part of My ABC of Poetry experience.

David Ignatow, Poems: 1934-1969. Lots of poems here–266 pages worth–jammed into this volume however they fit, two or sometimes three to a page, spanning the poet’s work over four decades. Ignatow has impressive literary credentials, having served as editor of American Poetry Review & poetry editor of The Nation, but the book’s layout does nothing to enhance his work. Not that I dislike it, but Ignatow’s poetry often seems rhythmically flat & in terms of imagery, trite at times, so the reading becomes tedious. For instance, the volume includes several unfortunate poems about being on stage–all the world’s one, ya know–at which times weird, often violent, scenes ensue. Generally speaking, I like the later work in which Ignatow appears less inhibited, a reflection of changes all-around in poetics during the late 50s & throughout the 60s.

By the way, you may be surprised at how few poets have surnames that begin with “I” Other than Ignatow there’s maybe three. Honestly, I’m considering changing my name so I won’t have to contend with the multitudes of Matt Morrises out there. But Matt Imperial sounds too snooty. Matt Incognito–too phony. Matt Imus–uh, no. Matt Idle, brother to Eric, or Matt Idol, cousin to Billy–decide, decide! Matt Ignatius–I’d need a stupid hat with ear flaps. Matt Irani–no, my life’s difficult enough already. Irons–too hard. Infante–too juvenile. Ives–too “Burl”-y. Ix–too icky! Maybe I should sleep on it.

Louis Jenkins, Nice Fish. Winner of the 1995 Minnesota Book Award, this selection of prose poems, some new, some from Jenkins’ two prior books (much like my Greatest Hits, recently published by Pudding House) include “Football,” “War Surplus,” “Appointed Rounds,” “Violence on TV” & “After School.” I know I don’t write it, but prose poetry is a choice & I’m pro-choice. Personally, I see enjambment as one of my strengths, but I also get that in free verse line breaks, if not quite arbitrary, are discretionary–so, one may think, why bother? After all, while at a reading, do you hear line breaks? If not, does the work cease being a poem when read aloud? Poetry remains, whether written in lines or paragraphs, more economical, more musical than most prose, Virginia Woolf excepted.

Kenneth Koch, Seasons on Earth. This book features Koch’s two mock epic poems, Ko, A Season on Earth & its–kaff–sequel–kaff–The Duplications, as well as a preface, each written in terza rima. Each has moments of Koch’s playful genius, such as when he writes: “If you are wondering about Aqua’s age,/Since she is young and gorgeous, though Etruscan,/And how she got her name, don’t skip this page.” But too often the rhymes seem forced, the storylines predicated by the rudder of rhymes, which Koch admits in the preface, "Seasons on Earth." Sometimes this strategy proves fun & funny, watching the corners Koch paints himself in & then, like a cartoonist with a magic brush, paint his way out of. At other times, he goes on at length, amusing only himself with stanzas of uninteresting or sophomoric rhymes that serve no purpose other than to illustrate Koch’s ability to write terza rima ad nauseam. I recommend this volume for Koch fans, but the unenlightened would find greater delight in other Koch works, such as The Pleasures of Peace, Thank You & Other Poems, The Art of Love, One Train, etc.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha. You can’t escape trochaic tetrameter, poetry’s Alcatraz. Even if you scale the walls, you’ll drown in the frigid water before you reach shore. In a way, however, it actually makes the piece easier to read. Like listening to Van Halen while riding a stationary bike, you may think it sucks, particularly with Sammy Hagar singing, but the tempo keeps you moving, so you almost forget that you’re bored or that you’d read Hiawatha in an undergraduate class about myth & folklore, which is kind of odd considering the stories are mostly Longfellow’s own literary–so to speak–creations. (Spoiler alert–the final section, “Hiawatha’s Departure,” is not only condescending but also surprisingly anti-Semitic!)

Cate Marvin, World’s Tallest Disaster.“Maybe you didn’t hear me so good," Joe Flaherty says in SCTV's Irwin Allen parody, "TOWERING INFERNO!” Whether Marvin had the one time king of disaster flicks in mind–or SCTV, for that matter–when she titled her book is idle speculation on my part. Winner of the 2000 Kathryn A. Morton Prize, it’s thankfully not about 9/11. The title poem employs the same metaphoric equation (body + desire = building on fire) as Mayakovsky’s “Cloud in Trousers,” but tallest? Is it a tribute to Anna Swan? Gheorghe Muresan? Is the poet herself abnormally tall? In the introduction, Robert Pinsky compares Marvin to George Herbert & Philip Sidney, which sounds nice, I suppose, but I’d probably slug someone for saying that about me. In my favorite poem from this collection, “On Parting,” Marvin wishes a plague of misfortunes upon her ex, stated with such a light touch that even he’d have to admit, in spite of being mugged or lying dead at the bottom of a lake, that she’s got a keen sense of humor. If I have a complaint–obviously, yes–it’s that nothing particularly distinguishes Marvin from any number of good poets writing today.

Pablo Neruda, Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon. What can I say that hasn’t been said? Neruda transforms the commonplace, breathing new life into everyday items. For him, a book is a “minuscule forest,” the wine glass curves like the hips of a lover, the artichoke has its own mythology, each living thing (excluding racehorses & their whining) possesses its own language the poet wants to learn so that he can “be intimate with this world.” But you know all that already. Instead, let me comment on Stephen Mitchell, the translator. From what I can discern from this bilingual text–keep in mind I know next to nada about Spanish–Mitchell seems not to stray far from the original. I’ve also read Mitchell’s translations of Rilke–all of them–& I’m almost ashamed to admit, but before his translations, I never really liked Rilke. Now I sport an artsy Rilke tattoo–just like Lady Gaga!

To be continued . . .