Monday, September 30, 2013

Just In 3/4 Time

Inevitably, the bourgeoisie & the petty bourgeoisie will give expression to their own ideologies.

--Mao Tse-Tung

MacBeth, William Shakespeare.  Some really memorable lines--hey, it's Shakespeare--but the thane & his lady's madness, spawned from guilt, seems melodramatic to today's jaded audience to whom I speak & of whom I am particularly one. That said, it would be great if adapted into a samurai story of Japanese war lords a la Kurosawa's Ran. Then re-adapt it into a western. It's been adapted into mob movies already, but how about one set during Prohibition?  I'm thinking a kind of campy Jimmy Cagney as some sort of Al Capone type, bat-shit crazy & dangerous, so who would dare confront him? You know what else? How about an after-school special about drug abuse?

King Lear, William Shakespeare.  I'd forgotten how funny Lear is. It's maybe the greatest of the Bard's comedies. At its core, the story of two evil sisters pitted against their goody-goody sister takes its cue from the Cinderella fairy tale, but with the fairy godmother now a Fool & Prince Charming also a Fool, as are Lear, his daughters & just about everyone--that's what makes the play so LOL hilarious! I'm surprised some hotshot Hollywood shitster hans't spun Lear into a sitcom for American audiences.

The Dark Side of the Earth, Paul Zweig.  Zweig is a meditative poet--sullen, self-absorbed & bordering on boring. That's not to say there's nothing to offer in these poems, published in 1974, but I imagined the pages would be filled with gas rationing, Starsky & Hutch, Jimmy Carter beating a rabbit to death with a boat oar, the first gasping sucking sounds of disco, Monty Python when it was fresh (actually it still is), Catch-22, the Red Sox falling short (in spite of Fisk's historic homer)to the Big Red Machine in the World Series, & maybe, yes, some Led Zeppelin, but I found pages of humorless faces, Robinson Crusoe, sperm on leaves & sundry stones instead. Sigh. I'd hoped to relive some of my youthful days & considering how uneventful these years were for me, sadly, I guess I kind of did.

John Dryden, T.S. Eliot.  In these three essays, Eliot looks at Dryden the Poet (he wasn't really suited to poetry, & yet . . . ), the Dramatist (better than he's given credit for)  & the Critic (ahem, "the rigidity of Dryden’s theory must not blind us to the accuracy of [his] common sense").   Basically, Eliot thought Dryden, while not naturally given to poetry, nevertheless spawned, by virtue of his great intellect, literary disciples who owe Dryden a debt of gratitude.  What I took away from these essays is not so much a better appreciation of the underappreciated Dryden, but a better appreciation of the often overrated Eliot, given the many contemplative passages in this text, such as the following:

I have suggested that it is a bad sign when the written language & the spoken language drift too far apart. It is also bad when poetry & prose are too far apart; certainly, a poet can learn essential knowledge from the study of the best prose, and a prose writer can learn from the study of the best verse; there are problems of expression common to both. But for Dryden’s verse, we might not have had the perfection of Congreve’s prose: though this is not demonstrable. Prose which has nothing in common with verse is dead; verse which has nothing in common with prose is probably artificial, false, diffuse, & syntactically weak. We commonly find versifiers who are prosaic, & prose writers who dress out their flat writing with withered flowers of poetic rhetoric, & this is just the opposite of what I have in mind. I do not believe that in any modern civilisation prose can flourish if all the verse being written is bad, or that good verse can be written in an atmosphere choked with bad prose. If I am right, the beneficent influence of Dryden’s poetry cannot be confined to those poets his disciples, but is diffused over the whole of English thought and expression.

A Worldly Country, John Ashbery.  I've heard lots of Americans, pissed over the Nobel Prize for Literature's recent choices, suggest that Ashbery should win it & certainly a case could be made. Of course, I've also heard people suggesting that the committee should rescind President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, to which I would add, "Yeah, & Milton Friedman's prize in economics too!" Given the elitist nature of the Nobel committee, however, I doubt if any of this comes to pass.  As for Ashbery, I once was a devotee, but his recent work--alas, this collection included--leaves me rather indifferent.  As for the Nobel Prize, sure, why the hell not?

Meditations on the Insatiable Soul, Robert Bly.  Bly may not be my favorite poet--in fact, he's not--but I enjoy reading his work now & again because he has something to say & he says it. His poems may seem a bit too simplistic at times, but if I'm sitting at the garage getting a lube job--or perhaps just getting my car serviced instead--I can still, despite the constant clanging of wrenches & whatnot, get it.

Me & the Devil Blues, Akira Hiramoto.  In this, the first part of a manga novel series about the "Unreal Life of Robert Johnson," we see R.J. rising from an untalented blues wannabe into a monster of the genre after selling his soul to the devil. Alledgedly. Of course, that's a high price to pay, for with great something comes great something else.  I guess.  Or whatever.  The story starts out slowly detailing the slug-like progression of R.J.'s struggles, then deteriorates into an insipid story about a misunderstood gangster with a heart of gold helping our hero fend off a town of beastly bigots. At least the pictures are good--well, they're ok. But what makes this tale particularly regrettable is that, had R.J. been around today, he could have learned to play blues guitar in ten days by merely clicking the appropriate ad icon on Facebook. No soul exchange necessary!

Adult Bookstore, Karl Shapiro.  As a disgruntled student at the University of Virginia, like Shapiro, I left that school before graduating with pretty much the same opinion he had about it--to wit, fucking stuckup yuppie twits. Once off campus, however, Shapiro & I part ways. While it would be absurd to argue that Shapiro wouldn't know a good poem if it bit him on his bourgeois ass--& a good poem would--it is difficult to ignore his highfalutin attitude when assessing his work. Perhaps the best example of this dichotomy is "Sestina: of the Militant Vocabulary." On one hand, the sestina seems an apt form because repeating political buzzwords stanza after stanza demonstrates how their repetition becomes little more than white noise. However, the overtly condescending attitude he conveys toward what he sees as the naivete of idealistic youth produces all the political punch of a lame Mark Russell jingle from one of his many PBS so-called comedy specials. (Note: I should probably give my son, Aaron, at least partial credit for making this particular point, but if he's so smart, let him start his own damn blog.)

Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett. The second book of a trilogy--I like Molloy more-- but because I'm a learned pessimist (aka, realist), I enjoy Beckett's sad-sack brand of humor.  Lugubrious?  Maybe but a good read nonetheless, especially for priests & other lovers of deathbed confessions

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison.  A rip-roaring parody of H.G. Wells' classic, Ellison's unnamed narrator--let's call him Griffin--becomes invisible following a brilliantly orchestrated slapstick industrial accident that would have made the Three Stooges fifty shades of green--& hilarity ensues!   Through Griff's series of misadventures, Ellison creates a virtual vaudevillian vehicle to highlight racism, classism, sexism, opportunism, communism & many other -isms, though none, like the narrator, are actually named. To separate the bull from the shit, if you've read the book, you already know Ellison writes with intelligence & compassion. What sets him apart from most is his uncanny understanding of the human condition, which allows him to depict a variety of psychological states subtly, as opposed to the heavy-handedness of lesser writers. If you've not read Ellison, you're missing out.

The Morning of the Poem, James Schuyler.  This winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1980--but don't hold that against it--is a very enjoyable, easy, breezy read. Compared to the zany wildness of, say, Freely Espousing, the poems in this volume seem more controlled. For starters, Schuyler has become more "open" (as the "clunkhead" reportedly notes in "Dec. 28, 1974"). No longer a Kenneth Koch/Frank O'Hara hybrid--not that anything's wrong with that--Schuyler's transformed into a confessional, accessible John Ashbery. A beautiful, lyrical quality--in both the short "skinny" poems that comprise the bulk of the first half of this volume or the long Whitman-esque title poem that makes up the last half the book--inhabits these lines as they seamlessly juxtapose the profane, the cerebral, the banal, the extraordinary, the earthy & the divine. Of course, as is apparently required of New York School poets, there is much artsy-fartsy name-dropping, which becomes tiresome, but otherwise, I can't really fault the Pulitzer committee . . . this time.

Cultural Tourism, Mary Maxwell.  These tightly constructed poems present impressionistic thumbnail sketches of various personages from art, literature, politics & history in general, such as Petrarch, Catullus, Remus & Romulus, Ford Madox Ford, Edward Hopper, Edmund Wilson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, James Joyce & Jackie Kennedy, even James ("The New York School of Beauty") Schuyler--well, his hair stylist, whose anonymity implies something about Schuyler's do--but I mention it "hair" only as a delayed segue of sorts.    

They're good poems, Maxwell's a talented writer, though I have one major complaint--not about the poetry per se, but one of the cultural references.  In "Al Gore," she refers to "Nader's Pride" as one of the reasons Gore didn't become president in the 2000 election debacle, suggesting further that had Gore been president, 9/11 would never have happened.  Maybe so. Admittedly, Gore would have been a better president than Bush, but that's not saying much, given that Bush is among the worst presidents ever. However, I'm tired of the familiar, yet unsubstaniated, narrative for Gore's "loss." Rather than blaming the real culprits--the US Supreme Court, Katherine Harris, Jeb Bush--the argument contends that if Nader wouldn't have run, Florida wouldn't have been close.  Well, for that matter, if Florida hadn't fucked up the ballots, if Pat Buchanan hadn't run, if Gore hadn't mishandled his campaign, etc., the election wouldn't have been close either. Eric Alterman (who, as author of What Liberal Media?, should know better) blames Nader for all the atrocities that occurred under George Bush.  Frankly, that's just plain dumb. 

It's popular today to cast Gore as a firebrand lefty, but if so, then why did he choose Joe Lieberman as his VP candidate? Yes, the one & same Lieberman, emphasis on "Lie," who soon became one of Bush' staunchest supporters. Such facts seem to support Nader's main impetus for running: the two party system is an illusion of choice, for both Republicans & Democrats represent the same corporate interests & are not, rhetoric aside, significantly opposed on the issues, despite what both parties & the lazy running dog media like to suggest. While Alterman's misguided outrage toward Nader is simply silly, he doesn't succumb to the level of extreme stupidity exhibited by Jonathan Alter, who blames Nader for the Trayvon Martin shooting because Nader's previous activism caused NRA pushback, resulting in ripple-effect lax gun-control, including the so-called Stand Your Ground law, which helped to acquit Martin's actual killer, George Zimmerman. By Alter's "logic,"  I could blame George Washington, for if he hadn't been such a gung-ho revolutionary, then Trayvon would still be alive today because Her Majesty, the Queen, doesn't allow rabble to own firearms. Somehow Alter fails to point out that if college campuses weren't rife with protests of Vietnam, the four students killed at Kent State might still be alive, albeit kind of old, & Neil Young would have never written "Ohio." In other words, Alter's moral seems to be, to quote Martin Luther King, "If you see an unjust law, the best course of action is to obey it. Eventually, in a more progessive society, the politicians will right this & other wrongs, but for now, they just don't have the votes, so Rosa Parks, get your ass up. It's best to wait our turn, not make a fuss & hope for the best. Keep America moving!  Amen." Of course, Alter's a fucking moron, but I mention him because it's this same "frog-in-the-well view of the sky" that lies behind the excuse Obamabots routinely use to defend the president's hawkish, regressive, imperialistic policies: he's really a liberal (yeah, neo-liberal) who can't push through the liberal (except neo-liberal) agenda he wants because the country just isn't ready. That sentiment strikes me as particularly ironic given that people were saying, in 2008, an African-American couldn't get elected president in this day & age. Fortunately, that belief was wrong, but unfortunately, Obama.

Switching gears, I found this book for five bucks at The Strand. I didn't know until halfway through it that Maxwell hails from Clarksburg, West Virginia, about an hour or so away from where I live.  Too bad she doesn't still live there--we'd be pals, I'm sure of it! Despite what my above diatribe may seem to suggest, I enjoyed this book quite a bit & look forward to reading sometime in the near future the other Maxwell book I purchased (also for a sawbuck). 

See also:

Midyear Report
Shiny New Quarter Report