Monday, October 31, 2005

"Maintream" Poetry?

On Friday, I sent Josh Corey the following email in response to his post on new books by Brandon Downing and Dan Chiasson. He has now posted a lengthy and interesting response to my email.


I enjoy reading your blog (the obligatory complement as introduction) but I always laugh when you use the term "mainstream" in regards to poetry. I noticed you often place it in quotes, which suggests to me there is a touch of irony when you use it, since poetry, even ole Billy Collins, is no where near the real mainstream of American culture. Poetry in this culture is more a rivulet in a dessert. But I think I understand your use of "mainstream" in the context poetry's micro-environment.

But as someone who works for a mainstream publisher, I was even more amused when you called Chiasson's new poetry book a "mainstream 'event' book". As you probably realized, as evidenced by the quotation marks around event, Chiasson's 2000-5000 copy print run and $10 marketing budget, which was probably used up by photocopying fact sheets and author questionnaires, hardly qualifies as event publishing – a new John Grisham or Dan Brown it ain't. And those publishing events pale in comparison to the movies. Sadly, when you look at the sales of even major bestselling authors, they are not even reaching 1% of the U.S. population, and for more literary writers the numbers are even more depressing.

So as someone who loves poetry but is on the "outside" of the micro-environment, I’m not really troubled by “mainstream” poetry or really concerned with the whole post avant/quietude dichotomy, though I find the aesthetic theories that provide the back story interesting. As a reader, I’m not looking for poetry that belongs to a particular school or that is “marketed,” but poetry I like. I admit that is very vague and more appropriate for a high school year book. But I like James Wright and Charles Wright (well Country Music-era Wright, his later “notebook” style while interesting at first has become rather boring) and also really like Fanny Howe and Rae Armantrout. I find Pinksy boring (I actually prefer his mentor Yvor Winters). I haven’t bought a copy of Poetry in years, regularly read Fence, Verse, and Canary, but like Wilbur. One could say I have eclectic taste (and to some extent I think we have entered an era of eclectic aesthetics) but what interest me more is why I like these particular poets and not others. What is the common thread, if any, that runs through Ikkyu, Tu Fu, Sydney, Dickinson, Hopkins, Pound, Elliot, Stevens, Williams, Mandelstam, Trakl, Neruda, Paz, Celan, James Wright, Creeley, Oppen, Fanny Howe, Jean Valentine, Inger Christensen right up to such poets as Foust, Ales Debeljak, and Cole Swensen?

If I had time for more theoretical reading, which unfortunately I don’t, I might be able to better express the similarities I find in these poets. But I have a vague sense that it relates to a lyrical impulse and a sparse, intense use of language that revels in the language as language but also has a deep connection to the “human.” To use the distinctions David Lehman’s uses in the introduction to The Last Avant-Garde poems that are both “linguistic engines” and “repositories of felt experience” – automatons with flesh – now there’s an idea, android poetics. Not exactly what I was going for, but interesting.

The best example of what I’m driving at may not come from poetry but jazz. I think Coltrane may be the best embodiment of the aesthetic I envision – an intense experimentation with technique that is not driven by a nihilistic desire to destroy but a humanistic desire to find a truer means of expression. For the last couple of years of his life, Coltrane had been exploring every aspect of free jazz producing muscular pan-rhythmic 25-minute performances crammed with squeaks, squawks, and new ideas every second. However, toward the end of his life, when he was dying of cancer, Coltrane made a few final recordings (released posthumously as Stellar Regions) that where much tighter and re-harmonized the free jazz cacophony with melody to produce intensely beautiful music. I think that’s what the best poetry today is doing, reharmonizing the last 100 years of experimentation. Maybe that is what post avant is all about or maybe it could be called post quietude. Or why bother to label it all? As Camus wrote,

“But just as there is no nihilism that does not end by supposing a value, and no materialism that, being self-conceived, does not end by contradicting itself, so formal art and realist art are absurd concepts. No art can completely reject reality. The Gorgon is doubtless, a purely imaginary creature; its face and the serpents that crown it are part of nature. Formalism can succeed in purging itself more and more of real content, but there is always a limit. Even pure geometry, where abstract painting sometimes ends, still derives its color and its conformity to perspective from the exterior world. The only real formalism is silence. Moreover, realism cannot dispense with a minimum of interpretation and arbitrariness. Even the very best photographs do not represent reality; they result from an act of selection and impose a limit on something that has none. The realist artist and the formal artist try to find unity where it doesn’t exist, in reality in its crudest state, or in imaginative creation which wants to abolish reality. On the contrary, unity in art appears at the limit of the transformation that the artist imposes on reality.”

Maybe, in a very general sense, what these poets shares is a desire for finding that limit and then understanding it in order to re-harmonize it with (or rediscover even) human “dignity” (to borrow from Camus again). I’m nor sure that is quite it and that sounds too grandiose and vague. Maybe I just like their compact use of language. Some where in there there might be a semblance of an answer, but I don’t see labels doing much to help me find it.

Well, this was just going to be a short comment on the use of the word “mainstream” and I didn’t mean for it to become a rambling discourse, but I’ve been thinking a lot about these ideas and have had trouble assembling them into a generic blog post. It’s interesting how writing in the context of an email/letter to a specific audience/person seems to have helped.


David Leftwich

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Cifford Brown (b. Oct. 30, 1930)

In celebration. Clifford Brown (b. Oct. 30, 1930, d. June 26th, 1956) was one of the great jazz trumpeters. His life was tragically cut short at 25 in a car accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I think the final paragraph from a 1956 Downbeat tribute sums it up:

Clifford, at 25, was at the beginning of showing capabilities parallel only to those of Charlie Parker. There was nothing he would stop at to make each performance sound as if it were his last. But there will never be an ending performance for him, because his constant desire was to make every musical moment one of sincere warmth and beauty; this lives on forever. This would be a better world today if we had more people who believed in what Clifford Brown stood for as a man and a musician. Jazz will always be grateful for his few precious moments; I know I will.

I’m also reminded of the closing lines of Rueben Jackson’s tribute to Monk:

he tilled song
like it was earth

and he
a gardener
hell bent
on raising

any beauty
on the other

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Doing It Hope's Way

On the cover of Blue Note’s reissue of bebop pianist Elmo Hope’s Trio and Quintet, Hope appears child-like. His suit hangs loosely from his frame, his hat seems too big, his feet are off the ground giving the illusion he is too small for the chair, and his smooth face is innocent and angelic. Yet, he towers over a dog with a bear-like head, a giant among predators. He is staring intently at several sheets of music.

The picture seems sadly apt. A brilliant jazz pianist, Hope, like the great Herbie Nichols, has been overshadowed by his peers Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. A childhood friend of Bud Powell – they listened to Bach together while growing up in New York City – Hope shares some of Powell’s rhythmic attack, but explores more complex melodies. But these promising explorations were hindered and cut short by self-doubt and heroine leaving us with only a few glimpses of the genius that could have been.

One of the best examples of Hope’s talent are the trio recordings on Trio and Quintet. On June 18, 1953 (the day Egypt was declared a Republic), Hope along with Percy Heath (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums) entered the famous Van Gelder Studios in Hackensack, NJ. Hope nudged a stool toward the piano, adjusted a few rumpled sheets of music, and at Van Gelder’s signal began to play.

On the first track Hope delivers a joyful, almost bouncy, rendition of Berlin’s “It’s A Lovely Day,” that is reminiscent of Powell’s linear, muscular rhythms – hard spiders marching ahead.

The second cut, “Mo Is On”, a Hope original, opens with dark, chunky chords, quickly switches to fast paced train-like rhythms, then opens up to lighter tones played in the higher registers with out losing any rhythmic intensity.

On the third song, Hope slows it down with a quiet rendering of the standard “Sweet and Lovely.”

The fourth track “Happy Hour”, another Hope original, opens with a few Monk-like phrases and then eases into a straight ahead piece, like drinking smooth scotch in a smoky bar, Philly Joe keeping time.

Cut five, the Hope original “Hot Sauce”, which really highlights his talents, opens with driving minor chords. Then using some quick trills segues into furious, piston-driving action fueled by Heath and Jones, who delivers a rapid fire solo. Genius unbound.

For the next track, Hope offers the exotic original “Stars Over Marrakech.” A dark, rhythm-rich journey.

On “Freffie”, another original, Hope returns to the joyful bounce of the first track – solid bebop action.

Co-written with Sonny Rollins, and recorded by Clifford Brown, “Cravin’ the Rock,” Riker’s Island, would presage Hope’s ongoing drug problems and prison time. Jones opens with dark, stomps on the bass pedal, then beats a military-like rhythm on the snares, before Hope enters with a driving circular minor-keyed melody, which opens to brighter tones, before returning to the dark. Hope continues to shift between light and dark tones creating a tension that is never completely resolved.

Finally, Hope launches in into a swinging, yet relaxed take of Mercer’s “I Remember You.”

These trio recordings reveal Hope at the height of his heroine-plagued career. Combining a high-energy melodic line with tight, hard-driving rhythms, that are tinged with darker more mercurial moods, Hope created a style that is less straight ahead than Powell’s, less angular and abstract than Monk’s, that is influenced by both, yet it in no way derivative. Hope’s way was his own.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Kinetics: Merce and Mobiles

An aesthetic of movement has entered the glass towers and staid suburban landscapes of Houston, works by Alexander Calder and Merce Cunningham. Last night the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed Ground Level Overlay and Split Sides,* a dance piece accompanied by the music of Radiohead and Sigur Ros, in which the order of the choreography, music, back drops, costumes, and lighting are chosen by the roll of a dice – each element of the performance independent, juxtaposed randomly, unsynchronized, dancers moving to ideas not music:

“Mary, pass the potatoes” becomes
division of subject and object.
– Robert Creeley

Reminding me of contemporaries/movement: Pollack:


Movement/Calder – "I paint with shapes."

Metallic shapes organic like Moore but in action – shadows floating on walls… “Shadow is the absence of light and only rises from the opposition of dense bodies (da Vinci)” – bodies in motion – “Motion is created by the disruption of balance (da Vinci)” – kinetic energy: Kinetic energy is energy of motion. The kinetic energy of an object [body] is the energy it possesses because of its motion. …'[T]he continued keeping of the elasticity of the muscles, the continued control of the mind over the body’s actions, the constant hoped-for flow of the spirit into physical movement, both new and renewed, is not a natural way. It is unnatural in its demands on all the sources of energy. But the final synthesis can be a natural one, natural in the sense that the mind, body and spirit function as one.” - Merce Cunningham

Why is poetry so still?

The poem is the record of a movement from perception to vision…Jerome Rothenberg

I’m on a train, watching landscape streaming by, thinking
of the single equation that lets time turn physical,
equivocal, almost equable on a train

where the window is speed, vertile, vertige. It will be

one of those beautiful equations, almost visible, almost green.Cole Swensen

Bodies in motion, mobiles, abstracted motion, convergence of three dimensions: objects/bodies, energy, and light: “the evolutions of celestial bodies, the trembling of leaves on their branches, the memory of caresses (Andre Breton on Calder)…”

In blue light cast from the stage, she turns to him and says, “Art is found in the differences.”


* Side Note: This New Yorker critic seems particularly clueless, especially about Radiohead and Sigur Ros. She seems to think that the ambient music they recorded for Cunnigham’s choreography is out of character for these “rock bands,” obviously she had never heard them before. The music is very much an extension of what both groups have been exploring over the last few year.

Jack Nicholson and Post/aesthetic Poe(tics)

Forget the post-avant and quietude thing, poets, well male poets, really want to be Jack Nicholson…

Current poet laureate, Ted “I wanted to be James Wright” Kooser, sensing the decline in poetry’s popularity has decided the solution is to channel Nicholson’s voice at readings (scroll down to the various audio links).

Poet/blogger Jim Behrle not wanting to be out done by quietude has once again pimped Kooser by living the rest of his life as Jack Torrance (but with less hair).

Nicholson, acknowledging his influence on the literary arts, has released an inspiring new film.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

“the books within the eardrum”

Brian Campbell has been translating Nicaraguan poet Francisco Santos for several years and now has a book of translations coming out from a Costa Rican press. For those of you not heading to your local Costa Rican bookstore this week, Brian has posted some translations and the introduction at Undressing the Night. Here is a sample:


The glass beyond the fiesta
the books within the eardrum
the quotidian in the blood --
and the madman with his dirty fist
comes out of the mineshaft
waving a flower

-Fransciso Santos, trans. Brian Campbell

The line "books within the eardrum” really resonates – it seems to condence into one line the whole aural appeal of poetry, the sounds that unlock like skeleton keys the doors to deep memory. If Santos can do this in one short poem, I can’t wait to read more.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

DANCING IN ODESSA, by Ilya Kaminksy

In the opening poem (be sure to check out this link—it’s a wonderful montage of web technology, music, image and poetry) of his amazing first book, Dancing in Odessa, Ilya Kaminsky, writes:

If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,

I must write the same poem over and over,
For an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.

From that page on Kaminsky never surrenders and speaks not just for the dead but the living.

It’s hard to imagine that someone who was born in 1977, someone who can revel in imaginative joy and write:

in a city that belongs to no nation
but all the nations of wind,

she spoke the speech of poplar trees—
her ears trembling as she spoke, my Aunt Rose
composed odes to barbershops, drug stores.

Can then delve deep into human darkness and breath wisely:

…my grandfather composed lectures on the supply

and demand of clouds in our country:
the State declared him an enemy of the people.
He ran after a train with tomatoes in his coat

and danced naked on the table in front of our house—
he was shot, and my grandmother raped
by the public prosecutor, who stuck his pen in her vagina,

the pen which signed people off for twenty years.
But in the secret history of anger—one man’s silence
lives in the bodies of the others—as we dance to keep from falling,

between the doctor and the prosecutor:
my family, the people of Odessa,
women with huge breasts, old men naïve and childlike,

all our words, heaps of burning feathers
that rise and rise with each retelling.

All of this by the third poem.

Kaminsky is a poet who tries to draw all of humanity into his poems, who, to paraphrase Auden, doesn’t confuse authenticity with originality, yet in doing so creates something original and authentic, something “clothed in the heart” (Wittgenstein), something that combines fragments of memory, loss, pain, joy, even the erotic to create something beautiful, “a realm that is uncanny yet turned toward what’s human” (Celan). If it were music, it would be Lamentate by Arvo Part – “a voice smelling of oranges” (Kaminsky):

A voice, I say, like Icarus,
whispering to himself as he falls.

Yes, my life as a broken branch in the wind

hits Northern ground.
I am writing now a history of snow,
the lamplight bathing the ships
that sail across the page.
Musica Humana, Ilya Kaminsky

Get a hold of these pages, breath in their light, and relearn what has already been given.

Interlinked Group Navel Gazing: Or Why I’m Tired of Political Blogging

This post on whether or not Laura Bush called critics of Miers sexist to me exemplifies the state of much of today’s political discourse: intelligent citizens passionately engaged in politics and ideas (a good thing) while at the same time being myopic and self indulgent in scope (a bad thing, yet something most of us, including myself, are sometimes guilty of).

There seems to be a paranoid group mentality in Big Lizards post, characterized by such statements as:

“We know the MSM lie and distort, particularly when transcribing oral statements that have a chance of fanning the flames.”

This could have been written by a leftie or a rightie (both think the MSM is biased against them), but in this case a rightie wrote it. I find it odd that a group who prides itself on fighting the “victim mentality” so often whines that it is a victim of the media (which for the most part is owned by fellow Republicans). Are individual members of the press liberal and biased? Of course. My wife is a lawyer who does work for “evil” corporations, and it is interesting to see how biased toward planitffs news reports on major ligation can be, but some of that is also driven by poor reporting and a misunderstanding of the legal issues. Of course, lenghty detailed balanced reports on tort ligation would probably bore most readers (or so the CFO and market researchers would probably say) and lead to declining readership/viewership, which in turn leads to less advertising dollars, which leads to less profits for stockholders…well you get the idea…the media is in it for the money and sensationalist stories are what corporate execs (read editors) think drive profits. (Though this is preferable to the state running the media – you can’t have freedom of the press unless the press is free to market.)

The point wasn’t to give my opinion on the media, but to suggest that this myopic viewpoint slices away the complexities to create a neat little “Us vs. Them” package. We end up clinging to white washed bones instead of examining fleshed out reality. Or staring at our compatriots navels hoping they look just like ours.

People should be passionately enaged in ideas and their pratical application (in the end, for government it is results that matter, or at least should – something ideologues often lose sight of). The challenge is knowing when you have subsituted ideaology* for ideas, when politics has become more about the points than the polis.

I think what people need to do is look up from their navels, take a deep breath, take in the expansive blue sky, and then ask their neighbor, “What’s your vision of an ideal society?” We are doing things ass backwards. Instead trying to hogtie each other over the color of your state, we should be looking for common goals and working toward them. I’m friends with both conservatives and liberals and when push comes to shove they often want similar things – less poverty, good schools, protection of freedoms, etc. The real questions, and these I grant you are hard questions with no easy answers, are how to achieve those goals. But if you keep the goals at the forefront instead of tucked in a back pocket as an afterthought you are more likely to reach a civil compromise, and leave the party with your throat in tack. At least that’s what I’ve found.

I know this may sound a little too naïve, a little too starry eyed and romanatic (just what you’d expect form someone writing about poetry, right?), but I realize that us humans have been at this for awhile and the results have often been pretty messy and bloody. Many of the current political battles aren’t that differenet than they were a 100 year ago, or 2000 years ago for that matter, but it’s a sweeping view of history that also shows that there has been some progress, and how useless and silly plucking navel hair is when compared to looking your neighbor in the eye and saying, “I agree with you on that, disaggree with you there, maybe we can do this instead.”


Side Note:

* When did ideology take on such negative connotations? As defined by Merriam-Webster:

1 : visionary theorizing
2 a : a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture b : a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture c : the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program

That sounds pretty damn good to me.

Monday, October 10, 2005

In Memory of Monk

Thelonious Sphere Monk (Born Oct. 10, 1917)

Thelonious: sonorous, melodic, familiar, yet slightly askew – a clock that never hangs straight, one bell chiming on key.

Sphere: Celestial, out of center, eccentric: a mechanical device consisting of a disk through which a shaft is keyed and a circular strap which works freely round the rim for communicating its motion to one end of a rod whose other end is constrained to move in a straight line so as to produce reciprocating motion – hands communicating motion, rhythm—stopped time recorded

Monk: solitary, spiritual, a clockwork prayer

“Monk delights the brain, but…also animates the heart.” – Gary Giddins

Trinkle Tinkle, Well, You Needn’t, 'Round Midnight, Ruby My Dear

Out in the Open


Sun burning. The plane comes in low
throwing a shadow shaped like a giant cross that rushes over the ground.
A man is sitting in the field poking at something.
The shadow arrives.
For a fraction of a second he is right in the center of the cross.

I have seen the cross hanging in the cool church vaults.
At times it resembles a split-second snapshot of something
moving at tremendous speed.

– Thomas Transtromer, trans. Robert Bly

Criss-Cross – dancing the fingers into the night, we will know no better than angled abstractions of the heart, harmony off kilter bringing a strange light…