Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I, Lyric

Western lyric -- at least as it's traced through Italian pastoral (Petrarch et al) through England (Wyatt and Surrey) and on through to our own cutting fragments of a moment -- sparks against the impossible question, "Who am I?"

It's a trail worth following, making not only for one of the richest ways through which to read some of the best contemporary poetry, but also for brilliant insights into how we construct a male sense of self in the Western tradition. I talked about it in this review in the Boston Review, and certainly expect to go back to it in future reviews, essays and blogs since I've been thinking about it off-and-on for 20 years now. But then this morning I had a few minutes of coffee and Jack Spicer, and came upon his perfect "Sheep Trails Are Fateful to Strangers" -- inserted here like a bookmark to indicate the ongoing conversation:

Dante would have blamed Beatrice
If she turned up alive in some local bordello
Or Newton gravity
If apples fell upward
What I mean is words
Turn mysteriously against those who use them
Hello says the apple
Both of us were object.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Day job

My post about book marketing & earned media is up on "Inverso" (includes free bonus Robert Hass couplet):

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Poetry and ambition

Nobody writes about sunburn, whipcracks and negligees quite like Chelsea Minnis. She's not so quietly building up a body of work that does more than any one line, image or poem can accomplish. It's an argument about what poetry can mean at play in a world somehow both plush and spikey with lousy beautiful crystal gods and boffo luxuries. She's a little bit like Jeff Koons, but like a Koons where the pornstar ceramics and silver balloon bunnies have edges that could actually cut you. She read last night with Joshua Beckman and Noelle Kocut (whose "Poem for the End of Time" will knock you flat with awe). They'd just come from a reading at West Point, which blows my mind even to consider. Chelsey read a poem from her new book that's a response (after the fact) to a cadet's question about her goals for her poems:

"This a chain between your thighs...

This is a freedom from achievement...

Writing a poem is like trying to do something, isn't it?

It's like trying to have an ungroveling feeling."

I'm taping those lines to my mind.

Even as our culture starts emerging in fits from the encompassing fever dream of pure capitalism, Chelsea's mode means revolution in perspective: Do nothing. Do nothing deeply. It's the advocacy of Auden's "Poetry makes nothing happen." It rhymes with 9th century Zen Master Linji's "Nowhere to go, nothing to do." And, for that matter, with his famous shout, "If you see Buddha on the road, kill him." It corresponds to Baudelaire's whores and punks and clouds of ennui. It kills all the awards, all the teaching jobs, all the publications. As they will, after all, die anyway, it also always emerges triumphant. We cannot abide it. We cannot live without it. Chelsea's genius is to say yes yes yes yes yes and again yes to the botox in botux capitalism--so the botulism works its way into your face, dear reader, until you can feel it. So pretty it hurts. That's the goal, soldier. Your tools are a whip, a silver platter, and some mean lipstick.

Friday, April 3, 2009


The Academy of American Poets throws a big party every year where famous people put on a show for poetry. There are arguments about why this is mis-guided: Why silence living poets? Why this myopic insistence on American poets only? Why is every chosen poem so tenaciously mainstream? Do famous people need another platform? But to rail heedlessly against the event is to miss what it accomplishes. It puts a different shine on a little corner of the enterprise. It encourages someone who kinda liked poems once upon a time to return to it, even for an hour, to sit and listen to a form they'd long-ago forsaken as it became buried by the exigencies of daily living. But more than that, it allows the audience a different entry point for particular poems. At this same event a few years ago, Mark Morris read several Frank O'Hara poems, all of which I'd read for years and loved deeply. But Morris gave me something new. He lived in the poems--giving them a body they hadn't had before, now a stance, now a gait, fresh attitudes at every turn that I'd not encountered in the poems before, but remain with me. O'Hara's poems had lived in the context of my life before, but now they lived on their own too. And that new relationship, like a marriage between two attached and independent forces, is infinitely richer.

This year's event featured a similarly standout performance. But it wasn't of the reading of any particular poem; it was of the listening. As Jorie Graham began to read poems by James Wright, I was prepared to shut down: I'd adored the poems in my late teens but had since become convinced that Wright's poetics was a dead drag and not of any further interest to me. I figured I'd used the poems up. But as Jorie read "Hook" and then "The Old WPA Swimming Pool," Wynton Marsalis became electrified. Simply sitting on his folding chair behind her on the stage, Marsalis was immediately part of the experience of the poem in that room. His face opened. His shoulders swayed. His eyes widened and narrowed. I began to hear a blues in Wright where in the last decade or so I'd begun to hear mere self-indulgence. Steve Reich, reading just before Jorie, gave us this explicitly when he read out WC Williams: "Well, shall we think or listen?" Williams, Reich, Wright, Marsalis showing thinky me what it means to listen--and revealing, too, that Williams' question isn't really a conflict between mutually exclusive ways of being. That "or" is an accelerant for a chemical reaction between thinking and listening. Can your mind engage its moment in such a way that is pure listening?

Years ago, in a master class at my college, Max Roach stopped our best horn player after a solo. "You're playing a lot of interesting notes," he told the guy, "but you need to listen. Don't cram everything in just because it's your solo. Sometimes the most eloquent solo has no notes in it." Playing is listening. Writing is reading. How many readings I've attended, and given, but how many have I listened to?

[photo of Marsalis playing with Joan Baez (c) Brian Palmer]