Sunday, May 31, 2009

Southern Belle - Here's the Recipe !

**Spoiler Alert**    **Spoiler Alert**

For those averse to alcohol or dead set against the evils of demon drink, exit now or forever zip closed your fly! 

While the taste is still swirling around my consciousness, here's my latest prurient concoction from the zinc bar:

In the coming Summer months, when the heat overcomes the temperate moderations, here's a respite for the weary mind or soul, in need of relief from wayward degrees of calorie. 

The Southern Belle:

(By proportion)

3 shots of Kentucky Bourbon
2 shots of Galliano
1 shot of peach Schnapps
Juice of one lemon
Juice of one wedge of orange

Shaken hard and served up in an iced cocktail glass.

This is bound to seduce your sensibility. 

Conversation is sure to follow, solving the entangled knots of political dissension, or titillating the libido with thoughts of possible adventure.

Wife and I had planned to go to Spain this Spring, then cancelled on account of prior commitments to fulfill an editing job for a large university press. But, perusing the color plates of a large coffee-table book on the French Quarter, reawakened our memories of New Orleans, and hence the summons to a sweet Bourbon mixture in keeping with our joint inspiration.

Beware the power of nostalgia! 

Ennui and fond evocation!  


Saturday, May 30, 2009

How We Pick Judges

Like most ordinary citizens, I am not a follower of judicial careers, and can't with any authority weigh in on the reputation or qualifications of any sitting judicial appointees, at any level of the Federal Bench.

So my post here will have nothing whatever to say about the qualifications of Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's nomination for the soon-to-be-vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Like most Americans--certainly the vast majority--I know absolutely nothing about her record, the decisions she's been involved in, or the "trend" of her biases.

What I find most troubling about these appointments, is the way in which nearly everyone in the media accepts the politically correct prejudice that such appointments should "reflect" the racial, ethnic, sexual and political "complexion" of present-day America. Which is another way of saying that the quota (affirmative action) system must be applied to the selection of judges, just as it is utilized in other Federal and State selection criteria.

The Supreme Court is a crucial body. It decides cases at the highest level, often having the broadest influence and effects upon our society. Ideally, we want people in it who have a comprehensive knowledge of the law, historically and practically, and who have a deep sympathy for all sectors of the electorate, not just the downtrodden, but everyone.

The criteria for choosing a Supreme Court justice must include this knowledge, as well as a requisite amount of practical experience in hearing a variety of cases. Those without this knowledge, or without this experience, come unqualified and unprepared.  

But the nomination criteria has evolved over the last half century, into a contest between ideological extremism on the one hand, and politically correct affirmative action on the other. 

Obama's "choice" for a nominee was expected to reflect the liberal habit of picking someone who would "represent" the full panoply of reparation, parity, "points", etc. In other words, employing criteria based on racial, sexual, ethnic and other "non-qualifying" measures to determine suitability.

Is it possible to nominate individuals who possess both the combination of knowledge and experience needed to qualify them for Supreme Court duty, while also honoring (if that were really necessary) the other criteria now being used?

Of course. 

Like all true nominations and appointments based on merit and potential, the selection process should be "blind" (like justice) to irrelevant factors and conditions. We shouldn't be willing to "compromise" our primary criteria, to suit some special preference or prejudice. Whites shouldn't prefer Whites, and Blacks shouldn't prefer Blacks, etc. 

This is true whether or not you think that all politics is partisan and inherently biased. The ideal condition of selection and performance should be based on real qualifications, not on race, color, creed, sex, ethnicity or national origin. 

What troubles me is the bland acceptance on the part of the media of the a priori bias of the selection.  Sotomayor is a woman, she is "Latino" (Puerto Rican descent), was "deprived" (poor and raised by a single parent), and (as some have speculated) possibly even Lesbian. In other words, the primary criteria for her selection appears to have been the number of non-essential, non-qualifying criteria which she embodied.  

Politicians know that the general public is not only totally ignorant when it comes to the record and character of these nominees, it cynically believes that this doesn't even matter. What they seek is a partisan representative, who also appears to pander to all the politically correct categories of "eligibility." Everyone assumes that these nominees are vetted on the basis of their biases, and that in order to merit consideration, they should come from among one or more of the "preferred" sub-groups of preference.

The media likes to make the claim that appointing minorities has a wonderfully positive effect on poor, ethnic, or otherwise marginalized citizens, especially children. Isn't it just as true, perhaps even more so, that the message we send to all citizens with these kinds of nominations and appointments, is that true qualifications don't really matter, that people are chosen because of those very criteria which our Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence deemed to be unfair, unequal, and repugnant? 

It has become so very difficult, in our present environment, to speak openly about these issues, without seeming to be either arrogantly bigoted, or viciously partisan. But why must this be so? If Obama is the paragon of virtue and intellectual honesty, why must he choose according to criteria which fly straight in the face of our primary political principles?

Why must we choose an African American, such as Justice Thomas, whose qualifications appear to have been inferior, to say the least, simply because he was, very atypically and astonishingly, a Black Man with an extreme Conservative bent? It is, in effect, a way actually of arguing on behalf of an Uncle Tom, a compliant Servant who will do the Master's bidding. 

If the Sotomayor nomination is supposed to be "payback" for Latino votes and support in "key" election States, let's hope people see through this transparent attempt to seduce minority voters into thinking that anyone in Washington really cares what they think, or want, or, indeed, what our nation really needs or deserves, from its elected representatives.

The Sotomayor nomination is an embarrassment. Not because she may, or may not, be qualified, but because her qualifications (whatever they are) are secondary. 

Friday, May 29, 2009


Today's San Francisco Chronicle carries a lead article reporting the latest development in the "Zoo Tiger Mauling" story. Back on February 4th, I posted a previous blog entry on the case, taking the SF Zoo management to task, as well condemning the irresponsible behavior of the young jerks who posed as "victims." This is part of what I wrote:

"The youths acted irresponsibly, with malice, mischievously inciting naturally aggressive predators to go on the offensive. They were bingeing on drugs and alcohol, abusing themselves, making a public nuisance at a public attraction, and ultimately playing chicken with wild animals in an artificial situation. Finally, to top it all off, they have the audacity to blame the zoo and the city for their own immoral and grossly irresponsible behavior. Rather than blaming the zoo, the city, and the tiger, it is rather these men who should themselves be prosecuted as the vandals and low-lifers they are, for having caused the whole thing. The three youths, it later was reported, had criminal records. Not long after the incident, the two Dhaliwal brothers hired a lawyer, and have filed suit against the City of San Francisco and the Zoo for negligence and huge damages."

Now the SF Zoo has agreed to pay $900,000 to the two Dhaliwal Brothers. The settlement came less than two weeks after attorneys filed court documents alleging that police officials had ordered officers to issue arrest warrants for the Dhaliwals, accusing them of manslaughter in the death of their friend, 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. of San Jose, who was killed by the tiger. 

Given the quickness of the settlement, and its relatively low amount, it seems obvious that the Dhaliwals' lawyers advised them to broker a quick deal out of court, rather than face a jury on charges of manslaughter and malicious conduct. Predictably, these same lawyers claimed that the arrest warrants had been a tactic to deflect attention from the city's negligence and intimidate the brothers, and that the settlement had been made because it had decided "the investigation could not substantiate" the charges, as the Dhaliwals prepared to pursue further claims against the city proper.

What poppycock!  

These two hoodlums brought about the death of their friend through irresponsible, malicious behavior. Rather than own up to their actions, they immediately sensed an opportunity, refused to speak with police, hired high-profile defense lawyers, and went after the loot. 

It would be hard to see why these sulking jerks could believe they were entitled to any compensation, when it was their friend Carlos Sousa Jr. who had suffered the real injury. 

Earlier, it was reported that the Sousa family settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. You could make a reasonable case in that instance for compensation, since Sousa appears to have been the victim, though his participation in instigating the tiger attack has never been explored or reported.

As a reward for bad behavior, the Dhaliwals are given $450 Grand apiece. Who knows how much the lawyers got? 

The Zoo shouldn't have backed down, and the City shouldn't either. These men should be tried and convicted of manslaughter, and sent away for a minimum of 15 years apiece. In a reasonably run system of justice, that's what should happen. But it won't.  

Now these two conniving hoods can snigger in private about how they ripped off the public and got away with murder, and got the tiger killed into the bargain. Men like this don't have consciences. 

It's disgusting.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Tim Lincecum - Fragile Phenom ?

Tim Lincecum's star has risen as fast as any major league prospect in recent memory. Acquired by the San Francisco Giants in the first round of the 2006 Amateur Draft, after having been drafted twice before by major league teams (before he was ready to become professional)-- from the start, his potential and promise has signified greatness all the way.

His high school, college, and brief minor league careers were all marked by precocious dominance, and that promise was fulfilled when he won the Cy Young in only his second year in the bigs, posting an 18-5 record (which could have been even better, had his team given him more runs in a few games), with 265 strike-outs. 

Blessed with a high-90's fastball, and a complete arsenal of three other pitches--a wicked sharp-breaking curve, a deadly slider, and a change-up to die for. Hitters comment that his stuff is the best some of them have ever seen.

What is Lincecum's ultimate destiny?  

The Giants have had phenoms before, whose careers blossomed early, only to fade fast. Think of Ron Bryant, John 'the Count' Montefusco, Atlee Hammaker, Scott Garrelts, Kelly Downs, Trevor Wilson, Osvaldo Fernandez, Noah Lowry, but especially Shawn Estes, another fire-balling left-hander, winning 19 games in his first full season (1997) while striking out 181. In the years since, Estes is 79-80, with six losing seasons for various clubs, and this year he's down on the Dodgers' Triple A farm club. 

Short, thin left-handers don't wear well in the majors. A Ron Guidry, or a Sandy Koufax may have marvelous years, but their careers are often cut short by injury or exhaustion. Lincecum has a big, flailing delivery which some have compared to Juan Marichal, whose marvelous, high leg-kick wind-up may have helped him generate velocity, but also made it hard for hitters to pick up his delivery, and it was a thing of beauty to watch. Watching Lincecum unwind a torrid fastball, you wonder how long he'll be able to sustain that much momentum on his relatively modest frame. Are left-handers more prone to arm stress and injury than righties? I have no idea, but I presume someone has--baseball is, after all, a numbers game--produced statistics to mark that comparison. 

Longevity in the bigs is a combination, usually, of superior physical skill, guile, and adjusting your style as you get older. The old fireballer--like Nolan Ryan, hard-thrower into his forties--is quite the exception. Even with modern "sports"-medicine, and delicate surgical procedures, a fragile arm will usually spell the early end to a promising career.  

My guess is that Lincecum will probably have about 3-5 years of impressive dominance, averaging 15-18 wins a season, averaging 230 strikeouts, but that it's unlikely he'll still be vying for Cy Youngs into his thirties. His body is just too small to sustain the beating it's likely to get over that period, piling up 200+ innings per year. The quintessential durable pitcher is someone like Jack Morris, who averaged 212 innings per year over an 18 year career (and probably belongs in the Hall of Fame). Who is more valuable, in the long run, to a contending club--the 3 year phenom who wins 50 games but quickly disappears, or the workhorse who can give you 15 wins a year for 10 years?

Here's hoping Lincecum's durability matches his raw talent, and stays around for a while. We Giant fans could sure use him!       

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Wind-Up & The Pitch

When I was a boy, in the 6th grade, yo-yo's were popular. At least half my classmates had them, and so the school held a yo-yo performance contest. It was won, perhaps unexpectedly, by a girl, whose name (I'm sure she wouldn't mind my using it here) was Beverly Smith. Beverly was a tall, 'dirty'-blonde girl, with some freckles, thin, and not particularly attractive, but pretty smart, and savvy. I don't know why she was good at yo-yo-ing, but she was the best. Maybe, like everything else, it was about practice. 

What I remember about the yo-yo challenge, was that you had to be able to keep your yo-yo spinning fast enough, and do the various tricks quickly enough, so that when the trick was done, you still had enough "spin" (or torque) (or enough wax on your loop) to jerk the string and make the yo-yo return to your hand. Long tricks, such as the "rock the cradle" (in which the yo-yo swung like a pendulum through a triangle of string you made with your hands), tended to take long enough that it "exhausted" the spin of the yo-yo. 
Think of the duration of the "spin" of the yo-yo as a spring: You wound it up by "throwing" the yo-yo out to the end of its string with as much torque as you could muster, hoping that it would last long enough to maintain enough spin to climb back up the string to your hand.

Lest anyone think that I still play with yo-yo's, please pay attention. 
Rhetorical suspension is like a winding-up of tension. Any text has a beginning, middle and end, unless it is of such short duration, say, of one or two words, that its effect is immediate (i.e., without duration). What happens with any sentence is the setting up of expectation, through the grammatical structure, which is then "answered" or completed by the syntactical conclusion of the sentence. The same is roughly true of paragraphs, which may contain any number of sentences. The outline of any sequence of sentences has the same incremental quality as words in an individual sentence. 

The degree of this tension is dependent upon the degree of expectation, or frustration of completion, which the sentence contains. One of the tools of rhetoric is the ability to create sentences, or sequences of sentences, which command our attention, by using suspense and anticipation to queue our apprehension to a "loaded" fulfillment. The payoff of any effective sentence, or paragraph may not, however, always lead from build-up to increased anticipation to sublimation. The order may be reversed, or tilted in any number of ways. In most common English sentences, the "order" of grammar is most often not "reversed"--as is typical, for instance, in German, or in Latin, where the verb is frequently placed at the end of a sentence.

This quality is one which is associated historically with prose, rather than poetry, although there have been times in which this was not true. Rhetorically graceful sentences, or effective, even ornate prose, is generally at odds with what we normally think of as a graceful, or musically inspiring lines of verse. Measured speech, which emphasizes accuracy and the progression of thought, is usually not "prosodic" in character, in that it doesn't answer to the metrical forms that we think of as lyrical (or musical). 

Ezra Pound said, in despair of the inadequate locutions of mediocre poets with traditional form(s), that "poetry should be at least as well written as prose." What I take that to mean, is that poetry should not sacrifice the potential rhetorical power of sentences to fulfill the demands of a poetic line. In Pound's early poetry, you can sense the struggle he's having with the "poetic" conventions of late Victorian and early Edwardian poetic cliches--attempting to free his line, in order to make powerfully effective poetic statements.

Marianne Moore, from her earliest published works, shows herself to be a master of the prosaic line. She clearly admired eloquent and complex rhetorical flourishes, and sought to create a poetry which did not, as Pound had suggested, yield any rhetorical power to the narrow demands of a traditional form. This led, I now think, to her choice to create new eccentric (though fixed) forms. 

She also used this skill to create free verse constructions of the greatest delicacy and precision. One very short and simple one is--


My father used to say,
"Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave,
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat--
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth--
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint."
Nor was he insincere in saying, "Make my house your inn."
Inns are not residences.

Moore's work is a veritable textbook of effective strategic rhetorical devices, designed and executed to seduce, constrain, delay, surprise, mystify and frequently delight the sense. Nothing is ever simple in Moore's poems, there are always at least three ways of interpreting a given assertion, depending upon how you respond to them. 

I like to think of this poem--as others of Moore's--as trick-poems. Trivial, you say? Maybe. As a metaphor for the rhetorical tension created early in the poem, which is then brought to a satisfying conclusion, it is like a wound-up spring, or like a performance, a sleight-of-hand. In Moore's universe, we might suppose that interesting people ("superior people") justify our appreciation of them because of the quality of their sensibilities; except that, in this instance, it is not the poet herself who is speaking, but her father. What is a daughter's estimation of the value of her Father's sensibility? Again, nothing is simple. 

This is a poem superficially about the idea of tolerance. The idealization of conduct presented as "superior" is doubtless meant to objectify a certain class of behaviors, but with considerable ambiguity. These qualities are expressed with wit and concision: They are self-reliant, they enjoy solitude, and are capable of delight in speech. We can deduce, however, that the poet's position with respect to both her Father's preferences, and those of such "superior" people is somewhat disdainful, at best. If "long visits" are unwelcome, then restraint may be a virtue. Prickly minds might see in a daughter's restrained attitude towards her father, a strained impatience with the strictures of obeisance. Might she herself feel that she was nothing more than a "visitor" or a "guest" in her own Father's house?    

The one dominant image the reader takes from the poem is that cat with a mouse in its mouth, its tail dangling "like a shoelace." Are we not to take this indelible image as a metaphor for the morbid relationship between daughter and father? The ambiguity contained with the quotation is placed in perfect opposition "Nor was he insincere...." By objectifying the qualities of sensibility which she regards with a mixture of admiration and muted contempt, she is able to celebrate the rhetoric of a form even while undercutting its message. The poem embodies the restraint which the quotation offers; it is an exercise in tolerance that preserves the individuality of the speaker. Its brevity is a bitter acknowledgment.
Old Beverly Smith could show the boys a thing or two about coordination, and balance, and challenge the prevailing sexist mode that relegated her to the quiet restraint of not competing. Moore's impressive skill at navigating and outmaneuvering the prevailing sexual modes of her time--inherited from a staid Victorian culture of male dominance and presumption--was one she would put to good use, in poems such as "Marriage." When patience turns to impatience, even in restraint, it may grow gnarled and ornate.   

Friday, May 22, 2009

Moore, Formalism & Post Avant [Part Five]

Watten's Progress, as an example of his mature work, casts a shadow of negation across the field of its probable uses. Here, finally, we get a work emptied of body, personality, identity, emotion, lyrical expression and coherent philosophical organization. 

In its refusal to capitulate to any of the normative purposes which "verse" or "poetry" have traditionally relied upon, it approaches a precipice, affording a view of what an idealized future of reflexive, transformational catharsis might feel like: A state of advanced depersonalization, in which all cognition is suspect, all action futile, and all meaning provisional. 

Such a "poetry" takes nothing as a given, even its own essence (the alphabet, words, grammar & syntax). Disorientation, displacement, decontextualization (Quine). Early Modernists like Eliot had attempted to treat the text as a personification of the despairing artist-profile, impotent and adrift, parroting sad routines of performance and fake ceremony (The Waste Land). In the Post Avant landscape, all of the structures of plight and condition are eviscerated, in favor of a non-identity, a receptor of data, a processor of impulse and apprehension. 

Each of the assertions in Progress--whether through the "I" voice or as unassigned utterances--falls outside the boundary of implication, cut adrift from reference or context. 

Such anxiety is not uncommon.
A line stems from a point.
View of cement factories
At Suisun Bay,
inside cement....

A paradigm for mass aggregate.
The outline of the city
In lozenges.
Rock walls
Line the road to the airport....  

In Moore, words (as things, or emotions, or expressions) are treated as in a botanist's glossary: Perception is a process, empirical and methodical. In Watten, even the attractions and repulsions among individual words are suspect. No style, no habitual manner, no pattern qualifies as safe.
Marx believed that social alienation was a hallmark of capitalist enterprise. It has been fashionable for at least 75 years to imagine that the artist must be a critic of the given, occupying a special position just outside the realm of exchange, subject to its whims, but imaginatively free. Among the early Modernists, compartmentalization and spiritual exile provided provisional identities, held in contrast to prevailing modes. Artisan-Writers like Heidegger, or Charles Olson, or Darger, were able to map out alternative spaces of occupation, while nonetheless functioning at the level of the zeitgeist. 

Language Writers' supreme interest in criticism--as auto-didacticism, as self-description, as dialectic with literary history--inevitably leads to a schizophrenic separation: The divide between language treated as a medium of engagement, and as a symptom of a larger conspiracy whose challenges must be met, instance by instance. In public or official discourse, we demand precision and fidelity and consistency. In Progress, none of these allegiances is remarked. The poem cannot be permitted to belong to the context from which it derives, therefore all aspects of its pedigree, its terms and conditions, must be scrubbed clean of association. All "events" "feelings" "episodes" are merely jealous fictions, possible exhibits in the conspiracy of bankrupt cultural residue. 

[End of Part V]   

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Moore, Formalism & Post Avant [Part Four]


Barrett Watten's Progress, Roof Books, 1985, is a book length poem of 600 5-line stanzas (five to a page), composed in 1982-83. 

The stanzaic form is without precedent; that is, I know of no other poem written in this style:

____  ________  ______  ____
____  _____  ______
___  ____
____  ____  _______
___  _______  _____  ____ . . . .     

--with the shorter line shifting position throughout the sequence. The use of a conclusive ellipsis at the end of every stanza is quite eccentric, and its purpose here is not explained. Traditionally, an ellipsis is used to indicate the omission of text, or to indicate hesitant speech. 

The poem has no ostensible "subject" and is not musically inclined. There is no "narrative" or orderly discussion of concepts. The lines do not "follow" though the separation between superficially unrelated statements is obviously intended to signal potent or surprising contrasts. There is no way, therefore, to determine what the probable "correct" order of the stanzas (not to speak of the individual lines) should be. There may be an hermetic principle of ordering constructed around nodes of preoccupation, but any larger underlying scaffold would have to be deduced externally, since the poem itself does not offer any clues to the blueprint. Its form, therefore, constitutes its whole evident structure; and that form suggests an a priori structural ordination, without any overt reference to the prosodic quality of the language of the lines, or of their potential synchronicity.

I am making things difficult
For myself,
to spread out
And advertize this camera
In place of orbs of the eyes. . . .

In public, you are invited to
Reinterpret this.
A wheel
Interior to frivolous talk.
Foliage behind virtue of beds. . . .

An extraction of surplus value
Raised anywhere is.
But identical to product
So that I and my ideas will win. . . .

There are a number of threads within the poem, though none of them fits into linear sequence which we could connect, and indeed part of the poem's point seems to be the futility of attempting to do so. Most of the statements--the great majority of them--are fragmentary. Which is to say, that the poem does not grow, organically, out of the code of its statements, but lies, dismembered, within its traces. In linguistic dissociation, language is inseparable from the distribution of power in society. The use of language depends on the social position of the speaker, and the authority of language comes to language from outside. Thus, speaking the language is tacitly to accept the official definition of the official language of a power. Alienation from language is a typical reactive symptom; but it also may constitute a tool in the struggle between omnipotence and regression, or resistance. In other words, deliberately dissociative constructions may be regarded from an aesthetic point of view, as having a value apart from what they may signify as evidence of mental state. 

In Moore's work, as I have said, atypical a priori structures are set up anterior to performance, in the same way, really, as Silliman and Watten do in Ketjak and Progress. In both latter cases, however, the form is not a vehicle for the placement of words and sentences in an ordered sequence, but an arbitrary containment for disconnected, or con-fused, randomly ordered, statements (or fragments of statements). In Moore, there are tropes of gendered dialectic, for instance, of subterranean disequilibrium, or social static, but these are not allowed to alter apparent rubric.    

Ellipsis as an organizing principle has its limits. How do fragments of ideas, suggested or abbreviated, function within a fixed system of units? Earlier, I suggested that such works might be understood as the intersection of three dimensions: The empty form, the words themselves, and the content which the words both embody and refer to. Removed from adequate contexts, fragments of perception or analysis or description may indicate a breakdown (or failure) of the impulse to treat materials as if the world made sense. Ultimately, the undermining of meaning through the confusion of contexts reflects back on the structure. Private or hermetic sub-languages (which is how we might describe Ketjak or Progress) are instances of linguistic alienation. But they are not involuntary. Instead, they are intended to distort the normal apprehensive awareness of "sense" to explore new versions of irony, surprise, and difference. 

If language decomposes at the same rate as attention, poetry might become as impatient as a video clicker. Stray, random impulses--nervous, cynical, bland--zip across like "nigger"-particles in a cloud-chamber of semi-comatose awareness.
In Moore's poems, the speaker takes responsibility for all the consequences of meaning which devolve from the expansion of its topics. In Watten's Progress, there is no responsibility towards the possible implications it sets into motion. Threads may die out, or be abandoned. Or picked up later, and examined, as if they were seen for the first time. The reader is left to construct his/her own version, with only a tangential relation to the static model. 
Serial closures.
open sequences
Point at points in the mind
At which partitions connect.
. . .
To jump from a 13-story hotel
And assume a net,
as proof
That the way things work is
Not a projection of syntax. . . .
The "partitions" here are not a "projection" of syntax, but suppositions of deductions based in turn on other suppositions--like a bad dream of going into room after room after room, each with an unmarked door to.... The risk of assuming anything about a collection of disjunct statements is obvious, since, like any paradox, it only asks what it refuses to explain. A progression does not imply necessity, only a development from available options. That is the risk of leaving everything open to question and surmise. If all the rooms are empty, what is the point? But that of course isn't the whole story.  

[End Part Four]

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Moore, Formalism & Post Avant [Part Three]

One aspect of Silliman's work which has bothered me for quite a while, is its abandonment of traditional lyricism, in favor of a prosaic style (basically prose without a musical setting). Ketjak [1978], from my perspective, seems to have been the initial part of this phase. The Alphabet, effectively a collected poems since the late-1970's, is a remarkably homogeneous mass of work, all of it made out of the same material, presented with minor formal variants. 

Why does Silliman abandon the short lyric poem near the beginning of his career, in favor of prose? Was it because he could see that it was a tradition that had run out of gas? Was it an attempt to define himself against the backdrop of traditional "Quietist" verse formalities? Or was it an attempt to incorporate his thinking and habitual notational manner into works of larger purpose and impact? Was the burden of what he had to say, and report, too great to convey within the confines of occasional lyric performance pieces, or even (as with Duncan, or Spicer) into open-ended serial works?  Probably all of these, and more.

All of his work since the mid-1970's might be seen as an illustration of what he had called "The New Sentence." Prosody is not usually thought of as a description of grammar per se, certainly not only of "sentences." Frost had called his work, at its best, as poems made out of "the sound of sentences" but that obviously is quite different from what Silliman was talking about. Silliman had said that sentences might organize themselves into paragraphs the same way that stanzas are used to organize traditional poems--but in ways that lie outside the usual methodology of argument or logic. 

This is an enormous subject, and not one that I can meaningfully address here. However, it is useful to note that among the High Modernists, except for some of Stein's later experiments (collected in the Yale volumes), the primary documents are in prose (Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and The Waves, Cummings's The Enormous Room and EIMI, Williams's Kora in Hell, Faulkner's early novels, Hemingway's early stories, etc.). Seen within the context of an abandonment of a constricted lyric line (which was Eliot's and Pound's and Stevens's and Williams's and H.D.'s preoccupation) Silliman's decision to explore form as a sequence of prose statements constitutes a repudiation of nearly the whole history of lyric poetry. 

Since the "invention" (or re-invention) of the modern novel as an epistolary dialectic in the 18th Century, and its subsequent disintegration in the early 20th, into psychological or etymological or metaphysical "tapestries", the avatars of formal inquiry have nearly all tended to coalesce around the potentials of prose. Burroughs, Mac Low, Gaddis, Pynchon, Gass, Durrell, Barth, Barthelme, Beckett, Kerouac, Nabokov, Calvino, etc.  Contemporary and/or Post-Modern Poetry has no comparable body of work of the range and depth of formal innovation taking place among writers of prose. 

Is Silliman's work, beginning with Ketjak, an attempt to privilege the possibility of a writing--neither poetry, nor narrative prose--as an inquiry uniting philosophy, political science, image and observation, art criticism, history, even bland quotidian experience into fragmented, linear sequences along a flatline of continuous (or arbitrarily dissected) extent, percolating with poly-con-textual relationships? 

What are the closest antecedents one might posit for such a program? Joyce's Ulysses? Except that in Silliman, there are no "characters"--only the one individual consciousness. Woolf's Mrs Dalloway? Except that in Silliman, there is no "portrait" of an individual within a timed social context, no development. Beckett's fictions? Except that Silliman's work is expansive, eclectic, symphonic, and not reductive, despairing and dry. 

The over-riding impression I derive from The Alphabet, which is a part of the larger life-work he calls Ketjak [1974-  ], is of a single voice, essentially unchanged, almost without any variation or adaptation, arbitrarily segmented into blocs of time and dimension. Any part of it could, with minor augmentation, be substituted for any other part. This homogeneity, or interchangeability, troubles me. One of Modernism's strengths, was its appropriation of form to content, allowing the form to embody (or BE the expression OF) what was being said. Olson and Creeley may have thought they were explicitly describing poetry, but the terms of their mutual definition could as well be applied to prose. 

We could dismiss the discussion of formality as it is expressed in Silliman's work as merely a stylistic approach to critical thinking about verbal forms. Is Post-Modernism (or Post-Avant), then, the appropriation of large arbitrary shapes to superficially undifferentiated masses of disorganized data and observation? 

In Ashbery, or Merrill, this tendency devalues content, offering seductive routines of performance, none of which is of greater, or lesser, value, either to reader or writer. By disengaging necessary content from the occasion of its writing, even making this relationship superfluous, the Author risks irrelevancy. 

One reason Stein's work is so little read is that it has no content, or no content that might place it within a context meaningful to the reader. It has all the characteristics of a fully worked out experiment in language, except a subject. This was obviously a deliberate attempt to flatten out the narrative in order to address the grammar, both of language and of thought. 

Would it be possible to have an abstract dialectic of sentences in which narrative is NOT irrelevant? Perhaps this is what Perec was doing. 

In any event, Moore's habit of employing an arbitrary formal pattern, a priori, looks very much like the application of a dictionary as metaphor. If sentences can be parsed and rearranged and clustered and layered and scrambled, perhaps grammar itself may be susceptible to dissection. A poetry built out of the materials of language, i.e., letters and sounds, ought to carry all of the content of words, without sacrificing their power to stand alone as examples of what they are. The alienation of writers from language may be a metaphor for the alienation of man from the political, religious and social institutions which we inherit from the machine of culture. The work of Barrett Watten offers one example of what this alienation looks like.   

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Moore, Formalism & Post Avant [Part Two]

Of the two works, it might be easier to talk about Ketjak first, since it is clearly more accessible (in the sense of being apprehensible to the general reader) than is Progress.

Ketjak is a nested work, initiated with a seed phrase, expanding by increments of increasingly large size, from a single line--

Revolving door.

--with the last section being 1482 lines. It is written all in prose, with no concession to any idea of traditional "verse" or stanzaic setting. Nevertheless it has a certain musical quality, the sound of variable sentences and phrases, all of equal "value" along a line of address. There is no "argument" built of progressive statements in the prosaic sense, but simply an accretion of detail and assertion of various kinds, none of which is specifically connected or rationally linked to any other part. The basic element is the sentence, though many of the sentences are fragments (or phrases). Repetitions occur and reoccur (frequently altered), these in turn being incorporated into the ongoing flow. This is related to Stein's technique, but the level of statement and the content of the statements is more various, more specific, more interesting and more unusual than anything you find in Stein. Stein's statements and content are clearly generic in quality, whereas Silliman's are topical, quirky and multi-contextual. But both kinds of writing exclude time (narration) as a principle of development: This simultaneity creates a level playing field: There are no hierarchies of value superimposed upon the mass of arrowed propositions:

No hurry, no hassle. Only a thorough historical-materialist analysis, piercing the ideological fog maintained by the dominant coalition of interests and destroying the fetishes continually produced and reproduced by those concerned with the preservation of the status quo, only such historical-materialist analysis can hope to disentangle the snarl of tendencies and counter-tendencies, forces,influences, convictions and opinions, drives and resistances which account for the pattern of economic and social development. Heat ripples the air rising from the street, reshaping houses on the hill's other peak.

This is taken at random from the last section (block) of text. Since the statements don't occur in a predictable, or narrational sequence, we have no choice but to treat them either as random, or as disjunct statements. This apparent contradiction causes degrees of contrast and improbability.

In Moore's eccentric structures, scientific data and acute observation of minute particulars are dropped in (fitted) with considerable finesse; nevertheless, to the degree that such accommodation is a convenience (a realization of potential), it is no more revolutionary than an ode by Ben Jonson. But with this difference: Moore never lets the persuasive rhetoric of her prose become tangled up in, or mangled by the demands of the form; it is never primarily "musical" in effect, because it never forfeits its motive to expedience.

With Ketjak, all such notions as expedience and fitness are irrelevant.

We can perhaps understand how this common approach to form works by suggesting a function: Letting the empty "form" (or structure) of the poem stand for one dimension, with the words themselves comprising another dimension, and the content which the words embody, and to which they (the words) refer, comprising a third dimension. In Moore, the form's demands discipline (or limit) the syntactical options available. In Silliman's poem--based on groupings of sentences and phrases which do not build rhetorical structures--the arbitrariness of the form is matched by the apparent arbitrariness of the sequence of assertions, leaving meaning as residue. The sequence is self-reflective and self-referential on several levels, offering a number of possible metaphors for its own interpretation: A rock thrown into a pool, creating expanding circles which bounce back from shore, intersect, becoming increasingly complex. "The acoustics of emotion."

It may be a form of semiotic analysis, whose validity does not depend solely on the multi-permutations of application but on the interrelated observance of the field of proprositional formats.

--and so forth. How many kinds of statement are there here? How many different occasions are evoked by the varying levels of statement?

If Moore's poems are mannered evocations of the world seen through the taxonomy of naming and describing--each with its own generic code and internal clock, then Silliman's poem is an arbitration, or mediation, of the competing mental spheres of consciousness, each competing for attention, each equally valid, momentarily diverting--the rational and irrational spinning in a vortex of tagged signifiers.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Moore, Formalism & Post Avant [Part One]

Marianne Moore's place in the pantheon of Modernist poets is assured. She belongs in the company of Eliot, Williams, Pound, Stevens, Yeats on the strength of her revolutionary, stylistically daring, and exquisitely intelligent verse. And yet her work is strikingly different from all her male counterparts, who came to prominence after the First World War, so much so that it may almost seem that she occupies a position unique to herself. 

Whereas Eliot, Williams, Pound, and Stevens wrote an augmented free verse line based on the dramatic potentials of a liberated voice, Moore turned instead to strict, eccentric, forms as rigid, and frequently difficult of execution, as anything before in history. In what sense, then, is Moore "modern" as opposed to traditional?

Perhaps the question becomes clearer if we look at the work of Ron Silliman, or Barrett Watten. Later developments, as T.S. Eliot pointed out, often validate or make clearer early works, by showing how they work, how they "fit" into time's advance. The present can change the past. Take a work like Ketjak, or Watten's Progress

Each of these late post-Modern works employs a strict form--particularly Watten's--with its own specific formal design. That design is subjective and a priori:  It doesn't flow from the requirements of the "content" but is imposed from without, quite deliberately, even synthetically. One could with justice say that the form of each of these poems is completely arbitrary: There is nothing "inside" the poems which dictates the necessity of these forms. This kind of artificiality is exactly the quality you find in Moore's most innovative poems, such as (choosing at random), "The Jerboa," "The Fish," "To a Steam Roller" and so forth.  

Strict, even constricting form is in fact a hallmark of much post-Modern art. Think of Philip Glass, or Steve Reich. Think of I.M. Pei, Renzo Piano. 

The truncation of obdurate form against intractable subject is in fact what provides interest, especially when the "syntax" of construction (in all senses across the spectrum of media) is superficially illogical or arbitrary. 

The construction of a Moore poem depends upon a high degree of improbability (or stress) between a decorative form, and the appropriation of a technically exact, though frequently frivolous descriptive. It's almost an insolent quality. Williams had proposed poems defined as "new additions to nature"--suggesting that poems could have an organic unity of design as inevitable and logical as a living plant. Moore's poems are like literary mutations, growing out of a genetic code that is pre-ordained, and superficially odd; like animal forms, they exhibit certain symmetries, and are only constructed to function in one way, i.e., they can't be rearranged to suit another preference. 

The Fish  

through black jade.
   Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
   adjusting the ash-heaps;
      opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.
   The barnacles which encrust the side
   of the wave, cannot hide
      there for the submerged shafts of the

split like spun
   glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
   into the crevices--
      in and out, illuminating

turquoise sea
   of bodies.

--and so on. The pleasure we take in such elaborately eccentric stanzaic structures has little to do with the inherent qualities of their subjects. This is one valid complaint against traditional craft employments, that they are merely the pretext for the exercise of a verbal dexterity--a trivial skill without connection to worldly compulsions or necessities. What makes Moore--despite the uniqueness of her structural forms--different from, say, Swinburne or Tennyson? Could we imagine Berryman's Dream Songs, or Berrigan's Sonnets, without Moore's deviations, her slavish experiments in syllabics? 

In Moore these tensions produce delight, a breathtaking awe. When you finish one of her poems, nothing is left.  

In Watten's Progress, or Silliman's Ketjak, the pleasure of the text is incidental. Negation,* as a quality of ironic abandonment, is the dominant emotional undercurrent. Intersections of event and syntactic accident are treated as gratuitous, as if the poem were discovering connections accidentally. The lack of an evident permission to treat materials as if the world made sense, like the alienation of the possessed (Dostoevsky). It's a little like listening to an atonal opera inside a medieval cathedral: The form of the space as an ordination, the elastic flow of the sound a complex concatenation of discordant echoes; the mapped graph of those irremedial refractions.
*Negation, at least as Watten has defined it in several places:  Meaning a contrast to a prevailing mode--i.e., individuality, originality, difference, contrast, resistance, opposition, etc.   
[End Part One] 

Alec Guinness - Greatest Actor of the 20th Century

In the British Isles, there has been a long tradition of legitimate stage acting, which is unrivaled throughout the world. When cinema developed momentum in the 1920's--and with the arrival of the Talkies in 1927--film began to rival the stage as a venue for acting talent. The two media may have seemed quite different modes in those early days, but eventually their qualities became better defined, and their distinctions clearer. Sound is thought to have "ruined" the careers of certain actors, whose voices didn't match their silent acting abilities. "Old fashioned" acting methods--common to stage acting up to this point--were thrown into sharp relief by cinema. The degree to which the cinema actually changed the legitimate stage--particularly acting technique--is a story for another time. My point here is to suggest that certain actors/actresses were able to bridge the gulf between stage and film, to have, in effect, dual careers. This has become very much the exception since the Second World War, with film actors/actresses rarely maintaining separate skills (live and recorded).  

It's still true, however, that training in the legitimate stage probably is more effective in producing skilled actors, than starting out exclusively in film. Many actors find film acting to be difficult for one reason or another, though the demands for prolonged performance are rarely as great as they are in major stage roles. (It seems possible to construct a major career as a film actor, without ever having to develop any significant skills for real acting.) On the other hand, a legitimate actor may consider his talent squandered in film. The money, of course, in film, plays a large part in seducing serious acting talent away from the stage. In the case of Marlon Brando, for instance, a great acting career on the stage appeared to have been derailed when he moved over exclusively to movie roles.

The audience for theatre is quite limited when compared to that of film. Who would want the greatest acting talents confined to the theatre, when a great universal medium like film is available?  

The career of Alec Guinness presents the ideal of an actor whose legitimate stage career led directly to his success as a screen actor, but nevertheless didn't cause him to abandon the stage altogether. Such dual careers are of course more common in the British Isles than here. Laurence Olivier comes to mind, but there are countless others. Guinness's apprenticeship as a classically trained actor enabled him to express his talent in countless guises. Professionally modest, even meek, about his abilities, he was routinely able to place himself inside a vast array of strikingly diverse roles, both comic and heroic. 

Beginning with Great Expectations (1946), he did a string of film roles that is unrivaled by any other talent:

Oliver Twist 1948
Kind Hearts and  Coronets 1949
Last Holiday 1950
The Lavender Hill Mob 1951
The Man in the White Suit 1951
The Card 1952
The Captain's Paradise 1953
To Paris with Love 1955
The Ladykillers 1955
The Bridge on the River Kwai 1957
The Horse's Mouth 1958
Our Man in Havana 1959
Tunes of Glory 1960
H.M.S. Defiant 1962
Lawrence of Arabia 1962

--and these are only the highspots! In the space of only 15 years, he established himself as the major male acting talent of the post-War era. It is sometimes said that great acting careers are the result of shrewd part selection, that failed careers are often the result of actors "selling out" for pop roles, avoiding challenges and cashing in on a single success. This is certainly true in America, where an early plum role may lead to a string of howlers, as with Nicolas Cage, for instance, whose major performance in Moonstruck (1987) was cashed in for two dozen macho-action flicks. Why does one career go awry in this way, while another, say, like Kevin Spacey's, or Jeff Bridges', continues from one pinnacle to another? It probably has something to do with a proclivity for taking chances; but it's also the result of challenging oneself to higher standards of performance. Without a solidly grounded preparation of training, many American acting talents dither in the wind, reluctant to forego easy exploitation movies (and the easy money), in favor of more interesting parts that might relegate them to mere "character actor" status.
In Guinness's case, the tendency to take diverse roles seems to have worked to his advantage. Long before Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams essayed cross-dressing parts, Guinness was playing eight separate parts in the same movie [Kind Hearts and Coronets], one of which was a woman! It's difficult to imagine any Hollywood actor or actress trying anything half that ambitious today, both because of the difficulty of execution, and of the risk it would entail to "image" and "market continuity."

The studio system in Hollywood tended to typecast actors, and though that system is quite gone now, the vestiges of that approach to role choices remain in place. Actors still tend to measure the desirability of a part in relation to what they believe the "target audience" may expect. But looking at the successful career of Guinness, "image" and "expectation" probably played little or no part in the roles he chose. He was a professional actor; each role required that he exercise his ingenuity and guile to adapt himself to its specific demands. It wasn't about preserving his reputation, but about making good theatre (or good film). 

It is often remarked about Guinness that he was a humble man, self-effacing, quietly devoted to personal obligations--his marriage, the church, his interests--who always strove to maintain a business-like, courteous approach to his craft. It's unlikely we shall ever see his like again. A modest man, without vanity or confusion, who possessed a great talent which he used to bring entertainment to millions. It's not a little thing.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Brideshead Revisited [1981] - A Catholic Epic ?

Brideshead Revisited was adapted by the BBC as a television miniseries and released in 1981. It premiered on American PBS, and was an immediate hit, reprised several times, once with William F. Buckley (himself a Catholic) moderating episodes, once even inviting the critic Hugh Kenner to briefly discuss the implications of the plot. 

I was not raised Catholic. My parents forced me to attend Presbyterian for a few years as a boy (while they never went to church at all), but it never made much sense to me, and I learned practically nothing in Bible school. My first year in college, I had a Catholic roommate, but we never discussed religion, and he was soon to become "lapsed" himself. 

Therefore, a lot of the deeper emotional and philosophical issues which Waugh weaves into the drama are lost on me, or at least I don't feel them with anything like the intensity I suppose Catholics may experience. 

Waugh himself was a converted Catholic. It's a cliche that many of the most devout and committed members of any religious sect are converts. In Waugh's case, it seems to have been both an intellectual and personal persuasion, reflecting both a need to see life as part of a larger given structure, and a character "weakness" which expressed itself in a somewhat "dissolute" youth. 

The novel, published originally in 1945, has a nostalgic cast. It looks with some wistfulness back at the central character's romantic university years at Oxford, his later wandering years as a professional landscape painter, resigned to a dreary present circumstance as an officer in wartime Britain. The novel attempts to show how Charles Ryder's three failed loves--with Sebastian Flyte (a titled Lord), his college buddy; Celia, his stuffy wife; and Julia Flyte (Mottram), Sebastian's married sister--lead him to a reconciliation with his faith in larger purposes. 

Waugh unashamedly celebrates the upper classes, their privileged lives, their freedom, their indulgence, which is contrasted to the moral strictures of the church, the codes of behavior against which the Brideshead family measures itself. There's a lot of hypocrisy of various kinds, but none of that seems to alter Waugh's essential attitude:  No matter who you are, what kind of life you live, you can't escape the judgment of your own conscience, and the consequences of your wicked behavior. Not having been raised a Catholic, as I say, I was not very familiar with the concept of institutionalized guilt. Particularly, the notion that no matter how evil, how naughty one might be, there was always some expiation, some forgiveness, available, an ultimate salvation from mortal sin. 

As a piece of cinema, this production is almost without equal as an episodic panorama. Presented as a dozen hour-long episodes, it gives a vivid picture of a certain segment of British upper-class life over a 20 year period.   

Brideshead had never been dramatized before. The production (of 1981) was competent in all respects. Jeremy Irons played Charles Ryder, Anthony Andrews (most familiar to American audiences as the star of the BBC's Danger UXB, and a major part in Huston's Under the Volcano [1984]) played the difficult part of Sebastian, Diana Quick was Julia--with other major parts for Claire Bloom, John Gielgud, Jeremy Sindon, John Grillo, Charles Keating, Laurence Olivier, Stephane Audran, and Jane Asher. For American audiences, its picture of life in English country estate houses may be familiar from detective fiction, or Wodehouse comedies, but the class and sexual tensions are probably somewhat exotic. 

We have no specific  counterpart to British public prep schools, with their rituals of punishment and dog-pack pecking-orders, sado-masochistic homo-erotic routines. Upper-middle class Americans predictably fantasize about the trappings of titled entitlement, and the Ivory-Merchant period pieces have depended as much as anything on this obsessive New World preoccupation with Old World privilege. 

Nevertheless, I must confess to having been smitten with this effete, rarified vision of English sophistication, its wool suits, its brisk contemptuous wit, its breezy presumption and limp-wristed decadence. Sebastian's Teddy-bear may be the ultimate fetish of irresponsible leisure, but what American school-child hasn't been captivated by A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh and the cosseted world-view it portrays?
If Charles and Sebastian are insufficiently heroic in their rebellion against the staid conservatism of late Edwardian mores and prejudice, the qualities they do exude certainly offer a refreshing contrast to the bumptious athleticism of Studs Lonigan or James Cagney. 

As the sun set on the British Empire, her chosen sons graciously sank into irresistible decay and excess. To Waugh, the only moral salvation available became the Church of Rome, a symbol of Medieval order in a world of crumbling honor and good taste. The nostalgic innocence he reveres in this novel is identified with the purified duty and devotion of faith. As in Forster, the greatest tragedy is in growing old. Empires rise and fall, and proud young men either die or slip into drunkenness and dissolution.