Tuesday, July 30, 2013

critiquing a critic

My friend Nabina Das (writer and poet) brought this essay to my attention:

"What Should Be the Function of Criticism Today?"

It's by Anis Shivani. Aside from his analysis, his prose is cogent, intelligent, and even has a certain elegance. One must, of course, be careful about such things -- not conflate the quality of writing with the quality of the ideas expressed.

Whether what I have to say about this essay is coherent and significant or is just weird-headed, I think this is an important topic, and I enjoy putting one word down after another.

I agree with Shivani's overarching theme: literary criticism is a vital complement to creative literature. But whereas I would consider it subsidiary, he seems to be saying criticism is on an equal footing to the literary object itself. As if the story or poem is insufficient in itself to convey its own powers of impression and meaning. How bizarre.

Here on this very blog, I have argued that poets should also write some stuff about poetry, as opposed to only writing poems. So at least in that regard, Shivani and I are in sympathy. But beneath the arc of his general theme stands his insistence that criticism nowadays should be "humanist criticism" (that all the older forms are exhausted; that current forms are insular and anemic).

Shivani is mistaken in that suggested (declared?) form of replacement criticism. He argues as if the political-humanist context is the a priori or somehow given method for confronting the literary object. Literature -- story, poem -- is not really suited to such an imposed "philosophical" agenda. Rather, it is about an individual aesthetic response to being-in-the-world. Criticism should -- contrary to Shivani -- reflect, be sensitive to, and emphasize this ancient function, this aesthetic priority of a story or a poem. It seems to me that he dismisses with a wave of his hand the vogue or approach of New Criticism from the 1920s to the 1950s, which took the literary object to be of supreme concern as an aesthetic object.

In the first paragraph under "1. Provide deep context," he champions all the criteria that is beside the point to me (he leaves out the most significant thing -- literature as aesthetic-spiritual adventure):
How deep? Deeper than any form of literary criticism known today. Deep enough to include investigations of the author’s relationship to his specialty, the connections between her and others like her and unlike her, the evolution of her thought process both in an individual and collective manner, and every available insight from philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, art, and science to shed light on the work in question. 

I've come across few things more dubious and unsubstantiated than this claim about his proposed version of criticism:
It must be so erudite as to destabilize the veracity of the work under consideration. It must set itself up as an equal and opposing force against the work of imagination. 

Or this about his preference:
Every piece of criticism in this vein becomes an open-ended, demanding, ferocious, relentless investigation of morality at a structural level. 

Deep context means tackling the work of art at a level of complexity greater than its own, rather than retreating in the face of apparent self-containment.

My goodness! -- "tackling." That sounds a bit aggressive. How about this  instead: aesthetic engagement with the object of literature as a manifestation of language and consciousness within the mystery of time?

Shivani takes current post-structuralist versions of criticism to task for their perceived shallowness and artificiality. An emphasis on multiculturalism and identity politics in academia is, for me, rightly questioned by Shivani (all voices should be heard, if they're producing works of aesthetic excellence). And he might have a point about how the careerist aspects of conformity and self-referentiality dilute criticism of a living, breathing vitality.

He fails to realize, though, how superfluous his own prescription is for a new criticism -- what he oddly calls "deep criticism." There can be no deeper approach to the literary object than the aesthetic one (how its effects register along the spectrum of quality -- the quality of image, cadence, voice, intuition, metaphor, organization, development, compression, epiphany).

In "4. Connect to other cultural fields," Shivani says that our critics of today are too specialized, not broadly cultured enough to bring other enriching things to a work's evaluation. That other perspectives than those sanctioned by present theory should be brought to bear during a critique:
The ideal critic I am proposing will make it a habit not to explore connections between fields of culture for their own sake, but to radically expand the range of what it is possible for the critic to understand and convey.

To me, that goes without saying. Any good critique or essay worth its weight in words will bring many things from experience into the evaluation or sophisticated reverie. Really...did that even need to be said? Do critics today actually write without a background of various references and subliminal associations? If so, then something more elemental than mere critical posture is affecting academia and beyond -- a pathological lack of curiosity and failure of soul!

In "5. Be global," he argues for a sense of cosmopolitanism to enter American criticism. I've no problem with that.

In "6. Adopt a sharp point of view," we get this:
I would go so far as to claim that arguing from a strong point of view, proving and disproving premises, hammering away at opponents, abusing one’s enemies when necessary, overpraising and indulging and hitting hard and delving into personalities—all of it should be on the table if criticism is to be revived as a vital cultural enterprise.

That's a bit much. A critic's first and perhaps only duty is the exploration of a work's quality. If the emphasis is on argument and premise for their own sake, with the work fading from the foreground, then it becomes more about the critic than the work. And "overpraising" -- what the hell's up with that?

The critic must be willing to explore and expose his own biases, his prejudices, his subjective disabilities and strengths, his irrationalities, and his passions and hatreds, so that the reader is challenged to respond or retreat, as the case may be.

I'm on board with that. But in "7. Argue from personalities," things go haywire:
What I am calling for is a radical subjectivisation of criticism, so that the critic’s personality can be front and center; it doesn’t always have to be, but there should be more than plenty of room for it. What this will require is the expansion of the reduced boundaries of confessionalism from the present arena of private dysfunction to the critic’s relationship with society, including his relationships with publishers, editors, and fellow writers, his relationship to work and to literary status or lack thereof, his education and class, his politics as they affect his personal life, his quirks and idiosyncrasies, his acts of violation, solicitude, trespassing, and intrusion, whatever makes him respond personally to the work or author or genre in question.

When I read a critical review of a text, I want the critic there only implicitly, with his aforementioned prejudices, irrartionalities, passions present behind the scenes. I'm interested in the story or the poem, not in the critic's "relationship with society" or his publishers or his freaking status. His class, quirks, and trespasses are already boring me. Good grief!

I'm of the opinion that most literature these days -- story and poem -- is rather dismal. But there are examples of brilliance approaching genius, works that deserve praise and promotion. So the following from "8. Dispute the possibility of art" strikes me as extreme and ridiculous (again, the critic elevated beyond the work -- surely Mr. Shivani got overheated and carried away with himself here):
I believe that this is one of the most important functions of the critic of the future—not to proselytize on behalf of particular works of art, but to quarrel with the very possibility that any art is possible in the age of new media, whose early stages suggest much more radical changes to come. Continuing to try to prove the existence and importance of art, high or low or in-between, is a losing proposition. It creates the opposite of the intended effect. The only way that art can become central again is if it is attacked repeatedly and from every front, from every angle possible, by critics agnostic about its existence, or even militantly atheist toward it. Instead of advocating for art, the critic of the future should passionately foretell its demise, marshal every resource at his disposal to bring it down, to bring the whole miserable enterprise to an end. This confrontational posture is the only service a critic can provide to art at this late juncture; everything else is mere dishonesty that doesn’t compel strong artists into being.

Shivani continues his rage against the machine:
What function can poetry possibly serve when all the poetic dreams have been appropriated by the media, converted into debased forms of visual manipulation and aggressive denial?
Poetry is not for society at large. Poetry is for poetry. Poems are written because the ancient, organic drives of wonder and saying are perennial ones. Good, even great poems will always be written. Bad ones, too. Critics are not going to change the basic dynamic. At most, they can discover quality and bring it to the attention of those disposed to receive it.

In "9. Make the tradition new," Shivani argues that the avant-garde and other current meretricious eruptions should be abandoned in favor of revitalizing old stuff from the canon. That writers should return to the "musty"and "baroque" examples in order to find new voices and inspirations. I don't like the sound of that. Prescriptions about a more or less universal style and attitude to creative writing is arrogant and claustrophobic. Any age or era has within its cultural DNA the potential for mutations of originality, brilliance, and spiritual depth. Fiction, poetry, whatnot -- they all are possibilities of the profound, as long as the aesthetic -- language as conveyance of quality -- is the dominant complexion of consciousness.

There are works of brilliance out there -- unexpected, unprecedented, uncanny things. It's the critic's and the editor's job to go out and discover them. Not to impose some kind of cultural predetermination and preference.

In the final section "10. Downplay politicalization," Shivani is on the right track. Politics and art don't mix well at all for me. But maybe not for the same reasons he is against it. I get the impression that if art was in a healthier condition, then the political could suavely move into it and make itself at home:
If the critic can address the problem of politics with the subtlety I propose, he can end up redefining the problem of authenticity for our times—just as in directly interjecting his personality into criticism, he can help redefine the problem of confession and privacy.

The "times" can take care of itself. Stories and poems take place in a region of the timeless. Authenticity and politics are artificial and incommensurate temporalities. The work of art is too much related to the mystical and the mysterious for such trespassing nonsense.

Imagine a composer sitting down to create authentic and political music. Then imagine the later critical exegesis. A composer sits down to create music as music. His critic should listen to the inner harmonics of that soulful aural effusion.

In the final paragraph, Shivani says: "...and the work of art is judged above all else for its artistic qualities." That's the first instance in the whole essay where I found such an emphasis. Maybe the quality of a work of art is important to Shivani, but he certainly went to a lot of effort disguising it. More important to him, it seemed, was establishing a new critic-centered criticism and promulgating a new consciousness about making art. Less important, it seemed, was a humble evaluation of what has been made by an actual maker. Because he goes on to say in that paragraph that the critic "should help bring about a new subjectivity."

I've come upon this kind of general essayistic tonality before, in regards to a "new" criticism. To this kind of contextual imposition. Usually, it's in the form of: poetry should try to change society, should have a political cast or imperative about it. Shivani isn't that wayward. But it's a worrisome trend that intelligent writers like him would also presume too much about the state of poetry and downplay the significance of a work's internal, autonomous energies.

The only "theory" that should be in play regarding literary criticism is a Theory of Wonder.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Tom Sawyer on a Latesummer Night's Dream

Calling myself Tom is a poetic stretcher,
but since this here's a poem, I'll let er fly.

Was it an old memory at 3 AM last night
while spinning inside my head sleepless,
or was it the memory of an old dream?
I'd have to flip a Confederate coin to know.

Took place in a rolling, roaming countryside,
not flat like here, with cotton, beans, maize.
It was old-fangled south Arkansas country,
where mysterious-wild, heavy trees thought.

I was 12 and spent the night with Gary Love
(Clyde Gray might have too, but I ain't sure),

way out in the country where his family lived.
If this really happened, we snuck out excited
into midnight, moonlight, fairy-scented air.
The season here for watermelon-pilfering!

We lit out over the rolling, wooded countryside,
like sly Injuns after a rancher's prized palomino. 
We scampered here and we bush-ducked there,
then right onto the wide-open space for running
full-tilt, eye-bulging, goose-fleshing throttle!

But let's back up for just a patient second.
I got another maybe memory pokin' through.
There might have been a ghost guy in a hat,
sitting under a hickory tree, smoking a pipe,
giving us good advice on stealing melons.

That ain't really no nevermind.
So back to running like the wind
over the damp grass somewhere
in a south Arkansas late summer.

Must've been three hundred yards
to the melon farmer's large patch.
We prayed he was fast asleep, not
waiting with a rock-salt shotgun.

Me and Gary (and Clyde?) got nice melons!
Lugged our treasure through dim moon glow.
What did we tell Gary's momma the next day
with our oblong evidence of bedtime larceny?
If it really happened, she'da wore us flat out
with a sweet-gum switch cut fresh to order.
And not phoned ahead to other mothers
for written, certified, legal permission.

This happened or it didn't happen.
I'm too weary now to sort it all out.

But when you're sleepless in Arkansas,
it's like having amnesia among nostalgics
at a meeting for wistfulness addiction.

Something's bound to burst on through 
to keep yourself company while awake,
to weave vines in the ripening night.

~ TB, 2013

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Mr. Shakespeare...

...knew how to say stuff. 

In the lines below, from Hamlet, the sentimental fuses seamlessly with the metaphysical and uncanny -- the presence of an absence.

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?

the Korean War -- Chosin

In 1950, the UN forces at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir totaled 30,000, of which 80% were US Marines. Against them were arrayed 10 Chinese divisions totaling 67,000 troops. 

The UN forces were surrounded and cut off, in the freezing December conditions. Marine Fox Company was trapped in Toktong Pass for five days of brutal engagement. Eventually, break out and a fighting, walking retreat through Hell Fire Valley toward Koto-ri 60 miles away: frostbite, snipers, night attacks. Reciprocal assaults by Marines up mountain slopes to quell the Chinese, to protect the trucks bearing dead and wounded below.

The Korean War tends to get overlooked in the annals of US conflicts. The fighting was as vicious and difficult as in any war before or since. The stamina and courage of Marines against crushing odds were remarkable.

Chosin: The epic Korean War battle Hollywood overlooked

Saturday, July 27, 2013


One of my favorite comic book series, from Dark Horse Comics.

If you like fantasy-horror-sci fi, this is good stuff. Well written and the artwork is evocative, intriguing, and occasionally unsettling.

Here's some covers:

one of the TPBs
Dark Horse page

a single issue
Dark Horse page

a single issue
Dark Horse page

 a single issue
Dark Horse page

a single issue
Dark Horse page

a single issue
Dark Horse page

a single issue
Dark Horse page

Friday, July 26, 2013

Nänie -- by Brahms

An elegy on the transience of life.

Words by Friedrich Schiller:

Auch das Schöne muß sterben! Das Menschen und Götter bezwinget,
Nicht die eherne Brust rührt es dem stygischen Zeus.
Einmal nur erweichte die Liebe den Schattenbeherrscher,
Und an der Schwelle noch, streng, rief er zurück sein Geschenk.
Nicht stillt Aphrodite dem schönen Knaben die Wunde,
Die in den zierlichen Leib grausam der Eber geritzt.
Nicht errettet den göttlichen Held die unsterbliche Mutter,
Wann er am skäischen Tor fallend sein Schicksal erfüllt.
Aber sie steigt aus dem Meer mit allen Töchtern des Nereus,
Und die Klage hebt an um den verherrlichten Sohn.
Siehe! Da weinen die Götter, es weinen die Göttinnen alle,
Daß das Schöne vergeht, daß das Vollkommene stirbt.
Auch ein Klagelied zu sein im Mund der Geliebten ist herrlich;
Denn das Gemeine geht klanglos zum Orkus hinab.

English translation:

Also Beauty must perish! What gods and humanity conquers,
Moves not the armored breast of the Stygian Zeus.
Only once did love come to soften the Lord of the Shadows,
And at the threshold at last, sternly he took back his gift.
Nor can Aphrodite assuage the wounds of the youngster,
That in his delicate form the boar had savagely torn.
Nor can rescue the hero divine his undying mother,
When, at the Scaean gate now falling, his fate he fulfills.
But she ascends from the sea with all the daughters of Nereus,
And she raises a plaint here for her glorified son.
See now, the gods, they are weeping, the goddesses all weeping also,
That the beauteous must fade, that the most perfect one dies.
But to be a lament on the lips of the loved one is glorious,
For the prosaic goes toneless to Orcus below.

about Brahms's Violin Concerto

In reading the book Brahms by Malcolm MacDonald (The Masters Musician Series, Schirmer Books, 1990)...

...I came across the following, which is about the Finale of the Violin Concerto:

Brahms had second and third thoughts about the tempo of the last movement: he marked it Allegro giocoso with the qualifying phrase ma non troppo vivace, which he then deleted, and later reinstated -- fortunately, as too quick a tempo robs the principal theme of its characteristic mixture of fiery rhythmic excitement with a curious earthy stateliness, as of a joyous yet heavy-footed peasant dance. This Finale, in a concerto conceived for and dedicated to Joachim, is inevitably a rondo of 'gypsy' bravura, paying homage to Joachim's own Concerto in the Hungarian Manner (dedicated to Brahms). It is however a taut and complex design, owing little to the perpetuum mobile manner of the Finale of Joachim's Concerto, even less to the 'Rondo alla Zingarese' from Brahms's G minor Piano Quartet, but a fair amount to the last movement of that other Joachim-inspired work, the A minor String Quartet, op. 51 no. 2 -- especially in its virtuosic displays of rhythmic variation and syncopation. Subsidiary ideas include a magnificently choleric dotted-rhythm figure in staccato octaves, and a suave dolce tune that is usually described as an entirely new element but is in fact a fairly clear variation of the rondo subject (at least, that is how I have always heard it). After an intoxicating development of the rondo theme proper that elevates the peasant dance into regions of metaphysical hilarity, a brief accompanied cadenza leads to the large and eventful coda, where the tempo finally changes to Poco più presto and the rondo material is wittily transformed into a rollicking bucolic march in 6/8, with the violin elatedly conjuring a stream of fresh variations above it. Eventually the energy dissipates and the violin descends contentedly to earth before the orchestra's last affirmative chords.

That, of course, reminds me of how Jascha Heifetz compromised his otherwise exemplary 1955 recording (with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). He ignored the Finale's qualifying phrase ma non troppo vivace (but not too lively). Heifetz plays it too fast, which constricts or compresses the rhythm, and thereby diminishes the third movement of its charming natural spirit.

This is way-important stuff. Getting the tempo right in the Finale to Brahms's incredible concerto is essential.

Here's how it's done wrong:

Here's how it's done right:

writing against writing

Whenever I notice that someone has written a work of fiction set during the Holocaust, I flinch. Adorno's complex statements about no poetry after the Holocaust return to me on such occasions, and I apply them, in my own way, to the possibility of fiction.

I think such writers of fiction about the Holocaust should be cautious. Especially about that subtle thing Adorno considered: culture has become diffused into a totalizing, therefore leveling, of consciousness. Everything is equal to everything. The vertical pitch of the unspeakable would get flattened into the horizontal frequency of the mundane. 

So...writers of fiction about the Holocaust should almost be writing against the very act of writing. And against the way reception of writing has also become totalized, leveled, conventional. That way any cheapening, dramatic, careerist, ironic, gratuitous effects would be canceled out in advance. 

What would be left over? I have no idea. But what happened back then is, at least for me, beyond the power of fictional imagining.

Side note --W.G. Sebald found a way to background the Holocaust. But are his books mostly fiction or mostly autobiographical? That leaves the question of fiction as such still not fully addressed. Nonetheless, he did manage to write towards the subject in a subtly artistic manner. The unspeakable remains at a safe distance from clumsy attempts at verisimilitude and drama. It's implicit in the moods, circumstances, and words of the characters. It looms powerfully that way. Sebald's way was a respectful way.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

sort of visiting New York City

Listening to this, I find myself inside a New York City taxi cab...in some unspecified era...day and night simultaneously...people in hats everywhere...time becoming pure syncopation...space becoming mode of wonder...music as pure Situation.....

as the muse turns

From Vladimir Mayakovsky's poem "A Cloud in Trousers":

You swept in abruptly like 'take it or leave it!' Mauling your suede gloves, you declared: 'D' you know, I'm getting married.' 
All right, marry then. So what, I can take it. As you see, I'm calm! Like the pulse of a corpse. 

He was perpetually in love with his muse Lilya Brik. Near the end (suicide or execution?), it's rumored she and her husband spied on him for the Soviet authorities (he was too expressive for the establishment).  

Let that soak in. 

Lilya might have spied on the guy who adored her. If so, were she and her husband coerced or threatened to do so? I don't like the feel of that. I prefer to think of that rumored betrayal as a dream/nightmare turn. As a poignant, absurd, and beautiful wounding. A just-so weird thing.


Things are going along in a certain and deepening manner. Then suddenly, glance and gesture change their known demeanor. The dream or life shifts into the form of a linear abyss. Known, adored glance and gesture now a stab in each eye. Confusion and vertigo! Love and its contradiction! 

As if -- he who lives too expressively and loves too deeply shall be reported to the gods of balance and correction.

1893 - 1930

it must be so

It's the rare thing that lasts 30 seconds while also never ending inside your head. A sideways space has been opened to become a volume of the inexplicable. And within that space, something not exactly real weaves around itself a palpable web of the truer-real. 

In my arrogant opinion, coming across genuine contemporary surrealism is something that verges on the impossible. These days, you observe painters, writers, theater directors, and filmmakers trying too damn hard to be surreal. It's cloying, and it pisses me off. Surrealism flowing with the natural-unnatural is rare and beyond the pale. 

Yet four years ago, my first encounter with author Kris Saknussemm was in the form of 57 words lasting 30 seconds (which also never ends for me). That written eruption gives the true masters of surrealism from back in the day a tight run for the money. There's a quality of strange beauty and a quality of spiritual it-must-be-so about it. For a Westerner, only China could be the endless aesthetic of the sideways sublime. The symbolic of a regular dream finds itself shanghaied into the awesomeness of a hyper-dream.

Here it is:

Watching the old men betting on a cricket fight in Guangzhou. Two female students I knew float by in an enormous tea cup, the kind with the dragons on it that change color when you pour in the hot water. It looks strangely innocent in the sludge of the Pearl River amongst the barges and industrial boats.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

a Chopin Nocturne

Maria João Pires!


The link below is to the lyrics for Bob Dylan's song "Highlands." On YouTube, the song is only available in a crappy-quality live performance. 

Anyway, this song means a great deal to me.

Valses Poeticos -- Granados

As far as philosophy goes...

...I'm only interested in those philosophers who touch the "other world" -- the bizarreness of Kant's thing-in-itself, the dark uncanny of Schopenhauer's numinous Will, the ecstatic absurd of Nietzsche's Dionysian, the haunting allure of Wittgenstein's "what can't be said," the abyssal "truth" of Heidegger's Being-of-beings.

I read philosophy more in the spirit of a plunge into Fairy Tale, an attempt to peek behind the veil of moribund, conventional phenomena. As opposed to an observing of rational constructions about substances of thought ready-to-hand (boring stuff, like logic, empiricism, ethics, whatnot).

And I would make a piss-poor scientist. I'd probably experiment by seeing what would happen if I loaded a Ferris wheel with howler monkeys and ran it backwards quick-march on Halloween midnight. Just to rule in or out anything hyper-ordinary. You just never know....

I'm chillin' with László

With László Lajtha (1892 - 1963).

Trio No. 2 -- for Cello, Flute, and Harp

my favorite baseball guy

Warren freaking Spahn -- from back when I was a kid. 

Wish I still had my old baseball cards. I would sit on the porch in lost summers, shuffling through those rectangular wonders, for hours. The uniforms, the poses, the statistics on the backs of the cards. The suggestion of unknown cities, great feats -- all kinds of vague stuff.

And going to Howard's Newsstand once a week to buy three or four packs of cards! Opening them slowly with held breath. If you got a card you didn't have -- especially one you really wanted -- the moment was like a religious experience, the very air taking on a soft glow and your toes going numb.

A first look...

...at Dave McKean's cover and interior artwork for Sandman: Overture #1:

at Shelf Life

I'm spacing out

Some folks say time is an illusion. Well, I don't have time for that kind of thing. 

I'm too busy fretting over location. Sometimes, it seems impossible that I happen to be located and not un-located. How in the world could I be taking-up-space when I don't know what space is? Outer space can go screw itself. I'm worried about walking-around, everyday space. What's not there but is there to keep me from being smeared across time. 

Physicists toss around the word "space," as if it's natural, identified. They graph it out with arithmetic and drop steel balls on it, so gravity will have something to do. I ain't buying it. 

Space (thus a location in it) is some kind of trick or nightmare. How did it get here? Don't give me "the Big Bang." That's like saying "three monkeys are less than two ducks." I'm telling you, walking-around space is invisible and not even there, yet it is. You can't bang out something that messed up. 

I'm growing irritated. Until I figure out why space is not even anything but is something, I don't even want to move. Until I know why I'm located wherever I happen to be while space is not there but is, I'm not going to play that tune.

coolest band ever was

Schumann's FANTASY

The pieces of Kreisleriana point by turns to Kapellmeister Kreisler (G minor) and Clara (B flat major), whereas the great C-Major Fantasy, in its passion and introspection, has remained “the emblem of the piano’s soul” (Edwin Fischer).

~ Alfred Brendel on Schumann

Waterline repair!

I'm getting good at digging holes, locating leaks, sloshing around in the clayey mud, and making repairs. Fourth time in 15 years. It's become, like, a chronic hobby.

If you're depressed...

...write a pleasant freaking poem. If you're pleasant, write something to make gargoyles shudder. Keep yourself off-balance, self-suspicious, counter-active. Confession is the hobgoblin terrorizing poetry.

Better still, neither smile nor frown. Better is bemusement at the worlding-forth.

Good Vibrations!

Branagh's MACBETH

National Theatre

Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata

The other three movements, available at YouTube, also please my head. It took me a little while to find a cellist, pianist, and recorded sound quality that pleased my head.

Sometimes and for uncertain reasons...

...a guy just wants to drift on over to Armenia on the slow movement of Khachaturian's Flute Concerto. 

A region panoramic and mysterious opens within the music....

50 Russian poets...

...unveiled in online anthology: from Russia Beyond the Headlines

Also there:  "Beyond Akhmatova and Pasternak: Discovering Soviet poets"

Read Russia

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


I saw by chance Sweden thinking
on a face beyond my comprehension.
A light through ocean air almost holy
and hesitant as the language of the dead
seemed to be absorbed into her spirit.
So that's why Bergman's films glow
the absent god's consequence!

The Modern spirit of Sweden is not fathomable. 

Poetry has no chance of escaping
the gravity of a downward glance
toward a strong and willed becoming.
Liselotte lives the air and it becomes her.

I think she must draw into herself
the echoes of shore gulls shrieking,
turning into cadences of ghostly verses.

I saw by chance Sweden in human reverie
on the pale brow of a distant auteur being.
And I've learned that life is stranger still

than great powers of my imagining. 

~ TB, 2013

Alfred Brendel on music stuff

Monday, July 15, 2013

will wonders never cease?.....

a poem by Benjamin Fondane

The Refusal of the Poem

The daughters of song came:
“Would you take us, naked,
our lips lavender scented?”

– I dream of valleys in Finland
where soldiers of ice sleep.

The salt virgins of the poem
said, “it is time we were loved.
We are naked under our skin.”

– I dream of watery ships
drowned behind glass.

The supple whores of my dream
call to me, “let go, dive in
where the fish are fresh and dumb.”

– I dream of Germany's prisoners
gaunt beneath the whip ...

The sweet mothers of sleep
coo, “go to bed, your big toes
pointing to the tip of sleep.

The Sleeping Beauty in man
lives on kisses alone...”

– I dream of the vast embers
that flare around the earth ...

The toothless hag of death
said, “each horse has its bit.
Your lot is a slow death.
So like it or not, sing!
No one has a right to mercy.
What do you think, vague shade?”

– My dearest, I dream of Prague.
I don't hear, I no longer hear
the prayers of her synagogues.


translated by Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody

Fondane (1898 - 1944)

I'm thinking about the White Army

And about the White Movement in Russia between 1917 and 1922, in opposition to the Bolshevik Reds.

a White Army battalion flag

Most Whites were anti-Semitic, desiring to unify Russia according to its "true" essential soul. Many were fervent Tsarists. Some were constitutionalists. A few apolitical. For the most part, an autocratic bent of mind shaped the White perspective. Yet there was no overarching, controlling ideology. It was an amalgam. Cossacks and conflicts, Denikins and divisions.  

I have this cinematographic image in my head of Whites on horses charging across some wide vista. Swords and aristocratic conviction amid dust clouds and defeat.

The word "surreal" is overused. I use it too much. But since Surrealism was in the very air elsewhere, maybe it's okay if I think something of that quality settled upon Russia during this time.

The Bolshevik leaders were a strange, unnerving lot. The Whites perhaps more so, ensconced as they were in visions of the past and nervous glances toward the future. The times they were a-changin', but those White guys wanted to yank tight on the reins. Conservatism always goes around with a musty cloud over its head. Tradition and nostalgia are fine as inspirations for music but maybe not so much as the structure for governing a desperate population.  

I have another image in my head. On some estate or in some fine dacha, old mustachioed generals debate strategy between weeping bouts of melancholy. Off in the corner and sitting at a little round table in the shadows, the second cousin of an attache is thinking: "Only a poet perceives the absurdity of kings as well as Caesar within the slave."

So...what if the White Army and Movement had won? What if the cruel Stalin had not risen to power? I have no idea. But it's "surreal" enough to bring a pleasant and idle pondering. About what Russia might be like today if those White guys had shoved those Red guys out of the way.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Osip Mandelstam...

...described Armenia in this way: “...a book of ringing clays...a festering text, a precious clay, that hurts us like music, like the word."

I'd believe anything...

...sung by this fellow

"A Quarter Century Has Passed..."

Why did Georgy Ivanov emigrate from Russia? I don't know. It seems that he longed for Russia. The lines below are good lines, but do they add up to something that a non-Russian reader of today would consider an exemplary poem? Is this poem too self-absorbed and insular, lacking a universal significance or appeal? 

This poem freaking works. For two reasons. 

We don't have to worry about self-absorption and insularity because we, through some odd magic, become this poet. The experience of these lines is now our experience. It's like how you can become totally identified with the experience of a black-and-white foreign film from the 1950s. In that case, the director conjures a world of subtle materials that act on the viewer with a magnetic sympathy. In the present case, the poet Ivanov creates an environment of compelling psychological impressions that we fall into and, for a few moments, make our own. That might sound like how any poem functions. Maybe so, but Ivanov's is not any poem. It impresses us with its unusual complexion of written art.

Further, we are granted access to something universal: a quarter century, stars, cities, blissful South, murmur of waves, golden wine. All these have a symbolic power beyond the local, visceral effect that could be found in lesser poems. Somehow Ivanov -- because he's Russian? -- manages to charge those terms with a kind of mystical, extra-sensory glow. They briefly lodge in our third eye and take our breath.

Ivanov said he would return to Russia after death as his poems. I don't think he necessarily meant his poems would be published there posthumously. I think he meant his spirit would float there one day in the form of poems. A ghost made of words on the wind. A ghost and its old companion uncovering the light of a Silver Age star sunken into nostalgia.

A Quarter Century Has Passed... -- Georgy Ivanov

A quarter century has passed abroad
and hope has become a joke.
The radiant starscape above Nice
is permanently my native sky.

The stillness of the blissful South,
the murmur of waves, the golden wine...

But a Petersburg blizzard is singing
in the snow-plastered window,
that the prophecy of a dead friend

will surely come to pass.

"We shall meet again in Petersburg,
as though we had buried the sun there." - O Mandelshtam


Georgy Ivanov (1894 - 1958)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

everything is falling

Planets fall in orbit around stars. Rainwater seeps on down into Earth's crust. Tides fall toward shores (I think). Rebellious angels are drop-kicked out of Paradise and descend toward Hell. People fall in love.

Everything is falling. What could this possibly mean? I'm serious.

Gravity must be thoroughly investigated. With kaleidoscopes, ether magnets, and special séances at Princeton.

upon the liquid surface of the questionable

Werner Herzog has an acting role in the wonderful film Incident at Loch Ness. The movie is a subtle indictment of the credulous. He's coaxed to board the monster-seeking boat. He does his best to join in the spirit of seriousness about the endeavor. He is uncharacteristically patient with the logic-dubious cryptozoologist. He even gets communally alarmed during an inexplicable episode. 

But...overall, our good man gives off an air of ennui and quiet exasperation about the whole enterprise. This performance -- the presence of the eccentric Herzog -- does extensive implicit damage to clanky forms of belief. His "ecstatic truth" has more to do with imagination-as-artform than with para-delusion.

a taste for modern music

When I was 17, I ran with Paul, Robert, Morris, and Harper. We were "The Five." We'd drive around El Dorado, Arkansas at night in Paul's light-blue Pontiac, talking about girls and stuff and thinking up things to do: looking for ghosts in forsaken country cemeteries, talking about girls, zooming over Dead Man's Hills at maximum speed to see if we would survive the multiple lift-offs, going to the drive-in theater to watch spaghetti westerns while smoking Hava Tampa Jewel cigars, talking about girls, spending the night near the Louisiana border in a shack so we could drink beer illegally.

The first time I drank a beer, it was a Schlitz tallboy. It tasted like cold aardvark piss. But I persevered -- drank four of em almost simultaneously. Got obliterated. So it was worth it. Took a while, but I eventually developed a taste for beer. I love it.

It took me some time to get used to and then appreciate modern music. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók, Shostakovitch, Weinberg, Gerhard, Schnittke, Lutoslawski, Dutilleux, Eliot Carter, some others.

This was not like 18th- and 19th-century form and sound. Melody, harmony, rhythm had now gone haywire. Astringent, dissonant, atonal, kaleidoscopic. Some consider it unpleasant and musically nonsensical. A trial to endure.

But as I opened myself to this music, a new and different kind of aesthetic response happened. For me, modern music creates a hypnotic spell of fantasy and a delirium of time. As if existential puppets had come to life, breathing their quizzical, fractal, and darkly beautiful traumas into aural form.

A new substance, a new way of being-in-the-ears. I love it.

Sometimes, I say to myself....

..."I shall write a poem!" 

I circle around the sheet of paper while jagged Tesla bolts of confessional misery and self-absorption shoot from my head. Just before they touch and scorch the unsuspecting sheet, I pull back and try to gather my senses -- "What the hell am I doing?" 

But then the rabid lightning squeezes out again. So I slap myself, then fling myself against the wall. Ricocheting from one side of the hallway to another, like that transforming dude in the movie Altered States. After a duration of such self-therapy, I regain control and finally sit down to try and write a poem.

In my insane opinion, a poem should open space for the weird of the out-there, the odd of the time-here, the wonder of the gone-where. In other words, ego sublimated into a different substance.