Thursday, November 28, 2013

In Memoriam - Coco Rose Faville ("Sunshine") RIP


Coco Rose Faville -  

Dates: 7/15/94 - 11/24/13

For almost 20 years, we lived every day with Coco, a "mini-" Siamese cat whom we acquired from a family on the Peninsula shortly after she was born. This family nicknamed her "Popcorn" because she was so bouncy and energetic. Her middle name was "Rosey" as a result of her rose-tinted nose (which doesn't show in the picture). 

As a kitten, she was a ball of energy and curiosity, and would not be deterred from pursuing something she had fixed her attention on. An aggressive eater, she would binge and regurgitate, almost like a little bulimic. She was very intelligent, and could usually anticipate everything before it actually happened. Whenever we returned home after a day's work or a weekend away, she invariably greeted us with cries of welcome and excited anticipation. She was a happy creature, delighted to be alive, delighted to share her life with us.  

We had gotten her because we thought we wanted to breed her. First, we placed her with a professional breeder in Stockton, who put her into a cage with a large feral male who bullied and intimidated her, and the mating was unproductive.  We purchased a young male from this same breeder, thinking to have the two of them breed, again without success. Later, we learned that her uterus was defective, and she was neutered. The little male, too, turned out to have defective equipment. But we didn't regret ending up with either cat. 

Coco lived gracefully into old age. At about 18, she began to develop kidney problems--a not uncommon ailment among domestic felines--and to be chronically dehydrated. She would wake up in the middle of the night demanding to be hand-watered from the sink faucet.

In her youth, she loved to be put on her little red leash, and walked out in the yard. She was inventive in play, and would chase a toy mouse around for hours. Though slight of build, she could defend her turf, and took no nonsense from the two males she shared the house with. Always affectionate, she never was temperamental, was always tractable, easy to bathe and groom, and cooperative on her visits to the vet. 

We thought of Coco as the perfect family pet, and grew to regard her as a permanent and enduring fixture in our lives--the spiritual anchor and rock of stability in a world of change and jeopardy. When she became seriously ill a few months ago, we refused to accept that she might not live forever, and tried every kind of medical treatment short of dialysis to extend her life. Finally, last week, she began to fail, despite all our efforts. Rather than put her down, which we hadn't done with any of our previous cats, we opted to let her die at home. She drew her last breath on Sunday morning, without any apparent pain, and passed into heaven. We have been in mourning since. Coco is irreplaceable, and we'll never quite get used to the idea that she isn't somewhere in the house, sleeping curled up on a pillow, dreaming cat dreams.  


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Classic / Cinematic / LA Confidential / Quiet City

"The best artists don't invent; they steal." 

This has been one of the semi-apocryphal adages in the arts for a generation or three. Each generation of makers builds on the shoulders of the one preceding, so it goes, or ransacks history for inspiration not immediately available in the present. The best kind of inspiration is often an immersion in the many examples of the past, which fill your imagination with fresh approaches. This has been true across the artistic spectrum. Ultimately, we cannot NOT know about things that have been done in the past, though certain works or texts may be forgotten or neglected, only to be "re-"discovered at a later date. Combinations of forms or ideas can lead to new inventions--this principle was the basis for a diverting BBC/PBS series called Connections, presented by its Author james Burke. Though Burke was primarily interested in science and technology, the same kinds of synergistic principles he discussed apply to art and literature. One thing leads to another, and different applications of one idea may open up a whole area of research and experiment. 

On a very basic level, cross-fertilization in the arts is a commonplace of our time. Musical composers in the classical tradition may try their hand at composing movie music, or theatre music. In this instance, a very skilled cinematic composer, Jerry Goldsmith, whose rap sheet includes hundreds of full movie scores, in addition to straight orchestral music, was active for over 50 years in Hollywood ; during his career, he was nominated countless times for music and movie awards, and won several. LA Confidential [1997, Regency/Wolper/Warner Brothers]was a surprisingly faithful adaptation of James Ellroy's hard-boiled contemporary noir account of the Los Angeles Police Department corruption during the early 1950's, seen through the eyes of a smut-raking "police gazette" journalist, and two competing department lieutenants, one a tough no-nonsense muscle-guy, the other an ambitious by-the-book self-promoter.

The story is filled with violence and sex, and Goldsmith's score addresses those themes directly; but the lyrical central theme owes much to the "urban romantic" styles of the 1930's, and you can clearly hear his back-channel inspiration in a piece like Aaron Copland's Quiet City [1940, for trumpet, English horn and strings]. Other mood sequences from Goldsmith's score can be heard here (particularly the conclusion 'The Victor').     

Composing for the movies requires a clear comprehension of the part that music can play during narrative action. There's seldom time to lay out an unfolding musical line of any length, since the focus of the audience's attention is on the story, not the music itself. In addition, a movie composer hasn't the luxury to apply just the preferred stylistic trope he might feel most comfortable with; he has to be familiar and skilled with all kinds--classical, jazz, folk, pop, advertising, and novelty. All may be used in a single production, and the most successful in the field usually must adapt to the projects they're given, rather than having the advantage of choosing what to work on. 

Some modern classical composers have tried their hand at movie music. A good example would be Aaron Copland, whose did scores for The Red Pony [Republic Pictures, 1948], Of Mice and Men [Hal Roach Studios, 1939], Our Town [Sol Lesser Productions, 1940], The North Star [Samuel Goldwyn, 1943], The Heiress [Paramount, 1949], in addition to writing for the ballet [Appalachian Spring, 1944], and the theatre. All these pieces, I suppose it should be noted, belong to a certain period in American art when nativism and social conscience were important commitments. In the movie business (as well as in the musical theatre), the bottom line has almost always been more important than the underlying production values. 

Is it possible to make great art under conditions of commercial pressure? We know that it is, though the factors legislating against it can seem insurmountable. In Goldsmith's case, the ability to make important scores is subservient to his record, and the opportunity that only comes with a reliable reputation. If you've not proven you can provide a decent product, new ones aren't likely to come your way. Making a musical score for a movie that's never completed is really wasted work; it will almost certainly never see the light of day; whereas, a "pure musical" composition may still exist in time, not needing its initial scaffolding of visual expression. 

Certain works may transcend the medium to become pure musical experiences in their own right. That's true of Copland's scores, which are concert hall pieces now. Though rare, certain original movie scores may also deserve concert hall versions. The score for the cinematic epic Braveheart [Icon Entertainment et al., 1995] [soundtrack here on YouTube], composed by James Horner, has become something of a concert hall favorite, contrived into two separate suites [1995, 1997]. The film, filled with a myriad of historical inaccuracies, was successful to a considerable degree for its effective romantic score.

The score for Gladiator [2000, Scott Free/Dreamworks/Universal], one of the most successful films of the post-modern era, benefitted from a score (by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard), whose originality was challenged by the Gustav Holst Foundation for plagiarism (of Holst's concert suite The Planets [1914-1916]). 

Normally, straight adaptations of existing musical material are acknowledged as a legitimate endeavors by the Motion Picture Academy, but purportedly "original" scores must pass the originality test for consideration for awards. Clearly, there is a degree of cross-fertilization between media, legitimate (and acknowledged), or not.

I've discussed this issue of programmatic versus pure music before, and will doubtless do so again. Nearly all musical expression has some kind of programmatic content. So-called "pure" music--i.e., Beethoven's Quartets or Bach's Brandenburg Concertos--may simply be more abstract in the way the listener's meditative space is opened and elaborated. Music may be song, or dance, or ballad, or elegy, or march, or anthem, or even narrative. Certain kinds of music may inevitably key certain kinds of feeling or events or actions. Tradition may be nothing more than a series of well-worn clichés, which we accede to without question. 

Creative innovations may suggest new kinds of sensibility, or new ways of thinking about how old "sounds" really "sound". The electronic age has opened up many new kinds of musical elaboration, but it hasn't done much to change our characteristic response to familiar associations. 

Sound may be produced through impact upon a rod or shaped object, or by friction against a string or cord, or by air forced through a tube with alternate fixed or variable stops (or holes). Music is vibration, transmitted through air to our vibration-sensitive ear-drums, interpreted by our brains into sequences of changing degrees we call notes. Systems of such notes along a spectrum organize themselves into fixed relationships we call tonality

Recently, I heard about an instrument that had been invented by Leonardo da Vinci, the viola organista or piano-cello. This instrument was "invented" 500 years ago, but wasn't built until now. How many other kinds of instrumental inventions await us in the future? Though technically the viola organista doesn't make new sounds, exactly, it does permit new ways of organizing and presenting stringed music. My Kurzweil synthesizer acts in much the same way, allowing me to "play" violin and guitar and choir sounds by way of a keyboard, though the sophisticated nuances of each instrumental sound are severely limited.

Classical music seems to be on a shallow decline lately, as musical reproduction shifts from material to digital access. Symphony orchestras, concert halls, dance companies, etc., are under financial pressure as society's attention is re-focused and re-organized around the new internet media. But the ways that musical ideas are used and reinterpreted are not limited by venues alone. A movie can be a kind of symphony in sound and imagery, just as the naked symphony once served as the public's official entertainment. Pure music once told a story too, albeit one less specific and narrational. 

They still wear wigs in the British Courts of Justice--in a style that went out 200 years ago. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

My Favorite PARIS REVIEW cover - #38, Summer 1966

Back in the days when The Paris Review actually represented avant garde writing, they used to commission covers by important modern or post-modern artists. For the first 34 issues, they retained a standard vertical and horizontal margin format (as shown below), which tended to limit the effect of the design. But with issue #35, they dispensed with the margin frame, a gave freer reign to the artist, and this permitted the necessary space for the design to make a purer statement, without the impinging edges.

But with issue #35, they dispensed with the side margin, 

and by issue 36, the frame was eliminated altogether, giving freer reign to the artist, and permitting the space necessary to make a purer statement, without the impinging edges.

That opened up things considerably, and two issues later, this design was chosen for #38. 

I can't say that I've ever paid much attention to the work of Jack Youngerman, the artist, but judging from the images of his work that pop up on Google images, this is a fairly representative piece. 

Youngerman also works in minimalist sculpture, and he's still going strong, apparently, at age 87. The style of the PR cover seems typical, based on these images:

I think I would have described Youngerman as an Abstract Expressionist, just based on his age, since he began to work seriously in the 1940's, when pictorial values were beginning to be shunted aside in favor of all kinds of abstraction. But looking at these other images, I think I'd put him into a different category. As his work developed, he began to seem more like a decorative artist. These big color images remind me of late Matisse, or Arp, not Pollock, de Kooning or Motherwell. Youngerman's work seems to come after abstraction, tending towards suggestive representation. 

The Paris Review design reminds me of icebergs floating in a big dark blue ocean; the red, blue and yellow piece an angel fish. Such suggestions are gratuitous, though innocent, in work like this. The flat sculptures are pleasant and would fit into any modern interior design scheme. They're just a bit like like Stella's early linear paintings, but more flamboyant and free. I think I would tire of seeing very much of it, but just one or two can be inspiring. 

That's how I feel about PR #38--a real triumph of graphic design. I would buy a magazine like this just for its cover, but I wouldn't need that excuse here, since it contains a story by James Salter, and poems by Michael Benedikt, Joe Ceravolo and Peter Schjeldahl. The mag had really his its stride by the mid-1960's, and would continue to be interesting for another decade or so, before becoming vague and unfocused by the late 1970's. So much for nostalgia . . . .   

The Full Moon - Two Recipes

What is it about the moon? 

An astrological, astronomical object of curiosity since before the beginning of time. Object of inspiration, fascination, speculation, apprehension. We know a great deal about the moon now, since the advent of astronomy as a science. 

Recent theory has proposed that the moon was created from a "proto-earth" by a giant meteor collision in which the moon was "calved" away, throwing it into orbit around the newer, smaller earth. There is still widespread skepticism about this, though.

The moon affects the tides, and exerts other less noticeable affects on the earth. Ancients from many different cultures included the moon in their religious cosmologies, and artists and poets still see it as a symbol of various kinds of metaphysical forces and tendencies--of having feminine qualities, for instance.  

I think of the moon associated with night, with coldness, of a clarity unobscured by any atmosphere. The last two nights have produced a beautiful full moon, so bright that on clear nights the moonlight falling through our kitchen skylights illuminates the room enough that I can actually see what I'm doing there. Moonlight is a little eerie, and it is this faint, grey illumination which has captured people's imaginations over the ages. Outdoors, in the moonlight--associated with dreams, the mystery of the dark, obscure occurrences. 

So here are two new concoctions which celebrate the cold clarity and mild seductive qualities of the full moon. The first is a weaker drink, with a kind of evanescent crispness and sweetness which I associate with clarity of vision and thought. The second has more character, more complexity. Both should be shaken very vigorously so that as much ice fragmentation as possible ends up in the glass. That crush or slush is very important to the mouth feel of the taste, especially the first drink. 

Both are shaken hard and served up.      

3 shots dry vermouth
1 shot Green Chartreuse
1 shot  Cointreau
1 shot fresh lemon squeeze

3 shots gin
1 shot creme de cacao
1 shot Mandarin Napoleon
1 shot amaro
1/2 shot applejack
1 shot fresh lemon squeeze

Personally, I don't like to drink late at night. Besides, single malt or brandy is better for that than a cocktail, which ideally comes just before dinner, or during a mid-afternoon lunch in the city. 

Most poems about the moon focus on some event or other scene in which the moon is just window-dressing. When men first walked on the moon, it dispelled centuries of myth and surmise, took much of the romance out of our human-centered projections of it. It was just an empty place of white dust, airless, dead and bone dry. It was no place for life. 

My own imagination of the moon always takes me back to childhood, when my dad and I went camping in the woods. We'd sleep out on the ground under the stars, looking up through the pitch-black conifers at an astonishingly clear night sky, the Milky Way and the moon, shooting stars etching briefly at the edges, the moon's vivid crater-pocked surface.     

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Padgett's Collected Poems

Ron Padgett's Collected Poems has just been published by Coffee House Press [Minneapolis: 2013]--and it's a monstrous big collection, 50 years in the making. 

I've been reading Padgett's work for almost that long, since becoming interested in poetry in high school and publishing my first poems in the high school literary magazine at 17 in 1965. 

I first saw his work in mimeo magazines in the late 1960's. Great Balls of Fire [Holt, 1969] was published during my first year at the Writers' Workshop at Iowa, and I remember reading it with a mixture of curiosity and vague incomprehension. The obvious facts of Padgett's biography--born and raised in Tulsa, removal to New York City, study with Koch, collaboration with fellow Oklahomans Ted Berrigan and Joe Brainard, Fulbright to Paris, French translations--seemed reflected in his work: The Dadaist sound translations of Reverdy, the distinctly surrealist air of many of his poems, the tongue-in-cheek humor, and an enveloping aura of camp (of Pop Art, Warhol and cultural mischief) which was so much a characteristic of the art scene in those days. 

Padgett's early work had at least two separate aspects then: One, a kind of dumbed-down simplicity and credulity which seemed to demand acceptance as honest description (think William Carlos Williams), and Two, a weird abstraction associated with French Surrealism and the spirit of Duchamp. One thing seemed clear: Padgett wasn't a lyric poet; he seemed either entirely incapable of, or completely uninterested in writing musically. Nearly all his poems were either prosaic statements, or satiric or absurdist spoofs. I deduced then that his biggest challenge was in writing a poem that he wouldn't feel embarrassed by, a self-consciousness that fed off of insecurity and an habitual reluctance to express personal feelings. Conviction (or sincerity) seemed entirely lacking in this early work. 

All this became clearer to me as my reading of the preceding  first   generation of New York School Poets widened and deepened. Padgett had clearly followed a path blazed by his mentor Koch (with whom he studied at Columbia). Koch, of the original four key core members of the group (Ashbery, O'Hara, Schuyler being the other three), functioned as the clown. Almost nothing that Koch published could be taken at face value; it was obviously a kind of put-on, an extended joke against the traditional grain of form and pretension. Koch was well-versed in classical literature, but his pop epics and giddy frivolity seemed just for laughs. Padgett seemed to me then, initially, to have invested in this spirit of early French Modernism (think Apollinaire, Satie, Jacob, Duchamp, Jarry, Artaud, Cocteau, Larbaud), as a literary strategy, both as a talisman of loyalty, and as a protective camouflage against straightforward appraisal. Humor, in your work, might save you from being considered trivial or emotionally fragile.   

Still, there were occasional early poems which, in their simplicity and frankness, seemed genuine and clean.


     An orange and blue box of Poulain chocolate
     Is what I think of often
     As I sit just outside the late afternoon sunlight--
     I see it in another light
     Sitting on a brown oak or something table,
     Maybe a white kitchen one,
     And when I reach out for it
     My hand touches it
     And I pick it up  
                                 --from Great Balls of Fire [1969]


The poem, though initially guileless and direct, is actually a witty turn about the problem of representation and reality in art. A branded artifact, presented initially as a verifiable object from the world of experience, is seen in a symbolic poetic field, which is in turn pierced to obtain the actual physical object ("I pick it up"). The other light in which it is seen ("afternoon sunlight") is the flat context. The position of the speaker shifts, while the object rests just beyond him, until, at the end, he grasps it. It's a small victory over abstraction, and though relatively modest in intention, a small miracle.    

There was a modesty about Padgett's early poetic persona, perhaps a humility or bashfulness which derived from his plains roots. But rather than conceal this, he seems to have embraced it.

                    Post-Publication Blues

          My first book of poems
          has just been published.
          It is over there on the table
          lying there on the table, where
          it is lying. It has
          a beautiful cover and design.
          The publishers spent a lot of money
          on it and devoted many
          man-and woman-hours on it.
          The bookstores are ordering copies.
          Unfortunately I am a very bad poet and
          the book is no good.
                                            --from Toujours L'Amour [1976] 

Of course, nearly every book of poetry published in the United States is a publisher's loss leader. A prominent bookseller once commented to me that Padgett's first trade book, Great Balls of Fire, had "bombed"--leaving excess copies that were unceremoniously dumped on the remainder tables. There's a certain pragmatism in using your own embarrassment as an aesthetic tool, and Padgett seems to have learned a good deal from his own modesty, and to have figured out how to use this to his advantage. 

Once Padgett had settled on camp humor as a métier, he abandoned the Dada-ist tricks, and concentrated on straightforward comedy.

                    Poema del City

          I live in the city.
          It's a tough life,
          often unpleasant, sometimes
          downright awful. But it has what
          we call its compensations.

          To kill a roach, for example,
          is to my mind not pleasant
          but it does develop one's reflexes.
          and that's that.
          Sometimes, though, the battered roach
          will haul itself onto broken legs and,
          wildly waving its bent antennae,
          stagger off into the darkness

          to warn the others, who live in the shadow
          of the great waterfall in their little teepees.
          Behind them rise the gleaming brown and blue mass
          of the Grand Tetons, topped with white snow
          that blushes, come dawn, and glows, come dusk.
          Silent gray wisps rise from the smouldering campfires. 
                                                                                    --from Toujours L'Amour [1976]

How seriously can you take a poet who's willing to front silliness like this? Indeed, what has seriousness to do with it at all? Perhaps, approaching the problem of honesty, or verisimilitude, is best conducted in an atmosphere of light-hearted casualness. Poets who write with grave implication in every phrase, every line, risk sounding grim; is there anything worse than trying to sound deliberately profound, even if the muse is off visiting her mother? 

There are poets who never seem to approach the page with anything less than a feeling of ultimate dread--a poet like Louise Gluck, for instance, for whom every poetic occasion feels as if it were a grim and unrelentingly difficult task. Probably, we need both kinds of poets, those who would be reluctant to display any kind of levity, and those who would be equally shy of being seen being upset or angry. 


          The black-and-white terrier
          flexed his body
          in midair, turned
          and yelped

          It was his birthday
          and he was two
                                      --from You Never Know [2002]

For me, small but successful poems like this are ten times better, and more useful, than ambitious narrative poems of 100 times this length, that require a commitment of hours of devoted attention. They're never easy, and they come when you least expect it, and even with absolutely no effort. They are like simple gifts.   

Cover art by Joe Brainard

Padgett's work seems at its best, to me, when he's least concerned with impressing the reader with his conviction, and more concerned to share a discovery he'd made. Many of Padgett's later works are about the difficulty of trying to write decent poems. That difficulty isn't writer's block, but more like a secret way of sneaking into a poem or a subject, so as not to disturb it, not to alert it to the fact that you are stalking it. Because trying too hard, or being too obvious about it, may scare inspiration away. We don't really know where good poems come from, but it's often possible to "sense" when it's in the room, or hovering just outside the window. We're not even sure what "it" actually is.

Padgett has worked in the schools teaching poetry writing, like his mentor Koch, and seems interested in the idea that poetry is something that almost anyone can do, given a few simple tips. If writing poetry were that easy, perhaps we wouldn't admire poets as much as we do. Does everyone have at least one good poem in them? Can practice improve the odds?   

I used to wonder about the collaborative implications of Padgett's co-authored book (with Berrigan), Bean Spasms [Kulchur Press, 1967]. If two young poets could work so closely together that the two became indistinguishable, or simply melted together into a new hybrid being, what might that mean to the integrity of an individual identity? The same question arose with respect to Ashbery and Schuyler's camp novel, A Nest of Ninnies [Dutton, 1969]. Was it like Auden and Isherwood, or Ellery Queen, with one person doing the dialogue, the other the description? Could Ron and Ted write alternate lines of a single poem, and have it make any kind of sense? Collaboration in this way was a novel concept, which spread through the literary community in the late 1960's and early 1970's. 

But Padgett is the author of all the poems in this big book. Still, one has the feeling that the idea of an "automatic" poem, or the disembodied voice of poetry, was a notion that appealed to the comic and mischievous sense of these guys, and suggested compositional variations that could bring new energy into the act of writing. Berrigan used it to create his Sonnets [Grove Press, 1964], mixing quotation, reportage, and expedient personal detail together to cobble an ingenious sequence of linked interactive poems. 

Padgett, on the other hand, less interested in formal complexity, seems to have been drawn to making two-dimensional personae, rather in the manner of Pop Art. He went on record as claiming to enjoy watching cartoons on television, something no traditional or academic poet would be likely to admit. (Reportedly, Padgett has even been involved in making software apps for writing poetry on computers.) The construction of comic masks--or, self-effacing personal parodies of himself--would become a crucial element in his work over the coming decades. 

In a sense, Padgett is one of the earliest examples of a writer who tended to see artistic problems in terms of the distortions that modern media imposes on its material. We may think that radio, or movies, or television, or computer games, succeed to the degree that they may compete with the earlier narrational tropes of fiction or classical literature. But it's also possible for writers to adopt some of the qualities of the new media, and bring them back to the written word.   

Padgett's willingness to allow the cruder aspects of the language and imagery of cartoons, for instance, to find a place in his straight poetics, might constitute an appropriation that lightens and intensifies its affects. 

Again, the example of Pop Art is instructive. Warhol and Lichtenstein and Oldenburg weren't just critiquing their subject-matter; they were borrowing some of its power--its sensuality and durable shine--as well. Padgett and Berrigan were harbingers in the recognition of the ironic significance of popular culture. If their works occasionally seemed like insincere ad-copy, this was right in step with the prevailing innovations of the epoch. And, unlike the predictable condemnation of the official cultural organs, they embraced and celebrated its energy and giddy charm. 

Padgett is in no sense a romantic poet, but a kind of neo-classicist, one who sees creative writing as an artificial reduction of the complexity of speech and meditation, a simplification of the layered, elusive surface of actual experience. His close childhood friend, the late Joe Brainard, whose art was always associated with the work of Padgett, Berrigan, Elmslie et al--really, the whole New York poetry and art scene during their heyday--wrote I Remember [1970-73], a work closely allied in feeling and mood to Padgett's poetry, though more openly emotional and personal than his. Both I Remember and Padgett's early poetry bear comparison, as ingenious comic projections of two-dimensional personae. Such resemblances might seem gratuitous, except that both men grew up going to the same high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, together with another classmate, Dick Gallup--each of whom, in the tradition of the New York exile artists--grew up elsewhere, but came to Gotham to realize their artistic selves--artists, too, who came to view the rest of America as a crude caricature of itself, placed in relief against the fast-paced, ruthlessly hip New York art scene. They adopted the tough, mannered style of city life, and mocked it by putting up hard, emblematic symbolic totems, whose style derived from signage and advertising tropes--

Cover art by Joe Brainard


          The waitress
          at lunch today
          could have been
          in a 1940's movie,
          an innocent,
          cheerful, and open
          young woman--ah,
          girl!--with a smile
          that brings back
          a time
          that probably
          never existed.
          Did people
          really say Drat?
          Or just characters
          in films
          and comic strips
          who now
          are as real
          as real people. 
                                      --from How Long [2011]

How much more typical could a poem of Padgett's be? An ostensibly real human being met in the workaday world is compared to a character in a movie. If people in comic strips or cartoons are as real as people you see in real life, which version has the greater integrity or significance? Like Brainard, Padgett seems to see "real life" as having taken place in the past, when people "acted" in naive ways, and were filled with surplus sentiment, not realizing how stupid and clunky they were. We can be nostalgic about this imagined past, perhaps even wistful, but we're too sophisticated and suave and impatient to invest in anything so obviously un-hip. 

A lot of the poems in this Collected Poems are long, which makes quoting them difficult in a blog. 

                    A Train for Kenneth

          One train may hide another
          or it might hide the mountain
          into which it disappears and
          hides itself. You step
          into that tunnel, stop,
          the tracks gleaming at your feet
          but no light further on.

          (This is not a metaphor.)
          (So what is it?)

          It's a stanza, in which
          the train is hiding. You
          can't see it because 
          the letters are so dark--
          the light around them
          makes them even darker.

          But now the train comes
          out the other end and smoke
          is trailing from its stack, for
          this happened in olden days,
          when chugging existed. 

When I was a kid, my stepdad used to use the phrase "thinking out loud," which meant airing your views as you were formulating them in your mind. I think "thinking out loud" might be one way to summarize Padgett's modus operandi. He's a straight shooter, but he often misses life's elusive complexity by choosing instead to prod us with goofy cop-outs. They're all mildly amusing, and the light touch is better than the heavy-handed. Still, I often wonder what Padgett "really thinks" about life, when he's being completely serious. Maybe the poems are as serious as he really gets. That would be odd. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Minimalism XVI: Creeley's Rest

Robert Creeley's collection Pieces was published at the end of the Sixties [New York: Scribner's, 1969], at the height of his minimalist period. It was important not just because it expressed a radical tendency in his own oeuvre, but because it defined a leading edge of inquiry into the possibility of deconstructing ordinary language, a major preoccupation of the time. 

Unlike the Concrete movement practitioners, Creeley's interest in minimal form wasn't transparent and ephemeral. He was tortured by personal demons, and his obsession with the conundra of words and phrases and formal structures wasn't casual or easy. He saw moral implications, traps and opportutnities in the smallest combinations. 

Unlike most other minimalist verse, Creeley's small poems always have something fascinating and unresolved about them. They vibrate and echo in the mind, and can't be discarded once you've read them. 

In traditional poetry (and more specifically, in light verse), wit and rhyme are employed in a spirit of play or clever emphasis, and in the vast majority of cases, it's an application upon language, rather than an investigation into the subtler shades of meaning. Tolling rhyme and light wit have their place--Pope's whole life work hinges on them--but they are expressions of, or elaborations of the resources of language, rather than meditations about the medium itself; and in addition, their tone and quality do not derive from conversation and speech, but rest upon higher platforms of rhetoric. 

Riddles, proverbs, gnomes, wise-cracks,  and folk-sayings are handy receptacles for the transmission of wisdom or humor, and they often convey more than people initially think. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush is a saying that expresses an inequality, but which may have several different interpretations. Its original meaning is probably lost, though its power derives from the vividness of its formulation, since holding a wild bird is a difficult proposition, and birds are very difficult to catch without elaborate means. Catching and watching, possessing and coveting, confinement and freedom--there are many ways to go with it. It's like an open ended proposition which has the power of idiomatic speech. Creeley's poems in Pieces are anything but simplistic riddles, though they may masquerade as that to some readers who have limited patience with the magnification required to read everything that the poems say and do. 

Creeley is above all a moralist. Every utterance, every remark, no matter how casual-seeming, carries a burden of responsibility and irony. He's always on edge, pushing each stanza, each phrase, each word, each punctuation mark to an absolute limit. Once a Creeley poem gets into your head, it's nearly impossible to get rid of, short of exorcism or a surgical lobotomy. One such poem for me is--           

One thing
done, the 
rest follows.

Though it's deceptively simple, its deception isn't the issue. There's often a sense of disquiet in a Creeley poem, a feeling that you've understood only part of the message the words convey. One thing/done is composed of six words, two to a line, divided into two groups of three by the comma. Syntactically, it's straightforward and sensible. It's a logical presumption: Every human action occurs in a sequence of duration, every act is an increment of measure, the measure of our lives meted out, the measure of the poem's beat, its cadence and setting. 

The poem functions as an injunction to duty, or as an apology for any kind of failure or resistance to obligation. It's the reductive conundrum, that anything can be broken down into a series of simple linear increments, and so mastered, managed. Turning the poem around, it's also the lazy man's expedient: Now that I've done just one thing, I've earned my rest. What's next?

You could set the poem as two pyramids:

One thing

rest follows.  

but the interlocking of the done, the which splits along the poem's dialectical fracture, links the initial completion of accomplishment to the (deserved?) rest of the conclusion. Yet rest means not only relaxation, but everything else--the rest of what will happen, the rest of everything! The isolation of a single function does not release one from the necessity of going on living, one to one to one, in a long sequence of events or acts which comprise a life lived in the continuous present. Oneness--the singularity of purpose which defines the committed life--is a virtual obsession in Creeley's work. One thing. And the joke cuts too, you've only done a single thing, written two little words, simple words, so you deserve to rest? To rest from your labors. Seems silly, actually. Except that rest is a necessity, not only in the sense of needing sleep every day, needing to rest from every motion our muscles make, and of course everything follows. Follows in the logical sense, if we're talking sense. 

A Creeley poem is like a charm, a rabbit's foot you carry in your pocket, finger it while you're walking down the street, where no one can see it. Might bring good luck. Whatever. Ca va. The penetrating irony locked inside the words is revealed by the ingenious simplicity of their arrangement, and the resistance to elaboration. The poem's reluctance, curtness, standing pat--isn't a bluff. It means exactly what it says, is wholly self-contained, full. Wants nothing. Needs nothing. The least qualification would throw it off balance like a top that loses inertia. It spins forever in gravity-less aether, like a gyroscope in outer space.              

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Minimalism XV: Truscott's Toward Branches

Phenomenology is the study of the structure of subjective experience--how we perceive the empirical world. Wittgenstein reminded us that whenever we attempt to describe anything in the world of perception, we are doing so through a system that is self-referential. Nothing that can be thought can be described without a language. Language itself has a structure, a structure which is linked to how our brains are wired. Anything we perceive through our senses may be a metaphor for the manner by which it is understood, and described. 

Mark Truscott is interested in the way in which language can be used--as an aesthetic tool--to lay bare the elemental connections between perception, meaning and description. There are many ways to say this. The closer art gets to an accurate description about the relationship between sensory apprehension and verbal technique, the more closely it may resemble a linguistic exercise. Linguistics, the study of language, is difficult to describe without reference to psychology (or epistemology (how we think)), or logic (the study of the structure of meaning in language).

Mark Truscott is interested in all these things, and his work is a kind of short-hand, an outline of how one might approach talking about the relationship between language and being (or being-in-the-world). I share Mark's interest, and find his work an attractive instance of the exploration that all minimalist poetry represents. 

Toward Branches (Toronto, 2012) is self-published (1/32 numbered copies, the whole edition, bound in stapled stiff grey wrappers, 26pp.)--which is a way of saying that the artist is controlling all aspects of the process of composition, through production, to finished material object (the book). A book in this sense has a wholeness, an entirety you rarely find in traditional publishing, where the composition, production and delivery of the material object is so fragmented by the separate influences of the process that the clarity of the initial intention becomes muddled. In Toward Branches, all the variables are valued and denoted. This frees the reader from having to see the artist's intention through a cloud of social or economic obscurity. Everything is clear and unobstructed. And clarity is a crucial precondition for the kind of artistic statement Truscott is attempting to make. 

Wittgenstein's Tractatus has served as a model for much of the interesting post/post-Modern poetic experiments over the last quarter century--the building up of a system of values through the incremental enumeration of discrete logical or non-logical assertions. Such an approach has a linear accretion that can be very satisfying, or frustrating, depending upon its underlying assumptions. Creeley's Numbers (Stuttgart, Germany: Edition Domberger, 1968) was a signal effort to explicate the metaphysical implications of the prime integers.

In mathematics, a proposition is proven when the terms of the argument are brought into logical alignment. In science, proofs are built up out of axioms of accepted truth; but in art, metaphysical demonstrations may be constructed out of forms and relationships that are not logical, or empirical. Language is its own system, a set of relationships, which function according to rules and habits established through use. These rules and habits in turn form an adjunct to thinking. The mind is only an analogue for the properties of the physical world. Language is its tool, as well as its template: Mind speaking a code apprehensible according to the laws of its own accepted usage.

In Truscott's Toward Branches, the constituent parts of the book are all of a piece, a sequential progression of statements which builds towards an open-ended structure of words. We begin with a line, which is like a single vector of intention:

          a branch like a line like a branch  
                                                               [page one]

Truscott takes full responsibility for the implications of all the words that occur in the book. What other choice is there? 

          branch like a line like a branch
                                                            [page two] 

--the lost indefinite article augmenting the nature of the initial definition both as a variation on the original proposition, and as a literal branching of logic to an alternate pathway forwards into the poem.

          a line near artless
                                       [page three]

As inauspicious as this may seem, in the context of a long poem sequence--which this book is--its very dryness, resisting the rich resources of language, and the world of things, is the precision with which each increment is an augmentation of the terms of the unfolding dialectic. This is the real subject of the poem. If minimalism has any advantage over the unbridled flow of consciousness, it is in its discrete poise and restraint. 

          Then  the

          hand moves

          over in

          front the


          stills and

          shades and


          (some ends

          are withdrawn)

          you can't

          see the

          forest for
          the trees

          you can't 

          see the

          trees without

          the hand
                         [pages 4-5]

As the poem progresses, control is relinquished to the expanding field of its own limit, making a paper-cut in the white space of the bleached pulp, pressed into the smooth white plane of infinite two-dimensional space. Any poem moves into the world of its own gnosis

          like a rounded
                     [page 21]

          A patterned
          layer of
          matter or
          letters lies
          across the
          glass there
          where the
          light glints
          and shines
                           [page 19]

A patterned/layer/of matter or/letters delineates the ambiguity of inter-relationships which the poem addresses, the interconnectivity of contexts and frames proposed. The author suppresses the autonomous (and jealous) identities of objects, in order to make finer distinctions. This is one of the functions of a certain philosophy--Logical Positivism in particular--whose preoccupation has been with the nature of analysis, or how to make a more perfect model.

Every artifact attracts its own propagating set of interpretations, and these can be traced. The burden of proof is contained inside the conundra of its means. If you want to understand a poem, you must deconstruct its underlying etiology. No one explanation can be wholly unique. Truscott's work mimics the care and attention of linguistics, but its aesthetic duty is to beauty, not science. Its strength is its obvious awareness of all these questions, not percolating with elaborations, but reductive and calm, like the grey light of a foggy morning, the subdued cooing of doves in the pre-dawn hush, sitting in the branches of our Camphor Tree.