May 062003

Dissent is always stifled, like a sneeze, or crushed, like a grape, and finally after months of trying I’ve managed to stifle some. A while back I complained about a silly anti-war poem by Sam Hamill, of Poets Against the War, not on the grounds that it was against the war, mind you, but on the grounds that it was bad — monumentally, embarrassingly, high-school-creative-writing-class bad. In fact I have argued elsewhere that the nature of poetry is such that any decent poem about war is likely to be anti.

Joel Peckham, who teaches English, God help us, at Georgia Military College, of all places, was undeterred.

It is always amazing to me that if an artist espouses a view that is not in keeping with the main current of American thought, he or she is considered out of touch or irrelevant. Articles like this reflect the diminishment of hope that exists in American Culture today. Anti-war protesters have been called cynics. It is much more cynical to dismiss art because you don’t like what the artist has to say. There have been, of course, great anti-war poems written over the past 2000 years–and quite a bit of dreck. The anthology most likely includes a good deal of both genuine poetry and a good deal of simplistic thinking. What is good will survive, what is bad will not. I also find it humorous that people are so upset about this that they are writing anti-sam hamill articles in almost every major publication and in almost every article, the central argument is that the movement and the poets are irrelevant. Apparantly not.

As usual this article is simply another effort to stifle dissent. The worste art is not the kind that has “a message,” it is the kind that has none.

Pass over the dreadful writing (“diminishment of hope that exists in American Culture today”), the dreadful spelling (“worste” is probably a typo, but “apparantly” is not), and the dreadful thinking (“dissent” posited as a virtue, as if society were better off because some people believe that the earth is flat or that Walt Disney is living in suspended animation on the Spanish Riviera). The remarkable aspect of this is that it has nothing to do with what I wrote. I dismissed Hamill’s poem on literary grounds, grounds on which it is indefensible and Peckham does not bother to defend it. Hamill’s politics are ridiculous, and I said so, but Wallace Stevens’ philosophy is ridiculous too, and he wrote great poetry. Good poetry and “simplistic thinking” can coexist, despite Peckham’s insinuation to the contrary. Good poetry and bad writing cannot.

Nor did I argue that Poets Against the War are “irrelevant,” which requires an object in any case. Irrelevant to whether there would be war, certainly; irrelevant to the good name of poetry, certainly not.

We have in Peckham a textbook case of what I.A. Richards used to call the stock response, which is a bit different, psychologically, than the straw man. Knocking down the straw man is a diversionary tactic, employed by those who at least recognize what the real argument is. In the stock response, on the other hand, a reader reads one thing, convinces himself that it’s just like something he’s read before, and proceeds to reply vigorously to that other thing. It saves time, but it’s a form of local insanity.

Peckham turns out to be a poet himself, and a poet against the war too: who would have guessed? I can’t reprint his verses here, as they lack Hamill’s one conspicuous merit, brevity; but feel free to see for yourself. They’re little quietist numbers, written in Whitmanesque long lines, full of children and fish and tomato plants by whose mere invocation the reader is supposed to be moved. They’re better than one would expect from the above prose sample, and better than Hamill’s; they are not good. And before writing one ought to learn to read.

Apr 272003

In all the fuss over Rick Santorum’s foolish remarks, the major interference of the government in the bedroom has gone largely unremarked: It marries people.

Marriage used to bring certain responsibilities, notably the obligation to support one’s dependents and not to divorce absent extraordinary circumstances. But the first has nothing to do with legal marriage, and the second is obsolescent. With the divorce rate in this country in excess of 50%, “till death do us part” has become an absurd fiction.

The privileges, however, remain. Married couples enjoy evidentiary immunity, special immigration rights, and various insurance and tax advantages. Some of these are conferred by the State, but most are not. Such matters as inheritance, adoption, joint leases, and child custody are agreements between private parties that could be easily arranged without State interference. Other outside private parties, like insurance companies, voluntarily confer benefits on married couples, which again is no matter for the State. Insurance companies could easily ask you if you live in a monogamous relationship and give you a rate break on that basis, the same way they now ask you if you smoke.

As for the State privileges of marriage, why should they exist at all? Why should husbands and wives not be permitted to testify against each other in court, except possibly to provide a plot point in Witness for the Prosecution? The key tax advantage to marriage lies in being able to pass an estate to one’s spouse without estate tax; surely it would be more rational simply to repeal the estate tax. The marriage exception to immigration law employs a lot of INS bureaucrats; is this a virtue?

Homosexuals who promote laws protecting single-sex unions are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. If you want to kick the State out of the bedroom, the answer cannot be to take a special privilege and make it more inclusive. Many people object to homosexuality on moral grounds, and there is force to the argument that the State ought not to grant special privileges to an arrangement that many, or even the majority, of its citizens consider immoral. The proper question is, why should the State grant special privileges to any particular living arrangement?

I don’t object to the conventional nuclear family. On the contrary, raising children under one roof with a mother and father has proved to be enormously popular, for excellent reasons. This very fact, however, makes it absurd for the State to privilege Mom and Dad and Buddy and Sis over Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. It’s as if the State were to subsidize the deodorant industry on the grounds that the vast majority of Americans use deodorant. If anything requires special protection, surely it’s the minority arrangements, not the majority ones.

If the State did not marry people, they would doubtless marry on their own, for religious and other reasons, again without objection from me. Even today, people often describe themselves as married when they lack the certificate; my girlfriend of seventeen years and I often do so ourselves, because it’s too much trouble to explain. I’m all for marriage. Just keep it out of City Hall.

Now I grant that for homosexuals, politically, a campaign against legal marriage is not a winning argument. What it is is a logical argument.

(Update: Jeff Bryant argues that the State’s principal interest lies not in marriage, but divorce.)

Apr 182003

Saw A Mighty Wind tonight, Christopher Guest’s latest mockumentary (if you will) of folk music, and it was funny, but not funny enough. I almost feel sorry for Guest, who will have to labor in the immense shade of Spinal Tap for the rest of his life, and whose movies will never be possible to enjoy on their own terms because they will never stack up. All you need to know about A Mighty Wind is that its funniest moment involves Bob Balaban being slapped on the head: pure slapstick. At least Guest soldiers on; bully for him. Early success paralyzes some artists, like Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth, and no one ever quite lives it down. Stephen Vizinczey said once that failure is a kind of luck, as long as it doesn’t kill you.

Apr 152003

A day after posting this, I get spammed with this:

Actual, professional 55 card deck of casino style playing cards with the most-wanted Iraqis’ names and photos, manufactured by one of the playing card companies shipping these to Iraq. In case you didn’t already know, Saddam is the Ace of Spades.

A limited number of these decks are available. Order at [URL of evil genius omitted] for just $14.99. Plus a poster file with all of the cards’ photos included will be sent to you.

Either the spambots are getting far too clever, or the Zeitgeist moves in mysterious ways.

Apr 142003

Richard Price has now written seven novels; Samaritan is his latest. He also writes screenplays for booze money, although some of them, notably Sea of Love and The Color of Money, turned into quite decent movies. Price grew up in a tough neighborhood in the Bronx and knocked about some before finding his vocation. His first four novels, The Wanderers, Bloodbrothers, The Breaks, and Ladies’ Man, were written from his own experience. They have their moments, especially his first, The Wanderers, which still enjoys a considerable reputation. But in retrospect they look like apprentice work.

Price eventually ran out of experience, and sallied forth to do some reporting, out of which came his fifth novel, Clockers, an epic of the crack trade. With Clockers Price became the Balzac of the underclass. Like Balzac, he has an unerring eye for status detail — which soft drink, which brand of sneaker, how low you wear your jeans. In the first chapter of Clockers you learn that the preferred reading of crack dealers is shopping catalogues.

Ever since Peanut fished a dozen catalogues out of a garbage can, everybody was in a state of mild disorder, passing around the thin glossies as if they were sex books. Strike would have cracked a whip if it was anything else, but he was the worst. He’d meant to go over to Rodney’s store an hour before, during the dinner lull, but had remained glued to the bench, a half-dozen catalogues on his lap, running his fingers down page after page of camisoles, hand-carved Christmas-tree angels, computerized jogging machines, golf putting sets for den and office, personalized stationery, lawn furniture — anything and everything for man, woman or child. The catalogues made him weak in the knees, fascinated him to the point of helplessness, the idea of all these things to be had, organized in a book that he could hold in one hand. Not that he would order anything — possessions drew attention, made you a target. None of the boys would order out of a catalogue either, not necessarily because they were paranoid like Strike, but because the ordering process — telephones, mailings, deliveries — required too much contact with the world outside the street.

You don’t find this out hanging around writers’ workshops.

Price also has a remarkable ear. (He spends a good deal of his time in Hollywood doctoring dialogue.) One of the characters in Samaritan is a prison autodidact, but Price never says so, he doesn’t have to; just listen to him talk:

“You working?”

“Yeah, well no, not like an employee per se. However, I’m working on something. I got this idea for a nonprofit organization to help inmates return to so-called society? I call it LIFE — Living in Fear of Extinction. I want to set up a whole reentry program, you know, literacy, computer literacy, how to fill out résumés, how to communicate, how to be prompt, how to be inspirational, how to make eye contact. See right now, I’m at the research stage, I need to learn how to file an application for tax-exempt status, how to find sponsors, how to–“

“Anything else?” Ray unable to hear this shit.

“Other? Well, yeah, I had this T-shirt thing goin’ on, you know, bought shirts in bulk, designed my own logo, hooked up with this printer did silk-screening on a delayed payment schedule but that’s all on financial hold for the time being, and I was also working on a comic book I wanted to publish, called Dawgs of War, about the future, when America wages war on the Republic of Nubia and it was gonna focus on one platoon of guys from the hood, how they get educated over there, you know, come to understand that they’re fighting…you know, that they’re on the wrong side…”

“Per se,” “inspirational,” “on financial hold for the time being” — all of this is exact. But the acronym and, especially, the question mark after “so-called society” betray the hand of the master.

Children are prominent in all of Price’s novels, and the only novelist I can think of who shows a comparable understanding of the species is Richard Hughes, in A High Wind to Jamaica. Price’s children aren’t the precocious wiseasses of sitcoms, or Spielbergian tuning forks who, quivering to the music of the spheres, always sense the truth and can’t persuade the cold-hearted adults to believe them. They’re children — half-formed, amoral savages struggling to become adults.

Samaritan, like its predecessors Clockers and Freedomland, is a police thriller. A crime is committed early on, the perp is unknown, and the story ends approximately when the investigating officer, always a major character, discovers who did it. (The legal machinations are always omitted. Price likes cops but seems to have no use for lawyers.)

Although the plotting is always handled competently, and the identity of the perpetrator is always difficult to guess, Price’s real interests lie with motive. His novels are whydunits more than whodunits, which I guess you could say about all good novels. They are mysteries because human motives are mysterious.

In Samaritan the victim is Ray Mitchell, a former high school teacher and cabdriver turned television writer who, at loose ends, decides to move back to his own neighborhood and do good. Mitchell is assaulted and seriously injured. He knows who did it but refuses to talk. An old acquaintance of his from the neighborhood, Nerese Ammons, a twenty-year veteran with six months to retirement, winds up investigating the crime. The novel alternates chapters, to impressive effect, between the events leading up the assault and its aftermath.

Mitchell spreads his money around — pays for one woman’s funeral, underwrites another man’s T-shirt business — learning the hard way the truth of John Jacob Astor’s remark: “Why does that man hate me? I never lent him money.” It buys him first bemusement, then solicitation, and finally enmity and a serious whack upside the head. “Ray thinks he wants to make a dent,” his ex-wife says, “when he really only wants to make a splash.” Nerese, too, questions her own motives in bothering with this case when she could just ride out the last few months to her pension.

Ray himself is far from stupid, and he knows that his motives are mixed. He tells Nerese about blowing a big TV deal and taking it out on his daughter Ruby at the mall:

“We get in the mall and I say, ‘Ruby, the hell with it. Let’s just buy shit. Whatever you want, who cares…’ She says, ‘That’s OK, I’ll just look.’ I’m like, ‘Ruby, c’mon, I just swung a big deal [he’s lying and she knows it], a dollar’s like a penny today.’ And I sort of bully her into buying some studs for her ears, can’t get her to buy clothes, can’t get her to buy any skin stuff, she grudgingly lets me buy her some teen magazine and it got really tense, the both of us like in this battle in the mall. And at one point she stops at a kiosk where they’re selling belly-button rings, and she got hers pierced a few weeks before and I see her eyeing this one ring, sort of a curved silver rod with dice at either end and, I’m instantly breathing down her neck, ‘You want that? You want that?’ Which of course makes her want to run away. She says, ‘Just looking,’ and wanders off. I’m so panic-stricken, the minute her back is turned, I buy it plus two others, then I sort of mosey up behind her, say, ‘Miss, did you drop these?’ and show her the three belly-button rings in my hand and she, goes, berserk. She starts sobbing and screaming at me, ‘Stop buying me stuff! Stop buying me stuff! Please! Daddy! Please! I don’t want anything!'”

Ayn Rand covered thoroughly the horror of altruism for the giver. Price deals with its horror for the recipient, for whom it’s like an oversolicitous host raised, in this case, several orders of magnitude. While Clockers is painted on a larger canvas, it lacks Samaritan‘s psychological penetration.

Which is the better book? Depends on your taste. But they’re both awfully good, and in different ways, which gives me hope that Price may have yet to do his best work.

(Cross-posted to BlogCritics.)

Apr 102003

Michael at 2 Blowhards discusses how publishing fads — which he charitably refers to as “consensus” — come to be. His commentators offer various unsatisfactory explanations. Many are of the “workshop” variety: editors and publishers have to promote books, therefore they promote what they have, and what’s wrong with that? The economics of the publishing industry puts this out of court. Publishers, like movie studios, depend on blockbusters for their survival. These are lottery industries, and it matters far more if you can squeeze 100,000 extra copies out of the latest Clancy or King than if Morrison or Rushdie sells 25,000 or 30,000 copies.

Social theories are more to the point. Publishing people all go to the same parties, where they exchange opinions about books. Naturally they expected to do an ungodly amount of reading. Michael Kinsley wrote an amusing article a while back about being a book prize judge. He was theoretically required to read more than 400 books.

Nobody in book or magazine publishing reads even one-tenth of what he’s supposed to have an opinion on, and shortcuts become indispensable. This is why book critics are far more widely read than books. They save time. If you haven’t got round to Rushdie or Morrison or Jonathan Safran Foer or whoever happens to be the novelist du jour — and you probably haven’t — it’s safest to praise them, most likely in the terms of Michiko Kakutani, whom you have read. (I, too, have opinions on Morrison and Rushdie despite having read only brief excerpts of the latter, which struck me as show-offy and not half so clever as the author obviously thought them, and the former not at all. Morrison’s fatuous public utterance makes me doubt that she is intelligent enough to be a good novelist. This is slender evidence, and it may be the opposite of the publishing consensus, but then they don’t invite me to their parties.)

The Blowhard thread evinces a simultaneous distrust of publishing fashion and genuflection toward the Canon. This is very common, and very odd. Woody Allen’s movie Crimes and Misdemeanors features an incredibly annoying TV writer, played by Alan Alda, who keeps repeating, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Well, the Canon is the fashion plus time. It’s subject to exactly the same vicissitudes. Shakespeare largely owes his reputation as the greatest English writer to two 19th century German critics, the Schlegel brothers. Nobody read John Donne 100 years ago. In 1921 Sir Herbert Grierson published an anthology, featuring Donne, of “metaphysical” poets, borrowing the term from Samuel Johnson, who used it disparagingly. T.S. Eliot picked up on Grierson, emphasizing Donne’s “difficulty” when difficulty was all the rage. An entire generation of academics, steeped in Eliot, began to teach Donne, things picked up steam, and now he is a “classic,” and the streets are littered with college graduates who know nothing of Donne except that he is “metaphysical.” Note that in this process one critic, maybe two, formed an independent opinion of Donne’s actual merits.

Time has its virtues. People have been reading Homer for three thousand years, and there’s probably a reason. But English poetry is only 500 years old, English prose even younger. Hapless undergraduates still battle the Red Crosse Knight mostly because C.S. Lewis thought Spenser was the exemplar of the “Golden Style.” Bulky self-regarding Wordsworth is too much with us, late and soon, because he happened to come along with the Lyrical Ballads in 1798, just as the heroic couplet was going out of style, and because he promoted himself tirelessly. The Canon is more reliable than the fashion, as some of the dust has settled, but it is a sort of fashion, just the same.

(Update: Brian Micklethwait comments.)

Apr 052003

It’s a poetry controversy! These are rare and I can’t pass up an opportunity to weigh in on Tony Hoagland’s essay on the necessity of meanness in poetry. I agree with Jim Henley and Eve Tushnet (scroll down to “Golden Mean,” Blogspot archives hosed as usual) that “meanness” is not the right word. Jim suggests “savagery” or “ruthlessness,” but I don’t find those quite satisfactory either. I propose “hatred.”

Love is blind, hate never. Hate clarifies, and great poets hate with excellent reason, as Yvor Winters tactlessly points out:

During the Romantic movement a great deal of sentimental nonsense was written about the isolation of the artist, and the nonsense usually verges on self-pity… The fact remains, however, that the artist, if he really is an artist, is really isolated, and his personal life in this respect is a hard one. There are few people with whom he can converse without giving offense or becoming angry. It is no accident that so many great writers have sooner or later retreated from society: they retreat because they are excluded. A first-rate poet differs from his contemporaries (and I include those who think of themselves as literary contemporaries) not in being eccentric or less human, but in being more central, more human, more intelligent. But the difference in this respect between, let us say, a great poet and most distinguished scholars is very great, and few scholars are distinguished; and the scholar cannot recognize the difference and is scarcely prepared to admit the possibility of the difference, for he regards himself as a professional man of letters. To the scholar in question, the poet is wrong-headed and eccentric, and the scholar will usually tell him so. This is bad manners on the part of the scholar, but the scholar considers it good manners. If the poet, after years of such experiences, loses his temper occasionally, he is immediately convicted of bad manners. The scholar often hates him (I am not exaggerating), or comes close to hating him; but if the poet returns hatred with hatred (and surely this is understandable), he is labeled as a vicious character, for, after all, he is a member of a very small minority group.

This passage is not free from self-pity either, but it is salutary to be occasionally reminded by our betters how they really see us. The overwhelming fact in the life of any great poet is impenetrable human stupidity, yours and mine. Emily Dickinson did not spend her life in her room because she was a crazy lady.

Some of the greatest poetry in English is hate poetry, although you’d never guess it from Hoagland’s limp examples. Proceeding by century, from the 16th we have Ralegh’s The Lie, Gascoigne’s Woodmanship, and Ayton’s To an Inconstant One. From the 17th, Jonson’s Ode to Himself (“Come, leave the loathed stage”) and Dryden’s MacFlecknoe. Paradise Lost is an interesting case. God, whom Milton loves but cannot see, is a bore: Satan, whom he hates and sees all too clearly, comes to life. This is the truth behind Shelley’s remark that Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it.

The best English poem of the 18th century is Churchill’s Dedication to Warburton, a savage attack on a literary bully and fraud. (It’s unavailable on the web; if someone asks nicely I’ll post it.) Honorable mention to The Dunciad and Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift. In the 19th century vituperation seemed to go out of fashion; but the 20th yields up Bogan’s Exhortation, J.V. Cunningham’s Ars Amoris and “Hang up your weaponed wit”, Winters’ own Danse Macabre. This is more or less off the top of my head. You’d be hard-pressed to produce a list of love poems of comparable quality.

And always remember, when you read these poems, that it’s you and me they’re talking about.

(Update: Jim Henley comments.)

Apr 022003

The other day Michael Blowhard and I caught a matinee of Irréversible, which runs backward chronologically, as you have now become the last to hear. The climax is the first scene in the movie, at a gay sex club, filmed through a red haze at dizzying camera angles. You don’t know the characters, so when one guy you can barely see beats another guy you can barely see to a pulp with a fire extinguisher, you’re thinking, “Gee, some guy just got beaten with a fire extinguisher. What was that all about?” And backward we proceed, for there is nowhere to go but backward.

Radical conventions tend to be radically confining. If you’re going to adopt one it should be for some purpose higher than confusing the audience and establishing your avant-garde bona fides — as in Memento, where reverse chronology succeeds by placing the audience in the same position as the amnesiac hero. Start with normal chronology, and you can take some liberties. The audience will tolerate an occasional fast forward or flashback because it’s securely oriented in time. You cannot profit from the expectations of your audience by turning them on their head.

Vers libre, another radical convention, runs up against similar difficulties. You gain in heightened emotion, a sort of breathless urgency that William Carlos Williams and H.D exploit brilliantly, with their tiny poems about fire trucks and pear orchards. But in the rush you lose the opportunity for meaningful variation against the background that rigid meter provides. It becomes impossible to write anything even moderately intellectual, and you exclude the greater part of human experience.

The last variation, as J.V. Cunningham wrote, is regularity.

(Update: Michael has a far more thorough and entertaining version of our outing. He discusses the Kaurasmaki film we also saw — which I didn’t mention because it didn’t fit my thesis, and I’m the sort of blogger who always needs a goddamn thesis — and provides links to genuinely useful sites, with pictures of Monica Belluci without her clothes on.)

Mar 252003

Eddie Thomas, who ordinarily philosophizes, ventures into poetry analysis — of very bad poetry, but poetry nonetheless. He chooses “Your Guess Is As Good As Mine,” by the Derailers, a honky-tonk band I’ve never heard of. The lyrics run:

Every time we talk, you keep asking me
Where our hearts are headed and how it’s gonna be
Well it’s too soon to tell, I can’t make that call
I’m not a fortune teller, I don’t have a crystal ball

Your guess is good as mine, I’m playing it by ear
And I’m not really sure, where we go from here
Where our love will lead, we may learn in time
Baby your guess is good as mine

Don’t worry ’bout tomorrow, forget about the past
Let’s enjoy the moment, don’t leave the best for last
There may come a day when we can reminisce
Right now we better concentrate on every single kiss

Eddie finds a good deal in this doggerel: “[W]hy is she concerned about the future so early in the relationship? Isn’t it likely that she’s deciding if he’s worth giving it up for? And isn’t his worth exactly what he is trying to get her not to think about? This isn’t carpe diem exactly, and I don’t think he’s concentrating on every single kiss, but I wish him luck.”

One difficulty here lies with the term carpe diem, which is not so simple as it appears. One version is a plain celebration of youth, which one might call naive carpe diem. The locus classicus of this theme in English is Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time.” This poem celebrates youth: “That age is best which is the first,/ When youth and blood are warmer.” Herrick, a clergyman by trade, piously and disinteredstedly advises the virgins to marry while they’re young.

Unlike Herrick, his contemporary, Andrew Marvell, in “To His Coy Mistress,” has an agenda, and makes no bones about it: “And your quaint honor turn to dust,/ And into ashes all my lust.” He evinces no desire for marriage, and such love as he has for his mistress is subjunctive. Perhaps with world enough, and time, “My vegetable love should grow/ Vaster than empires, and more slow”; but without it love doesn’t even enter the picture. “To His Coy Mistress” might be classified decadent carpe diem. The poem’s extremely high polish conceals its cold-bloodedness. Marvell even refers to himself in the third person in the title, as if to emphasize his distance from the scene. Although I find things to admire in this poem, I don’t, unlike Eddie, wish the poet luck in his designs — assuming they are real, and the poem is not merely an academic exercise.

The Derailers’ song is more like Marvell’s poem than Herrick’s. What both versions of carpe diem share, however, is a tightly circumscribed view of experience. It abstracts away everything that is not immediate experience, which is most of what makes humans human. Eddie wonders whether his reading is private. I don’t think so. He interests himself in what is not stated in the poem, which is legitimate, provided it bears on what is stated. By doing so Eddie indirectly points up what makes carpe diem always a minor theme.

I look forward to the day one of the Derailers self-Googles and happens on this exchange.

(Update: Eddie comments, wondering if there is “a loss of truth” when song lyrics lose their music. I would say there is a loss of power. Poetry, at its best, depends largely on subtle metrical effects, which music swamps, so song lyrics that employ them are largely wasted. I remember my favorite songs for their music, and only incidentally for their lyrics. The only band I know whose lyrics are interesting by themselves is mid-70s Pink Floyd.)