Monday, October 30, 2017

From Rhymed Lines to Mongrel Tongues: X.J. Kennedy, Charles Simic, Alan Felsenthal, Airea D. Matthews, & Julian Talamantez Brolaski


Rejoice! The new Hudson Review has dropped with a satisfying clunk into the mailboxes of subscribers and onto the magazine racks of the more self-respecting sort of bookstores! As always, there are many fine things—including, this time out, Mark Jarman on postmodern poetry, A.E. Stallings on the literature of the sea, and much else.  I've contributed a "poetry chronicle" feature, a round-up of recent books I've found impressive in various ways.  It's called "From Rhymed Lines to Mongrel Tongues" and covers a range from formalism through Surrealism to deeply experimental works. The poets are X.J. Kennedy, Charles Simic, Alan Felsenthal, Airea D. Matthews, & Julian Talamantez Brolaski.  Here's a small taste from what I have to say about each...

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X.J. Kennedy isn’t just a poet—he’s a poet emeritus, or so claimed R.S. Gwynn, holding a laurel wreath aloft over Kennedy’s head at the 2017 West Chester Poetry conference. With dozens of poetry collections, textbooks, edited works and volumes of light and children’s verse behind him, Kennedy has certainly earned the title—and nowhere does he seem more emeritus than in the poems of That Swing.  Here, in Kennedy’s signature combination of storytelling, formal nimbleness, and comic moments mixed with reverie and melancholy, we find the poet assessing the past and looking out on a future beyond his own lifetime...

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Unlike X.J. Kennedy, whose That Swing peers into the dark with uncharacteristic frequency, Charles Simic is the kind of poet who has long since set up housekeeping in the dark existential abyss.  His latest collection, Scribbled in the Dark, contains poems in his established idiom: short, eerie pieces rich with image and stingy with discursive explanation—poems in which the world appears uncanny and, for the most part, vaguely menacing.  The images are typical of Simic: injured flies, threadbare gypsies, bare light bulbs hanging over rooms equally bare, an actor “unable to recall his lines/At the end of some tragic farce.”

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One could be forgiven for thinking that some of the poems in Alan Felsenthal’s confident debut collection, Lowly, belong in a book like Scribbled in the Dark.  Were one to meet Felsenthal’s “El Dorado” running wild in the deserts of Arabia, one might instantly scream out “Simic!”:
A firefly committed to the orphanage
the night I graduated
and prayed for the petite kindness
unknown to an aiming hand
inside a shoe.



The imagery, the tone, the darkly comic sense of a violent world devoid of divine justice: it all seems to come out of the Simic playbook. But this sort of poetry doesn’t represent the heart of Felsenthal’s book, which is in essence an extended rumination, over many poems, on the theme of connecting with one’s ancestors through rituals connected with death and remembrance...
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If Felsenthal fears distraction and forgetting, Airea D. Matthews fears self-deception—or so we can gather from her debut collection, the Yale Younger Poets Prize-winning Simulacra. The book—a contender for strongest debut collection of the year—is formally audacious. Matthews packs it with lyric poetry, prose poems, and closet drama, as well as epistolary poems and their contemporary analog, poems composed of fictitious text messages. The poems of Simulacra treat the theme of addiction—not from the addict’s point of view, but from the point of view of the addict’s family. The poems are particularly powerful in revealing a well-meaning family’s complicity. They cast light on the willingness of families to enable destructive behavior and, especially, the urge to cover up violence and disorder, to put up a false front so as to convince the world, and themselves, that everything is somehow okay when it most decidedly is not.
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Julian Talamantez Brolaski is, I say with some confidence, the only half-Native American, trans-male, country music singing student of Renaissance poetry writing today; and Of Mongrelitude, his third collection, is as idiosyncratic as his background might suggest.  It is a stylistically bold book, with debts to popular culture, Native American mythology, and the classics of English literature, as well as to the experimental tradition in American poetry. Like Brolaski’s previous collection, Advice for Lovers, it is also an emotionally engaging book, provided one is willing to dial into the formally challenging frequency in which it broadcasts.

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I do hope you get a chance to pick up an issue and read the whole chronicle... or better yet, get your hands on the books themselves—they number among the best of the season.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Reggie Watts and Karl Pilkington Wrestle in Heaven



Rejoice! The new issue of Copper Nickel is out.  It includes an essay of mine called "Reggie Watts and Karl Pilkington Wrestle in Heaven," about comedy, populism, globalism, and, of course, Karl Pilkington and Reggie Watts.  It starts like this:

They don’t wrestle, and they aren’t in Heaven, but it’s a better title than “The Wind and the Lion, or: Reggie Watts and Karl Pilkington, an Essay That Gets a Little Dark and Political at the End.
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At the end of The Wind and the Lion, a mid-seventies orientalist extravaganza of a film, a Barbary pirate king played by Sean Connery writes to a distant Teddy Roosevelt, whose warships and Marines—representatives of modernity and the budding American empire—threaten to destroy him and his people.  “I, like the lion, must stay in my place,” intones Connery in voiceover, not quite managing to get the Scotland out of his voice, “while you, like the wind, will never know yours.”
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There are many ways to understand comedy. There’s Hobbes’ way, which is all about feeling superior to the schmuck who took a pie to the face; Kant’s way, which is about the unexpectedness of using a pie as a projectile; and Freud’s, which says we’re just giggling with relief when we stop suppressing our forbidden aggressions and smash a pie into some fool’s face. But if you want to understand two of the most striking figures of contemporary comedy, Reggie Watts and Karl Pilkington, you could do worse than to start with the words of a fictional Barbary pirate.
To be clear: Pilkington’s the lion in this scenario. The bald, Mancunian lion. And Reggie Watts, whose voluminous afro differentiates him from Pilkington as much as his apparent cosmopolitan placelessness, is the wind. Let’s start with the lion.
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Everyone who stumbled through graduate school in the humanities knows Kant credited David Hume with awakening him from his dogmatic slumber, but few know that he cribbed from another Scottish philosopher, James Beattie, when he put together his theory of the comic as the incongruous. Laughter, Beattie says, arises when things that don’t belong together unite—and Kant said much the same, more prominently and with far less clarity. And incongruity does explain a great deal of comedy, from Steve Martin wearing an arrow through his head while playing banjo in old Saturday Night Live episodes, to any solemn cleric or public speaker letting loose with a burst of surprisingly audible flatulence. It would seem to explain much of the comic effect of watching Karl Pilkington travel the world in the Sky TV series An Idiot Abroad.  When, for example, Karl Pilkington stands on the Great Wall of China, looking out over the vast, venerable, and sublime fortification as it snakes away over the mountains of the Chinese north, we’d expect something like awe from him. He even seems, for a moment, to provide it, saying “It goes on for miles, over hills and such,” before deflating it all: “but so does the M6” (a perpetually traffic-clogged British motorway). The reaction is incongruous in a way Beattie and Kant would understand. And it involves something like the special kind of incongruity Mikhail Bakhtin saw as central to comedy—the “transcoding” in which something grand or sacred is juxtaposed to something banal or (in the most powerful cases) obscene.  But if we understand Karl Pilkington merely as a producer of incongruous comments, we miss what’s special to him. We miss what makes him a lion.
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You want to understand Karl Pilkington? Then you want to understand the power of narrowness. You want to understand the brilliance of narrowness....
The issue can be ordered here. 

Another essay of mine on comic poetry is here.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

When a Poem's Wrongness is Right: Notes on Anthony Madrid



The laws of logic may well maintain that something cannot be simultaneously wrong and right—but the laws of poetry beg to differ.  The laws of Anthony Madrid's poetry certainly do.  I talk a little bit about why and how in "When a Poem's Wrongness is Right," just out in Hyperallergic.  It begins like this:

“There was an old man of Toulouse,” Edward Lear once wrote, “Who purchased a new pair of shoes.” He continues his limerick this way: “When they asked, ‘Are they pleasant?’ he said, ‘Not at present!’/That turbid old man of Toulouse.” Anthony Madrid, a lover of limericks (along with ghazals, and more or less any kind of formal verse), says this about the Lear’s poem: 
Someone could say it’s clever. To which I shrug. It is clever; there’s a technical ingenuity involved, OK. But the beauty of the thing has everything to do with the slight incongruities of asking a person if his new shoes are “pleasant,” and of that person’s responding that they currently are not. This is a very choice example of the “right wrong thing.” The wrongness is right. 
If we were looking for a pocket-sized synopsis of Madrid’s poetics — his answer to Pound’s “Make it new” or Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of feelings recollected in tranquility” — we could do worse than to go with “the wrongness is right.” At the very least, it’s a good clue as to how we might read his latest collection, Try Never (Canarium, 2017).
The rest is available here. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Poetry and the Alphabet



Years ago, Ron Silliman wrote an essay called "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World," where he claimed that popular fiction sought to make language disappear, putting words together so innocuously that they disappeared, letting a kind of movie play in the head of the viewer (his example for this, if I recall correctly, was a novelization of the movie Jaws).  There's something to this line of thinking, and I tried to push it a bit further in an essay on the use of letters (alphabetical letters, not epistolary ones) in poetry. It's called "Immigrants and Kings: The Letter in the Empire of Poetry." Here's how it starts:


The writing of letters is an art as old as any other, and came to us, if Berossus, Priest of Marduk in Babylon is to be believed, when Oannes, a great fish with the head and feet of a man emerged, speaking, from the Erythraean Sea. Oannes taught the ignorant people of Chaldea not only how to write, but how to build houses, found temples, compose laws, collect fruits, and distinguish between the seeds of many different plants.
As venerable as writing was in the tale told by Berossus, it is more venerable still as described in the pages of the Sefer Yetzirah, the first great work of Jewish esoterism. Reading this ancient work we find that God created nothing—not mankind, not the seraphim, neither the earth nor the heavens nor seas—until he first created the alphabet. “Twenty-two letters did he engrave and carve,” we read, “he weighed them and moved them around into different combinations. Through them, he created the soul of every living being and the soul of every word.” The letters, fixed on a wheel of 231 gateways, precede and give birth to all else in creation.
We don’t know exactly when poetry began, though we have, from a few surviving totems and similar relics, a sense of when symbolic thinking came about—some 70,000 years ago—and we can surmise that poetry, in the form of ritual incantations, funeral rites, and tales of tribal origins, emerged around the same time. Writing, even in its most primitive forms, came about many thousands of years later, after the agricultural revolution created a need for contracts and tally-sheets for merchants in grain and cattle. Only later still did writing become sophisticated enough to record poetry.
All of this is by way of saying that letters come late to the great and ancient kingdom of poetry, a kingdom that accepted them begrudgingly. 
The whole essay is in the Ilanot Review, and you can read it online here. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Revolutions Reviewed!




The always-interesting journal Galatea Resurrects has been kind enough to run a review of my recent book written with John Matthias and Jean Dibble, Revolutions: A Collaboration.  Ralph La Charity says some kind things.  He understands the relationship between the historical source in Mandalstam's poetry, Matthias' reworking and riffing on those poems, Dibble's prints reaction to Matthias, and my own commentary, and concludes by saying:
Throughout REVOLUTIONS the beholder is treated to a many-angled banquet of effects.  As elusive as any one effect might be, it is in the mixing of all those effects that the book achieves itself.  The poet achieves grace for his terrorized forebear, the visual artist achieves a poetics of sighted sound, and the critic takes us into an orientation we receive as grandly utile in its breadth and particularity both.  And yes, the book manifestly rewards re-reading and re-apprehending, since I have managed to give but a teasing hint as to how its complexities meld into a variegated whole that is, truly, sublime. 
La Charity also calls me a "a speculative unraveler par excellence," which may be my favorite epithet ever.

The review can be read online here.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Politics of Stupidity, or: The Prescience of Pierre Bourdieu



In the last years of his life, Pierre Bourdieu turned with increasing urgency to political questions.  Seeing in globalization an ever-greater concentration of all forms of capital—financial, educational, symbolic, and so forth—he called for a true internationalism, a set of reforms at the European and, ultimately, global level to rein in the forces that would reduce everything to a commodity, and render up all commodities into the hands of the few. Speaking to an audience of students in Berlin in June of 2000, he said a few words about the nature of the emerging global elite that resonate particularly well with today’s grim political picture. Those words go a long way toward explaining the nature of the kind of resentful populism—and in some cases, fascism—that we see rising around us.

He speaks of the unequal distribution of cultural capital, including the kinds of capital (advanced educational degrees, international travel, familiarity with the keywords of prestige fields like economics or the sciences, readership of intellectually challenging books and media, etc.) amassed by the elites of the emerging global economy. To be clear: this is an elite broadly conceived—not merely the 1% we railed against at Occupy, but the professional and managerial classes.  I, and most of those reading likely to be reading this, are members of that class, whether we care to admit it or not.
The ruling class no doubt owes its extraordinary arrogance to the fact that, being endowed with very high cultural capital (most obviously of academic origin, but also nonacademic), it feels perfectly justified in existing as it currently exists… The educational diploma is not merely a mark of academic distinction: it is perceived as a warrant of natural intelligence, of giftedness.  Thus the “new economy” has all the characteristics to appear as the “brave new world.”  It is global and those who dominate it are often international, polyglot, and polycultural (by opposition to the locals, the “national” or “parochial”). It is immaterial or “weightless”: it produces and circulates weightless objects such as information and cultural products.  As a consequence, it can appear as an economy of intelligence, reserved for “intelligent” people (which earns it the sympathy of “hip” journalists and executives).  Sociodicy [the means by which a society justifies itself] here takes the form of a racism of intelligence: today’s poor are not poor, as they were thought to be in the nineteenth century, because they are improvident, spendthrift, intemperate, etc.—by opposition to the “deserving poor”—but because they are dumb, intellectually incapable, idiotic. In short, in academic terms “they got their just deserts”…
There’s a kind of smugness, Bourdieu says, to the widely-held belief among elites that we got here because we’re smart, and others ended up where they are because they’re stupid—a smugness based on an almost willful blindness to the barriers to the development of human capital faced by the majority of the population, and a on a discrediting of forms of knowledge other than those held in esteem by elites.  But so what? Well, there’s this, when Bourdieu continues:
The victims of such a powerful mode of domination… are very deeply damaged in their self-image. And it is no doubt through this mediation that a relationship—most often unnoticed or misunderstood—can be traced between neoliberal politics [the deregulated, financialized, and internationalized world of globalization] and certain fascistoid forms of revolt among those who, feeling excluded from access to intelligence and modernity, are driven to take refuge in the national and nationalism.
Tell people they're stupid—even if it's not spoken except through a thousand micro-aggressions—and they won't forget it.  “America first,” they'll say, or “France for the French,” or "Build the wall!" or “Brexit!” They'll simmer with resentment, feeling that they are looked down on by a worldly elite as nothing more than idiots, or a basket of deplorables.  And here they are, angry to the point of violence, giving us (as Michael Moore put it) "the biggest fuck you in human history." They've been had, of course—preyed on and manipulated by the cynical people who have taken power and seek only their own personal ends. We are right to oppose them, but we would be wrong to say we did not, to some degree, provoke their rage.