Friday, April 17, 2009

Record Store Day

So, yeah, I realize that this is the logo for last year's Record Store Day, but the Sun Records-esque logo is too killer to pass on.

This year, tomorrow -- almost today -- is Record Store Day, celebrating the renewed success of vinyl as a medium. If you are fortunate enough to live next to a 45 rpm emporium, go down for a visit and see what's going on. You may encounter special sales, rare collectibles, impromptu concerts by a slew of performers or pre-listening parties for records set for release in the weeks to come. And if you live in New York City, the mayor has even deemed it an official holiday.

National Poetry Month: Martin Espada

Martin Espada is may favorite Latino poet. I mean, just look at his beard. Also, he teaches at University of Massachusetts-Amherts. Before I even knew who Espada was, I wanted to go there to study with James Tate, but now, no matter how great Tate is, I admire Espada's work more. His poems cut to the core. They are always working on at least two levels, often more, and are always engaged with the broader world around him. Espada cares little for self-expression, but instead relies on political commentary and social critique.

I was blessed to have the opportunity to teach a healthy portion of Espada's poetry while working in an Upward Bound summer program a few years back. I admire several of his poems, but my favorite is still the one that first floored me back when I discovered him. Alternatively titled "Late Night at the Pawn Shop" or "Latin Night at the Pawn Shop," the poem begins with a group of kids looking at the instruments in a pawn shop window and imaging themselves in a salsa band. The poem turns dark though, as the children realize that social class has killed their dreams, or as Espada puts it the instruments have "price tags dangling, / like the city morgue ticket / on a dead man's toe."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

National Poetry Month: William Stafford

Another important Kansas poet, Stafford has an interesting history. A conscientious objector during World War II, he would go on to be named Poet Laureate of the United States, or Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress as it was called then. I was at a reading once where someone, perhaps Stephen Meats, editor of the Midwestern Quarterly, told an anecdote about how Stafford would not get up out of bed in the morning until he had completed a draft of a poem; the 20,000 pages of his daily writing donated to Lewis and Clark College in 2008 bears out that claim. He was certainly prolific, publishing four separate volumes in 1978 alone.

"Traveling Through the Dark," perhaps Stafford's most famous poem, has the feel of Hutchison, KS, where Stafford grew up and would call home for much of his life. The poem is about finding a deer dead on the side of the highway, and making the decision to push its carcass off the road to keep cars from swerving. The decision becomes complicated whent he speaker feels a baby, still alive, within the doe's belly. The speaker must "think hard for us all," coming upon the decision with no romance, with nothing but feelings of regret and solitude.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

National Poetry Month: Jonathan Holden

To really get a good feel for Jonathan Holden, Kansas's first poet laureate, you should hear him read. The way he phrases his poems is so skillful that when reading poetry on the page, his is the only voice I hear other than the voice in my head -- and perhaps the poet's voice if I know what they sound like -- reading the poem. When I read Charles Simic, it is often Holden's voice I hear reciting it. Also, the introductions he gives to his poems and the bird calls he imitates in "Western Meadowlark" enrich the poetry that much more.

Many of my favorite poems of Holden's, such as "An American Boyhood" and "How To Play Night Baseball," deal with the experience of growing up, of boyhood in the Midwest. My favorite is "Why We Bombed Haiphong," a poem that personifies the B-52 bomber, cleverly nothing the "B-52 was voted 'Most Popular' / and 'Most Likely To Suceed.' // The B-52 would give you the finger / from hot cars. It laid rubber, / it spit, it went around in gangs, / it got it's finger wet and sneered / about it."

I will lave it at that. Holden once told me that the best you can do is quote a poem and let it speak for itself, so that what I'm leaving his work to do.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

National Poetry Month: Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound has long been criticized for his anti-Semitism, and in a way rightfully so. Pound should have been smart enough not to rely on cultural assumptions and stereotypes about Jews. That said, I don't think Pound hated Jews outright. Certainly, he did support Mussolini, but it seems as though he supported fascism because fascist leaders were interested in nationalizing specific industries and in restructuring banks, something the far left also takes an interest in. Specifically, Pound was railing against usury, the loaning of money at inordinate interest rates, such as is done by banks and credit card companies. The cause of usury is greed, and looking at the current economic state we can see where that got us. Banks weren't content to simply charge outrageous interest rates that made it difficult for working families to put a dent in the principle, but they also loaned out to everyone, figuring they could earn more money that way, and when they loaned out to even those unable to pay their rates, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. In Pound's time, the attitude toward Jews was that they mostly made their money off of usury. Pound should have been able to see through that, but the impulse to be against usury was a good one.

As a critic, he came up with better ideas, and expressed them in a more direct way, than almost any other writer I can think of. From editing Ernest Fellosa's "The Chinese Character As A Medium" to The ABC of Reading, Pound's theoretical work is fascinating, infused with wit and consistently thought-provoking. As a poet, hiw work is also strong. "In A Station of the Metro," arguably Pound's most famous poem, was cut down from dozens of pages to just two single lines, two contrasting images that form the verbal equivalent of an Eisensteinian montage.

Pound's "translations" of Chinese poetry recreated their ideas and feelings using his own ideas of how Imagism should be practiced. The peak of this, perhaps, is in "River Merchant's Wife," when the wife's entire emotional complex is embedded in the line "the monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead." Later, Pound's Cantos were revolutionary as intertextual creations, like an extended Wasteland that effortlessly represents a plurality through blending multiple systems of linguistics. They are among the most challenging poems in any and all languages, but all the more rewarding because of it. And to hear Ezra read them, with one of the most intense recorded voices in history, is to be shaken straight out of your bones.

Monday, April 13, 2009

National Poetry Month: T. S. Eliot

Here is Eliot, looking rather Prufrockian, to nab an adjective coined out of one of his most famous poems, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." That poem imagines an older, balding man arguing with himself, attempting to justify his own social anxieties. The poem is one of his easier poems to get around, and his density had made many readers fail to attempt understanding him.

It is worth known Eliot's work, if only because it is omnipresent. As Eliot himself said, "good artists borrow, great artists steal," and without stealing something from Eliot, we'd be a much poorer world. Can we imagine Watchmen or "Desolation Row" without The Wasteland, or The Great Gatsby without The Hollow Men? If we want to get technical, can we have "Too Much of Nothing" without Eliot's two brides, Valerie and Vivian?

Certainly, as the references to "Desolation Row" and "Too Much of Nothing" attest, Dylan was heavily influenced by Eliot. In the first attempt I made at writing a scholarly article, I researched charges that Eliot was anti-semitic, which I'd thought he was, and then wrote in defense of "Gerontion." In the poem the reader is presented with a Jewish landlord, referred to in the poem in the opening lines as "the jew." Due to Dylan's "Dear Landlord," I immediately thought of the Jewish landlord as Jesus and the building as the world. I read the poem as religious allegory, and the choice to not capitalize "jew" as more of a comment on how Eliot viewed Jesus' place in culture at the time than on the Jewish culture.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

National Poetry Month: John Donne

When I first studied John Donne, I was told his poetry could be broken up into three types depending on when he wrote them. The first type of poem was that attempting to wildly seduce a young woman, such as "The Flea," a poem in which the poet tries to equate intercourse with a bug bite in order to lure a young virgin into bed. After he met and married his love Anne, Donne wrote highly erotic, yet devotional poems chronicling his love for her. After she died, Donne turned his attention toward God, loving God with the same passion, resulting in work like the Holy Sonnets. In truth, its not quite that clear cut, and a poem like "The Canonization" seems to eroticize the church, further complicating matters.

What is true is that with a list of poems that includes both minor classics like "Go and Catch A Falling Star," "Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God" and "To His Mistress Going to Bed" alongside essential classics like "Death Be Not Proud," "For Whom the Bells Toll" and "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," it is hard to go wrong with a good collection of Donne's works. Van Morrison didn't ask him to rave on for nothing.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

National Poetry Month: William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams was a doctor by trade, which accounts for why many of his poems, with the quite notable exception of the book-length Patterson, are short -- he purportedly scribbled them on prescription pads between patients. The lack of both time and space meant they were simply short and imagistic. His most famous poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow," reflects how one rural patient is forced to depend on technologysuch as the wheelbarrow or his very livelihood. "This Is Just To Say" was supposedly written on a post-it note and left on the refrigerator for his wife in the morning.

Friday, April 10, 2009

National Poetry Month: Robert Creeley

Robert Creeley had a long and prolific career as an American poet. He began his career being associated with the Black Mountain poets, studying with Charles Olson but not limiting himself to projected verse. Later, he became friends with Allen Ginsberg and moved in the circles of beat poets.

Among Creeley's best-known poems is "I Know A Man." This poem's excellence derives from its ability to constantly defer meaning. Mimetic of the lack of meaning in the world, many of the words are clipped, such as "sd" for "said" or "yr" for "your." The two syllables of "surrounds" are split on different lines. The speaker calls his friend John, but then immediately confesses that this is not his friend's name. He starts waxing philosophical, but then in the last stanza the friend tells the speaker to drive, or to become grounded in reality rather than abstraction.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

National Poetry Month: Emily Dickinson

At the same time Walt Whitmas was developing one major strand of poetry, that of communal elebration and the use of the long, flowing line, Emily Dickinson was developing the other strand -- eloquent expression of the personal using short lines and caesura,most effectively expressed in her use of the dash. Dickinson's poetry was so intensely private that she published very little in her own lifetime, instead keeping her work to herself and only letting it be discovered after her death.

Because of this, most of Dickinson's poems are known by the first line or by simply a number. Her most famous works include "Wild Nights" and "Because I Could Not Stop For Death."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

National Poetry Month: Carl Sandburg

When he wasn't busy penning kooky kids stories that make little sense, like those found in Rootabaga Stories, or collecting a wide swath of American folk songs to be included in the American Songbag, Carl Sandburg was busy writing poems that exhibited a strong American voice, the kind of voice that feels like hard work just fighting to get off the page and into the factory.

Sandburg's most famous poem is likely "Chicago," a portrait of one of the most American cities. The second strophe begins "They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas pumps luring the farm boys." The strophe continues in a list like this, but ends with a turn as Sandburg unexpectedly champions such wickedness. An intriguing and spirited turn on America's most American, if not greatest, city.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

National Poetry Month: Peter Cooley

Peter Cooley holds a dear place in my heart among American poets. When I was studying as an undergraduate, most of my work was focused on my family and, while some of the poetry I was putting out was inspired, some of it was also just memoirs with line breaks. Cooley read at Pittsburg State University shortly before I graduated, on April 11, 2002 if his inscription in The Astonished Hours is to be believed.

A Place Made of Starlight hadn't come out yet and the most recent book he had finished was Sacred Conversations. I read it over time and time again in the months that followed. I wrote a review of it for my first graduate workshop and aggressively told people they had to read it, which led to someone eventually running off with the copy I'd bought at Cooley's reading. I have since repurchased it.

The title refers specifically to a series of poems in which Cooley directly interacts with various literary characters, such as "For Jay Gatsby," "For Daisy Miller," "For Emma Bovary in Heaven," and "To Emily Dickinson in New Orleans" to name just a few. This last one in particular grabbed me, as the speaker imagines himself in a passionate love affair with Emily Dickinson that gets played out in the library stacks, later teased by his friends for going after a much older woman. Before reading this, I never recognized that the way I interacted with a text might be unique and interesting in and of itself.

Cooley also interacts with texts in less direct ways. The book opens with a poem called "To My Hypocrite Reader," a play on the similarly titled "To the Reader" that opens Baudelaire's Les Fleurs Du Mal. In this way, I learned how to better use allusion in my own work by reading a master like Cooley. If it weren't for Sacred Conversations, I probably would have never written "Lost Inside the Neon-Fruit Supermarket," which is probably the poem I feel proudest of. If you have an interest in poetry, pick up one of Cooley's fantastic books when you get a chance. You will have trouble putting it down.

Together Through Life Preview

Am I excited about the new Dylan album, Together Through Life, scheduled to come out April 28? You can bet your sweet bippy I am. I'm more excited than usual because of the involvement of David Hidalgo, accordion guru from Los Lobos. Their covers of "Billy" on the I'm Not There soundtrack and "On A Night Like This" on the Masked and Anonymous soundtrack blew away Dylan's originals, mostly because the instrumentation was so vibrant.

As of yesterday, Dylan's people have publicly previewed two of the album's tracks: "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" and "I Feel A Change Comin' On."

"Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" swings with gusto, but lyrically it is pretty weak. There are really only two stand-out lines: "boulevards of broken cars," which is interesting because it sets the listener up for the cliche of "broken dreams" and then throws in a surprise, and "beyond here lies nothin' but the mountains of the past." This last line comes from the penultimate chorus, which always begins with "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'," but then alternates the last line with each verse. This one, with the idea of a towering, insurmountable past, takes the cake.

Lyrically, "I Feel A Change Comin' On" is stronger. It opens up with the singer imagining watching his girl "walkin' with the village priest." A few verses later, he advises his girl that if she wants to "live easy, baby pack your clothes with mine." This has a strangely sweet and romantic quality to it the way Dylan puts it. (The line is actually stolen from an old Tommy Johnson blues lyric.) From the title, many people prematurely guessed this would be a song about Barack Obama, who talked a lot about "change" during his campaign. He also talked about "hope," and a few albums ago Dylan told us that he "left all [his] dreams and hopes buried under tobacco leaves." Here he tells us, in a unique way, that they never did him any good: "Dreams never did work for me anyway, even when they did come true." This last bit deepens the song's sadness by imbueing it with a sense of futility.

Later, Dylan sings to the woman in the song, who embodies whatever hope is left, that she is "as ???? as ever" and that she "could start a fire." It sounds to me like he is saying she is as "Horace" as ever, but that makes no literal sense. Dylan has been quoting Ovid lately, so I wouldn't put it past him to namedrop Horace (maybe one of the lyric hounds should be sniffing around Horace's "Ars Poetica" and looking for clues), but it makes no sense. He could be saying she is "hoarse," but Dylan's not the pot to call the kettle black, it sounds to my ears as though he utters two syllables, and that still makes no sense. A third option is "porous," and pumice, a rock formed as lava cools, is porous....

The song's best lines, though, come at the end: "I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I'm reading James Joyce. Some people tell meI've got the blood of the land in my voice." These lines are powerful, but the music in this song is light and breezy, like jazz floating across on a summer breeze. It doesn't sound like there's any blood in the voice, especially not that of the land. That isn't to say the song isn't enjoyable; it has the same feel as the better-than-half-the-album "Spirit On the Water" off of Modern Times, but whereas that song, with its lyrics that suggest it is from the point of view of Cain trying to make amends at the end of his life, succeeds at blending the lyrics and the melody, here the lyrics seem better suited to an arrangement like that of "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'." Had he set the lyrics of "I Feel A Change Comin' On" to that sort of beat, he'd have a real masterpiece on his hands. As it is, I'm anticipating a strong album and an enjoyable listen, but nothing that is going to turn anyone's head upside down.

Monday, April 6, 2009

National Poetry Month: Richard Hugo

Richard Hugo was inspired by America, particularly small town America. His book The Triggering Town, a landmark of poetic theory, talked about how one should begin with description and let that trigger the imagination, so that the poem is able to move off of the triggering subject and move onto something else. The things which best triggered Hugo were towns -- especially those which were struggling, stuck in a post-industrial mire. He is best known for poems like "Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg" and "The Lady In Kicking Horse Reservoir."

Hugo's poems are filled with haunting, dark imagery. "Living Alone" is a poem in that streak. It begins auspicious enough, with the speaker explaining his weird but intriguing life in the woods where he fraternizes with deer. Later he reveals that his cabin was the site of a murder, particularly that of the woman. The speaker suddenly becomes defensive and territorial, leaving the reader shaken, and their thoughts hanging as to whether the speaker is a murderer or just a madman.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

National Poetry Month: William Blake

William Blake was a true visionary, andhis visions reached beyond the Jim Morrison variety, though he may be most famous for being the biggest influence on the Doors' frontman. He similarly had a large influence on the Frency Symboliste poets, who also influenced The Doors as well as Bob Dylan. Indeed, "The Tyger," one of Blake's most well known poems, has been set to music more times than any other poem I can think of.

Despite other masterpieces like "The Auguries of Innocence," Blake's reputation rests mostly upon Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. These two companion volumes, released in lavishly lithographed illustrated editions, imagine the world as created first by a Christian God and then by Satan. They are best read inconjunction, and may poems, such as "The Lamb," "London," and "The Sick Rose," have been extracted and heavily anthologized.

One of the most unique contributions Blake has made to the arts is in way of inspiring the Jim Jarmusch surrealist comedy Dead Man in which a Native American taking peyote mistakes a man named William Blake as the ghost of the poet, whose works he has confused with those of Jim Morrison.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

National Poetry Month: Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg has managed to make himself one of America's most distinguished iconoclasts, leading the counter culture when he was young and then becoming mainstream enough to show up to the AWP conference in coat and tie in the years before his death. Ginsberg has had several collections of poetry go on to be literary classics -- in addition to Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, Reality Sandwiches, Planet News, and Fall of America are all classics. Kaddish, named after a Jewish death prayer, deals with the passing of his mother Naomi. Fall of America, recipient of the National Book Award, is a series of poems chronicling the counter-culture, and especially its opposition to Vietnam. Planet News inspired the title of Bob Dylan's album Planet Waves; two years later Ginsberg joined Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Review and wrote the liner notes for Desire.

My favorite Ginberg poem may be "Supermarket in California," a poem in which Ginsberg imagines stalking Walt Whitman's ghost as he shops in a modern-day grocery store, interacting with contemporary commerce. In it, as in much of his work, Ginsberg adopts Whitman's unique style of writing and the long line which is his trademark.

Ginsberg also did much to bridge the gap between music and poetry. He recorded the album First Blues with Bob Dylan. Near his death, he recorded "Ballad of the Skeletons" with Paul McCartney. A fantastic version of him reading "America" exists set against the background of Tom Waits' "Closing Time." It is breathtaking and powerful.

Friday, April 3, 2009

National Poetry Month: Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I'll be the first to admit that Lawrence Ferlinghetti's greatest contribution to American poetry is not as a poet but rather as a publisher. Ferlinghetti ran the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, the home of the Beat poets. Without Ferlinghetti, important books like Gregory Corso's Gasoline may not have been published. His most famous publication, of course, is Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems, which brought national attention when Ferlinghetti was forced to defend the book in an obscenity trial, one he won in a landmark victory for the first amendment.

While his work as a publisher and book store entrepreneur is important, Ferlinghetti's poetry is also quite good. His second volume, Coney Island of the Mind, has one of the most fantastic titles I know of, a great description of how poetry is a neural carnival. The words inside it give a good blend of the natural and surrealist worlds. Ferlinghetti's "Baseball Canto" was featured on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour and is an intriguing piece of work. In it, the speaker imagines reading Pound's Cantos in the stands at Yankees' Stadium and having minority baseball players knock the ball through its pages; this poem is the most playful attempt I've read of someone trying to come to terms with Pound's World War II era politics.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

National Poetry Month: Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes is one of those poets who is ever-present in American culture. I can't remember not knowing "Harlem," "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," or "Mother to Son." Digging a little deeper, I found "I, Too," which I understood intuitively at once, and gained a deeper understanding of when I had the context of Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing." Walt also shows up in Hughes' "Old Walt."

Another Hughes' poem of allusory importance for me has been "Port Town." Despite its short lines, it had that same celebratory feel of so much of Whitman's work. I automatically loved its spirit. It was reading this poem that I first came to the realization that Hughes was homosexual, which greatly increased my empathy. Later, rereading Whitman with "Port Town" in mind, I came to the same realization. The real importance to me, though, was in helping me finally come to an understanding of Emily Dickinson, a poet I have continually struggled to get. Seeing the line "Wild, white nights," I took it as an allusion to Dickinson's "Wild Nights -- Wild Nights!" Reading it, I saw the whole poem was homage, her poem being about a wild night with a sailor she meets at port. Also, it let me see why Hughes' uses short lines. Although he doesn't use dashes, Hughes is able to conjure a voice which meshes with Whitman's even while emulating Dickinson. Rereading her now is a much more pleasurable experience.

Hughes most important poetic contribution, though, may be Montage of a Dream Deferred. This epic is made up of several different, smaller poems, much in the same way as a poem like Allen Ginsberg's Fall of America would later be composed. Many of the poems within it have been anthologized without the context of the others, but taken all at once, the poem is a beautiful experience. For a good sample poem within it, consider "Ballad of the Landlord," a piece which implies a ballad, follows a blues form before fragmenting into jazz. Truly transformative.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

National Poetry Month: Walt Whitman

It is time again for a new month's worth of themed posts, and this month is is National Poetry Month, featuring 30 poets well worth checking out if you haven't done so. To kick off the month, I present the King of American Poetry: Walt Whitman. Of course, America is founded on the principle that we have no kings (sans Elvis I guess), which means that to be a king here you have to be a supporter of democracy.

Whitman loved democracy with a little "d," that conceptual belief that all people are equal, extolled through form in poem's like "I Hear America Singing." He was also a fan of Republicans, back when they were the good guys, the new kids after Abraham Lincoln became the last third party candidate to win the presidency. No where is Lincoln better memorialized than in "O Captain, My Captain," unless, of course, you are like me and prefer "When Lilacs Last In the Doorway Bloom'd." Lincoln inhabited several Whitman poems, taking the foreground in those and lurking around the fringes of several others.

Unlike poets today who publish several books, Whitman only published one, Leaves of Grass, but he published it eight times, adding poems, subtracting poems, and constantly revisiting with each new edition. By the time he died, the book had grown from a modest 95 page volume into one that was several hundred pages long. It was a book which Whitman commented was "almost always successful in the open air," and he was right. I didn't understand Whitman until one day I decided to recite him out loud, outside. As I did, the words spread out before me, issueing from my mouth and rearranging themselves to show me a whole new world. The experience was fantastic. Try it for yourself! I suggest "Starting From Paumanok" as a good starting point, though the more traditional "Song of Myself'" may work just as well.