Saturday Links

Ayo, readers. Here are some weekend texts to keep you cozy during each November day’s 26 hours of darkness. (Or, if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, to give you something to read on your phone so you don’t have to interact with other people.)

  • From The Economist, a brief piece on America’s repulsive penchant for mandatory minimums and life-without-parole for nonviolent offenders. Being TE, the bosom publication of neoliberal trans-Atlantic “moderates,” they have to screw it up by pasting “none too bright” onto “typically poor” when describing inmate demographics, and by pivoting (in fewer than ten words) from acknowledging that the best available estimates indicate that two-thirds of nonviolent lifers are black (ninety-one percent in Louisiana!) to assuring readers that “the problem with the system is not racial bias; applying such draconian, hope-crushing sentences to non-violent offenders of any race is cruel and pointless.” This is like saying that the problem with Stalin wasn’t so much that he butchered and enslaved millions of Soviet subjects, but that killing/enslaving anyone is evil. The fact that the second part is true doesn’t somehow invalidate the first, dear editors of major publication.
  • The branch of the UAW that represents UC graduate students recently released a report titled “Towards Mediocrity: Administrative Mismanagement and the Decline of UC Education.” Read ‘er here. It points out plenty of things this blog has underscored in its own little way: that holding impersonal classes in decaying buildings is bad for the UC; that not investing in teachers and researchers (especially younger ones) is bad for the UC; that going whole-hog for privatized online classes which are demonstrably expensive and shitty is bad for the UC; that reducing the amount of intellectual and material support for low-income students is bad for the UC (and the US); that well-compensated administrators, like UC Irvine’s chief medical officer, do not need quiet little (massive) bonuses, like said CMO’s $73,000 moving-expenses stipend. (Was dude moving to Argentina?) No doubt this report will do nothing to change the situation that inspired it. But hey, the President gave a speech.
  • Labor conditions got you down? Lucky for us, many episodes of The Muppet Show (1976-1981) are on YouTube. Here is the episode where Johnny Cash was the guest. Fair warning, though, if you don’t have a sense of humor or grasp of irony: At one point JC performs with a Confederate flag in the background while Gonzo rides a bronco in the fore.
  • This early half-gem of David Foster Wallace’s is being sold at Urban Outfitters now. Seems like an odd marketing move, considering that among the 200 or so undergraduates whom I have forced to read essays of his, precisely threeas a DFW fanboy I remember the numberhad even heard of the man, let alone read anything he wrote. I am actually hoping that UO knows their target demo and is onto something wonderful. Like, maybe copies of Infinite Jest will be piled next to deep-Vs and cheap boat shoes. Could happen.
  • Now in the Grantland stable, Wesley Morris is my favorite film critic. Like DFW, Morris wields a sophisticated, erudite critical vocabulary when talking about American culture, including some of its trashier prongs, without being self-conscious about the performance. Read some stuff here (at his first home, the Boston Globe), here, or here. A sample sentence, from a review of Spring Breakers: “What [director Harmony] Korine does with the beer-soaked skin, face-devouring makeouts, and piles and piles of barely dressed people is intensify the college-party atmosphere in a way that feels simultaneously orgasmic and repulsive.” He hyphenated the phrasal adjectives! Even though I’m straight, I’m swooning.
  • I live in California, and these short days will only shorten for the next few months. Winter’s coming. So here is Karl Shapiro’s “California Winter,” a wonderful elongated lyric. Don’t worry if you don’t live in California, unless you believe that only English people should read Dickens.

Good Reviews: More like “Back to DERP”

Esquire is gross. We’ve covered that. Not many texts are more ephemeral than book reviews in Esquire, except maybe reviews in Esquire of recent books by Tom Wolfe; the neo-Social Realist ones. And yet although nothing Tom Wolfe, Esquire, or the General Reader does matters, Benjamin Alsup’s compact but weirdly patient, vicious disposal of Wolfe’s Back to Blood (yeesh, the title) is worth your bytes and clicks. A fundamental thrust:

[. . .] There are no characters in Back to Blood, only caricatures, cartoonish stereotypes that are little more than reflections of their sociocultural contexts. The Cuban cop who loves his pastelitos. The preppy reporter with all the right credentials. The Hialeah honey with a heart of gold and a pussy like a papaya. In Back to Blood, Wolfe comes across as a white guy explaining brown people to a room full of white guys. Sure, he burns pages giving his readers access to these characters’ interiors, but once he’s given you the sociological stats (age, gender, race, occupation) there’s really no need for it. Anything Wolfe tells you about what his characters are thinking are things you could’ve guessed from the jump.

We want your weekend to prosper. We don’t want you wasting time with shitty art. So believe us when we say this, y’all: If it ever comes down to white urban writers, you are better off (you are fantastically well-off) with David Simon or Richard Price (or Tom Wolfe from before 1980).

On Jim Daniels and Writing

Jim Daniels’s poetry was recommended to me about a decade ago, but I’ve only just now gotten around to reading it. This is one of the nasty side effects of getting an advanced degree in literature; you become not only one kind of writer, but one kind of reader. Or, rather, you become a reader reading to write academic criticism, not to produce (or really even enjoy) art. You’re told you must present at conferences and roundtables (some of the least useful exercises known to man) simply because you must. You’re also encouraged to publish tortured and genuflective articles no one will read in outlets no one has heard of. And be very, very careful about who you tell that you’d rather write poetry than play video games. Trust me.

But now I’m done with all of that, and I’m once again, to borrow a phrase from a future colleague, Mike Bunn, “reading like a writer.” Jim Daniels’s Show and Tell: New and Selected Poems (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2003) is the kind of book of poetry that 21-year-old me would have gone nuts over, and I can see why the person who recommended it then did so. Like a lot of creative writing students at a certain extremely crunchy Northern California university, I was obsessed with the working class narratives of Raymond Carver, Philip Levine, and Richard Hugo. The poems I was turning out under their influence weren’t metrical, didn’t rhyme, and told vague stories about love lost (I was in a happy relationship), hard work (I had worked shitty jobs, but not in factories), and bars (these I knew). The stuff I read was awesome, the stuff I wrote wasn’t. Jim Daniels’s work is in the tradition of the poets I admired then and continue to admire today, but reading his poetry ten years later makes me realize that the things that attract us to good writing at various stages in our lives (particularly in youth) aren’t necessarily what actually makes the writing good.

If you would have asked me then why Carver, Levine, and Hugo appealed to me, I probably would have said something about narrative and mood. And indeed, these are important elements of all poems I tend to enjoy. Poetry that lacks any sort of narrative arc bores the shit out of me, but then again I think that William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” is a dripping with narrative (the word “red” is the denouement). So, like a lot of things then, what constitutes a narrative is subjective. What reading Jim Daniels now reveals is that I was and am drawn to poetry that uses narrative in a distinct way: to work through but never resolve the frustration that comes from knowing that our interpretations of and reactions to joy and sorrow are both unique to the point of being painfully inexpressible (something Joan Didion calls “the burden of ‘home’”) and also really, really generic.

In one of the many portraits in Show and Tell, Daniels writes of “Crazy Eddy,” a “drunk/garbage man with a bad temper,”:

We didn’t know then
he picked up trash for a living
and drank twelve beers a night.
Maybe all he wanted was a green lawn
and a peaceful drunk.

The simplicity of both the phrasing and the sentiment here makes the critique all the more potent: we don’t know much about what others desire, what motivates them, and the assumptions we make usually lead us further from understanding. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to express this idea in verse only to miss it, usually by a lot. Or take these couplets from “Shedding the Vestments”:

I was inside her for the first time
when her parents pulled up the driveway.

Her father’s brain was the size of a small stone
dug up by an idiot pig. He greeted me cordially.

This is one way to react to this event, and one particularly common to young men: smugness. However, there’s another reaction that’s equally plausible: pants-shitting panic. By giving us one possibility in such a dense couplet, the poem almost forces us to imagine its inverse as well, thus making the quality of the speaker’s youthful hubris even more stunning. As you might be able to imagine, this doesn’t bode well for the speaker, and when it all falls apart and the girl gets impregnated by someone else, the final line of the poem (“go to hell”) leaves us understanding how smugness and terror can both lead us to loneliness.

There are other great poems in Daniels’s collection, including “Time, Temperature,” which is about how the racial animus of a community can infect even people who consciously try to place themselves above it. Fittingly, this poem is dedicated to James Baldwin, and it is easily the most ambitious and cinematic in the collection. As with any book of poetry though, there are some duds in here. I am not a huge fan of the “[Insert Color] Jesus” poems, or the meandering “Niagra Falls,” as these start to veer into the realm of bad impressionistic art—all impressions, no firm connections or boundaries to give them even a loose shape. But duds aside, Show and Tell is well worth your time. Personally, I am happy to have more of that to devote to reading like a writer again.

Sunday Poet: Kay Ryan

Earlier this year, Grove Press released The Best of It, a compact, gorgeously designed selection of poems by Kay Ryan, the California-born and -based writer who was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2006 til 2008. She is one of my favorites, and I’m hardly the only person who feels this way: Ryan is one of the few American poets who actually moves enough units to make some kind of a living from verse (although since the 1970s her day job has been teaching literature at a community college in northern California). But popularity alone is hardly a reason to spend time with her. Luckily there are lots of other reasons.

She draws a lot of comparisons to Emily Dickinson, which is only partly fitting. Like Dickinson, Ryan writes short poems (rarely more than one page) with abbreviated lines and a complicated mixture of internal and line-end rhymes. Her sense of music sets her above most contemporary U.S. poets: prosy free verse has become American poetry’s dominant format over the past fifty years, but Ryan’s style evokes an older lyric tradition. While her verse isn’t as regular as, say, Auden’s, it still clearly demonstrates the pleasurable contributions sound makes to sense (or “content,” if you like), and her ability to incorporate patterned acoustics into clipped lines is, like Dickinson’s, astonishing. Try writing a compact poem that rhymes and scans without sounding like a bouncy-bouncy nursery rhyme; it’s really, really hard.

But Ryan is far less cryptic than Dickinson. While it wouldn’t be correct to say that her lyrics offer messages, homilies, or tidy themes, each text does develop and play with a relatively coherent moment of thought. Her preferred method is to take a small scene or object–say, a flamingo or an empty room–and use it as what T.S. Eliot would call the “objective correlative” for whatever the poem is reflecting on. In her work physical environments are simultaneously real material places and psychological climates; the given world is an invitation to & a space for thought and emotion. Here is a poem called “That Will to Divest”:

Action creates

a taste

for itself.

Meaning: once

you’ve swept

the shelves

of spoons

and plates

you kept

for guests,

it gets harder

not to also

simplify the larder,

not to dismiss

rooms, not to

divest yourself

of all the chairs

but one, not

to test what

singleness can bear,

once you’ve begun.

Her lines are usually a couple beats longer than this, actually, but “Divest” gives you a sense of how she works. Short enough to read during your lunch break or while you’re waiting for friends to show up at the bar, Ryan’s poems make you uneasy and happy at the same time. Like the poems of anyone who’s any good. Dig her.

-TGR

Action creates

a taste

for itself.

Meaning: once

you’ve swept

the shelves

of spoons

and plates

you kept

for guests,

it gets harder

not to also

simplify the larder,

not to dismiss

rooms, not to

divest yourself

of all the chairs

but one, not

to test what

singleness can bear,

once you’ve begun.

Martin Amis, “Success”

Do you sometimes read books? Are you a youngish male? (Bonus points for being the kind likely to feel vaguely sympatico with the main dude in Greenberg.) Do you ever complain about sex issues or your job? About class?  Like a drink? Have a sense of humor? Do you have at least a light liberal-arts education (including self-education)?

Then may I suggest Martin Amis‘ cruel, despondent, hilarious short novel Success? It’s a book about co-dependents who despise each other, and who are both vile, funny, self-obsessed human urbanites. The angst of writers like David Foster Wallace, Denis Johnson, and Junot Diaz is unimaginable without Amis; he is the bridge between their voices and the realist comedy exemplified by Graham Green, Kingsley Amis, Dickens, Conrad, Evelyn Waugh, and Charlotte Bronte. (Though Bronte isn’t a true realist. Plus, you would need to talk about Rabelais and Henry Fielding and D.H. Lawrence, who is unintentionally funny. Of course Samuel Beckett, too.  Especially him. Anyway.) Success is a book to read if you fancy yourself cosmopolitan in that coastal Anglo-American hip way but also enjoy ironic perspectives on the foibles of said lifestyle. Amis is a novelist for the end of parties, also the beginnings of them and the middles.

 

Heidegger vs. Nazis vs. Heidegger Fans vs. People Who think Heidegger was a Nazi (espisode one million)

It’s a fact: Martin Heidegger was a good silent citizen under the Nazi regime–a full, tenured academic toady, to be honest.  And there are some creepy rhetorical resemblances between his notion of Dasein and the Nazis’ blood-and-soil vocabulary.  Still, was he really a crypto-fascist?  DUNNO.  I like Heidegger.  Am I a bad brain?

Anyway, a heavyweight French academic, Emmanuel Faye, of the University of Rouen, has waded into the scrum, and he doesn’t like what he found.  Having studied a lot of unpublished Heidegger, Faye concludes that H’s thought—his bizarre, polyvocal, poetic thought—has a lot in common with totalitarian ideology.  I will probably never read Faye’s book, recently published in English translation by the Yale UP, and which is subtly titled Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, but I did check out this review from the Times (of London) Higher Education supplement.  It is troubling stuff.  But I still like Heidegger.

-TGR

The poetics of roads

FYI,  Salon.com has a good interview today with Ted Conover, author of The Routes of Man, his travelogue-cum-rumination on the meaning of human roadways.  The book is assuredly globalist, and its central contention is that the way we construct, use, and talk about roads indicates a lot about how we experience “culture” / civilization in general.  Interesting guy, interesting chat.

-TGR

Orwell’s diaries

One usually doesn’t think of George Orwell as somebody with a Romantic inner life; this is mainly because of how we’re taught to read him in high school and college, as the cold-eyed, despondent observer of the mid-twentieth century’s horrors.  And he is that.  But he was also a human being (hence given to sentiments and wanderings and frustration and hunger, like the rest of us), one equipped with an artist’s tools for expressing his humanity, and we get a good look at all this in the new omnibus edition of his Diaries, which has just come out in England and which D.J. Taylor reviews in the latest Times Literary Supplement.  Taylor considers these a major part of Orwell’s oeuvre and important matter for any new biographers, writing that they are

Handsomely produced, illustrated with Orwell’s own pencil sketches and footnoted with [Peter] Davison’s customary élan, this latest wave in the repackager’s tide invites two questions. Why did Orwell write diaries? And what do they tell us about him? . . .

Well, for starters,

there is [many] a sudden glimpse of all kinds of things not often associated with Orwell – frustrated yearnings, sequestered retreats, the deepest of romantic chasms.

Long live Eric Blair, in all his versions.  Happy MLK Day!

-TGR