Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fleet Foxes

"Helplessness Blues," by Fleet Foxes, is an impressive record with a rich sound full of harmonies and unusual arrangements of instruments. It is good enough to be disappointed: why does it leave me cold? Perhaps it celebrates its sources too openly, too proudly: a late-60s psychedelic folk sound I associate with Donovan, Fairport Convention, or the Incredible String Band. "Lorelai" even explicitly cites Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde," specifically "Fourth Time Around."

These are all great sources, so this might well grow on me. And the wild saxophone on "The Shrine/An Argument" shatters the sweet sounds with dissonance. In short, a recognizably brilliant album that still falls short of truly moving me, though I'm still hopeful that it will. (Hat tip to DMB.)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Christopher Reid's sheep

I went to the first show that Katy Evans-Bush writes about here. In fact, those are photos she took with my iPhone. Christopher Reid's variations on the form of "Baa, baa, black sheep" inspired me to write one for him. His didn't have titles of their own; mine does:


Hey there Christopher,
have you any verses?
Yes sir, yes sir, 
three good curses.
One for Abel,
and one for Cain,
and one for the evil twin
who lives in my brain.

It's a cool form to play with. Similarly, I occasionally write poems whose stanzas have a form I call the "wheelbarrow," after "The Red Wheelbarrow," which is actually quite structured: three words in one line, one line in the next, new stanza, repeat:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

There's a visual pun here, too, in that the three-one structure makes each couplet look a bit like a wheelbarrow.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Talking Heads

James Verini's "The Talking Heads Song That Explains Talking Heads" describes how "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)" exemplifies (and marks the end of) the brilliant series of songs and albums that Talking Heads produced from 1977-1983. I recommend the article to all Talking Heads fans, and the band to anyone young enough to have never heard (or perhaps even heard of?) them.

Verini appears to be young enough (he refers to "the late nineties" and "when I went to college" in the same paragraph) to not understand something important about Talking Heads: for a certain kind of person who was a teenager in the late 70s and early 80s, they were the ultimate band. What kind of person? Going to college, somewhat intellectual, a bit left-leaning. And they were the only band that everybody agreed about, in this sense: if there was a stereo war going on at a party (with people going over to the record player, or later CD player, and arguing about which songs to play), there was one perfect solution: put on Talking Heads and everybody would dance.

But Verini is also right about something: no matter how present the band was in the early 80s, those born later often have not heard of them. I have finally gotten over being surprised when the most musically literate of my students (the ones who are in bands; the ones who write music criticism for local papers) not only don't really know Talking Heads but in some cases haven't even heard of them. I simply tell them to check out this band as something to look forward to, and when they do, they report back to me, and they inevitably say something along the lines of, "Oh my God, how could I have missed these guys?"

And last but not least: you gotta love the lamp:

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

My reading at LEX-Icon in Mulhouse, June 10, 2012

I had the pleasure of reading at the Ballades event that concluded the LEX-Icon conference in Mulhouse on Sunday, June 10, 2012. The reading was organized by the indefatigable Jennifer K. Dick; she invited over a dozen poets to be part of a mobile reading that went to a variety of locations in the city. My reading took place in the middle of a square outside the Mulhouse offices of the Parti Socialiste.

At the last moment, I decided to begin with a bit of Ernst Jandl, "fünfter sein", followed by my translation of it. If you know the poem, you know that it's easy to memorize!

That got me good and warmed up, and from then on, the adrenalin carried me through the reading. Since I was doing an open-air reading without a microphone, I made a point of speaking as loudly as I could without shouting. That was quite exhilarating; it felt good to put my full voice into the poems. I wonder how that would work indoors with a microphone.

Here's my setlist:

1. fünfter sein (Ernst Jandl)
Ernst Jandl, who could not be there, sadly
2. fifth in line (my translation of the Jandl; I didn't sing it, though!)
4. Expat
5. City
6. Slide
7. Cabinet d'Amateur

Many thanks to Jennifer for inviting me and to all the other poets who read for making it such a wonderful afternoon! I'm definitely interested in doing something similar in Basel, with a mobile group of poets wandering around reading! And I might well steal Jacob Bromberg's idea of crumpling up each poem after reading it.

Monday, June 11, 2012

What Kind of Times Are These

Was sind das für Zeiten, wo
Ein Gespräch über Bäume fast ein Verbrechen ist
Weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt!

(Bertolt Brecht, "An die Nachgeborenen"; Brecht reads it here)

What kind of times are these, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many atrocities!

(Bertolt Brecht, "To Those Born Later," my translation)

The "conversation about trees" that Brecht refers to in this poem from the 1930s has often been associated with poets who were then writing about nature rather than about the "atrocities" taking place even before the Second World War began. In this (entirely justified) reading, Brecht is setting up an apparently exclusive alternative: write about nature, or write about politics.
Adrienne Rich's 1991 poem "What Kind of Times Are These" (video here) takes up Brecht's imagery directly both in its title (a translation of "Was sind das für Zeiten") and in its concluding lines:

… why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.

Brecht addresses "those born later"; in contrast, Rich addresses her contemporaries: those readers or listeners who "still listen." This first phrase seems like praise of the addressee, but what follows has a critical edge: "talking about trees" is a lure that is "necessary" to get "you" to listen at all. In a reading of these lines in terms of the reading of Brecht sketched above, a "conversation about trees" becomes a way for a poet to trick someone into thinking about "atrocities" rather than a way of avoiding doing so. Writing poetry about nature, here, does not exclude writing poetry about politics; in fact, "in times like these," only poetry about nature can engage the listener in such a way as to get poetry about politics heard at all.

Unlike Brecht, who mentions trees only once, and only indirectly ("a conversation about trees" and not the trees themselves), Rich actually does write about trees. In keeping with the poem's conclusion, the first stanza already makes a move from trees to politics:

There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

Rather than politics in general, this is a history of a "revolutionary" politics engaged in by "the persecuted." It is also a history of failure: the path of the revolution "breaks off into shadows"; the "meeting-house" for the revolutionaries was "abandoned." In this light, the odd formulation that "the grass grows uphill" makes sense: the revolution is an uphill battle with many setbacks and many obstacles.

The obstacles to revolution include the atrocities referred to by Brecht. The "disappearance" of South American leftists during the 1970s and 1980s may only hover in the shadows of Rich's first stanza, but the idea of someone "being disappeared" by the authorities appears explicitly at the end of her second stanza:

I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

The reference to a "Russian poem" comes quite unexpectedly; is it the "mushrooms" or "the edge of dread" that is supposed to make it necessary to insist that we "not be fooled"? Along with her use of Brecht's poem for her title, Rich's note to the poem includes another reference: the juxtaposition of "truth" and "dread" echoes the conclusion of W.S. Merwin's translation of a poem by Osip Mandelstam: "the earth’s moving nearer to truth and to dread." It's not the mushrooms that might have been "Russian," then, but the "dread." 

So this is not Russia, where Mandelstam was "disappeared"; nor is it a South American military dictatorship whose actions led to the coining of the transitive sense of "disappear" (usually in the passive voice as "Jorge was disappeared last week"). For some American readers, all the words describing this "place between two stands of trees" might well have pointed to such an "elsewhere," a country whose distance from the reader's own makes it easy to condemn. But this is "not somewhere else but here"; this is "our country," which we readers cannot distance ourselves from.

Still, the poem does not name the country in question. The author's name and biography tell us to think of it as the United States, and that specificity is very important to her work. At the same time, the lack of specificity is important to the poem itself, because it does not allow non-American readers to distance themselves from their own countries' atrocities, their own societies' "ways of making people disappear."

In the third stanza, Rich makes her lack of specificity explicit by refusing to identify the place in question:

I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

If Rich told us where this "paradise" is, the specificity would relieve anyone from "somewhere else" of responsibility for the "disappearances" the poem refers to. But this refusal to identify the place also protects it from capitalist exploitation, even if the attempt to do so has already failed, just like the revolutions that left the "ghosts" behind at the "crossroads." After all, if she knows who is going to "buy it, sell it, [and] make it disappear," then her concealment of the location of this place will not actually protect it from "development."

For Brecht, a poem "about trees" is a poem that is explicitly not about politics and "atrocities." Rich implies that a nature poem can be a way to draw people into a consideration of politics. But in this third stanza, she makes clear that a poem "about trees" can also be quite explicitly political. The first two stanzas understand politics in terms of revolution and political history; this third stanza criticizes how capitalism aims to turn everything into a commodity to be bought and sold; in the process, the small "paradises" that can be found in out-of-the-way places are "disappeared."

This reading of the last line of the stanza in terms of political economy can be complemented by an "environmentalist" reading. By the late 20th century, after all, it had become clear that "a conversation about trees" might well involve speaking about "atrocities," as landscapes all over the world are destroyed in the name of economic progress. In this light, Rich's poem completely overturns Brecht's stark distinction between nature poetry and political poetry. Nature is not just a tool to get people to think about politics, as the final stanza implies with its variation on Brecht. In fact, nature itself, commodified and potentially "disappeared," is already as much a site of politics as any "revolutionary road" or "meeting-house" for "the persecuted." 

Feminists in the 1970s insisted that "the personal is the political," and much of Rich's most famous poetry explores the implications of that claim, which challenged the idea of the private sphere as an apolitical space. "What Kind of Times Are These" extends this challenge by implying that "the environmental is also the political." And it demonstrates how a "political poetry" can address the full range of politics while still being a poem "about trees."

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Electing the Assassin-in-Chief

Be assured of one thing: whichever candidate you choose at the polls in November, you aren’t just electing a president of the United States; you are also electing an assassin-in-chief.

As far as drone attacks and civil liberties are concerned, it does not matter who wins the election in November: Obama's policies have either continued or extended those of his predecessor (which means he explicitly broke promises he made while campaigning), and neither he nor Romney will reassert the civil liberties that the "war on terror" has at best limited and at worst eliminated. If you're looking for a way to choose between the two, you'll have to look somewhere else.

For me, this means voting for Obama (health care and same-sex marriage being two issues where the choice is clear). I don't see this as a "lesser of two evils" approach to voting. That rhetoric only applies if you expect one of the two candidates to be "good" rather than "evil," but the point is not a moral issue to be seen in black-and-white terms. Rather, it is a consideration of which candidate supports which policies that you support, and then weighing them in the balance. Since Obama and Romney are part of the "war on terror" consensus of American politics, there's nothing to weigh when it comes to that issue.

But supporting Obama in general does not mean I will stop criticizing him on civil-liberties issues and drones. He deserves to be condemned for the policies he has implemented  in these areas, even if I am under no illusion that anything will change along those lines in 2013 ... I wish I had the slightest reason to be optimistic, but significant numbers of "my fellow Americans" (oh no, I sound like Reagan) will have to begin to challenge the government on these issues. Despite the 99% idea, that's not going to happen soon.

UPDATE: Garry Wills provides good reasons for thinking there's more to this election than I've suggested. It would be more convincing if his argument at least addressed the fact that Obama's war footing also serves the "plutocracy" that he is justifiably critical of.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Pink Floyd

I just listened to Pink Floyd's The Wall for the first time in a long time. In contrast, I listen to their Dark Side of the MoonAnimals, and Wish You Were Here more often. And now I think I know why.

The Wall is brilliant on the whole, but in order to tell the whole story, it has to end up containing more filler. Some of the songs are not really songs but just "stage business," as it were. (Actually, The Who's Tommy suffers from the same problem.) The other three Floyd albums I mentioned above are all pretty much filler-free: every track is a great piece of music in its own right, and not just part of the storyline.

Two poems online in London Grip

I've got two poems online in the latest issue of London Grip. You can see a list of all the poets in the issue here. My poems are "Waltz" and "Transplant."