Wednesday, October 16, 2013

5 Reasons to Oppose Not Reading Poetry (And Other Convoluted near Sentences)

When people say, "I've told you fifty times," / They mean to scold, and very often do; / When poets say, "I've written fifty rhymes," / They make you dread that they'll recite them too." -- Byron

Lately I’ve been dipping my toes back into the river of poetry.  It only took Seamus Heaney dying to get me back into verse.  No small fee.

I realize that poetry is not everybody’s thing, considering the dismal sales of poetry books and the somewhat hostile, somewhat fearful reaction the sublime art seems to generate.  (Example by way of a quick story: I review books from time to time, usually penning quick responses as opposed to long pieces of criticism, much to the detriment of book culture.  I got an email recently that invited the regular reviewers to choose a book from the soon-to-be-released pile.  One of the books was described with a catch: “This is poetry.”  The warning struck me as hilarious.  Even book reviewers—so-called readers of literature—had to be told that here there be poems.  EGADS! )

Why the resistance to poetry?  For me, it has to do with grad school and the time I spent post-grad as a volunteer reader for a literary journal.  The bombardment of poems I sifted through was enough to depress me beyond belief and send me running away from broken lines.  Three years, give or take, since I picked a book of poems or tried to write one of my own. 

My own reasons are my own reasons, but what are yours?  Well, if you’re like many others, you might have a reason along the lines of:

1.       So much poetry is crap.
A valid criticism, to be fucking sure, but let’s take a closer look at that.  Most of what passes for entertainment is crap.  The Hollywood machine, the crumbling music industry, even TV in this golden age of television pumps out a consistent stream of raw sewage.  Why do expect poetry to be better? 

Sure, a lot of poetry is crap.  I agree 100%, but there are some gems among the dung heap.  It’s your job to look for them. 

Think of it this way: most of the music on the radio is total crap.  I’m not just thinking of the current pop idols, those auto-tuned teenaged Barbie dolls.  All of it.  Classic rock radio is full of crap.  (Fuck Bob Dylan.)  But you have this feature on your car stereo called “scan” that allows you to start at one end and follow through to the opposite in the hope that you might land on something worth hearing.  And how many times do you start all over?  How often do you wade through the muck before landing on a song worth your time?  Or do you settle for the least offensive of the many aural offenses? 

You ought to do the same with all forms of art, including poetry.  There’s good out there.  Go find it.  Don’t let the dry academic word jumbles or platitude spouting hacks get you down.

2.      It’s tough to read.

This is a good thing.  Why should reading always be easy?  Why should anything?  Okay, sometimes we need downtime, so-called brainless fun.  I'm not preaching against that, but the advocates of mindless entertainment prop up the idea of necessary distraction as if it were a virtue.  Shutting off should be a small part of our experience, not a daily sacrament. 

This is not to say that reading should be a chore.  No, but we tend to equate all poetry with the kind that challenges and fails to compensate while there's a lot more out there that requires some work on the part of the reader but offers rewards along the way. 

3.      It’s so old!
Yes, but so is sex, and that sure hasn’t waned in popularity. 

4.      I don’t get it.
This is a complaint I’m very aware of and sympathetic to.  Still... I don’t get a lot of poetry, or a lot of works of art.  But so what?  That doesn’t always diminish my enjoyment or, at the very least, engagement.  Can anyone tell me exactly what happens at the end of Once Upon a Time in America?  Or can someone explain to me what the song “Whiter Shade of Pale” means?  I mean, really break down every line and give me a clear, precise meaning.  Or what about the popular movie Inception?  Did that not fuck you up a little?  And what about that Pulp Fiction movie you all seem to love so much.  What was in the briefcase?  Do you know for sure?  Does it matter? 

No.  It doesn’t matter.  There are acceptable levels of mystery and confusion that art asks us to live with.  And that’s often a good thing.  The answers tend to be less interesting than the questions.

I mean, did you see the director’s cut of Donnie Darko?  I didn’t because I heard enough about it to know that I didn’t want my love of the movie ruined.  The original theatrical release was odd and mysterious and asked that the viewer bring something to the experience.  The director’s cut, from what I’m told, laid all the answers out and killed the fun.

Another example:  Roger Ebert, when reviewing 2001: A Space Odyssey, quoted E.E. Cummings: “I’d rather learn from one bird how not to sing than try to teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.”  The idea being that the film was a mystery that he was happy to never solve.  Though he’d surely try, he was not about to engage in the foolhardy act of teaching ten thousand stars to stop their dazzling movement.  Let them do what they do and marvel at their doing. 

When the sequel was released in 1984, Ebert returned to the quote and said that 2010: The Year We Make Contact tried to teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.  Most of us have forgotten about the second film, but no one who watches the first will likely ever forget it (be it out of awe or frustration). 
5.      I have no time.
Bullshit.  You have plenty of time.  You merely choose to fill it with other activities, some quite worthwhile (family, food, fornication), some less (Facebook, How I Met Your Mother), some wasteful (listening to/thinking about Miley Cyrus). Prioritize, damn it.

Okay, that ought to hold ya. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Death of a Pogue

RIP Phillip Chevron, writer of my favorite Pogues song, which is ripe for viewing here. 

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Announce the Blog of the Night: My Future Failure

As if there aren't enough blogs.


I've got an idea: why not read Finnegans Wake? And blog about it?  Should only take me the rest of my life.


Finnegans Wake is considered a classic, though who has actually read the fucker? Well, I'm going to try.  And I'll blog about it.  It ought to be more fun than that woman's blog about cooking all of Julia Child's recipes.  Maybe I'll get a movie deal!


Why read the classics?  Well… before we get into all of that, and we may very well never get there, let me state for the record that I don’t like the question as it is framed, for it presupposes that there are classics and then there are some not-quite-classics, and, logically, some not-at-all-classics, and, of course, some heaps of stinking crap. 

But this is a question that has been posed at lil’ ol’ me more than a few times.  Why?  Because I was an English major?  Because I like books?  And when you like books, people assume one of two things: 1.  You like the classics therefore they have nothing to say to you out of (1) intimidation or (2) annoyance; 2. You must like the books they like, so they will ask you if you read (1) The Alchemist, (2) Harry Potter and the (fill in the blank), (3) Some other book you probably haven’t read but think is fine to read though you won't because it’s just not your bag. 

During such conversations, the classics inevitably come up, though the two people conversing share an undefined idea of what the word “classics” means.  I'm not so sure myself.

To me, there are the canonical works and then there are those that don’t quite fit in but are still regarded as important works of literature.  The sub-canon, if you will.  I tend to like the sub-canon.  Bulgakov and Calvino and Vonnegut and Cabrera Infante and Arenas and Cardenal and Vallejo and so forth.  To me, their works are classics; their books endure, amuse, challenge, delight.  But that’s not the right definition, is it?


If you go here you can read the Modern Library’s list of the 100 greatest novels in English.  I remember when this list was published.  At the time, I was a James Joyce hater.  I had read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and declared it overrated (I prefer A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog by Dylan Thomas).  Ditto Dubliners (though it has some fine stories).  And then I tried to read Ulysses.  And failed.             

It seemed that Jimmy and I were never going to be close pals.  And I was fine with that.  I preferred his protégé, Samuel Beckett.  And though Ulysses topped the list of 100 great novels, well, I didn’t care.  My pick, The Sound the Fury by William Faulkner, which I still think is the greatest novel written in English, snagged the number 6 spot.  So I was happy enough, though really, what does it matter?  Lists like these are inherently silly. 


I became a bit obsessed with Irish literature a few years later when I read the poetry of Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, and Paul Muldoon.  These are Northern Irish writers, which makes a bit of a difference, but like their forebears from Dear Old Erin’s Isle, these writers demonstrate such felicity with language that I had no choice but to reconsider some of the Irish lit I had neglected for too long.  I had read Behan, Synge, O’Casey, and some of the contemporaries like Patrick McCabe and Roddy Doyle.  And, of course, the late Seamus Heaney.  But I had still not overcome my aversion to Joyce.

The Modern Library’s panel of judges are not alone.  Many people consider Joyce to be the most important writer in English after Shakespeare.  And Ulysses is considered by many to be indispensible.  Maybe I ought to give it another try, I thought.

So I did.  And I got farther this time, but still failed to reach that classic “yes” that closes the book. 

Oh well.  You can’t read ‘em all.


Borges admitted that he didn't finish Ulysses.  If Borges can do as much, so can I.


Recently, my interest in Irish lit has been re-rekindled.  It started when I rented a box set of Beckett plays put on film.  And then Seamus Heaney died.  (Bummer.)  I started rereading some of his poems, mostly during the long train ride to work when I have to steel myself against the clatter of the city.  Heaney calms me, you see.  (But Muldoon excites me.)

I started thinking about Joyce.  Not Ulysses, which I am determined to give another dance, but the unassailable Finnegans Wake.   

No one I know has read it.  I once heard that Harrison Hayford, the Melville scholar, Northwestern Professor, and frequent visitor of the Aspidistra Bookshop, belonged to a group that would meet weekly to discuss one page of the tome.  And each page, seemingly, is filled with enough riddles so that these intellectuals were quite occupied.  But this weekly meeting makes sense.  I'm sure it is best to read the thing with a support group of dedicated bibliophiles. 

But no one I know will do this with me.  Cowards.


One of the reasons a support group is necessary, aside from the obvious, is that membership implies responsibility and active participation.  And when undergoing such a project, joyful though it should be, one has to find motivation where one can.  Without a group to call my own (there's none in Chicago that I can find), I'm forced to find another avenue that will lead to something like regular readings of The Wake.

Thus the new blog.  It shall focus on my days—probably stretching into years—spent with Finnegans Wake.  I will post all things Joycean and other relevant pieces centering on so-called difficult books, literary culture, and so forth.  It shall be called Rejoyce and it shall be here:

(I wanted the address to be "blogofthedark" or "rejoyce" but they were taken.  And I tried to create a Tumblr for this project.  After joining, and being forced to like other pages, I am still waiting for an email from Tumblr, which is required to activate my blog.  Two weeks now, Tumblr, and no email.  What the fuck?  Am I not cool enough?  Yeah, yeah, well fuckoff.)


As I stated above, many would call Finnegans Wake a classic though few have read it.  So why read this classic?  Because it's there.  And if you're going to climb a mountain, why not try Everest?  Anyway, this will likely be another failure on my part, but fuck it.  What else can I do to amuse myself before old age and ruin?