Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Another Post About Poetry

Not long ago, I wrote a blog post intended to get non-poetry readers to give the old form of written art a second chance.  I know it worked on at least one of my three readers, so there’s that.  But I felt dickish almost immediately after posting it.  Who the fuck am I? 

That got me to thinking a bit more about poetry, specifically the kind being written these days and in this country.  (I only know about poetry from other countries based largely on what gets translated, which is likely the best work, so there’s reason to believe that other countries are producing just as much crap as the US of A.)  Much of the work that has made its way to me via recommendations, workshops, curiosity, and, not long ago, slogging through submissions is bad.  This stands to reason: a lot of written work is bad, especially when it's in embryo.  But some of it is quite good and impacting.  Again, nothing new.  (Whenever I hear someone say that music or literature or films were better decades ago I call bullshit.  Only the good stuff survives.  For all the great music of the '60s there was a considerable amount of junk.)  Still, I do worry that I am seeing a lot of mediocre work celebrated.  Or even when the work is better than mediocre, there often seems to be a snarky, clever conceit to it that dooms the poem to being a temporary pleasure at best.  As I always say, cute and clever lose the race. 

A while back, I wrote this letter to Poetry Magazine, a publication that inspires very mixed feelings from yours truly.  The essay to which I was responding was centered on criticizing the work of Dylan Thomas, though the real savaging was of E. E. Cummings.  Now, I am all for slaughtering sacred cows, but when the knife is wielded by a guy whose book is named after a silly movie, and whose work seems to be of the kind that stretches for irony and preciousness, well… fuck him.  Dylan Thomas was guilty of composing some pretty maddening lyrics, poetry with a capital P.  But he wrote “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”, so he’s got a fixed spot in the pantheon of greats.  Ditto Cummings who is often playful to the point of annoyance but who penned more than a few poems that have elevated human existence. 

And this is maybe the real issue I have with contemporary poets: they are often too scared to write anything that isn't removed from emotion, too busy relishing the experiment more than the poem.  They are skilled at the workshop, the exercise, the clever reference, and the detached gag, but they lack the guts to put themselves out there.  Their work is amusing but hollow.  So much of the stuff I've seen masquerading as poetry seeks to do little more than amuse briefly, signal to the initiated, and validate the author while doing little for the reader.  Think of what Steve Coogan said about jazz music and the band having more fun than the audience.  This is what contemporary poetry can often be and this is why few outside of the MFA crowd go out of their way to read poetry.

And this seems to be the case.  (Obviously there are exceptions to everything I am stating here—this is fucking blog, for Christ’s sake.)  Whenever someone sees me reading a book of poems, they seem to tense up.  Oh… poetry.  That very difficult, rarely rewarding, utterly confusing, intentionally coded nonsense I am supposed to appreciate. Um... where's my iPhone?  Sad, really.  But when I read the latest wokshopped convulsions with line breaks, I can totally understand why some readers shrink from the challenge. 

I may have written something like this already (I don’t reread old posts very often), but I do feel the need to state that I am not opposed to poetry that is funny, difficult, complex, or challenging.  It is not always the job of the writer to make it easy on the reader.  But goddammit, if you are going to make things difficult you’d better have a reward at the end.  And too often I see poetry that is mere wordplay and evasion without an intellectual or emotional core.  Basically: I need something to hang my hat on if I am going to give a damn. 

I also ought to state that I not the greatest poet alive, despite my regular insistence to the contrary, and that I do indeed write slight poems that will not—in fact are not meant to—echo throughout the ages, and that funny or clever poems have their place and I more than anyone realize that.  BUT… if that is all you ever try to write than you are not much of a poet. 

Roberto Bolaño, who was not much of a poet but was a great novelist, said that were he planning a bank robbery he would take with him “true poets” as they were the most “valiant” of people.  Now, this is perhaps debatable, as is the meaning of the great writer’s statement, but I take something from this along the lines of: the true poet is brave enough to put in a poem what others would shy away from saying.  They are unafraid of being serious, even when being funny.  They do not detach from their work.  They put it all in there: themselves, their lovers, their enemies, their god, their breakfast, their dreams, their guts, their all.  And they fear not retribution or ridicule. 

I may not be a true poet, but I’m not afraid to try to be one. 

So I’m going to close by sharing this poem, which is lovely and ought to be read and understood and enjoyed by damn near anyone.  It is neither difficult nor simple.  I like it, mostly for the last line.  This is the job of the true poet, in my opinion, a duty shirked by too many poets today.  Get to work.  

Friday, August 15, 2014

God Bless the USA: Wanted and the Way of All Stupid

(In the past I have been accused of being a film snob, which is ridiculous when one considers that Repo Man, Big Trouble in Little China, and Return of the Living Dead are a few of my favorite films, none of them ever compared to The Rules of the Game.  What follows will only make me seem like more of a snob, but I’m writing it anyway because, 1. It’s fun, and, 2. it’s my blog, so there.
I wish to also preface this rant with the acknowledgment that, yes, action movies are supposed to be mindless fun, but you know what—the constant reminder that I ought to lighten up and let a stupid movie just entertain me is starting to seem pretty tired and, frankly, as stupid as the movies such a statement would defend.  Why must we excuse pieces of shit simply because they entertain?  The claim that we need downtime, distraction, so-called brainless fun is fine and very possibly true, but it seems we are in no danger of running out of that brainless fun.  It dominates our culture.  Thus, let me posit this to any and all who would have me chill and watch Wanted with uncritical eyes: maybe you need more brainy fun.  Maybe you ought to feed your head something a bit better than crappy movies.  Maybe then mediocre fare such as Up in the Air won’t be lauded as a superior film.  Hell, I’ll gladly sit down and shut up during Wanted if you will kindly do likewise during a film of my choosing.  Those who are up for that, email me and we’ll discuss details.) 
July 4, 2014:
The day started off well—a long session of reading on the beach, a reasonable lunch, and a walk with the dog.  Like me, my wife enjoys small, calm celebrations.  Like me, my wife does not care to be outside our humble home when fireworks are indistinguishable from gunshots.  We live in Chicago, after all.
At dusk, I ventured outside for junk food.  I returned in time for the all American ritual of searching through cable channels and settling for the least offensive piece of crap, which turned out to be the epitome of the dumb American movie, Wanted.  This was the perfect way to celebrate my country’s independence: watching a terrible, empty-headed film while eating chocolate.  God bless the U.S. 
It is curious that Wanted stars a Scottish actor and is directed by a Russian.  What can we read into this?  Maybe something about the melting pot, America the land of opportunity where all cultures can thrive under a common credo, in this case: guns are cool and logic gets in the way of the awesome.  Only in the dumb American movie can a man berate his overbearing boss and not be escorted out by security.  Only in the dumb American movie can the same man assault a coworker without going immediately to jail.  (Clearly the writers of Wanted, assuming the script wasn’t just cobbled together from notes scribbled on cocktail napkins, have never really worked in an office.)  No, I don’t see Wanted as the American dream realized by a partially foreign cast and crew; it is evidence of the dumbest of American movies enveloping other cultures— cinematic hegemony, if you will. 
But this is nothing new, right?  The dumb American heist film is the staple of British cinema.  The dumb American actioner has been adopted by filmmakers from Hong Kong, Korea, and Argentina.  The not-so-dumb American zombie movie was exhausted by very dumb Italian fare.  Of course, all of these countries have a long history of their own dumb cultures, and all of us, Yanks or otherwise, have a long history of good cultural output and intelligent storytelling.  Sure.  And now that I’ve gotten that qualification out of the way, let’s move on with a look at the dumbest movie ever shit from Hollywood’s gaping asshole, Wanted starring Angelina Jolie, whose last name is French for pretty, I’m told.  Oh, how perfect!  A smart woman who makes dumb movies should indeed be saddled with a foreign name.  
The movie begins à la Fight Club with its narrator, Wesley, bitching about having a job.  Not just any job, but a job in an office, oh my!  How terrible that he has to work in a cubicle surrounded by jerks.  Clearly, life would be so much better if he were picking fruit for fifteen hours a day or shoveling animal guts in a slaughterhouse.  But no, our poor hero works in an artificially controlled climate that distributes free cake.  My heart bleeds for his noble struggle. 
From there we learn that the woman who lives with Wes is sleeping with his best friend.  His best friend is a prick, as is more than evident, but as I watched the details of his friend’s boorishness and his girlfriend’s deceit, I remembered the old saying about knowing yourself by looking at the company you keep.  The girlfriend, by the way, is a terrible person for many reasons, mostly because she never shuts up.  You ladies!  Can’t you leave us alone?  Well, this is soon cured by the silent woman, Angelina Jolie decked in tattoos and smugness.  She sees him in a grocery store and pretty much stalks him hard.  Wordless for the most part, she manages to say something about our hero’s father being a kick ass assassin.  Actually, she says something closer to “your father was one of the greatest assassins who has ever lived,” which can only be a point of admiration in a dumb American movie. 
But never mind: the man who killed our hero is IN THE STORE!  And he wants to kill the son of the greatest ass kicking assassin ever because, I guess, the son, who has never met his father, will one day come after him?  Could happen.
Action is had.  And what action!  Bullets fly and curve and spin in slo-mo so that fanboys can jerk off without being cheated out of their money shots.  There’s a crazy car chase.  It’s all very intense and implausible.  Which leads me to the big revelation I had while watching this, the dumbest of Hollywood movies: action needs to be believable in order to create suspense. 
After the preposterous car chase and gun fight, Wesley is taken to a secret place and introduced to Morgan Freeman who tells him that the collection of young sexy folk among him are a league of assassins, to which I had to reply: No you’re not.  As open to fiction bullshit as I am, which allowed me to accept the spectacle of Jolie, from the hood of a speeding car, shooting guns so big they might snap her twig arms, I could not accept that Morgan Freeman & Co. are a group of hired killers.  And, a few scenes later, it turns out they are not hired so much as ordered to kill by a quilt.  But I get ahead of myself…
Wesley the hero returns to his life as a meek peon but not before confirming something Morgan Freeman tells him: Daddy the Kick Ass Assassin’s money has been deposited into Wesley’s bank account.  This is upward of three million!  So, naturally, our hero quits his job, grows a set of balls, attacks his best friend, and jumps into a car with Angie, who just happens to be waiting outside the office.  In the car, he puts on a pair of sunglasses so the audience will know that he is a pussy no more. 
That it only took money to change Wesley should cause any viewer to pause, though somehow I doubt audiences saw this as anything other than natural.  Well yeah… if I had 3 mil I’d quit my job.  Fuck yeah, bro!  Okay, sure, but would you quit your job and run off to be an assassin?  Would you cheerfully sign up to kill people without further explanation?  Would you not consider for a goddamn second that maybe the money that was deposited into your account was not really yours, that the father you never knew did not really leave it to you?  (Hey Wes, I’m your long lost cousin from Nigeria and I need you to play the human role as my next of kin as I have a bank account with 32 Million Pounds Sterling in it and I must ask you to help so I can take the money out, at which point you will receive 35%!)  Why does it not offer pause to the American viewer?  Because we are dumb and because we like money.  Sure, neither of these qualities are uniquely American, but along with being dumb and money-obsessed, we tend to romanticize assassins.  These three may very well be the trifecta of American stupidity in a post-Tarantino cinematic landscape. 
Off goes Wesley to assassin camp! 
First he learns a bit of history about the textile factory that has no place in the Chicago I know.  Maybe they set up shop on Goose Island and I didn’t notice.  While there, our hero gets his face punched and his life threatened (don’t worry- the Fraternity of Assassins has a magic goop that heals all wounds in no time!  Which they have decided never to share with the rest of the world because… I have no idea), none of which bothers him as much as the many things that have been bugging him up until now.  Why not?  Because Morgan Freeman has explained, as only God can, that Wesley has a specialness that would allow him to do amazing things if only he stopped taking his anti-anxiety meds.  This tall, dapper stranger is surely trustworthy, so Wes lets him chuck the pills in favor of a good ol’ ass kicking.  After all, a man who takes his orders from a quilt can’t be crazy. 
And let’s talk about that fucking quilt.  We learn later that the Fraternity takes orders from a pattern of irregular stitches produced by a loom.  Stitches are given a number, which are assigned a letter, which spells out a name.  And that is the next target of the assassins.  Seriously.  A league of killers is set forth to execute people based on the whims of a loom, which, I should add, is run by humans.  This loom is not ever said to be magic.  It does not run on sorcery.  Thus, men control the loom.  But… the loom seems to have some otherworldly magic that dictates the actions of the most lethal killers the world has ever known, people who can shoot bullets that curve. 
If this strikes you as silly, well congratulations: you have a brain.
Now, I am in favor of what my Uncle Danny calls “comic book logic.”  He does not use this term as an insult and neither do I.  If you are going to read comics, mostly the superhero tales, you’d better be prepared to suspend your disbelief.  I can and do suspend mine, but a good comic (and Wanted was based on a comic, one I have not read but have to assume is better than the film) will not ask its readers to believe that seemingly intelligent humans would ever take orders from a piece of fucking fabric produced by a man made machine. 
Now, our hero actually comes to the conclusion that it might be crazy to kill a man because a blanket told him to.  But Angie puts him in his place with a story about how someone once had a similar doubt that led to the target escaping and that target went on to kill her father.  Sad Angie… but NOPE.  Not a good reason.  In my ENG 101 class I refer to this as anecdotal evidence and warn my students against using it.  And here the true insidiousness of Wanted is evident.
Thesis for my rant: Movies like Wanted are dangerous to our society as they substantiate the worst form of argumentation and dampen critical thinking. 
Support by means of digression:  when I was an undergrad, I heard an otherwise intelligent classmate say something stupid and indefensible.  She told me that she hated Mexicans.  This came after some bitching about an immigration reform march that inconvenienced her by being audible in the distance.  I asked her to explain why she was opposed to the rally and Mexicans (not revealing to her that I was dating a Mexican). 
“When I was in high school, these two Mexican girls jumped me.”  End of story.  So, this is what we call a logical fallacy, specifically the hasty generalization.  Or, to be more blunt: a stupid stereotype.  But it is also a form of anecdotal evidence.  Not a perfect example, but it may do. 
Here’s a better example:  When teaching ENG 102, I often require my students to give a presentation as part of their final project.  One student wrote a research paper on the subject of rape culture.  Her presentation was spectacular.  During the Q&A portion, another student mentioned that he didn’t believe women who claim they were raped because a friend of his got arrested for rape because his ex-girlfriend, a liar, was angry about being dumped and wanted him to go to jail.  This struck me as preposterous. I said that, assuming this happened, I was very sorry to hear of this but his example was easily the exception to the rule and by no means could serve as solid evidence that rape survivors are lying.  He refused to accept the idea, as did someone else who told of a friend’s friend’s brother who met with a similar fate.  I explained again what anecdotal evidence is, though it didn’t seem to convince anyone that their individual example didn’t stand in for the whole. 
This is my fear.  Forgive me if I seem to be a bit of an alarmist, but the more we accept the indefensible generalization and the anecdotal form of evidence, the more the culture devolves.  And I think movies as dumb as Wanted (with a 71% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes) go some way toward substantiating the indefensible as legitimate.  Angie’s line of reasoning seems compelling to the viewer too distracted by action and special effects, but a pause reveals the flimsiness.  This sort of stupid acceptance of stupid claims may not be a true reflection of a distracted country willing to go to war for no goddamn reason and put it all on a credit card.  But then again…
Back to the amazing plot!
Wesley finally kills his target.  He does so while riding atop a train and by shooting a bullet that curves perfectly, like every bullet since his many failures to execute this nifty trick.  Apparently doing something well once makes you an expert.  This newfound skill with a gun allows him to shoot bullets at other bullets that have been shot at him, thus smooshing them nicely as opposed to, I don’t know, making them ricochet in who knows what direction and killing someone.  Anyway, our hero shows no signs of conscience over his first kill.  He may as well have gone to the dentist for all the emotion it inspires.  Just another day until he can get revenge on the man who killed the father he never knew, which is now the most important thing in Wesley’s world for some reason.  Of course, there’s no indication that he ever, you know, asked his mother about his dad and why he left and who he is.  But now that he has discovered, via a relative stranger, that his dad was a kick ass assassin, avenging his death is priority numero uno. 
But wait!  There’s a twist!
The loom finally shits out a quilt with Wes’s dad’s killer’s name on it.  Oh, happy day!  He goes apeshit on a mission to kill the guy, only to find out at the last possible second that the man he shoots is actually HIS FATHER!  What a twist!  M. Night Shyamalan is shitting himself with jealousy.  After all, who the fuck could ever have seen that coming?
The thick plottens.  Wes is an outcast, no longer in the Frat.  He is told by another stranger with zero evidence to back up his story that the man he killed, his pops, was always living within eyesight.  He had an apartment across the street from Wes and a telescope so that he could watch him do whatever.  Shit, fuck, jerk off, eat Pop Tarts, you know… Dad just wanted to be close by and always watching.  Wes is filled with increased love for the creepy stalker/absentee father he never knew, just as he was all agog over the last dude who was, for a brief period, his dead father.  Sorry, Wes, but you’re a bit of a dead father slut. 
From there… well, the climax is full of so much silliness I fear this long post would turn into a book were I to go into it all, but suffice it to state that there are rat bombs that don’t do nearly as much damage as they should, because we all know from practical experience how deadly rat bombs are, right?  And we all know how easy it is to strap watches and explosives to a million rats.  Just another day at the office. 
Wes, a mere freshman assassin, manages to infiltrate the deadliest place on Earth and confront the senior assassin squad.  Our hero informs them that Morgan Freeman is lying about the magic quilt.  Imagine that.  And he’s been making up names for profit.  Wow, someone actually kills for money in this movie—finally a plot line I can believe.  Morgan tells the assassins that all their names have come up and that he buried that info to protect them.  Angie, zealot that she is, shoots her best bullet ever, one that curves perfectly and flies through the heads of each assassin before coming full circle and landing in her own skull.  Only someone so slavishly devoted to their own flimsy anecdotal evidence would be hard headed enough to stop that bullet, so this makes some sense. 
Digression/Alarmist Cry # 2:
Another insidious aspect of this movie: Angie is seen as an admirable character.  She is sexy, strong, can shoot a gun ever so well (a treasured American quality).  She’s no Wes, the hero, but she’s pretty important to the film and certainly a better person than her lying, corrupt boss.  Well, she lied to Wes, but that’s beside the point.  The movie clearly wants us to like her or find her cool and sexy.  But she’s devoted to a tradition so strongly that it defies all logic.  She’s willing to kill anyone, including herself, for her belief.  And her belief is utterly stupid.  So, am I paranoid when I read this film as promoting blind faith even if it means picking up a gun?  Was I wrong to have watched Angie’s murder-suicide and thought of a recent ideologically-based kill spree in Vegas? 
So the assassins are all gone save for the baddest of the bad, Mr. Morgan Freeman.  He sneaks up on Wes who has returned to his previous job in the office because, of course, anyone can get rehired after insulting a supervisor and assaulting a coworker.  But that was Wes’s trap all along!  No, the man who looks exactly (not really) just like (sorta, I guess) Wes from the back is NOT WES.  Wes is in his father’s old apartment holding a big gun with a scope and, yep, he sends a bullet through Morgan’s head!  This is done in super slow motion because we all want to see what Morgan Freeman’s head looks like with a bullet coming out of it.  Actually, no… I never wanted to see that.  And now I can never watch that fucking penguin movie because I’ll always imagine its narrator with an exploding head. 
While all this was happening, our hero, via voice over, reminds us that we are pathetic.  I’m almost thrilled at the idea of a dumb movie that directly tells its audience that they are pieces of shit.  That almost seems subversive.  And at the end, Wesley breaks the fourth wall and asks us “What the fuck have you done lately?”  Um… watched a shit movie, that’s what.