Archive for July, 2010

“Poor Tom”?!?!?!? Good grief, not again….

July 31, 2010

I’ve had the opportunity to read a few of the efforts by Peter Ackroyd, and on our most recent tour I took his biography of T.S. Eliot with me.  This is the third of his biographies of poets that I have read.  I started with his illustrated work on Ezra Pound before lifting his heavy volume on the life of William Blake.  I have also read his fictitious The Fall of Troy and The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein. The last work was rather crap, containing some scant patches of decent writing which were ultimately destroyed by his use of THE LAMEST PLOT DEVICE IN THE HISTORY OF LITERATURE.  Barring that misstep, I feel safe in my personal estimation of him as a writer of considerable talent, and his biographies reflect that.  They are interesting and full of genuine scholarship.  He has done his homework, and from what I can tell these are works born of genuine love and admiration.

There’s just this thing…..

In the course of reading about these poets I have somehow failed to gain any understanding of them, and for once I’m not sure it’s entirely my fault.  Fair enough regarding the work on Ezra Pound, because it was a fairly skimpy volume that was supposed to serve as an overview and introduction to the man, and I could readily see that and accepted it as such.  But his works on Blake and Eliot have left me strangely unsatisfied and unfulfilled, rather like eating a large meal and still feeling hungry even though you couldn’t possibly eat another bite.

He has a tendency to move very, very fast in covering the events that constitute, you know, life, and rather than stop and smell the roses he blazes ahead, always onwards and upwards.  I suppose it could be a matter of style and taste, as perhaps he has made a conscientious effort to avoid making any inferences that can’t be proven or validated by Eliot himself.  In this regard, he almost writes as if he were Eliot’s autobiographer, which is an entirely different thing altogether.

By the time we raced though his youth and reached the end of his college years it wasn’t even page 50, and it continued at that same hurried pace until we reached his death.  I did have a chuckle when Ackroyd included the remark that during one of his many, many, many periods of intense mental anguish Eliot’s friends had taken to referring to him as “Poor Tom”.  The same expression reported by the same author, but used for two different poets for two entirely different reasons.  While William Blake was a tireless worker who was rather hapless and unlucky with his financial affairs (thus “Poor Blake“), T.S. Eliot was a creature of his nervous disposition, and “Poor Tom” was a man of deep depression and despair.  I get the impression that his friends and associates often wanted to shake him and say “snap out of it!”.  It was rather nice to find out that he did find peace and love in his later years.

I have been giving careful thought to my criticism of this volume on Eliot, of perhaps being guilty of wanting to know more than the poet intended me to?  Am I just like someone who can’t understand a song unless they know the story and explanation?  I’ve always loathed that and found it to be a sign of mental laziness.  After all, what good is reading a poem if you need someone to explain it?  It rather defeats the purpose of writing it in the first place, doesn’t it?

I decided that no, my desires haven’t crossed any lines of artistic cheating, not yet anyay.  It’s not like I wanted to read his journals like some sort of sniffing detective, trying to figure out what went where and what it signifies.  I simply wanted a better story, and if someone is in a position to illuminate us on an individual then I wish they had done so.  I do understand that biographers went through a very “Freudian” phase, making claims and inferences that couldn’t possibly be true, and this has avoided that pitfall in a very noble manner.  Maybe I am confusing biographical scholarship with poetic criticism, and my desire to combine the two is misplaced.  Maybe.  All I know is that I don’t feel like I got the whole story, or if I did then a lot of insignificant but interesting details were left out.  Balls to that.

After finishing the book, I went straight for my collections of Eliot, and was rather annoyed that my copy of Murder in the Cathedral has gone missing, which is a shame because I never read it and there is zero chance in finding it in our local library.  Trust me, they don’t even have a copy of A Streetcar Named Desire.  I did however, find my copy of The Waste Land & Other Poems as well as Four Quartets.  I won’t even begin to pretend that I can properly sink my teeth into The Waste Land, but I am very fond his Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I have no idea what Eliot’s voice sounded like, but I keep repeating the opening lines of “Let us go then, you and I” in my head, in an unknown voice which is rich and wise with the faintest trace of rasp.

I remember once reading that Eliot was considered part of the “Elliptical School”, a description and grouping which he detested, and I must say that after a closer reading he was absolutely right to abhor such a simplistic and incorrect term.  Where he was initially found obtuse and deceptively obscure I have come to regard his works as being the first examples of another evolution of poetry.  I went from thinking of his works as clinical and cold to discovering a lyrical beauty and simplicity that was there all along.  It is the poetry of a careful, considered mind, and the tricks & traps I had imagined dissolved into thin air.  Desire, ache, and longing are all there, but in a radically understated manner.  Under-spoken does not mean un-meant.  His Four Quartets are a perfect example of this, especially my favourite, “Burnt Norton”.

I felt like I gained this new understanding not from reading his biography, which offered no insights whatsoever, but from simply reading his works over and over again, and letting his “voice” come through.

Let us go then, you and I….


This post is a tad overdue, by my own reckoning, but there is a good explanation: I haven’t felt like writing anything.  The reason I haven’t felt like writing anything is because I’ve been lying on the couch for the past week nursing a face full of bruises and swollen eye sockets thanks to being jumped by some thug last Friday night.  But, today is the day that I shake all of that off.   I’m supposed to be on vacation, damnit!

So, I went for a surf for the first time since I got slugged, and after some very real and tangible trepidation I found that I did not indeed die upon making contact with the water.  I’m not sure what I was scared of, after all, it’s only water and the waves were nothing to worry about.  I’ve done far more dumb and dangerous things without much concern, but there it was, simultaneously sitting in the pit of my stomach and whispering in my ear: fear.

I went, I caught, I stood up, I lived, it was the right thing to do.  The cops have found the titan who beat the tar out of me and with any luck I’ll be able to collect $100 worth of compensation which I can then blow on losing lottery tickets.


Pop, Pulp, Confusion, Sleep

July 30, 2010

So there I was on a dreary day, an arm full of overdue library books and some time to kill.  Might as well pick up something new while I return the goods, hey?  The only problem is that the library is either reorganizing or there have been some severe budget cuts, because it was as if a swarm of book devouring termites had removed massive chunks of their already skimpy catalogue.   This being Australia rather than the American South, I long ago forgave them for lacking Ferrol Sams and even William Faulkner,  but today, not even a Fitzgerald?  It’s not like I wanted to read the Great Gatsby again, but one sort of expects such literary stalwarts in even the bleakest of collections.

The reason I am hoping that there might be some massive reorganization underway is because there were also huge gaps in the alphabetizing, so it would jump from, say, DA to DW.  What happened to all the poor saps in between?  Needless to say, many of the authors I had on my hit list have been put on stand-by.  Even a stalwart such as Wodehouse was missing, but I managed to skirt that particular issue by humbling myself and heading over to the LARGE PRINT section to find a few unread selections.  If I needed yet another reminder that Port Macquarie is really a senior citizens paradise in holiday destination disguise then this did the trick.  Not only is the LARGE PRINT section the largest in the library, it also has a superior selection of novels and literature.  I can take comfort in knowing that I’ll still be able to read Jeeves in the Offing in the event of a complete power blackout, it’s satirical thrust impervious to poor lighting conditions thanks to the VERY LARGE PRINT.

So I’m ambling over to the biography section, which takes me near the CD collection.  Bad idea.  In truth, I think Port Macquarie makes a noble attempt with their CD & DVD collection.  It’s small but diverse, with a modern bent which is a far cry from the stockpiles of classical vinyl and Anne Of Green Gables on VHS which can still be found in many underfunded public libraries.  The Port Macquarie library gained a lifelong friend when I found Rock & Roll Heart, the Lou Reed documentary.

I should clarify and say that the “bad idea” was my fault.  I picked up a copy of Day & Age by The Killers.  Yes, I know it has been out for 2 or 3 or 4 years now, but that means nothing to me because I miss anything and everything.  I also took a copy of Alive by the Chick Corea Accoustic Band, simply because I had this on cassette many years ago and I had a notion of liking it.  Lastly, a copy of The Best Of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Vol. 1.

For starters, I think it’s enough to say that Day & Age is already safely back on the shelves of the library, well under 24 hours later.  What the hell was that?  I’m sure that the album has been well dissected by better, more capable hands than these, so I’ll just say that I felt it lacked a true pulse.  I’m not a Killers fan, per se, but I did think Hot Fuss had a certain garage urgency coupled with it’s electro borrowings and lovely songwriting.  Sam’s Town I only remember for the cover, basically because it was so awful.  As far as photos and image go, it wasn’t very convincing.  If it was supposed to be camp, then I didn’t get it, and therefore I could only conclude, reluctantly, that I was supposed to take it at face value, which just plain sucked.  Also, I thought the image, symbol, and metaphor of “Sam’s Town” was pretty much wasted.  A good idea put to no good use.   (And yes, I am well aware of what Sam’s Town is, where it is located, and what it could potentially represent.  I get it, I get it, I get it.)

With Day & Age, I thought the histrionics had been scaled back a bit, and the instrumental “art” efforts wisely abandoned, but what was I left with?  Something that sounded like garbled Christian outreach/crossover, an aerobics mix tape, and evidence of a man’s voice that had somehow gone backwards through puberty.  Well produced?  Of course.   Sonically pleasing?  Well, my ears don’t physically hurt.  Intelligent?  At times.  Does it matter?  Not to me.  For me, it wasn’t human, and I’m not talking about the keyboards and drum machines.  I don’t care about those.  I’m talking about it’s soul, which I found lacking.

Live by Chick Corea Acoustic Band sounded exactly like three really talented guys who bloody well knew it.  It starts off with “On Green Dolphin Street”, but you’d hardly know it.  I could hear maybe, maybe, 4% of the actual melody in the entire 9:14 of the song.  I reckon that when I was younger I may have liked this, but I certainly didn’t understand it.  Now, I understand it, but I don’t really like it.  No offense or disrespect to Chick Corea, Dave Weckl, & John Patittuci though.  To me, this is music whose parts are greater than the whole, which may or may not be your idea of good music.

Right now I’ve got Nick Cave grinding away, and I must confess that I am WAY overdue for this.  For someone who holds Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Shane MacGowan, Gareth Liddiard, Nick Drake, and Leonard Cohen in high regard, this should have been a no-brainer.  Even worse, anything I’ve ever heard by Nick Cave I’ve liked.  All I can say is that I am a slug.  That’s no excuse, but that’s all I have.

For some, extended poetic diatribes over music may be revolting.  I can certainly imagine that this could be downright boring for some, but for me it will do in spades.  I like letting the words roll in endless reams so that I forget how long the song has been going on or even which song it is.  Also, it’s worth noting that these are actual songs, and Nick is a unique singer with an unmistakable delivery, so it’s not exactly like having to sit through a freshman poetry slam.  This is well constructed stuff that just happens to include one of the finest pure lyricists of our lifetime.  The album kicks off with “Deanna” , which reminds me of a 50s diner being mauled by The Wild Bunch.  Also included is “Straight To You”, as well as “Into My Arms”, which is as haunting and aching as you could ever hope to hear.  Ache is always good.

I might as well mention that I recently asked the local “record store” to order me everything available by The Lemonheads.  Apparently in Australia, that means you get Varshons and The Best of the Lemonheads. That’s not what I had in mind, but I took them both.  Varshons is kind of a rip-off, so even though it’s sort of endearing to me I wouldn’t push it on anyone unless we had been having an hour long conversation about music and we just so happened to agree on everything.  The Best Of… is about what you’d expect.  For some reason I thought of Even Dando a few months ago, and I decided to go through his catalogue.  I kind off miss him and his music, even though each new music generation probably has their own version of him.  His songs are so short and simple that I can imagine that listeners might draw a wide variety of conclusions or opinions about his stature and talent, from “brilliant” to “banal”.  Personally,   there is something unpretentious and disarming that strikes me, and, dare I say it, comforts me.  He’s not a stark raving genius that’s all push-push-push, but he’s certainly not entirely in this immediate sphere.  A bit astral, a bit of a kindly spectre who seems to be there but keeps slipping away when I look.

So finally, I make it over to the biographies.  I’ll spare you the entire grocery list of what I walked away with, but what I was looking for were studies on the group of composers who are typically grouped as the Romantics.  The reason for my search is that, as a collective group,  I have studied them three times now, and the problem is that they are so good and all so talented that by the end of it I get them all confused with each other and I’m right back where I started.  The only one I found was Chopin: The Reluctant Romantic, by Jeremy Siepman.  That would do for a start, so I took that and my armfuls and got out of there in a hurry.  For such a slow town driven by its senior citizenry, I am always impressed by the speed of the library checkout ladies & checkout gents.  They only slow down when a granny or grampy tries to make small talk.  Apparently, small talk makes for slow talk.

That night, I had another case of dreaded insomnia.  What used to be a constant plague now comes & goes, and for improvement in even such a small measure I am grateful.  Anyway, it struck again, so I cracked open the volume on Chopin.  As I was reading the introduction it mentioned that in the back of the book there was a roundtable discussion among leading players and scholars of Chopin about the very nature of Chopin’s playing and the correct interpretation of his works.  Rather than start something massive and new at 3 AM, I flipped to appendix B to see what they had to say.

I found something perfect, something so very right that I when I finished it I turned off the light and drifted off shortly thereafter.

Without boring you with the details (and to save myself from a lot of typing of quotes), I read the words of scholars and artists who cared deeply and passionately loved what they were talking about,  and doing so in an elevated & intelligent manner.  Statements, explanations, digressions, disagreements, hypotheses–the whole lot.  They could have been talking about competing brands of toilet cleaner, and as long as they did it in such a measured and wise manner  I would have been content.  It shouldn’t be such a rarity, but for me it seemed like the rarest of crumbs.  I would not be so bold to insist that they were talking about something that mattered.  For me it was enough that they were talking about something.

Goodnight for now.


July 24, 2010

Bugger all, I’ve been meaning to post something but all I’ve got are some scattered & unfinished drafts, chock full of big, bold, & ambitious ideas but without conclusions or any way to draw them.

So instead of leaving you with something, I’m leaving you with nothing.


Thunder, Not Fierce

July 9, 2010

And though it breaks the silence
it is in its own way quiet,
and disturbs me not,
but rather, calms.

Old friend, come again?
I know this conversation,
these familiar turns of phrases,
and fall asleep to the rhythm
of your old world mother tongue,
wrapped as I am, an infant.

Watch over me, again
tonight and tomorrow, perhaps
until I am whole, or nearly so,
and do not need your legs to stand.

Old friend, will you come again?
You are not fierce.
I know your old tremors,
wrapped as I am, an infant.