Archive for the 'House Red: Literary and Intellectual' Category

Something Draws Us In

…It comes, I tell you, immense with gasolined rags and bits of wire and old bent nails, a dark arriviste, from a dark river within.—Gregory Corso, How Poetry Comes to Me

Gregory Corso’s Gasoline comes with this epigraph and an introduction by Allen Ginsberg, who characteristically waxes enthusiastic about his friend:

Corso is a great word-slinger, first naked sign of a poet…. He wants a surface hilarious with ellipses, jumps of the strangest phrasing picked off the streets of his mind like “mad children of soda caps.”

Corso’s poems display a love of language and joyous playfulness whose capacity to amuse and amaze light up the everyday world. He does not transport us to an enchanted realm so much as he opens up the enchantedness of those realms where we customarily find ourselves.

Jack Kerouac catches some of this in a passage from the early pages of On the Road, when he speaks of

the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

That “awww!” expresses something of what first sparked my enchantment with poetry, as when Corso describes a weird happening in Haarlem:

Four windmills, acquaintanceships,
were spied one morning eating tulips.
and the entire city flips
screaming: Apocalypse! Apocalypse!

We find it in surrealism in these images cited by André Breton in Manifesto of Surrealism:

The ruby of champagne. (Lautréamont)

A church dazzling as a bell. (Philippe Soupault)

In Rrose Sélavy’s sleep there is a dwarf issued from a well who comes to eat her bread at night. (Robert Desnos)

Poems speak to us through elements of rhythm, rhyme, figuration, form, and other means, with the power to persuade through the emotions apart from or even against rational argument and literal meaning of the text. Ginsberg’s exclamation, “But what is he [Corso] saying? Who cares?!” is facile and apt to divert us from more important points. That initial “awww!” does not come to much if a poem delivers nothing more. A strong poem has something to say, although this something may lose all power to move us when stated explicitly. It may defy explicit statement altogether.

Something draws us into a poem, some intriguing element that leads us to read on. Maybe it is Corso’s word-slinging, the striking surrealist image or metaphor, the rhythm of the lines, or other aesthetic elements, alone or in combination. Whatever it may be, while this immediate pleasure is not enough by itself to make a poem memorable or strong, it must be enough that we are intrigued to go on, to plough through passages in the longer poems of Wordsworth or Keats that are anything but enchanting or wrestle with the cognitive difficulties presented by Emily Dickinson, deferring immediate pleasure for the promise of a greater reward.

There is more to the poems that genuinely matter than the “awww” of an initial enchantment, however much we relish it, and however elusive those deeper pleasures may be.

For Poesy alone can tell her dreams
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable charm
And dumb enchantment. Who alive can say,
Thou art no Poet—mayst not tell they dreams?”
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved
And been well-nurtured in his mother tongue,
Whether the dream now purposed to rehearse
Be poet’s or fanatic’s will be known
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave.
—John Keats, “The Fall of Hyperion”


Ginsberg and Snyder Part II: Engaged Lives

I wrote Ginsberg and Snyder: hipsters, poets, scholars… in precipitous haste because I wanted to post it before Gary Snyder’s appearance at Reed College on 7 February. Following are a few additional comments and observations.

The relationship between the life and the work of any artist is a tricky business. If memory serves, Gregory Corso said that if the poet is interesting, the poem will be interesting. I am unable to locate the source, which I thought was either the Unmuzzled Ox interview from the early 1980s or maybe Neeli Cherkovski’s Whitman’s Wild Children but found it in neither when I skimmed through them. If not Corso, someone must have said it. Be that as it may, the proposition does not bear scrutiny. It is not uncommon to come across interesting people, and nice people, decent, upstanding, intelligent people, whose poems are of little interest. Turn the statement around, though, and it may be more generally accurate. If the poems are interesting, the poet is interesting. The ways in which the poet is interesting are as varied as poems and people. John Keats, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Emily Dickinson led quite different kinds of lives and may be interesting in quite different ways, though with the common ground that their thoughts, intellectual and spiritual, as always in a broad sense of that term, and their sense of themselves and their poems is always an aspect of what is of interest.

This topic can hardly be taken up today without getting into the matter of character. To be able look on the artist and the work with equally high regard is a wonderful thing. It is also a luxury. Artists are as flawed as the rest of us. We could start with Corso, who means much to me as a poet, but if you had him over for dinner you might be well advised to strip search him before he left. As poet John Berryman, no moral avatar himself, put it, Rilke is a jerk. We need not go into Shelley and Byron; that could occupy volumes. The uncomfortable fact of the matter is that if we reject the work of artists whose lives are less than exemplary, we deprive ourselves of much art that matters to us greatly.

We read biographies and letters of poets for much the same reasons we read poems, criticism, philosophy, history, and much else, because we want to know, not because we are looking for role models. If we find a life inspirational, so much the better, but ’tis almost a happy accident, not in the nature of things. As the saying goes, nothing human is foreign to us. The shadow of Keats’ life hovers in the background when I read “…in spite of all / Some shape of beauty moves away the pall / From our dark spirits”; as does Emily Brontë’s in the lines “I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading / It vexes me to choose another guide.” With other poets and other poems, the life may illumine not so much.

Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder are poets of engagement. Theirs is not a poetry of ivory tower or enchanted vale, nor of libraries and lecture halls, though I think it fair to surmise they must have felt at ease in these places, for they read and studied widely. Concerns and themes that animate their work as poets crop up time and again in the letters. Poetry and the life are an integrated whole as they take on the project that occupies us all, making a place for ourselves in the world and being accountable for it. What is it to live a good and fully human life? How am I to go about it in a world of human values mangled by inhuman economic and political systems in thrall to wealth and power, in face of all too human fear, ignorance, weakness, and greed, amid dizzying extremes of wealth and want? What am I to make of this human creature I find myself to be? And what of this community of which I am bound to be part? What am I to stand for and how do I stand for it? What is to be done?

We do not turn to poets for answers to these questions. Nor, I think, do we turn to them as role models except perhaps insofar as their striving is our striving, their falling short our falling short. Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder continue to matter because in their lives and in their words they bear witness to the spark that is human spirit, this thirsting, questing, aching, ever unfinished creature that each of us is.

There is what Snyder refers to in the preface to the selected letters and elsewhere as the real work, “working out the details, trail routes, land-management plans—and that’s what the ‘real work’ is.” What is to be done is to do as best we can, without false hope or illusion, yet never submissively resigned to fate. Says Snyder, looking back, “It was all just dust in the wind, but also, the changes were real.”


Ginsberg and Snyder: hipsters, poets, scholars…

An Evening with Gary Snyder
Reed College, 5:15 p.m., Vollum Lecture Hall

The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder
ed. by Bill Morgan
Counterpoint, 2009, 321 pp.

Recently while in Powell’s passing time before a dinner rendezvous, in search of nothing in particular, I happened on The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. The correspondence of literary figures tends to be a mixed bag, running from quotidian to exotic, tedious to enchanting, with more than a few stops in between, which I suppose makes it not much different from most other things human. This collection has some of all of that. Spanning forty years in five different decades, from 1956–1995, the letters of Ginsberg and Snyder offer glimpses into the minds and lives of two literary and cultural figures who have mattered to me for as long as I have thought of myself as a poet, going back to youthful encounter with Beat Generation texts that stirred my spirit. Their significance lies not much if at all in direct influence on the writing, but rather for the example of holding to a vision of oneself as poet and literary figure, in it for the duration.

Ginsberg enthusiastically proclaimed his own genius and that of his friends, unabashedly taking on the mantle of poet and visionary, maybe too enthusiastically and too easily. Does that matter? Maybe not. Snyder strikes me as more disciplined but equally sure of the ground on which he stood. There is not much expression of self-doubt in these letters.

The quest for authenticity and rejection of mainstream cultural norms and expectations went hand in hand. They were grad school dropouts and hipsters with freewheeling attitudes about drugs and sex, lifelong students of Western and Eastern canons as well as esoteric traditions. The letters contain routine mention of what books are being read, who is being studied. What was genuine scholarship engaged with intellectual rigor and what only dilettantism might be debated, with where one comes down on it colored by the degree of sympathy—or antipathy—felt toward the principals.

Much of the correspondence deals with practical affairs, Ginsberg relating his difficulties trying to get from Europe to on India to join Snyder and Joanne Kyger who were traveling there in 1961-62, Snyder offering Ginsberg tips on how to travel cheaply in India and what to see when he arrived, assorted other travel, of which they did a lot, poetry readings, lecture and teaching gigs, and land-management matters around a bit of property Snyder, Ginsberg, and a number of California countercultural types purchased jointly in the 1970s, with Snyder on site advising Ginsberg of disputes and resolutions and looking after his place on the property, arranging for upkeep, upgrades, and rentals.

The first letter in the collection, a brief note by Snyder about a poetry reading he and Ginsberg are planning, closes with a postscript: “Any time you could send monies, a few bucks, most appreciated.” (24 February 1956). Ginsberg responds the following month, “Sorry to be so slow. This should stave off the wolf till the 5th (April)—and will send you more then.” Ginsberg goes on to say that he just got paid, $10. Now $10 went considerably further in 1956 than it does today. Even so, ’twas no great sum. Here on display is the instinctive generosity Ginsberg exhibited throughout his life. The letters are peppered with instances of this kind of behavior on the part of both men, all related quite matter of factly, no great fuss made about it, simply what one does.

In poetry and in life they were politically engaged and socially committed. Theirs is a poetry of local eco-systems and the urban demimonde, hip communes and Zen monasteries, with intensely personal subjects taken up alongside the topical and the visionary. In youth they earned money in a variety of roustabout ways, seaman, logger, forest lookout, market research consultant. From the 1960s on they were sufficiently celebrated that they could make money on the lecture and poetry reading circuits, a quite honorable tradition in American letters, dating at least to the 19th century with Emerson and others. Eventually they found places for themselves in the academy, having established satisfactory bona fides as poets to be let in, Snyder as professor at University of California at Davis in 1985, Ginsberg more hither and yon.

The following give a feel for the two lifelong friends, their lives and work, and the culture they helped shape.

Young Snyder on politics

Nobody can straighten American politics out because the people won’t stand for it—how can internal economics be put in order when everybody wants everything? Any sane monetary policy or farm policy doomed to ruin. Ditto by extension foreign policy. Bread and Circuses. (Snyder, Kyoto, 10 August 1960)

I don’t trust the sentimental ex-Stalinist pro-Castro sentiment too much. God knows they needed a revolution there, but there are kids and there are men in this revolution business; I think Castro must be the former. Like, let him get aid from Russia and China if he likes, but be cool about it until his position is solid; bugging the U.S. out of its head serves no useful revolutionary function. (Snyder, Kyoto, 12 December 1960)

As sixties move into full swing

Allen Watts is in Japan and is very turned on by it—he has been taking lots of LSD and has a Shakti [female counterpart of a male deity], having left his own true wife. He says the future society will have to be one where there is total sexual freedom with tantric practices—children raised in groups, and people use LSD, mushrooms, etc.

All my Kyoto buddies have turned into hemp farmers.

There do seem to be two things going:

1. The individual working out his path by lonely self-enquiry and meditation.

2. A kind of social-sexual communal breakthrough, aided by dance, drugs, music, (meditation), etc. Now if we can reconcile these two and use them we can remake society utterly. (Snyder, Kyoto, 30 May 1962.

…the really great scene here’s been in MOVIES, a gang of homemade young cats from Lower East Side making films orgies street scenes in lofts… (Ginsberg, NY, 15 March 1964)

Things are exciting here; there is friction in some quarters…but most of the scene is a big flower. I wear Spanish boots, a gold ear-ring, dance the twist with young girls all the time, and roar about on my big red motorcycle. To say nothing of secretly planning student riots… (Snyder, SF, 17 October 1964)

Got drunk with Yevtushenko and waiting for Voznesensky to get back to town tomorrow…. I feel like Zeus walking through Red Square. (Ginsberg, Moscow, USSR, 1 April 1965)

Ginsberg on Gregory Corso

Gregory Corso here outrageous shithead borrowing money from students calling Trungpa [Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Ginberg's Buddhist teacher] a “dumb asshole” in midst of all sangha assembled speech, SHUT UP! vajra coice from Trungpa’s chair—and then they had tea the next day, and we all taught a poetry class together… (Ginsberg, Boulder Colorado, 11 July 1975)

I think it’s good to give Gregory grant for several reasons… Students [at Naropa] found him the most live or inspiring teacher…and sanghic community found him workable enough to want him back all next summer as a regular lecturer, as difficult as he is. In San Francisco he’s written a number of interesting texts—prefaces, newspaper pieces—which in a decade’s time will seem very sharp…I sent formal letter…re-recommending consideration of Gregory [as member of National Institute of Arts and Letters]. Reasoning (1) despite appearances he’s creating actively, (2) despite appearances he’s socially useful, (3) his situation is an old one, Van Gogh, Crane, etc. i.e. really difficult, oft half mad, but still spirit of genius is there working, producing artifacts which enrich others later in gross and fine ways both. (Ginsberg, NY, 11 November 1977)

Money woes

I’m broke…so I’ve got to go out do readings… (Ginsberg, NY, 14 December 1976)

Snyder on land-management issues with the jointly owned property

They all agreed to meet at 3 P.M. the following Friday (May 7) and walk out their own land-boundaries, and begin to formulate some land-use policies in accord with the agreement. I couldn’t go, but at 3 P.M. my right-hand man, Zac Reisner, went up there to join the walk with them. Nobody was there at 3. Zac rounded them up, a few, and ‘Jaya,’ who claimed to know where the corners were, said he would join them later, but never showed up. No one had a compass, so Zac showed them what a compass was, and how you walk a line with it. Nobody had ever seen a map of the area before, or had heard of the geodetic survey quads, it seems. On walking the line, they noticed that the boundary on the north is only three feet from the corner of the craft-shop, and runs rights through somebody’s geodesic dome. A large permanent tipi is well over in BLM [Bureau of Land Managment]. (copy of Snyder letter to Dick Baker, passed on to Ginsberg, May 1971)


Listen man if you feel up to it will you write me a concise statement of your theory of beatness and its relation to vision, poetry, and America? and sex? I am seeing new angles to this rough Zen-discipline shot; perhaps by reducing one’s life to essentials of eating (barely enough) and sleeping (barely enough) and working (hard) and subjecting you to constant psychological pressure of meditation and interviews they are, within a controlled situation, making you thoroughly beat (Rinzai is the sect of the big stick whack) and aware of what is samsara [cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth] and what one’s body-self really craves, like food sex and sleep—and then makes that beatness flower into real insight…(3 June 1956, Kyoto, Japan)

When I said you needed discipline—which was quite possibly all wrong—I didn’t mean quit masturbating or anything like that. I was thinking of a more systematic intellectual and meditational approach toward understanding your own natural and astonishing illuminations that shine through poems, and not falling into Demon and Angel traps… (Snyder, Kyoto, 20 August 1956)

I am reading thru Shakespeare on board, beginning to end chronologically. (Ginsberg, 19 June 1956, aboard Military Sea Transporation Service ship)

I tend to organize my poetry thoughts for teaching and read more—like Paradise Lost and Wordsworth—to check up my rusty opinions. (Ginsberg, Cherry Valley, NY, 15 Sept 1976)


Ghost Town Poetry Volume Two

Ghost Town Poetry Volume Two
Christopher Luna, Editor and Publisher
Printed Matter Vancouver
114 pp., $10.00


Ghost Town Poetry Volume Two commemorates ten years of open mic poetry in Vancouver, Washington. Christopher Luna founded the popular Ghost Town Poetry Open Mic reading series at Ice Cream Renaissance in November 2004. In 2007 the series moved to Cover to Cover Books, and Toni Partington joined Luna as a co-host. In 2011 Luna and Partington co-founded Printed Matter Vancouver, an editing service and small press which previously published Ghost Town Poetry, which includes poets from the first six years of the series, and Serenity in the Brutal Garden, the debut collection by Vancouver poet Jenney Pauer.

The anthology includes poems by Judith Arcana, Elizabeth Archers, Lana Ayers, Melinda Bell, Kristin Berger, April Bullard, Tiffany Burba-Schramm, Sheryl Clough, Ed Coletti, Joyce Colson, Brittney Corrigan, Michael Daley, Eileen Davis Elliott, Kathleen Flenniken, Daniel Gilchrist, Rob Gourley, Johnna Gurgel, Miles Hewitt, David Hill, Rainy Knight, Christi Krug, Jake Loranger, Lori Loranger, Zoe Loranger, Jack Lorts, Peter Ludwin, Christopher Luna, M, David Madgalene, Dryas Martin, Jim Martin, Doug Marx, David Matthews, Dennis McBride, Jack McCarthy, Mike G, A. Molotkov, Russell Monroe, Angeline Nguyen, Maggie O’Mara, Toni Partington, Jenney Pauer, Jennifer Pratt-Walter, Sidra Grace Quinn, Dan Raphael, Carlos Reyes, Kristin Roedell, Michael Rothenberg, Ralph Salisbury, Katharine Salzmann, Raul Sanchez, Mary Slocum, Gerard Donnelly Smith, Leah Stenson, Meredith Stewart, George Thomas, Nathan Tompkins, Grace Valentine, Ric Vrana, Julene Weaver, Ingrid Wendt, Steve Williams, John Sibley Williams, Sally Wong, Carolyne Wright, and Louise Wynn.

The book will have its official release on February 13 at the monthly Ghost Town Poetry Open Mic, which takes place at Cover to Cover Books (6300 NE St. James Rd., Suite 104B) at 7pm on the second Thursday of each month. For more information on this event, please visit Printed Matter Vancouver.

Ghost Town Poetry Volume Two will be available locally at Cover to Cover Books. As always, we urge you to support your local, independently owned bookstore.

The book can also be ordered through CreateSpace and



Greeting 2014

My hopes for the coming year are modest: to post weekly an essay or review of some quality and interest, to write poems more than occasionally, to embrace the life of spirit and generally keep faith with the intellectual adventure to which I have haphazardly devoted myself for more than four decades. Beyond that I would like more travel than recent years have seen, although I say that each year without making it happen, and of course I will continue to lace up the running shoes and pound out the miles “whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast.”

The little poem “a flight of fancy, for clarinet, and wind chime,” posted here on New Year’s Eve, had its genesis in chance, as so much does. While looking for a Christmas gift for my niece the artist Rachel Matthews, I happened on Dada East: The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire by Tom Sandqvist, which in turn led to reflection upon my roots in Dada and Surrealism. I came to these adventures in art and life as a student at the time I was discovering and coming under the spell of Dostoevsky, Camus, and existentialism, the cinema of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, a poetic tradition of the avant-garde that began with Charles Baudelaire and ran through Rimbaud, Mayakovsky, Apollinaire, Dada and Surrealism, and the American Beats. Dada and Surrealism were exotic, wild, revolutionary, the kind of thing to set a young person’s spirit afire.

The roots in Dada and Surrealism are not deep, almost minor next to Romanticism, which was present on the margins early on, only later, slowly through many years, to grow deeper and richer. Nonetheless, Dada and Surrealism were and remain important as example and inspiration, often appropriated to my own ends that were never strictly speaking Dadaist or Surrealist. Not least is Surrealism’s glorious myth of freedom, ever more precious in this age of neuro and genetic determinism and ubiquitous surveillance.

Thus Dada and Surrealism were on my mind in the weeks leading up to travel to Tulsa for Christmas. As it happened, elements within the melting pot of consciousness coalesced on the evening of 23 December as the plane made its descent into Tulsa International Airport. I pulled out my journal and jotted down the opening lines and a few subsequent images that became “a flight of fancy,” a poem whose borrowings are obvious, not a major work by any stretch, but in a period of my life when poems are hard come by, my spirit brightened with it.


a flight of fancy, for clarinet, and wind chime

Let’s close out the year and usher in the new with a little poem, perhaps prelude to something longer, more ambitious, or not, begun Monday night before Christmas as the plane descended on Tulsa.

a flight of fancy, for clarinet, and wind chime

Some days are not as bad as the rest.
This is not one of those days.
Minutes freeze into montage,
and seconds spin through the air
in a frenzy of lost time.
My spirit languishes
in a mess of boredom, guilt,
and pointless evasion.

Oh but to be off
on one of those old flights of fancy,
an irrepressible homage
to myths of freedom
and the madness of love.
Put a straight razor to that celluloid eyeball.
Run with an andalusian dog.
Romance an exquisite corpse.
Arouse the bourgeoisie
with your own discreet charm.
They will only devour you.

At the dinner party we drank coffee
until the visions came,
invoked prophecy in language immune to translation,
painted moustaches on mirrors,
swung from the arms of the clock
at the top of the winding staircase,
and gave ourselves
to frivolities of seduction
when all we really sought
was an intimation of grace.

the weekly essay…

In recent weeks I have made a renewed commitment to post a weekly essay, thinking that those who come to this space regularly might appreciate having some idea when they could expect to find new material. You might not think that throwing together a modest few hundred words on some topic or other would present such a challenge in circumstances where any topic at all is fair game. Nonetheless it turns out to be just that, a bit of a challenge.

At present I am cobbling together some thoughts on the subject of living well in the Socratic sense that to live well is to live honorably and rightly, spurred to this by the project for the winter term, rereading some Plato and taking up some Aristotle. As the time for Socrates’ execution drew near, his old friend Crito made one last plea for him to allow his friends to help him escape. Socrates turned him down again, explaining that he would be doing wrong if he broke the law even to escape the death sentence to which he was unjustly condemned. This he cannot do. At one point in the dialogue, Socrates says, “I should like you to consider whether we are still satisfied on this point, that the really important thing is not to live, but to live well.” To which Crito responds, “Why, yes.” Socrates: “And that to live well means the same thing as to live honorably or rightly?” Crito: “Yes.” (Plato, Crito)

The notion that to live well is the same thing as to live honorably or rightly seems a bit at odds with the temper of our time. In an age when life is to be clung to at almost any price, under almost any circumstance, and when living honorably and rightly figures into the calculus for living well barely if at all, these words come off as strange, quixotic, otherworldly. Maybe Socrates’ head was altogether in the clouds.

In public discourse and affairs of the state, there is much talk of profit and loss, benefit and risk, pragmatic considerations, bottom line, and the like, not so much about what might be honorable and right. In our private lives many of us want to do the right thing, try to do the right thing, and sometimes even manage to pull it off. But how willing are we to place everything on what is honorable and right?

As is so often the case, there are more questions than answers, beginning with the nitty-gritty of getting to just what it might be to act honorably and rightly in particular, concrete, messy circumstances of life. At this juncture I think of Wendell Berry, who made the point quite eloquently, as we might expect of him, when speaking of abortion. He noted that it is not often we have the luxury of choosing between good and evil. Most times we must choose between evils. Even this choice between evils is based on the information available to us, which is apt to be partial, incomplete, subject to bias. Whom do we believe, whom do we accept as authority, and on what grounds?

Taking care of ourselves, our families, and others dear to us, meeting our obligations as members of a community, setting the right example for any who might look to us as examples, these are all aspects of living well, honorably, rightly.

Alas, this is as far as I have gotten at present, from where I sit on Sunday evening. I present these tentative thoughts as modest prelude, I hope, to further reflection. Ciao.

in the spirit of an intellectual adventure I have not given up

From time to time I fall prey to an impulse to reflect on just what I might be up to with the little essays, the tries, that appear in this space. Some of it comes from a compulsion to explain and justify that can be insidious. The more positive take is that it is a matter of critical self-examination conducted with an attempt at rigor. Lines blur and distinctions may be inventive.

Sometimes it is helpful — or at least easy — to begin with what the subject under discussion is not. While I keep a journal of the pen-and-paper variety whose entries on occasion serve as something of an initial draft, perhaps more notes than draft, for a serious attempt at an essay, I have little interest in blog as personal journal, humdrum parade of the quotidian, and still less in the phenomenon of life logging, which strikes me as tedious and a little creepy.

Life logging popped onto the radar with a recent issue of The Economist featuring Google Glass on a cover with an ominous warning, “Every step you take: Google Glass, ubiquitous cameras and that threat to privacy.”

A life logger is described as

someone who thinks that if, as Socrates claimed, the unexamined life is not worth living, the life which is digitally recorded with an eye to potentially endless re-examination will have much to recommend it. Patterns in their data, they hope, will reveal opportunities to be healthier, happier and more effective (The people’s panopticon, The Economist, 16 November 2013).

The life logger serving as an example, one Cathal Gurrin, a computer scientist at Dublin City University,

wears a wide-angle camera around his neck which snaps several pictures of his field of view every minute, recording its location and orientation each time it does so. He has been using such devices for more than seven years. Over that time he has built up an archive of 12m images, and he currently produces about a terabyte of data a year.

“Say wha?” my knee jerked in response. What the accumulation of a mind-boggling mass of data might have to do with Socrates and any notion of the examined life is not considered, much less explained. No matter that the data can be sorted and searched to pull up where Mr. Guerrin left his car keys, no doubt helpful but hardly the stuff of the examined life, or what wine he drank at an event two years ago, useful if he remembers only that it was one heck of a wine, or maybe swill to be avoided at all cost but of no existential import. How I should conduct myself if I want to live a good life, what it might mean to live a good life, what I know and what I only think I know, what is the good, if there is such thing as the good, these and related topics are altogether something else on which the data shine no light, as best I can see.

To be poet as I conceive it for myself is not so simple a matter as those who conduct writing workshops and pen handbooks on how to write poetry, fiction, screenplays, and the like would have it. Poet is existential, a manner of being in the world. From one perspective it is existential and commitment; from another, it is what one finds oneself to be. As young Rimbaud put it in letters dated two days apart in May 1871, “So much the worse for the wood that discovers it’s a violin” (to George Izambard, 13 May 1871) and “If brass wakes up a trumpet, it isn’t to blame” (to Paul Demeny, 15 May 1871, tr. Louise Varese, in a preface to her translation of Les Illuminations).

I found myself miserably despondent when I returned from Seattle and the Green Lake Library reading two weeks ago. The person who wandered about Seattle and read those poems to a small audience, the person who wrote those poems more than a few years ago, is distressingly distinct from the person whose life consists today in large part of being at the office doing what must be done to earn a living wage and recovering from being at the office doing what must be done to earn a living wage. The two cannot coexist. There are times I am almost paralyzed by the absence of hope or prospect that I will ever again write poems akin to the few that may almost pretty good.

The blog is a refusal, maybe an inability, to give up. Newfangled technology is put to rather old-fashioned use, publishing here what might once have been distributed in the form of pamphlet or broadside. Too much consists of rather pedestrian observation and commentary on politics and current affairs motivated part by sense of obligation to take a stand on issues of day and part because I have no other material at the moment. I harbor some hope that sccounts of encounters with books and films, writers and directors, make for more substantial and enjoyable fare. I go on in the spirit of an intellectual adventure I have not given up and hope that some spark of vision will be rekindled to flame anew.


A Little Poetry at Green Lake Library

The PoetsWest reading Saturday at Seattle’s Green Lake Branch Library was a delight. This was my third opportunity to participate in the series hosted by J. Glenn Evans, poet, novelist, historian, biographer, founder and director of PoetsWest, host and producer of a weekly program of poetry, music and interviews broadcast from KSER 90.7 FM in Everett, Washington. He is a lovely and gentle man whose spirit of generosity, openness, and respectfulness is the PoetsWest trademark.

I have Sharmagne Leland-St. John to thank for introducing me to PoetsWest in 2010 and 2011 when she invited me to join her at Green Lake stops on her Quill and Parchment reading tours. We all owe a debt of gratitude to people like Glenn and Sharmagne, Christopher Luna, poet laureate of Clark County, with his multiple ventures in the Vancouver, Washington area, and Curtis Whitecarroll, host and producer of Ink Noise Review in Portland, who provide venues and forums where poets such as I who fly below most radar may find an audience. What they put into these efforts on behalf of poets and others who care about poetry should not be underestimated and can never be too much appreciated.

Making new acquaintances is one of the nice aspects of participation in a reading where I knew no one beyond a passing acquaintance with the host and Barbara Evans, who recognized me when I walked into the Mary Cooley Reading Room. It is always nice to be remembered. The three readers with whom I shared the bill made up a diverse group, three quite distinctive poets, and of course rightly or wrongly, for good or ill, I tend to think of myself as sui generis. Poetry is our common ground.

A deep sense of humanity and social conscience shines through every poem by William Scott Galasso. As he read I thought of Ric Vrana, a poet and friend from Portland who now resides in Astoria, Oregon. They stand in a fine tradition of Pacific NW literary radicalism rooted in socialist principles tinged with anarchist sensibility, or perhaps it is anarchist principles tinged with socialist sensibility.

Athena Nation takes on topical themes, coming at them with a background in performance, comedy, and the slam scene that gives her poems a flavor distinct from those of William Scott Galasso, yet with a kindred sense of humanity and social conscience. As chance would have it, who but Athena should be seated on the bus I boarded to return downtown after the reading, she having gotten on at a stop nearer the library. We enjoyed a warm conversation almost as if we were old friends though we had just met on topics ranging from her neighborhood in West Seattle and Seattle neighborhoods generally to her eight-year-old son’s environmental awareness and as could expected poetry and our place in that world. When Athena got off the bus on 3rd Avenue at the stop before mine, I found myself thinking of Portland filmmaker and poet Lisa Wible, also a single mother and another altogether remarkable person. These women amaze me. They are mothers who provide for their children in every way and they are artists. I could not do what they do.

The final of the four featured readers was Naomi Tomlinson, a native of Oklahoma whose age I would put at 80-ish, give or take a year or several. She told of her great fortune as a young woman to meet and marry the love of her life. They enjoyed a lengthy and happy marriage until he passed away.  Some years after she met a short fellow, as she described him, who did not much impress her until he invited her to meet some of his friends. They made music. The short fellow sang and played guitar. Naomi fell in love. Her sense of extraordinary good fortune and gratitude for having found not one but two loves of her life runs through her poems. My voice quavered when I told her I was especially stuck by her poem about returning to the Oklahoma home where was she was born because it called up memories of a trip my brother and I took a few years back to Irmo to visit the place where we grew up, the place that will always be home. Whereupon Naomi told me my poems gave her chills. “I am just a country girl,” she said. “I could not believe I was here listening to these wonderful poems. Give me a hug.” We hugged and I said, “That short fellow is a lucky man.” She explained that he passed away, and she has only gratitude for what they had together. That short fellow was a lucky man.

We enjoyed one another’s poems, it may not go too far to say we were touched,  and each of us was well received by an audience made up of Glenn and Barbara, four poets who signed up for the open mic, and seven people who were pure audience, just there to listen. I believe we all walked away from the library into the misty Seattle night glad that we had come, feeling better than we did before.

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something to express…after some fashion…

In Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit Samuel Beckett speaks of an art “weary of its puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing.” Duthuit asks, “And preferring what?” Whereupon Beckett responds, “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” (James Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p. 336)

Where does this leave us if we take Beckett seriously? What is one doing, what does one think one is doing, what does one wish to be doing, when taking up the pen? Ah, taking up the pen, now there is a metaphor well along the road to anachronism. But that is fodder for another day.

Take a poem, a piece of music, a painting that sends the spirit soaring. Yes, there are such things. And yes, writing can mean something to us in ways that music and painting do not. What I have in mind here is not so much a theme or topic explored, a proposition advanced, argument, demonstration, conclusion, but rather how writing might be meaningful much as music and painting can be. I think of the well-known passage from the opening pages of On the Road, where Jack Kerouac waxes rhapsodic about the people who interest him:

…the mad ones, the ones who are mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” What did they call such young people in Goethe’s Germany?

That “Awww!” remains my response to this little bit of writing, one of the few that still touches me from a writer whose books I read and read again and again in my twenties. Writing can be meaningful irrespective of “nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express,” when it evokes that “Awww!” or melancholy or wonder or when it sends the spirit soaring.

When so much, some would have it everything, in the thinking of the present day is reduced to genomes and brain states, genetics and biochemistry, our grand notions of freedom, integrity, and honor, beauty, truth, and grace, and all their kin become no more than how things fall out in our brains from time to time. Our existence, our acts, desires, failings, loves. passions, heroic gestures have no more nor less meaning than do fireflies, the wind, clouds, stars, or the crashing of the sea upon the shore. We have no more to do with it than the carafe holding the wine has to do with the wine’s effect on us.

In the face of an indifferent universe and an existence subject to the irreconcilable twins contingency and necessity, we may nonetheless find ourselves profoundly touched by the likes of Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a certain Slant of light” or Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, when as Keats put, “in spite of all, / Some shape of beauty moves away the pall / From our dark spirits.” All there is to it is coming to be and passing away, in the blink of an eye. Maybe art helps us endure this truth in a way that is not quite illusion, even if I do not know what else it might be or what to call it. Maybe, too, art is a celebration of mystery, not least the mystery that we care, that things matter to us, and again turning to Keats in what strikes me now as a formulation to which Beckett might be amenable, “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason,” we go on.

So what do I think I am up to with this bit of writing and others that appear in this space? These are provisional reflections along the lines of Montaigne’s essais, attempts, tries. Among other things writing is a tool we use to explore our thoughts on a topic, gathering, questioning, pondering. I leave off today wondering if maybe there is after all something that gets expressed even if it cannot be nailed down. More anon. Ciao.

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