Saturday, September 27, 2008

Hail Poetry!

Let's first clear the air by going over the 4 stumbling blocks to truth:

The Four Stumbling Blocks to Truth
Attributed to Fr. Roger Bacon, by Don Tarquino, Baron Corvo:
No. 1 - The Influence of Fragile or Unworthy Authority
No. 2 - Custom
No. 3 - The Imperfection of Undisciplined Senses
No. 4 - Concealment of Ignorance by Ostentation of Seeming Wisdom

All four of these are probably at work both in my thought- and writing-processes, so beware. Beware also, however, the same four stumbling blocks at work in your own thought- and reading-processes. Please embark upon these pages with the suspicion that I am a person of good will and sincere in my queries and proposals. I am suspecting the same of anyone who gets this far down the page, and I wish you well. May all our suspicions be confirmed in time.

Having “Hail Poetry” for a title for this post assumes that someone who reads this knows the words to Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. Not likely. So, to explain: there is a bit during a confrontation between the Major General and the Pirate King after the Pirates are interrupted in their attempt to carry off and marry the Major General’s daughters. The Major General objects to Pirates as sons-in-law. The Pirates object to Major Generals as fathers-in-law, but are willing to set that aside.

Protesting against the characterization of their band as churlish bad guys, the Pirate King sings: “Although our dark career / Sometimes involves the crime of stealing, / We rather think that we’re / Not altogether void of feeling. / Although we live by strife, / We’re always sorry to begin it, / For what, we ask, is life / Without a touch of Poetry in it?”

Then all kneel and sing: “Hail, Poetry, thou heav’n-born maid! / Thou gildest e’en the pirate’s trade. / Hail, flowing fount of sentiment! / All hail! All hail! Divine emollient!”

So, Hail Poetry. What is life without a touch of it? These days it is just life. In G&S’s day the hail to Poetry was scathingly funny to the sophisticated audience. The music was as satirical as the words, mimicking and mocking Handel, the King’s pet composer. Yes, we are all too sophisticated these days for love and ponies and lyric melancholy.

Some issues for consideration.

- Has anything really new happened in the Arts of communication with words in the English language since 1945?

- Have the past hundred or so years of Western European literary culture been driven by embarrassment/anger over our own cultural failure?

- Are we decadent?

- Why don't you like poetry?
Is it because the only available options are (i) heartwarming crap; (ii) meandering prose broken up into short lines and published in the New Yorker; (iii) mystifying or stupid performance art; (iv) stuff not aimed at your particular demographic, which thus alienates you; (v) artsy word-games that are essentially just wanking; (vi) old-fashioned stuff that doesn't make sense in the 21st century; (vii) stuff that makes the educated elite feel less guilty or more awesome for being the educated elite; or (viii) TMI from people "expressing" themselves? OR
- Simply because it is not relevant to your interests?
- Because they made you read it in high school and high school sucked?
- Because nothing gold can stay?
- Because except for that one bit you had to memorize in high school that got you laid once or twice, poetry doesn't serve any useful purpose?
- Because that poetry-spouting bitch/jerk broke your heart?

- Does poetry today just need more tits and explosions? Just a little bit, maybe? Are tits and explosions the true poetry of our time?

PS- The obvious answer to one of the questions up there (anything new since 1945) is computers, but I don’t buy it. Poets and other artists were playing with computers and their potential in the creation of new forms of art back before WWII. Even random generation using mass-media (newspapers) started back in the 20s and before. What "computers" (the internet, more like) do for me is free me from a potentially depressing fixation on Emily Dickinson. Computers have changed distribution, but not enough, and not in the direction of really being something else completely. In part, I think, because there has not been enough recognition among the people who might enjoy a touch of poetry in their life and the people who could put it there.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The flesh is joyful and there is much to learn

Of course, still on the Barzun.

Here is a passage from page 623:

"The social motive for the aesthetes' retreat into art being clear, there remains the question, what motive made purity a second necessity? Mallarme gives the answer in his superb sonnet, written in clear language and entitled "Brise Marine" (Sea Breeze). The first line reads: "The flesh is sad and I have read all the books." The last six words tell us that the whole weight of past literature bears down on him and adds to his pre-existing sorrow. Exactly 100 years earlier Faust had said the same thing, also in the first line of his soliloquy--all the books are dust, not life. Each of the two utterances records the end of a cultural age, 1790 and 1890."

So here we are, and the end of another hundred something years we have spent (artistically at least) continuing to demolish what was already collapsing by the turn of the last century. It is not that long ago, really - my grandpa was born in 1898 - but Americans naturally believe one hundred years is a long time.

I want to find, to learn and to build. We are alive, with minds, with access to knowlege and each other. There are many in the world who do not have enough life and access- that is one of the challenges. Communication and exchange with people facing different challenges is one way to grow beyond what your own challenges have driven you to. So it is all there to be done, in mutually beneficial ways.

On a slightly different subject, something I chose not to twitter yesterday was along the lines of "Q: So is academia just a circle jerk then? A: No, but it is an especially ponderous form of asexual reproduction." I don't trust academia and I don't trust the Permanent Art Council, though without animosity.

They are fine - they do their things: product is produced, people get paid, conferences are held, lunch is done, the world turns. The creative people I keep track of in the course of my dowsing for civilization aren't interested in poetry and probably don't catch my drift, but they are the ones striking out, trying to figure out what a new direction might be. I am impatient to know how this will develop, not simply because of my own personal ticking clock but because there must be some very fun, very cool stuff to talk about, to learn, and to do.

[I just deleted the last paragraph. Nobody wants to hear about how they should be glad to be alive if they aren't already. It's your call.]

Monday, September 22, 2008

More on More More

Still re-reading Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence. It is a lot to take in. Scarfed Anathem in less than three days (granted, that did affect my productivity at work) and that is almost 100 pages longer. Maybe the font is smaller in Barzun’s book.

Regardless. This time around, I am finding the descriptions of Romanticism far more interesting than I did on the first read. I notice in particular M. Barzun’s evaluation of the movements that followed as siblings rather than successor descendants. That is, he describes Realism, Naturalism, and Symbolism as all aspects of Romanticism - which got me to thinking in terms of the big project being to reassemble everything we have done since 1800 or so back into one thing. Nice to think about, but it might require footnotes. Not my department. I need to get Megan on board with this stuff.

This morning as I sat in my car reading in the parking lot, I came across an interesting passage on page 513. The context is a discussion of how much stuff was produced in the 19th century.

"The enabling condition of the plethora was what one may term the 'cultural courage' of Romanticism. Its makers were not afraid of failure–nor of being foolish. They did not exercise caution to look acceptable, dignified, 'mature' or 'realistic.'"

Now, these days we don’t have any trouble with that. As an example I point to my regret that my computer circumstances prevent me from linking the word "plethora" to the scene in the Three Amigos regarding whether the bad guy has a plethora of pinatas. Given that we have no trouble with being foolish, should we confront instead a fear of looking acceptable, dignified, "mature" or "realistic?"

ps - Further thought on the "Official Verse Culture." My immediate concern with Charles Bernstein’s characterization and critique of official verse culture is that he was focusing on what the institution does - the taste exhibited and the poems selected. Why do we need to care? Why grant the institutions and the Permanent Art Council such relevance? Let them do whatever they feel like. It is their power and money to do with as they please. You don’t have to care.

This morning on the drive in I heard about how advertisers are paying to have products integrated into storylines on TV shows. Some are outraged. (A) How is this new? ("Drink More Ovaltine!"), (B) If it is done well, perhaps it will be less irritating than commercial breaks, and (C) I haven’t watched television, except for the Tour de France with my fella, in six months or so, and haven’t really missed it. If you don’t like the rules, play a different game. If there isn't a different game to play, start one.

pps - All hail Ze Frank for having a Twitter account devoted to tiny bedtime stories. I have a new hobby and an increased joy in life.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Maybe Looking at Things a Different Way

Randy says Charles Bernstein coined the term “Official Verse Culture” - which is an apt term. I have been thinking about that, together with Jacques Barzun’s descriptions of art’s perceived role in occidental society as it has developed over the past couple hundred years.

Let’s pretend there was an International Conference in, say, Brussels, in the late 18th Century. It was a secret conference, and we are pretending that Napoleon business was all going on somewhere else and nobody cared.

This was an International Conference for delegations from two loosely organized federations. One federation, the one with money or other resources, had delegates from various demographics: rich white women, self-made millionaires, hard-working middle-managers, shop-keepers, founders of charitable organizations, university administrators, politicians, producers of media, interior decorators, and religious groups. This was the “Consumer’s Delegation.” The other federation, the one without any money or other resources, had delegates from the different arts and crafts. This was the “Producer’s Delegation.”

After several days of panels, talks, presentations, and whatever the 17th C. equivalent of Powerpoint was (stereopticon?), a deal was hammered out. There have been tensions, and a few modifications, but that deal is still in place today. The producers of art have some rules to follow, some hoops to jump through, but if they follow the rules, they are categorized and stamped “approved” by one or another department of the Permanent Art Council. Once approved by the Permanent Art Council, the Consumer’s Delegation knows that the art product is whatever it has been approved as being - orderly production in categories for ease of distribution and just-in-time delivery. They may then hang it on the wall, read it, denounce it, review and recommend it, write letters complaining about it, get it included or excluded from the curriculum, and what have you. The art just fits right into society.

Unfortunately for both delegations, this is all a matter of institutions. Institutions exist, to a greater or lesser extent, in part solely to continue existing. At first, the Consumer’s Delegation thought they were making sure that everyone benefited from Art, kind of like adding iodine to salt or vitamin A to Milk - it is just a good thing, and people might get spiritual goiters without it. The Producer’s Delegation thought they were going to be able to afford food, and maybe become famous. But what was it that was so nutritious about art that these powerful Consumers were willing to deal? And how about the Producers? The Producer’s Delegation must have wanted to be the generators/ miners/ producers of something that makes life better for someone - even if it is just one person. [NOTE- many Producers over the past century or so have wanted instead to make people better and to perfect human society. I personally do not support that view.]

Whatever the Producers wanted then, what do we want now? What does artistic “success” mean in this regime? For many Producers, it has come to mean simply getting through the obstacle course laid out by the Permanent Art Council with as many points as possible, followed by (1) tragic death at an early age; (2) a contract with a multinational corporation; (3) a major motion picture; or (4) tenure.
There is a lot more to say about this stuff, but that is all I can manage right now.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

To Clarify Re Keywords

The list of keywords in the last post ended up reminding me of quarks, although "charm" is the only overlapping term. The charm I am thinking of has no particular connection to quarks, unless you are generalizing quite broadly about energy.

The term "generosity" was suggested by Julie Puttgen (though she might not know she suggested it). She was speaking of some installation exhibits and performance art that she was not enthusiastic about, and part of what she didn't like was the lack of generosity on the part of the artist. The artist/author/performer chooses how much welcome will be given to the viewer/audience. The viewer/audience has to walk into the door and take part or appreciate or simply access what is going on in the art - will you, as artist, let them? Are you, as artist, providing something that may be taken part in, appreciated, or accessed? Are you giving them something good? Something good for what ails them?

Although there is new medical thinking on actual shock treatment, I think that shock treatment of society through art is pretty played - and furthermore, the indiscriminate application of scientific metaphors to cultural issues is also pretty played. That is partly where "Humane-ness" comes in. Not prudish-ness, not sanctimoniousness, but humane-ness. Some artistic works raise the question- where does the supposedly salutary shock end and the sadism begin?

Side note- I am quite vehement against censorship. Freedom of speech and free exchange of ideas are big for me, although it is clear that people actually in charge of governments have some thinking to do on these issues at times. But I am not in charge of anything except me, and I want everyone else to speak freely so that I learn things and know who I want to talk to and who the a-h0les are. These keywords and considerations for art and culture are speculative, possibly and hopefully the beginning of a conversation of some kind.

More later, last for now. My own enjoyment and use of "Structure" in my creative work is not a personal endorsement of the new formalism, although I tend to stick to one form or another for a while in my poetry and I do like to rhyme. I like forms and constraints as tools for art, not as prerequisites for even being considered art. Assymetrical chopped up prose can be just as stultifying as endless couplets if it is simply a season pass that must be waved to be allowed in the poet door.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

No More New, Just More More

Let's relax a bit. Relinquish for a while the neo- and post- and anti- and de- and re-

OK - that last one would have us just linquishing, which I would be willing to go for but doesn't sound normal.

At the end of the new Neal Stephenson, a bunch of people have a thing they are doing. I am charmed and inspired by the way the name for the thing is left blank, for later individuals to fill in once they figure out and decide what has happened and what the name of the thing shall be. Even what the thing shall be. Charm and inspiration are a good start, and anything Neal Stephenson says that intersects with ideas I have been entertaining makes me feel smarter.

Although I still stand by my earlier efforts to assess and determine for myself what art is and what makes poetry poetry - i.e. - why write it? what does it do? - and I enjoyed coming up with a theory related thereto, I am not going to do the same for my next trick.

Next trick? Yes, that would be finding the seeds of literary culture and civilization that shall grow up out of the lovely mess we have now. Even if there are a few things left here and there to tear down, some ruins left still to be destroyed, there is only so much cud to chew here and we are bound to need another bite of something eventually.

The process must have already started, and we have no way of knowing what it will have been. But- don't you want to build something for your great-grandchildren to denounce? Contribute to civilization? Explore and expand the boundless depth and variety of life? Create joy and bring comfort to the bored or afflicted? Make something worth someone else rebelling against later?

I would like to do that. No telling why, when I am in fact a risk-averse, low energy, and introverted person and I really would not respond well or favorably to some large number of folks wanting to chat about this. Maybe a half dozen or so would be cool.

The key words I am currently pondering are these: Exploration; Humane-ness; Generosity; Joy; Beauty; Connection; Livliness; Charm; Vigor; Structure; Intention; Discipline

The motto is - Be serious without being serious.

Monday, September 15, 2008

An Assignment for Anyone

I am quite occupied with various real life tasks and still only just getting started on a very large collaboration with Julie Puttgen and Jim Carlson . I do not know how much will be posted here, because the priority is to get the various elements moved about and completed bit by bit among the three of us. Julie has completed a series of 24 paintings (several are up at her site now). I am writing a story that features each of the paintings and connects them in a single overarching narrative. Each chapter includes a song. Jim Carlson is composing incidental music for background and setting the song texts to melody and accompaniment. Julie will then take the completed text and music and animate the full story. In theory, at this early stage, the result will be (1) a dvd or download playable at home with the animation, me reading the story, and the music and songs all cued in, and (2) some kind of live performance in front of a video screen, with music and possibly live performers accompanying the reading of the text. This is going to take a while, but it is fantastically exciting.

Apparently, I can write narrative, as long as it is fantastical.

In the meantime, I am re-reading Jacques Barzun's "From Dawn to Decadence" and considering the end of Western Culture as it has waxed and waned over the past 500 years. What's next? I would like to be in on it, whatever it is.

I am in the middle of the section in which Mr. Barzun describes the various Utopia books of the 15th and 16th centuries. It reminded me of a thought I had the other day. Here is the assignment, if you should choose to accept it. The United States of America is a dead ringer for Plato's Republic. Yes or no? I think it might be, or at least it could be a provacative comparison.

So go to it, somebody. I think 1-4 people see this blog, and I have high hopes this assignment will appeal to somebody.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hey - Maximum Fun

My man Randy Prunty and I will be attending the MaxFun Con next June 12-14. It will be awesome. John Hodgman is Keynote Speaker. Some day I will get to buy Mr. Hodgman a beverage and tell him he does a good job at what he does, and that will be the second coolest thing I have done in my life.

(The most coolest thing I have done in my life is pretty damn cool, so I don't believe it is a slight to Mr. Hodgman to say "second" coolest.)

Hopefully, there will be people there who are interested in the more purely ART end of the creative spectrum, as opposed to the entertainment end. If there are such people there, I will be trying to meet them. Maybe I will attempt to become famous between now and then, so that interesting people will seek me out.