Current Conditions, Fall Walk on Mount Tabor

For this Fall walk on Mount Tabor, I took the same paths, photographing the same trees and views, as I did on a walk in Spring of last year.

This week’s Rolling Stone magazine sports a good psych-brain article on the difference between fear and anxiety. One difference is that fear appears to be a kind of GPS (Global Positioning System), constantly mapping our current conditions, while anxiety plays out what we’re thinking might happen to us at some point in the future. The angle of the RS article is the effect of so-called fear manipulation infusing the current election campaigns and resulting media coverage.

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too…

Bob Dylan, “All Along the Watchtower

But I’m not always sure what comes first, the campaign or the media coverage, Dylan’s thief or his joker. It’s not fear but anxiety that’s being manipulated. Fear is immediate, warning and response: take cover; not here, not now, not me; play dead; run for the hills. The problem with anxiety is there is no response, only a warning. We’re incapacitated, not with fear, but with not knowing which way to turn. Fear draws a map; anxiety is a riptide we can feel but can’t see, “no direction home.”

Fall suggests to some only a warning winter is coming. Anxiety prevents us from feeling the truth of our current conditions. That is why in literature, Winter is the season of irony and satire, Fall the season of tragedy (Summer of romance, Spring of comedy). And our current conditions usually change slowly. Yes, the leaves are changing color and falling and Winter is icummen in, but an endless summer is impossible; it will take time to finish the new novel – I’m thinking Spring, 2017, before another book launch, but I’m not anxious about it, and certainly not afraid of it. When I’m writing, I feel no anxiety, like a walk in the park in Fall.

Anti-anti-anti: The Deviancy of Poetry

Pocket Poet BooksThe most deviant of poets stops writing poetry, like Rimbaud, or tries to change the game, like Nicanor Parra, whose “Anti-poems” must contain the seeds of their own destruction. If poetry is already anti-language, what is an anti-poem? Deviant < Latin: “a turning out of the way.” To turn away from, as great musicians may turn away from their instruments once they feel the deviancy they introduced has been assimilated. What is assimilated is no longer anti-anything, doesn’t sound new anymore, or has become such a part of the din it has lost its resonance.

Another David Biespiel argument afoot, stirring up a postmodern poetry desert storm, right around Dylan’s 30 minute MusiCares Person of the Year acceptance speech, in which Bob explains to his critics how some do it and others may not. “But you’d better hurry up and choose which of those links you want before they all disappear.”

Poets see something the rest of us may see but call it something else. This is deviant behavior, the web of a spider on hallucinogens, but why must it also be someone’s head aflame in the fall?

We might look forward to an anti-essay, an anti-novel, an anti-comics. The ultimate anti-work can’t be read by anyone, including its author. It’s born a mystery.

Intro. to Fragments: Journals claiming they are open to all forms of poetry, but follow with, but make sure you read us to see that you fit. Fit what? Can’t deviate from deviancy, what use is it? Well, but as a group, deviating from all this other stuff. What other stuff? Other forms? Other voices, other rooms. What room? You know, the one “where the women come and go, Talking of Michelangelo.”

In grammar school, the Sisters of Mercy taught us to syllabicate antidisestablishmentarianism. At the time, we thought it the longest word in English, and we learned to say it, touch it, feel it, but no one knew what it meant. There was no Wiki where we could look it up. On a dare, Laurel Hurst stole a glance at Sister Maryquill’s desktop dictionary. He returned, his knuckles raw from a ruler, and rumored it all came down to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. By high school, Laurel would become an anti-disestablishmentprotestpoet, haunted by the postmodern “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Deluxe words. I’ll take a chocolate malt, fries in a basket, and a cheesepoem deluxe.

Since a reasonable reader’s expectation or assumption is that any given poem may confound, confuse, or obfuscate, referencing some arcane or esoteric or privileged knowledge or experience about how words or ideas work, any given poem that does not do these things might look like anti-fit to a poetry critic, but will it be an anti-poem? What would an anti-poem look like? A poem that aspires to middle class respectability will like water seek its own level. Poetry needs the middle class, but the middle class does not need poetry. If it did, we’d see Poetry next to People at the drugstore checkout stand. But we get our poetry where we find it: Fishwrap.

What would an anti-essay read like? What would an anti-photograph look like? Or an anti-speech sound like? Is the anti-form always mistaken for satire or cartoon? Aesthetic standards of the neighborhood. The propaganda of advertising. Deceitful come-ons. Pathos. What’s the point of saying something virtually everyone will agree with? Those churches are empty most of the time. Who moved my assumption?

Consider Queen Mob’s TeaHouse, where you can read movie reviews by reviewers who have not seen the movie; this is theory uncrated from the academy, both feet off the ground. Alt, alt, mea maxima alt. Eliot: “…like a patient etherized….” Toto, I don’t think we’re in the Victorian Age anymore. Irony, satire, and sarcasm tools of the modernist trade. What’s the difference between an idea and ideology?

Biespiel in his post-rant and Dylan in his address are saying something similar when it comes to a moral evaluation of the use of language as art. Dylan sums it up with the quote he references from Sam Cooke:

“Sam Cooke [Dylan said] said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, ‘Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.’ Think about that the next time you [inaudible].”

The Toads Transfigured at berfrois!

The Toads post on the latest Rolling Stone Dylan interview, in which we blended Dylan’s discussion of transfiguration with Clarice Lispector’s in Aqua Viva, has been picked up and reposted at berfroisCheck it out!

Bob Dylan & Clarice Lispector: Bewildering, Transfigured, & Redeemed

Perhaps no star’s luminosity glows murkier than Dylan’s in his interviews. Louis Menand, in “Bob on Bob: Dylan Talks” (New Yorker, 4 Sep 2006), a review of Jonathan Cott’s Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, comments on the absurdity of taking any Dylan interview as a gospel light. Menand opens by comparing Dylan’s interviews to Elvis’s, “who was one of the all-time worst.” Dylan is slightly better than Elvis in an interview, Menand argues, where the King’s sole imperative was to not offend, but Dylan “is rarely concerned about sounding polite, and he says things, but he sometimes makes them up. He also contradicts himself, answers questions with questions, rambles, gets hostile, goes laconic, and generally bewilders.” Dylan’s latest interview in Rolling Stone (Issue # 1166, 27 Sep 2012) does all of that and more.

The most bewildering discussion in this latest interview, ably conducted by Mikal Gilmore, is Dylan on transfiguration. Does he mean transmigration? He says not. He says he got the idea in a book in Rome, and advises to ask the Catholics. Yes, they would know, having written the book. Joyce’s Molly asks Bloom:

—Show here, she said. I put a mark in it. There’s a word I wanted to ask you.
She swallowed a draught of tea from her cup held by nothandle and, having wiped her fingertips smartly on the blanket, began to search the text with the hairpin till she reached the word.
—Met him what? he asked.
—Here, she said. What does that mean?
He leaned downward and read near her polished thumbnail.
—Metempsychosis?
—Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?
—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.
—O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words. (Ulysses, “Calypso” Chapter)

But Dylan says he’s trying to explain something that can’t be explained. He asks for some help. I recalled John Fahey’s 1965 The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death. Is Dylan talking about being reborn? Surely Dylan is familiar with the great guitarist John Fahey.

And this week, reading Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva, first published in 1973 but recently transfigured by New Directions, and guess what appears – transfiguration: “No, all this isn’t happening in real facts but in the domain of – of an art? yes, of an artifice through which a most delicate reality arises which comes to exist in me: the transfiguration happened to me…I transfigure reality and then another dreaming and sleepwalking reality, creates me” (13:16).

Dylan: “Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving” (46).

But, “I don’t question myself about my motives,” Lispector says. “I am obscure to myself…I let myself happen” (17). Which is freedom: “Only a few people chosen by the inevitability of chance have tasted the aloof and delicate freedom of life. It’s like knowing how to arrange flowers in a vase: almost useless knowledge. The fleeting freedom of life must never be forgotten: it should be present like a fragrance” (62).

On the “only a few,” Dylan seems to agree: “I’m not like you, am I? I’m not like him, either. I’m not like too many others. I’m only like another person who’s been transfigured. How many people like that or like me do you know?” (46). Yet Lispector says, “All lives are heroic lives” (59).

And Bloom continues to explain to Molly: “—Metempsychosis, he said, is what the ancient Greeks called it. They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance. What they called nymphs, for example.” But this begins to sound more like transmogrification.

In places, Lispector sounds like Dylan in an interview: “I don’t want to ask why, you can always ask why and always get no answer…What I say to you is never what I say to you but something else instead” (8).

But both Dylan and Lispector can strike a point like sinking the nine ball. When asked if performing live is fulfilling, Dylan replies, “No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn’t been redeemed” (48). And Lispector describes her job as looking after the world: “Looking after the world also demands a lot of patience: I have to wait for the day when an ant turns up” (55).

Dylan’s discussion of being transfigured reads less bewilderingly if read figuratively. His old self no longer exists. Look homeward, angel, but the transfigured can’t go home again. But enough for now. More on Clarice Lispector and Agua Viva soon, but for now, why worry the weary worry why?

Related Posts: Honor and Shame: Born Again Off Maggie’s Farm
We Ain’t Gonna Wait in Maggie’s Line No More

Hootenanny Revisited: Photo Essay of Old Songbooks

“As Woody Guthrie advised those who heard and sang his Songs to Grow On, ‘Now I don’t want to see you use these songs to divide nor split your family all apart. I mean, don’t just buy this book and take it home and keep it to yourself. Get your whole family into the fun. Get papa. Get mama. Get brother. Get sister. Get aunty… The friends. The neighbors. Everybody.'” Mose Asch quoting Woody is found in Asch’s “Foreword” to Pete Seeger’s “American Favorite Ballads: Tunes and Songs as Sung by Pete Seeger.” Moses said, “It was not until after World War II that young people in all walks of life and all parts of the United States made use of this folk music tradition and adapted it to their way of expressing their feelings and of tying up the past to their future…Now it is up to the children and grandchildren to take it from here.”  But that was 1961, and those children now have children and grandchildren of their own.

Oak Publications put out all kinds of folk music books in the 1960’s. Ramblin’ Boy and other songs by Tom Paxton was one of the best. My copy, well worn with taped binding, is a second printing of the book first published in 1965.

Says Tom in his “Introduction,” “I have a habit – the habit of sitting in Joe’s on West Fourth Street or the kitchen of the Gaslight…trying to carry on the work that Woody began.” 2012 is Woody Guthrie’s centenary.

Paxton, in his intro., wonders if the songs he’s written are folk songs. He says, “…it takes years to know for sure.”

A guy by the name of Jerry Silverman put together several instruction books. The Folksinger’s Guitar Guide came out in 1962, and was followed by The Art of the Folk-Blues Guitar in 1964. These books contain chord diagrams; traditional music notation and tablature; lyrics; photographs of players and scenes; and comments on the songs and how they might be played.

Happy Traum was another instruction book anthologist and player. His The Blues Bag came out in 1968, and remains an outstanding introduction to blues guitar song playing: includes lyrics, tab and classical notation, study notes, photographs, and additional resources information.

By far the most curious song book in my collection is Dylan: Words to His Songs. There is no publisher named, no price. It appears to be a bootleg project. Here is what the introduction page says, completely: in the upper left hand corner, “november 1971”; then, centered: “this book has no pretentions [sic] but to offer you the words to dylan’s songs including the ones released on his albums, singles and broadside recordings and a gathering of songs released on the white records: daddy rolling stone, great white wonder and little white wonder. you will find an alphabetical index in the back of the book”; and in the bottom left hand corner: “illustrated by holy cat.” The book is organized by chapters corresponding to Dylan’s albums, beginning with “march 1962 bob dylan,” and ending with “nov. 1970 new morning,” but that is followed by pages marked “broadside,” “singles,” and “other recordings.” The book is 79 pages in length, and 8 & 1/2 by 11 in size. The text is set in basic, pica-like, manual typewriter font. For years, my copy travelled with my old ES neighbor and friend Jon, but it’s been back home for awhile now. It’s falling apart, the pages falling out, songs spilling out, the way I think Woody would have enjoyed.

For anyone planning a hootenanny or a hoedown, a few songs from any of these books might play and sing happily well. Be sure you invite the children and the grandchildren.

Related Post: Schopenhauer’s Blues; or, On Jazz & Folk Music, from Hoedown to Hootenanny: A Happening Post

On hasty writing and reading

I was struck by Louis Menand’s comment in his review of Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite (New Yorker, July 9 & 16, 2012), that “…’Cronkite’ (HarperCollins), is long and hastily written… (88).” I wasn’t surprised, though, for US culture is Menand’s turf, and his own output, if the measurement means anything, is dwarfed by Brinkley’s in a ratio of about 4:1. Voluminous output doesn’t prove haste. Some writers are long distance runners. But after two decades of churning out a book a year, one’s writing might start to limp. Journalism with daily deadlines often produces its own unique values.

Occasionally, I read something I think might have been hastily written. Hasty writing might result in a piece that is inaccurate, sloppy, shallow, or simply difficult to read. Hasty sounds short, but hasty writing might be too long or too short. I recently started Sean Wilentz’s “Bob Dylan in America” (DoubleDay, 2010). On page 32, we are told that Bob’s father, Abe, “had a good job working as a senior manager for the Standard Oil Company, and he ran the company union.” But then, in the very next paragraph, we are told that as Bob’s father “…was in the appliance business, his family became the first in town to own a television, in 1952.” What happened to the “good job” with Standard Oil? And how is it that a corporate manager ran the employee union? But I don’t think Wilentz’s book was hastily written, necessarily. The problem is hinted at in his rambling introduction, where he tries to explain the difficulty and danger inherent in writing a history so vast one risks falling into encyclopedic mode.

Janet Groth’s “The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker” (Algonquin, 2012) is a lovely book, and, I suspect, not hastily written, but, again, some writers have a talent for producing smooth running prose that runs for miles and miles without a bump or the need for a rest stop. Janet’s chapter on Joe Mitchell is a comment on haste, for Mitchell seems to have rolled to a complete stop, and for a couple of decades lingered on the side of the road, unwilling to succumb to haste just to get a word out. But enough of that metaphor. The language of “The Receptionist” I suspect is labored over to produce a period sound, a sound that doesn’t always strike my ear as natural, but that language seems appropriate to the era and the subject, and provides a stunning canvas for the memoirist’s vitalic paints.

The blog, as a mode, is a hothouse for hasty writing. I note this particularly in some of the academic blogs I follow, where the language is not so much written but talked into the post, talked in a rambling, lecture-like way, and the posts are almost always too long. These are writers who never had to write for a living, nor consider a general interest audience.

A non-academic and enjoyable blog I’ve been following, titled “The Literary Man” (and associated, obscurely, apparently, since it’s an anonymous blog – and I don’t usually follow the anonymous or pseudonymous, since it’s difficult enough discerning what’s really going on even when one knows the writer – with The New Yorker; and I wonder what Janet would think of the blog’s title, considering her 40 or so male writers on the 18th floor to the 6 or so female), recently posted a kind of poster-post titled “What’s a book hangover?” A book hangover, the post tells us, is the ache produced when looking up to find one has finished reading the book one was so into, suddenly caste adrift back in the real world.

Being “into” a book is a good feeling. Perhaps that’s why I keep so many going at once, in no haste to finish any of them.

Where we go from Greil Marcus to Humpty Dumpty

I bought two books at the Rose City Used Book Fair last Saturday, the Li Po of the previous post, and “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘N’ Roll Music,” by Greil Marcus (1975). The Marcus is a first edition hardback in excellent condition, though it’s apparently not worth much to a book collector; I paid $5 for it. In his “Author’s Note,” Marcus says he felt an affinity for history writers who felt through their work that they belonged to a part of the struggle they wrote about, even if that struggle was long past. “Mystery Train,” Marcus says, was written from “the fall of 1972” to “the summer of 1974,” a time when the struggles of the past merged with the struggles of the present. I’ve not read it, but I’m putting it on the top of the stack. I don’t know why I didn’t read it at the time it came out. I suppose because at the time I was struggling with a few other writers, and, like Dylan said, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” (“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” 1965).

I have read Marcus, though. I liked his “Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads” (2005), 225 pages on a single song written and recorded by Dylan in 1965. The song is on the “Highway 61 Revisited Album,” which I listen to almost every day if I’m out in the Ford, since it’s usually the only tape in the car. “Once upon a time,” the song begins, and you know you’re in for a story, and the rimshot gets your attention. Dylan said, though I can’t remember where, either in “Chronicles” or in the 60 Minutes Interview, it might have been, something like, that guy [Marcus] went a little far. Sure he did; that’s what’s so great about Greil Marcus.

I’ve also enjoyed Marcus’s “Real Life Rock Top Ten: A Monthly Column of Everyday Culture and Found Objects,” his Believer magazine article that began, according to Marcus in a Powell’s interview (2006), in The Village Voice “around ’86.” It moved from Salon.com to The Believer, I believe, in 2008. Anyway, I started reading it regularly in The Believer at some point, though I confess I don’t always get the contemporary references (“You never understood that it ain’t no good, you shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you…,” Dylan again).

I like the way Marcus blends culture and music, and though he probably doesn’t think about it as literature, he might be a kind of contemporary American Roland Barthes. He certainly does not think of rock lyrics as literature. In a 2002 “Online Exchange with Greil Marcus” at RockCritics.com, Marcus had this to say about his “approach”:

“You’re right about my approach, which is a matter of affinities – what I’m drawn to – and learning to follow affinities where they lead – in other words, to trust your affinities. I have no background in poetics. The difference between poetry and ‘rock lyricism’ – if by that you mean song lyrics – is obvious and complete: except for people who think they are poets, like Paul Simon, lyrics are meant to be sung, come to life when they are performed, take their weight and muscle and ability to move from music, and true songwriters understand this. They understand that the most intricate allusive subtleties will be lost in performance, superseded by another quality altogether, and that the most impenetrable banalities can reveal infinite possibilities of thought and emotion when sung. In this sense I think the best songwriters are less afraid of words than poets can afford to be.”

In the film version of Roddy Doyle’s “The Commitments” (1987), in a scene not in the book, Jimmy, who frequently fantasizes success by interviewing himself, toward the end of the film, has his fantasy interviewer ask him what he’s learned from his time as manager of the rock band The Commitments, and he replies with a quote from Procul Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” When asked what the lyrics mean, the particular sticking point, according to a BBC analysis, being “the light fandango,” Jimmy responds, “I’m fucked if I know” (the film faithfully captures the flood of F words that fills and overflows the pages of the book).

Words have meaning, too much meaning, suggested Lewis Carroll. Indeed, one should not let another get one’s kicks for one, which is to say one should follow one’s own affinities. Just so, whenever I come across lyrics or poems I can’t seem to get, even after giving them the old college try, I think of Humpty Dumpty’s conversation with Alice about the meaning of things.

“I can explain all the poems that were ever invented – and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet,” Humpty says, and he helps Alice unpack the portmanteau words in “Jabberwocky.” Then later, Humpty offers this:

“‘The piece I’m going to repeat,’ he went on without noticing her remark,’ was written entirely for your amusement.’ Alice felt that in that case she really ought to listen to it, so she sat down, and said `Thank you’ rather sadly. `In winter, when the fields are white, I sing this song for your delight – only I don’t sing it,’ he added, as an explanation. `I see you don’t,’ said Alice. `If you can see whether I’m singing or not, you’ve sharper eyes than most.’ Humpty Dumpty remarked severely. Alice was silent.”