Even more than I love Robert Creeley’s poetry and writings, I love Creeley himself. He was a teacher, mentor and friend to me during my formative years at SUNY-Buffalo. So you’d think I’d have devoured The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley (2014) from cover to cover.
But I didn’t.
It wasn’t the content (ghastly word) that alienated me, but the platform (ghastlier word). The physical book is obnoxiously cumbersome to hold. It’s a two-handed operation simply to keep the thing open. And don’t try to keep it splayed with paperweights; the heavy covers will snap closed like a Venus fly-trap.
OK, it’s an expensive hardcover, a well-made object designed to be used, crafted expertly and simply for its purpose. So what you need to do is just force it open a few times, right? Nope. The spine cracks ominously, and pages begin falling out. Not only that, but the book never again closes properly.
With so much written on declining literary (and moral) standards in publishing, it’s baffling that almost no mention is ever made of the increasingly poor quality of the actual physical books that you hold in your hand. And to me, it’s down to bindings.
An expensive hardcover book with glued bindings is like a fine piece of meat served on Wonder Bread.
But they’re still expensive. Cases in point.
My Everyman’s Library edition of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: superb paper, linen covers…but glued binding.
The Library of America publishes a two-volume edition of Lincoln’s Speeches and Writings, printed with the degree of excellence one expects of the LOA. But a companion volume, The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now (available for free with the Speeches and Writings, and available independently for $32.00) is bound with glue.
Might this be explained by the fact that The Lincoln Anthology is “A Special Publication of” the LOA, rather than a full-blown part of the series? Nope, because The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard is also “A Special Publication of” the LOA, and features sewn binding.
Most dispiriting is a category of books I’ll call Mass-Market Deluxe Hardcovers (MMDH). These are typically works whose publication dates are heralded as events in the higher end of the middlebrow media. Often large-dimensioned, with deckle edges, beautiful illustrated covers, and heft, these books have every reason to actually be the objects of quality that their hype would suggest. Surely, the publishers wouldn’t try to get away with anything less, for these commercial darlings. But no.
I’m talking here about Nabokov’s Letters to Véra (Knopf), Stevie Smith’s All the Poems (New Directions), The Complete Works of Isaac Babel (W.W. Norton), and The David Foster Wallace Reader (Little, Brown). Glued bindings, all.
Not all pricey hardcovers have glued bindings these days. Dietrich von Hildebrand’s My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich (Image Books) has sewn bindings, yes, but such poor paper that it hardly seems worth the bother to sew them together. The Collected Poems of James Laughlin (New Directions) has sewn bindings, handsome linen covers, and…paper that looks stolen from my desktop printer.
Whenever you click “Add to Cart” on Amazon, you’re spinning the roulette wheel.
I have no difficulty conceding that it might seem silly to kvetch about such things at a time when the United States cascades into the sort of crisis that inspires any student of history to double-check that his passport is current.
But I disagree. It’s precisely at times like this that we scour our lives in search of durable things…things of transcendent value, things of quality and integrity, things that bind us to the invisible, timeless empire of thought.
And only the strongest binding will do.
Today, I made the sad discovery that Victor Doyno died on November 16, after decades of teaching and scholarship at my alma mater, SUNY-Buffalo.
Although I never got to know Prof. Doyno outside of the classroom, no man made so substantial an impact on my development as a teacher.
College English faculty tend to be a curmudgeonly bunch. When a professor befriends you, in my experience, it usually feels as though he’s somehow stepping out of character—that, while ornery on principle, he’s willing to make an exception in your case.
Not so for Prof. Doyno. Never has a mind been so cultivated, yet so quietly humane.
He’d playfully squirt a cheap water gun at anyone who fumbled a bit of Chaucer pronunciation.
During finals, Prof. Doyno would individually collect our finished exams, which were astonishingly thorough and arduous for the burgeoning scholar. With a warm handshake, he would say to each student, earnestly: “Congratulations on completing a very demanding exam. Do you feel as though I have been fair?”
I once had to miss his class to return home for Passover. Prof. Doyno not only allowed the absence, but he insisted that I not be placed at any disadvantage because of religious observance. He matter-of-factly made plans for me to visit his office upon my return, so that he might deliver his lecture to me personally.
Now, Prof. Doyno would recite a good deal of poetry to us (those 2.5-hour classes left plenty of time for it), and would often cry if he came upon a particularly affecting bit.
Sitting in his tiny, book-stuffed office, mano e mano, he prefaced a particular Shakespeare sonnet by announcing that it was a favorite of his much-loved grandfather, who derived considerable strength from it during his final illness.
Of course, I was slightly horrified as his lower lip began to quiver. And tears don’t necessarily indicate either virtue or depth of feeling—were it otherwise, The Jerry Springer Show would be Plato’s Academy.
Nevertheless, it would dawn on me over the next few years, as I myself became a teacher, that Prof. Doyno was revealing a particular sort of sensitivity that seldom coexists with world-class erudition. When it does, however, you’ve got a teacher uniquely equipped to communicate the full reality of literature.
Requiescat in pace.
When Israeli guitar virtuoso Yosi Piamenta played SUNY-Buffalo in the late 90s, I was keen to meet him. Knowing of his nicotine habit (I’d seen him puffing away during long sets at the Wetlands Preserve in Manhattan), I was sure I’d be able to find him during the intermission smoking by one of the stage doors.
By the time I found him (sure enough), a nervous, clipboard-wielding stagehand was already pestering “the Sephardic Santana” to get back inside. We could only make a bit of small talk before Piamenta shook his head, extinguished his unfiltered Players, and said:
“Only two puffs! Not enough time.”
I found myself recalling this pleasant meeting upon learning recently of his death, aged 64, and not just because those of those cigarettes, which played a part in his demise.
Yosi Piamenta’s achievement is honest, organic originality, which to my mind is the gold standard among creative artists of all media. The product of a secular Sephardic family with deep roots in Jerusalem, he used Arabic oud techniques on the electric guitar to reinterpret the canon of Ashkenazi devotional music, ending up with something of equal interest to Hasidim (who have a complex relationship with Sephardim, Arabic oud techniques and electric guitars) and urban hipsters.
The whole brew becomes even more piquant with the touch of jazz, and hint of Hendrix, that made the whole thing work. Indeed, it was as a jazz musician that Piamenta received, from Stan Getz, his first invitation to the U.S. in the 70s.
There’s something about great art that’s disorienting, and sometimes feels slightly preposterous. Recall that terrific moment during Robin Williams’ iconic appearance on Inside the Actors Studio when host James Lipton, gasping at his guest’s performance, says: “What the hell is going on?”
Here’s Williams, delivering jokes that share none of the defining characteristics of jokes, but manage to be so much funnier than jokes—funny to the point of being somehow violent. Nobody knows quite what they’re laughing at.
Think of Beethoven, Borges, Burroughs, El Greco, Roscoe Holcomb, Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Marx Brothers, Thelonious Monk, Vladimir Nabokov, David Foster Wallace. They’re all radically disorienting. There’s a certain sort of organic surrealism that’s a hallmark of all superior art.
Piamenta demonstrated this surrealism often and exuberantly. In the Village Voice back in 1994, Richard Gehr recalls watching Piamenta play, and wondering: “What was going on?”
With an unfiltered Players usually clasped between its fourth and fifth digits, [his] paw seemed to strum the strings like a rhythm guitarist, yet wildly spiraling Arabic melodies spun up and away out of all visual relationship—screwed-tight Oriental outbursts punctuated by distant echoes of the electric-guitar pantheon, from Clapton to Zappa to Mahavishnu John.
One senses there would have been so much more.
“Only two puffs! Not enough time.”
Review: Pisgah Rambler (11-inch rim / Dobson tone-ring / maple neck)
The sound is bright and raw, with plenty of that deep, liquid plunk that’s so nutritious to the Old Time connoisseur. The fifth string, however, produced some harsh overtones, which were addressed by my neighborhood luthier without much ado.
I was experiencing some vague, elusive frustration with the general sound profile until I discovered that I was playing much too aggressively. Once I lightened my touch a bit, the remarkably full range of the Rambler could express itself.
Notwithstanding the overtones mentioned above, the setup is very good. My playing style, however, required that I make some adjustments to sedate a certain part of the higher-end spectrum. I put in a Stockwell moon bridge (11/14”, medium weight) and a Fiberskyn head.
All of Pisgah’s instruments are basic without feeling no-frills. Many of their competitors produce banjos that look so warmly regal, fragrant, smoky and perfect (the banjo equivalent of a single-malt whiskey) that they’re a little intimidating. The Pisgah Rambler is the sort of instrument you feel much more comfortable cultivating a long, relaxed rapport with. There’s something about the maple Dobson-style heel that feels vaguely like a human limb once it’s been warmed by use.
The Rambler takes Pisgah’s aesthetic signature (you can spot a Pisgah banjo at a hundred yards), and gracefully enlarges it. The 11-inch spun-over pot feels compact and taut, nicely counterbalancing the gently buxom excess of the neck.
In a community suffering no shortage of very nice guys, Patrick Heavner manages to stand out as a very, very nice guy. He’s generous with his expertise, and responds to email with almost eerie speed.
My only concern regards the tension-hoop: although it’s beveled, the hooks seem made for notches. This prevents the general fit from being absolutely perfect. If asked for input, I’d recommend that the hooks be matched to the hoop with much greater particularity.
An artist struggles not just for competence, but also for a distinctive voice. It’s one thing for a musician to achieve this. But for a luthier to do so requires an entirely different order of ability. In my experience (I’m on my second Pisgah), these banjos materialize from a vision that’s spare and intelligent—a vision whose verve, boldness and dynamism can only emerge from a thorough, comfortable relationship with the past.
This note from the Jewish National Fund arrived in my inbox this morning:
Nearly 62% of American families include a pet – that’s about 176 million dogs and cats - and some at JNF shared their favorite pets above.
OK, OK. Just where is this headed, exactly?
While pets can come in all different shapes, sizes and forms, the common denominator is that our pets offer us true unconditional love. Unfortunately their lives are far shorter than our own, forcing us to say goodbye too early and to experience great sadness.
The Circle of Life—yes, yes. Roger that.
But what, pray tell, does this have to do with the JNF, whose raison d'être is to manipulate my guilt glands in ways that might yield a donation?
I remember a time when people didn’t feel comfortable mourning an animal the same way as a person. But, today it is becoming more and more common to share your loss, to be sad, to miss and, yes, to mourn the friends who brought so much joy, warmth and comfort to your family.
Do you hear something ominous in the distance?
At Jewish National Fund, we are recognized as the tree organization. Often our tree plantings mark times of celebration and sorrow. Last year I traveled to Israel with friends and family to celebrate my 50th birthday.
Are you really going where I think (no, fear) you're going? Does enough chutzpah exist in the world?
No, no. I'm expecting the worst. How ungenerous of me. What came over me? Good heavens.
We also marked my simcha by memorializing our late dogs, Samson, Zach and Lucy. Yes, you read it right; we decided to plant a grove of 1,000 trees in memory of our beloved animals. For every person who thought us odd, 10 more cheered us on and loved the idea.
And now for the fundraising money shot (in more ways than one)--la petite mort, if you will. Wait for it, wait for it…
As we mark National Dog Day [emphasis in original] I share with you this idea of memorializing your pet, or your friend’s pet by planting trees. This is a wonderful way to acknowledge a real relationship, express your feeling, and help the Land of Israel.
No further comment.
Banjoist Jimmy Costa is a practitioner of a style that’s sadly receded from the old time scene—or rather, a particular synthesis of styles engineered by Uncle Dave Macon (1870-1952). It’s a miscellany of rugged, functional clawhammer and raw two-finger. Primitive, but cut with a mannered, vaguely Victorian delicacy.
Costa never lets his virtuosity obscure the elemental fact of the pre-war old-time idiom: this is party music.
I first heard Costa jamming in Fayette County, WV, at the famous Clifftop festival back in 2012. The experience was revelatory. It was my first visit to the banjo heartland, and I’d been hearing a lot of boutique open-backs played with perfect sensitivity and precision. The sound began to cloy, even while making my jaw slacken in envy.
But then, walking past the Chestnut Lodge, I heard—how to describe it?—a gleaming rattle, the buckle of an old belt. The music smelled like a hardware store or a suntan.
It was like being handed a shot of corn liquor three hours into a wine-tasting.
Although “success” in the old-time music scene is a slippery phenomenon to define, Jimmy Costa deserves it at least as much as Adam Hurt or Bob Carlin.
It’s a shame that Costa doesn’t have an extensive discography. He’s a walking encyclopedia of Appalachian heritage, an insightful folk scholar of Uncle Dave Macon and early country music, a singular musician, an engaging vocalist, and someone who deserves an audience.
I fall perfectly within that age demographic that enjoyed its adolescent idyll at a very good time for adolescent idylls. The economy seemed robust. Parents who wheezed about self-discipline, dreaming ambitiously and the connection between effort and outcome seemed merely annoying, rather than delusional. Dissipation offered the dignity of something that’s chosen.
This is the world that produced Kevin Smith’s early masterpieces.
Most people didn’t have cell phones. We didn’t expect much of the Internet. We unselfconsciously wrote letters to friends, and bought a dozen Aerograms before travelling abroad.
Although school bullies beat us up and stole our books, they wouldn’t ever have considered hounding us to the point of suicide.
America wasn’t at war. What's That I Hear? The Songs of Phil Ochs (1998) needed to include an essay in the liner notes arguing (a bit feebly, I thought at the time) for Ochs’ continued relevance.
In the East Coast Jewish neighborhoods where we lived, we looked east and saw Israel on the apparent verge of comprehensive peace.
A Seinfeld episode called “The Race” (1994) was about the revolutionary communist Elaine was dating. He was a figure of fun because he was pissed off in a world apparently devoid of anything to be pissed off about.
This is the environment that produces the Dave Matthews Band. Coming into its own in the mid-90s, the DMB represents 60’s-style hedonism, but without any of the urgency or social concern of the Woodstock generation.
There’s nothing to give the songs substance. The lyrics aren’t quite risible, but…I hesitate to say “mediocre”. They’re quite literally pointless, but not in the same way as corporate pop is pointless.
Then I look up at the sky.
It isn’t vacuity as a marketing strategy, but rather, as the honest consequence of having nothing whatsoever to say.
And isn’t this the Arcadian ideal?
It’s useless trying to argue that DMB (or any band) is “good”. But it’s necessary to defend them against the libelous snort they they’re like Vanilla Ice or the “Gangnam Style” guy. DMB isn’t a social phenomenon we should feel bullied into apologizing for.
With that established, let’s all don our Tevas, cargo shorts and hemp necklaces, make sure we have an extra pack of Camel Wides, pile into mom’s Volvo, and let the night begin.
Here are the blurbs on the dust jacket of Philip Lamantia’s (almost ridiculously good) Collected Poems:
“Philip Lamantia’s ‘Collected Poetry’ is beyond scale, weight, or measure. There is no proportion in this intertwining of soul-buildings. These are the inexorable and ineffable projects of an inspired consciousness set at full tilt in raging protest, kisses, prayers, blessings and outraged demands. All from the deepest silence and farthest travel. The reader’s excitement is carried by Lamantia’s spiritual and physical beat. This surreal and mantic project drives farther than anything before or after. Breathtaking! These works are of synesthetic beauty to the eye, the ear, and the open interior of the heart. They come from the peaks and herbs and forests where the meadowlark speaks.” —Michael McClure
Why do Beat writers insist on this kind of prose? Only Tom Clark restrains himself:
"Philip Lamantia's poems are about rapture as a condition. They are spiritual and erotic at the same time. Bright and dark, the enclosed polarities of devotion. St. Teresa and Rimbaud."—Tom Clark, author of Light & Shade: New and Selected Poems