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
In this morning’s New York Times, Dwight Garner reviewed a pair of recent books concerning James Laughlin: a biography by Ian S. MacNiven, and a mammoth volume, edited by Peter Glassgold, of Laughlin’s Collected Poems.
Laughlin, you’ll remember, was the founder of New Directions Books. Ezra Pound, who’d been approached by a young Laughlin for artistic guidance, snorted that Laughlin would never be much of a poet, but that he should mobilize his real gift (vast inherited wealth) to do something more useful—namely, publishing the books of Ezra Pound.
The Laughlin family was in the steel business, a big enough deal to earn Woody Guthrie’s ire in his 1941 “Pittsburgh Town:”
Well, what did Jones & Laughlin steal? Pittsburgh.
Young James Laughlin, cowed by Pound’s dismissal of his poetic talent, did in fact follow Pound’s suggestion to found a publishing company, the landmark New Directions Books that brought Nabokov, Borges and Miller to American readers. So, no small accomplishment.
I had known this story, but I never knew the sequel. It wasn’t until I was browsing the shelves at the bookstore and saw his Collected Poems that I discovered that Laughlin had ever tried poetry again.
It didn’t take long, however, for me to discover that Laughlin is a remarkable lyric poet, and that this volume would become indispensable to me.
Take, for instance, “La Vita Nuova”:
Thanks to my Virtual-Reality headset
These few lines have everything: concision, clarity, relaxed musicality, wonder, restraint, and an unforced interplay between the commonplace and historical / literary. A Virtual-Reality headset (of all things) is taken seriously, on its own terms. I’m not sure it gets much better than that.
The Collected Poems is positively studded with gems like this.
It was disorienting, therefore, to read Dwight Garner’s verdict in the New York Times:
“The Collected Poems of James Laughlin” comprises some 1,250 of his poems, of which perhaps 8.2 are keepers. They are best read, as Peter Glassgold, the former editor in chief of New Directions, writes in his very good introduction, as Laughlin’s intellectual biography.
This disconnect gets me thinking about Pound, who committed that staggering pedagogical malpractice against Laughlin, the young, eager, vulnerable poet who idolized il miglior fabbro (“the better craftsman”, as Eliot dubbed him).
Maybe Pound has the intellectual authority here, and he and the NYT’s Garner are on the right track. Pound’s poetry produces that rich aroma of myth, gravity, permanence that bespeak authority and reflect his vast intellectual endowment. His prominence in twentieth century poetry is unmistakeable—the gatekeeper of taste responsible for bringing many superb poets (like Eliot himself) into print.
But ultimately, essentially, when the professors are out of earshot, when you’re being as honest with yourself as you are when judging a meal you’ve just eaten (i.e., “Was that very expensive cheese ‘complexly tart’—as advertised—, or simply foul?”), can one avoid the suggestion that Pound was more a psychiatric case study than an artist? Can one avoid the internal voice whispering that the decisive majority of Pound’s oeuvre is a stratospherically high-brow heap of nonsense, bluff and bullshit?
It takes the occasional discovery of a James Laughlin to remind me of the value of a poet who speaks to me, rather than in my general vicinity. I’d like to be able to give the young Laughlin a handshake, or a hug, and encourage him to keep at it.
If anyone is in the market for a ketubah, be informed that one of my designs is now available exclusively at Judaic Connection.
An article in this morning’s New York Times about the discovery of a First Folio at a library in France alerted me to the existence of a book called The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue.
Because I’m an obsessive madman, I love books like this, and, determined (however briefly) to forget some recent vows of austerity, set out to buy my very own copy.
But then I saw the price. Good grief.
This recalled my much deeper dismay upon discovering the price that Oxford University Press is asking for The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins—a poet I idolize.
Added together and converted to US Dollars, we’re talking $819.72. I could fantasize about splurging were the price $250. But when something hits the $800 mark (plus shipping, which can’t be negligible), we enter the outer suburbs of a Major Purchase, putting the Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins in the same general neighborhood as my laptop, rent and substantial car repair.
I’m not unaware of the usual explanations given for this sort of pricing, i.e. that books like this are meant for institutional libraries, not for eccentrics like me. (We see libraries nowadays as being roughly as relevant as horseshoes—and fund them accordingly. Why publishers should think themselves justified in gouging institutions in such an atmosphere deserves a full essay in itself.)
As someone who grew up in the Orthodox Jewish world, I have many fond memories involving books published by Artscroll--the publisher of Orthodox liturgy, law and exegesis.
Although I haven’t any inside information on their business model, I do know that: (a) Their books are printed and bound to withstand intensive use; (b) Their books contain a great deal of original scholarship, all of which is performed by folks who expect to be paid; (c) Their graphic design is not of the sort you can expect from cheap freelancers; and (d) Their sales are minuscule, all told.
And despite it all, there’s scarcely a single book in their catalogue that’s beyond the reach of a schmo like me. How can this be?
I’d be eager for Oxford University Press to find out.
The Rx I collected today from CVS came in this bag:
Perhaps there’s an inverse relationship between the decline of American manufacturing and the font size used under these circumstances.
[Bonus trivia: It was the father of Viennese journalist Karl Kraus (1874-1936) who played a pivotal role in the development and proliferation of the paper bag.]
President Obama, on the late Ben Bradlee:
For Benjamin Bradlee, journalism was more than a profession – it was a public good vital to our democracy. A true newspaperman, he transformed the Washington Post into one of the country’s finest newspapers, and with him at the helm, a growing army of reporters published the Pentagon Papers, exposed Watergate, and told stories that needed to be told – stories that helped us understand our world and one another a little bit better.
President Obama, on Edward Snowden:
“Given the fact of an open investigation, I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or motivations,” Obama said during a speech at the Justice Department. “Our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy.”
No comment necessary.