Poetry Wednesday: The Ginsberg Problem

Ginsberg isn’t a great poet. He’s arguably a good poet. But the one thing he certainly must be considered- he is an important poet. He’s a knowledgeable, fascinating poet. And he’s a symptom of what happens when pop culture and poetry meet.

Poetry never lives comfortably in the spotlight. In modern times at least, poetry is best left to the edges of the literary world. Academic poets are stuffy and clueless. Popular poets are dull and obvious. Rod Mckuen just died. He was extremely popular, and by all accounts a wonderful and thoughtful person. But he wasn’t a good poet. T.S. Eliot had a brief flare of popularity, but his brilliance was in choosing good sources and allowing Pound to edit his work. And Frost… don’t get me started on Frost…

The fact is that poetry isn’t pop culture. I love pop culture- I could argue comics or TV for happy, happy hours. But poetry is different. Poetry is more vital, more primal. Poetry, I would argue, can’t possibly be popular because it speaks to things that, while universal, are not comfortable to discuss. Poetry must push us- push language, push thought, push conventions. It must push them beyond what they can stand.

So, the Ginsberg problem. Because Ginsberg does all of these things. But somehow he falls short of greatness. I’m convinved that the root problem of Ginsberg is his immersion into pop culture. He became a figure that was in the public eye and not a poet. And he could be a poet- argue about the merits of Howl or America all you like, it is vital, it is challenging. It is poetry. My favorite poem of his, A Supermarket in California, illustrates the Ginsberg problem perfectly. It is a poem that can only work if the poet is removed from popular culture. It is a poem of the outsider who wishes to understand and engage a famous lost figure from history. It’s poetry.

Strangely, then, given the problem I have with Ginsberg as a poet, is my reaction to him. I wept when he died. I felt connected to the poet. Perhaps only the early poet, the lost confused Columbia student. But perhaps the person who could have written the poems. Not the pop culture figure he became, but the quiet secluded academic he could have been. I love Ginsberg because of the brilliance of his desire for poetry. If he had taken the route of a Creeley or an Olson we could have had the purest American poet since Whitman himself.

What we got, instead, was a brilliant poet subsumed under pop culture. Who still moved me to tears when he was lost to us.

A Supermarket in California

Allen Ginsberg, 19261997
  What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
  In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
  What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families shopping at night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

  I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
  I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?  What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?
  I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
  We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

  Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in a hour.  Which way does your beard point tonight?
  (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
  Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
  Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
  Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

–Berkeley, 1955


Nowhere to Go but Everywhere: Zermatt

I visited Zermatt in December of 1999. That, as much as the electric trams and the gorgeous train ride and the quintessential Swiss-ness of the city, colored the experience for mzermatte. It was a city on the verge of a new era, and it spoke to me as a vision of what living in a community could be.

It’s a lovely town, sitting just under the shadow of the Matterhorn, filled with comfortable chalets and little expensive shops and European elites rubbing elbows with dirty backpackers. But when we visited, it was relatively empty and calm. Most people chose more exciting places to celebrate the turn of the century. For me, just off a week in Italy, it was perfect. My first memory of the town itself is climbing under a huge down duvet and going to sleep for a nap. The thing, cool air, the giant comforter… it was an amazing experience. Everything else was just a bonus after that.

And there is plenty of everything else. It’s primarily famous among tourists for skiing, but as a non-skier I had an amazing time just exploring the city. The food is second to none, and we enjoyed everything from Swiss chocolates to French haute cuisine. It is definitely a foodie’s paradise. The most amazing thing about Zermatt for me, however, was the comfortable human dimensions of the city. It’s small- a town really- and combustion cars are banned. The city has little electric cars and buses, but you can walk all around and never even see a car. As an American coming from an obsessive car culture, this was astounding. It made everything feel cozy and contained, and the air was pure and delicious. I’ve hiked in places without cars a lot, and spent time in places where there were few cars…but to be in a city that was demonstrably urban and built up for people and not worry about, hear or smell anything automobile related was a shock. A wonderful, unprecedented shock.

I love the ease of the car- I love the freedom it provides, like most Americans. But to see a place without it and how it can feel… It makes me wonder what aspects of Zermatt we can bring to our daily lives in small towns in the States. I know we can’t ban cars in the cities- that’s unfeasible at best. But maybe we can consider what makes little towns like Zermatt so lovely beyond the looming Matterhorn and the chocolates and the food. And bring a little of that into our minds as we shape our cities here.

Poetry Wednesday: Tristan Tzara

To Make a Dadaist Blogpost:

Tzara is a fascinating figure for me. I’ve been obsessed with Dada and Surrealist work since I was a kid, as youth and immaturity is central to appreciating critiques of the bourgeois. It isn’t necessary to be young of course, but youth is the time of the critique. It gets dull as you age, though perhaps no less true.

Tzara is mostly fictional to me. The real man, the poet and artist, is lost and supplanted by the created work. He’d appreciate that, perhaps. The imagined fictional Tzara would, certainly.

I first encountered the fictional Tzara through Tom Stoppard, and his play, Travesties. It imagines a meeting between Tzara, Lenin and Joyce in Zurich in 1917. This Tzara is fantastical and fun, and in the original London production was played by John Hurt. Since I learned this I can’t help but imagine Tzara as John Hurt. Again, I don’t know what real Tzara would think. Fictional Tzara would love that fact.

As a poet, I love Tzara for this madness. He isn’t a great poet- Dadaists can hardly be called poets, in truth- but he’s honest and direct and fun. It’s important poetry for what it refuses to engage in, what it reminds us to value. For that, I’m grateful. To the real Tzara and the fictional.

Nowhere to Go but Everywhere: Seattle

pikeplaceseattleSeattle really does have everything. Unlike other places I’ve visited, From my move there in 2003 to now, it was and remains a popular spot for tourists. People come to Seattle in droves snapping pictures and taking in local foods and coffee. And even though I lived for years on First Avenue and saw tourists more often than I saw pigeons, I never really got tired of them. Because I get it. Seattle is awesome to visit.

My image of the city is definitely shaped by where I was in my life when I lived there. I moved in 2003, and my son was born in 2005. My daughter followed in 2008. We moved back east in 2010. So for a significant time in Seattle, I was a young, stay at home father. More importantly, I was the father of a temperamental and easily upset boy. So my time was spent walking. I have walked hundreds of miles of Seattle, from lake to sound, from suburb to city center. My feet know Seattle so well I think I could still strap on a baby carrier and walk blindfolded from Belltown to Kenmore without peeking even once.

The best thing about walking in Seattle is that despite the drizzle and the chill, it’s a very comfortable city. It isn’t the easy going place it was back in the nineties, but despite the increase in traffic and population it’s still remarkably cozy. I could walk over hills and bridges to First Hill and feel like I’d snuck into a small town perched over a city. I could take the kids with me to shop for records in Ballard and not feel as though cars were barreling down on us every second. One thing I hate about every place I’ve lived in America since is the neverending car culture bombardment. You can walk- but it isn’t easy or comfortable in most places in America. Everyone jokes about walking in L.A. but really… it’s ubiquitous. It’s walking in the States.

A return to Seattle for me would necessarily include a walk. I think my favorite winter trek would be from Belltown up through Queen Anne, through Fremont and ending at the lovely Carkeek Park. This would take ages, but it’d allow for time to stop at El Diablo Coffee for some Cubanos, a trek across a few bridges, and a view of the gorgeous mountains on either side of Seattle. And since the kids are big enough that I don’t have to carry them, I could even manage the walk in less than three hours. Assuming I could drag myself away from the cubanos.

Poetry Wednesday: Ferlinghetti Lives

He’s ninety five years old, but he lives.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, more than any of the San Fran Renaissance poets or the Beats they associated with later, is my kind of poet. I don’t write like him- I certainly don’t live in the rarified cultural air that he inhabited seemingly his whole life. But I get his motivations. He was an outsider growing up, but quickly found a home in academia. His academic bend would always flavor his work, and his later bohemian lifestyle was just an extension of how he understood and embodied the study of language.

You know that moment when a little thing sets you off? When a long hard day of keeping it together ends with tears over a chipped mug or a screaming rant over a papercut? That is how I’ll end when Ferlinghetti is no longer with us. Like a long life of poetic indignities and failures to comprehend finally reaches critical mass. Because the world lies about it, as he said of Patchen, and makes as though it got his message. And the refusal to “shake the shit from their wings” is something that can be borne for only so many decades and so many lives of poets.

That’s how I’ll feel when there’s no more Ferlinghetti in this world.

Here’s my favorite of his poems, an elegy for my favorite poet ever.

An Elegy on the Death of Kenneth Patchen

A poet is born
A poet dies
And all that lies between
is us
and the world

And the world lies about it
making as if it had got his message
even though it is poetry
but most of the world wishing
it could just forget about him
and his awful strange prophecies

Along with all the other strange things
he said about the world
which were all too true
and which made them fear him
more than they loved him
though he spoke much of love

Along with all the alarms he sounded
which turned out to be false
if only for the moment
all of which made them fear his tongue
more than they loved him
Though he spoke much of love
and never lived by ‘silence exile & cunning’
and was a loud conscientious objector to
the deaths we daily give each other
though we speak much of love

And when such a one dies
even the agents of Death should take note
and shake the shit from their wings
in Air Force One
But they do not
And the shit still flies
And the poet now is disconnected
and won’t call back
though he spoke much of love

And still we hear him say
‘Do I not deal with angels
when her lips I touch’
And still we hear him say
‘0 my darling troubles heaven
with her loveliness’
And still we hear him say
‘As we are so wonderfully done with each other
We can walk into our separate ‘sleep
On floors of music where the milkwhite cloak
of childhood lies’

And still we hear him saying
‘Therefore the constant powers do not lessen
Nor is the property of the spirit scattered
on the cold hills of these events’
And still we hear him asking
‘Do the dead know what time it is?’

He is gone under
He is scattered
and knows what time
but won’t be back to tell it
He would be too proud to call back anyway
And too full of strange laughter
to speak to us anymore anyway

And the weight of human experience
lies upon the world
like the chains of the ‘sea
in which he sings
And he swings in the tides of the sea
And his ashes are washed
in the ides of the sea
And ‘an astonished eye looks out of the air’
to see the poet singing there

And dusk falls down a coast somewhere

where a white horse without a rider
turns its head
to the sea

Nerdly Question: What Makes One Worthy of Mjolnir?

Comics fans love continuity. It’s a little masochistic, considering the comic industry is fluid, creators change titles or companies, and comics themselves began as a disposable medium in which what happened last month was pulped, destroyed, and never meant to be remembered. But despite this- or likely because of this and the special tingly nerd sensations that knowing the continuity provides- we love continuity.

One of the long lasting and interesting bits of comics legend is the Hammer of Thor. Based on the Norse myth but updated for the Marvel character, Thor’s hammer Mjolnir is enchanted so that only those deemed worthy can pick it up. And anyone who does pick it up has the power of Thor. But what does it mean to be worthy? The first Thor film introduced the idea to the MCU, but it didn’t expand on it too much. It set it out on the table, and didn’t ask the audience to think too much about it. I love the clip from the Age of Ultron, because it plays with that notion in a fun, character driven way.

Wouldn't we all, Janet?

Wouldn’t we all, Janet?

MCU Thor differs from comics Thor in a few ways, but most importantly he never has a human alter ego. In the comics, the physician Donald Blake finds Mjolnir and “becomes’ Thor.  He isn’t some Thor in disguise- he’s lived a whole life, he got a medical degree. And Thor is a god from Asgard, with his own family and friends and giant slaying backstory. They share a life from the moment Donald becomes Thor.

Lots of things happen in the comics, and Thor goes from being his own person to not, Donald comes and goes, recently a woman gets the Hammer and becomes Thor. The old Thor is called Odinson and… sells used cars in Jotunheim? I don’t know I haven’t kept up.

But most importantly, one thing never changes- if you’re worthy, you wield the hammer and get the power of Thor. You get his goat chariot, winged helms galore, and the strength of a god. But what makes someone worthy? The best moment in the Avengers clip above is when it moves a tiny bit for Captain America. Thor looks (justifiably) a little nervous. But why isn’t Cap worthy? Various people have been in comics- Beta Ray Bill, most famously, became horse faced alien Thor. There’s the new girl Thor… some ARE clearly worthy. But why?

My idea, one that has been tossed around comics fandom for a while, is the Goldilocks Goldilocks theory. It has to do with that delicate balance of characteristics, the just right touch of big brash god and sensitive poet. You need to be a warrior, and willing to use the hammer to fight. You need to be willing to confront evil with deadly force, if the need presents. But you also need to have compassion and mercy when necessary. Hulk isn’t worthy because he isn’t driven to confront evil, and his raw rage is too untempered. But Captain America is unworthy too… because he hates war. Oh he’ll fight. He’ll even kill- he shot quite a few Nazis when he needed to- but he hates it. He’s seen death and war, he’s lost friends… he’s human. You won’t find many who have that balance of traits needed to use Mjolnir to bash in heads some days, and refrain from head bashing others. Thor is a rare beast. A rare, awesome Asgardian beast. With a magic hammer.

I love comics.

You also have to be willing to repeat dumb catch phrases.

You also have to be willing to repeat dumb catch phrases.

Comics Corner Postscript: The Riverdales!

I really enjoyed reading all of the fun comics in preparation for the Archie comics post. But almost as nice was listening to album after album of The Riverdales, the band named after Archie’s hometown. It’s classic fun pop punk, complete with shout outs to comics and of course plentiful MST3K references.  Enjoy Prince of Space!

Comics Corner: The Best of Stan Goldberg

I never really read much Archie comics as a kid. I was such a superhero fanatic. If I spent any money on comics at all it was a superhero book, usually from the big two of DC or Marvel. I did read some Archie- anytime I was at a store or stuck in a line, I’d read through the new issue and generally enjoy it. It reminded me of the Sunday strips, which I loved and devoured voraciously. But I never put too much though into it until later, when my appreciation of the art and artists matured and I had a better sense of what the work meant.

One of the seminal artists of Archie is Stan Goldberg. He just passed away this past year at the age of 82. He worked in different comics over the years, including time spent at Marvel helping to establish the look of the silver age superhero renaissance. If you read his Archie books then look back, it’s obvious in hindsight- the intense, bold palette that he uses was evident from the earliest Marvel books. He helped design the superhero template with other members of the Marvel bullpen in the pre-silver age.

His style for Archie was instantly recognizable. The characters are cartoony but rooted in a solid, almost realistic body shape. The slight nod towards reality definitely makes his Archie work second to none, helping to land the ridiculous gags and bizarre story directions that Archie was famous for tackling. My favorite work of his is the seventies Life with Archie series, where he takes Archie into distant pasts and imagined futures. Archie is never terribly concerned with continuity, and Goldberg just ran with it, creating fantastic costumes and backgrounds without letting the characters get too far off model.

One of the secrets of Archie’s success is the timeless quality of the work. The art is definitely rooted in the strips that he enjoyed as a kid, and you can see echoes of the 20s and 30s in the characters and clothing designs. Any male appearing in a crowd will have an old collared shirt and a pipe, and women will be in long dresses and pearls. It’s a standard cartoon trope, and one that plays especially well in Goldberg’s work because of how well he places the Archie gang in the context. Betty and Ronnie in bellbottoms is contrasted with the ‘normal’ cartoon world amazingly well, you get the sense that these are young, special, maybe a bit goofy kids in a sane, steady world. It’s Archie mythos in a nutshell, captured in perfect visual shorthand.

Hey shoot Ronnie and save me some time, buddy?

The guilty must be punished…

There is literally too vast a volume of Goldberg’s work to even begin to list, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his amazing cover for Archie meets the Punisher. It’s just perfect. The Punisher’s skull shirt looks amazingly out of place, which is hard to do when you’re standing next to a guy who wears a crown. Goldberg draws him less scruffy than he appears in the book itself, but he looks exactly how you’d imagine The Punisher should look- vaguely misshapen and awkward. I mean here is a guy driven by murderous revenge. He’s armed to the teeth at a sick hop, for goodness sake. He isn’t right in the head.

The issue itself is ever so slightly more realistic. Although Punisher does kiss Miss Grundy on the head. Miss Grundy seems way too into Frank, which is amazing. I’d watch a comic of just the two of them being doe-eyed and murdering criminals any day.

This is the kind of magic Goldberg can pull off- like other greats of comic art, he shows you that the mundane and the fantastic are all there to be explored. Stylized, cartoonish art allows a variety of worlds to be inhabited by the characters. Timeless designs make for outlandish and fun storytelling. He was a real master of his work and it’s a delight to get to explore it.

Nowhere to Go but Everywhere: Hiroshima


No one cares about Hiroshima. Even in Japan, it’s a city on the periphery of the national consciousness. It’s a popular spot to visit- for the Atomic Bomb Dome and the Peace Museum. But no one appreciates it as a place to enjoy being present.

I spent barely six months living in Hiroshima, and it became and has remained my favorite city. It’s a pleasant, walkable, friendly city. It’s surrounded by mountains and divided by rivers. You can take easy day trips to historic Shinto shrines and scenic island resorts. I’m really shocked it doesn’t get more attention for anything except the bombing.

Behind Hiroshima are mountains leading to Shimane prefecture, a much more rural neighbor. While Hiroshima doesn’t feel mountainous in the same way, they do tower over the town and make it feel like a cozy harbor town.

People like to tease me about my city exploration strategy. Here’s the thing- I love residential neighborhoods. I love walking or biking through people’s real lives, with tiny little cafes and rows of houses and corner stores. That is my favorite thing to do in a new town. I want to see people like me and how they live. I used to bicycle over a bridge and around a block and back over another bridge, just enjoying the bizarre and organic geography of Hiroshima. For residential neighborhoods and local hospitality, you can’t beat Hiroshima. You can weave in and out of streetcars, buses, trucks and cars and explore everywhere with relative ease. And when you’re tired of exploring, you can stop for some okonomiyaki.

Okonomiyaki, or “that fried thing you like” if you want to get silly with literal translation, is awesome. It’s a national treasure of a street food all over western Japan. It’s distinctively prepared in different cities. Now, as a person who went to university in Osaka, I’ll always prefer Osaka style okonomiyaki. But Hiroshima style, with layers of noodles, egg, veggies arranged in a neat little stack, is definitely pretty awesome. I remember my friend Takeshi coming to visit me once and taking me to an obscure little stand in a back alley of Hiroshima that made divine okonomiyaki. That okonomiyaki is perfect Hiroshima: ordered, distinct, and unappreciated for its varied delights.

Outside of the city is the gorgeous island of Itsukushima, better known as Miyajima. This is the island home of the incredible Itsukushima Shrine. The island itself houses several smaller shrines and a Buddhist temple. While the shrine and temple aren’t quite the experience you’d get in Kyoto, it’s a remarkable place to be. The giant torii gates near the sea can be reached at low tide, and standing near them you get a sense of the incredible history of the country. Coming into Itsukushima after being in modern, friendly Hiroshima is a shock. Perhaps due to that contrast, I always got a sense of reverence here that other shrines in Japan outside of Kyoto never provided. You see what was placed in such stark relief against what is. I’ve heard it said that the real Japan has never existed- it has never been able to fully flower against centuries of influence from other powers. Standing next to the giant torii gates as the tide rolls back, staring at Japanese maple against the hills… you get that sense. That the flowering is yet to occur, but also that this is a bud of what that flower may appear to be.

If you go to Japan, of course stop in and see the grandiosity that is Tokyo, marvel at Kyoto, and have fun in Osaka… but don’t skip Hiroshima. It’s a tantalizing glimpse at what possibilities still exist in Japanese culture, and what could be. If there is a fully realized Japan somewhere down the road, in the centuries to come, it’ll look a lot like the view from Itsukushima.

Next time: Seattle!

Poetry Wednesday: Ezra Pound and the Reading of Words

pisan1It’s ridiculous to write a blog post about Pound. Pound is 20th century poetry. What can I say in 500 words? Next to nothing. To really write about Pound, you need to be ready to embrace the aesthetic of Pound and come at it full force, baring everything and holding back nothing. Hugh Kenner did it- he wrote a book about Pound that was as intense and full as the poet deserved. But I certainly am not up to that task.  To really get Pound is a lifetime study of allusion and language. It’s to dive into the world canon in a way that few can even dare to attempt. It’s to lose yourself and your art until, stripped of all, you come out immersed in nothing but the words and the lines.

I’m all for that. But not today.

Instead. Today. I want to talk about five lines from The Pisan Cantos.

Last week on Poetry Wednesday I wrote about the accessibility of Bunting. The early Cantos of Pound, by contrast, seemed to be competing for a “prize […] awarded for the work of the greatest impenetrability” in the words of Ronald Bush. The Pisan Cantos intrigue me because they maintain the density and intensity while becoming more grounded. Perhaps due to his circumstances, detained by the Allies as a criminal (at the American Disciplinary Training Center! I wonder if he appreciated the absurdist wordplay of it!)

The Pisan Cantos are impossibly sad and defeated, yet retaining a power. He calls out to Cassandra as in a Greek tragedy, his own concrete hell made literal Hades. Did he see himself as Cassandra, seeing the truth of the world and being unable to say? He certainly spends a lot of time lamenting the state of the world and the lost traditions. He divines so much meaning from Confucius, but seems to be referring in these Cantos to the ossified and failing state inspired by the Sage, not the vibrant tradition of the past. The Pisan Cantos are confused and pointed, hard and challenging.

But they are not inaccessible. They’re deep and frightening, but they are so tempting to just dive into. Which is always the case with Pound- but in these Cantos the epic poem pulls you close. This is Homer speaking directly to you across the fire. The grand stage is receded, and the poet and poem are bare and secretive. The raw, angry, sad poet just wants to speak. Nowhere else in the poem is everything so bare.

“Old Ez folded his blankets”

He said. He was resigned. He didn’t give up- he was passionate and righteous here in prison, he wasn’t done- but some part of him resigned to the world. The old guard was moving away, love it or hate it, he had to accept it. He had to do the work in front of him, even if he only ever imagined a few caring. (Bill Carlos might get it! He called out before the Pisan Cantos were done!)

Pound said that the secret of genius is sensitiveness. The real secret, perhaps, is in knowing and seeing what a sensitive person sees and continuing to make it known. Most great poets have done their best work before 30. I don’t think this is due to some magical power of youth. I think it’s because of the challenge of letting the genius of the sensitive remain alive and productive. It’s feeling what is in the world and keeping words coming that is the difficult part- and many of us after 30 just can’t.

Pound, arrested and jailed in Rapallo, stared at in concrete in Pisa, reviled and hated by so many including himself… Pound could. The Pisan Cantos give words to the how and the why of the secret of genius.