I've just had the worst dream I ever experienced. I dreamed we lived in Brooklyn. Rarebits are funny things ain't they? Oh ho!  
Bellona Times
. . .

My Funny Valentine, 3

I've written before (and will again) about the urge to substitute narrative for lyric.

Poetic diction is one manifestation. For most contemporary poets and readers, what defines and justifies poetry is a rhetorical tone: the sound of someone being a poet, rather than the sound of a poem. Instead of listening to a work, we enact a poetry listener and set our afflatus adrift with the imagined author.

People really cling to those chicken-wire-and-terrycloth mothers, too. How often do John Cage or Jackson Mac Low get talked about without bringing their Eastern (Long Island, anyway) wisdom into it? What the literary reader finds difficult to handle isn't incoherence but distance.

Thus Eliot Weinberger attacked Language Poetry's reliance on "the non-sequitur (which is quite different... from Cubist simultaneity, Surrealist collage, or the Poundian ideogrammatic method)."

Yes, the non-sequitur is quite different: It doesn't reek of pomposity. Patchouli-soaked shamans don't always make sense either, but with them you can tell it's A Poet talking. From a block away.

Me, I no more like everything called "Language Poetry" than I like everything called "Hong Kong movies." It's just where I find a part I like.

And the part I like has little enough in common. In fact, only nothing. Where do Susan Howe and Bob Perelman and Stephen Ratcliffe and Hannah Weiner overlap? Only in what's missing. From a writerly standpoint, Zukofsky's late-night amateur watchmaking, tweezers in shaking hand and jeweler's in blearing eye, and Mac Low's crank-handle sausage machine are opposed. But in their mutual discarding of the poetic voice, their works appeal to the same reader.

Or, more accurately, they put off one class of readers and make room for another. That doesn't mean we always enjoy ourselves once we get in. The obscure redolence of a dive bar welcomes without guarantee. Barrett Watten and Bruce Andrews prove that when taken as an assignment, "depersonalization" becomes as dull as any other assignment.

It's just a beneficial side-effect. An assurance of sorts. Of "sincerity," as Zukofsky put it: the baggage of personality discarded because one's truly intent on some other goal, some point outside oneself.

. . .

Critics rave

An anonymous reader commented:

And a few seconds later added:
what does this mean?
I'm glad you asked, anonymous reader. This means the back of the ship (synonymous with the stern), as well as the deck found there. William Julius Mickle provides an inspiring example of proper usage in his 1775 translation of the Lusiad:

High on the poop the skilful master stands.

Another reader informs me:

Not only is this a horrible weblog, you are a horrible person.
Now there's a "meme" that deserves propagation! (Or are they supposed to be called "mobs" now? Christ, I feel so unhip....)

. . .


Hair styled with Bumble and Bumble Hair Thickening Spray, Gloss Spray, and Hair Powder in White; Ray Allington for Magnet All makeup products by Chanel; on her face, Vitalumiere Creme Foundation in Clair; on her eyes, Basic Eye Colour in Argents and Intense Eye Pencil in Noir with Extracils Super Curl Lengthening Mascara in Noir; on her cheeks, Irrèele Blush in Secret; tear by Hollywood; on her lips, Precision Lipdefiner in Nude and Infrarouge Lipstick in Showgirl; Susan Sterling for Chanel.

. . .


Speaking of credits, I neglected a footnote the other day.

A few years back, a friend's publisher sent her a fantasy novel to blurb on account of its high literary value and true-life emotion reminded him of my friend's own work.

This turned out not much of a compliment: its literary value was stasis and its true-life emotion was self-pity.* The fantasy component consisted of the first-person narrator moping alone at his kitchen table or the local bar when he might've been fucking a mermaid. After a couple hundred pages of this, he drowned himself.

Besides hypnotic pacing, the other thing the book had going for it was the author's knack for solecisms. My friend still treasures "The rain fell inextricably" and "She had a tinkering laugh."

As for me, at least once a week since then I've thought of the scene in which the narrator closes in for a clinch and finds the mermaid to be "almost spirtuously redolent."

"What do you think that means?" I asked.

"She reeked of gin."

* My own fiction can be similarly described, which is one reason I stopped writing fiction.

. . .

My Funny Valentine, 4

Physics assures us that if the artist is to produce a viable artifact distinct from the artist, external assistance is required. Such supplements of idiot intention we call "the Muses." (Or, equivalently, "radio transmissions from Mars.")

They're often at odds with dignity as well as conscious intent: Van Morrison's dour Ulster affect 1 jerked down hill and up alley by the loping Irish wolfhound of his vocal impulse; Zukofsky backed into La Parfumerie's stacked display of zebra-fragrance by the words, the words, the tintinnabulation that so Tin-Pan-Alley blurts from the words, words, words, words, words, words, words.

Sometimes the top of the head comes off; sometimes the trousers fall down. What inclines the individual toward one startle effect over another?

1. A countryman, rustic, or peasant.
  1563 BALDWIN Mirr. Mag., Rivers xliv, The cloyne contented can not be With any state.

    b. Implying ignorance, crassness, or rude manners: A mere rustic, a boor.
  1848 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. I. 320 Language..such as we should now expect to hear only from the most ignorant clowns.

I've written before about the class lines obscured under the Modernist blanket. "Modernism" was a defense of endangered privilege, but "Modernism" was also an attempt to prove that one could fit into an imagined meritocracy, that one was more than one's slum.

Although I wouldn't claim that the aesthetic is atemporal, by definition it's antitemporal. Attempting to confine such a formulation to a particular range of "modernist" years will make it squirt out between one's fingers and all over one's nice dress shirt. Class trauma had something to do with Joyce's move from solemn epiphany to sarcastic sentiment, yes, but it also helps explain Hans Christian Andersen's risky move from hifalutin novels to the ecstatically naked resentment and shame of his fairy tales. And Jerome McGann argues that John Keats 2 anticipated Frank O'Hara's insolent mingling of low and high diction.

As for "Postmodernism," it's not like verse regained its eighteenth-century position in the cultural mainstream after World War II ended. If you want to be a contemporary countertenor, you'd better have a sense of humor about it.

(Not that I've ever met a countertenor who did.)

1 My favorite example of Muse as obnoxious practical joker isn't anything from Hopkins or Zukofsky, but fireplug Van Morrison advising his "Ballerina" to "fly it; sigh it; come on and diet."
2 In Yeats's indelibly cruel description, "the coarse-bred son of a livery stablekeeper" "with face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window."

. . .

My Funny Valentine: Apologia

Flemish panel, early 16th Century
Isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off his clothes and showing his shortcomings?
David Niven

So a dead form with a glamorous reputation attracts nostalgic losers from both the decayed and the arriviste classes.

Like that should be a surprise.

I often like the lumpen upstarts and often dislike the aristos.

Like that should be a surprise either. Naturally, the lowbred will be attracted to high art (or to low art, for that low matter) for reasons unique to our station. Thalia shows different faces to Dobie Gillis and to Milton Armitage.

And it's hardly surprising that art can entangle us in the ratlines of class mobility (or, from our betters' point of view, slumming). Our senses divide into the communicative and the communicable, either broadcast ready or requiring physical contact. We could talk of "good eye" or "good ear," but those are idioms of technique; instead, in aesthetic matters we talk of "good taste." Intimate, risky, invasive, animal: Taste is cheap, but offers an entrance, albeit to one's own biology rather than to exclusive social circles.

Well, I'm easily astonied, I guess. And I haven't always loved the experience: unable to let go, unable to trust the handhold....

There is something scarily presumptuous (or, from our betters' point of view, demeaning; or, from Jack Spicer's point of view, distracting) about the act of publication. Success seems either fraud or betrayal, and failure's not much better.

But if I bit my tongue, how would I taste?

. . .

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dostoyevsky

On the subject of good taste, my old pal Matt writes:

couldn't help but think of you and your old refrigerator door when we came across this...

. . .

Critics rave


Not only is this a weblog, you are a person.


Which reminds me of one of my favorite letters to Creem from back in the day:
If Blondie is a band, does that mean Debbie Harry is a person?

. . .

Historical Imperative

Cardinal Richelieu, instead of being an innovative modernizer of France's military system... in fact failed to initiate effective reforms in military administration, and owed what limited success he had in expanding and strengthening the French army to improvised expedients and the cultivation of the great nobles and existing clientage networks.... funded not by a streamlined fiscal system, but through high taxes and short-term borrowing managed by officials whose corruption was encouraged by the system. Most of the armies' successes, moreover, were the product of decentralization and delegation of authority to military commands and officials, and what limited attempts Richelieu made to concentrate power in his own hands or those of his own clients produced a backlash that threatened to destroy the monarchy a few years later.
- Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. LV, No. 4, Winter 2002
James R. Smither review of
Richelieu's Army: War, Government and Society in France, 1624-1642 by David Parrott

But France made out OK for a couple years, so it's easy to see how the story of Richelieu's prowess spread. What was he going to do? Deny it?

There are as many perspectives as there are human souls and once again Iím learning that no easy conclusions can be drawn, and that what was called History in school was worse than watered-down fairy tales.
- Gail Armstrong

It's not precisely true that history's always written by the victor. Only losers write anything, much less history books. (Burning them's another matter.) But it's true enough that the notion of victors grounds the historical genre.

The historian's job is to build a coherent narrative from whatever source material's available, with memory of hearsay usually providing the initial plot outline. Narrative prefers willed action with willed effects. And so we tell about someone planning this and gaining that, and someone else making a mistake and losing. And the winners (if any) tend to be the protagonists, unless we're playing weepy reactionary, in which case it's going to be awfully hard to avoid bathos.

When sources abound, our fiction becomes untenable, no matter how much the active parties might've clung to their own fictions for the sake of career and sanity. To write coherent post-literate pre-library-burning history is to ascribe motives glibly in the text and dispute or overturn them in the footnotes. (Which is why footnotes are often where the most interesting writing is.)

[That same narratological impulse has kept torture multiculturally acceptable for millenia. Torture produces a known story, and therefore it produces a coherent story, thus re-affirming the value of torture. (Those of us raised to abhor torture should bear in mind that we rely on grossly inaccurate eyewitness accounts for similar reasons.) It's no surprise that the Bush administration, with its faith in the confidently stated lie and in Matthew 25:29-30, should be the first American administration in some time to suggest bringing torture back into the legal system. Footnotes to be shredded before publication.]

When they link local weather conditions to a monarch's virtue, classic European and Chinese histories seem quaint to (most) contemporary humanities students, who know that weather is actually caused by butterfly wings. Could be, though, we maintain some quaint assumptions of our own....

Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, I read a book (this was before I kept a journal about anything other than my sex life, so I don't have the title at hand) that brought two bits of research together. The first polled military scholars to determine who were the greatest military leaders in history and what determined that category; it turned out to be something like winning six major battles. The second collected a database of major battles and relevant commanders and calculated, based purely on chance, what the likely distribution of wins would be. The most likely number of winners of six battles was identical with the number of most-agreed-upon major military leaders.

Although the coincidence is merely suggestive, I've found the suggestion clarifying when brought to bear on questions like how did Grant turn from a drunken loser to a drunken winner (producing a narrative of growing wisdom and maturity) and then (as President) back to a drunken loser again (producing very confused narrators)?

Almost a century before that book's publication, confused Grant-watcher Henry Adams bid farewell to history when, after decades of mulling the elaborately unreliable allegiances of English-American diplomacy during the American Civil War, he found by reading memoirs and diaries that they'd been generated semi-randomly by the combination of an aging pathological liar, an airhead who took orders from his morning Bible reading, and a self-confessed bungler who hadn't thought through the consequences of his actions:

All the world had been at cross-purposes, had misunderstood themselves and the situation, had followed wrong paths, drawn wrong conclusions, and had known none of the facts. One would have done better to draw no conclusions at all. One's diplomatic education was a long mistake. His whole theory of conspiracy,— of policy,— of logic and connection in the affairs of man, resolved itself into "[a mistake of] incredible grossness."

All this was indifferent. Granting, in spite of evidence, that Gladstone had no set plan of breaking up the Union; that he was party to no conspiracy; that he saw none of the results of his acts which were clear to everyone else; granting in short what the English themselves seemed at last to conclude:— that Gladstone was not quite sane; that Russell was verging on senility; and that Palmerston had lost his nerve.... How should it have affected one's future opinions and acts?

Politics cannot stop to study psychology. Its methods are rough; its judgments are rougher still.... The problem would have been the same; the answer equally obscure.

- The Education of Henry Adams

Even in the presumable limit condition of fiction labeled as such, on the presumable author's own authority, we often find confusion, second-guessing, or admission of surprise ("I meant to make God the hero, but Satan kept taking over"). How much more murkiness might be expected from a Real Life Adventure with the cross-purposed interference of multiply improvising and scatterbrained plotters?

Does this mean history has nothing to teach us?

Even to this non-historian, it seems very insistently to teach lessons of (in no particular order) tolerance, skepticism, humor, and panic.

Those were never very popular lessons, however, and, except for the last, they're less popular now than ever.

. . .

Dangerously tiny dancer

Bhikku, l'ascoltatore migliore, looks in his own ear and writes:

Re the "come on and diet" line, the whole thing is arsy-versy anyway because previously hasn't he advised her to "Grab the ketchup"?

My favourite bit is the most heart-felt bit of singing and the emotional climax of the music, when he tells her where to find the light switch.

. . .

Movie Comment: Intolerable Cruelty

More like Arrested Development. Although George Clooney deserves a screwball comedy, the Coen Brothers haven't managed to get past puberty, or even past Mad Magazine, and screwball comedy needs grown-ups.

Wacky zany grown-ups, but grown up still.

. . .

My Monterey brother will speak for me

Being a bit slow on the uptake, I don't think I've ever before linked to a weblog's first post, but I had inside information on this one. For a while now, I've been hoping to do a follow-up to my earlier military keen, focusing (if that's the right word to use with my stuff) on the Republican right-wing takeover of the officer corps. The first step toward such a follow-up would have been more extensive discussion with my old pal Matt, who knows more about the subject than any other of my acquaintance.

And now Matt's gone and relieved me of the bother:

If you read through it, you'll see a disturbing dichotomy between the frontline soldiers and the Pentagon Brass, with the trail of career military officers behind them, that is rapidly becoming a political class with force in civilian electoral politics and policy-making. The men who do the fighting in Iraq don't get the supplies they need, they don't get the clear missions, they're lied to repeatedly about when they'll be able to go home. In the meantime, the brass pin medals on themselves and line themselves up for lucrative post-military careers consulting for Halliburton and Bechtel....

Read through it.

. . .

Homage to Basil Bunting


(personally into rumors of a lawsuit being brought against Machiavelli but instead had other people look around) according to Serristori:

What I promised to tell you above is this fine business that you will hear:
I was planning to tell it to you more or less in brief,
but I have changed my mind and shall tell you the entire story,
in order that,
following my example,
you may better confirm how very foolish it is
        to deal with asinine men
        and to talk with them,
        because anyone who is asinine is,
        after all,
an ass in every way and turns everyone who stoops to look at him,
        much less anything else,
        into asses.

Around three months ago,
Piero del Bene and I were talking,
        seated on his bench,
        that is, outside,
        where people sit.
Antonio Segni came walking by there:
we invited him to sit down,
        I moved over,
        he accepted,
we put him in the middle.

So Piero del Bene takes out a coin struck by the new minters,
        for you must know that the Fuggers have the mint
        and no longer Antonio Segni,
and he praises it.

Then, after Antonio has talked to both of us
and we have asked him several things concerning the money profession,
he makes a digression,
        saying that the popes,
        because of either too much saintliness
        or greater concerns,
        do not think of the welfare
        or the hardship
        of the people.
And I said,
"Maybe they do not want to think about their welfare,
but they do think about the opposite,"

and he said that it was not the pope's doing,

and I spoke in the third person, saying,
        are of the
        opposite opinion,"
so he incites me to listen to the reasons by which
I would see that such people were in error.

I answered that I would listen willingly.
He made his argument quite properly,
and I praised him
and gave him my reply.

He answered,
I again replied to his answer.

He re-answers, I reply again,
still speaking in the third person,
        that is,
"They say, &c."

Then he said, smiling,
"The fact is that,
if the reflection of most people is good,
those are not things for lawbooks and judgments."

I replied that lawbooks and judgments are a trade like the others,
and that I was not speaking according to them
but according to what I gathered from men
        who make a calling of such things
        and who know about them,
and that I also had spoken on my part,
and that I did not think that lawbooks took away men's brains.
I said these things, too, with a smile,

and he, also smiling, said,
"As for what I said about talking on my part,
the primary thing is whether you can get yourself to understand it."

On the subject of lawbooks and brains,
I said that I have known a dozen
        judges, lawyers, and attorneys
        who were fools.
I said that I did not think that they were all like that,
        because I had known just as many
        merchants who had become brokers
and yet that had not happened to all merchants.

Then he said,
        but softly,
        "So you see,
brokers know more than your kind do."

        I said,
let us not become enemies over this:
you know a lot about your trade,
        which you make your calling.
Whatever I know about mine
        or I feel I know about it
does not take away from you
        nor does it add.
It suffices
        that what I tell you
        I am not basing on my trade."
He answered me
that he knew more about his trade
        and mine
than I do.

To cut the discussion short and not to seem to be leaving in anger,
I said that I was speaking to him neither with his trade nor with mine
        but with my brains,
and that everyone considers he has brains to spare,
and that I felt that I had been born with as much of them as he had.
So I acted as if I was thinking about something else,
        although I remained seated next to him.

Staying that way for a while and looking toward the bridge,
so that my back was turned toward him,
I felt someone give me a punch in the cheek.
        I turned around,
and saw that it had been Antonio,
because he was still standing,
and he wanted to show me that at least,
since I had gotten together with an asinine man,
I should give his asinine words their due with a slap,
because he would have been satisfied and not want to consider:
        what will people say?
Whereupon I got off the wall to send him to Kingdom Come.

So I reached for a bread knife of mine,
        a fairly big one.
        Seeing that,
he ran into a shop next to Beni's,
        where a beltmaker works,
        and he picked up a marble
to defend himself.

I knocked it out of his hand,
        and finally,
        after he had run around
        into a corner of the shop,
I took him by the chest to kill him,
and just as I unleashed the blow and the blade was already at his coat,
I was grabbed from behind on the arms by someone and pulled back,
and someone else grabbed my knife hand,
so that there was no way that I could make use of that.

        And so,
fearing that Antonio might reach for his weapons,
        which I felt that he had
(and at first he acted as if he wanted to draw it and could not
because of the speed and force I used),
or he might grab some other blade from the shop,
I pulled Antonio along by the chest,
        so that,
        hanging on to him,
        I pressed him against the wall,
and he flung his hands down on the knife out of fear,
and they say he cut himself a little
because the knife was not very sharp.

Then, after we had remained hanging on tight to each other for a while,
seeing that I was held too strongly by those two,
I decided to make an effort to get loose,
so that, between pushing and being pulled,
held so tightly a prisoner as I was,
I got out of the shop with my knife in my hand and he remained there.

And so, out of fear that the court may hold me to more than I would want,
I am not leaving sanctuary
        until certain little matters are cleared up
        and I get back to Florence,
        where I want to stay for a while;
if it were not for this business, I would have arrived two months ago.

I send my regards to you, to Messer Niccolò, to the prior,
        and to our cronies,
        although the term is faulty
because with men of honor words change their significance
or their manner of signifying.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2003 Ray Davis.