Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Auster Model

Ever since I was in college, my readings have led me to a particular habit that is both good and bad. It's a long-running tendency to claim affinity for an author based on the merits of a single text. This made for some intense praises when I was younger (see: Chuck Palahniuk) and some pretty safe bets as I've gotten a bit older (see: David Mitchell). As I noted last year, I fell in love with Paul Auster's creative non-fiction book The Invention Of Solitude. I explain my thoughts in full detail in the link above, but his thoughts on the nature of writing and the necessity of solitude were incredibly moving and reflective during a period of time when I lived in Washington state. I've long planned a return to Auster's fiction writings, and no matter what my verdict on his novels, the beauty of The Invention Of Solitude will never diminish in my mind.

I recently finished reading his 1989 novel Moon Palace, and beforehand, I read a profile of Auster in the November 30th issue of The New Yorker ("Shallow Graves" by James Wood).Quite a few of my friends are big Auster fans, but as Wood's essay reveals, there are many readers and critics who don't hold the man in high regard. What I thought would be a review of the recently published Invisible turned out to be a scathing look at the writer, his style, and even his positive reviewers:

"The pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year, as tidy as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up like eager stamp collectors to get the latest issue (Wood 85)."

Moon Palace tells the story of Marco Stanley Fogg, a young man growing up in the late 1960s. He has never known his father, and his mother died when he was still a child. He lives with his Uncle Victor, an absent-minded yet loving musician and book collector. After his uncle dies, Marco plunges into poverty and solitude, even becoming a "resident" of Central Park. He's saved from an almost certain death by his friend Zimmer and Kitty Wu, a young woman he meets by chance and ends up with in a relationship. After getting back on his feet, Marco gets a job as a companion (and later, biographer) to an elderly, wheelchair-bound man named Thomas Effing. Effing's history and life reveals adventures, mysteries, and in turn, revelations that clear up some of Marco's own confusions and seemingly forgotten history. After re-reading Wood's essay, I was amazed that he didn't cite Moon Palace. Perhaps Auster's other books are better examples, but every critique and complaint had its place in the uncited text. Here is Wood's description of a typical Auster protagonist:

"A protagonist, nearly always male, often a writer or an intellectual, lives monkishly, coddling a loss--a deceased or divorced wife, dead children, a missing brother (82)."

Yes, Marco is the protagonist, and the novel is written in the first person. Despite his emotions (or sometimes lack thereof) and keen awareness of his own events and surroundings, he feels detached, not so much emotionally, but in a character sense, since virtually everyone in the supporting cast has a history that is just as amazing as his story. Everyone is connected to Marco, even if they don't know each other personally. The two main women in the work are somewhat stereotypical (as Jeff Ignatius commented on my piece "Solitary Pursuits," 'Has Auster written any female protagonists?'). Mrs. Hume, Effing's live-in caretaker, remains in the background, making the occasional appearance to the action at hand, and inexplicably taking the verbal assaults doled out by the old man. Kitty Wu (I cringed every time I read this name in the text) seems to be an early incarnation of Nathan Rabin's "Manic Pixie Dreamgirl:"

"Kitty was the one who finally broke the ice. 'Now that my brother is here,' she said, obviously entering into the spirit of the moment, 'the least we can do is ask him to join us for breakfast.' I wanted to kiss her for having read my mind like that. An awkward moment followed, however, when no extra chair could be found, but Kitty came to the rescue, gesturing for me to sit between her and the person to her right (Auster 36)."

The novel floats between various generations, the American East and West, wild personal histories, family relationships/dysfunctions, and a later manuscript that combines all of these elements (Wood again on an Austerian theme: "A visiting elegantly slid into the host book"). Thomas Effing is either one of the most memorable characters in postmodern literature, or he's one of the most infuriating. With him, some of Wood's complaints are unequivocal. Auster's use of "B-movie atmosphere" is almost the textbook definition of the story of young Thomas Effing.

"He pulled the trigger, and an instant later the man went flying back in his chair, screaming as the bullet hit him in the chest, and then, suddenly, there was no sound from him at all. Effing re-cocked the rifle and pointed it at the second brother, who was hastily trying to scramble out of his bedroll on the floor. Effing killed him with one shot as well, hitting him square in the face with a bullet that tore out the back of his head, carrying it across the room in a spurting mess of brains and bone (Auster 180)."

The bulk of Wood's argument is that Auster's sketches and postmodern usage of cliches are deployed without any irony. However, the more I think about this notion, the more I feel that it's a compliment, at least in the case of Moon Palace. Auster's most blatant wordplays are often explicitly defined and explained in the course of the novel. You probably noticed a very obvious one in this essay: the name Effing. The double meaning is self-explanatory, yet Auster devotes a few sentences of definition. These can be distracting at times, but it seemed as if the hints of irony are being deflated in order to show that the writer is engaged in a strict piece of adventurous, reflective storytelling. For someone like Wood, this can be seen as having one's intelligence insulted.

The biggest distraction, as evidenced in the title, is the use of the moon as a metaphor and a constant presence throughout the work. The moon has always been used in the history of literature, but Auster keeps pointing to it, to the point that any personal meanings or symbolism that a reader could gain from it are lost. It's a classic example of "show, don't tell" rule being broken. Wood may not agree, but there are postives in Auster's fictions, and Moon Palace is no exception. Even if they are a bit sensationalized, his sketches of masculinity are striking and evocative. There's no misogyny here; if the men are assholes, they are unisex in this abrasive behavior. The looks at solitude are especially detailed, even if this acknowledgement blurs the line between the author (since he wrote an entire non-fiction account of solitary moments) and the text.

"I felt like someone about to be reborn, like someone on the brink of discovering a new continent. I watched the counterman go about his business as I smoked another Camel, then turned my attention to the frowsy waitress with the fake red hair. There was something inexpressibly poignant about both of them. I wanted to tell them how much they meant to me, but I couldn't get the words out of my mouth. For the next few minutes, I just sat there in my own euphoria, listening to myself think. My mind was a blithering gush, a pandemonium of rhapsodic thoughts. Then my cigarette burned down to a stub, and I gathered up my forces and moved on (Auster 52)."

Works Cited:
Auster, Paul. Moon Palace. Copyright 1989 by Paul Auster.
Wood, James. "Shallow Graves." Originally published in The New Yorker, November 30th.

Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 In Music: The Final 'Aught Music' Year

Well, this is it. I think I've hinted at it quite a bit in my last two updates, but we're winding down this year. There have been hundreds of amazing analyses and unabashed musical passions; it's not false modesty when I say that I was humbled when invited to join this collective. Many thanks go out to Jeremy P. Bushnell for starting this project and doing all of the behind-the-scenes updates and work. More thanks go out to the dedicated writers who put a lot of effort into Aught Music, all for the sake of enthusiasm.

So, here are my final selections, a few tracks that I felt were the best of this year. There's still a week left. Keep reading and checking out the other writers, and get the free track downloads while they are still available.

1.) "The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid" and "The Rake's Song" by The Decemberists (from the album The Hazards Of Love)

"The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid:"

Okay, I'm a little biased. I've gushed about the Decemberists for a long time, but still—this is my pick for the album of 2009. It's surprising how many magazines and sites have given The Hazards Of Love borderline reviews. If you're not a Decemberists fan, you might dismiss these tracks. However, this album not only adds more complex storytelling but uses guest vocals for maximum effects.

In "The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid," Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) provides an excellent, compelling interpretation of the evil queen in the album's narrative. She's singing and acting at the same time—listen to her draw out the word 'repaid.' Her voice is stunning and controlling. Meloy wisely lets her have the listener's complete attention.

"The Rake's Song:"

"The Rake's Song" is one of the most straight-up rock tracks that the Decemberists have written. Meloy writes the character as completely without redemption or qualities. How many songs have a narrator describing how he killed his children?

Charlotte I buried after feeding her foxglove
Dawn was easy: She was drowned in the bath
Isaiah fought but was easily bested
Burned his body for incurring my wrath

It's gratuitous and over the top, but perfectly fitting for a villian straight out of Victorian fiction.

The album needs to be listened to in its entirety, but these tracks are the best examples of the full story. It's an ambitious effort, and a great example of how guest vocalists (Worden and Becky Stark) can add to a song's atmosphere. The Decemberists have a specific style, and it's not for everyone—but it's hard to deny the efforts and dimensions that went into the narrative structure, which enhances the music greatly.

2.) "Effigy" by Andrew Bird (from the album Noble Beast)

When I originally reviewed this album, I gave it some earnest praise, but felt that it didn't match up to Bird's earlier works. However, a few more listens have revealed a few ideas that I intially missed. "Effigy" is moving, and musically, it's one of Bird's minimalist efforts. His penchant for combining varying vocal styles and multiple instruments is stripped down,making for what feels like a soft, singer-songwriter type track. His musical talents and acumen could have made this a longer, more complex song, but "Effigy" is a great example of less being more. Most importantly, it shows that he's comfortable in any given style.

3.) "This Tornado Loves You" by Neko Case (from the album Middle Cyclone)

It's what's on the inside that counts. For all the (well-deserved) attention to Case's sexy, almost campy album cover, the songs on Middle Cyclone were fantastic, with one or two misses. "This Tornado Loves You" is the perfect opening to what's superficially referred to as a 'nature album.' The melody is upbeat, the vocals are confident, and the lyrics are a great example of Case's gift for metaphor:

I carved your name across three counties
and ground it in with bloody hides
broken necks will line the ditch

Perhaps some might view this as a metaphor for a woman scorned, but for me, it goes beyond simple gender classifications. Sometimes, when we're trying to get someone's attention, we end up doing more harm than good.

(Note: This was part of a roundtable post, with further commentary by Rich Thomas. Click on the song link for the full writings. I'd also like to thank Jeff Ignatius of Culture Snob for pointing out that, in interviews, Case explains that the song is meant literally, which rightfully takes away from my interpretations, but also provides another shade to this already poignant track.)

4.) "Summertime Clothes" by Animal Collective (from the album Merriweather Post Pavilion)

Upon reflection, it's staggering to remember the varied albums that came out, of all the months, in January. Andrew Bird, A.C. Newman, Morrissey, Franz Ferdinand...but, no album set the tone quite like Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion. I was working in Seattle before this disc dropped and had the fortune to work with and become good friends with Terrance Terich, co-founder of After long discussions about music, he burned me a copy of this album, among others. I immediately agreed with him (and everyone else) that this was already one of the best albums of the year. "Summertime Clothes" is an addicting single, with a varied mix of sounds and influences. The emphasis here is on the notion of "collective"--this is a true group effort. I love how the group blends sampling and small sounds (listen carefully--it almost sounds like there are sound effects mixed in) with vocals and guitar that could have come from the 1970s. I played the crap out of this during the dreary winter, and it helped alleviate the depression of Lynnwood, Washington.

Friday, December 18, 2009

"Infinite" and Beyond

I was thirteen years old in 1996, and that year I read a major bestselling book. I was years away from having any knowledge of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, which was published that year, as well as years away from having any personal indications that I would eventually major in English and devote my time to reading and writing. The bestseller I read was H. Jackson Brown Jr.'s Life's Little Instruction Book. Looking back, it was a pseudo-religious, "holier-than-thou" collection of tidbits that were at best common sense and at worst cheesy. At that young age, I remember being irked at the instruction to "buy great books even if you never read them." What was Mr. Brown's logic? Was it his goal to have millions of people with impressive bookshelves to show off when hosting guests? Elsewhere, he suggested reading the Bible in the course of a single year, which is fitting when you're not meant to read the books you've purchased with no plans of reading.

I bought Infinite Jest for a college course some years back, and due to time and semester constraints, we spent only two weeks doing a basic study of the opening chapter. Yes, two weeks on a mere fraction of a book that's 1,079 pages. Since then, the book has been a fixture on my shelves, and it has traveled across the country twice during moves, and it came dangerously close to being my own "great, unread" book. I've read almost all of David Foster Wallace's other books (with the final exception being his debut novel, The Broom Of the System) and decided this past September to finally read Infinite Jest. After nearly three months (which seems to be the average, even for the fastest readers) and a few near postponements, I'm happy to say that I've seen this goal to the end.

Any analyses of the text tends to come with two distinct problems. One, depending on the reader, the act of reading the book becomes the focus instead of merely enjoying and studying it. There are scores of websites and online threads which, in addition to having valuable summaries and insights, also serve as a tangible statement: "Yes, we're reading Infinite Jest." This isn't meant to show off, but rather to verbalize the size of the reading. This understanding ("Infinite Jest is long and complex") too often becomes the plot, instead of the plot itself. This brings us to the second problem.

In a sort of paradox, the plot of Infinite Jest is both extremely complex yet easy to break down in a superficial manner. I'll give the superficial one, but I'll gladly acknowledge that this has been given hundreds of times. If you've read the book, you can skip ahead; if not, understand that this will not spoil or sufficiently summarize anything. The book is a study of happiness, pleasure, entertainment, and family relationships. It's set in the future, and the years have been subsidized by corporations (The Year Of the Tucks Medicated Pad, The Year Of the Perdue Wonderchicken). The bulk of the action takes place in the Year Of the Depends Adult Undergarment, which, depending on the chronology, is generally accepted to be between 2009-2015. North America has merged into the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.), and the U.S. and Canada are at odds over the Great Concavity, a toxic dump located in what used to be the bulk of the Northeast. Québécois Separatists commit acts of stunning and inspired terrorism in the United States, with a dangerously addicting film cartridge factoring into potential future acts. In the metro Boston area, the reader is given an interlocking, wildly complex, and multiple-character driven account of the lives and actions of The Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennett House, a drug recovery/halfway house. The tennis students form a character backdrop for the Incandenza family (the youngest son, Hal, is a student at the Academy; his late father founded it, and his mother is an Administrator). Don Gately, a counselor/former addict, is the focal point of the halfway house, with an equally compelling and messed up supporting cast.

Yes, fans of the book will cry foul at this summary, since it leaves out so much and probably sounds like the kind of description attributed to a high school student writing with Cliff Notes under his desk. All of my book reviews/essays are done with the intention of appealing to people who have either read the book in question as well as people who haven't. With Infinite Jest, it's a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't: giving a full explanation of the characters would simply be too long. On the other hand, not giving enough information leaves out too many narratives and too much of the smaller details.

The Incandenza family (father James; mother Avril; sons Hal, Mario, and Orin) is often tidily described as dysfunctional, and while this is true, what seems to be overlooked is Wallace's theme of dysfunctional fathers. Every father/child (be it male or female) relationship in Infinite Jest is marred by problems, whether these are emotional (the following passage, to me, is incredibly reminiscent of William Gaddis-type dialogue, even if most earlier reviewers fell back on describing Wallace as "Pynchon-esque"):

"...Jim, pick the book up if it's going to make you all goggle-eyed and chinless honestly Jesus why do I try I try and try just wanted to introduce you to the broiler's garage and let you drive, maybe, feeling the Montclair's body, taking my time to let you pull up to the courts with the Montclair's shift in a neutral glide and the eight cylinders thrumming and snicking like a healthy heart and the wheels all perfectly flush with the curb...(Wallace 162)."

or painfully incestuous:

"Matty'd [Pemulis] shrink away: shy are we sone scared are we? Matty'd shrink away even after he knew the shrinking fear was part of what brought it on, for Da'd get angry: who are we scared of, then? Then who are we, a sone, to be scared so of our own Da? As if the Da that broke daily his back were nothing more than a. Can't a Da show his son some love without being taken for a. As if Matty could lie here with his food inside him under bedding he'd paid for and think his Da were no better than a. Is it a fookin you're scared of, then (684)."

These citations are not meant to absolve the mothers of wrongdoing. However, the way the characters are shaped by the actions of their fathers reminds me of a quote by, of all people, George Carlin (not an exact quote): "All the problems of the world can be traced back to what fathers do to their sons." In Infinite Jest, this goes for daughters as well. The first quote is part of a rambling dialogue by James O. Incandenza's father, planting the seeds of competitiveness and masculinity in a father figure who, for the most part of the novel, is seen as a ghost or in post-mortem flashbacks. In their own (sometimes very twisted) ways, the fathers either don't see the problems of their actions, or feel that they're doing good in some way. Therefore, a lot of the issues presented in the novel can be traced back to the dysfunctional fathers.

In a wildly opposite point of view, it's hard to overstate how wildly funny Wallace was as a writer. For all the interlaced characters and actions, for all of the pages of pychosis and visually striking drug problems, Wallace outlined the book as a comedic masterpiece. A small example of this is his gift for writing quick, juvenile, but ultimately hilarious dialogues between the boys of Enfield Tennis Academy. In this passage, some of the players are attempting to figure out if the cafeteria milk is real or powdered:

"'You're saying they mix powered milk and then try and pour it into milkbags, all to allay?'
Schacht clears his mouth and swallows mightily. 'Tavis can't even regrout the tile in the locker room without calling a Community Meeting or appointing a committee. The Regrouting Committee's been dragging along since May. Suddenly they're pulling secret 0300 milk-switches? It doesn't ring true, Jim (630).'"

This is not the most obvious example, but for such a seemingly inane piece of dialogue, Wallace combines both intelligent insights and hilarious ramblings. Perhaps citing such a random snippet is best, since they're spread out throughout the novel. Given its length, that's part of the beauty of Infinite Jest: Wallace provides both the important "big picture" scenes and events mixed in with these smaller moments, all of which combine for authentic characterizations.

After finishing the book, I set out to find some critical essays on the text, and stumbled upon a valuable collection of reviews that came out in 1996. The collection is run by one or more diehard fans, since any review that has even a whiff of criticism is put down (Jay McInerney, for example, is referred to as a "has-been"). I selected two different reviews at random to read, and I was especially taken by this passage from Michiko Kakutani's review in the New York Times, originally published on February 13, 1996:

"Perfect, however, Infinite Jest is not: this 1,079-page novel is a 'loose baggy monster,' to use Henry James' words, a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Wallace's mind. It's Thomas Wolfe without Maxwell Perkins, done in the hallucinogenic style of Terry Gilliam and Ralph Steadman. The book seems to have been written and edited (or not edited) on the principle that bigger is better, more means more important, and this results in a big psychedelic jumble of chracters, anecdotes, jokes, soliloquies, reminiscenses and footnotes, uproarious and mind-boggling, but also arbitrary and self-indulgent."

At the same time, these sentences are both praises and criticisms of the same idea. In the Boston Book Review, David McLean (in the other review I selected) offers the same argument, but with a dose of optimism and, for lack of a better word, forgiveness:

"What follows is a scattered, non-linear, hilarious, sometimes aggravating collection of voices that somehow manages to hold together to create an aggregate, a world, that works. Wallace has not so much written a novel as created a system that is fueled by his endless imagination, his pure verbal prowess, and a language that looks familiar but feels utterly invented. Critics will debate the efficiency of the system, while others will simply put the book down in annoyance." (italics mine)

Granted, hindsight is 20/20. Later interviews and revelations revealed Wallace to be a writer who wrote fiction because of or in spite of crippling depression (my reading of this book coincided, unintentionally, with the one-year anniversary of Wallace's suicide). Writing was his way of creating order and almost scientific balances. In a strange way, the realization that even the most intelligent, well-read reviewers fell into the "is this book too long?" question is comforting. Then and now, thirteen years later, readers and reviewers struggle, not with trying to understand the book, but to understand the audacity of such an undertaking. The simple answer is yes, perhaps some scenes could have been left out. The more complex answer is no, that Infinite Jest is essential in its entirety. As I mentioned earlier, the readers get the big pictures (the characters, the vision of the future, the philosophical metaphors of the existence of a film, a piece of entertainment that is deathly perfect), along the the smaller slices of the lives, dialogues, and thoughts of even the most minor characters. There will always be a debate as to whether Wallace was indulging himself or creating his word system. Again, with the understanding of hindsight, and given how the book has become almost its own genre by itself, every word is essential. The future will bring more examples of encyclopedic narratives and post-modern showcases, but David Foster Wallace's definite masterpiece will continue to be the example by which all others are judged.

Work Cited:
Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Copyright 1996 by David Foster Wallace.

Friday, December 11, 2009

2008 In Music: Recap

We're almost done...I have a feeling that the conclusion of Aught Music will be both satisfactory and bittersweet. However, it's not over just yet. Here are my selections for 2008.

1.) "Librarian" by My Morning Jacket (from the album Evil Urges)

Finding beauty and sexiness in a quiet, alluring librarian? No, this isn't a Whitesnake song. This is a beautiful evocation of the kind of connection that all of us have every now and then, admiring someone from a distance and letting daydreams run wild. My favorite line is one that is only a part of the set-up:

Ramble up the stairwell, into the hall of books...
Since we got the interweb these hardly get used

This almost makes the song a sort of rambling inner dialogue, but it builds into a beautiful love story. The lyrics are a bit more direct than Jim James and company usually go for, but the difference works amazingly well, combined with their atmospheric music.

2.) "Acid Tongue" and "Carpetbaggers" by Jenny Lewis (from the album Acid Tongue)

"Acid Tongue:"

As I've written about Lewis before, I'm utterly convinced she would have been just as relevant and emotional had she been singing in the 1940s or 50s. This song is no exception. The combination of sadness and hope are perfect, with neither one dominating, but blending into an atmospheric haze. It's the soundtrack of sitting in a bar after a bad week and feeling a little sorry for yourself.

To be lonely is a habit
Like smoking or taking drugs
And I've quit them both
But man, was it rough.


I'm sure that most of my co-workers have wished bodily harm against me, since I've played this song dozens of times. It's unbelievably catchy and a piece of alluring storytelling. I can easily imagine the Decemberists covering this one:

They come to town when the war is over
Dirty boots in the middle of the night
Trolling the bars, hitting on the soldiers
Boys give it up without a fight
They say, "Hey, boy, how about your place?
I know you really want to take me home"
Drop the bags off on the bedroom floor
They make love with the lights on

It's also a testament to Lewis's prowess as a vocalist that she can duet with a legend like Elvis Costello and completely overshadow him. That's not to say that he doesn't fit in on this track; but there's no denying that this is a Jenny Lewis song, despite the amazing collaborations on the entire disc.

3.) "Long Division" by Death Cab For Cutie (from the album Narrow Stairs)

As much as I love Ben Gibbard and company, as much as I appreciate their evocative, poetic lyrics and soft accompaniments, it's refreshing to see that they can rock out now and them. Long Division doesn't sacrifice any of the lyrics that Death Cab has been known for since Day One:

The television was snowing softly
As she hunted for her keys
She said she never envisioned him
The type of person capable of such deceit

The atmosphere is still the same as you'd find in their slower numbers. Perhaps this is a case of 'don't fix it if it's not broken,' but a little energy can go a long way, as this song proves.

4.) "Ragged Wood" by Fleet Foxes (from the album Fleet Foxes)

It's so odd that the Fleet Foxes have been compared to 1960s folk acts, when in fact, at least in my opinion, they (almost scarily) sound like My Morning Jacket. However, despite this similarity, they still manage to retain their own style and creativity. This track is uplifting, folksy, and yet has just enough echo and reverb to sound haunting. A lot of criticism in pop music focuses on technology and production overtaking the actual process of singing and creating music. The recording on this track is all about the song, yet there's just a hint of recording manipulations that add just a touch more atmosphere.

5.) "(I Don't Want To Die) In the Hospital" by Conor Oberst (from the album Conor Oberst)

Like a lot of great tracks, this one can either resist strict genre classifications, or it can be viewed as a blend of a few different ones. The opening honkytonk piano is almost too brief, but the rest of the track keeps up a strong, folk-rock tempo. Perhaps I'm way off, but the lyrics can be easily interpreted into a folk-protest song, not unlike a faster Pete Seeger song for the 21st century.

I don't give a damn what the doctors say
I ain't gonna spend a lonesome day
I don't wanna die in the hospital
You gotta take me back outside
They don't let you smoke and you can't get drunk
All there is to watch is these soap operas

I see a ton of excellent metaphors here. I could get into some slightly outlandish hypotheses, but I think anyone can come up with their own views. Or...maybe Conor just really hates hospitals.

As I mention with every Aught Music update, the links go to free listens and downloads. These are just my contributions; there are literally dozens more for each year, selected and written by some impressive writers/music lovers. Check it out while you still can...2009 shall be commencing very soon.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Going On Nerve

Several weeks ago, a friend of mine shared a link to an article published by the website This Recording. The aim of the article was simple, even if the content was not--to present a list of the one hundred greatest writers of all-time. I immediately skimmed the list, made mental notes of the big names, and sent it to others. Another friend was quick to share his disapproval of the concept, the idea of quantifying creativity and the grouping of vastly different artists. The more I think about it, the more I agree with this critique. I went back and read the piece with more care, and I was dismayed by the fact that the writers were actually ranked from 1-100 instead of randomly compiled. Picking a list of the one hundred best [anything] will never be either complete or strictly unbiased. This month, as we get closer to a new decade, more contemporary lists will be written in a mad dash attempt to celebrate the Aughts, but in actuality, everyone should realize that these lists are opinionated, and it's impossible to assign tangible rankings to intangible works and people.

However, the list on This Recording did have its sharing of redeeming qualities, providing an excellent list of writers who I want to return to or discover more about as I take this blog into 2010 and beyond. I decided to do some studying of the poetry and history of Frank O'Hara (to prove the absurdity of the listings, he was apparently the 83rd greatest writer ever. That, of course, says absolutely nothing). Primarily in the 1950s, he wrote hundreds of poems and inadvertently created works that fit into categories and molds that he passionately resisted. For a better understanding, read the famous opening to his "Personism: A Manifesto," a brief writing that has been defined as a spoof and a spin on somber artist statements.

"Everything is in the poems, but at the risk of sounding like the poor wealthy man's Allen Ginsberg I will write to you because I just heard that one of my fellow poets thinks that a poem of mine that can't be got at one reading is because I was confused too. Now, come on. I don't believe in god, so I don't have to make elaborately sounded structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don't even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout 'Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep' (O'Hara 247)."

His works have a definite individual rhythm, and his dismissal of "expected" poetry norms is, to me, a revelation of a more pure definition of poetics: the use of words and language for emotional effects and a sort of brief storytelling. In some of the overviews of his works that I've read online, some of his earlier poems are described as surreal. While he was a friend of painters and an astute student of art, I don't think the definition of "surreal" applies to his early works. It's more about creative positioning of the words. Some of his early 1950s works can also be viewed as definitions of the poetic form. An excellent example of this is his 1950 poem "Today," which could very well be mistaken as Surrealism in writing. To me, it's more of a sketch, an idea that a poem can be shaped out of any ideas or objects.

"Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! all
the stuff they've always talked about

still makes a poem a surprise!
These things are with us every day
even on beachheads and biers. They
do have meaning. They're strong as rocks (6)."

As naturally gifted as O'Hara was (virtually all biographies of him have anecdotes about his penchant for writing poems instantly in the span of just a few minutes of time), there's no doubt of his dedication and studies of the form. As David Lehman writes about O'Hara's "Why I Am Not a Painter:" "What looks spontaneous may really be the product of a calculation, a fabrication...Like a crime, true innovation in art requires premeditation, means, motive, and opportunity."

Granted, this is just an overview of O'Hara. He was just as prolific in writing poetic sketches of New York, friends/lovers/acquaintances, somber reflections, bombastic excitement, and moving elegies and odes. His refusal to adhere to any set style manifests itself in both the ability to categorize his poetry into multiple forms as well as the chance for readers to scope multiple meanings out of his most abstract works. Poetry has so many intentions and definitions, and it's almost unintentionally insulting and simplistic to say that O'Hara's works were celebrations of life and languages. This obviously doesn't tell the complete story, nor is it any kind of substantial insight.

I'll close with one of my favorite poems, "Anxiety," written in 1957. As I mentioned above, some works lend themselves to multiple interpretations. With this one, the anxiety presented can also be a look at struggles with the creative process.

"I'm having a real day of it.
There was
something I had to do. But what?
There are no alternatives, just
the one something.
I have a drink,
it doesn't help--far from it!
feel worse. I can't remember how
I felt, so perhaps I feel better.
No. Just a little darker.
If I could
get really dark, richly dark, like
being drunk, that's the best that's
open as a field. Not the best,

but the best except for the impossible
pure light, to be as if above a vast
prairie, rushing and pausing over
the tiny golden heads in deep grass (119)."

Work Cited:
O'Hara, Frank. Selected Poems. Edited and selected by Mark Ford. Copyright 2008 by Maureen Granville-Smith.

NOTE: The text of "Anxiety" is not presented in its original book format due to spacing.

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