Laura Goldstein on Opera Bufa in moria poetry

This pdf on IA is a page from a 2008 issue of Chicago's moria poetry featuring a review of Opera Bufa by Laura Goldstein.

Sanctioned American Middlebrow-ism

Another fact and facet of growing up in Cheltenham: the prevalence of what I call sanctioned American middlebrow-ism. The ideal, sanctioned American middlebrow text is a novel or a play (serious poetry, for reasons I'll get to, is too threatening) which shoots, with expert aim, right for the middle of the bloody, insipid road- just artsy enough to display some heft or rigorousness, but not artsy enough (i.e. innovative or inventive enough, formally or thematically) to alienate the typical suburban home-owning character; characters memorable, but not individualistic enough to inspire anyone to rebel or lash out at restrictions; situations challenging, but always reinforcing the master narrative that everything's real, everyone's real, and we're all leading cohesive lives; and a patina of glamour around the heroic, blandly courageous, hip if strangely innocuous author who brought the damned thing into the world. All the sanctioned American middlebrow names stand in a row, basking in the warm glow of New York, Broadway, press junkets, and strange literary venerability in those magical repository spaces: The New Yorker, Harper's, The New Republic, New York Review of Books, The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly: Bellow, Malamud, Updike, Miller, Mailer, Mamet, T. Williams, Cheever. Anything tinged even a bit European is too uppity for this group: other Mandarinite names: Stoppard, Amis, Nabokov. If I have to laugh at Cheltenham (again), it's at just how far the blarney extended, in my youth, to make sure real poetry couldn't happen; which is to say, that no individual may develop his/her consciousness against the collective interests of our corrupt, yet culturally with-it, community. Lameness squared, brains neutered/spayed.

That's why real poetry is so threatening: it can only be done the right way by cohesive individuals, against the interests of conglomerates, and in such a way that conglomerate interests are killed by it instantly, as has happened many times in history. When the poetry in a society is set loose, places like Cheltenham sink into a morass of discontent and squalid self-abnegation. Poetry is, must be, when it is major high art consonant, as individualistic as individuals can be. So, Cheltenham: what happens to David Mamet in the twenty-first century? Will you be dropping the name David Mamet (or Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill) in 2050? I think you and I both know the answer to that question. If I feel the need to write this, it is because I will admit to some residual bitterness (still) about the place I was raised, and what a cultural cul-de-sac it was. With the press beating me and my peers to death with Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, and our teachers, parents, and other authority figures weighing in with Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and even (for the daring) Camus and Kerouac on the side, it's a bloody miracle any of us lived to figure out what the wages of low-brow-ism and middle-brow-ism are in a time of crisis. As in, only the classicist impulse can get you through an era of trauma in one piece. And, as the cultural dwarfs shout out Snob!, it can't matter much, because what the hell else are they supposed to say? Read the new Philip Roth?

Twisted Flowers, Perverse Ornaments

Shelley, in Adonais, has a way or manner of referring to both John Keats, and Keats' poetry, as flowery, or flower-like, or even just Keats-as-a-flower and his texts ("melodies") as flowers as well. Shelley's most grandiose moments, especially within the elegy Adonais, tend towards perversity or twistedness; just as Keats' apogees lean towards the straightforward or earnest. But the question I'd like to raise is a tangent to Shelley's designation of Keats and all things related to Keats as "flowery," and it has to do with a substitution of sorts: let's say what is "flowery" in serious art or poetry could also be called "ornamental." That is, meant to heighten sensation, especially sensations of enjoyment/euphoria, without changing or challenging the substance of human thought or consciousness. Does Shelley find Keats to be, in his life and art, ornamental? Is prosody, the melodic richness of language, merely ornamental or an ornament? As I have said before, but it bears repeating in this context, if you eliminate Keats here, dismiss his prosodic achievement as merely ornamental, you have (also) to take out Bach and Beethoven. By Shelley's definition (it would seem), all music is "flowery," ornamental. If I cannot accept this designation as more than a half-truth, it is because what music, in poetry or in its more purified form, does for human consciousness, as a conduit to rendering the most heightened forms of emotion as palpably as possible, is substantial, and adequate to evince the seriousness of the narrative-thematic levels of literature which have more gravitas for Shelley. Little but music teaches us how we feel, and that the importance of emotion is permanent.

So, when Keats sings to us of Psyche, his sadder but wiser girl, it is built into his achieved aesthetic balance that what is flower-like gives us more than half of Keats' earned gravitas, but by no means the whole thing; while Shelley's music is adequate, but does not display the emotional fluency or dynamism of Keats'. Then, it follows that the narrative-thematic levels which predominate draw us back to his texts, and the emotional heft of Shelley's best verse is twisted into a taste we may have for the gnarled or ghastly (and scarred and riven). This is why, at the end of the day, artists of consequence will have a difficult time choosing Keats over Shelley or vice versa; they are so distinct from each other, each the creator of his own universe or consciousness-world, that the comparison has the quality of being apples and oranges. Shelley's condescension, in Adonais, is one of the attitudes that is gnarled in/from him, or twisted, or perverse; just as Keats does, in fact, make a fetish of flowers and flower-like vistas. In a time of recession, serious students of poetry will have to choose from day to day both what they enjoy and what they prefer. What happened later in nineteenth century England- Swinburne and Tennyson taking flowery aesthetics into a realm of no intellect/no imagination, while Victorian mystery novels got twisted, perverse- is not of as much interest as the century's predominant opening salvos, as the twenty-first gets underway with its own twisted flowers and perverse ornaments, and pendulums are prepared to swing back and forth.

Worlds On Worlds

Another recessional lesson: that the primary pleasure or enchantment to be drawn from human life is in one's brain and the quality of one's thoughts. That's how I feel about my life right now. Look at what a recession is, and what a recession does: it throws individuals back on their cognitive resources, and either the cognitive depth is there to move the whole she-bang forward, or the human life is essentially over. For the walking dead this might pass muster, but not for me. Imagination is an expression of cognitive depth: so that, when an individual gazes into the night sky, into space, they can draw some kind of imaginative strength from the possibilities of drawing down "space" into their life or consciousness, and thus extending the space their cognitive capacities takes up. This, when quotidian reality sinks into the trough of the lurid and/or macabre. As to where else to look, for what might be genuine cognitive sustenance in a heavily recessional time: the answer to me is crystal clear- high art, philosophy, and science. These are the best human repository spaces for the highest cognitive vistas the human race is capable of opening and exploring.

As per the place of a settled expression like Keats' Odes in all of this- it pays to remember that, if created with enough imagination or cognitive depth, the best products of high art, philosophy, and science create their own self-sustained, self-justified universes, to be inhabited by whatever brains have leave to inhabit them. All the cacophonous garbage stuffed into our brains- pop culture crap, media drivel, inane conversations, in fact everything which denies the truth consonance of humanity's triumph only in the cognitive- looks lurid and macabre in the middle, or in the bottoming out period around or after, a major recession. This vulgarized garbage, if the situation is steep enough, can turn a decent human brain into pulverized mush. There is nothing more macabre then a decent brain, crippled by inanity into lies, duplicity, and denial. In fact, that's what's so eerie about a recessional period- how many people are willing to deny what they see. In certain situations/contexts, the claustrophobia of complete denial is so intense, so demoralizing, that it is difficult to imagine getting through this without suffering grievous wounds. Still, que sera, sera.

Beyond the Charmed Circle of the Human...

One may learn the important lesson from a recessional time: not to overestimate the human race. I am, myself, learning not to overestimate the human race. Also: to consider why the major Romantics chose to incorporate, both into their literary endeavors and their generalized consciousness, energies from without the charmed circle of the human race, rather than within; to forge a workable relationship, worth writing about, with trees, mountains, rivers, birds, flowers, and the like. One answer is painful, but simple: the consciousness of a Keats or a Shelley has more in common, both in its intentions and in its creative capacities, with what inheres in natural objects (trees, mountains, etc) than with the average human being, and with average human consciousness. It's a byproduct of both age, and experience; to understand, on a profound level, how middling most human consciousness is, how involved in delusion and duplicity, and then to see how this charmed, or not very charmed, circle might be broken. If you can access higher realities in a meaningful way, there would seem to be no reason not to do so. In terms of a lesson from Romanticism worth learning, that is one, though it may or may not be the most salient.

What Modernism and post-modernism gave us, where literature is concerned, is the sense that these relationships, between the human mind and the Otherness of nature, are silly, adolescent, frivolous. The problem is that most human consciousness is, in and of itself, silly, adolescent, and frivolous, and to stay within the charmed circle of the human (or, to get even more narrow, the charmed circle of textuality) is to stay a child, repeating ad infinitum that we are the center of the universe, and that the human race should be homogenized the right way. A homogenized human race manifests no individuals, and if there is nothing outside the text, the cosmic egg is both cracked and unusable. Why Keats and Shelley are older than those who followed and inverted them is that they bring to the surface how wildly uneven both the human race, and human consciousness, are, and that higher consciousness, when it manifests, needs to recognize both this variability (rather than a vaunted homogeneity) and the means to transcend it, sometimes within the charmed circle of the human, sometimes not. The ditsy quality of Modernism and post-modernism takes what makes Romantic poetry superior and pretends it is the pursuit of unreal phantoms; it's just that the human race, more than nature without us, has a problem with the unreal and with phantom systems of government, and when consciousness cannot attach to higher realities, it falls into a trough of stale ironies, incomprehensible symbols, and perverse lecherous inversions of lowliness into sublimity and cacophony into harmony.

Jeffrey Side on "Beams" on Open Library

Jeffrey Side's groundbreaking 2008 review of "Beams" in Galatea Resurrects #9 now has its own page on Open Library. Cheers.

Shelley: Adonais (youblisher)

Adonais: An Elegy On The Death Of John Keats

That, or Thou...

Shelley's conception of nature, as presented in Mont Blanc, hinges on an essential perceived duality- what is sublime against what is "ghastly, scarred, and riven." That the Ravine of Arve is referred to as "that, or thou" is significant- "that," third-person nature, or "it" nature, can be taken to signify the ghastly, scarred, riven aspect of this "clear universe of things"; "thou," second-person nature, or "you-nature," can be taken to signify the natural majestic or sublime, companionable and personal against "it." Shelley has, at his disposal, models and/or conceptions to gauge what best represents the Power or "secret strength of things" which is seen to under-gird both nature and human thought- the mind's musings on itself (self-reflexive musings), or the equally self-reflexive pursuit of  poetic/creative "ghosts," or a language/linguistic universe. That Shelley opts for visible, material Nature, in its duality, as the most workable model or synecdoche of this Power indicates that Shelley's conclusions seem to follow an imperative drive towards the crowning of empiricism or materialism over imagination, in a manner that Kant might approve of. It is the streak of a scientific ethos in an aesthetic context, and purifies Shelley's conclusions: re-affirmations of duality.

Keats, in comparison, likes things companionable all the way through. He attempts to impose "thou" status on everything, and to live in, and write from, a resolutely personal universe. Not just personal; a personal universe tinged by imagination into an ultra-personal, or hyper-personal universe. The first line of Grecian Urn, "Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness..." gives (to some extent) the entire anti-empirical game away. Oddly enough, Keats' connection to "that," to a third-person situation, context, or universe, is manifested by the mysteries of his prosody- where it comes from, its power and secret strength, how it manifests. It is not, it must be noted, particularly accounted for by Keats himself; he is, in Romantic terms (apropos here) the conduit or channel for it, and absolved by this position from the rigors of having to account for its empirical manifestation (or, as they said in Regency England, "numbers").

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Mont Blanc on IA

Shelley's blank verse masterpiece "Mont Blanc," available to be read/downloaded in pdf form on IA. Here, also, is Mont Blanc in full-text  from 

Keats' Visions/Visions of Keats

Keats' odal celebration of Psyche, deified as a goddess rather than merely a figure of myth, initiates a dynamic whereby we understand Keats' conception of the feminine, and of women. Psyche, importantly, is virginal but not a virgin; if she has retained her original innocence, it is also tempered by the vagaries of an active amatory life. Keats' also initiates, from the second generation of Romanticism, a strain of androgyny in his writing, whereby he can appear wisely passive and receptive or active and imposing. These two complexes together can equal, on one level, a simple whole: Keats likes women. He likes feminine energy, feminine innocence, and the seductive power (power to charm) which emanates from this energy and innocence put into dramatic, dynamic motion in art and myth. There is, in his appreciation of the feminine, nothing particularly perverse or lateral; he represents his tastes in such a way that the wholesome (or natural or organic) is emphasized. Even what is Pagan in Keats is nature-worshipping, and wholesome. The imaginative vistas spun out of this ethos are also nature-worshipping, and wholesome, as befits a cognitive attachment to a classical reality deemed "happily pious" in relation to the England Keats was raised in. Psyche stands in the center of the odal cycle as the charming, seductive synecdoche of this facet of Keats' sensibility.

Yet, however John Keats chose to live his life among the female of the species, clearly Percy Bysshe Shelley found Keats disingenuous or deluded. Adonais takes all this healthy, organic, wholesome energy and inverts it. As female splendor after splendor (what a splendor is for Shelley is a kind of earth-spirit or half-ghost) jumps on and molests Keats' corpse, we also see a kind of reversal in sensibility suggesting another inversion: Shelley does not like women, and feminine energy, as much as Keats does. This may be refuted by other sectors of Shelley's oeuvre, but Shelley was a poet of many moods, and a misogynistic mood may be one of them. By showing us these "damp deaths," Shelley adds an implicit critique of Keats' treatment of the Psyche myth in his odal cycle, and also (maybe, and daringly) opens a window not only on Fanny Brawne, but on what other kind of women were attracted by Keats during his lifetime. This is not just a question of the class differential between Shelley and Keats, which is (admittedly) huge in and of itself- it is a question of writing a palimpsest over a whole vision of human reality, an idealistic one, and replacing it with a perverse, materialistic, yet (also) more painstakingly honest one. If, traditionally, Keats is seen to be the materialist and Shelley the idealist, it is only because twentieth century literary criticism evinced its own perversity in molesting corpses with its splendors, and taking the easy way out, back to an inverted paradise.

The dire battle...

Again, here is Cheltenham Elegy 420:

The Junior Prom deposited me (and fifteen
others) on the floor of her basement. I could
barely see daylight at the time, and at three in
the morning I began to prowl. I was too scared
to turn on any lights. She emerged like a mermaid
from seaweed. I needed comfort, she enjoyed my
need. We had gone out— she was bitter. The whole
dialogue happened in shadows. No one was hooking
up in the other room, either. You spiteful little princess.

...and here is the Two Teens Trilogies "p.s.", 2013:

Whether off the bathroom counter
or the back of your hand, darling,
your unusual vehemence that
winter night, cob-webbed by
half-real figures, was animated by an
unfair advantage, which they threw
at you to keep you happy as you
died piece-meal. All I had
was incomprehensible fury and a
broken heart— when I hit the floor
at four, you were getting ready
to incise dawn’s throat, & opened—

So, there you have it. The house was in Cheltenham, the Junior Prom was a macabre as Rocky Horror, and I was in hell for this dire battle.

Another Chimes Conjunction

Another recurrence of a character in two books; Ted from Chimes here:

We had many adventures, Ted and I, but the roles we played were always the same. I was Quixote to Ted’s Sancho Panza. If we were pelted with snowballs or pelting others with snowballs, staring at girls or being stared at by girls, making prank calls or getting calls from friends, always it was my job to instigate the action, be a man of daring, direct our movements. Ted would consolidate our activity, provide focus. He was the solid man. When I would push things too far, he’d reign me in. We grew into adolescence as an odd couple par excellence; Ted quiet, me raging, Ted pliant, me baiting. However much of my father’s dominance Ted internalized, I was still able to steer things when I wanted to. Unlike N, Ted had no taste for self-made drama; things (me included) came to him. There was a long time in which neither of us could imagine a withdrawal for any reason. also the focus of Cheltenham Elegy 413:

All piled into the house on Woodlawn.
They had me do all the old jokes, as though
I were a wind-up toy. Most of them had
never been in the house before. It was
about to be abandoned anyway; but my
mind still clings to it. I smoked pot there
for the first time. I got on the road to my
first hook-up at a party, & I punched a
Hulk Hogan poster’s crotch. Now even
this pile-up was fifteen years ago. The shed
in the back was filled with smoke, as were we.

That house on Woodlawn Avenue in Elkins Park was Ted's. His family moved out of it in late '96, when Elegy 413 takes place. I haven't been in that neighborhood in almost twenty years, and I wonder if it still looks the same, carries the same ambiance, which has always seemed to me rather English. In fact, all of Elkins Park is tinged in such a way to give it some of the grandeur of the more ritzy London suburbs. The rest of Cheltenham, less stable about gentility, not as much.

The Iconicity Complex

Each generation, and individuals born into each generation, have unique crosses to bear. What was handed to American kids born between 1970 and 1980- an iron-clad insistence, which trickled down from the media and other high sectors into the populace, on the iron-clad importance, worthiness, and compelling power of pop culture and the status of its luminaries as (barely sub-religious) icons- left us with warped emotions and stunted brains. For all that we achieved culturally in Philly in the Aughts, I can't help but wonder how many kids in the population had high-level, high-maintenance creativity pummeled out of them by a Pop World/Pop Church culture, cocked at a pulverizing angle against the development of cognitive-affective attachment to serious art and creativity. If we are beginning to have perspective on the two decades in question- the 80s and 90s- it is because the Great Recession (along with the Aughts before it) has eroded the brittle foundations of Pop World/Pop Church enough that it is no longer a compelling reality for the American public. Things are drifting in a recessional space, and nothing can be enforced in an iron-clad way on a wide basis- both the numbers and the zeitgeist ethos are MIA. I have already expressed that the current "drift" or "float" is preferable to a system of Pop World/Pop Church enforcement; now that things are just what they are (no more, no less), the populace are free to use their brains.

Yet I do feel elegiac about the blood sacrifices I was forced to witness back in the day- bright kids tethered to a stupid regime to have stupid thoughts and pursue frivolous goals. Everyone in PFS, I will confess, did suffer, at some point in their respective lives, from the Iconicity Complex- the idea that crass, vulgarized fame is what legitimates a creative person, and anything less deems them unworthy, unimportant, and uninteresting. Because we were brainwashed into carrying this complex around, against the reality of the pursuit of serious art and other forms of high-maintenance creativity, which requires both rigorous discipline and rigorous patience, as well as the sacrifice (often) of short-term success or glory, we suffered accordingly, and needlessly. However much fun we had in Aughts Philly, and we did have a lot of fun in Aughts Philly, this complex was always waiting in the wings to force our minds and souls into a corpse-laden gutter. Who knows how much richer Aughts Philly could've been without this psychological hindrance on PFS, the Last Droppers, and everyone else; as of 2015, it is very difficult to say.

Dear, Brutal

For those with an interest in my books, this might be a useful revelation, from the writer's life. The character "N" in Chimes, who appears here:

N was the girl with the olive skin. We continued to dance around each other, loving but not committing ourselves. At a party at someone’s house in Elkins Park, we went outside together and my hands were gripped by something and they went all over her. It was a big wave and it was coursing through me into her skin. I had no me, I was permeated by the feeling of two-in-one; the third that walked beside us took over. Yet, when I called the next day, N would not commit to it ever happening again, or even to continue going out. I had an intimation that this was to be my life: full of beautiful, difficult women. N was the first and an archetype that remains visible to me when I mate, or even meet, another beautiful, difficult woman that is for me. I have a muse, she is like this: recalcitrant and blue. the same character who appears in Cheltenham Elegy 420:

The Junior Prom deposited me (and fifteen
others) on the floor of her basement. I could
barely see daylight at the time, and at three in
the morning I began to prowl. I was too scared
to turn on any lights. She emerged like a mermaid
from seaweed. I needed comfort, she enjoyed my
need. We had gone out— she was bitter. The whole
dialogue happened in shadows. No one was hooking
up in the other room, either. You spiteful little princess.

...and she's in Two Teens Trilogy as well. These two poems are spaced four to five years apart, and I had to deal with her brutishness (shot through, on the other side, with incisive intelligence and intensity) through those years. She (and we) didn't always intend to start fires, but sometimes it just seemed to happen that way. And she was a decent muse in other ways I'll talk about later.

Dancing with Dancing with Myself Pt. 2

I have a few more things to say about Dancing with Myself. The perspective adopted by the author of a sonnet does not have to be a youthful one, but it tends to be. The youthful voice, exploring feelings of confinement, isolation, or (conversely, as in Keats' sonnets) euphoria and expansiveness, tends to hit us with a sense of something bubbling over or overflowing. The protagonist of Dancing with Myself adopts, uncommonly, a weathered voice and perspective, a voice already scarred by a lifetime of painful experience, even if the voice still believes in the redemptive powers of love and companionship. I think of Wordsworth and "The world is too much with us...", probably the gravest, most profound sonnet of the nineteenth century; my exiled-from-paradise protagonist shares with Wordsworth's the sense of disenchantment and alienation from the dreary intercourse of daily life and its vagaries. Yet the melancholy of age and experience vie here with the poignant sense of not-yet-atrophied emotional responsiveness, and not-yet-atrophied intellectual curiosity to go right along with it. This protagonist is weathered but not defeated.

Another bizarre Romanticism tangent, this time to Keats' Odes: the protagonist of Dancing with Myself finds himself exploring all the silence and slow time he needs, as Keats' does when he beholds his Grecian Urn. What these sonnets are drained of is the sense of original innocence engraved into the urn; that the urn celebrates youth, ecstasy, conflict, faith, and mythology, and Keats ricochets them back into his poem, mirroring the themes reckoned, adding his own gloss and prosodic richness; while Dancing with Myself explores age and aging processes, keeping the conflict, faith, and mythology, losing the youth and ecstasy. Part of the aged or weathered quality of the Dancing with Myself sonnets are expressed in their approach to form: rather than aping the Romantics, as a younger poet might, I employ what I call "clustering" or semi-formal techniques. Thus, I avoid the merely imitative, and express the maturity of a poet who can make formal compromises towards the creation of new forms.