Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Garrison Keillor

There have been a flurry of articles about Garrison Keillor recently, but this one -- mentioned in Bookslut -- caught my attention for its unusually bitter tone. Everyone should read it, because it is a good example of the dangerous appeal of a vicious review.

First, I have not read Good Poems, nor do I have any particular attachment to Garrison Keillor, but it was still obvious to me that Kleinzahler never really scored any honest points. The only legitimate criticism of a book like this one is that the selection is lousy, but Kleinzahler never identifies a single poem that he wishes wasn't here; he appears to dislike Billy Collins, but doesn't give an example of how an included Collins poem is bad. He maintains that the poetry read on Keillor's shows "as a rule, isn't poetry at all but prose arbitrarily broken into lines masquerading as poetry" -- and doesn't provide a single example. A usual sample is "more often than not a middle-aged creative writing instructor catching a whiff of mortality in the countryside — watching the geese head south, getting lost in the woods, this sort of thing." I would bet a fair amount that there is not a single poem in the collection that could be identified by this description. It is a lot easier to be funny than accurate.

The only poets Kleinzahler does mention are Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Burns, along with Whitman and a few other modern poets that he likes; but all in all, on the basis of no evidence, he wants us to accept that this is a "rotten collection." When he does actually quote something, he identifies himself as a reader of extraordinary insensitivity. He quotes William Carlos Williams's "To Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" (the relevant line is this one: "It is difficult to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there" ) and then lays out this paragraph:
A pretty sentiment, to be sure, but simply untrue, as anyone who has been to the supermarket or ballpark recently will concede. Ninety percent of adult Americans can pass through this life tolerably well, if not content, eating, defecating, copulating, shopping, working, catching the latest Disney blockbuster, without having a poem read to them by Garrison Keillor or anyone else. Nor will their lives be diminished by not standing in front of a Cézanne at the art museum or listening to a Beethoven piano sonata. Most people have neither the sensitivity, inclination, or training to look or listen meaningfully, nor has the culture encouraged them to, except with the abstract suggestion that such things are good for you. Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.

This is an incompetent reading of the Williams poem, which is a great deal more subtle than Kleinzahler can apparently handle. First of all, since he has decided to get news from this poem, it is worth pointing out that Williams does not specify a percentage of men who die miserably, so all those Americans at the ballpark are beside the point.

More importantly, there is a calculated ambiguity in the use of the word "miserably." The first meaning is that every day people die unhappy for lack of something that poetry can provide. But, in a sense that Kleinzahler misses completely, it can also mean that these deaths are miserable because of what they have missed, that these people's lives have been somehow wretched, pitiable, lacking in fulfillment, because they lived them with no sense of beauty or imagination. Their deaths are sad for the poet, not for the people themselves, who perhaps -- as Kleinzahler points out -- never knew or cared what they were missing. From his reading of this poem, though, I suspect Kleinzahler is missing quite a bit himself. Miserable bastard. If only he got as much out of poetry as I do.

Let me just point out one more incoherent paragraph in this thoroughly incoherent review.
Are we not yet adult enough as a culture to acknowledge that the arts are not for everyone, and that bad art is worse than no art at all; and that good or bad, art's exclusive function is to entertain, not to improve or nourish or console, simply entertain. And in this, Moby Dick or Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" are not different than the movie Cat in the Hat or Britney Spears wiggling her behind on stage; the former being more complexly entertaining and satisfying, but only for those who can appreciate the difference, and they are the minority.

I was thinking for a while about this phrase: "bad art is worse than no art at all." Is this really a choice that we get to make? Has there ever been a society where exclusively good art has been produced? Our only real options as a culture are a mixture of good and bad art, purely bad art, or no art at all, and the latter two scenarios are mainly created by totalitarian governments. And how in the world is reading a bad poem worse for someone than not reading one at all? They might be equivalent, but worse?

Kleinzahler is forced to make this clearly indefensible assertion because otherwise there would be no reason to get this pissed off about a collection of poems that he happens not to like, for reasons that he himself doesn't seem to be clear about -- especially when he also argues that art is merely entertainment that some people get and other people don't. It's true that for people of a certain sensitivity bad art really is offensive, but you can't defend unleashing that anger in print unless you think that it's honestly damaging people somehow. And that's the problem if you simultaneously argue that, objectively, it isn't all that important, while generating feelings of a strength that indicate that it might just be the most important thing in the world to you. Kleinzahler realizes this contradiction, I think, but to truly face it would require throwing out most of his review, so he slips out of the knot with a bad joke...
Poetry not only isn't good for you, bad poetry has been shown to cause lymphomas and, in extreme instances, pancreatic cancer, in laboratory experiments. (I'll have to dig around in my notes to find exactly what study that was....)

The only sense in which bad art can actually be bad for you, I think, is when it generates too many reviews like this, which I honestly believe stimulate malice and are bad for the character.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Haditha and Christopher Hitchens

Anytime you're looking for someone to say something either extremely obvious or thoroughly incoherent about the situation in Iraq, but with great vehemence, Christopher Hitchens is your man. He is at it again in Slate, arguing that Haditha is not like My Lai.

I hadn't heard much of this talk, so I was curious who was actually making this claim. Hitchens has his sources. He says there's been a lot of "glib talk about My Lai." This, in the style of Internet journalism, hyperlinks somewhere. And where does it hyperlink? Yes, to another Hitchens article about why Iraq isn't like Vietnam. Is Hitchens accusing himself of glib talk?

Well, no: My Lai is never mentioned in his article. Is it mentioned in the New York Times article that he links to, which compares Vietnam and Iraq? No: that article was written long before Haditha, and mentions no massacres. Anyway, before I analyze the rest of this argument, I would just like to make something absolutely clear about this: Christopher Hitchens is a liar. If you link to something that is supposed to corrobate your argument, and it leads here, then you are either being dishonest or are just an incompetent journalist. Why do people keep publishing this guy?

Here are some of Hitchens main points: My Lai took all day; more people were killed. The army now warns people not to do such things again. Indeed, all of this is true. I waited to see where this was headed, but then he switches gears, which I must say is one of his characteristic moves:
The other difference, one ought not need add, is that in My Lai the United States was fighting the Vietcong. A recent article about the captured diary of a slain female Vietnamese militant (now a best seller in Vietnam) makes it plain that we were vainly attempting to defeat a peoples' army with a high morale and exalted standards. I, for one, will not have them insulted by any comparison to the forces of Zarqawi, the Fedayeen Saddam, and the criminal underworld now arrayed against us.

Indeed, one ought not need add this, Mr. Hitchens; I will throughly concede that these massacres took place in two different countries. Two different enemies were involved. They even took place, yes, more than thirty years apart. Why has no one else thought to point this out?

Then he marches forward with his apparent argument: the Vietcong were a people's army and he won't have them compared -- simply won't -- to Zarqawi and the other monsters we are now fighting. What? But we were talking about the massacre of one group of women and children, and comparing it with the (alleged) massacre of another group of women and children. What in the world does this have to do with the nobility or savagery of the enemy we are fighting? Is it better to shoot down a village full of civilians in a just war or an unjust war? Hitchens doesn't care; he wants to get indignant about yet another straw man. (He wisely decides to link nowhere to prove this point; I have not heard anyone praising Zarqawi's methods or congratulating him as a freedom fighter.)

Then Hitchens goes forth to take a bold position. Apparently, some insurgent elements are actually trying to make American soldiers jittery about the civilian population by sending suicide bombers. So what does this mean? "As with the foul policy above, the awful thing about this charming policy is that it works. Which leads us to one very important conclusion: Any coalition soldier who relieves his rage by discharging a clip is by definition doing Zarqawi's work for him, and even in a way obeying his orders. If anything justifies a court-martial, then surely that does."

So here is the grand finale. A soldier who shoots a civilian should be court martialed, because it's bad for America's status in Iraq. Well said, Mr. Hitchens. I too believe that a soldier - no matter how rattled his nerves might be - who walks through a village and shoots women and children, and then proceeds to cover it up by filing a false report, should be punished. And I also think that My Lai and Haditha are two different things, and that both are awful. Can I get published in Slate for saying it, or in The Atlantic, which also continually publishes this guy's useless articles? I sure hope so, because I could use the money. Here's an idea for my first article: Iraq is in the Middle East. Now all I need is a suitably vehement first sentence, preferably a little orotund: "All across the media, you can see people arguing about the position of Iraq on the globe, first saying that it is located in South America, and others arguing that it is in fact in Asia. But this is absurdly false..."

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Hypothesis About Dreams

I read an interesting article in The Sun about dreams; unfortunately the less interesting first half is all that's online. In any case, I was annoyed that I remember so few of my dreams, since apparently they are the ticket to psychological health; more dreams might also mean less money spent on movies.

My genuinely hallucinatory sequences -- the sort of things stereotypically associated with deep sleep -- happen in daydreams, or when I've just started to go to sleep, the periods during which I still have some level of control over what happens, and for whatever reason am no longer thinking about sex. So why do I remember nothing happening when my mind is left to its own devices? Am I completely lacking in imagination? To avoid reaching this conclusion, I've come up with a hypothesis to explain my sad dream life, as well as those of most people I know.

From reading old books, I have a real sense that, a century ago and farther back, people dreamed more - or rather, they remembered more; and that these memories had greater density and were therefore taken more seriously as a part of everyday life. So why do so many people today say they rarely remember dreams? Here's my theory: alarm clocks. The few dreams I do remember almost always come when I'm about to come out of sleep: when the sun is starting to shine on my face, when my bladder is just starting to make demands in the middle of the night; that is, at the stage when the conscious mind is just starting to rouse, and with it our capacity to remember what is going on. The slow wake is essential to remembering dreams.

And what completely destroys the slow wake? Yes, the alarm clock! Nothing is more destructive to the in-between stage between sleep and consciousness than the braying of the alarm; it immediately displaces whatever might have been going on in your head with its insistent reality of beeps or songs or people talking.

So why don't people always dream on weekends, you ask? Well, it's quite possible to internalize an alarm clock, and live by the habits it instills; even without the alarm going off, your conscious brain may lose the facility of gradually waking and sneaking up on those vaporous dream transmissions. Another possible explanation: more comfortable beds. I remember dreaming a great deal when camping, because the rocks poking into my back kept me continually floating in the in-between state, but I was tired enough from hiking to stay asleep instead of just tossing.