Friday, July 22, 2005

Languid Listening

If Lester Bangs were alive today, he'd know exactly
why Miles Davis used to call Branford Marsalis "the police".

Ron Silliman
(Comment to Silliman's blog, May 27, 2005)

Get the fuck off the stage.
Miles Davis to Wynton Marsalis, onstage at
the Vancouver Jazz Festival, 1986

I think Kasey gets it right about the lack of any genuine "pop" version of poetry, which makes us look (both in jazz and poetry) for mass-selling aberrations to identify the true "sell out". (In popular music this is a difficult category since selling out -- namely, the show -- is a respectable activity. As Kasey points out, you can't really make sales an embarrassment for U2 or the Stones.) This is where Kenny G and Billy C come up.

(For the record Kenny G=Billy Colllins.)*

I think also the idea that, on this logic, Ron Silliman is the Pat Metheny of poetry is at least an avenue to pursue. Though I'm well out of my depth here, it seems clear to me that Pat and Ron are better at their art (or "instrument") than Kenny and Billy. Ron and Pat also seem to be more technically knowledgeable, both in their real work and their online commentary (Metheny's remarks read a bit like Silliman's though they are obviously less carefully written). I have a lot to learn about how get them, however, because they're just so, well, inaccessible.

Billy and Kenny are very accessible. And I imagine much of this is about the sense in which their work makes for "easy" listening or reading. Kenny G's Classics in the Key of G (this is not made up) is what got stuck in Metheny's craw, just as Billy's 180 More got stuck in Ron's. Terry Wood's editorial review of Kenny G's efforts is polite until the last sentence. "Languid listening from start to finish." (Fast fact from Google: "languid listening" means (1) Willie Nelson and (2) Kenny G.)

Consider Collins' own compositional principle, which he offered in an inaugural interview with the Library of Congress:

I'm trying to modulate--I'm trying to mix serious poems with lighter poems. And I'm trying to create, you know, a mix of the two faucets. I don't want it to be just amusing and I don't want it to be too much gravitas. I'd say that really is a guiding principle for the way I compose poetry.

Billy Collins writes intentionally luke warm poems. I wonder if Wood meant it as a compliment? I'm sure Collins thinks he meant "standing firm in the middle" (Pound/Kung) but couldn't get his mind around a fitting image.

But there's still the Marsalis Bros. connection to think about. Let's say Robert Creeley is the Miles Davis of poetry. Whom would he call "the police"? Who would he tell to get the fuck of the stage?

Maybe this is all just barking up the wrong tree. Consider "Snow Day", "Portrait of the Reader at the Breakfast Table", "I Ask You". Billy Collins is the Bil Keane of poetry. Poems of suburban comfort. Meanwhile ...

Bono breathes into a microphone,
Outside, it's America
Outside, it's America


*For an earlier version of this equation see Paul Stephen's "An Apology for Poetry, or, Why Bother with Billy Collins" (Drunken Boat #4,Spring 2002): "He is a very bad poet. At best, he is a very mediocre humorist.//Billy Collins is to good poetry what Kenny G is to Charlie Parker; what sunset paintings at the mall are to Jackson Pollock; what Rod McKuen is to Walt Whitman; what Tori Spelling is to Lana Turner; what the burkha is to lingerie; what the Backstreet Boys are to the Beatles; what George W. Bush is to the art of extemporaneous speech; what Osama bin Laden is to women’s liberation; what Dan Quayle is to spelling; Billy Collins is to poetry what the New Age/Mysticism section in the bookstore is to the Philosophy section, assuming that those two sections haven’t been conflated yet down at your local Barnes and Noble."

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