Sunday, September 10, 2006

unfinished reviews of two books

Time to clean out the files:

Eric Weisbard (ed) This is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project (2004)

I remember when the Experience Music Projects first conference was announced in 2001 (it was actually held in April 2002) that this sounded like a great idea. A meeting of usually separate or at least separately channelled journalists, academics and practicing musicians to discuss and debate shared concerns. From the bits and pieces I heard, it was fairly successful.

This is Pop collects various presentations from the conference, ranging from suggestive and useful to some almost unreadable. Particularly worthwhile are RJ Smith’s history of “Open the Door Richard,” Simon Reynolds on collecting, Tim Quirk’s “Topless at the Arco Arena,” Douglas Wolk on how CD mastering and radio compression can actually change musical styles and Jason Toynbee’s account of how the Wailers were marketed to the rock world. I’m also fascinated by Luc Sante’s musings on the origin of the blues and wish it had more historical data, though I think it’s already wormed its way into my consciousness.

There are a few clunkers. Gayle Wald’s piece on Sister Rosetta Tharpe is intended to put the guitarist/singer in a more critical position in musical history but aside from reading more like the introduction to a book it simply never does this. She piles up assertions on more assertions with little substance to shore everything up. Sleater-Kinney-ite Carrie Brownstein’s piece would never have been accepted if she wasn’t a “name.” Ann Powers piece on unoriginality makes one major error when she claims that when a bland Enya song (redundant yes) became the unofficial anthem for 9/11 grief that the “profound unoriginality was a pathway to relief and a proper response to a time when silence was unbearable yet seemed the only appropriate response.” Left unexamined is the distinct possibility that bad art might actually be damaging, that it might shut off thought or close down emotions. In a way, that’s what she’s arguing: the ridigity and mindless simplicity of this corporate product gave direction to people who needed it. Only she thinks that’s a good thing.


Karen McCosker & Nicholas Albery - A Poem a Day (1994, US edition 1996)

I usually avoid this sort of thing (both popcult anthologies and anything “a day”) but flipping through it in the bookstore thought it seemed reasonably wide-ranging and worth not purchasing but checking out of the library. It is a pretty nice anthology that focuses mainly on accessible short poems. There are some lapses such as the inexplicable inclusion of a poem on a subject in very poor taste and several song lyrics (which are not poems as you would have thought beaten into the ground by now but I suspect in this case somebody thought they were being open-minded by including them). And Tennyson’s “The Eagle” is a stuffed-owl candidate. There’s far too many Gerard Manly Hopkins (thirteen when three would be pushing it) and too many very short excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays. You can—actually should—skip McCosker’s foreward, exactly the kind of nitwitless thing you get from people who’ve read too much poetry in order to enlarge the NPR center of their brain rather than shaking their soul. It was a bad design decision that when a poem goes to a second page to place a repeat of the title almost as if it’s part of the poem. The strangest thing about the book is the notes that often appear at the end of a poem. The brief comments are wildly inconsistent; sometimes offering mini-biographies, sometimes a stab at explication and always nearly feeling totally random. Does it make the slightest bit of difference about Kenneth Patchen’s wife’s maiden name? Why mention the publication date of a William Oldys poem but not the date for most others? Why is Siegfried Sasson’s biography longer than the poem it accompanies? Does it make the slightest bit of difference how many children Francis William Bourdillon had? The little critical engagements are best skipped. The worst example is for Blake’s “Jerusalem” where they claim “The dark satanic mills refer first and foremost to Oxford and Cambridge and the rigidity of classics and mathematics.” Even if there’s some document where Blake wrote this is exactly what he intended it’s simply incorrect within the way the poem actually works.