Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 20, 2013

Poetry notes

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 8:32 pm

Paul Pines

Quite by coincidence two very interesting items that fall within the general rubric of poetry arrived in my mailbox within the last week. One was the long and very interesting article by Mark Edmundson titled “Poetry Slam, Or, The decline of American verse” that was part of the July 2013 Harper’s, a magazine that I have been subscribed to for three decades now. The other was Paul Pines’s latest book of poems titled “New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros”, a collection that serves as a counter-example to the malaise described by Edmundson. While I don’t want to get a reprimand from Harper’s web-master about purloining their intellectual property (and worse?), I think that quotes qualify as “fair use”:

Contemporary American poetry speaks its own confined language, not ours. It is, by and large, pure. It does not generally traffic in the icons of pop culture; it doesn’t immerse itself in ad-speak, rock lyrics, or politicians’ posturing: it gravitates to the obscure, the recondite, the precious, the ancient, trying to get outside the mash of culture that surrounds it. The result is poetry that can be exquisite, but that has too few resources to use to take on consequential events.

 Mass culture and mechanical reproduction surely play a part in the current retreat of American poetry, but what about MFA programs? Poetry now is something of a business. You make your way into the game by getting a sponsor: often it’s a writer in residence from your undergraduate school. Then come the MFA and the first book, both of which usually require sponsorship—which is to say pull.

 To thrive in this process you often must write in the mode of the mentor—you must play the game that is there to be played. You must be a member of the school, you must sing in the correct key. If you try to overwhelm the sponsor, explode his work into irrelevance—well, the first law of success is simple: Never outshine the master. The well-tempered courtier knows how to make those above him feel superior. He knows that in his desire to succeed he must not go too far in displaying what he can do. The master will not like it—and there will be no first book, no fellowship, no job, no preferment. It is only by making the master look more accomplished, by writing in his mode, becoming a disciple, that the novice ascends.

When reading this it dawned on me that academy-based poets trying to “make it”, to invoke the title of Norman Podhoretz’s memoir about his climb to the top of the literary establishment, have lots in common with dissertation students who shy away from writing something that will irk a member of their board. Since their career is on the line, they avoid sounding too “Marxist” or any other ism that is frowned upon in the academy.

Paul Pines took another route entirely as should be obvious from the home page of his website.

Paul Pines grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbets Field and passed the early sixties on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a merchant seaman, spending 1965-66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a taxi and tended bar until he opened The Tin Palace in 1970, the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Wm Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. My Brother’s Madness(Curbstone, 2007) a memoir, has recently enjoyed wide critical acclaim.

This sort of background is equal to a thousand MFA’s. Oddly enough, it reminds me of what Karl Marx wrote to W. Bracke in 1875: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”

Perhaps the best illustration of Paul’s ability to write some of the most memorable and finely wrought poems of anybody on the scene today is the first one in the series titled “HELLO FROM NOLA” (NOLA is New Orleans, Louisiana):


I dress up for Mardi-gras
in a costume provided
by my hostess

on the package
Jesus, “one size
fits all.”

a long white gown
a red sash
a wild wig of auburn curls
down to my shoulders
and a beard
I can’t secure
to my ears which
are too small
must finally pin to
my “soft” crown
of thorns

When I appear
my hostess
“You look more
like a rabbi.”

I point out that many
called him this
which is what he
probably was.

Another in our group

“He looks more
like Moses.”

On our way through
the French Quarter
to a party
in Jackson Square
at La Petit Theatre
(oldest community
theater in the U.S.)
celebrants ask
for my blessing
attempt to kiss
the hem of my

I confess relief
when a beefy guy
in a New Orleans Saints
football jersey jumps
in front of me

“Hail, Bacchus!”

obviously mistaking
my crown of thorns
for grape leaves.

“New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros” can be ordered direct from the publisher: http://www.dosmadres.com/shop/new-orleans-variations-paris-ouroboros-by-paul-pines/.

1 Comment »

  1. Here’s to New Orleans! (And Paul Pines) How about some poems to Old Iberville Housing Project (to be ‘improved’ at the cost of even less housing for the underpaid)? Or to Charity Hospital, where everyone used to be born (and die), replaced by megabucks LSU suburban-style downtown facility at the cost of local home owners’ rebuilt post-Katrina houses? (There are some songs to them both.)

    Comment by Malcolm Willison — June 21, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

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