If I had the money and time to be self-employed, or live off of my own writing, I might have the time to indulge in all the partaking of art I am proffered. From countless small time publishers offering me free copies- print and cyber- of their latest releases, to almost as many small time film sites and companies that somehow my name and email addresses somehow, and inevitably, make their way onto. Add to that the endless submissions of essays and poems- especially from the Indian Subcontinent which, in almost mind-boggling fashion, seems to mint a quarter million or more English language and literature MFAs and PhDs per year, and to whom my name, and my website, Cosmoetica, invariably end up as one of the top targets.
Yes, this is a plaint, but let me first acknowledge the flattery such recognition and targeting brings: it says, in unequivocal terms, that a posting on my website, and a good comment or recommendation from me goes a long way in the online world of poetry and the arts- far more so than the approbation of the ‘approved’ hacks of American MFA writing mills, even if most won’t cop to it, if they have a degree of some sort. Yet, a quick glimpse at the poetry and books and films being proffered make sit obvious that I lack all sufficient time to even endeavor to undertake the task of critiquing the volume of art I am potentially in grasp of. This is why my great criticism is so invaluable, because these wights need only actually READ said criticism to understand art from a mechanical viewpoint, from the point of view of someone who has produced great art, and in quantities no one else in our species ever had. Go ahead, Google the names of any of the 25 poets you consider the greatest to ever have written. Now, tally up all of their great poems, and I guarantee you, that if you show a modicum of sense in your own critical abilities, the total added number of great poems, by these 25 all timers of yours, will not even come close to the total of great poems that I wrote in my poetic career. 25 versus one. That shows you the huge gape of difference. In short, I know what I write of, and know it better, deeper, and more fundamentally than anyone else in the arts ever has.
Hence, a while back, I was contacted by Norman Ball. The name was familiar to me, but I could not tell you where I first encountered him online. Perhaps he had emailed me in the past? Perhaps he had gotten onto my website’s e-list at some point? Perhaps not. Anyway, Ball contacted me and sent me this video, as well as asking me a few questions, then wanted to send me a book of his. As I have not been actively involved with poetry since 2005, I demurred, but then relented when he stated it was a book of essays. Thus I came into possession of The Frantic Force, a collection of essays initially published in small print and online magazines, and released by a small poetry press from California, called Petroglyph Books. In the rest of this essay I will deal with some of the pros and cons of the book and some of the individual essays. The very fact that I will do so should indicate that the book is a good one, overall, for, usually, I don’t spend much time detailing mediocrities from not too well known writers. Perhaps the worst thing I can say about the book is that the people at Petroglyph Books do an abysmal job of proofreading, because a plethora of typos and misspellings abound in the book- too many (2-3 dozen) to list in this format. But the worst example of this occurs in the essay The Poem That Wasn’t There where poet Laura Riding’s married name of Laura Riding Jackson is written as Laura Jackson Riding.
Other than that, let me open up by stating that Ball writes most of his essays in a very Classical style. They are generally short, occasionally display wit, and often reference artists, thinkers, and scientists and their ideas and works. At his best, Ball is capable of engaging writing, and his best paragraphs, and even full essays, remind me of the best writings from Cosmoetica contributor Len Holman, in terms of pithy humor (although Holman is more plainspoken and sardonic), and Wyn Wachhorst (author of an underrated book of science essays: The Dream Of Spaceflight: Essays On The Near Edge Of Infinity), in terms of poesy (although Wachhorst is more consistent and less obviously striving for such). Thus, while Ball is Classical in approach to essayry, he is not without uniquity; there is a there there inside of Ball. He is not just a random voice pontificating, although his strengths, ideationally, lie clearly in the realms of pop culture, history, and politics, and not in the depths of art. Ball, to his credit, seems to realize this, to a degree, as he self-deprecates his own poetry and art, yet then plunges into his worst moments while often plumbing the worst clichés and outright silliest ideas about art.
But, before I have my say, let me take on a couple of reviews of the book by some other online critics. In a review by C.L. Bledsoe, Ball gets high marks, across the board, even though Bledsoe is not moved to actually quote his subject. In writing of Ball’s take on modern MFA writing mills, and modern poetry’s supposed obscurantism, Bledsoe writes:
Ball blames the commodification of MFA programs, which afford a common, easy scapegoat. One problem that he neglects to address is that not all MFA programs encourage ‘experimental’ (i.e. purposefully obscure) poetry, and not all the journals he references publish ‘experimental’ poetry. I, personally, studied at an MFA program that strongly dissuaded students from inaccessibility, for example. I’ve also worked as an editor on a couple journals, which I steered towards a focus on narrative poetry. But let me just go on the record saying I have no love lost for MFA programs in general, and many of them may well pump out cookie-cutter hobbyists posing as writers. Likewise, it seems like one can’t virtually spit without hitting some new online journal, many of which boast guidelines that discourage anything resembling emotional impact in the work they’d like to publish. But there are also plenty of journals interested in poetry I think Ball would quite enjoy. So let’s be accurate. But let’s also not skewer Ball unnecessarily. His motivation isn’t sour grapes, and his goal isn’t petty. He’s fighting the good fight.
In short, Bledsoe is no Ball, much less a Schneider. First off, Ball does not really delve into the problems of the MFA mills. He skims them. Yet, to read Bledsoe one would not get this. Instead, Bledsoe gives us some autobiographical digressions that say far more of his ideas on MFA mills than anything Ball wrote. But, more importantly, neither Ball nor Bledsoe ever deal with the real problems of the mills: that they do not teach that art is objectively good or bad; people’s likes of the art are subjective. ‘Experimental’ art- poetry or any other art form, is utterly beside the point. Good, or great, art is the ONLY thing that matters- regardless of one’s personal, political, philosophic, or religious views, much less whether the art evokes emotion or dry intellect, or something in between. But, Bledsoe gives the game away when he writes, ‘But there are also plenty of journals interested in poetry I think Ball would quite enjoy.’ Ball’s nor Bledsoe’s nor my own enjoyment of any art is irrelevant to its quality. But, given the handful of clichés in just the single paragraph above, the quality of quality is something I doubt Bledsoe would recognize were it to engage him.
In fact, Bledsoe seems utterly lost when reading Ball’s prose:
After the introduction, Ball deals with the very personal topic of his father’s death. There’s some damned good writing, here, as there is in his first true essay, “Cultural Referents The Intermittent Man” which deals with Ball accidentally attacking his mother-in-law when she sneaks into his house and, also accidentally, breaks a vase. Ball waxes philosophically on the gender role of men in modern American society. But what does this have to do with poetry? Ball explains that he is not really a fighter, though when he sees ancient art (the Mycenaean Urn his mother-in-law broke) destroyed, he rises. He is showing the reader some of his motivation. Again and again, Ball refers to himself as a journeyman poet, which I take to mean ‘not a very serious one’. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love poetry, and he sees poetry being ‘attacked’, inadvertently (destroyed through carelessness), just as his urn was attacked. Still, he has risen to the occasion and penned these essays.
Bledsoe seems to feel that the whole of the book is devoted to essays on poetry, and is intent on seeing connections to the highest of the arts where there are none. He then acknowledges this reality, and speaks of some of Ball’s non-poetry essays. I should note that Bledsoe notes Ball’s annoying overuse of the word Ponzi (as in _____ Scheme, perhaps second in overuse to his self-deprecations over his own poetry).
Bledsoe then writes:
He [Ball] deals with pop culture only when it’s relevant to larger considerations, but he does take it to task, often relating the negativity so prevalent in pop culture to the nihilism so pervasive in religious extremism, politics, and modern art (he muses, at one point, that a certain starlet may be working for Satan in order to bring about the downfall of Western civilization). He also links all of this to poetry, which is no small feat. In the same way that poetry shouldn’t be a grouping of meaningless syllables interesting only for their complete lack of being interesting, Ball argues that poetry should be (and is!) a vital force for social commentary and change. Poetry is revolution, or it can/should be, anyway.
Well, Ball does not link all of things to poetry, although he overreaches in linking many things to poetry that have no causal, nor even Negatively Capable connection; and Negative Capability is a notion that ball miscombobulates severely, at certain points in his book. Ball also makes the error of linking art with being a political act- an old saw I have disposed of many a time, but even ball realizes that poetry is, at best, in these times, a fringe element, and utterly incapable of being the ‘vital force for social commentary and change’ that Bledsoe so misreads into Ball’s text. Unsurprisingly, Bledsoe bizarrely tries to claim that Ball is a stream of consciousness writer, although Ball displays nothing of the sort in his prose, and, even if he did, this would hardly be a point worth noting, in and of itself.
The only other review of any length and depth that I could locate online is this one, written by one Leo Gerard. Immediately, Gerard scores points that Bledsoe left on the table, in that Gerard actually does quote from Ball’s work:
In his essay Ba-Ba-Ba-Ba-baudrillard, one of over forty in this, his second essay compilation The Frantic Force, Norman Ball offers an all-too fitting epitaph for the George W. Bush administration and their hopelessly misplaced, even boyishly naïve, faith in the efficacy of military power:
“History will record that the past administration, led by bellicose non-combatants, possessed an overweening faith in its own tanks. It’s always better to exude power than to conscript it into service where it runs the risk of appearing, well, rather weak. Therein lies the lost genius of the show of strength: no one gets hurt and you get your own way besides. Wise dogs know they are wagged surreptitiously by their tails.”
This theme of mistaking power for strength stalks Ball’s essays, even as it stalks our nation’s seemingly endless jingoist excesses. Here he is in a more tragi-comic essay, The Intermittent Man speculating on this most curious misprision:
“At times, I think I’ve lost a step. But the youth are not much better. Today’s gyms teem with young men bench-pressing toward their ideal of manliness. Many mirror-gaze as though trying to coax heroism from swelling biceps. After all, man is power, yes? Or can a weak man sheath himself in musculature to avert confrontation? And forget steroids. Like Sisyphus, we cannot shirk the weight on our shoulders when the real burden is ourselves. Absent rites of passage, we are left to make our own way. Sometimes a dumbbell must do.”
The down side, of course, is that if one is going to liberally excerpt someone, one must choose some actually good and/or cogent writing, and, on this score, Gerard pulls a Bledsoe. The first excerpt is actually Ball at his least engaging and most obvious. Imagine if, in excerpting this paragraph’s first sentence, I were to not choose the sly ‘Gerard pulls a Bledsoe,’ which is utterly dependent upon a knowledge of earlier such comparisons, as well as my earlier comments in this essay, and instead chose the more pedestrian and functional ‘if one is going.’ It’s simply a silly way to offer critique. As for the second Ball excerpt, and coming after the use of a neglected word like misprision, all we get is Ball using a trite throwaway reference to Sisyphus, as well as a few other clichés. Definitely not the way to sharpen one’s critical cutlery.
Even worse is when the critic wanders off into areas the subject of his criticism does not go:
In an area I happen to know something about, public access TV, community aspirants routinely jostle to replicate ‘what the pros do’. The results invariably are low-budget knock-offs of Siskel and Ebert where regular folks can’t help but suffer in the comparison. Thus a vigorous grass-roots alternative to corporate programming is squandered by citizens who, it turns out, simply wanted to be on TV just like their prime-time heroes. So much for viva la difference. A corporate-imposed aesthetic blunts all comers.
Finally, a cogent observation from Gerard. The problem is that it has nothing to do with anything Ball wrote nor claimed in his essays. Then, like Bledsoe, Gerard crashes into cliché by writing this: ‘Amidst this climate of frivolity and replication, Ball strikes me as a necessary writer.’ Were this the 1960s, a Batman style Ker-Plunk! sound balloon would be welcome.
But, enough with the bad criticisms of Ball’s writing, and on to Ball, himself, whose overall tenor, as a critic, sort of splits the Siskel & Ebert divide. By that I refer to the famed film critic pairing of the critic with a better critical faculty but limited wordsmithing abilities (Siskel) and the critic with limited divination but superior writing skills (Ebert). Overall, as mentioned, Ball splits the difference. He is a good writer, with an ability to craft some memorable moments and phrases, but his demesne is firmly planted in the world of pop and political culture, not the arts. That is to say that, while his style is Classical (freely referencing artists and tidbits galore, whether apt or not- Ball wears his erudition well), and wordsmithing quite good, his ideas on those things he expounds on are often hit and miss. He will occasionally veer into formulaic thought and a reliance on trite observations (especially with his self-deprecations on his own verse), admixed with some pompous sciolism- the other side of intellect’s blade, but has a good enough phraseological talent to traipse out of such self-shat muck.
Let me approach the book in order of its presentation. In his Introduction, we get a good deal of the Ball persona- all of the qualities, pro or con, mentioned above. Early on, in the Introduction, Ball writes:
Poets have always been in the fray. To quote [W.S.] Merwin: ‘all poetry is politics.’ Let’s not forget those erstwhile poets who abandon the craft entirely and strike out in whole new directions, say, as megalomaniacs, Pol Pot and Stalin come to mind.
Indeed to the extent distaste for political poetry exists, it is largely a 20th Century phenomenon, typified by Auden’s wet blanket of a line ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ (1939) which is itself a Yeatsian echo from the latter’s ‘On Being Asked For A War Poem (1915): ‘We have no gift to set a statesman right.’ This determined retrieval of the laid-down gauntlet belies centuries of political poetry: Homer, Chaucer, Dryden. The list of politically engaged poets is virtually endless.
This is a good example of Ball’s persona. And, no, there is no context needed for this quote. And yes, the genocidal joke does fail, but Ball is making, or attempting to make, the case that political poetry is somehow necessary and essential. Of course, this is nonsense, as any art or idea can be parallaxed to any one thing and be just as relevant. As I’ve stated before, to say ‘all art is political’ is as truthful and utterly irrelevant as to say ‘all art is about poodles,’ for any attempt to deny the poodly necessity of art is, in itself, a manifestation of the utter vitality of curly caninity to art (to take the mindset of the feeble-minded).
But other than failing to back up his point (for how could he?) Ball lapses into trite defense mode. Let’s see: the list of politically engaged poets is endless. Well, not really, but, let’s grant that. The list of great political poets is very short, and for every one you could label a ‘political poet’- say Yeats or Allen Ginsberg, mitigations abound. Yeats write FAR more great apolitical poetry, as well as his lesser stuff, and Ginsberg, while writing a few great political poems, wrote far more many BAD political poems, and poems in general, and his actual worth as a poet, at all, is as a comic imp- witness his A Supermarket In California, which many label a political poem but, in essence, is really a comic romp; which only underlines the fact that the BEST political poetry almost always subserves its politics to its art. And, of the three ‘political’ poets Ball names, only Dryden can actually be called a primarily political poet, and not a good poet at all- as most of his political poems are courtly sophomoric lampoons of people he did not like. Homer’s worth and value is not politically bound, but because he was the first epic poet of note. His political worth is minor compared to his cultural and historic worth- and these are NOT synonyms. As for Chaucer, what was said about Homer is even more true for him. But, perhaps the most telling statement that Ball makes is ‘to the extent distaste for political poetry exists, it is largely a 20th Century phenomenon.’ Well, first, the end of the 20th Century saw the embrace of politicized art to an extent NEVER before witnessed, and those with a distaste for it are in a severe (if sober) minority- and, for the record, folks like me do not have a distaste for political art, just that it’s very nature makes it FAR less likely to be artistically good; and that’s rare enough to start. And, of course, there was political art and poetry throughout history. But, to read Ball one would believe that art is, and has always been, primarily political. This is logically, factually, and historically false, unequivocally. What claimants of this line do is try to link even the smallest political content, or line/metaphor, with the whole artwork being political, as if art that is multivalent is utterly unthinkable. Of course, this explains why so much art of the last few decades is so one dimensional and shallow.
But, the real kicker comes later in the Introduction, when he chides a 1963 encomial speech by President John F. Kennedy, on poet Robert Frost:
There are other parts of the speech that amount to grandstanding: ‘We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.’ This reads like a veritable PSA for 1965’s impending National Endowment of the Arts initiative.
That Ball writes this, after having written the above defense of political poetry, is astounding, for the ideas that ‘all art is political’ and ‘art is truth’ are inextricably bound in the modern artistic ideologue’s mind. Maybe Ball will explain? But he doesn’t, thus comes off as either naïve, at best, or hypocritical, at worst. Or maybe clueless?
Despite such cogitative gaps and gaffes, both the Introduction and book recover from such lapses. A good example of Ball the polemicist with Classical leanings can be found in Cultural Referents: The Intermittent Man:
But I’ve labored too much on youth. We suffer equally from a surplus of old people and a shortage of elders. Eminem spews misogynistic bile and meets with token rebuke. His mother sued him, God love her, but where’s his father? And in his father’s absence, where are the city fathers to sanction him? Aeneas braved the underworld for a final glimpse of his father. Odysseus could not fully consummate his return until he was assured Laertes recognized him. Haunted by his forebears, immortalized by poets, the hero is driven to prove that the baton indeed passed to a generation of equal or surpassing merit. But dead men can’t pass batons. And we are surrounded by men more dead than presently alive. As for the latter, I struggle for examples. Surely you can name some unsung men of your own? Together we might assemble a small battalion. When the swelling subsides, we’ll solicit your mother for candidates.
Forget what the writing actually says, how utterly silly it is to link a talentless rapper with Classical heroic referents, and focus on how it says it, in its own mock heroics that would make even Virgil giggle. Elders, sanction, braved, consummate, haunted, immortalized, surpassing, unsung: an utter litany of melodramatic wordplay. Yes, I like straightforwardness in criticism, but one has to admire the intellectual, well, sheer silliness of the proposition and its argument, and how wonderfully put it is. But, know that the essay ends up with this, as the first sentence of its final paragraph- I am a catalog of quaint anachronisms, bracketed by failures- and you may know the real Ball the excerpted paragraph masques.
Another essay that seems to be a bit of a comic put-on is Captive Light: Gnosis in Charcoal, wherein Ball’s verbal and ideational floridities, brocades, and curlicues lead to an almost comic embrace of the banal-cum-deific. Ball ends his encomium on charcoal drawing in this dudgeon of faux lyricism crashed to almost criminal cliché:
Charcoal has the instructive value of a hundred philosophers even as it burdens the page with a hundred fresh tyrannies. Each of us houses the indelible light-spark to extricate our canvases- and our souls- from the very blackness that gave us birth.
Before you condemn me for having some fun with these piques of pop pomp, let me state that I enjoy the silliness and (perhaps unwitting) comic solemnity that critics like the above Bledsoe and Gerard utterly miss in Ball’s oeuvre.
Perhaps the best written essay in the whole book is Thereabouts, a tract on politics, the U.K. and the global War On Terror. Look at this nice mix of the personal with the larger issues; and note how the humor is NOT strained:
Ball is a frightfully common English name. Then someone had to spoil all that and emigrate to the misty Pale of Ireland sometime around the Year Dot. An even more fearsome family aptitude was displayed with the subsequent relocation from Dublin to that oasis of sectarian equanimity, Belfast. Then, it was a veritable puddle-jump to Glasgow to ride the ship-building fever of the late nineteenth century. My great-great grandfather, an Ulsterman, landed in Glasgow in the 1840’s. What possessed him to depart the country of his birth with five children at the age of 42? After painstaking research and numerous seances, I have determined that hunger, or its looming probability, figured prominently. Yes, potato famines can do strange things to a man.
Inheriting the one-foot-in-one-foot-out gene, my father struck out for America in the mid-sixties. No, we were not unwashed and destitute, an almost universal American assumption. My father was an engineer recruited during the Great Brain Drain. We came over on TWA so the passage was hardly fraught with peril unless you consider stale peanuts a material hardship. So far, the natives have accommodated us nicely. However this may be due to a chronic shortage of the latter. Finding a native-born American in Washington DC is akin to locating the Mohican liaison officer in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The region is a rogue’s gallery of carpetbaggers, foreign and domestic.
Speaking for my own sliver of time, I am an American in more ways than one, though a Glaswegian by birth. This makes me a tad more savvy than my native-born American brethren on junkets back to the old country. You see, Americans, particularly Scottish-Americans, are easy to pick out, especially on Prince’s Street in Edinburgh. They’re the ones lugging bags full of tartan travesties. Few native Scots would be caught dead in tartan. I know I’m bursting bubbles here, but clan tartans are a nineteenth century invention aimed at capitalizing on the poignant rootlessness of wealthy Americans. As a young lad fresh from the old country, I can remember being asked by well-meaning Americans if I missed wearing kilts. I had never worn one.
Now I am a full-blooded hyphenated American. To prove this, I joined a clan on my last UK visit. This was done primarily to instill within my son, a half-Scot, half-Portuguese, all-American something other than a sort of Naipaul-esque citizen-of-the-world alienation. Everyone comes from the world, so where’s the thrill in that? Given my choices – Menzies or MacNab – you could have knocked me over with a spruce of heather. But my God, have you ever seen the MacNab tartan? When I learned the Menzies had a castle near Perth, the choice was an easy one.
Another excellent political essay- in form and content, is The Wilderness As Salve, wherein Ball correctly rips Obama and company for failing to break with Bushco’s Business First And Always mantra. But, in The Stalingrad Test- an otherwise insightful essay about how small the times we live in are, Ball again propagates the erroneous idea that The Soviets and The Battle Of Stalingrad were World War Two’s turning point, and most decisive moment. In reality, The Battle Of Britain was FAR more important than Stalingrad, for, had Britain fallen, and reduced to a one front war, the Nazis would have crushed the Soviets before the first winter of the campaign. And the reason that the Nazis did not take Britain was SOLELY because of FDR’s obsession with Lend-Lease. Believe me, I’m no American triumphalist, but when the USA crows that we saved Europe twice, and the whole world in the 1940s, well, IT’S TRUE! And, incidentally, the Pacific Theater was a far more bloody and costly war than its European counterpart, and, with all due respect to the British Asian forces, America was virtually alone against the Empire of Japan- a regime that 1) killed more human beings than the Nazis did, 2) conducted atrocities and genocide equal to or greater than their German Axis mates, and 3) conquered almost four times an area of the globe than the Nazis did. In reality, Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur have been proven right that the US should have continued Lend-Lease, and let the Russians and Brits take on the Nazis, while we focused solely on the Japanese. Had that occurred, the Pacific War might have been brought to a conclusion a year and a half earlier, with no unleashing of the Atomic Age. But, that’s all for another argument.
Perhaps Ball’s greatest intellectual sin (and one he compounds over and again in a few other essays) comes in Spiritus Mundi: The Inch-By-Inchness Of Time, wherein, re: free will, he writes:
The dilemma goes to the core of Christianity’s age-old debate of free will versus determinism. My cursory readings of quantum physics- and the essentially probabilistic nature of matter- has delivered me to a greater level of acceptance of paradox. In other words, it’s conceivable (though barely) that free will can exist in a deterministic world.
First, Ball’s great sin is analogizing over from one area to another that is in a wholly different domain of existence, and, in physics, this is almost always a failure, for quantum level actions and events have no analogues in the macro ‘real world.’ Quarks and strings and other things may or may not pop into reality, but planets, pizzas, and people do not. Many is the writer, thinker, and poet to craft a poor metaphor or verse by conflating ‘cursory’ readings of physics- or Dark Matter, the Big Bang, etc., with other areas of cosmic experience (he does this again in Turtle Of Last Resort: Towards A Tolerable Tolerance). In short, people do not want extrapolations based upon cursory anythings, read (or do) more! And, having recently debunked some Christians in an argument over free will and an infallible precognitive deity (the Christians tried to wrangle out of their tangle by invoking the old Modal Fallacy- itself a fallacy when GIGO applies), the fact of the matter is that if one actually adheres to the reality that words have definitions that are often fixed and inflexible, well, there is no free will in a wholly deterministic universe. In a somewhat deterministic cosmos there is wiggle room. There is no paradox; merely a lack of real understanding of such terms as Hard Determinism and Free Will, themselves. Paradox is NOT born of confusion.
In Letter To A Brilliant, Failed Writer, Ball sums up the will of the Lowest Common Denominator masses in the face of the great artists rather well:
Covertly, they want you to regress to the mean. Overtly, they will resist celebrating you, as that is tantamount to hoisting their own shortcomings to the fore. What possibly can be gained from empowering the smarter man? I concede nothing here has helped as you knew it all already.
But, in Turtle Of Last Resort: Towards A Tolerable Tolerance, Ball shows that his understanding of the arts is limited, when, chiding Western Liberals against condemning Moslem fanaticism, he writes:
Rushdie reserves- for the novelist especially- the right to cobble his own realities, even if it means borrowing (some would say defacing) relics from another’s holy of holies. The novelist is his own god, a creator of worlds. One might call him a fundamentalist of the imagination- his own. There is no small amount of impudence in this self-appointment.
Well, there’s only impudence if the artist is bad, or even merely Not Great. For the Great Artist, this Creator of Worlds claim is not hubris, but REALITY. That’s what art is- the ‘artificing of worlds.’ That is what VISION is! And it’s a damned sight greater an achievement than worshipping crucified fictive Jews, 72 Virgins, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Art is ALL about creating an otherness so from which to better understand this world via a parallax. And this is not fundamentalism in any sense of the term (Ball’s rhetorical curlicues definitely entangle at times) but the immanence of that very imagination. And, at least for the Great Artist, to NOT claim this minor godhead is to deny reality.
Ball then ends the piece with a well written thrust:
Secularists have murderous designs too- for oil, power, cultural hegemony- arguably the shadow-structures that hide spiritual decay. So what’s worse- an emptiness that confuses death for an enlightened humanism, or a belief that won’t countenance those who would defile it? It depends on the worldview one inhabits. Certainly the practitioners of tolerance would do well to inventory their cherished openness to diversity as it may be, in essential form and function, yet another temple.
Rhetorically, this is a thing of beauty. But, in reality, when one deals with the realities it actually claims to be dealing with, the very rhetoric is false and worse, disingenuous. This is because the ‘murderous secularists’ that Ball notes (see Bushco, Halliburton, oil conglomerates, stock speculators, etc.) are simply NOT the practitioners of tolerance that he later mentions: these would be effete intellectuals, academics, and bad artists, and while I have legitimate gripes against those intellectual scoundrels, to conflate them with the villains that brought us the Iraq War is simply slanderous. Yet, even worse is the wholesale ignorance of the butchery, misogyny, prejudice, and flat out evil that the Islamic Fundamentalists purvey. And, believe me, I’m not ignorant of the degrees of bullshit involved on both sides, as I have long called out Islamofascism for the utter logical lie and non-sequitur it is. But Al Quaida and The Taliban are, in their own ways, as evil as the Nazis or Confederate States of America ever were, even if they are almost infinitely less threatening, on an existential level. That Ball washes away this side of the equation is unfortunately typical of many Liberal apologists for non-American Fundamentalism (in the name of ‘diversity’ that they always disallow their own American kin). In short, Ball commits the very same error of hubris he rightly impugns the West with.
But, as mentioned, Ball fares better in politics than he does in the arts. In Teeing Off On Snyder For All The Usual Earthly Reasons, Ball commits another sin many essayists commit, and that is not naming the bad purveyors of art he tees off on, save everyone’s safe poetastric punching bag: Billy Collins, even as he fails to do so against less safe targets like poets Seamus Heaney and Paul Celan. In Swoon Of The Unknown Soulmate, Ball rightly praises poet John Keats, although I suspect he is merely gladhanding an acknowledged Master, for his understanding of Keats’ greatest non-poetic achievement- the recognition of Negative Capability; a point he garbles several times in the book. Ball equally mangles the very impulse to art when he agrees with Harold Bloom and the silly Anxiety Of Influence in Authentic Voice: A Catalog Of Discontents. In reality, the greatest ill modern poets (and other artists) suffer from is the exaltation of Self-Expression over any and all other aspects of art since self-expression (lower case intended) is immanent in all art, therefore to fetishize it is not only bizarre, but redundant. Of course, since Ball flagellates himself over his own creative proclivities, I guess one might give him a pass on this, as he is an essayist, a commentator, not a doer in the act of creation. This is a chronic problem of bon vivanting in the arts. And it is one Ball suckles to his bosom like a tar baby ever staining his teat in Being Difficult, wherein he mistakes the opacity-clarity binary in poetry as being primal over the good-bad one, if there is to be such a dualistic duel to the death rattle and hum!
Now, let me say that I have rightly criticized Ball for his lack of understanding of quantum physics in the macro world (worst and almost comically realized in Poetry And The Big Bang- probably the worst essay in the book, lacking humor, insight, and even good writing; and a really bad essay in its own right, in all other manners) and his ignorance of Negative Capability, but, in the essay The Poem That Wasn’t There (which I flayed him over for bastardizing Laura Riding’s married name, as well) these two negatives crash into a poetic positive:
In the same way, extant poetry is but a particle rescued from a void, an ember of stolen fire. To be sure books fill up with these shadow-forms, droplets tasked with evoking seas. But all that straddles the page is not poetry at all. To conceive a poem in its Platonic/quantum sense, you’d have to wrestle a wave to the page. So we settle instead, and in the process of settling, a universe happens.
And it’s these moments of excellent writing that offer both benison and exculpation for Ball, even when he fucks things up again, later in the same essay:
The best poems are spectacular failures, crash-and-burners in the highest aesthetic sense. The work of a poet, properly undertaken, is difficult and perilous. I’m reminded of a maxim that arose in the aftermath of the American Savings and Loan crisis: as soon as you find yourself having fun as a banker, you have departed the gray realm of banking. You are a ‘not-banker’ who nonetheless continues to show up for work. Richard Feynmann echoed this general sentiment in his description of quantum physics (and I’m paraphrasing): if you think you understand it, then you don't understand it. Poetry's no different. That which spills effortless from ones pen like manna from a loquacious god cannot possibly be the real thing. By ‘real', I mean of course in a Platonic sense --whatever that means.
Of course, great poems, and any great art, are NOT failures- spectacular nor otherwise, for they utterly achieve greatness via Negative Capability, that quality Ball clearly, as this paragraph aptly shows, has no even minuscule understanding of, even as he, in the paragraph quoted just above this last one, enacts it. Irony, thy name is Ball, or maybe his Ball’s name is irony. No matter, the point is made, and made well.
In Poetry Has Left the Building For ‘Unreachable Solitudes’, Ball shows a lack of understanding of art, again, but, at least it’s a well written piece (one that could convince a novice he’s learned in this area, but to a real Master seems the cant of a poseur), unlike Poetry And The Big Bang. Things get off on the worst foot with a terrible epigraph by that not so good poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his essay The Poet: ‘For poetry was all written before time was... we hear those primal warblings, and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word... and thus miswrite the poem.’ This leads Ball to write:
Poets are not Prime Movers. What we call a good poet is someone with a knack for coaxing the already-there to the over-here. There is nothing "seminal" about a good poet. His or her ear is simply pressed closer to some wall. But the real action is always happening in the apartment next door. Occasionally, he takes notes of the eavesdropped conversation and passes them to the deaf guy on the futon who reads them with obvious interest. Most of us are the deaf guy. But there’s nothing wrong with our eyes and what we’d really love is a peek next door. Poems are a sketchy report of the Poetry that lives down the hall.
In fact, poets are no more essential to Poetry than radio receivers are to emanating radio waves. For those of you who love radio, this is probably a pointless observation since for you, radio is its programming content. Well, the radio wave says thank you for your intermittent patronage. But it's really not necessary. Now if you'll excuse the wave, it’s got a universe to cover.
I guess Ball could be more wrong, but he need not, for he is wrong enough. Great poets, and artists, ARE Prime Movers. Great art is not merely something that is of a different degree from non-great art, it is of a different KIND. In fact, Greatness is the single biggest divide in the human experience; far greater than sex, religion, race, politics, intellect, strength, etc. It is the difference between the minuscule Us and the many Them, the rest of Them, and the essence of the ‘there are two kinds of people in the world’ divide. And, it’s clear that Ball is not only NOT a great poet, but he’s likely never really encountered one, nor a great artist in any other field, lest his opinions would not be so parochial.
And this is in no better evidence than her, from the same essay, where Ball again sticks his physically ignorant foot in his poetic mouth:
It’s no coincidence that many poets suffer from manic-depressive or bipolar disorders. I suspect bipolarity –both for poems and people-- involves the ability to traverse two directions simultaneously. Good poems are always pointing at something else. Like an electron in quantum physics that does not "traverse" but instead simply appears in another place simultaneously, the best poems are forging interior journeys even as they journey outwards. Surely we are exploring some trick of time and space? Perhaps physics will one day subsume metaphysics entirely such that Poetry will be fully "explained." Should that day arrive, physicists promise to become as insufferable as many poets.
Of course, mental illness and creativity are no more linked than bowling and booger picking, two activities that both, miraculously, require a human digit’s ability to enter a hole. They simply result in exasperation and depression: one from an inner demon and/or chemical imbalance, and the other from an excellence that sets the poet above and, more importantly, apart from the reactionary masses. And, although many mentally ill folks claim to be creative, the end results are the ultimate sorter of which is which.
In Back To The Future With Guernica: The Sentimental Impulse And The Fundamentalist Appeal, Ball seems not to recognize that the very impulse to make culture and art is merely the flip side of the impulse to death camps and genocides. They are forever Siamese Twinned, and we just need to determine which twin to feed more and better, because to kill even the uglier twin is to kill the handsome devil. In Putting The Best Faces Forward: Target With Four Faces- Jasper Johns, Ball goes headlong into the Divine Inspiration Fallacy when he writes:
I cling to a Romantic notion of art. The artist does not so much create as he conducts. His imagination is commandeered.
Not content with this error, he blunders into the duende in Held Up By Faith Alone, but then also panders in anthropocentrism, distorts Dark Matter, and garbles the fallacy of a Goldilocks universe. But, enough! Ball can be a frustrating thinker in his freebasing of the familiar with the abstruse, producing a crackspoon’s worth of silliness, but, as any critic often does, I am picking on the flaws that make up 10% or less of the book at the expense of a very readable, well-written, and, yes, quite enjoyable collection of hairy-chested, well-crafted, and readably fun opinions. This essay would not have breached the 7000 word mark otherwise. Yes, Ball can be grossly naïve, and utterly silly, at times, in his takes on the arts but the reality is, especially in the matters of the real world, he is better than almost all the op-ed writers for major magazines, newspapers, and don’t even get me started on the talking head prostitutes of the visual media. Hence, I easily and wholly recommend this book, and Ball, as an essayist to read. Is the book worth its $14.95 price. Few books are. Are Ball’s essays going to give those of Loren Eiseley a run for their money? No. But that’s no damnation. Let’s hope it’s inspiration for books that make this book seem like those written by the aforementioned horrorshows of the critical monolith. If so, nothing strange shall be seen.
(originally posted 9/9/12)