Recent poems in my life, with which to emerge from winter?

I know we are still in the first days of February. After temperatures were scarf-less early in the week, bone chills re-emerged last night. But I find myself favoriting the warmth in what I read — Jhumpa Lahiri learning Italian, Cord Jefferson writing about his love for his mother, Washingtonian magazine noting (and capturing visually, if briefly) acres open city land and beautiful city-ancient buildings before they’re gone or disfigured, and, as usual, some poems.

A great way to start the day other day was Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day.” She read it at Obama’s first inauguration. People didn’t love it. I loved it was a way to start my day. Italics are Alexander’s:

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Recently in my feeds as well have been two catch-you-off-guard poems about desire: Mary Jo Bang’s “Definitely” (“What is desire / But the hardwire argument given / To the mind’s unstoppable mouth”) and Heather Christle’s “Pursuits” (“It only gets worse / A girl’s gotta eat”).

And I’ve been catching up on The New Yorker too. Catching up for real. Before the holidays, my backlog had hit three or four months, and the physical stack was so sad. But I began digging over Christmas and have kept the pages turning. I’m now on the current issue. And it’s a double! I’m going to be a week ahead! Maybe. If I finish it today. You can’t count your Remnick chickens before they’re read.

Anyway, here’s the start of Hagit Grossman’s “On Friendship,” a poem of common life and so satisfactorily so, in the latest issue:

If a friend calls out to you late at night from beneath your window
Never send him on his way. And if you’ve sent him away and still
Insist on rigid rules, regain your composure after a moment
And run to the window and shout his name: “Come, Merhav!
Come back! I’ve got some corn cooking! Come eat something.”

Last but not entirely, I’m two issues behind on Poetry (after Conde Zero, so soon, I promise), but two favorites from the December issue were Caroline Bird’s “The Amnesty,” which packed so much metaphor and love in so little space, and Nate Marshall “Harold’s Chicken Shack #86,” which wrings Northwestern, names, race, and poverty from half a quote in a newspaper story.

Marshall also has a good one in the issue about Oregon Trail (“my first venture west was in Windows 98 / or Independence, Missouri…”), and the Poetry Foundation site turns up him penning a “Harold’s Chicken Shack #1.” Maybe the “#86” of the Northwestern poem is poetic license, but I hope there are 84 in between. I’d like to read them.

Related: The Springsteen song “Amnesty” made me think of. No one will put this song on a greatest-hits compilation, or any kind of compilation that comes to mind. But I’ve always found it strange and special, the best song on a not-great album. Heard it playing during a nice dinner at a nice restaurant last fall — Garrison, on Barracks Row — and found it fitting.

Related: It was a nice surprise to find Sally Jenkins writing on the front page of the Washington Post‘s Sports section recently about the friendship between NBA coach Phil Jackson and poet Mary Karr. I blogged about Karr’s “Loony Bin Basketball” poem here two years ago, and the article was a good reason to go back and reread the poem and her interview partly about it.

Related: Edward T. Wheeler writes for Commonweal about his prison ministry. “I was retired, convalescing from a five-month hospital stay, and needed a focus for my free time. … Soon I—a former high-school English teacher and long-ago Jesuit seminarian—was involved in a biweekly writing seminar for GED students, then a book discussion club, and finally a life-skills course sponsored by the state university’s extension division.”

They say Twitter will begin an algorithmically ordered timeline next week. They say it will be optional. I’m glad for the latter.

The time Ryan Adams wrote a cover letter to a newspaper

As I mentioned earlier, I read David Menconi’s Ryan Adams biography and liked it. It left me with some mixed feelings about Ryan and some thinking about the strange nature of biography. But a good bio does that! I was also glad to see Menconi’s favorites among the Ryan catalog matched my own.

For journalist friends — and others — if you’re on the fence about picking up a copy, let the enjoyable next two paragraphs push you over to buying. Menconi, who is a good reporter as well as being a good writer, digs up part of a great letter Adams wrote to the Raleigh News & Observer when, pining for some staffer, he applied to be an office assistant. If you’ve ever written a cover letter to a newspaper… you’ll be surprised as me this didn’t work.

There comes a time when old acquaintances must be forgotten, when the partys over, when the fat lady is just about let out those first few repulsive notes and it is finally obvious action must be taken. Of course now what? What does the idealist persue in modern day society? More likely, what in the hell am I to persue in modern day society? Flat broke from the listless nights spent crooning life over a bottle of strong liquor, using my youth as a weapon against the world and myself. Taking advantage of life at all cost at any means and most definitly every waking hour. I imagine I shall persue the same direction as I always have, maybe this time with more self discipline. I have escaped every other form of discipline save the bad luck and hard knocks that one comes across alone and against the world once and for all. Even in failure I will still be at work. As restless as before. As willing to submit only to the deepest of my whims.

It is important to become disillusioned  with ones art so that one may feel it necessary to overcome oneself in their own right. In the name of their own vision of what is truth. A true artist cannot see the world except through his art. His life and his work are art. His soul awaiting translation.

It has typos and a bit of crazy, and it’s not nearly as badass as Hunter S. Thompson’s famous crazy cover letter. But it beats half the journo cover letters I’ve seen, and I think it would cause many editors to at least give Ryan a call. Craziness and misspelling keep few souls out of newsrooms.

Menconi only includes these final grafs of the letter, but he says the full thing has circulated in Raleigh for a while. Anyone want to put it online?

And go pick up the book. Thanks to friend Jamie for recommending it.

Every biography is a Strangers Almanac

Have you ever read a biography, gotten to the end and wondered, “Did I just read the biography of a horrible person?” After reading Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown by David Menconi, I have that feeling.

I hate that feeling. I’m a fan — a big fan. I own and love a lot of Adams’ music, especially from the Whiskeytown era. I play a Whiskeytown album at least once every week, I figure. In the shower, my repertoire includes parts of Jacksonville Skyline and Crazy About You. (My shower repertoire includes no song all the way through, except on certain, miraculous days when various cuts from The River or Songs for Swingin’ Lovers come off.)

The book captures the brilliance of Adams’ songwriting, the beauty of his singing and the often difficult but occasional genius of his weirdness. His ability to find beautiful women, pine for them and create from that feeling is an art form itself. But the accounts of Adams doing something nice for somebody in the book are few and far between. He is polite often. He is friendly at times. He spends a good deal of time in a hospital with a dying lover, which is something. But beyond that time, which Adams chronicled uncomfortably in song as “I fucked you over a million times and you died,” it’s difficult to find anyone in the book describing him doing anything nice.

Openness can be a virtue, absolutely. So can the sharing of art and talent; otherwise we wouldn’t have songs about bushels. But to what extent can openness and sharing art be self-serving? The many quotes from Adams in the book run up the score for him doing music for himself. The audiences become incidental to personal journey and expression. Any account you’ve ever consumed of a Whiskeytown or Adams show just adds more backing.

But any rout makes you wonder.

With the amount of space brilliant music takes in any room, or takes from any conversation, how much space is left over for goodness, accounts of goodness or demonstrations thereof? To what extent does a biographer of an artist ask about goodness beyond art? If yes, to what extent does that biographer record the answers? To what extent do the biographer’s sources divert to the topic from the reason they’ve been asked to speak? In what circumstances have these sources known the biographer’s subject? What situations? To what extent have the sources been in position to experience goodness in relation to the subject? To what extent have the sources been in position to experience goodness at all? To what extent do these sources know the subject? To what extent does the subject know the subject? To what extent does the subject know his own self? Know his own goodness?

No biography answers all of these questions. Few bios answer even some of the questions. But every bio, every account of a life, quietly demands we consider them. If we arrive at negative answers without this consideration, we do a disservice to the subject, the biographer and ourselves. Menconi’s book is a good one. Adams is most likely a good person, too. But we don’t have to arrive at positive answers — definitive proof of goodness! the math of a life works out! — or make relativist assumptions that no one can ever know the answers and so we must assume not goodness but a boring just-fine-ness. As assumption is boundless, assuming anything boring is awful.

When I think I’ve read the biography of a horrible person, I have to remind myself how far thinking is from knowing. That distance calls to mind what I think I know of friends and loved ones and — sources for each other’s bios — what they might think they know of me. I picture the places we’ve been and hear the words we’ve said, and then I’m back in a Whiskeytown song.

Just one life

I haven’t been able to get this song out of my head or this version out of my browser tabs for the past couple weeks. There’s been a good older Ryan take of Jacksonville Skyline and a different singer’s quiet, persistent cover of Won’t Back Down passing through adjacent tabs, but this Houses on the Hill hanging around feels like a fair reason for the other videos to stop by.

I can’t explain exactly why the song has stuck this time. The war and the pills are my usual reasons. This time, I think it’s the unsent letters. It’s not their writer’s holding back at the time. It’s the finding them later and what personal histories have ensued, all of the moments or moments passed by.

Five more dollars that won’t make you mine

Friend Jamie down in Raleigh tweeted a link to a newly surfaced Ryan Adams concert, an early 1996 show. The tape has better than average sound, and you can hear a rough draft of Whiskeytown’s Bar Lights. On the Pneumonia album, the song was the ramshackle closer (before lots of silence and a sweet-and-slower hidden track). There weren’t many lyrics. The bar lights shined on the bottles. The narrator put moves on an undescribed woman. The narrator admitted likely failure. The end.

But what I never noticed in the song until I heard the bootleg cut was how much was wrapped up in the lines at the end. I’d gotten the five dollars for another drink, but the futility I’d missed. It was some bizarre opposite of a short poem I’d read earlier in the week, where what you imagine as horrible wind destroys a house but lets you see moonlight.

Some days, we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Other weeks — to repeat, weeks not days — it’s the more positive opposite. But aside from all overused jaw phrases, I think of music, sometimes, as a roof.

Five songs for the week: Amy, Truckers, Bon Iver, Ryan, Richard

1. After Amy Winehouse’s sad death, Casey posted and linked to this video, a beautiful, dark, nearly unaccompanied studio performance. This version of Love is a Losing Game is the one you need to hear.

2. Music in the Hall posts the rest of the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood and Jay Gonzalez at a cool bakery in Oxford, Miss. (First half.) It takes something special to play music that fits an odd space just right.

3. Bon Iver’s Holocene. I don’t know Bon Iver too well, but friend Amy says she’d been listening to it a ton. I played this June rendition and couldn’t stop listening either. The man himself explains the song to NPR Music as: “Our lives feel like these epochs, but really we are dust in the wind. But I think there’s a significance in that insignificance….”

4. Ryan Adams, Monday Night. I loved this song when I heard it on a bootleg. Then I forgot it existed. But then I joined Spotify, came across the song and loved it again. My first Spotify find (or re-find). All I want is to roll through your fingers, baby / All I need is to make it alright / All I want is to be your connection / Win your affection, be your reflection….

5. Little Richard, Ready Teddy. I’m so damn restless this week. Growl. Toss up between this song and the Stones’ trashy Dancing with Mr. D.