TheThe Poetry
≡ Menu

Power is arbitrary when it steps out from the laws of the system it generates, fosters, or embodies, thus causing the system to scramble and struggle to “explain” and fit this act to the laws inherent in the system. The most blatant example of this would the way a culture might explain the arbitrary force of a great natural catastrophe as an “act” of God, either to “punish” or test his believers. The transference of an arbitrary force into a “willed” act and further, an act with a purposeful intent relieves the stress, and hides the possibility that, if the storm is merely arbitrary then the system cannot explain its own reason for being and may be arbitrary (a system that admits to being arbitrary is not long for this world) There is an evolution of this thinking toward “mystery.” One admits one does not know, then builds a piety around not knowing, elevating the arbitrary deeds of the highest power within the system to a “mystery.” All attempts to explain or challenge this mystery, to accuse it of inconsistency, or wrongdoing, to see it as “arbitrary” become impious acts. One is not to question, or labor long over the mystery of the arbitrary. The stress of the arbitrary is relieved by its laudatory elevation to “mystery.”

In this respect, God never explains to Job why he, who loves Job, makes a rather whimsical wager with Satan and allows Satan to destroy everything in Job’s world except his life, and the wife who urges him to “curse God and die.” When God finally makes an appearance at the end of the story, he does not explain himself but gives the greatest verbal example of the elevation of the arbitrary and the power of the arbitrary to the status of mystery and it’s “majesty” ever invoked. God puts forth a series of questions. Satan (which means the accuser) had earlier questioned Job’s virtue by wagering: if you take away all you have given him, he will curse you. In short, love that is conditional must not have true power because it isn’t arbitrary–beyond the conditional. Love of God must be beyond condition. It must not be based on God’s mercy, providence, love or law, but “just because.”It is from this “just because” that all the qualifiers (systems and reasons for loving God) proceed. Satan is incapable of “just because,” and cannot abide either the arbitrary mercy of God, or the arbitrary faithfulness of man. Satan “accuses,” and by doing so he questions God’s power and his creation. Satan is the uber-prosecutor of systems, the ultimate moralist, and profaning instigator and exposer of all contradiction. Satan exposes, and he attempts to expose God by proving that “conditions”–not God, are all powerful.

In a sense, the comforters of Job, upholders of the system, scramble to do the same. Job must have done something “wrong.” God punishes the wicked, not the virtuous.” Finally, the youngest speaks out of turn, and gives the speech that God follows up on: who are you to question God?” This is not the rightful speech for the one subservient to the system, and God knocks the youngest speaker away with the Maelstrom, and gives the speech himself. The speech is an invocation of power, not an explanation. It asks a series of questions that amount to “who are you to question me?” God’s majesty, God’s power beyond all conditions wipes away Job’s protests. Before Job receives a single thing back from God, he is utterly satisfied by this show of power because it has “answered” him without explaining–the perfect answer of true power. Some of the speech:

Then God answered Job out of the Maelstrom, and said:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? [his is addressed to the youngest comforter as well as Job]
Gird up thy loins like a man [Stop being a bitcher and moaner] for I will demand of thee, and answer me: [now the questions come hot and heavy]:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare if you have understanding.
Who has laid the measures thereof, if you know? Or who has stretched the line upon it?

Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the corner stone thereof
When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

God goes on like that for pages, a verbal might to match his creative might. God blusters, questions, displays his power, and never explains himself. Then he waits for Job’s answer. Remember that Job’s children are dead, his fortune has vanished, his body is covered in sores. Nothing in the conditional world has changed, and yet all has changed because the arbitrary has now been elevated to the level of mystery, and whereas the arbitrary causes despair and stress, and confusion, the mysterious inspires awe, and submission, and gravitas. A man who complains lacks an essential gravitas. It is this lack of Gravitas that allows Odysseus to break the ribs of Thersites and win the approval of the men. Power answers with majesty, with force. It’s gravitas may have no reason behind it. It does not answer to reason. Majesty answers to majesty. Job replies:

I know that you can do everything and that no thought can be withheld from you.
Who is he that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore have I uttered that I understood not;
things too wonderful for me which I knew not.
Here, I beseech you and I will speak: I will demand of you and declare unto me.
I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear: but now my eyes see [the origin of the saying “seeing is believing].
Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

God goes on to defend Job to the comforters whom he condemns. The comforters have insisted God is just, and Job must have done something wrong. In the system in which they judge, God cannot punish a good man, only an evildoer. But if this so, then God is subject to the law. Job has maintained his innocence, has insisted her has obeyed the system to the ultimate degree. His recalcitrance is judged as pride, even by some modern religious, but what it is, without Job’s conscious knowledge of it, is an affirmation of powers right to be arbitrary: God is God. God does what God does. Job is not calm or cheerful in suffering. (modern Christians would condemn him for his loud complaining) I greatly enjoy Paul’s assertion that Job is counted righteous because of his faith. Consider Christ’s saying: “blessed are they who have not seen yet believed” and match it to Job’s “”but now I see.” Faith and belief are not the same. Faith is an action of obedience beyond belief, beyond reason, condition, beyond justification. It is obedience rather than conformity. It shares in the power of the arbitrary by enduring beyond conditions. Only in this way may we see Job as made righteous by his faith–if we make a distinction between faith and belief. The comforters believe in the system, but they cannot transcend it to the realm of “the first”–its power as arbitrary force. They believe that no good man can be afflicted. They believe in the rules of the system, not its power. God scolds them and praises Job for speaking rightly: there is no reason for his suffering except the discretion of power. Job has done nothing wrong and yet suffered the misfortunes common to evil doers. God calls Job’s laments, his stubborn refusal to cave into the idea that he has transgressed the “thing that is right.” Faith is not belief in the system, but the action of obedience in the face of its arbitrary power.

Modern scholars insist that the section in which Job receives back tenfold of all he has lost was an addition because, at this level of the unconditional submission to the arbitrary first, men cannot bear to know this must be done beyond recompense, even beyond the hope of heaven. Mystic saints such as Theresa of Avila cannot accept heaven as the conditional award for holiness. They say that an eternity in hell would be fine so long as their love of God could remain. Heaven as “payment” seems cheap to those most intimate with the arbitrary power behind system, especially in so far as that arbitrary power is raised to the level of mystery/majesty. Here a return to Bentham’s dyslogistic, neutral, and laudatory registers might prove helpful:

Laudatory: Mysterious, “terrible” (in the positive biblical sense), majestic and beyond condition.
Neutral: unconditional
Dyslogistic: mere whim, capricious, hypocritical, unfair, un reasoned, unjust, arbitrary.

The lament of Job makes him appear to the comforters as if he were accusing God in the dyslogistic register of being arbitrary, cruel, unjust, unfair. In a sense, this is true, and what we call a change in Job’s attitude after God’s great thundering of rhetorical questions is not so much a change as it is what we talked about when we mentioned Aesthetic transference. Job elevates his speech to the laudatory register of mystery, majesty, and unconditional love, and by doing so, God counts him right for God is transcendent of the registers and, as long as Job does not curse him directly, he may speak in the dyslogistic register lamenting arbitrary power and still be justified. It is a shift in nomenclature, and yet the fact remains: God does whatever God wants, and need not explain, and we may lament, yet who are we to hold God to the letter of his own laws?

I am now going to make an enormous leap from Job to a poem by William Carlos Williams, a poem in which Williams breaks the very laws ascribed to him, yet fulfills the one law that no one seems to realize was Williams’ guiding aesthetic principle, beyond even direct contact. Williams himself formulated it in his autobiography when he said Shakespeare was mistaken: the artist does not hold the mirror up to nature, but rather uses the dynamics and energy of the organic in making a “thing made out of words.” One co-opts nature’s energy, directness, and immediacy. Rather than reflecting or representing it, one uses its energy as raw material. Williams was noted as a champion of unmetered verse (he would have protested that he was not without meter, but finding the “natural breath” and the variable foot). Williams was raised above the influence of Eliot and many of the approaches he first advanced and advocated are now “norms” of “good” poetry: contact with the thing at hand (show don’t tell), the poem as thing, process, the rejection of set forms for organic form, the anti-poetic, the admonishment to “make it new,” the rejection of English stanzas and meters in preference for a natural American vernacular, a stripping away of rhetorical devices, including the psalm like use of anaphora and enumeration found in the long lined “free verse” of Whitman, also an extreme belief in the organic process of the poem rather than repetition.

In the poem I am now going to look at, Williams trespasses against most of these rules, but think about it: if one is claiming the power, and dynamic of natural breath and meter, one must allow the power of the arbitrary. In this case, Williams is stressing his chief aesthetic faith (praxis) over his chief aesthetic belief system (theoria). In point of fact, I would argue that the hall mark of a major or great poet lies always in a fruitful conflict between praxis and theoria. At any rate, the poem:

The Dance

In Brueghal’s great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeel and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling about
the Fair grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
in Brueghel’s great picture, The Kermess.

Let us, for the sake of greater clarity and greater confusion, pretend Williams is a “system (in a sense he is since he is a major and generative poet). Let us for the sake of further clarity and confusion pretend he did not write this poem and it is being read by a radical gatekeeper of the system known as Williams. This gatekeeper is an “authority” a work shop leader. He has been telling the kids to “show, don’t tell.” He has been warning them that set form is outmoded, and that new ideas call for new measures. He has been drilling them in the modernist dislike of repetition. He is a radical believer in organic form, and against rhyme for the most part as well as traditional meter. He also thinks poems should make direct contact with life, not paintings. They should speak from life. He does not like a lot of redundancy, nor does he like free verse to be stichic and box-like. HE is the gatekeeper of the Williams system. His job is to impose order, to uphold the “values” of that system, and to be, at all times, a terministic screen against any arbitrary escape from the values of the system. He comes to this poem, which we are pretending is not known or famous, and not written by Williams, and he tells the kid: “try writing this poem and revising it to have a less artificial rhythm. Break the lines, and put it in a series of tercets. The rhyme dance as they prance sounds awkward. In point of fact, all the rhymes in this poem seem awkward. Get rid of them. So the revision goes like this:

The dancers go around
to the squeel of bag pipes,
to the sound of fiddles and bugles.

They tip their bellies
which are as round as the thick
sided glasses from which they guzzle.

Their hips and bellies are off balance.
They kick and roll about
the fair grounds, swinging their butts.

Those shanks must be sound to bear up
under such rollicking measures.
And so they dance.

No reference to a painting necessary (unless the poet puts it in the title). No “awkward” rhymes, no set meter, no possum, no taters. Awful! And yet it is totally within the free verse, unrhymed, unmetered “System” by which workshop leaders wield their power. Their power is arbitrary, but it is invested in insisting there are rules of thumb that are not arbitrary. The true power of the arbitrary lies in Williams’ breaking of his own “system’s” laws. Power may violate its own definitions or it is not power. By breaking the rules, he affirms their highest “spirit.” Being a good poet, he answers to the intentions of the poem as they occur, not caring if the praxis of the poem goes directly against his theoria. Men work; gods play.

The creative power of a poet must include the possibility of arbitrary power or it serves only competence and adherence to an aesthetic. At best, this achieves craft and competence with the rules of the system. It is the vast majority of what most magazines accept as “good poems.” Of course, true power brokers can be just as arbitrary. They call this being “open minded.” For this reason, I tell my students to try their best to read a poem within the intentions of the poem rather than with their own “uber” poem or aesthetic or even their own taste getting in the way. Our “values” should be used rather than imposed, but this is difficult if not impossible. It takes what the Zen call “beginners mind,” what scientists call “null position.” We must be careful even of such seemingly benevolent forces as beginners mind, and null position because enforced universally, they, too, become totalitarian (Think of the ahistorical aesthetics of the Cleanth Brooks school of criticism in which each poem was to be seen as a first, without precedent, or think about how the null position of science can be cruel in certain social situations).

The “balance of power” is one of my favorite contradictions in terms, but we must be “toward” it even if it can never be achieved. To be toward what ain’t is not delusional. Our lives are toward what ain’t: death, oblivion. I am a Burke-ian to the extent that I agree with him on the value of the word “toward” but we must not yield even to the bureaucracy of toward, and must allow for the impossibility of actually arriving. Note that Williams pulls off a sort of Aesthetic transference of the old translated into the terms of the new. This is not evolution as opposed to revolution. It is a conjuring, a con, and the best sort. It is toward the good of the work. It is both delightful comedy and sadness that someone working the Williams system might attack this wonderful poem on the grounds that it does not follow the rules.

To get free latest updates, just sign up here

Joe Weil is a lecturer at SUNY Binghamton and has several collections of poetry out there, A Portable Winter (with an introduction by Harvey Pekar), The Pursuit of Happiness, What Remains, Painting the Christmas Trees, and, most recently, The Plumber's Apprentice, published by New York Quarterly Press. He makes his home in Vestal, New York.

View all contributions by

  • Bobby Parry via Facebook July 4, 2012, 8:56 am

    Music is my first love by Bobby Parry!

  • Bobby Parry via Facebook July 4, 2012, 8:56 am

    Music is a template, of how we tend to feel, with words of love and hate to sing, our inner thoughts reveal. The passion of a person, will cry within a song, a melody of pure intent, to take the right from wrong, We heal the world with music, the ballads offer hope, a congregation of lost souls, will gather just to cope. a classic from my attic, or just a simple chord, it offers perfect harmony, with love as my reward. So listen to a sad song, whenever you are blue, close your eyes to feel at home, this song was wrote for you. But music is a freedom, a chance for us to teach, the notes on life that sleep with us, forever in our reach.

  • Bobby Parry via Facebook July 4, 2012, 8:57 am

    Music is so gifted, a role you can perform, upon the stage of life is yours, to make a perfect storm. A drum will roll like thunder, guitars that gently weep, will make the bass line come alive, while troubled waters sleep. My mood is ever changing, with grief I try to meet, a middle ground so I can smile, depression is my beat. A maestro to my future, I orchestrate my mind, to play along with gentle tones, the strings I pluck to find! A fiddle if you like it, or brass to make you shine, the instruments that we possess, can help to draw the line. From love a blank expression, a moment of pure bliss, enlighten souls who have no creed, to sing as you may kiss.

  • Bobby Parry via Facebook July 4, 2012, 8:58 am

    Music is an art form, with paint replaced by word, the scenes of life I brush away, to sing just like a bird. My freedom lasts forever, in music there’s no mute, the wind is so revealing now, just blowing like a flute. Piano steps I wander, to play amongst the keys, an open door for everyone, to do as they will please. A harp for my rendition, of songs I know so well, I emulate to be someone, from heaven you can tell. The voice of any angel, can take you far away, from everything that you despise, my song for you I play. On any stage I muster, with courage I protect, the key of life that opens doors, on things that I have wrecked.

  • Bobby Parry via Facebook July 4, 2012, 8:58 am

    Music is my first love, apart from love itself, it gives me strength to carry on, my worries on the shelf. A lonely inspiration, of violins that speak, the truth for you and all mankind, cos people are so weak! To let their feelings show, you have to improvise, the soul within your melody, reveals what you disguise. A sheet of inspiration, with notes of high and low, will see you through the chorus line, with verses you can show. A liberated person, who beats a silent drum, a one man band is not so bad, when you are feeling glum. Oh the joys of music, entangled with some wine, my only medication now, with words that i define.

  • Bobby Parry via Facebook July 4, 2012, 8:59 am

    Music is a platform, a stage of life you learn, the special people in your song, will love you in return. Alone to do a solo, a duet you will dream, to find the link that keeps you safe, like islands in a stream. My voice is honed for greatness, the sun that shines in June, is perfect for my peace of mind, to conjure up some tune. Piano so inviting, the ivories I strike, with ebony my favoured wood, a song I hope you like. a silence is created, for ears I will entice, a sound of love so beautiful, my words will then suffice. Creation is a mind set, and all because of you, I wrote this poem as I submit, my song I sung so blue!

  • Bobby Parry via Facebook July 4, 2012, 9:00 am

    That’s poetry:-)

Leave a Comment