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Joe Weil

Review: The Book of Knowledge, by Chad Faries
Vulgar Marsala Press
ISBN 978-0982007792 

My first experience of Chad Faries’ collection of poems, The Book of Knowledge was the cover—a sort of map to the whimsy, conjectures, and elaborations within. We have a blond haired child in the clothes of a page/minstrel/jester (there are pantaloons) holding what appears to be a paintbrush or a stylus (too small for my middle aged eyes to decide). He is in color and has his back turned to us. What he looks at is a night sky full of chalked lilies, a salamander, a motorcycle, two hands wielding a bow string and violin bow (primitive string instrument, fire maker?), an octagon of a zodiac, an outline of the great lakes, and to the left of the boy, the C cleft (the one violas use). There are also numbers 2, 3, 5 (Fibonacci sequence) as well as other mathematical signs, and we may wonder if this black and white universe is the boy’s created knowledge, and the secret, or metaphorical code for the book. The back cover has blurbs and a rather whimsical description of the author: “… the Owls in the wild oaks outside his house in Thunderbolt, Georgia, know him as an alien and call his name quite often. They coo and woo and, with Chad’s heavy sweet breath, they all shift into song. And so is the life of Dr. Chad Faries, famous American writer.”

So, having seen the front cover, and the back, I am assuming certain things: the book will have something to do with mapping, cartography, magic, whimsy, and a play on the name Faries. It will be about knowledge perhaps, and perhaps that knowledge will be random and surreal. It will ape old illustrated books—the sort of books with illustrations throughout. The author will speak of himself in the third person or make up characters to do so, which hints that it will be imaginative and, hopefully, fey and playful like Herbert’s Mr. Cogito poems, Dobbyn’s heart poems, Paul Zimmer’s work in which Zimmer is the main character. I am annoyed at the small print (it is a little book for little people supposedly) but delighted by the cover.

So, thus far, I am both annoyed and delighted all at once, and I have a sneaking suspicion the poet would not mind that I be both annoyed (or irritated/agitated like a clam) and delighted all at once. I am already shaking the book for its possible contents before I have even entered it. Is it meta-poetry? Is it playful like Trout Fishing in America? No less a luminary than Andre Codrescu has blurbed it, and so I am going to think this book is being claimed for the American surreal, and experimental (or what might be better called speculative). Sure enough, Codrescu is claiming the poet as a wonderful exception to the dregs out there. He blurbs: “In the easy narrative mess that many poets are now making out of the mystery of their lives, Chad Fairies keeps the mystery of his intact…” This is Codrescu’s way of saying Chad is not a confessional poet. I think this blurb widely true, but inexact, as good strategic blurbs often are. I translate the blurb as: “There are those terrible narrative poets out there (like Sharon Olds?) making a mess of the mystery of their lives, and then there is Chad Faries who is not committing the sin of the confessional, the straightforward, that which is bereft of mystification.” Perhaps Codrescu is doing a positive version of Anis Shivani? My heart (if you want to call it that) starts to sink because I am thinking that I am about to get the opposite side of the same MFA driven coin: the non-confessional school of MFA: moderately surreal, life tweaking, cute, playful, troping, mass produced competent surreal poem as opposed to the straightforward, utterly clear and as flat as Sharon Olds’ ass fully confessional poem. Oh no! I think: the stupid wars by which mediocrity wins grants! I’m as sick of Codrescu’s camp as I am of so called normative free verse. I think Codrescu is fighting a war that ended in the 80s. Both sides won and poetry lost. Both schools mass produce university magazines and poets. Fucking spare me. I wish to play Mercutio and shout a plague on both their houses.

So I have seen the front cover, read the blurbs, and now I enter the acknowledgements which contain Codrescu’s famous Exquisite Corpse, and the bastion of all that is not I: Barrow Street. I think: this is going to be another tongue-in-cheek,- eternally pop or lit-referencing- tropey- surreal– dada meets -John Ashbery meets comic shtick, and has a baby called Beavis and Butthead collection of poems by a really intelligent white guy who went to grad school and who is a smart ass. I’m kind of sick of those guys. They get on my nerves.

Where I am not right is where I highly recommend this book: first, it is thick, with verbal impasto (not the usual breezy lines of chit-chat and non-sequitur), with an “I” voice that at times lays it on thick with finger rather than brush paint, and enjoys hearing itself speechifying—sort of a drunken hybrid of Polonius and a character out of Confederacy of Dunces. Slight example of this pontificating shtick (the titles are often long and often mock didactic, and a little like the subtitles in old books which would have: “chapter 7 which treats of Justin’s realization of eternal truth”). This is from, We Must Not Let the Muddle of Words Mislead Us:

Let us move to heat. The simple word is used
For two quite different things though only the very
wisest of those who would study such things have
yet noticed how their word is deceiving
them. Now by coincidence I can speak
of heat slightly metaphorically,
though I didn’t plan to, and would rather
not…

Note how the enjambments aid and abet the breathless rambling preamble of it all. The voice of the poem hems and haws and qualifies, and is breathless. This is one of the pervading styles of the book—a sort of performed “I”, an “I” that would not be out of place in a book by Berryman.

But there is another, lyrical, even beautifully broken voice that reminds me of the Apollinaire of Mirabeau Bridge—a sort of harlequin sadness that encroaches in the midst of all the verbiage, and begins to make The Book of Knowledge far more than verbal trickery. One of my favorites that achieves this effect is the poem Seeing Voice:

I stood on the sky and looked;

A blue toy glider launched, arching
over the peak of a roof. A blond
child with a plastic and rubber band cross-
bow.

An omnipotent mother puffing a cigar-
ette, her breath a braid
of smoke…

This is beautiful and magical scene painting, true surrealism—the moment throbbing with its own unconscious, ephemeral life—utterly plausible, not just clever or tricky. It is in this way that Chad Faries keeps the promise mentioned in Codrescu’s blurb: not removing the mystery of life.

As mentioned, the book has many long poems, poems that leave a trail of strangeness on the page. It is full of illustrations like a 19th century text, and has many interesting cartographical and astronomical instruments drawn throughout. If you remove these, do you remove the effect of the poems? Not at all, but it is a book to rummage in, and for all its high concept, to skip around and enjoy as one might enjoy a book of maps—an almanac.
There are narrative poems here, lyrical narratives that have great emotional force. The poem Steve, if it were about suicide (and we will never know) is a better poem about suicide than Nick Flynn’s more famous Bag of Mice. Just the beginning, to get a sense of it:

On top of the roof he cut open the belly
of the sky with a pair of scissors…

Or these lines:

The fire truck in the distance
was a mourning woman who had lost her son.

There are many such moments in the book, and I do not truly know why the high concept of the illustrations and some of the voices are needed, but these moments are enough to make me not care. I enjoyed it almost as much as I did Peter Markus’ Good, Brother. It has moments that are as sweet-without-being-cloying as the playful love poems of Kenneth Patchen, and these moments make The Book of Knowledge a refreshing change both from straight on confessional narrative free verse, and the too easy surrealism and emotional disconnection that now passes for innovative. It is not a book for lazy readers. Its small print means that at 91 pages, it is really more like 130: a small novel. One can see it as a small novel or a very large miscellany. Either way, it is a book of poems worth struggling into. It has the muscular strength of something beyond sound bites and “projects.” I wish it were in hard cover with gold lettering here and there. For some reason I cannot fathom, The Book of Knowledge reminded me at certain points in its thickness and gnarled whimsy of Browning. If Browning is lurking about the book, then it transcends both the schools of confessional narrative and American speculative verse. And that is all to the good. Condrescu commends Faries for “Standing upright by the light of his torch, and for not assuming that he recognizes anything he sees.” I commend him, but not for not assuming he recognizes what he sees. Being puritanical about never-assuming can be a real bore (I love assumptions and find them amusing. I work in academia where all assumptions are qualified into oblivion). Every once in a while Faries sees something and points with his torch, knowing the fire of his words will distort it. And he does not apologize. Good for him. This is a book that manages to do things none of the prevailing books are doing. It is slow going in the beginning, but picks up. It is a book that insists on patience. In this case, patience is rewarded.

Now that you know something about free verse, I thought we’d approach imagery. You will hear in workshops: “Show, don’t tell,” but that’s a bunch of malarkey. It should be: “Show what tells.” If all you have is mere description, your poem will be like someone’s photo album: interesting to you, but perhaps boring to everyone else. Many poets can describe a tree–and this is no small accomplishment–but it is very rare that a tree is just a tree.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” is so wonderful in its visual accuracy that she can get away with it just being about catching a tremendous fish, but besides being one hum dinger of a fish story, it is also about the mystery, the amazement of what we might turn up when we venture forth into the world. Wonder and awe are at the heart of the ontology of this poem. Ontology is the being that both proceeds from the poem, and animates it. Best description of ontology I can give is from my life: once, I was in an overcrowded and dark car, riding to the Jersey shore. I thought my bare leg was against the bare leg of a girl I was “in love” with. The whole ride was in relation to this leg. Oh brave new world! The lights scything across the car, the sound of air planes thirty thousand feet above the vehicle, the smells of Perth Amboy… it all went into this moment when I thought: “My leg is against my love’s leg, and she has not moved her leg, and I hope she never moves her leg until we get to the shore, and she falls naked and impassioned beneath me while the sea roars, and the moon is a ghostly galleon, etc, etc, and so forth.” The feel of her leg against mine became the center of my universe. I didn’t look. I closed my eyes, to restrict my senses to the tactile. When the car stopped at a red light, I glanced over and saw that my leg was against a different girl’s leg, a girl I did not like at all. It greatly disappointed me. The rest of the drive passed uneventfully, except the girl I did not like now thought I liked her.

I had taken a single detail and made a whole world out of it. Sometimes a leg is just a leg. Imagism, in its most radical form, advocates that a leg be just a leg. Some poets are anti-ontological. Haiku, in its strict form, is supposed to build an ontology through images alone–no overt emotions, or opinions of the imagery. It should imply a season:

Old man pissing in a grave yard.
Up from the tomb stones
smoke.

We’ll if smoke rises, or something like smoke, it is probably pretty damned cold. We don’t have to make a connection between the rising smoke, the piss, and the old man. I do. So here’s a rule of thumb: as much as possible, choose images that will create the effect, the mood or truth or emotion you desire. Just as good, choose images that will incite the reader to do the work for you. Don’t just describe. Also, don’t overdo the images.

Haiku is not 5,7,5. Anyone who has read Ron Padgett’s wonderful work on poetry forms, and anyone who has taken a class in Haiku will know this. I don’t like Haiku all that much, but I’ve written thousands, most of which I use as scrap material for my longer poems. You can link the Haiku:

Old man pissing in a grave yard
up from the tomb stones
smoke.

He adjusts his fly.
Snow on the stone angel,
snow melting into his P coat.

At the Baptist church,
free lunch
with a two hour service.

The girl smiles.
Jesus loves you.
Sound of forks scraping plates.

Ok, so now we can assume the old man might be homeless, or indigent, or willing to put up with God for a free lunch. It’s up to the poet.

Remember, telling through showing is relatively new–about a hundred years old in Western poetry. Pound and all those early modernists were influenced by the Japanese and Chinese. It was a way of getting rid of maxims, and rhetoric, and all the clutter of rhetorical devices. Let’s translate an older poem into this sort of thing:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
admit impediments; love is not love
which alters when it alteration finds
or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh, no, it is an ever fixed mark.

Impede what? The marriage of true minds! Or perhaps “impediments” is not a verb here, but a noun, and means imperfections.

The wife adjusts her senile husband’s
hospital gown. She covers his ass,
Her hands remembering him.

I like the Shakespeare way better. Images alone can be boring, and they have a certain arrogance. Why should an oak tree at sunset move me? And why should an old lady, covering her senile husband’s ass, equal faithfulness and steadfastness in love? Suppose I despise sunsets. Or suppose I think people should be euthanized when they become senile. Who is the writer to assume an oak tree at sunset will make me feel tender, or that I will care about a doddering old couple? Who indeed!

We must be careful what we assume a reader knows or feels. For this reason, a poem ought to offer layers of meaning. Also, we should be careful when telling what we think is true. We should not bully a reader; neither should we be so unwilling to say anything that we bog down in our mystifications. One can either find something deeper, or just enjoy the surfaces.

So here’s a difficult assignment if you’re up for it: take a poem that makes a statement, like Shakespeare’s sonnet, and “translate” it into sensual imagery, so that the statement is implied through the imagery, and nothing else. Proverbs are good for this:

You can’t take it with you.
They also serve who only stand and wait
Death be not proud nor honor long.
Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.

So what is this thing called free verse? Is it highly cadenced and rhythmic but unmetered lines? Maybe. Is it a series of utterances lined, but without any beat? Perhaps. Is it prose written with line breaks? Sometimes, sure; why not? This last one is a charge poets seek to avoid because… well, because they are poets. They want to make sure they are defined as poets and not as prose writers who decided to forsake paragraph structure. They want to get away with murder. Marianne Moore claimed she wanted to write “well ordered prose.” Moore was gutsy. She decided the best defense for supposedly free verse was to admit it was prose, but to add the proviso, “well ordered.” In her case, she often employed what is known as syllabic verse. In syllabic verse, poets count syllables, not beats. English is what they call a syllabic/accentual language. You’ll get arguments from people about that, but people argue about everything. One might go as far as to say that postmodernism is little more “exceptionalism as its rule.” It’s all aporia, a fancy Greek term for all things containing an essential contradiction within their structures so that all things break down (deconstruct). How clever! It allows postmodernists to study the gaps in texts and seldom have anything to do with the texts themselves. This is called theory.

Anyway, to understand free verse, it might do us some good to understand unfree, oppressed, over determined, enslaved verse, verse in chains, so to speak, verse before we liberated it. Here’s an example:

when IN disGRACE with FORtune AND men’s EYES
I all alone beweep my outcast state.

Now there are ten syllables here in both lines, and five of them are accented. This is called iambic pentameter. It means ten syllables, but five accented beats (syllables). Usually, the unaccented syllable precedes an accented one in strict iambic pentameter. If we exaggerate the emphasis on “in,” “grace,” “for,” and “eyes,” we’ll find the pulse of the accents in iambic pentameter. We can even clap them out (instructor claps them out). Unaccented syllables are lowercase, and accented syllables are uppercase. Some people use little U-shaped and accent marks. These go over the words. This is called scansion. This is not an exact science. If it was, English would sound pretty boring. Rhythm, especially good flowing rhythm, is all about playing loose within a specific structure, but not so loose that the structure disappears. When the beats get too predictable, poems sound boring. If the beats are not somewhat regular, then we have to force them to exist. We will call this wrench rhythm—a rhythm that is unnaturally imposed upon a line to make it fit a pattern. Anyway, let’s see what happens when we change the first line a little:

When in disgrace with men’s eyes and fortune
I all alone beweep my outcast state.

Does the rhythm seem off to you? Suppose I also change the second line:

When in disgrace with men’s eyes and fortune
I beweep my outcast state all alone.

If you are listening, you will hear that the rhythm known as iambic pentameter is gone. Each line still contains ten syllables. By Moore’s calculations, this makes it well ordered prose, but its regular pulse is gone. Amen. Of course, some people can’t tell. Why? Because, like people who are tone deaf, they are rhythm deaf. If you don’t grow up reading lots of poems written in iambic pentameter, you may not be sensitive to its presence. It has nothing to do with rhyme. You can have unmetered poetry that rhymes. Hell, in Persia, they have rhymed prose. At any rate, many poets who are grant winners are rhythm deaf. They cover it up with imagery, or by making the poem look “visibly appealing.” This appeal varies. Some magazines don’t want anything that looks eccentric. Others don’t want anything that looks normal, and some editors are ego maniacs and insist they know when a poem is “organic.”

A lot of free verse is about how we use space. Prose writers don’t have to worry about that. They go from left to right until the limit is reached and then keep going, but poets use lines, and lines draw attention to a unit of measure, even if that measure is irregular, without a pattern. All the white space around those lines creates contrast. Free verse writers have to worry about the gaps as well as the words. It’s a real pain in the ass. I know. Forgive me. But the first thing you should do after writing a free verse poem is ask yourself: does the white space it leaves appeal to me? Do I even care about it? If I don’t, what do I care about in this particular poem? Suppose I say what most novices say: I care about expressing my emotions. Well, then you should act like a scientist and apply a series of questions to those emotions: if this emotion were a thing, how would it be shaped? If the emotion is wild, what would happen if I caged it in a regular structure or pattern? Would it take the wildness away, or would it add a sort of good tension between the wildness and the form? We should ask no questions when we first write a poem. We are answering a hundred hidden questions, and cool, objective questions will only get in the way of those, but afterwards, after the frenzy of our creative moment, we need to step back, and be scientists. What questions apply to this particular poem? What are my images doing? What is my structure doing? How do I like the shape of the poem? Do I care? Why don’t I care? Etc, etc, etc. So I am now about to perform a feat of magic. I am going to take the opening lines of Salinger’s “Raise High The Roof Beam Carpenters,” and meter it, then unmeter it, just to give you permission to manipulate language and structures and stop thinking it some sort of accident:

“One Night some twenty years ago, during a siege of mumps in our enormous family, my youngest sister, Franny was moved, crib and all, into the ostensibly germ free room I shared with my eldest Brother Seymour:”

One night, now more than twenty years ago,
during a siege of mumps, my sister Franny,
was moved out, crib and all, from her own room,
into the room that Seymour and I shared.

OK. That’s rough iambic pentameter–blank verse. Here’s syllabic with me changing very little:

One night some twenty years ago during
a siege of mumps in our huge family
my youngest sister Franny was moved crib
and all into the ostensibly germ
free room I shared with our brother, Seymour.

Now pattern it as free verse:

One night, some twenty
years ago
during a siege of mumps
in our enormous family,
my youngest sister, Franny
was moved crib and all
into the ostensibly germ free room
I shared with my eldest brother,
Seymour.

Read this last version, which is exact to the prose, by pausing at the end of every line. You’ll start to hear a ghost meter, a cadence, but only if you pause. If we treat the white space as what poets call a caesura (a pause) we can shape our poems by more or less natural speech rhythms–by the breath. This is only one way of shaping free verse. It is the first we are going to learn.

Here’s an exercise: take a piece of prose and do two of the three things I just did to it, dropping or changing words, but nothing that would get rid of the most vital information. Then take one of your poems, and do the same, playing with its structure, breaking the lines according to the breath/ pauses you hear. Good luck.

Primalism: the testing for all aesthetic value wagered on the energies of the primal, the root, the raw, the atavistic, the unconscious, with a corresponding mistrust of the social conventions, the art of the decorative and contrived, and, above all, a dismissal of the thinking faculty save in its aspect as “process of ongoing revery.” A primalist will tend to play down the aphoristic and proverbial didactics of pre-romantic writers, and judge such pre-romantic works for their dynamism, their underlying sexual/political connotations, and their foreshadowing of romantic-modernist concerns. In effect, Shakespeare’s polyglot flights of decorative speech, rather than being loved in and of themselves as word play, will be seen as a slight impediment rather than the chief glory of his work, and the rather conventional, pro-monarchy, pro-triumphalist, mob despising politics of Shakespeare will be “rehabilitated” as it were to fit some process of liberation or revolution which the bard never intended. In effect, the primalist will quarry stones from the quarry of Shakespeare and his contemporaries that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would not have even considered picking up. The romantics, being, almost all primalists (exception Keats, and, certainly, John Clare) bequeathed to the decadents, the symbolists, and the first modernists certain tendencies still very much with us. I will note them as follows:

1. The tendency to prefer the abnormative as somehow morally superior to the normal.
2. The tendency to see the pretty at a far remove from the beautiful.
3.The tendency to see in the process of children and so-called “primitives” greater integrity of invention.
4. The tendency to loathe the authoritarian strains of aphorism, the dictum, the dispassionate thought and to replace these with conjecture/ambiguity, equivocation, the strains of transcendence and spiritual uplift especially in the realms of mystery peculiar to mind/body awareness and meditation
6. A bias that anything eastern is superior to the west and can not possibly be subject to the same corruption
7. A belief in the primal and a strong disposition to impose this “value” on women and children (the life force), and the “othered” (Blacks , indians), what I like to call “UGGING” (in reference to the ug language assigned to primitives in movies)..
8. A love/hate relationship to science and the rational
9. Wilderness as divine energy rather than as nemesis, and a belief along with Emerson that all things in nature thunder forth the true moral order. Nothing “natural” or “organic” can be evil since it is the ground zero of all mortal order.( The exact quote from Emerson is “All things in nature thunder forth the ten commandments”).
10. An obsession with both troped of hyper-reality and numbness (torpor, love/death, stupor, decay, languor, enui)

One final attribute I will submit is the most radical change between the late age of reason artists and romanticism/modernism/post-modernism, and for this, I need to borrow some terms from Jung’s personality types (An expansion and more in depth understanding of the four humors as well as the Dionysian/Apollonian binary:

11: A changing of primary and subsidiary functions. Whereas, thought and feeling ( were in the prime position throughout most of literary history, intuition and sensation began to dominate, to assume a larger emphasis in the 19th century and up to the present moment. Emotion belongs to sensation as much as feeling since feeling is, unlike emotion, a cognitive decision, a rationalizing of emotion. In the past, thoughts and feelings were “understood” and extroverted and the decorative devices and supporting functions were sensation (details) and intuition (those little breaches in form that proved the rule). Sensation and intuition at all times served as an agreed upon ground of thought and feeling (Carpe diem, attitudes toward mortality, etc). This gives all of literature before the romantics a far more didactic cast. Shakespeare’s wordplay was so amazing that sensation and intuition often seem to dominate in his plays (not really in his sonnets). Shakeseare’s decorative gifts were so overwhelming that they spilled over the boundaries of thought and feeling they were meant to express. Still, to understand shakespeare as he would have been understood, he was far more didactic, far more “agreed” upon,far more in step with his time than we might like to think. Shakeseare was not a primalist. Ok… so let’s refine number 11:

11. the reversal of the four functions (thought, feeling, intuition, sensation) in terms of priority. sensation and intuition rule and Thought and feeling serve as subsidiary functions. This leads to what I will call the genius of “stupidity.” I see several kinds of stupidity endemic to romatnic/modernist/post-modernist thought: the stupidity of the unknown, the stupidity of the atavistic,the stupidity of sheer process, the stupidity of object/subject confusion, the stupidity of the surreal, the stupidity of the irrational: In effect: the unknown, the atavistic, the process or looping of tropes in terms of self consciousness and collage, the surreal, the abnormative and the insane.

I define stupidity here as meaning :to be stunned, stupefied out of the expected patterns or thought and feeling to the point where there is little or no agreed upon context, and the subjective conscious (or unconscious) dominates.

The most dominant primalist among English poets is Worsdworth. His use of the meditative, confessional lyric as first developed by his friend Coleridge is still the most prevalent force in contemporary poetics. His influence on Emerson was immanence. The romantic who rebelled most successfully against him (Keats) did so only in terms of Wordsworth’s verbal clumsiness, his rather drab and stripped down style. Keats, refusing to divorce the pretty and decorative from the beautiful and integral set the tone for the Walter Pater influenced Aesthetes. They may seem utterly divorced from subsequent modernists, but the difference is merely one of emphasizing the decorative over the supposed substantive and ontological. Lets look at an excerpt from Wordsworth’s Preludes, and then consider how this passage was lifted to create the main guts of the famous poem “A Slumber did my spirit cease: Line 381, of the Preludes, first part:

…I have felt/
not seldom, even in that tempestuous time/
those hallowed and pure motions of the sense
which seem in their simplicity to own
an intellectual charm, that calm delight
which, if I err not, surely must belong
to those first born affinities that fit
our new existence to existing things
and, in our dawn of being, constitute
the bond of union betwixt life and joy.

This is sensibility which Wordsworth insists belongs to the time of “first born affinities”–the affective, irrational, unconscious brain rather than to the rational and cognitive brain. This delight is “calm” as are the strong emotions recollected in “tranquility.” This is the merge point of serenity and passion–and, of course, it must go back to the origins, to our beginnings–sensation and intimation plus mere motion or its utter lack are the prerequisites for the highest intellectual charms in Wordsworth: the atavistic, the infantile, the unformed, the uncontrived, the more or less pre-cognitive state is where all true poetry and art exist (according to Wordsworth). Note his use of pure motion. Pure motion is, in a manner of speaking is no motion at all, but rather unwilled, mere process:

No motion has she now, no force
she neither hears nor sees
rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
with rocks, and stones, and trees.

Sense and senselessness then must be untouched and uncorrupted by cognition or an over privileged thinking toward them–when purified and purged of the inorganic and overly rational, they are the true doors of perception and to the transcendent–to unknow, to go back to a world before thought, before time–to find the primal there that exists for both Wordsworth and even so disaffected seeming a poet as Stevens (whose Irish Cliffs I just gave a nod to).

Aristotle defines phronesis in the following manner:

We may grasp the nature of prudence [phronesis] if we consider what sort of people we call prudent. Well, it is thought to be the mark of a prudent man to be able to deliberate rightly about what is good and advantageous . . . But nobody deliberates about things that are invariable . . . So . . . prudence cannot be science [episteme] or art [techne]; not science because what can be done is a variable (it may be done in different ways, or not done at all), and not art because action and production are generically different. For production aims at an end other than itself; but this is impossible in the case of action, because the end is merely doing well. What remains, then, is that it is a true state, reasoned, and capable of action with regard to things that are good or bad for man . . . We consider that this quality belongs to those who understand the management of households or states.

Phronesis is the other side of the beautiful conveyed in aesthetics (which means the beautiful and the good); it is that which is prudent, which makes art a living framework for living, “equipment for living” as Kenneth Burke phrased it. The word brought down into early Roman virtue is prudentia (prudence); someone recently called me their “prudent” friend, a charge I have never before received and am likely never to receive again.

Prudence, as Aristotle defines it, is neither the arts nor sciences, but the ability to conduct one’s self, and the business of the state wisely. In a sense, it is praxis as art is poesis and science (theoria). Aristotle separates these into categories, but the question that perhaps belongs most to phronesis is: how do we put into practice theoria and poesis? What is the responsible and living, active principle of either in our lives? When someone poopoos the arts as so much silliness or disparages science that does not have immediate practical application, are they acting out of phronesis, true praxis, or are they merely insisting on an absolute succession to praxis with theoria being too esoteric, and poesis being too inconsequential for consideration?

This is an important question for the Redux movement I belong to: redux, by using the broken and thrown away, by seeing beauty and ugliness as part of the same category of the grotesque as Averroes (A follower of Aristotle) did, risks pleasing neither those in science, the arts, or the polis, since what Redux wishes to introduce is a fourth category, or rather an appendage to the preceding three: theoria, praxis, poesis, and the posibility, the perhaps of deviation, digression, brokeness, incongruity, what might be called the comic misstep that becomes a dance. Redux is interested in the possibility that remains when things do not go as expected, as planned or as one wills. We are interested in anomaly, in what scientists insist is mere white noise, and what artists would consider mistakes. We are interested in seeing the universe as a series of pratfalls into grace, and so are loathe to believe in the following:

- Standards: not because we think art is subjective, but because we believe mistakes, sub-standards, and deviations may contain amazing power and value.

- Materials: we have two ways of thwarting such seemingly airtight aphorisms as “the medium is the message.” One is the “perspective by incongruity” as Kenneth Burke framed it (and which we “misuse” in so far as we extend it to matters of the spirit, and live in such seeming oxymoronic realms as “holy impiety” and “obedience as systemic deconstruction”). The second is the “Bethlehem principle”, which states that nothing ever grows from where it is expected, but happens in a “Bethlehem” that is inevitable “after the fact.” A preceding “after the fact” engages all aesthetics–the mistake that becomes the standard. For this reason, we consider all materials to be usable, possible, and appropriate, and seek to disengage from the consumer nexus of semiotic congruity and categorical tagging.

- Purity: Purity is impossible save in God or some concept which would approach God insofar as it is ultimate ground and source of all being. Redux advocates an ongoing and humble practice of impurity–what William’s called “by defective means.” We do not trust the pure, though we also do not trust the idea that there can be no absolutes. We believe there is an absolute which, the moment it is touched, approached, named, or pointed toward breaks into a million pieces and is “bedraggled.” We seek the bedraggled, we seek the Bethlehem. We seek the comedy of failures and success as being both equally beside the point. And so we are loathe to embrace Standards, materials, or purity in any conventional sense, believing the embrace of these leads to the very opposite of their intents: not virtue, but the arbitrary power and imposition of standards, materials, and purity in such a way as to create evil which we see as intentional thwarting of the good via envy, territorial desire, and the maintaining of power and privilege as “sacre” (ground set apart).

We call the appendage to theoria, praxis and poesis: Eucharist. Redux believes in eucharist. Eucharistic reality is that which can embrace the broken, the impure, the impious, the mistake, and also beauty virtue, rightness, within the framework of “living bread.” We believe that theoria, praxis, and poesis are worthless without eucharist, that they are indeed, all three truly activated only when they have received eucharistic energy–living bread. The dynamic of spirit, the receiving of spirit as that arbitrary power which goes where it wll, which plumbs even the depths of ultimate groundings without ever being “Subject” but, rather co-equal to those groundings is the agent, transfer, and mode of action in eucharist. Redux then seeks out and celebrates this dynamic in eucharist. We see eucharist as the tendon, and sinew of theoria, praxis and poesis, and we make provision for defective means– something which theoria, praxis, and poesis can never, in and of themselves, make provision for. This is the theoria, if you will, of redux.

As for its praxis, all that which is motley, a sincere bringing together of often incongruent dynamics: poetry readings that are aspects of high vaudeville, art exhibits that use any material at hand, most often that which has been thrown away, what might be called garbage art–graffiti as very much a vital eucharistic mode of artistic action as the “gesture,” the scribble, the sheer dynamic of improvised structures. Art as ritual, as ceremony, as an invocation of presence, and not the presence of the gate keepers, but of those who would open the gates: a free for all, but not without terminus, for Redux believes that true obedience to “No standards at all” will invariably lead to true value–that beyond standards, that beneath-which-not which is organic to human apprehension of the beautiful and the good.

We will define eucharistia as all that is truly bread in the dynamic of theoria, praxis and poesis, and yet is not subject to the “perfection” of these categories, but which lives in the free dynamic and interplay– and in the Bethlehem we can not apprehend save through prophetic vision– that which is right and inevitable only “after the fact.” This Bethlehem principle does not challenge or disparage Jerusalem, but merely knows that Eucharistia can not, by its very nature, favor Jerusalem–the agreed upon ideal–for then it would be subject to the law of standards, and Eucharistia is subject to no law. For this reason, as readily as it takes a broken piece of wood and draws upon it, it is just as likely to turn and write a sonnet. Eucharistia is that force which seeks to complete what is lacking in theoria, praxis and poesis at any one moment in space/time: sometimes, order and sometimes disorder. It is purposeful to the extent that it is a living bread, an aesthetic that privileges the energy of exuberance over all other energies, and so, to the degree that hiptserism is about cool and detached appreciation, Redux is antithetical to the elan of hipsterism (while not necessarily rejecting it outright). Redux sees beauty and ugliness as being joined as energetic principles of eucharistia–the dynamic of living bread.

In Eucharistia, not the immoral or amoral, but the pre-moral that leads to the beautiful and the good.

In Eucharistia, not the imperfect, or the perfect, but the dynamic between them

In Eucharistia, not action or motion, but percipient action and love of force and energy within the realm of perhaps.

In Eucharistia, not peace without violence, but a merge point that claims the ferocity of peace, and the calm at the center of flux.

In Eucharistia: the broken brought home to its magisterial rites within the living bread: love of the poor, love of vital energy, love of the being born into agon (birth pain), love of struggle, ongoing appraisal and protest against one’s own comfort zones, the daily, hourly practice of being ready for the spirit to annihilate one into being. Reinstituting of inspiration and afflatus over the factory model of excellence based on “Standards.” Whim as a form of virtue, constancy as grace.

I misremember the words of the Shakespeare Sonnet because my book is back at the office: “Those who have power to hurt and yet do none….” It’s something very much like that, and this is the gist of what I want to speak of in terms of mercy.

The power to hurt
It is said blessed are the merciful, they shall receive mercy and so mercy is a force that can only be matched by its return–which should tip us off that it is tied to highest powers. It is both a giving and a withholding. We give love and we withhold judgment. We also withhold pity, sentimentality, and, most especially, the sense of our own superiority. Then: it is the state of love opposite of courtship. In courtship we plight our troth. We adore. In the state of mercy, we do not bend to serve, nor rise to condescend, but find the exact height at which relationship is eye to eye. So to have mercy on another is to level with him or her–to see them face to face. This is why I always thought of Chekhov as the great writer of mercy–because he did not distort, yet he had the power if he wished to fully destroy the other. So mercy is strength that is dispensed in “seeing” the other. “You have seen me brother, you have not turned away.” Thus mercy is deep and abiding witness wrought not of weakness, nor servility, but of a sort of leveling Isaiah implies when he says, “the mountains shall be laid low and the valleys raised.” It is a leveling that is based on power and yet does not seek to defend, attack, or defeat the other. In mercy, seeing, witnessing is everything. And so this is the ground of mercy. And so I know that at the heart of mercy lies a contradiction: power, enormous power that seeks with its whole heart, and mind and soul the equanimity of witness. And there are other qualities:

Charity
Charity is that love mercy carries as its chief defining action. The action of mercy is charitas–which, unlike many gifts, is just the right gift at the right moment. This means it is grace derived good works–not merely good works. It is the work of the Holy Spirit inside someone who has power to hurt and yet chooses, instead to bear witness to the other– to truly “see” them. Again, it has ties to the highest form of what the Greeks call Xenia–the right treatment of the other, the stranger, the recognition of the other’s hidden majesty. This gift raises both the giver and receiver to an almost divine height. It elevates the relational scope of all being. Nabakov speaks of such charity when he says that while he would commend a man who saved a child from a burning building, he would take off his hat and bow in great reverence to that man who went into the fire a second time to retrieve the child’s favorite doll. Why? Because that man is the poet inside us–the one who sees the true heart of the other, who does not merely attend to the material, but goes the extra mile that Jesus speaks of in his preaching. I encountered an example of this aspect of mercy in an essay by the writer, Natalie Kusz. In her essay “Vital Signs” which details a long stay in the hospital, she gives a brief account of a nurse who “sees” an injured child in just the way I am speaking of. Consider this the example of mercy and its action:

And overseeing us all was janine, a pink woman, young even to seven year old eyes, with yellow, cloudy hair that I touched when I could. She kept it long, parted in the middle, or pulled back in a ponytail like mine before the accident. My hair had been blond then and I felt sensitive now about the course brown stubble under my bandages. Once, on a thinking day, I told janine that if I had hair like hers, I would braid it and loop the pigtails around my ears. She wore it like that the next day and every day after for a month.

Janine truly “sees” the little girl who has been in a devastating accident. She instinctively knows the little girl’s crush on her, and she has power to ignore or hurt the girl, yet, not only is she responsive, but, as if with the supernatural eye of a divine being, she sees that her cloudy yellow hair is also the little girl’s–that they share this between them. Her act is the charitas of true mercy–which is power to hurt converted into powerful witness, and an act of love beyond the call of duty. it is the right gift at the right time, with the effortless gesture of grace.

Mercy is always Unprecedented
Because mercy is always particular to an act of witness it can not have precedent, What constitutes mercy at one moment, constitutes mere good manners, or formality at another. mercy is in the moment, of the moment, for the moment, and without a future so to speak. there is a reason for this: acts of mercy are forms of prophecy; they teach us what true justice could be, what true equality, and love, and witness could be. Mercy is both mystery and pedagogy: a mitzvah that creates mitzvah consciousness. Empathy must be taught through stories of mercy. As a child, going to mass, I heard about the woman taken in adultery, the prodigal son, the woman at the well, the good thief recognizing Jesus on the cross, the love of the enemy–over and over and over again. Because stories were always beautiful to me, I took them to heart, saw them as real events. Mercy was everywhere, waiting to be enacted. It ennobled my being, made me want to be someone on the right side of an issue. I was also wild, intense, easily hurt, and I hoped with my whole heart God would forgive me my wildness if I showed mercy to others. I figured that was my only chance. My heart is a wildheart and I cannot do the yoga, serenity, soft-voiced thing people seem to do so well these days. I suspect this niceness has more to do with middle class manners than mercy. I have seen vegetarians show little or no mercy to anyone who does not share their life style. Perhaps I am a strange man, but I feel just as endangered among nice academics as I do among street kids. In point of fact, I always felt more at home with street kids. There, in a world where nothing is polite or well structured or “nice,” mercy visits on a regular basis. I think of Fariha, the kid from Bangladesh who befriended Kajah Jackson, a tough, black girl from the projects who had her mother’s brains splattered on her clothes by her father. He murdered her mother in front of her. Kajah was more than depressed; she was destroyed–talked to no one, played with no one, did the one thing in the ghetto you can’t do: dressed poorly and did not “wash yo ass.” She had “stank” as one kid called it. Farihah was impeccably dressed, brilliant, popular, and had two loving parents, and yet she risked her popularity,her reputation, everything to befriend Kajah. She helped me reach Kajah when I worked with children who had lost their lives–their childhoods. When I asked Farihah why, she said, “I was not always popular, Mr. Joe. Like when 9/11 happened, I was not in the Arab section of town and the kids threw stones at me. They called me names. I was in fifth grade, and I tried to kill myself. My mom cried, and I remembered I didn’t just belong to myself. I belonged to her, too, and I would break her heart. When I saw Kajah, I just knew I should be her friend, and that I was just like her under everything. I took her to my house and my mother called her a dirty little project girl. ‘Why do you hang with such people?’ My mother said. I told her, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself mommy. Kaja is just like me.” It took a long time to see it, but now my mother wants to do Kaja’s hair, and buy her clothes. She wants her to be her daughter.’

This leads me to my final observation on mercy: Mercy, unlike good manners or social nicety, can exist in hell. It can exist in the worst situations. it goes deeper than all wounds. It retrieves the dead from Hades. It barters for our souls when we would sell them out. It is violent in the best sense. It sees and refuses to be blind, Without it, all the welfare programs, and systems, and reforms are useless. Mercy is the majesty of vision, and it is the only true power we have, the one we seem all too often unwilling to exercise.

A prayer to be merciful

Remove the scales from my eyes, oh Lord,
and the scales from my hands.
Replace them with the ferocity of sight,
with the hands by which I wield
no weapon and all grace. Have mercy
on me who is so unmerciful. Give me your love
your eyes, your hands, so that I might see
the stranger, and know you–at once
forever, without hesitation,
in all places high and low.

PHOTO: MARCO MUNOZ

When I was young, I wanted to stain the world with my permanence which is why, I suppose, I became a poet.

This is no longer the case. Old Four seasons songs from the early Sixties are more canonical than the vast majority of poems. In point of fact, a good poetry trivia question would be “name four poems from the 1960′s not written by Ginsberg, Bly, Merwin, Plath, Sexton, or Creeley.” Hell, most students could not name four poets prominent in the sixties other than these poets, much less poems. They probably could name five or six rock bands. I am as guilty as anyone. Although I can name perhaps thirty poets who became well-known in the sixties, and perhaps 20 poems (I know more, but have a terrible memory for titles). But I can name at least two hundred pop songs, dozens of televisions shows, and movies. Poetry is not even close in terms of having pride of place in my long term memory. It’s not as enjoyable as “Surfer Girl” for most people, and you can slow dance to “Surfer Girl.”

So what? What’s my point? I guess my point is there’s no point to writing poems except to write them. Being published, even winning major awards, are activities quickly swallowed up by the youth obsessed, pop culture obsessed amnesia of our so called “civilization.”

This past summer, I refused to write. I turned down three readings, none of which paid, because after thirty years of doing this shit, spending money, even gas money just to get in front of people’s faces (usually familiar) does not have the same glamor it once did. I understand poets who are just starting out wanting to read anywhere, even if they have to pay for the privilege. When I was 24 or 25, taking a thirty minute car ride, or hour train ride to read in an open (not feature, open) was something I enjoyed. First, gas was a lot cheaper. Second, the poetry scene seemed full of promise. It had that indefinable whiff of possibility–almost sexual. Now I don’t catch the scent and gas is always hovering near 4 bucks a gallon, and it seems every poet out there has taken the same fucking workshop, or is writing the same brand of spoken word. When I first got on the scene, I met poets who were avid readers–and they read some amazing poets, poets you would not consider par for the course of bar readings: Oppen, Olson, Reznikoff, Creeley, Ignatow, Paul Blackburn, Louis Zukovski, Levertov, Kathleen Frazier, Robert kelly, Larry Levis, Charles Wright, etc, etc, and we would go to diners after readings and actually talk poets and poems, and music, and art–not grants, not who is winning what or teaching where. I loved the poets I knew and they varied widely in age and background. This has vanished. This is how the scene now goes:

1. It’s all open readings, and one I heard about where the host begins and ends the open with a ten to fifteen minute recitation of his own work–which means he is the featured poet every month.
2. Slams where it’s as much about acting chops and looks as poetry and in which nothing truly different ever wins–just like academic poetry
3. Closed readings where the feature is not followed by an open and he or she has credentials that qualify him or her as a “noteworthy” poet.

Other trends:
- Features no longer stay for the open readers.
- Open readers show up late in order to miss the feature and read, or show up, do the open and split before the feature.

In my home state of Jersey, there are still a good amount of readings, but no one seems to go out to the diner anymore. It’s pretty business-like. I remember in 1991/92 I sometimes had as many as twenty poets go out the diner after a Poets Wednesday reading, and Edie Eustice, when she ran the series with Sofran Mcbride in the late 70s, early 80s had ten to twenty poets come back to her house. People would drink, eat, talk, play the piano and stay sometimes until the wee small hours–not anymore. There is less friendship on the poetry scene, and yet more scolding of me for not seeing it as a “social” event. Well, where the fuck is the social event if people don’t break bread together, eat, drink, flirt, fall in love, sit around a piano? Spare me. Social my ass. I was raised better than that. That’s what the Irish call a teetotaler’s orgy–six pieces of watercress, one cracker, and not a smile cracked to compete with the sticks up their arses. The aesthetic is BORING. Even when I helped the students run the Belmar reading here in Binghamton, we’d go to Kennedy Fried Chicken after a reading and get chicken and coco bread, or we’d do something. If no one is getting paid, then it ought to have a festive atmosphere. Someone ought to puke, or fall in love, or stare gloomily at the bushes and pee on the azaleas. Forget it. We are all so “functional” but is it functional to be this lacking in spirit? If so, why do it?

So now I do things to stain the world with my impermanence. Yesterday I made a fence completely out of tree limbs that had fallen in a storm. I used a potato peeler to take off the bark, and made one rule: no nails, or rope, everything done by the force of gravity and placement. The fence pleases me. It is about a hundred feet around, and rises and falls in height. I loved peeling the bark, fitting the limbs just so, knowing a really good wind storm or a drunk friend will send the whole thing crashing. I made mirror fish out of pieces of broken mirror. I did everything except write poems. My wife writes a poem everyday. I don’t want to write. Two years ago, it was all slammers at the Belmar, and I felt an ugliness I can’t explain. I paid people out of my own pocket at the Belmar (to the tune of about four thousand dollars over three years), helped the students, and, in the end, all it did was get me a bad reputation as a “drinker.” Hell, half the time I was not drinking–just having fun, but having fun in this modern bung hole we call the arts is deemed dysfunctional. In the end, no one was grateful for what I did. Instead, I had to listen to them act like Puritan Burgomeisters. I was thinking: Put all these snob ass, hypocritical purists on a cigar box!” Freedom and the arts? Horse shit. I know when its time to leave.

I am three and my father is about to take me up to bed. Everything about my father is suddenness and the rough, yet not unpleasant abrasion of fine grit sandpaper: his stubble, his hands, the flannel shirts he wears with a plumb line stencil, and a soft pack of Chesterfield Kings tucked into the pockets. His cigarettes are always slightly crooked. My parents, being born before people know better, throw me up in the air and carry me about with cigarettes dangling from their lips. I grow up in a strange, mystic fog of second hand smoke and lit cigarettes. It is the early sixties. People still use Brylcreem and the older, more “classy” types refuse to take their cue from Kennedy and give up their fedoras. My dad dresses like Jack Kerouac–or, rather, Jack Kerouac, and Jackson Pollack, and all those guys dress like my dad: working clothes, work boots. The difference is my father doesn’t write novels. he works 12 hour days in a paper factory, comes home to throw the ball around with me, is sometimes so tired that he falls asleep eating supper at the kitchen table.

I am burrowing my cheek, my face, the whole of my life in the smell of him–cigs, wood shavings, old spice, sweat. I will never know him again at this most basic of levels: sheer smell and touch. The flannel is red checkered, soft, and I like how I can rest myself against him. I know he won’t drop me. He would rather die than drop me. The television is on in the background because it is 1961 or 62, and the television is always on. I have fallen asleep on the living room floor, watching Bonanza with my family. At three or four I never make it through Bonanza. My father says: “Ok Kid, time to climb the mountain,” and we go up the stair. “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishmun.” I smell the beer on my dad’s breath, clasp my sweaty, child’s hands around his neck, pull closer to the smell of the beer, pretending I’m still asleep. When I am older I will smell like him, and have all sort of pencils with which to draw plumb lines across the kitchen wall.

The first time I read Roethke’s Waltz poem, my father has been dead for a year.

The whiskey on your breath
could make a small boy dizzy
but I hung on like death
such waltzing is not easy.

The much more suburban students in my class at Rutgers claim the poem is about abuse. I am stunned, full of anger at them. What sort of roughness do they understand? Are they so attached to nice behavior that they don't know who this father is? We are all abusive, and the world we try to create and the world we inhabit are so oddly disparate: even when everything goes our way, even when it seems the will does not fail us, there is a gap between who we are and who we intended, and love must be born there--in that gap, where the wind howls, and all the things we believed we were protected against squeeze through. That is where the love of my father, and my love lives--where there is no semblance of protection, even though I know he would rather die than drop me. I go into the bathroom. I am 19, and soon I will have to drop out of Rutgers. All those people who loved me with lit cigarettes dangling, who smelled most wonderfully of beer and cheap after shave, are dead.

I am dizzy, falling onto the bathroom tiles. I puke up my breakfast, catch my breath, wash up, towel myself dry, burrow my face into my own flannel shirt. I smell of something other than my father, but the flannel is enough to bring him back to me. If he was here, I would kiss him, the way no one kisses in my family. I would tell him "fee, fie, foe, fum." My crying is so strong it gives me hiccups. I do not go back to class because if I look at the end of the poem again "And Waltzed me off to bed/ still clinging to his shirt," I will lose it in front of all those nice children. I will bring death into the village, and I am sick of death. Outside, the urban Ginko trees do not look especially spectacular in their Autumn foliage, but there is one Sugar Maple, at a part of campus which few seem to trouble with their frisbees, and I go there. Half the leaves have fallen already--a deep rich orange. The bark of the sugar maple is shaggy in places--thick, light gray strips of bark. I lay my cheek there. It is rough and doesn't lie to me. It will not support the weight of the seasons for much longer, but why live in those sorts of truths? The bark is also a truth, and the deep mulch stench of fully advanced Autumn, and the ants crawling in the rising sap of the maple's wounds. The way the wind riffles my flannel. this is just as true. Inside my pocket, lies an eraser, a pencil nub, a ticket stub from the train. My flannel, blue plaid, feels so good around me. On my head is a ski cap--black. I look like I could be dressed for the docks. I sit under the tree and write:

The night cannot invade my pockets,
I believe there are lamps within
illuminating photos, flecks of
laundry lint, ancient ticket stubs.
I will dig deep into these caves
and survive,
by some great epic of my hands.

Sometimes I no longer desire to teach the way I have been teaching–not because I am ungrateful, but because I wish to do a fair day’s work. I wish I could have nothing but independent studies, work from the morning until the late afternoon–9 conferences a day (One hour for lunch) five days a week. By the end of the week, I could see forty five students in an intensive, close hour where they would get far more from the experience, and so would I. Once a week, for another two hours, I could meet with them all together and we could break bread, have a reading and a party–maybe even a dance.

Everything about my life, all its pains and losses, its odd twists and almost impossible paths, has been a call to communion. I have something to teach, but not in this sad thing we call a “class room” where it is so hard to break down the wall between talking head and passive recepter. I would like my young men and women, and occasionally older men and women coming to my office to show me a poem or story, and I could truly respond to it–like a friend who is also an expert on this particular thing–and I could give them tea or coffee and pull books down from my shelf and loan them the books. And if the conference went over an hour, I’d have the next person come in anyway, and we’d all have a brief chat–and we’d look at this next poem or poems together.

First, I have true solitude so that I never really need to be alone. I always am. Second, I could do all my reading and editing right there–and the student would get my response immediately, and I would have my time away from the school truly free and so would they–in terms of my class. The other professors would hate this. It makes no sense for lecture classes, but for writing workshops–or creative writing students, this would be the best of worlds. I would be on campus from 9 until 6, with an hour lunch, or I could eat lunch in. If the weather was nice, the student and I could take a brisk walk and read the poem under the trees. Literature is learned through friendships–by building a rapport with another mind so that you know when it is hitting its stride or getting caught on a snag. If you leave me alone with all the free time I have , I never do any work, because I am always writing or thinking, except working on what I should be working on. For me, this “free time” is no good. I am not self-motivated. Left to myself, I can sit still all day and do nothing but stare, or walk for miles. I need a routine, a series of relationships that fill my day.

If I ran classes this way, I could take as many as forty five kids, and they would get a vast amount of attention, and still meet once a week for a reading, and a party (optional). They could workshop each other’s poems through e-mail, or get together for a cup of coffee.

My perfect life: I would “sit” in prayer five days a week–from 7 in the morning until 7 at night at my house, which would be my hermitage. Part of my prayers would include recieving visitors all day who could bring me a poem or poems to look at and work shop, or simply need me to listen or pray, or have a cup of tea. I would live on donations, and a small reading fee ($3 a poem). After 7 I would write my own work, or pray my rosary, and relax. On weekends, I would see friends or attend readings and exhibitions. I would be a “poetry monk.” I think I’d like to wear a robe–the color called “ashes of roses.” I want my life to be simple, and completely not my life at all.

Perhaps I would do this seven days a week–when I needed to journey, a novice would take my place until I returned. I love to go to the eucharistic adoration chapel at St. Patrick’s in Binghamton. It is silent, and I adore the eucharist for an hour. I don’t want “peace.” I want true engagement, the opportunity to give back whatever God has given me. I want this with all my heart, but the world is stubbornly in love with its gadgets of control. The world is always trying to complicate the simple, and make simplistic the complex. So my monk’s life is out the window, and I remain a “fuck up” in this system. I feel so bad. I want to be used, but I have to figure out where my handle is, so then I can convey to others: this is how I am most useful. This is how you pick me up and pour.

I became a teacher by accident. In 1995, I was asked to do a one day school visit in Paterson, New Jersey. I was phoned by Susan Amsterdam, one of the co-ordinators of The Passiac Community college Theatre and Poetry project. This is not the official name, I have never remembered the official name, but Maria Mazziotti Gillan founded and runs it, Susan co-ordinates it, and it is the only program of its kind in New Jersey, insofar as it serves strictly the urban population of Paterson and brings poets to the schools for one day visits. Susan works with the librarians of the various grade schools and high schools. Many noteworthy poets such as Lorna Decervantes, Gary Soto, and Sean Thomas Dougherty have participated.

Susan has one of the most affected mid-Atlantic accents of all time, fully as affected at Marie Dressler when she used to play the put-upon society lady in Marx Brothers movies. She is marvelous. Gillan’s entire staff is amazing, but Susan is the consumate professional, in the oldest, noblest tradition–organized, poised, with a voice somewhere between Winston Churchill, Ray Milland, and God knows who else. I sometimes call the number at three in the morning, just when I need a sense of majesty. I don’t leave a message and no one is there to be disturbed by it: “Hello… This is Susan Amsterdamn.” I am the only human being who has ever gotten the otherwise impeturbable Susan to shout. I have a gift for ruffling the utterly unruffable, but we will talk about this at a later time.

At any rate, I don’t know why I received a call to do a visit. I guess they considered me a poet. I ran a series, had published work, had read in the open at Maria Gillan’s Distinguished poet’s reading. Yes, I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, so I’m urban, but I’ve never been street in the sense of having the cool. I am the anti-cool, Howdy Doody, El blanco. Yuppies from Long Island are way cooler than me. But the truth is I am arrogant–a wise ass, ballsy, without much shame, and I am a ham, and I like kids. I can talk to kids all day. They interest me. They will never pretend to like you. For that I am forever grateful. The moment a kid learns to pretend in that way, she or he is no longer a kid (usually, when they’ve learned to pretend to like you, they’re a “professional” in the worst sense–not like Susan, a woman I would go to war for). My first reaction to Susan’s voice was “This woman ain’t for real. No one sounds like that in real life. Maria made her up. (Gillan’s office is a Dickens novel–with Maria as the major character. All her staff can talk Maria speak. They know what she means even when she isn’t sure. It’s amazing.) So I met her, and she was real and had a kind heart as well as perfect and affected diction, and, every day, she was driving into the ghetto to do something good for kids who strangely enough, found her utterly affected voice, and inherrent dignity to be pleasing and comforting, just as I did. It was nice to know someone who spoke that well and was not a phony white bitch. Since then, I have played a sort of wayward Arthur to her Sir John Gilgud. (If you want to check out her voice call the center– but don’t you dare do it unless you agree not to leave a message. I’ll know and God will punish you). I think she is one of the ten rightous women of God, one of the holy forces standing between us and absolute destruction.

There’s another woman works for Maria called Arlene. Somehow, Maria Mazziotti Gillan ended up with 2 out of the 10 rightous women of God on her staff. Arlene is Armenian and once payed cash to get my car out of strorage when it had been towed from a street in Paterson. Arlene has been battling cancer for years now. Susan’s husband died, but they’re tough. Once, after a brutal break up (brutal for me, I got dumped), Arlene and Susan phoned me, without provocation, just to see how I was doing. At that time I was probably voted in Jersey as “most likely to commit suicide.” I am an opera, a sprawling mess. I admit it. Hello, I’m Joe Weil, and I am a sprawling mess. Thank God for those who are not.

So, I’m street in only one sense: if you ask me how I’m doing, and you seem to mean it, I will tell you my life story–like some lonely 80 year old neighbor (I am a lonely 80 year old neighbor). I will explain my love life, my lack thereof, my various aches and pains, the bios of my most interesting relatives, etc, etc. I will liberally extend reality or bend it to the shape of my tale, I may even tap dance, if it’s absolutely uneccessary. In short, I talk shit. While this is disastrous among middle class professionals who pretend to like you (You have done the one thing they can not abide–proffered a human exchange where none is called for), it is absolutely vital to entertaining, inspiring, and instructing kids. First law of any work with kids: “Don’t be boring. ” Boring is the job of parents and their regular teachers–to bore them all for the sake of a higher truth. My job is to offer temprary respite from boredom. I find the less kids have, the more easily entertained they tend to be. Honors students like being bored (Boredom in our culture is a sign of power and priviledge, and someone ought to do a study of boredom in relation to the class structure), and so I always cringe when teachers tell me I’m going to workshop with nothing but honors students. It isn’t that honors students are easily bored. That’s parents and teachers who kiss their little precious asses talking. It’s that honors students tend to be the “property” of certain teachers. It’s a sort of brain jock mentality, and they can be total introverts and assholes to the umpteenth degree. My favorite kids to teach are those who have been waiting for poetry all their lives, but didn’t know it: the smart kid who refuses to “work to her potential,” the wise ass who has been waiting to hear one thing on earth that doesn’t sound phony and then hears it in his own poem, those kids. I am also looking for kindness, and openess–the first criteria for whether or not a guest can be effective.

Wherever I have taught for an extended period of time, I may have bored someone. God forgive me, but the best teachers do not bore. They may terrify, insult, inspire, incite, confuse, or con the students, but they do not bore. A boring teacher is the death of learning. I am not to every student’s taste–especially for those students who need a touch of OCD and a rigid, predictable program of instruction. Hell, I would not want me as a teacher (Too much Irish chaos–the worst kind). Good, inspiring, life transforming teachers exist in every personality type, including introverted (I always preferred cool Alfred Hitchcock types with perfect lesson plans), but, in a 3 hour gig, where you do you hit and run, my style is probably best (except for those teachers who believe there is nothing worthwhile in life that hasn’t been planned down to the last syllable). I terrify the well-prepared. Hell, I terrify myself.

Anyway , I had no idea what to do, so I “talked shit” and the kids talked back and we enjoyed each other. Having read four books a week for twenty years and having memorized hundreds of poems and songs helped, but it still came out as a form of banter. I had some tough moments: once an angry kid called me “a gap toothed, no necked, red faced, bald headed white cracker,” and I wrote the phrase down on the board, and did a lesson on the two syllable put down. I was delighted by how he had said it. He was only in fifth grade, and already miserable for the rest of his life, but gifted in hate, a verbal wizard at making other people feel as bad as he did. I was truly in awe of his intelligence and saddened to the point of love by the utter damage and defiance it invoked. He couldn’t believe I was using his hatred as a lesson plan. Nor could the teacher, who hated the kid, had been the victim of his mouth, and wanted to send him to hell, but, being a coward like Hindley, let the kid run the class.

I gauged the situation. In any workshop situation in the inner city, you may have as many as four wannabe alpha apes: The teacher, the teacher’s aide, and the two or three kids who want to run the show. The teacher might be so anal, and burned out that you can’t even use the chalk, and she or he does her or his bills or study plans while you conduct your workshop. This isn’t “professional” distance. This is just bad manners. I have seen it done both in urban and suburban schools. It is the ultimate way of snubbing an unwanted guest. You are not a guest; you are a temporary intrusion at best. They go out of their way to pretend you don’t exist. Such teachers would be called “stuck ups” in my old neighborhood. Eventually, a kid or a parent would justifiably assault such a teacher. They have no place in our schools. If they think arts in the schools are a waste of time, they ought to speak up and make a fuss; otherwise, be courteous, at least. These are not always veteran teachers. By and large, they are snotty, fairly new teachers who are already smug and stupid. To treat a guest inhospitably in ancient Ireland was a crime punishable by death. Same in Italy and Greece, and in the Middle East. I think you should still be allowed to off the motherfuckers. But here, in corporate America, it is called “professionalism.” Spare me. There are two kinds of heroes: those who can fight, and those who can be generous. Sometimes they are combined. More often, they lean one way or the other. Look it up. A teacher like this can destroy hundreds of souls. I never minded nuns who hit me. I usually deserved it. I minded teachers who acted like prostitutes with a bad trick, who looked at their watches, who picked on and brutalized the same children the children picked on and brutalized. These people are scum. They destroy love. They dishonor Heaven. The best revenge is to realize how sad they must be to live with themselves 24/7.

When I first encountered such teachers, I tried to draw them in and found out they felt nothing but contempt. They were no different than this kid calling me a gap tooth, no-neck, red faced, white cracker, except that they weren’t as honest. They were just as hateful as that kid, but they would retire with pensions, and that kid would end up in jail. So I gauged the situation. This kid ran the class. I knew that. The other kids might not like him, but they obeyed him because he was smarter and meaner, more ruthless, and he spoke for their own anger, their own inner nastiness. They would abdicate the rights of hatred to him, in exchange for sitting idly by while he made sure no one learned anything except his contempt and meaness. I’m nuts enough to consider that his meaness and anger might have been useful, and if it was my school, I’d poll the kids. They could decide if he were elected teacher. I’d then put him on staff, give him a salary and benefits, with the proviso he make up an endless series of lesson plans, and fill out a ton of paper work. He’d be no better or worse than the asshole who was in front of the kids that day, but it ain’t my world, is it?

I had made a decision on the side of clever. I thought I could defuse the situation by turning his verbal insult into a lesson in rhythm and meter. This was a mistake. I hadn’t been honest about how pissed off and sad he had made me while at the same time he impressed me. His power over these kids was absolute. He was talented. I love talent even when it is aimed against me. I already felt inferior to this kid. When I first wrote his put down on the board, and started taling about syllable counts, he was shocked. I derailed him for a second, but I forgot a kid like this always has some side kick thug– aHimmler whose whole existence depends on sucking his master’s dick. This side kick threw a wet spit ball at me. It splattered on the board and the kids erupted in laughter. The teacher kept writing in her lesson planning book. So much for being one of these lame liberals who make excuses for meaness. There’s no excuse for being mean. This kid had been hurt in life, but he was an asshole, though a talented one, and he was going to ruin the day, so I said to the teacher, “What sort of teacher, sits there and acts as if a guest does not exist? You’re not doing your job, and I’m a taxpayer. Get up and take this behaviourly challenged person out of my sight. I got a job to do. I don’t need to take this.” Then I got on the phone and called the principal. I said this kid had to go and so did his best friend. The principal came up. There was the kid’s statement on the board. This kid spit on the principal.

The great “liberal” extreme is to let angry, ill-mannered children usurp the rights of other kids. I don’t believe in accomadating anger or meaness–in myself or others. I am also bone angry because of what has happened to me, but I know this anger is as much a liability and vice as it can be a virtue. I believe a person should run rough shod over others only when truly provoked. I won’t back down to anyone, but I also won’t be mean to anyone unless they are mean to me first. This is true street code. This is giving propers. Now you say this kid is only a fifth grader, but man, I know him–he’s older and sadder than Satan, and he needs massive help, and no one’s going to give it to him, especially his equally fucked up and mean hearted teacher. The kid spat on the principal, he was taken out of class along with his side kick (The teacher also should have been taken out of class), and I asked the principal if I could have an extra forty minutes with these kids since the next period was open. He said alright. I was able, eventually, to gain control, but I learned a lesson: you cannot con, compromise, or make peace with inpsired and intelligent, and sadistic hatred hell bent on denigrating you (This force shows up sometimes as a fifth grader, and sometimes as a contemptous teacher doing the lesson plan while you try to conduct a workshop). You must remove such evil from your presense, nuetralize it, or find someone who can.

Anyway, I was humbled and I learned the first sad, but pragmatic law of teaching: some kids are smarter and meaner than you are, and they don’t think you have anything to teach them, and they are probably right. You don’t, but if you want to teach at all, get them out of your class as soon as possible or be prepared to become that kid’s bitch.

Almost without exception, my experiences were good, because I was a neighborhood person talking to neighborhood kids–albeit, not the same ones I grew up with, but not that different. I enjoyed myself, something you should always try to remember as a teacher. I brought in my guitar and my harmonica or played a piano in the really old, crumbling schools that still had pianos in the classroom. I talked about my crazy relatives and then got the kids to write about theirs. They played my guitar, sang refrains, sometimes wrote poems that made them cry, that shocked them with their own beauty or truth. I had never even heard of a prompt. Honest. I would let the kids play my guitar, and when they thought I was a leprechaun, I didn’t take offence. Hell, I was short with a red beard, and I looked like one.

I learned the following rules of teaching, rules taught to me by my years as a shit talker, bar poet, and musician:

1. Don’t think your lesson plan is God. Leave some room for deviating, and for the flow of the moment. Teach in the moment, not in the system.

2. Kids want to be useful. Let them pass out the paper. Get them involved. Delegate authority–don’t cling to it. The truly pwerful give power away freely. Ask them questions. You’re not in a one day, one hour work shop to teach them poetry. You’re there to con them into thinking this poetry stuff just might be enjoyable. You’re an evangelist of the arts. Give stuff away. I gave a way books, drums, candy, once, I even gave away my guitar.

3. Teacher’s want “results” or the illusion of “constructive” work shops. Keep the joy, but learn to give the devil her or his due. Have a handy reason ready for everything you do–not for the kids, but for the teacher. Respect the teacher’s place. This is territory and many teachers, besides being control freaks, are also territorial. I sometimes bring my own paper and chalk. The less they have to do for me, the better. The less they feel their space is being violated, the better. Make them think you’re on their side.

4. Never read your own poetry until you are asked. I think it’s nice to read stuff that excites you (by others), but you aren’t the center of the universe. The kids are. You might change someone’s life. Be stupid and naive enough to believe that and realize, the first impediment to reaching someone is your own fat ass self. Get out of your own way.
5. If you are shy, use it. If you are anal, use it. If you are wild, use that, too. Anything used with good will, with true concern, can work. What does not work is contempt.
6. Know poetry well–not just the craft, but the joy. Trust that children are greedy for joy, that they are dying for lack of it. Don’t ever patronize them, even if they want you to.

Anyway, I went into my first gig with a guitar, a suit, and a purple ski cap. It was winter, but the cap was strange, and purple, and became an ice breaker. When the kids though my name was “Wild” rather than “Weil.” I didn’t correct them. I knew it was better to be “wild.” I let them play the guitar. I let them be the show. We performed the poems. Most teachers enjoyed it, and many wrote poems themselves (The best kind of teachers). After doing three of these gigs, I thought, “This is fun. I can do this.” I would work all night on the twelve to eight, take a quick shower in the locker room, put on a suit. When I first did this I showed my working class roots by wearing a three piece suit. This is how I was taught to give respect. You got dressed for weddings, funerals, and arts-in the-schools-programs. I had no idea how casual things had become in terms of school dress codes. Weirdly enough, this worked with the kids in Paterson who thought I might be a rich and famous poet because I was dressed like a funeral director.

I lived this double life for the next three years until, one day, I received an offer to work a steady gig at Arts High in Middlesex county, New Jersey. The job was only two days a week for six hours, but I could do it, as well as the Paterson gigs, and still keep my 12 to 8. I was building a rep. Maybe for the first time in my life I was doing something I loved as much as playing the piano or kissing a lover. I’d found my vocation. Like most such things, it followed the fate of my personality: I just stumbled into it while I was doing something else. It wasn’t planned. I am working class to the extent that, unlike most middle class people, I don’t think we really have all the choices we would like to believe we have. Fate enters. Grace enters. Shit happens.

So I was ready to evolve into a new life. It was the late nineties. The economy was booming. Even the American mold making industry was temporarily thriving. I had, in a sense , always been a teacher. For fifteen years, I had taught immigrants on the night shift to read and write English–just for the hell of it, because I liked them (not always, but most of the time). I had read my poetry. Many guys at work thought I was a nut job, but they were proud of me, too–especially when the Newspapers came to the shop to do a story on the “Poet as working stiff,” and I got a couple of them into the picture. I had no thought of ever leaving that world. It was a steady job. Work was always just work. I had no idea Bush and 9/11 were going to happen–that, one week after the Twin Towers went down, I would lose my job of 19 years forever. By that time, without any real effort, by the seat of my friggin pants, and certainly not the sweat of my scholarly brow, I was flying towards the sort of destiny I never dreamed of. What began with the perfect diction of Susan Amsterdam had grown into my full time occupation: free lance teacher, Dodge-Poet-In-The-Schools, Master Instructor in fiction and poetry at Middlesex County Arts High. Not even a bullshit artist like me could have made this shit up. Who said Proust doesn’t pay? Yes, I was all those things–and scared shitless, too. Without trying, without hunger or ambition, I was being forced by economic disaster, to be upwardly mobile. I had been failing to succeed all my life. I had no idea I was failing my way to the top.

Oh–my final rule of thumb: like kids, enjoy them or don’t do it because kids will kill you–and devour you–even if you love them, and especially if they love you. They have an inherrent sense of eucharist. Be sure you want to die for them. They will insist on it.

We can enter a poem in an almost limitless number of ways–through its imagery, its social underpinnings, its meaning, its rhythms, its sentence structure, its line breaks, etc, etc. An arbitrary grid works like this: given these different ways of entering a poem, we can choose what we might want to steal from a poem: its line breaks, syllable structure, sentence structure, and use it to our own ends. This isn’t so much plagiarism as reclamation. We ransack the poem. We see it as a thing that has crashed down into our lives, as a whale washed up along our shore. We may as well use it since it is there.

Basically, an arbitrary grid is a way of using our reading for the purposes of writing.

Let’s take a poem from one of my former students: Brian Trimboli. One of the first things you might notice about Brian’s poetry is the kid likes metaphors. He also loves to personify abstractions and have them doing things. Hence the opening of his poem, “Apology”:

Dear reader, this poem has not yet been written.
I have been caught on the sticky tip
of amnesia’s swelled tongue.
I loaded my thoughts like shot gun shells
and fired them up at the sky.

Young poets tend to like being virtuosos. They have just developed their wings and want to do tricks. And Brian is doing a lot of good tricks here. The grid we might impose on the opening: direct address to the reader, followed by blunt statement of obvious lie (“this poem has not yet been written”). Followed by the personification of amnesia (giving it a sticky tongue–which is the ghost of oxymoron since amnesia is usually about things that don’t stick) followed by an abstraction (thoughts) being loaded into a gun and fired at the sky: To whit: Salutation, blunt statement (Seemingly impossible) personification, simile/personification:

Dear Lucy, I am having fun living without you.
I have been cradled in the
arms of somnambulance.
I have kneaded the bread of bitterness,
until it rises with the leaven of my spite.

Basically, I am copping Brian’s chord changes, but playing my own tune (A far more inferior tune, but I’m just doing this as an example). My “poem” is more about personal invective. It will focus not on a general reader, but on Lucy.

It may be more or less absurd. I might even send up one of the literary devices so that I am mocking the device even as I employ it. This is the strategy of imposing an arbitrary grid: in this case I will slavishly imitate whatever literary devices Brian is employing, maybe even his sentence structure, but the poem will be utterly different. After I’ve written it, I will decide which parts of the schema don’t work and edit them or change them accordingly.

This is one, utterly different way of getting your reading of poetry to function in your writing of it. You could take one poem and get twenty poems out of it, all depending on how you enter the text. My favorite arbitrary grid is the syllaby. Here, in a syllaby, you don’t imitate anything except the exact syllable and line structure of another poem. I did this with Frank O’Hara’s to “The Harbor Master”, Stevens’ “Large Red Man Reading”, and Williams’ “Franklin Street”. I published two of the poems. Try it. Enter a poem through its vowels, its consonants, its syllables, its line breaks, its stanzas, etc. Have fun.

After writing a poem (never during or before the poem), ask yourself these questions:

1. Why is my lineation the way it is and is that the right shape for the poem?

2. Are my images predictable? Do shadows fall? Do I express myself in idioms and cliches rather than in a true voice. Most often the idioms we employ without thinking are old metaphors/personification/figurative parts of speech we have forgotten are metaphors, personification and figures: shadows fall, winds moan, daylight breaks, thoughts leap, ideas “turn” in the mind. How do I edit these from my poem and either leave them out or find a less familiar or predictable way of saying them? If I am aware of them as idioms, how do I have fun with them and let the reader know I am aware of them as such?

3. Am I over-determining the reader’s experience of the poem through
A. Overt insistence upon its meanings?
B. Lack of balance between image and rhythm (or absolutely no relation between them)?
C. Tagging the poem as belonging too fully to one school of poetry or another?

4. Does my poem veer off it’s track and head in directions I did not intend, and are these directions something I should follow or edit?

5. Are my end stopped and enjambed lines purposeful? Do I tend not to vary them enough, and are the terminal words of my lines often muffled or without strength?

6. What is my poem saying at the sub-meaning level: through syllables, through sonics, through word choice, through the neutral, laudatory, or dyslogistic registers of speech that might either contradict, undermine, or confuse the overall effect?

7. Do I force a line to stay because I like it–even if it does not match up with the other lines and is destroying the overall effect of the poem?

These are questions I tell my students to ask during the revision process. I also advise “retakes” in addition to revisions. A retake works as follows:

1. If the poem was written in a skinny line, you try it in a long line.

2. If the poem is written in verse paragraphs or irregular (Aleostrophic) stanzas, try restructuring it in tercets or couplets, or some other regular and consistent stanza pattern–just for the hell of it.

3. If the poem uses imagery congruent with mood (grey sky and dead leaves for grief), change that aspect completely and re-write it so that the loss is incongruent with the weather. “My husband is dead. Outside, relentlessly sunny L.A. bleats on.” Play with expectation. Write the poem in second person. Take out all but two lines and rewrite it with those lines being the only parts left. And on and on.

It is good to let students know why poets use skinny, or medium sized, or long lines. For example, the skinny line is used when

A. The poet does not like sentences that are end stopped or wishes to play sentence off against incremental fragments to create grammatical ambiguity (amipholy) so that a whole poem might be only one or two sentences, or only sentence fragments.

B. When the poet wants a single effect, and does not want any one line to draw attention to itself (Donald Justice in “Bus Stop,” Williams in “Locust Tree in Flower,” etc. etc).

C. When a poet wishes to be pithy, aphoristic, economical (Jabez book of questions, mottos, epitaphs, epigrams)

D. When a poet has read other poets who write skinny poems and is imitating them without knowing why exactly.

E. To make each word or a few words isolated by the white space and create a certain feeling for the poem as an object.

F. To slow down the reader by making him or her consider each isolated word, or to make the poem read like a quick antidote:

It’s a strange courage
you give me
Ancient star.

Shine alone
in the sunrise
towards which
you lend no part.

This could be expressed in prose as:

it’s a strange courage you give me ancient star; shine alone in the sunrise towards which you lend no part.

But, being expressed this way, it loses its effect of ceremony and becomes mere statement.

G. All of the above.

As for the medium line,

A. The poet might be writing a free verse line that contains a rhythmic ghost of blank verse and stays between eight and fourteen syllables (most of Jane Kenyon).

B. The poet wishes to practice aesthetic modesty, and not draw attention to his or her line, but to take a middle road, and let other aspects of the poem matter.

C. The poet wishes to give the effect of being sane, and steady, and somewhat measured.

D. The poet likes symmetry and does not wish to be out of balance.

E. The enjambments exist but are kept in control by being more or less of even length–not too long or too short.

F. Line is not one of the chief considerations of the poet at that moment.

G. All of the above.

Reasons for a long line:

A. To convey a sense of speechifying, oratorical address, or majesty. Often found heavy with anaphora, listing, enumerating (as in Whitman, Ginsberg)

B. Poet wishes to be mock-epic, and to tweak or make comedic use out of the epic length of the line– to speak of small insignificant things in “monumental” ways.

C. The poet wishes to give the reader a sense of expansiveness.

D. All of the above, depending on the situation.

Reasons for a line of varying length (undulating lineation):

A. The poet is a novice and does not know the importance of line length.

B. The poet is moving with his thoughts which vary in length and the shape of thought, its pattern is varied.

C. The poet is playing with line against sentence structure.

D. The poet wishes not to enjamb and so end stops each line no matter how much the line lengths vary.

E. All of the above.

I give examples of each, and then I discuss how a poet might get trapped by being known for a certain type of line (skinny equals Creeley, Long equals Whitman or CK Williams, medium equals many poets out of MFA programs, and on and on). In this case, the formal requirements of line are imposed and may or may not fit the needs of the poem at hand. They may also determine what sort of poem that poet writes and lead him to live only in his comfort zones. I suggest that the student take a measured poem by Jane Kenyon and write it out in different ways to see if it changes the effect. This is a way of making the student more conscious of his or her own aesthetics. I tell them some teachers just impose line length or type of line without being open to exception. They are not teachers; they are propagandists, and most poetry programs have a shared or implied poetic vision that narrows what can or can’t be done there. Thank God poetry is not as narrow as its experts.

Neutral, dyslogistic, and laudatory registers of speech:

Using Bentham’s tri-partite registers, we can look at a poem as inhabiting different registers of speech. For example, someone who is above average in looks might be described in laudatory (a knockout) neutral (attractive) or dyslogistic (bimbo) terms, depending on the intentions and attitude of the speaker. Some registers will not even permit certain subject matter to exist (blazons are not too popular in circles where the objectification of the body is considered a sin, though the bible contains the most famous blazon of all). Others seal the poem in an attitude of disdain or gushing praise. Still others registers of speech, take on the white middle class voice of objective observation and cool detachment. This is when they are consistent, but often, new poems have lines that ring false to the rest of the poem, that contradict the overall tone. Mixed registers can be amazing if the writer knows what he or she is doing. Otherwise, they come off as mistakes, as a sudden slip in tone, or voice. I encourage students to become aware of their tone, their borrowed tones as well as those natural to their own train of thought (a train too often derailed by a student poet assuming a tone that is not organic to his or her own mentality and which they cannot properly parrot). I often have students learn idiomatic, overly familiar phrases and have fun with them:

Shadows Fell (Jennifer Townsend)

Shadows fell.
For the last three hours
they had been sucking down the bucolic scenery
like there was no tomorrow,
(and, for them, of course, there wasn’t).
Now they were stumbling,
tipping over the lawn furniture
making idiots of themselves,
touching the asses of men’s trophy wives,
and the wives’ trophy men,
fondling the party favors, kissing
until one lay down with the dog
and did not rise.

When night came, I found a sticky
substance on my hand.
I knew then that I was getting old
and must remodel my kitchen.
But how?
It’s the big questions that undo us.
The question took off my shirt
kissed my nipples
rubbed my crotch. Avocado, or Mauve?
Under the soft pressure of the question’s hand
I caved. Surrendered unto the shadows
who were still frolicking about,
running their tongues over
the wrought iron fence
and beyond.

To experiment more with these ideas, here are a few questions and prompts:
- What is the tone of this poem: mock serious, arch, whimsical?
- Which of the types of line does it match and why: short, long, medium, or undulating?
- Write a poem that uses overly familiar idioms in a literal or personified way. Have fun.
- Go over your poems and apply the questions I asked to your revision process.

Some smart folks insist Nat King Cole doesn’t get enough credit for his vital and historical role in Jazz trio piano playing. Hell, I’ve often said it. In point of fact, it’s been said so often that it isn’t true. We should qualify as such: Nat King Cole gets plenty of credit as the revolutionary pianist who gets no credit. He’s like the underrated ball player who keeps getting called the underrated ball player and has his face plastered on Time as well as Sports Illustrated. We might even call such a ball player: “the most overrated underrated ball player.” As for Cole, he is not underrated, and he did far more than pave the way for Jazz trios and small forces (though paving the way for smaller ensembles is a good enough thing considering post-war music union strikes and the rise of the crooner which made big bands expensive and anachronistic). Cole, besides making the small jazz combo viable (then becoming a crooner in the post-big band era himself) presages as much of the bebop style as exemplified by Monk as Lester Young presages Charlie Parker and bebop. Here’s some tiddy biddies on the matter:

1. Unlike those who went before him (and after him), Cole did not seek to make his instrument or his voice imitative of the other. Satch sounds like his horn. Almost all the singers who were players have a sympatico between their voice and their instruments–not Cole. Cole’s piano style is surprisingly and beautifully abrasive–far more percussive than melodic, far more angular, lean, clean, and with hardly a rubato or damper pedal heavy romanticism to be had–the opposite of his voice. The closest his voice and piano style come is on “Route 66.” Otherwise, it’s like Cole the singer and Cole the pianist inhabit totally different spheres.

2. Though Cole knew stride and boogie techniques better than most, he does not play his solid percussive piano along those traditional lines, but has his own sort of “Swing.” His left on ” Somebody Loves me” with lester Young affords a good example of this: though he is playing stride with an occasional boogie passacaglia, he does something in right/left hand co-ordination that sounds a hell of a lot like Monk–odd but inevitable dissonances, quirky “allusions” to stride, stomp and boogie rather than actual adherence to them (Cole, like a good postmodernist, knows how to quote the tradition without getting trapped in it). Like Monk, he is referencing, tweaking, and parodying the entire jazz piano cannon (and blowing it up at the same time)–and in the space of a single number! After hearing him play with Lester and Buddy Rich, I went back to other Cole piano bits, and found out it wasn’t a fluke. His left hand work was already free from the limits of stride and boogie and swing (before the boppers and Parker), but it is also free of the chord clusters and chunks of future post-swing players, and he is doing intervals of 2nd’s at times–something Monk was given credit for innovating. Amazing. As for his right hand, it never tries to impress, but has what I call “bubbling bel-canto.” A sort of singing tone that bubbles, and perks, and moves like brook water–swift, effortless, and with neither loyalty nor slavishness to the melody. His right hand can be leggiero while his left is staccato–more water freedom, than breezy freedom. Cole can flow more than swing, and flow is the greater attribute. Amen.

So I have come full circle: Cole does not get enough credit for his piano playing, but then again, how do you give genius enough credit?

I came by Oppen in 1979 via the wonderful–to my way of thinking–historically significant anthology, A Geography of Poets. I remember liking his poem, “Street” and memorizing it, then going no further. I was never one to devour poets (except Roethke, Williams, Stevens, and, weirdly, May Swenson). I preferred anthologies where, if the editor was wise, you would begin to hear the poems holding court and having a conversation with each other. I knew all the chestnuts by Frost, the major poems of Dylan Thomas, the typical schmeer of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Donne, Byron, Langston Hughes, Whitman, Dickinson, and so on and so forth, but I was never as interested in poets as in certain poems: “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” the Dickinson poem that begins “I dreaded that first robin so,” Dylan Thomas’ “The Boy’s of Summer” and so on. Roethke, Stevens, Williams, Yeats, and Swenson I devoured. Later in 1979, I would devour Robert Francis, and through him, return to Frost, but I was not, by nature or inclination, a fan. Williams pleased me because I saw in him the struggle, sometime hysterical, yet valiant struggle between being experimental and reconciling it with the banality of the local–a poet who was always in flux as he stayed put, who could not settle down and would do something striking and to my way of thinking, the one thing a great or significant poet must do: blaspheme against all good taste and the temptation to be competent at all times. He wasn’t afraid to fall on his ass. Stevens just knew how to sound definitive and to play with ideas the way others play with images: not as philosophy (you’ll find most of his ideas already in Pater and George Santayana) but as decor–an amazing feat no one has equaled.

But on to Oppen: I memorized “Street,” and would recite it to myself sometimes as I walked to my job as a night shift security guard at Elizabeth General hospital (now Trinitas). It was a rough neighborhood then and the poem settled me down, distracted me from hyepr- alert. I was never mugged or attacked, but once I stopped a man from beating his girlfriend (near the hospital), and something told me it wasn’t over. I called the cops, and they came and intercepted the guy just before he walked to my guard house station and blew my head off with a shotgun. If you don’t die you, fall half in love with the adrenaline rush of almost getting killed. At any rate, I walked two miles to work each night and saw the little girls who expected to be so good in Oppen’s poem. They were gangly, and wise-assed and in love with silent, brooding, beautiful boys who would probably either die before age 25 or live to grow fat and poor and sad on some broken down porch stoop. They would get the girls pregnant and not stick around, or come around occasionally. The economy would cut their balls off, and the girls would raise the kid or kids with their mother, and the cycle would repeat itself in all the languor and temporary rush of summer in places like Elizabeth, and Jersey City, and Paterson. So let me write out that Oppen poem before I get to the one I’m going to wrestle with:

Ah these are the poor,
These are the poor–
Bergen street.
Humiliation,
Hardship…
Nor are they very good to each other;
It is not that. I want
An end of poverty
As much as anyone
For the sake of intelligence,
“the conquest of existence”–
It has been said, and is true–
And this is real pain,
Moreover. It is terrible to see the children,
The righteous little girls;
So good, they expect to be so good…

One night at the hospital, after the infamous Elizabeth chemical fire, a little girl was brought in with 3rd degree burns over 80 percent of her body. She was in shock. She was talking. Third degree burns do not hurt until they begin to heal and then they are a pain so unimaginable that coma must be induced, and sometimes, even in a coma, the person whimpers in pain. She looked at me and my partner, Kenny and said: “Don’t worry, misters. I’ll be alright.” We must have looked–not horrified, but stunned out of all thought, all speech. Kenny instinctively reached for her hand, and her flesh sloughed off in his. We both cried. We were supposed to be tough enforcers of security. I was 20 or 21. Kenny was 18. Both of us had grown up in tough neighborhoods, but here was this kid who was obviously not going to make it, trying to console us. She died two days later. The chemicals were the compliments of crooked dumping deals between politicians and organized crime who, as we all know, love kids and give them free turkeys and fireworks every year (in addition to dumping chemicals that cause cancer in their neighborhoods and which burned this little girl to death). That morning I walked home reciting Oppen’s poem to myself, and I could not wear out the truth of it, or stop the overwhelming sense of grief and anger I felt, but also awe–awe at the child’s calm, her soft little voice, poor Kenny’s deep animal moan when her flesh sloughed off in his hand.

Oppen is a hero to many for various reasons: his integrity as poet (poetry defined by Oppen as “a rigorous test of sincerity”), his use of fragmentation, of the object and word as counterpoint, his stripped down line, his pre-minimalist economy, his politics, his courage, mostly–his freeing up of the line from the tyranny of the sentence–words as singular being, words allowed both to relate and to isolate, to be both a schema of meaning and a schema of thingness.

No one gives Oppen enough credit as a rhetorician for they believe he is the opposite of that, but being at the extreme other end, one might make a case for his poems being caught in the intimacy of opposing realms (what Holderlin spoke of). Many apply Heidegger to Oppen, especially insofar as one takes the statement “Poetry drinks at the waters of silence” seriously. I next encountered Oppen while monitoring a class by Mark Rudman called “Modern Poetry and How it Got there.” Rudman could be a bit of a snot ass, but he picked some interesting poets: Williams, Oppen, Lowell, Berryman, and Jabez. We spent the most time on the book of questions and “Of Mere Being.” Oppen was hot in 1992. Just 25 years before, although he had come back after a long exile and silence, he was excluded from such an otherwise general yet comprehensive primer on modern American poetry as Carruth’s The Voice That Is Great Within Us. But I am stalling. Let’s speak of Oppen as master of fractal rhetoric:

The People the People

For love we all go
To that mountain
of human flesh
which exists
And is incapable
of love and which we saw
In the image
Of a woman–we said once
She was beautiful for she was
Suffering
and beautiful. She was more ambitious
Than we knew
Of wealth
and more ruthless–speaking
Still in that image–we will never be free
Again from the knowledge
of that hatred
And that huge contempt. Will she not rot
Without us and die
In childbed leaving
Monstrous issue–

Oppen’s standard rhetorical operating procedure is fully at work in this poem: the use of amphiboly, the interruption of sentence flow, the haltingly and the not quite uttered statement, the fragment, modified variants of anacoluthean in which the dash works as if one began to say something then abruptly abandoned it to say something else (but it is more along the musical lines of a false cadence, which then “resolves” oddly enough, through its digressions). Like Creeley, Oppen is a master rhetorician of the nearly articulated–the “shifting said.” The best effects achieved by this technique is that the prison of the just so, the “that’s it” is avoided, yet one is left to wander about the provisional landscape of fragments, interruptions, odds and ends that may or may not be “it” at all. Such deliberate and rigorous refusal to adopt the traditional clarity of sentence and line integrity is something the Objectivists bequeathed to language poets. The authority of such a shifting articulation derives from the integrity with which it resists the florid, uses minimal forces to maximize ambiguity and suggestion. All poets that resist utterance in terms of definitive statement are “pure” rhetoricians. They are engaging utterance for its own sake, as if the speech had wandered off from the speaker and had begun living its own life. All the halts and stops and starts, the dash marks, the grammatical incongruity are the performed texts of a ghost rhetoric–a speechifying whose purpose is not persuasion so much as process. It is the process of utterance that provides the “rigorous” test of sincerity for Oppens poetics. Let’s look closer:

For love we all go
to that mountain
Of human flesh
Which is incapable
Of love and which we saw
In the image
Of a woman–

Note the reversal at the opening: not, “We all go for love”, but, ” For love, we all go. The only image is actually a rather hackneyed figure of speech: “mountain of human flesh.” Take it out and the poem would read: For love we all go to that which is incapable of love.” An aphorism, and more so, an opening rhetorical gambit, but I insist it is more “pure rhetoric” than functional rhetoric insofar as it borrows an opening gambit and then does not follow through (at least not directly). Oppens’ mission is not to persuade, but to perform the process of someone attempting to enter speech, the difficulty of entering fully into declaration, the constant re-entering, the false start, the The statement, and it is statement is cut off, and either the people or love is then personified as a woman who was beautiful and beautiful because she was “Sad and beautiful” This is a strange statement. Take out the word sad and it would read “she was beautiful because she was beautiful. Sad has a power of earnestness, I suppose, it allows beauty to pass the rigorous test of sincerity, but, lo and behold, this “Woman” turned out to like things and money much more than she let in–she was, in a sense lacking all sincerity. If she is the people, then Oppen is suggesting this abstraction is distorted and must be corrected, and seen for what it is: a lie, a thing which one turns to for love and which is incapable of love. Oppen is completely rhetorical, for all his tricks of fragmentation. He has embraced and mastered the rhetoric of process–the poem as a thing, a well made thing put together with fragments, with sometimes defective parts. If you look at these parts: mountain of flesh, the people as a deceiving woman…they ain’t exactly profound, but what gives the poem power and validity is the rhetorical performance of process–Oppen’s willingness to join, and attach, and hammer and nail, and, taking shards of shattered sense, make windows of high seriousness. Look at the ending, its grammatical ambiguity:

will she not rot
without us and die
in childbed leaving
monstrous issue–

And the silence of ending interrupts the verbal end, and where’s the question mark? Without, there’s far more possible meanings: it could be an imperative urging the reader to “Will she not rot without us.” Oppen calls for the reader to create the house for which he builds the scaffold. Into that scaffold, much can be made (and lost).

In the past I’ve discussed what I mean when I call myself a “Catholic Poet”, and I want to expand on that. This is an excerpt of a review that appeared in New Pages of my book, The Plumber’s Apprentice.

Joe Weil looks at beauty and sees the bloated underside where ugly makes a home; tells beauty to take a walk and falls in love with ugly. He examines his faith and everyone else’s to see it fail; tells faith to take a walk and revels in small depravities. He stares loss in its face and spits whatever was retained; Tells loss to take a walk and carry all the rest with it. Despite the darkness, Weil leaves us a kind of determined strength. In “Clap Out Love’s Syllables,” he writes, “Stocks fall, leaves fall, we fall, yet, falling, praise / the fields of lust on which our bodies graze.”

This is a book that invites bereavement to sit down, then fleeces it by cheating at poker. All the rules we thought written on stone have faded; the stone was wax. We were mistaken. I will surely wear this book out.

The review, like its claims for my work, is hard to cipher as positive or negative, though the end is an affirmation: “I will surely wear this book out.”

What the critic got at here is the chief thematic aspect of my work based on the Sermon on the Mount and Isaiah, the ontological source of all my poetry: reversal of values. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first, the mountains shall be leveled and the valleys raised, fair is foul and foul is fair, the transubstantiation of shit into God, and God’s saving power in shit, not the reality of semiotics or of success/failure, but that deeper reality of Eucharist which can only be gotten at when we have stripped ourselves of every piety and stand naked before the covenant—halt, lame, bawdy, incapable of redemption save through the violence of ontological grace—grace within mere being—being as the ferocity of value, the smallest, most discounted thing on earth as manifest in the creative force of God.

This is at the center of all my poems, even the dirty raunchy ones, even the poems in which I am cursing God, in which the voice of the poem is a scoundrel, even in those poems where I seem merely to be shouting blasphemies. I did not decide to have this as my theme. It had me. All my life I have been haunted by the dialectical reversal of values in Isaiah and in the words of Christ. Rank, privilege, even the rank of what is beautiful and what is ugly have always seemed to me the most suspect of human cognitions. How do we judge? How can fleabane–if seen at an odd hour and known at just the right moment and under certain situational coordinates–not outdo, not awe us as much as an alp? If this is not possible, then there is neither alp nor fleabane, but only our petty and smug constructs of values that go with them and we are imprisoned in a series of judgments which are final because they are without mercy. It is the lack of mercy and possibility in judgment, not judgment itself which I deplore. Always judgment is a necessary angel that is a good angel only if it carries in its arms the book of “but perhaps.”

In my poem Dandelions, the narrator kicks the old ladies at six o’clock mass who are compared to dandelions when they go to seed. He kicks them, lifts them up on his boot. He does so gleefully, and the old ladies do not protest but beg to be kicked, because, contrary to the violence of the act, it is the intimacy of celebration and love—the violence of all true contact.The poem ends

The things of this world

cry touch me. The things
of this world cry
dandelion.

The poem is meant both to exalt the reality and blaspheme against the pieties surrounding the value of the old, of the discounted, of those things we deem weeds. It insists on exalting, but at the same time, deconstructing and degrading, making a farce out of the cheap epiphanies and gentle smugness of sentimental attachment to the old. They have value not as sentimental tropes, but as the sacred and fierce text of mere being—that text Wallace Stevens insisted we approach. For in that text, fleabane is as likely beautiful and wonderous as a Swiss alp.

In another “review” I discovered on the internet, a student at Lafayette College wrote of my visit and reading at that school:

Weil believes we live in a world devoid of positives and negatives, a concept that often leaks out in his poetry, which can be simultaneously funny, depressing, sardonic, profound and “irrepressible” (to quote one of the event organizers, professor Lee Upton). One poem he read, entitled “Ethics for Huey O’Donnell,” was about a young friend of Weil’s whom everybody considered beautiful and charming before he died in his twenties of cancer. It is a deep and complex conflation of emotions that express the multiple layers of man.

Another poem he recited, “I Am What I Remember,” talks about personal identity and turtles before becoming a tiny treatise on life. Weil writes, “I am only what I remember: / the brief, peripheral touch / of a woman’s hand / on my lower back / as she squeezed past me / in seventh grade.” But truly most astonishing was the way he read, or perhaps more appropriately, performed. The man sung with outstretched arms and played piano while singing a song about virgins, a bright smile across his face while the crowd laughed at the undeniable humor.

Again, at the center of my work is contradiction, or rather I wish to reconcile contradiction if only for that moment, for, like all people with a high functioning case of Asperger’s, I do not get contradiction, am not gifted at nuance, and must take both sides of any issue with absolute conviction (sometimes all at once) in order to approximate nuance. Contradiction does not come from God claimed Thomas Aquinas, and I agree with the good saint. But the world, while God-created (parent), God redeemed (child), and God haunted/inspired (Holy Spirit), is certainly not God oriented: it is motley, hidden away from God behind a thousand conflicting tropes of willfulness and streben. The answer to this on the part of postmodernity is a rather too tepid, and, at the same time, too strident and absolutist embrace of uncertainty and the hyper-qualified, or, worse, the yawn of the fop, the grade z dadaist, the yawn that is thrice borrowed from Rimbaud via the French surrealists as sponsored by a hipster beer commercial in Brooklyn. No thanks.

I am a narrative poet, but my narratives go about sniffing the world. Dogs meander and crisscross on their path because they are keeping the scent of things at the center of their wandering. This is the large part of their reality, roughly in the center of a cone–a sort of core and focus by way of digression. Me and the dogs have a lot in common.

If I look at my poems, with the exception of a few that are merely for fun (well, a lot), I can see the theme of reversal of values, or confusion of values in all of them.

“Ode To Elizabeth” (see page 23): The poet speaks of “grimey Elizabeth,” goes to great lengths to depict a town where people keep plastic on the furniture and watch double features of Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal And yet it is a poem of praise)

“Elegy for Sue Rapeezi”: Poem in which an ugly, girl considered a whore, a dyke, and a dick tease teaches the snob narrator the first things he learns about love

“Morning at The Elizabeth Arch”: “The winos rise as beautiful as deer.” Enough said.

“Fists”: Poem in which the broken and gnarled fists of a factory working father are given mythological value.

“Ethics for Huey O’Donnell”: A poem that tries to deal honestly with the contradictions at the heart of friendship and how one can be both true and false at once.

I can go on. My language is also motley and contradictory insofar as I move sometimes wildly between lyrical moments and blunt, even flat sentences, move between romantic imagery and cuss words. I believe in liveliness and exuberance as beauty. I believe the false gentleness and political correctness of our current progressives is as likely to get us killed as the pompous vulgarity and bloated bravado of our reactionaries because both are incapable of the true ferocity of which Christ and Isaiah before him spoke: the ferocity of love, the heaven that is taken by storm, by complete and ferocious belief in the value of all life. This is what is meant by Blake and by Jesus when he says “the violent bear it away.” Heaven is taken by storm. I am not interested in a new wrinkle on the early 20th century “Tango face.” I am not interested in the cult of the cool and the detached. If I want to kill someone, I’d prefer to feel my hands around his neck, not send a drone to do my dirty work. I can respect the hot and the cold. The lukewarm makes me vomit.

Poor Robert Creeley. In the 60s and 70s he was right up there with Robert Bly (though their styles are utterly different, their names are similar). The Robert he should have been paired with is Robert Francis, a great minor poet (minor in the best sense), who lived in the cool ominous, hawk’s wing shadow of Robert Frost.

But poor Robert Creeley is dead. I published him once, in Black Swan Review‘s Language poetry issue (Circa 1990). I met him once, at a reading celebrating urban poetry in Paterson–right near the falls. He was reading from William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. My job at the time was to serve the “immortals” sandwiches at the box lunch–me and five or six of my poetry friends. Me being me, I bitched and moaned about kissing these asshole’s asses all the way through. Joe Salerno being Joe Salerno, he was far more reflective and humble about the experience, even after Ginsberg insulted his loving parody of Howl which appeared in that particular issue of Black Swan.

I didn’t mind serving the “immortals” so much as having to endure their far less than famous hangers-on who treated me far worse than did the asses that were getting kissed. A local poet who I knew and who had managed to ingratiate himself with Ginsberg and Algarin, made me take back a soda twice. On the third trip I told him: “Listen mother fucker… I’m not getting paid for this job. I’m a volunteer. I know where you live. You keep this shit up, you act high and mighty with me just one more time, and I’ll shove this can up your ass, cut a coin slot in your fucking heart, and call you a Coke machine.” He shut up.

At any rate, Creeley was the most gracious person there. I was sick of famous poets (I have been sick of famous poets all my life) and did not approach him for fear that he would act, like, well, you know, famous. I never say anything intelligent to famous poets, and, to be honest, they don’t say anything terribly intelligent to me. I was already pissed off that Ginsberg had been less than nice to my friend Joe, and I still wanted to join the Khmer Rouge and execute everyone in the room who had ever published in a magazine with a circulation of more than three thousand. I was not happy. We had been told we would have a free box lunch with the poets (Robert Creeley, Algarin, C.K. Williams, Ginsberg, Baraka, Baca, and so on and so on). We were not told we would be serving lunch to the poets while those who didn’t volunteer for shit (our fellow New Jersey sycophants) would be sitting with them ordering us around as if we were incompetent waiters and they were CEOs. In retrospect, I have only myself to blame. If I had volunteered in a spirit of altruism, I’d have enjoyed watching Gerald Stern talk with tuna in his mouth, but alas, my motives had been elbow rubbing and I deserved any humiliation that ensued.

But back to Creeley! At my lowest point–when I was ready to give up poetry forever and thus deprive everyone of another nobody–Creeley, tall, lanky, and with an endearing comb over approached the table I was brooding at. He said, “Someone told me you’re Joe Weil.” I said, “Yes. I am him of whom you speak.” He said, “I just wanted to thank you for publishing one of my poems.” He extended his hand. We shook. I said, “Do you like the section in Paterson where there’s a drought and the river is dry and they have all these giant sturgeon?” He smiled and said, “Yes… I greatly enjoy the prose excerpts, especially in book One.” I said, “Me, too.” He said, Thanks again.” I said, “No problem.” He floated back to his immortality. I almost got Ginsberg to eat a corn chip when I drove him home from a reading in which I was the co-feature. I had a nice conversation with Louise Gluck about Robert Schuman. Jamie Santiago Baca wanted me to take him to a go go bar. Such is rubbing elbows. It’s really kind of sad and stupid, and it’s better never to meet anyone whose poetry you like.

Ah but poor Robert Creeley. Now that he’s dead, everyone says they don’t like his work. He’s known as the Black Mountain guy who wrote “skinny” poems. Poets over sixty still revere him. If I could make up a character, it would be an 80 year old professor with a long beard in a nursing home banging his cane briskly against the hardwood floor and shouting, “What this country needs is a good dose of Robert Creeley!”

Why don’t people like Creeley? First, he doesn’t tell a story. Second, he’s a white Harvard dude from New England. Third, he isn’t a language poet, but he ain’t a confessionalist, either. He’s a speculative writer. Unlike Stephen Dunn, he doesn’t offer wry wisdom in a masterly yet conversational tone. Many of his poems sound like bits of thought cut off at the stem. His skinny line was so imitated that it became a cliche. All his friends are dead or dying, and young American poets have a frame of reference no where near as good as what is on their iPods. In terms of poetry, their memory doesn’t surpass the life expectancy of a fruitfly.

I call Creeley a speculative poet because his playing around with the structure and syntax of a sentence, his devotion to the inarticulate, the almost said, or not quite said, is exactly that: provisional, based on what ifs. He is most definite and certain in his love poems, which are as good as the best love poems by Williams, Swenson, ee. Cummings, or, for that matter, Kenneth Patchen.

I bring him up because he was continuing the work of Williams–not in terms of the anti-poetic, but of the provisional, the poem as fragment, as “almost said/then not,” the defective, the bits of halted speech, a sort of mystical reticence which, to tin ears, seems non-existent, but is the gobbled and cobbled and ruined talk of the American male–the one who cannot speak, except too loudly and stupidly, if at all, and too little, too late if, like many “educated” American males, he hides in his office, drinking–removed from the very love in which he would partake.

Creeley was truly gracious. I’ve read his poetry, but not much on his life. Apparently, he fooled around with Rexroth’s wife, thus causing Rexroth to declare war on the beats (Kerouac was guilty by association). Other than that, I am sure he was a functional, highly intelligent, highly cultured drunk. He is our Celan. He is out of fashion right now because he is not super sized in any way. His is an intimate music. I would read him with a Thelonious Monk piano solo and a really good chicken salad sandwich. Stay away from the booze.