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Joe Weil

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.

The great English literary critic, William Empson, wrote a work called 7 Types of Ambiguity in which he promoted Ambiguity as one of the chief indicators of great literary texts, most especially of modern literary texts. Most contemporary poets start to publish when they learn this sort of ambiguity–to not over determine the meaning of a text, to make it somewhat ambiguous. Ah, but there is a great difference between ambiguity and slightness of meaning, poverty of meaning, or out and out lack of it–though most post modern editors would rather have a meaningless poem with poetic turns of phrase, than a clear poem that didn’t sound “poetic”. This just goes to show idiots wait on both sides of the fence.

To be ambiguous means the meaning floats, hovers, resonates, is everywhere present and no where seen. To be confusing means that the poet can not convey either the mood, voice, or cognitive meaning at all, or that neither mood, voice or meaning exist. How much a reader needs in the way of determination varies wildly. A language poet snubs any meaning that isn’t either ironic, dadaist, or so denuded of emotional resonance and voice as to be fey, contingent, hardly there. They have political “reasons” for this–or used to, having to do with authority, but now that thousands of poems have been written as “language” poetry, it has developed its own all pervasive voice. In short, their non-inaugurated I is as much a rigid orthodoxy as that against which they reacted.

Narrative poetry is, by definition, over determined–it has a story to tell. Lyrical poetry is poetry doing its utmost to draw attention to itself as an act of language–heightened speech, the vatic I, the extremes of both ecstasy and precision. All these “kinds” of poetry have their thousand gradations and often bleed into each other, and are better off for being somewhat mongreled. Each of these, done badly, will not achieve the ambiguity Empson extols. Each of these, done supremely well, can achieve all seven types of ambiguity and then some.

At any rate, on countless occasions a student has handed me a poem that did not do what Pessoa claimed a poem must do: make a bridge between the “personal” and the “human.” The personal is all Pessoa defines as endemic only to that particular consciousness. The human is the rough translation of that consciousness into an act of language that is capable of being apprehended and understood by the other. Great poetry not only makes a bridge between the personal and the human, but makes this bridge tentative, almost invisible, so that the reader feels at times as if they are composing the poem out of their own consciousness. This is why language poetry can be faulted in its theory though I believe their goal is commendable): they never take into account to what degree the reader already shares in the authority of the poem, co-creates the inaugurated I of a poem, how a poem, especially one in which the author does not seek too much certainty, can be co-opted by a reader as his or her poem. In short, it isn’t necessary to be non-linear, multi-voiced, non-authoritative. It is only necessary that the author leave enough room in the poem for the reader to step in and co-create it. I once had a student give me a poem in which dogs were bleeding and stars fell onto the bodies of lepers, and a coffin rose from the grave, and opened to reveal a guitar. The student was highly surprised and upset that I didn’t know this was a poem about the death of his beloved father. I realized he’d done the opposite of what Pessoa had said: He’d taken a well known trope (The death of a father) and personalized it to such a degree that no one would ever know unless he told them. This is fine so long as you don’t care that no one gets it. but if you do care, then a little clarity helps.

I am going to share a pretty good poem then by one of my students in the 350 class a poem that uses ambiguity effectively. The poet’s name is Carrisa Ely. Watch what she does.

An Image

She will remember everything
but the color of his harley. She’ll
forget which one it was
in line with all the others; was it red
or was it blue or was it black?
She’s too distraught in
the swirls of his vanilla ice
cream on a cone, it is sugar, it is
sweet the way his tongue follows
the ridges, is caloused hands
turning it.
He does this softly.
Softer than the cracked leather
of his clothes, than the part of his face
around the mouth, softer than the pavement
they both stand on now, a part.

And in this light, he makes her
think again of delicate things– bathing in
claw foot tubs, long cigarettes– God and
the sound walking.

The very end might be a typo. It imght be sound of walking (This is how it was published in arc of a cry), but there is no mistaking the sensual, erotic, sexual charge of this poem, even though the only action is of a “she” watching someone whose bike she can’t remember eating a vanilla ice cream cone. Why do we think the vanilla might just be her? Why do we think, if it isn’t her, she wishes it were? How does she know his hands are calloused, or is this a girl thing– much as men like legs? Note the wonderful mis-use of the word distraught, so much better than caught here: “She’s too caught up… distraught means this action is having an effect on her that is exquisite both in the sense of pleasurable and accute to the point of painful. What we have here is licking, and soft, and leather, and claw foot bath tubs, and long cigarettes, sugar, sweet, etc, etc, etc, but nothing is spelled out except she won’t remember his harley and she will remember everything else. This is ambiguity working to create an erotic charge. In point of fact, all the best erotic poems beat around the bush so to speak. Suggestion is always far more erotic than coming straight at it. We could ask Clarissa Ely if she meant it to be erotic, and she might say not at all, and that would be fine, because a writer is not the only author of the work. After it has been written, there is a different author every time it is read. Someone who wasn’t getting the erotic charge might complain and say: This is vague writing. We don’t even know his or her name, and who cares about some biker eating an ice cream cone? This poem skirts the danger zone. Someone else, someone looking for the sexual in everything, might think this poem too obvious. In short, it can be argued over, and that’s a large part of why it is a poem and not greeting card verse. It is very hard to argue over a hall mark greeting card. A poem might be said to begin when the arguments begin, when it makes us define what we mean by both meaning and poetry. Good job Clarissa.

The other week I had a few dinner guests over and I was bringing up the subject of sainthood and pathology. One bright guest (he attended Harvard) said: “Oh no… I’m tired of all that Freudian analysis of sainthood.” I said: “me, too. I don’t mean it that way, but I think it is interesting that, just as the real flesh of Jesus and his blood appears under the signs of bread and wine, and this is a scandal many cannot accept or that they openly refute, so, too, the presence of sainthood under the ‘Signs’ of pathology and scandal is something I remain interested in. The saint’s unity with the sinner, with the one who is lost, broken, poor, diseased has to it the fullness of Christ’s unity with the sinner on the cross, and so the question is: Do we believe that Simone Weil was an anorexic in the sense of a disease, or do you believe she was a mystic, inspired by the spirit of God, and hidden under the signs of anorexia? Or was she both: anorexia plus? Furthermore, by my love of tri-partite registers of terms, I cannot resist seeing anorexia as the neutral expression for Simone’s own spiritual term “decreation.” We might lay it out as follows:

Laudatory: decreation into perfect unity with the suffering Christ and her fellow Jews.
Neutral: suffering from anorexia
Dyslogistic: mentally deranged and suicidal, as the factory workers saw her—a weird virgin.”

I once did a few chapters on Saint Joseph of Cupertino that I never finished. In many respects, he had all the symptoms of impaired mental faculties–perhaps autism, perhaps epilepsy, and, without doubt, a brain wracked with inexplicable fits of rage (which might imply some early brain trauma). Yet, it is documented that he had many of the gifts peculiar to the sainthood, most especially the discernment of hearts, and the ability to levitate and bi-locate. Somehow, his extremely limited intellectual faculties did not keep him from being one of the greatest confessors of the church, nor did his horrible rage issues enter into his perfect and placid obedience to the church when it forbade him from saying mass and, for all intents and purposes, locked him away. He was a living example of God revealing to the simple what he has withheld from the wise.

So, like my friend from Harvard, I think it tiresome to wash the saints in the bath of modern psychology and cleanse them of their strangeness by applying to them those terms which they seem to fit in our time of diagnosis, and yet I think, free from the standpoint of conformity to Christ, we must suspect and perhaps be wary of any saint who isn’t in some way, a scandal, and an aberration to the church—an example of perfect and passionate obedience, that most revolutionary and strangest, most terrifying of acts. Let’s look at some of Weil’s own words translated by Sian Miles:

We possess nothing in the world—a mere chance can strip us of everything—except the power to say, “I.” That is what we have to give to God—in other words—to destroy. There is absolutely no other free act that is given us to accomplish—only the destruction of the “I.” (From “The Self.”)

Weil goes on to elaborate that this destruction of the I from outside the self (Affliction, the oppression of workers, slavery, social injustice, abuse, etc, etc) is the worst thing that can happen to us “because then we cannot destroy it ourselves.” She expands on this by saying that such a destruction of the “I” from outside does not rid the afflicted one of egoism, but instead creates an “egoism without an I.” The resentment Nietzsche saw working among certain Christians, and also among the “humble” or slavish poor. This could be likened to the automaton, to the one incapable of true action (except to hate what it obeys). It could be compared to Buber’s I as it, mere motion rather than true action. This ability to choose to be “decreated” is the right exercise of free will, for Simone says in other writings: “The one gift God has given us that we must give back is our free will.”

To a culture glutted on a thousand self-help and self-esteem books, to a prosperity minded Christianity, this idea of destroying the “I” must seem ill phrased at the very least, and downright crazy at the worst, but let us quote Christ:

Anyone who becomes naught for my sake shall discover who he is.

All those who try to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for my sake shall live.

This decreation of the self might seem to contradict the very foundations of the Judaic value of “yacheim” (to life), the proverb, “better a live dog than a dead lion.” But Simone Weil, like Tolstoy, does not consider merely material existence to be life at all. One must destroy the self that insists on “I” above all else because this is the ultimate idol worship. She holds out this hope, even to those going through persecution, trials, in short, what she calls extreme affliction:

So long as we ourselves have begun the process of destroying the ‘I’ we can prevent any affliction from causing harm (I believe she means harm in the spiritual sense). For the I is not destroyed by external pressure without a violent revolt. If for the love of God we refuse to give ourselves over to this revolt, the destruction does not take place from without but from within.

And so the willed destruction of “I” is, to Simone Weil, the one act of perfect obedience. But she says something here that is a wonderful and nasty little paradox: one resists having the “I” destroyed from without by not revolting, by not resisting the “I’ being destroyed from without. One defeats the process of outer destruction by refusing to resist outer destruction. This is a mystical oxymoron, but one not at all rare in the realm of mystical tradition. It is one with what I said in an earlier essay on obedience: perfect obedience destroys the system that seeks to destroy it by being perfectly obedient unto the systems pre-systemic origin. Isaiah chapter 42:

Here is my servant in whom I uphold,

my chosen one with whom I am pleased

Upon him I have put my spirit;

He shall bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry out, nor shout

Nor make his voice heard in the street.

A bruised reed, he will not break.

This is the figure of the suffering servant, the one who does not resist, but obeys, and by obeying, is, in the words of Simone Weil, able to “destroy the ‘I” and its egoism from within.

Lest we think Simone Weil a Paulist Republican, she did not give up her sense of social justice for workers or oppressed people at all. As she insists this destruction of the “I” from without is the worst of spiritual calamities since it makes impossible the choice of willingly destroying the “I” from within. One must realize that for Simone Weil material social justice that did not alleviate the destruction of the “I” from without would be more than useless: it would be the greatest evil, and yet, without social justice, the vast majority of human kind was incapable of true action which is, in the mystical sense of living God, becoming “naught” for his sake.

And so what Weil offers is scandalous: total and willing annihilation into and for the love of God. She writes:

Redemptive suffering. If a human being who is in a state of perfection and who has, through grace, completely destroyed the ‘I’ in himself falls into that degree of affliction which corresponds for him to the destruction of the ‘I’ from the outside—we have the cross in its fullness. Affliction can no longer destroy the ‘I’ in him for the ‘I’ in him no longer exists, having completely disappeared and left the place to God. But affliction produces an effect which is equivalent, on the plane of perfection, to the exterior destruction of the ‘I.’ It produces the absence of God.

Once again, this is a strange statement, a stumbling block and a great scandal for those believers who want only the presence of God—not God’s absence, but the absence of God was considered by St. John of the Cross in his dark night of the soul, and by many other mystics, to be the ultimate crowning of one truly perfected into Christ. If we look at it bluntly, Weil is certainly no Joel Osteen, and this idea of redemptive suffering is impossible for many Christians to accept, especially evangelicals because they believe Christ did all the redeeming once and for all (But Paul himself claims that the mystical body of Christ—we, the followers of Christ—complete in our suffering what is “lacking” in the suffering of Christ. This means that redemption is not merely an historical act rounded off by Christ’s sacrifice, but is ongoing and that we, as the mystical body share in that reality).

Weil quotes Christ (who was quoting the psalms): “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

She continues:

What is this absence of God produced by extreme affliction within the perfected soul? What is the value which is attached to it and which is known as redemptive suffering?

Now here comes her strangest gambit of all (or in the top ten of her strange gambits):

Redemptive suffering is that by which evil really has fullness of being to the utmost extent of its capacity.

And going further into this “fullness of being;”

By redemptive suffering, God is present in extreme evil. For the absence of God is the mode of divine presence which corresponds to evil—absence which is felt. He who has not God within himself cannot feel his presence.

Now it seems that she is contradicting Augustine who said evil is null, and has no being, yet, lest, we grow hasty, here, Our Beautiful Simone Weil comes in for a landing firmly on Augustine:

It is the purity, the perfection, the plenitude, the abyss of evil. Whereas hell is a false abyss (CF, Thibon). Hell is superficial. Hell is a nothingness which has the pretention and gives the illusion of being.

Simone Weil’s “hell” sounds like my concept of conformity: hell is an illusion of being–appearance, semiotics, that which conforms to a construct but without true obedience. It is the death within life of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, the people who are “eating and drinking, and buying and selling unto the last hour, and are caught unaware.” It is the true sickness unto death, a despair so total that one in the grips of it is not aware of it as despair. Simone continues:

Purely infernal destruction of the ‘I’ is quasi—infernal suffering. External destruction with which the soul associates itself through love is expiatory suffering. The bringing about the absence of God in a soul completely emptied of self through love is redemptive suffering.

The objection to this might be: how can you ever be sure what appears to be a choice is not really a compulsion? How can true obedience be differentiated from its exactitude and replication in conformity. This I believe: a hint that something is mere conformity rather than obedience is that it appears to cause no scandal, but is always “scandalized.” Satan does not smoke or drink or fornicate, and no one knows the law or holds others to the law more strictly than he (his name means the accuser, the prosecutor). What makes him Satan is that he cannot obey, cannot accept a God who would not be utterly subject to the law of condemnation and alive to mercy. Satan is quasi—incapable of being, not only of feeling the true presence of God, but of feeling God’s absence. Satan is twice fraudulent, at least if we follow Simone’s way of thinking.

Reading her words, we can well understand how she may have justified starving herself in solidarity with her suffering fellow Jews, how she may have seen her deliberate act of self-destruction not as a suicide but as a “Saving” of her life by losing it—by annihilating a self that was spared the catastrophic and total external destruction of ‘I’ by the Nazis. Yet this might be perceived as violating the law of Yacheim: life above all else.

Yet to this objection, one is left asking: what is life if it is merely motion without action? To choose willingly to be one with those suffering a complete loss of liberty and life is to act from within. Still, one might see in this act of self decreation, of willed destruction of the ‘I’ a latent and perhaps not so latent) sin of pride—as some have ventured with Cordelia, as with Emily Dickinson’s imperial despair, also, as with Othello’s insistence on falling on his own sword (which Eliot saw as exactly that—the deadly sin of pride, Othello unable to let anyone but himself punish him). We are left in the end with sainthood and true obedience as existing always under the mysterious signs of scandal and willfulness. This does not make much sense from a worldly stand point. In the traditions of mystics, no other way makes sense.

Here are some ways to explore these ideas more.

1. Consider how Ivan Illyich is dead while alive in his conformity, and is raised from the dead by dying into the affliction that takes his life. How from the standpoint of both Tolstoy and Simone Weil might destruction be salvation?

2. Considered what the misfit says about the Old Lady in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good man is Hard to Find”–“She would have been a good woman…if it had been there to shoot her every minute of her life.” How does this fit into the mystical schema of Simone Weil, of her sense of self-decreation. When the old lady calls the misfit “Son” and touches him, what sort of true union does she accomplish with “Evil” in the sense of Simone Weil and how can this be an act of salvation and grace?

3. Look at the poems of Emily Dickinson, especially those which speak of imperial despair, and of death within life, an ongoing cavalry. To what extent is Dickinson’s imperial affliction similar to Weil’s willed destruction of ‘I’? How do they differ?

4. How does Simone Weil’s concept of the absence of God fit into the transvaluation of all values in Christ’s teachings. In Emily Dickinson’s poems, in Tolstoy’s story, “The Three Hermits”

No system can endure perfection. All systems thrive on defining imperfections either by way of “sin,” “error” being inappropriate, being “unprofessional” or being “counter–revolutionary.” Such offenses are punished or censored when it is an “I,” reformed when it is a “we,” and revamped or improved upon when in relation to an “it.” The one act that cannot be forgiven by any system and must be punished either by death, exile, or expulsion is perfect and true obedience.

We would think all systems would welcome perfect obedience. I will qualify: perfect conformity to the outward tenets of the system will be tolerated, and even rewarded (though such perfection is frowned upon and often accused of arrogance, or meanness of spirit). Perfect obedience, both in an outward  obedience to the tenets of the system, and to an inward perfection of obedience to the system must be punished or converted into the dyslogistic terms of blasphemy, scandal, or treason. Why?

The “first” of all systems is arbitrary power. The hidden being and agenda of all systems is the power of the arbitrary: because I, we, or it said so. This power must be hidden behind vast terministic screens or order, protocol, standards, traditions, ritual, ceremony, rhetoric and various mechanisms of defense for the system. The more arbitrary the power, the greater the need for an outward semblance of order. It’s essence is arbitrary, and its substance is the outward mechanisms of systemic order, of “normative” being–one of us part of it, in step. The essence of all systems is arbitrary power. The substance of all systems is expressed through two mechanisms: conformity and venality.

In terms of conformity, one’s actions and being fit the overall tenets of the system. One is a “team player,” a “pillar of the community,” a “member in good standing,” a “law abiding citizen.” Much of modern and post-modernist literature is an attack upon these conformists of systemic order. Why? Because the misbehavior, decadence, and transgression of most modernist and post-modernist writers and artists is a competing system. It, too, advocates a consistent disordering, a consistent non-conformity, and, by doing so, it falsifies itself as a non-system, and creates its own version of team player, model citizen, and “one of us.” The free love of late sixties hippies was fairly humorless. It lacked venality. It was “pure” or, rather, conformist in its non-conformity. Everyone was “loose” and “free” in the same uptight way. This counter-cultural movement has succeeded in being normalized in the form of the lifestyle leftist. One could discuss this creature in much detail when thinking about the Beats, but for now: Conformity substantiates the system, gives it the day to day character. promotes its laws, tenets and traditions. It is properly conformed both to what is pleased by and what it is scandalized by. Let us run this through the tri-partite registers:

Dyslogistic: uptight, prudish, moralistic, square, nerdy, stuck up, kiss ass.
Neutral: conformed, law abiding, faithful, reasonable, up to standard.
Laudatory: Normal, a good guy, a team player, one of the boys, popular, cool.

In order to escape the dyslogistic register of conformity, in order to reach the laudatory heights so to speak of being normal, a good guy, a team player, popular, cool, one must practice certain forms of venality–minor transgressions either of behavior, character, appearance, or attitude that deflect the charge of being uptight, too lofty, or a goody- two shoes, ass sucking dickwad. To this end, venality has great use in any system. This is the role the “Sarge” plays in all war movies. The commanding officer is a dickwad, a 90 day wonder, a by the book monster of conformity. The Sarge is a good soldier, but he is also a good guy–deep down inside. He’s tough, and all Marine, but he knows how to throw down a beer and get in the trenches with his men. His venality never compromises his duty. He is looked upon as maverick, a loner, but a maverick and a loner in true service to his God, his country, or his men. The greatest example of this creature is Henry V when he rallies the troops. This is the Elizabethan ideal: a truly great king must have a touch of “hal” of the gutter in him to rule his people. He must not be extreme either in vice or in virtue (Henry VI) but must  be a balanced force that serves the highest ideals. He must have the common touch in order to represent God on earth. When God comes down to earth, he must be all things to all people: the king/beggar and the beggar/king. He must be faithful to the dignity of rule, and commanding when command is necessary, but he must also be able to tell a joke, dance a jig, and court the lady Katherine in a saucy and flirtatious manner. This is “venality” as virtue–not as habit, not as order of being, not as a pure form, but as useful exception to the status quo. If you ever listen to people praise a boss, you will hear echoes of this type in all their praise. “Tough but fair” is one those forms. Venality in this sense honors the spirit, while giving an occasional tweak to the letter of the law. This is what we usually mean by a natural born leader. He or she is not a hero in the truest sense, (heroes are grotesque to the degree that the norm cannot claim them) unless he or she is, at one point, cast out of the village and then returns reformed, and with a new strength to add to the system (in this sense Henry V is heroic) Often, he or she is the protector of heroes, the one the hero serves gladly, and also, oddly enough, the protector of lovable scoundrels (provided they are not too “pure” in their venality: see Falstaff).

Venality: Let’s run the register on this.

Dyslogistic: corrupt, disreputable, inferior, a fuck up, a loser, a slacker, a miscreant, a low life, a bum, .
Neutral: minor yet habitual offender, dysfunctional, non-conformist, inappropriate.
Laudatory: a great and lovable scoundrel, a courtly or admired outlaw, a gentleman thief, a lovable drunk, irrepressible, unique, lively, a force of nature, and larger than life.

Venality may either be punished or censored, but never without protest. When Falstaff was reported by Shakespeare to be dead in the opening of Henry V, it is said that the Queen insisted Sir John be raised from the dead and given his own play (not a very good one). Pure venality is one of the forms of disobedience both in the private and public realms. Because it is often comic, and often does the system a service by reflecting its laws by way of breaking them, and depicting a character who is full of vigor though inferior to the common man in moral stature (these scoundrels have charm instead of a conscience) it is far more tolerated than perfect obedience in the private and public realms. I terms of the perfectly disobedient, the system is often strengthened rather than weakened. It is a substantiation of the essential power of the first: the arbitrary, the wild, the power of life itself. I its laudatory aspect, depending on who is viewing their behavior the following figures fit the bill: The wife of Bath, Falstaff, the highwayman, WC. Fields, Bob Hope in his aspect as lovable coward, Larry David, George from Seinfeld.

The lovable scoundrel is best when alone. When he or she has a spouse or children, a tension grows and the effect can be bitter sweet such as the ineffectual, charming, but failed Irish fathers in both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Angela’s Ashes.

The anti-hero is a fairly recent invention, though he or she is latent in the figures of Hamlet, of Milton’s Satan, as well as coming to full bloom in the Byronic hero: against the teeth of fate, self-sufficient, well aware that the system, all systems except his own council and code and sometimes, not even that, are worthy of his scorn, his cynicism, and, at best, he or she pays mere lip service to the conventions under which he or she comes into being: potent, not at all venial, and blessed with a certain dry or cynical wit. To a degree, the anti-hero does not fit the category of the purely venial. If he drinks, has loose sex, refuses to play by the straight and narrow, his protest has a certain moral force. Only his code keeps him from being an arbitrary power, and it is in the figure of this anti-hero that most modernist and post modernist figures are cast. The original hipster “knows what’s up.” He’s Philip Marlowe. He’s Neal Cassidy. He’s tough and tender, when on good behavior, but bad assed and not likely to stick around for kids and cookies. This is a strange figure who becomes dominant in literature as people start to question the hypocrisy and validity of the systems they are in. Batman is part of this tradition. The existentialist shares in this myth. In a manner of speaking he or she is the closest thing we have to the one who is perfectly obedient to a system both inwardly and outwardly–but it is his  or her own system of self sufficiency. He has now achieved normative status and is imitated by the sort of “professionals” who pride themselves on coolness under pressure: unemotional, detached, competent, enemies of red tape–no bullshit. In war movies, this anti-hero is the only higher officer the “Sarge” is likely to respect, and he is very close to Henry V except he does not consider the power of state worth a damn. He, like Satan, is almost god-like in his talent and competency. And he is an accuser. His chief mode of accusation is a sort of “dropping out,” from whatever the system offers he finds the flaw in every system, yet keeps cool about it. You won’t find him at protest rallies. Dylan plays this anti-hero to the hilt, especially when he chooses to absent himself from the role of political folk singer, and takes on more of the Beat attitude of being “aware.” In a sense the anti-hero is a moralist who sees all of conventional reality as a scam. He or she has a strange charisma tied into both sex and death–a creature of the night, a wanderer. It should be remembered that Satan wanders the earth–a roaming, and discontented spirit. We are talking here of Satan in his aspect as fallen angel rather than demon. The anti-hero is not pure evil since his code makes him an enemy of malice for its own sake. He or she is not likely to be married except that loss is usually part of what creates the anti-hero: lost love, the death of wife or wife and children, the early loss of parents, a false loss of reputation so that he is exiled from the system even as he moves through it, and often saves it from being completely swallowed up by its own corruption and ineptitude. He does not believe, yet he is faithful to his code, even at the cost of his life. In more romantic form he is vulnerable to dark mates–wounded creatures like himself. At times he is yoked to the pure–the other side of the anima. He does not protect the weak so much as keep the powerful honest and in check.

Socrates, Jesus Christ, and Billy Budd are all figures of perfect obedience that destroys the system–the rarest of all types. Like the anti-hero, the one who is perfectly obedient he has some odd and inexplicable authority, a way of being, and very often is depicted as having authority even over the random forces of nature. He does not rebel against the system, but “purifies,” embodies, and destroys it by being obedient to its highest principles both inwardly and outwardly. Not out of scorn so much as conviction he forces the whole of the system to seem dyslogistic. He has power even over “the first”–the power of the arbitrary in so far as that arbitrary power which relies on being hidden, loses all its hiding places, and comes at him with the full force and brutality under the mask of the law. By doing so, it exposes itself for what it is, for law, put at the service of “because I, we or it said so,” is no match for a man who is law fulfilled, the law beyond law. When he is killed, all the rivers of the system are re-routed. Things “change” until we “same” the changes under the mechanisms of venality and conformity. This figure is a living rebuke to both conformity and venality. IN his presence, all that is not perfect reforms or seeks his death, and in his death, all is reconstituted. Conformity seeks to belong. Obedience seeks to love, to honor, to fulfill. A church member in good standing conforms, but a saint obeys. Figures we will study who completely destroy or re-route systems they are born into by their very being: Socrates, Jesus Christ, St. John of the cross, and the literary figure, Billy Budd.

I will amend my first statement: no system can endure perfect obedience, and no system can endure pure venality. I define pure venality in the figure of Falstaff. One could look at certain of the scenes in Henry the 4th, parts one and two which show the purity of Falstaff’s venality. Here, I do not mean venial sins in the usual sense, but rather, venial to the degree that the one committing them does not seek to overthrow or destroy the system. He merely seeks whatever advantages it affords. He is pure exception and must be censored if the state is not to lose all its gravitas. He, like the purely obedient, exposes the arbitrary power for what it is. Being a pure fool, he colors every scene in the motley garb of the fool. He is, himself, arbitrary–as feckless and uncontrolled as the wind, save for his cunning, and ability to charm. Looking at Falstaff, one sees that even a man who seeks to usurp the crown by bloody civil strife is more worthy of praise than one who thinks and proves life is a joke, and only the next opportunity to get drunk, have a wench, and steal a tasty capon. Falstaff’s counterfeit speech is one of the greatest prosecutions against nobility and gravitas ever concocted. It places life, raw life, life as it breathes and moves about the world as the highest value, and pitches its tent in the purely aleatory. This characters undoing is not truly his lack of gravitas (for this would make him only a fool, and useful as a defining principle of the gravitas within the system) His chief sin is that he stands naked and unashamed–not as innocence, but as cosmic fart joke. He loves, but love does not reform him. He sins, but never in the service of any power save his belly. His ambition is to remain fully alive. This creature cannot usually be killed, for to kill him would implicate us all as being, at ground zero, a cosmic fart joke. He must be silenced, exiled, divorced from the rule. If possible, we ridicule him, but he is beyond the power of ridicule for he cannot fathom gravitas or dignity as anything other than fabricated structures he will pay lip service to if those structures produce a good meal. His spirit is the only one who would neither kill Christ, nor convert to him. If we study the trickster archetype in its fullness, we may see the anti-hero, the perfectly obedient, and the perfectly disobedient as concrete manifestations of the limits of all systems:  deconstructing wanderers among the odd boundaries between life/death. Neither Christ, the anti-hero, or Falstaff exist in the true realm of the tragic. They are comic, if we use all the connotations of that word.

Let us run the register once more:
Dyslogistic view of comedy: making a joke of even the most sacred things, a travesty.
Neutral: showing the incongruity and corruption of systems.
Laudatory: transcending all law and rising from death or some state close to death to the triumph of life.

The original meaning of comedy was eventual triumph even when triumph seemed impossible: an outcome that was happy or that did not result in the tragic fall of hubris because, at its heart, was the shameless, the full spirited. In this sense Dante called his epic poem the Comedy. In the figure of Christ, we see death, then Christ rising as a new body. In the figure of the anti-hero, some early trauma or loss becomes a figurative “death” from which the anti-hero is reborn and emerges into the anti-hero. In Falstaff, we see a literary character, who is “raised” from the dead to frolic once more and marry. In comedy, man becomes like the paper bag in Williams’ poem that is run over by a car only to continue its dance in the wind. Comedy in this sense is the critical deconstruction of all consequence. Comedy in this form is the rebuttal to the necessity and inevitability that drives all tragic systems. It is Beckett’s “I can’t go, I must go on.” It is the man falling in a cartoon who quickly draws himself a parachute, and lands safely. It is the bumbling idiot who somehow, by the purity of his ineptitude, ends up winning the day or the girl. It is, in this sense, dangerous to all systems, in so far as it exposes all laws as arbitrary It carries on in the midst of futility with a sort of absurd faith in its own process and routines. It is, in a sense, the fun house mirror to all systemic being. All comedy deals with the eternal duet between order and disorder.  All comics speak for the poor even when they scorn and deride them for, at the bottom of most comedy is the comedy of the aleatory system: all men are one in the aleatory: they eat, they shit, they die, and death makes them hungry so that they rise to eat and shit and die again. I’ll leave you with this poem by Williams, and you decide whether the man in the hat at the end of the poem is foolish, pure of heart, or both:

The Poor

It’s the anarchy of poverty
delights me, the old
yellow wooden house indented
among the new brick tenements

Or a cast iron balcony
with panels showing oak branches
in full leaf. It fits
the dress of the children.

reflecting every stage and
custom of necessity–
Chimneys, roofs, fences of
wood and metal in an unfenced

age and enclosing next to
nothing at all: the old man
in a sweater and soft black
hat who sweeps the sidewalk–

his own ten feet of it
in a wind that fitfully
turning his corner has
overwhelmed the entire city.

We may think the old man’s efforts are absurd, but, if we consider death, the inevitable event of every system’s collapse, we find common ground with him. In all this “anarchy” the longing to value, to maintain,  to  order is fierce, what Stevens called “a rage to order.” To step outside this rage, to order and examine it, is the beginning and the end of philosophy. After all, in standing outside the rage to order, and examining it, are we not also sweeping our ten feet of sidewalk in a raging maelstrom?

Here are a few ways you can further explore these ideas.
1. Read Christ’s teaching in the Gospels that add these qualifications to the commandments: “It is said thou shalt not murder, but I tell thee, if thou art even angry at your brother, you have already murdered him in your heart. And it is written: thou shalt not commit adultery, but I tell thee if you so much as look at another with lust, you have already committed adultery in your heart.” Write a story in which the main character thinks murderous and adulterous thoughts all day, while performing many acts of kindness and public good works. Have fun with it. Consider the difference between inner and outer man.

2. According to behavioralists, there is no inner man. Deed and process is everything, and motivation is not taken into account except in terms of basic drives.. Modified behavior is enough if the behavior is dysfunctional. What do you think? Is there such a thing as the private self. Can it be said to exist as a reality?

3. According to 12 step thinking addictions and pathologies can be healed only by first admitting that we have no control over these forces and they are making our lives unmanageable. The next step is “surrendering one’s will to a higher power as one knows it.” This higher power need not be God; it could be anything. To what extent do people gain normalcy by “surrendering” to a system? How do these concepts differ? How do they relate?

Conformity is motivated by a need for communal belonging or acceptance, or to deflect the worse pains and consequences of failing to be accepted by one’s desired group. Based on the anxiety of expulsion, punishment and ostracism, or disapproval and towards the enjoyment of privilege and status. When failing to conform, or when losing face, the resulting wounded pride or shame may lead to acts of disobedience, or to acts of slinking off for comfort in groups that suffer the same fate. May also lead to a temporary “mystical” epiphany that displays the hysterical shadow of the conformist self. A species of adolescent narcissism continued into one’s dotage, and, if, not so much willed as merely assumed: beyond the possibility of true action. Literary figures associated with true conformity as I define it: Ivan Illyich and the husband of Anna in Anna Karenina. George in A Doll’s House. Ivan’s final illness is an act of grace. He dies out of the conformist self, truly desires to be something more than an appearance.

True obedience is motivated by a genuine love and admiration and passion for the principles and traditions, and innovations beyond all hope of gain or status, and even to the point of appearing to be the opposite of what one is: disobedient, prideful, and contrary. The self in spiritual or moral crisis, beyond what others may think. Not so much non-conformist, but, rather searching for what Martin Buber called total self giving. In a sense any sincere attempt to live the Shema. Based on love and true integrity to the core values and source of one’s being. Figures in literature who fit this bill: Levin and Anna in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Cordelia in King Lear. Obedience does not rules out sin or error. It rules out the possibility of sin and error as utilitarian ends to acceptance. “Don’t get caught” does not exist for the obedient. It is the aphorism of the conformist.

In short: Conformity is preservation of appearances and reputation. Obedience is preservation of the spirit, and core values of the spirit beyond reputation or appearances.

Obedience is pre-moral to the degree that it seeks the origins of action based on principle and truth. Being pre-moral, it involves agon or birth pain. The obedient are capable of action in so far as they either test the moral fabric of their time not out of being contrary, but out of being passionate, or live its true spirit. They suffer, and what they suffer is detachment from the world of appearances and approval. Saints go through such persecution–very often from the church or faith that later perceives them as saints. It is not enough for the obedient to conform, and for this reason, they are capable of great mercy towards sinners, and those who are outcast. They are also the few who can challenge power without seeking to eat of the poisoned apple of power.

Even when conforming to “anti-establishment”-ism it is done with an agenda. If consciously “non-conformist” it revels in its “daring” and “evil.” If consciously conservative, it seeks always the “proper” image, and may be the first to persecute saints. Unlike the sinner, the conformist is not inept or even wounded–at least not visibly. Conformists are the gate keepers of both the establishment and anti-establishment orders. They are the successful bureaucrats of what is proper or properly improper. They are whores of the appropriate. Their goal is the power of the arbitrary, and for this very reason, that they allow no one (except themselves) to act in an arbitrary manner, but hold all accountable to whatever law serves their ends. Their shadow is strong and will often undo them. Terrified of scandal they will run from it until they run right into it. They hold the line. For them judgment is always paramount. They are incapable of true action, and are both somehow servile and untrustworthy at once. Of all the types Jesus Christ railed against, this is what he found reprehensible in the spiritual leaders of his age: this preference for conformity rather than obedience. He took a measure of them when he said: “Do what they say, for what they say comes from God, but do not do what they do, for they lay heavy burdens on others they, themselves, are unwilling to carry.”

Conformity is at all times visible. Obedience is seldom visible, but may be intuited by those who, like the obedient, wish to move beyond mere appearances.

My goals for teaching: to help students move from conformist, or conforming non-conformist to minds capable of true action within the realm of the obedient. To that end:

1. To know what mechanisms, and traditions, and limitations move them and make them creatures of mere motion, and to either test, amend, or move beyond these mechanisms to some fuller sense of true action.

2. To test all actions, all hope with a full knowledge of their imperfections, to show mercy and understanding for the imperfections of others, and to clearly delineate for themselves what they perceive to be the beautiful and the good.

3. To help my students be fearless about being troubled, uncertain, restless, and to make these states of being more than merely the hormonal or socially driven rites of youth. To make a lifelong commitment to what Martin Buber called answering relational being with one’s whole being.

4. To understand my own mechanisms and limitations and to amend, or improve where I can, and to be aware when amendment or improvement is not immediately possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We often talk of attention in terms of power, but perhaps inattention is more suitable to a consumer/service culture. Certain catch phrases such as “don’t sweat the small stuff” or “stick to the point” or “just the facts” hint that we are a busy, practical, and rather diseased race of grade C newspaper reporters. We don’t like verbal noise, but we can get arrogant in our “simplicity” and opt for the simplistic, especially when it suits our self-interest or plays into our prejudice as to who and what should not be listened to.

I will map out 12 kinds of inattention that I have perceived working in aesthetic, political, social, and sexual realms, many of which involve a sort of metonymy dynamic of omission (things we leave out thinking it stands for the whole, in order to exclude, in order to prioritize, in order to act, in order to flee/fight/freeze, in order to imply superiority, in order to imply inferiority, etc, etc).

1. Privileged and Entitled Inattention:
a. Overt displays of Boredom and haughtiness.
b. Cutting off someone in the middle of their speech or conversation while paying the one who was speaking no mind and usurping the attention of his or her audience (a verbal equivalent to cutting in on a dance floor)
c. Tapping the pencil, or one’s fingers, doodling, texting, yawning
d. Misdirected attention to a detail that has nothing to do with the purpose of the other, and by this misdirected attention, implying that either what he or she is saying is not worth listening to, or is being challenged by some incongruity of dress, mannerisms, or situational digression (the bee in the room)

2. Edenic of Pre-formative Inattention: Based on an Ur construct of what should be said, how it should be said, and why it should be said that way which does not coincide with the what, how, and why of the speaker (or author). Any preconceived rubric of attention that is not being met either through aesthetic or informative appeal and thereby triggers a sense of imperfection, judgment of imperfection, or rejection of the significance of either the speaker or what the speaker is saying. We shut down because they are not living up to our preconceived notions of utterance. Happens most often when someone speaks in a register we find uneducated, inauthentic, or inappropriate to the occasion. Often, a scientist who attempts to write for a lay audience will be accused by his purist fellow scientists (and also jealous fellow scientists) of being too broad, or unscientific. They have an Ur construct of science, and although they will all insist they want science to be accessible to the public (and to givers of grants) they feel rather whored- out when something is too removed from their own rhetoric and methodology. At any lecture I ever attended by a scientist speaking to the lay people, some mildly pedantic to absolutely furious scientist in the crowd would try to expose him as simplistic or false.

3. Hierarchical Inattention: Situation in which one’s rank or purpose dictates that the other be ignored or passed by without remark. The scorn is made conspicuous by being passive.

4. Communal Inattention: Such as when a group, a clique, a couple only have “eyes” or ears for each other.

5. Aggressive Inattention: By ignoring or failing to acknowledge, one clearly means to devalue or exclude. Snubbing. Often not a person we might think inferior so much as dislike.

6. Seductive Inattention: When one withholds attention either to draw attention, or revive interest or to appear worthy of a more abject performance. Making the other “work” for our attention.

7. Cognitive Inattention: When the listener (or non-listener) has neither the frame of reference, nor the knowledge of not understanding, and, for all intents and purposes, the thing being said cannot be acknowledged or approached because, in terms of the non-listeners particular reality, it does not exist. They just don’t hear it.

8. Categorical Inattention: when one is waiting for pertinent points, selecting what seems pertinent and ignoring what seems subsidiary or unimportant. Very close to Edenic inattention. We have a sense of what’s important before the person even starts to speak. Very common when a certain procedure in a certain field is par for the course and the speaker is not following it.

9. Antipathic Inattention: When one’s hatred or scorn turns everything another says either into a stupidity, a challenge, or a worthless utterance. This form of inattention is like aggressive/hierarchical inattention except ratcheted up to the point of being violent.

10. Catastrophic Inattention: When antipathic inattention has reached such a phase of demonization that words are put in the mouth of the speaker, distorted, demonized, or simply contrived so as no real listening or attention is possible. Trauma can cause such catastrophic inattention so that the hated or feared, or despised one is triggered by the flimsiest of semiotic indicators. A woman violently raped may not be able to listen to anything any man has to say without feeling anger and shutting down. She may not hear his words. She may only hear: Man.

11. Stylistic Inattention: When one’s style dictates what one does not include, or excludes from ones attention, interests, and response. Not the same as Edenic inattention in so far as it has a performative aspects: one shows who one is by what one does not say or pay attention to.

12. Covert Inattention: One seems to be all ears, can even repeat verbatim what has just been said, but is really not hearing it all as a responsive agent, but more in the way a parrot might, through a force of automatic rehash. This all too often is the result of education. A few minutes later, and one cannot remember even the gist of what was said.

We can apply all these forms of inattention to the critical understanding of any act of language, including a poem. We can know a poem very often in greater depth by realizing what it does not include, what it is not paying attention to at any given moment. I am opening my book American Poets at random and I come upon a free verse poem by the poet, Tony Hoagland. It is called “One Season” Let’s see if we can apply some of our forms of inattention .

One Season

That was the summer my best friend
called me a faggot on the telephone,
hung up, and vanished from the earth,

Hoagland is not paying attention in this beginning three line structure to what his friend looked like, or the reasons why his best friend said what he said, or even as to why his best friend was his best friend. In point of fact, for the whole of the poem we never know why this boy was his best friend. No character trait or actual moment of intimacy is ever developed or described. We can assume this is stylistic inattention–that he has chosen to leave this info out to concentrate on some other theme–in the case of this poem, his own suffering, but not right now. In terms of categorical inattention, he does not consider his friends appearance or his friend’s motives for saying what he said to be important–at this moment in the poem.

This structure he shapes the poem into called a stanza in three line units of measure, known as a tercet. This means Hoagland is ignoring the possibility of utterance being shaped by couplets, or in a stichic (no stanza breaks) structure, or as quatrains and even of the line as an end stopped (fully independent) entity. We do not know why he chooses tercets. Hoagland does not pay attention to the closed off structure of tercets and ends the third line with a comma, bleeding the overall sentence of his utterance into the next tercet (stanzaic enjambment), and not concluding his first sentence until the first half of the first line of the third tercet. Tercet, line and sentence integrity all function independently as if they were not paying attention to each other. Each has a different agenda. The tercet provides a consistent shaping mechanism. The line breaks the sentence into independent and dependent clauses, but they are, in a sense, ignoring each other. A line says it’s a poem. A tercet says it’s a poem of a certain order. A sentence is the main verbal propulsion. Beyond being boxed into tercets, the lines are neither closed, nor uniform, and they vary in length.

There is a lot of contradiction here, or merely three forces that do not fully acknowledge each other (cognitive inattention). The poet is paying attention then to linear and stanzaic enjambment, but not to linear or stanzaic integrity. We could conclude that he is loose in some way, almost sloppy and casual, but not without attention to the pretense of a structure. So we can say that this three line structure, its independence from line or sentence and what his best friend did in terms of narrative order are of paramount importance in the first stanza, and everything else is subsidiary. He is paying very little attention to description, or to line or stanzaic integrity except in so far as he has decided that the poem should be broken into tercets (an arbitrary decision?). We can say that this first stanza is a procedural/narrative of what his “best friend” did shaped into a structure that is open ended. It is a stanza called a tercet, but we don’t know why Hoagland has decided to structure the poem in this manner (it remains in tercets through out except for the last stanza). He does not pay attention to line length. We can say that Hoagland does not pay attention to lines as lines per se, or to tercets as closed structures, but shape is something he pays attention to. This could be a form of covert inattention. He seems to care about a structure, but he may be simply using it to give the poem a semblance of symmetry. He seems to be listening to some dictate toward structure or shaping, but his lines are irregular, and his sentences are independent of those lines. He is paying lip service to a form, but he is also imposing that form on a somewhat arbitrary line and sentence structure.

And so we can assume that Hoagland is not so much interested in organic form as in pre-ordained or arbitrarily imposed form as a shaping device. In effect, he is ignoring or not paying attention to the shape in relation to the flow of his utterance either in terms of line or sentence. The full meaning of a line can belong to several lines, and the full sentence to several stanzas. Line and sentence are not paying attention in a sense to this “box” called a tercet. They spill out of the box, even to the point where we could say that what is being said is ignoring how the poem is being shaped. The tercet is ignoring the flow of line and sentence, and line and sentence are ignoring the structural integrity of the tercet. They function independently of each other. Either that, or their inattention to each other is meant to create a dynamic, a tension between them. We shall see.

Hoagland is not rhyming. There is little or no alliteration. In this first tercet, no metaphor or analogy show up, and the phrase “vanished from the earth” is somewhat overly familiar. He is not end stopping. He is not stopping the thought even at the end of the stanza. He is not being formal, or, rather he is being formal only by one arbitrary device: the tercet. He is also formal so far in terms of noun verb agreement, and the main subject (my best friend) has three modifiers–called, hung up, vanished. Of these three verbs, called, and hung up seem without any attitude or motive except to accurately describe the actions of the best friend. Hoagland is not paying attention then to a formality natural to tercets, but rather to some pre-utteral value of shape in relation to the tercets. As far as his sentences and lines go, they ignore the tercet and pay attention to what the best friend did. This is called narrative. Hogland is telling, but in a very concrete way, yet without any detail that would mar or interrupt his narrative. We can say then that Hoagland’s is ignoring description, appearance, and the relationship of form to utterance, and there is an implicit Edenic inattention here: he ignores his own looseness of utterance because he has a sense that putting that utterance into tercets and lines shows or makes it a poem, or, at least fulfills some rule of spacial structuring, of regularity against the irregularity of sentence, line, and line length which a reader may not recognize as a poem. We shall see.

He has ignored the logical priority of line and sentence for the appearance of a set structure (hierarchical inattention). If the tercets are not closed, then what is the purpose of the structure? Is it arbitrarily imposed upon the poem to create symmetry? Is it a way of ignoring the looseness of a casual utterance in order to give the poem a structural value? So far, we know that Hoagland pays little or no attention to description, rhyme, alliterative devices, or even the form he has imposed. He does pay attention to what the best friend did, and his last verb, “vanished” seems categorically different than his previous two. To “vanish from the earth” is dramatic, even traumatic. It implies ceasing to exist. In a sense Hoagland is the one who ceases to exist to his friend as a friend, but that is deflected onto the friend who “vanished.” Hoagland chooses to ignore “And I ceased to exist” (which is still hyperbolic, but seemingly more to the point of the emotion) and see his friend as vanishing from the earth. Hoagland has not paid any attention to his emotion here, or rather he has left that up to the reader’s imagination (seductive inattention). The verb “vanished” implies a hyperbolic action. OK–so we can assume from what Hoagland leaves out that he is being:

1. Narrative
2. Emotionally closed
3. Loose and causal.
4. Structural in terms of consistent three line stanzas.

We could see all this opening as seductive inattention. Hoagland is withholding certain information, or refusing to let the poem listen to its own structures, or implications, at least for now. If this is all we had to go on, then We could say by his word choice that he avoids formality (“faggot”) and overtly poetic language (though not dyslogistic and hyperbolic registers of speech) and that he is of a narrative bent. We could say he does not pay attention to being overtly poetic though he does pay covert attention to form in regard to keeping the poem structured in tercets.

We could learn much about Hoagland by seeing what he does not include, and what he does not pay attention to. We could see that he, at least, at this point, is a narrative poet with a story to relate, who is trying hard to deflect his worst fear (that he was erased) by projecting it onto the friend who “vanished.” We could conjecture that he is a poet who hedges his emotional bets, and practices a sort of inattention to direct displays of emotion, at least in terms of the narrative. We can even make a prediction that if the friend has vanished from the face of the earth, and this is deflection and projection, then at some point in the poem, the poet will own the erasure himself. In a sense, he has written a closed narrative in so far as his best friend has already called him a faggot, hung up the phone and vanished from the earth. If narrative is his main agenda, how will it be continued? We can conjecture that the rest of the poem, bereft of the friends further actions, will use the narrative of the speaker’s reaction. It may go to a narrative before the vanishing (flash back) or race forward towards the results. We don’t know yet. And what word in the first tercet draws are attention? The most dyslogistic word: faggot. Is the speaker a faggot? Has he done something to make the friend feel ill at ease, sexually speaking?

We read on: Let’s see what happens in the next tercet:

a normal occurrence in this country
where we change our lives
with the swiftness and hysterical finality…

Ah, he is no longer paying attention to his friend or to narrative, but to some general principle within his friend’s action that he considers normal in this country. He has ceased to pay attention to the narrative (at least for now) and is concentrating on its larger, more general relation to what he perceives to be a normal way of acting in this country. All the qualifiers here deal with: change that is “swift” and “hysterical.” He chooses to normalize these under a national identity, and to ignore his friend’s isolated act of individual dismissal and see it as symptomatic of a larger tendency. By doing so, he detaches from the full agony of individual experience, and enters communal Inattention: It is not his friend who dismisses, but “we” (including himself) who dismiss. He can share in the crime of his friend vicariously. He is paying attention now to philosophizing the friend’s action into a larger schema of actions that he attributes to America itself. He is not paying attention to his pain, not allowing it to be an isolated particular. No, it must be ignored as a personal experience (catastrophic inattention as well as a few others) and raised to the power of national catastrophe. He is stepping back from all the actual actions to confer an “ontology” upon them. We can now assume that he is a poet who reserves the right to go in and out of his narratives. What he has not gone in and out of is the arbitrary structure of tercets, and his sentence and line structures are even more inattentive to the tercet than before.

We wonder: is he anxious, because of his narrative tendency, to make sure no one thinks he is not a poet? For all his informal language (he uses verbs like “dump,” and downright vulgarities like “fuck anyone”) he may suffer an anxiety common to narrative poets: a fear that the loss of the usual devices of rhetorical lyrical writing will disqualify the poem from being thought a poem: hence, the use of strict stanza structure, and what else? It seems here, he does poetic figures such as “hysterical finality” and, at the beginning of the next tercet, he completes the thought (and the first sentence of the poem) with:

with …the hysterical finality

of dividing cells.

He is using a species of analogy and metaphor, which does not appear in his narrative schema. He is not paying attention to narrative here, but digressing into its larger implications, and we can say that, at such moments of inattention to narrative, he is most likely to stop paying attention to idiomatic phrases, too, such as “vanished from the earth”, and enter what are more properly called lyrical or philosophical digressions and conjectures(common to narrative poetry since Homer). We can now see that Hoagland obeys the integrity of a full sentence, but not the integrity of line and stanza. We can see that his narratives and appeals to casual speech are ignored at times when he wishes to step out of them and be “lyrical” or poetic. He employs a bit of hyperbole in his first, largely narrative sequence, and so we may think that this is another device–to use a little, but not too much of literary devices in the narrative sections, and to be full throttle rhetorical and metaphorical (and poetic) only in those sections that are not paying attention to narrative. Let’s see what he does in the rest of this third tercet:

… that month
the rain refused to fall,
and fire engines streaked back and forth crosstown.

He’s back to narrative, and paying no attention to the larger ontology. His new narrative is the larger events surrounding his abandonment. In a sense this is metaphor made conspicuous by its absence. These dramatic events also fill in for the absence of overt emotional reaction to being abandoned. Note how the rain is personified as “refusing” to fall. The whole town is a metaphor for his despair, rejection, and confusion. Rain refusing to fall is the arbitrary power of rejection and dismissal of expected actions, and fire engines racing are the concrete manifestation of the “hysterical finality.”

He goes on:

towards smoke -filled residential zones
where people stood around outside, drank beer,
and watched the neighbors houses burn.

Ah…the first full end stopped stanza! And note that he is revisiting a narrative procedural he used in the first tercet: the three verb narrative: they stood, they drank, they watched. His friend: called, hung up, and vanished. Same basic rhythm, and the intent seems to be to link the heartlessness of his friend, and the senselessness of it to the crowd’s indifference even as they watch. I do not know if this is conscious on Hoagland’s part, and I might not be able to discern it, had I not decided on this method of entering the poem through both what it does and what it does not do (I may have suffered from cognitive inattention), but this three verb action implies a larger sense of indifference to pain, or to the poet’s suffering. People do not care, though they may be causally attentive. They drink beer while everything in someone’s life is burning. This is covert inattention. The poet never says woe is me. He is never emotionally direct (this may be a form of seductive inattention)The poet is pretending not to be aware (or is cognitively inattentive) to the link between his feelings of being a victim of arbitrary rejection, and the larger sense of no one really caring when shit just happens.

We will lay down the rest of the poem, now that you can see the usefulness of entering a poem both through what it pays attention to at any given moment and what it chooses to ignore:

It was a bad time to be affected
by nearly anything,
especially anything as dangerous

as loving a man, if you happened to be
a man yourself, ashamed and unable to explain
how your feelings could be torn apart

by something ritual and understated
as friendship between males.
Probably I talked too loud that year

and thought an extra minute
before I crossed my legs; probably
I chose a girl I didn’t care about

and took her everywhere,
knowing I would dump her in the fall
as part of evening the score,

part of practicing the scorn
it was clear I was going to need
to get across this planet

of violent emotional addition
and subtraction. Looking back, I can see
that I came through

in the spastic, fugitive half-alive manner
of accident survivors. Fuck anyone
who says I could have done it

differently. Though now I find myself
returning to the scene
as if the pain I fled

were the only place that I had left to go;
as if my love, whatever kind it was, or is
were still trapped beneath the wreckage

of that year,
and I was one of those angry firemen
having to go back into the burning house,
climbing the ladder

through the heavy soke and acrid smell
of my own feelings
as if they were the only
goddamn thing worth living for.

Note how the covert linking of his experience with the fire becomes overt as the poem moves towards its payoff. Note how he never says whether he had homoerotic feelings for his best friend, but leaves it as a possibility. Note how he gets even more careless about the tercets as they go along, and eventually, at the end, abandons this structure for two quatrains (much as a sonnet abandons its prevailing structure for the final couplet). He is no longer paying attention to his major shaping device, and perhaps he does this to imply that the poem is now entering its most sincere heartfelt climax in which being attentive to the consistent tercet structure would be a wrong move.

His forms of attention and inattention are based on what might be seen as narrative rather than poetic form, and, in truth, the interaction of narrative and larger ontology peculiar to the personal essay or creative non-fiction piece seems applicable here. In moments of anxiety over simply relating events he resorts to analogy, extended metaphor, and the overall distancing agent of philosophy. He ties it all together by linking the disparate narratives of his friend’s rejection of him with the scene of a great accident, and he then makes the rhetorical gambit that he shares, at least vicariously, in the trauma of a survivor of such an accident. From a standpoint of organic form, what is organic to this poem is momentary digression and inattention to strict narrative, introduction of a secondary narrative, and then a bringing together of the two narratives under the larger ontology of catastrophic experience. His hedging is structural as well as emotional. He tells rather than shows his emotions. He does not pay attention to his actual personal emotions except under the guise of this larger disaster. He beats around the bush. Here, we may see aspects of traumatic inattention.

Thus, we can enter any poem using this tool of inattention, and find it useful. It is also useful to understanding group dynamics, especially where the different forms of inattention come into conflict. For example, the inattention of a class to a teacher when a bee enters the room positioned against the inattention of two people in the class who are inattentive to anyone except each other (including the bee) while the friend of the girl, who is secretly in love with her and resents her exclusion (a cock block), might ignore her friends attention for two (communal inattention) and cut them off in mid-flirt to announce the bee, at which point they might freeze her out by giving her a brief look of boredom and disdain. A whole short story could be written about this:

1. Teacher: forty, a little odd and always humorless who demands attention be paid and takes offence at the slightest lack of it.
2. A couple, or future couple falling in love.
3. The best friend of the girl in this situation who is in love with her friend, won’t admit it, not even to herself, but is royally pissed that her friend only pays attention to this boy she has begun to hate.

We could do the story from multiple perspectives, or partial omniscience (in the mind or from the view point of one character). It could be in first or third person. We could play it out like this:

The teacher, Mr. Rimsley is trying to explain the importance of Ancient Rome’s system of roads to the empire. He could have a bad comb over, and, if we were in the head of one of the characters, the character might notice the comb over, and the terrible choice of shirt rather than what Mr. Rimsley is saying. Kids could be yawning, texting. The couple who are falling in love could be bonding, paying attention to no one else, including the poor “best friend” Rhonda(we might tell the story through her point of few). Rhonda decides to send a text message to her friend right there in class to the effect of: “Why don’t you just get a room, for God sake, and stop pretending you’re my friend.” Mr. Rimsley notices her texting, and makes her stand up. He has had enough. He is going to humiliate her by having her read what she just texted. At that moment, a bee flies into the room. The kids do what kids do when bees fly in: use it as an excuse to get out of their seats, disrupt class, etc. Mr. Rimsley says: “Who opened the window?” He is furious. The girl feels saved by the bee, except for one thing: her friend sees she has a text, reads it and, horrors, shows it to her soon to be boyfriend. They quickly glance at Rhonda, a sort of look of benign contempt, and the girl shuts off her cell phone, and puts it away, continuing to talk to the boy, hardly cognizant of the bee. Mr. Rimsley might be expected to get the bee to fly out the window. Instead, he traps it in his hands, not caring if it stings him, crushes it, throw it to the floor, and grinds it under his shoe. If done skillfully, this bee might be the sacrificial substitute for crushing all those disrespectful bastards who make his life a living hell. We can weave all sorts of inattention and implication through this story.

Here are a few ways to explore these ideas more:
1. Write this story out in your own way, using description, setting the scene, etc. Try to get concrete examples of the types of inattention into the story.
2. Write about an experience in your own life in which one of these types of inattention took place.
3. Re-write Hoagland’s poem, or re-line it. Take out parts you don’t think are necessary, or write it from his friend’s point of view.
4. Find a poem you can look at through these kinds of inattention. Use my close reading as a model.

There is no Western tradition. What we call the western tradition is actually the Mediterranean merge tradition–a precarious marriage of eastern and western influences which became the so called “western” tradition by way of the scholastics and, later, the scholars of the enlightenment. So I will be calling western thought “warrior thought.” The truth is that warrior cultures sprang up all over the earth–in Native American and steppe cultures, in just about all places where the horse or the wagon or superior roads allowed mobility. This includes the Christian cultures.The eternal equilibrium of warrior cultures can be distilled down to two terms: Arete (excellence, prowess, bravery, status) and Xenia (hopsitality, honesty in trade, alliances between strangers). Each of these two concepts can be further divided into three categories, two of which are of human agency, and the last of divine.

In terms of Arete:
Lowest form: mere brute strength and force of arms; often categorized by boasting and contests, but bereft of stealth, wisdom, or strategic and tactical ability
Middle form: strength augmented by bravery, gallantry, wisdom, but above all, stealth and craftiness in tactics as well as strategy
Highest form: war glory, the moment when the warrior is Mushin, pure power, beyond all strategy or bravery–the beserker, the actual physical transformations of battle fury into divine power, the appearance and strength of divinity; it is a species of grace, cannot be predicted or earned, and is tied to the possession by a god or the favor and divine afflatus of a God. Atheists might call it mystery or spirit. Jocks refer to it as being “in the zone.” By this form Diomedes routes immortals in the Iliad, even as far as wounding the god of war, Ares, in battle. Odysseus seldom has this version of Arete visited upon him, for he exemplifies the second, middle form, but it is definitely upon him when he slaughters the suitors.

Versions of all three types of Arete are in the Bible:
Lowest form: Saul, many of the judges, Goliath
Middle form: David, most especially Abram and Jacob (who is so much like Odysseus, a giver and taker in pain that he and Odysseus might be based on some proto-Middle Eastern hero of stealth).
Highest form: usually displayed by the Isrealites in communal form such as when they defeat an enemy against overwhelming odds, but also present when Elijah slaughters the prophets of Baal or when Samson brings down the pillars of the temple upon the Philistines.

Only this last form of Arete might be likened to grace. The one on whom it is bestowed stands in for the godhead, the divine. It is God as awe, and might, and fear. It is not as gender bound as the other two and has depicted women in the throes of it as well as men. It is a form of gratis–without needing to be earned, without payment.

Now let’s parse out the three species of Xenia:
Lowest form: social nicety, mere protocol, politeness, may even be feigned to do harm to the visitor or stranger. It is the origin of “all that glitters is not gold.”
Middle form: true hospitality, considered the highest virtue of warrior socieites worldwide–even more important that bravey or prowess. To greet the stranger and show hopsitality, to show the ability to make alliances and avoid unnecessary bloodshed is considered the first sign of civilization. It is the trait Homer attributes to Admetus and to many of his Greek heroes, most especially Odysseus. It is the spiting or mocking of this value that leads to the war, for Alexandros mocks the good hopsitality of Mileneus by stealing his wife, Helen (and his best furniture).
Highest form: to recognize God in the lowly and to serve the king in the beggar, to see what can not be seen with mortal eyes except that the gods or God allows it. For example, when Abraham greets the three strangers at Mamre, when the prophet Hannah proclaims the Christ child, when the dog in the Illiad recognized his master in the beggar, when Admetus is kind to Apollo in the lowliest of forms, when the good thief recognizes Christ on the cross, when Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, when even the stones praise.

The higher the forms of both Arete and Xenia the less they are determined by gender, or species. The one in the highest state of either is incarnate divine–in the grace of the Holy Spirit.

So let us apply this to recent events.

The fate of cultures that prize and emphasize only low rate Arete at the expence of Xenia
Although it is true that in their highest forms Arete and Xenia are not separate, in their lower forms they most certainly are, and Xenia is considered superior. It is better to be civilized and to know how to treat guests, visitors, and the stranger, exchange gifts and welcome than it is to fight well because this gift of Xenia–even in its middling forms–saves the many, costs less lives, and, in the long run, makes strong alliances. As far as Xenia in its middle forms, it is the proof of every great civilization. Without it, the people are looked upon as mere canibals and barbarians–inhuman monsters.

A culture based on Arete (brute force alone) invariably meets with total destruction (Troy had earlier mistreated the god Apollo when he came as a mortal stranger). It is the culture of monsters. So on this first note alone, our brute force is not our strength. Our strength lies in maintaining some form of middle range Arete coupled with middle range Xenia. In so far as 1 percent of the people control all the rest and show no responsibility of mercy toward the 99 percent, we have reached a point in our society where we are monstrous, uncivilized, and prime for destruction. In the animal kingdom, when the alpha is too dominant and brutal, the pack rises up and kills both him and all his progeny. True strength lies not in Arete alone (mere prowess and excellence) but in Xenia.

In the affective brain, caring and play, as well as certain forms of seeking involving caring and play and healthy grieving would fall under the category of Xenia–the cognitive structuring of the affective drives. Seeking as hunting or adventure, rage as in protecting, and lust as in procreating or desire would fall under the category of Arete. The healthy expression of both through the use of wisdom is or should be the desire of any people. When a people are rising, they almost always have middle tier Arete and Xenia. Mere plunderers have only one: brute force. And mere merchants have but the social nicieies of trade and bribery (think of the overly nice Simon Legree from Dickens).

We have reached this point in our civilization, and we will be destoryed if we do not find and maintain a balance between Arete and Xenia. We are, right now, inhabiting the lowest forms of both, and toward the weakest members of our society, we are showing no Xenia at all. Contrary to the Ayn Rand idiots, this is unwise.

The fate of cultures that practice only low rate Xenia
Political correctness, the social niceties and phony tolerance of the choice culture, the elbaborate parties, conspicuous displays of wealth, the vanity and decadence of fops and rich kids, the self conscious fashion obcession with semiotics peculiar to hipster culture…all this is a sign that we are living on the lowest level of Xenia. Correct or appropriate behavior is never a fit subsitute for genuine kindness towards the other.

While we pay lip service to being nice, we are bristling with weapons, enforce our lovely suburbs and gentrified cities with an increasingly brutal police force, jail the poor, persecute the strangers in our midst, and practice every form of politically correct intolerance. We project the shadow of our violence on to the poor and the underglass. We think our good manners, fashionable clothes, and yoga will save us, but it is phatic, and no wonder the world thinks us spoiled and decadent.

Remember: low level Arete is always in bed with low level Xenia. They are one with each other. In the most brutal regimes you will see eleborate shows of “hospitality,” but go beneath the surface and out comes the brute force of military and the law and every kind of bias.

Middle ground Arete and Xenia
At high points in every culture, middle ground Arete (strength coupled with wisdom, shrewdness and strategy) and Xenia (hospitality that is genuine but without too great a show of ostentation, and able to make strong alliances with strangers) are the hallmarks of that culture’s rising fortunes. Often, each culture developes a myth of the highest Arete and Xenia. Even here, Arete, in this highest form serves the highest form of Xenia. Even among the supposedly brutish mythos of Nordic peoples, Balder, the god of hospitality and peace, was eventually to be raised above Odin. Xenia, not Arete, wins Abraham the birth right. Highest Arete is one with highest level Xenia. This is exemplified in such stories as Heracles going down into Hades to retireve the wife of that most hospitable of Greeks, Ademetus. Heracles serves his friend.

The strength, might, and power of God are not separate from his profligate hospitality and mercy to those who are strangers, who are lost, who are pwerless. The one who would see Jesus Christ in the lowest form of men and women is the true Christian for he or she has staked themselves not to earthly or worldly vision but to the divine which insists that the last shall be first, that the stone rejected will become the corner stone. In every respect, the very culture Ayn Rand claimed to be a follower of (she claimed to be a disciple of Aristotle) would reject her love of the “powerful” and the “self-interested” as completely lacking in the grace of middle and high form Xenia. She would be looked upon as a monster.

Nothing in recent blue state or red state behavior, nothing in the heartless dismissal of good works among the Christian corporate right, or the blindness of the elitist left to how much of their “peacefulness” and “smarts” floats on the brute force of armed men shows me my nation is headed in a good direction. We have forgotten that warrior means not war and violence, but the valor, wisdom, and, yes, the great charity of the fully awakened consciousness. We have destroyed the kingdom of the Holy Spirit within us.

This Spirit is given to all sentient life by the Creator, and sometimes even given to non-sentient being (for even the stones may praise). Grace decides. Grace acts. But first we must show we want grace with all our hearts by being both strong and fearless and ferociously kind. We must protect the poor, the old, the weak. We must look after the veteran. We must respect the mentally ill for sometimes speaking, in their pain, the truth of God. A people who can bow to the poor shall rise to the heavens, but a people who kill the poor have killed the Holy Spirit. They will not be forgiven, and when the so called “weak” come to take down the greedy alpha, they will show no mercy. Mercy comes only to those willing to give it. We must pray for our country. We must do penance for how we have treated those who were broken and we must be sober and strong of heart. Every warrior culture carries Arete and Xenia at its core. To lose contact with either and to seek no balance is the way of self destruction.

Great art and a true, living (not institutionalized) culture arise not from a series of snobs and gatekeepers, but from the inner necessity and desire of people to express the 7 kinds of affectual brain: play, courtship, grief, seeking, anger (outrage, scandal, impiety), caring (tenderness, friendship, affection, affinity), and fear. In terms of fear, grief, anger, and courtship, the mode of expression is often highly ceremonial as in the cults of sacrifice or festivity, and may be said to act as a form of catharsis (Aristotle/ Dionysian). This might be likened to a controlled burn. In terms of seeking, care, and play Plato’s concept of being ever nearer to the perfect or archetypal form prevails. In such a case, wit, self-consciousness, parody, pastiche, and intelligence are the order of the day, and this may be seen as Apollonian, but the two forms of affective expression overlap, especially where courtship admits an element of play, and where grief admits an element of stoic acceptance. Language seeks to both hide and express the affective mechanisms, but, in terms of play and seeking, the comedy of manners and rules of engagement are far more toward the hiding end of the spectrum.

Redux sees these expressions of affective brain as the true basis for art beyond the logocentric and power-based dynamics of critics, gatekeepers, and academic institutions. Furthermore, we believe gatekeepers, academics, and critics are incapable of doing anything except impeding the flow of affective brain expression. At one point, such impedance channeled the expressions in more refined and artistic ways, but Redux believes this is no longer the case. With the break down between pop and so called high culture, academia often resembles an opera singer singing “play that funky music white boy.” Entire semesters devoted to applying Agamben to songs by Nirvana seem as absurd and pretentious as those long drawn out rock reviews one used to see during the heyday of gonzo journalism. Of course, this impedance is what passes for taste and “standards.”

Redux believes tastes and standards arise organically from the desires of those to whom expression is necessary (virtually everyone) and, if left the fuck alone, greater and more truthful art would emerge, but the institutions that now control presses, readings, publications, and awards have created a self-perpetuating cycle of corruption. No one may receive money or attention or respect without the mechanisms of the gatekeeper. In retrospect, and in the long run, history often provides a corrective to these assholes, but not often enough. John Clare was moldering in his grave for over 50 years before gatekeepers seeking to find their own scholastic niche decided to dig him up. So, core values:

1. Art is a free for all and should be practiced as such with presence and participation first. Standards and a knowledge of good and bad art will rise organically–without the prompting of enlightened beings. If not, well, a better time will be had by giving up the snob fests.

2. Rather than accepting money from institutions who control the arts, artists should be funding their own work by using the refuse materials of this throw away culture: instead of canvas, discarded wood, pizza boxes, etc.; instead of university lit mags, small, cheap broadsides and chaps that can be sold at readings. Instead of awards, consensus of peers. Instead of agreed upon standards, a continued and ongoing testing of and resistance to all standards. A hatred of the little glossy fucking boxes we call literary magazines. More imagination more oddness, more invention–less “Quality” in the sense of a standard mold set.

3. Writers should buy local–books by local poets, CDs by local musicians–creating art monads–pockets of living culture done in small rather than large frame works. Artists should start their own collective book stores, lending libraries. Painters and musicians ought to be doing quick, easy exhibitions and concerts. I blame artists seeking to be validated. By who? Fuck ‘em.

4. Creative writing teachers ought to be free to teach in a more creative, less institutionalized manner.

5. Self publishing should not be discouraged but accepted as viable. Let’s stop the con. Most presses for poetry are now cooperatives. I would rather create a new chap for every reading rather than have some press say whether I was any good or not. I don’t believe them. Books are published for many reasons other than quality, and some writers are denied publication because they don’t fit a niche. I will never sell one of my official books again.

6. More generosity among artists, more true attempts to support each other locally. I no longer will give my support to institutions that reject me as an artist, but want my money. Fuck them.

Redux is Latin for return, and to be Redux is to believe in the mythos of return within the scope of the materials at hand: repetition, obsessive motion, the turning of wheels (but always with a slightly different wobble), the loss that is in–not of– the loss in things.

There can be no “loss” of materials. All materials are permanent within the laws of transformation of matter into energy and back again, and yet all materiality carries loss within it, is made ontologically relevant, becomes a form of being via the loss that inspirits it–through the stop action of decay, through the incremental, minute changes of a thing as it is exists within the realm of the visible, the auditory, the tactile, the olfactory, and the seeming “stability” of its structures and mechanisms.

Redux advocates the intrinsic need to work with one’s stupidity as well as intelligence when concerning the realm of art–one must be stupid with awe, with wonder, with intent, with bafflement. One must be “Stupere”–knocked out of one’s senses.

All things, especially the smallest details, the fractional and fractal banalities of form must be perceived as a blooming forth of the stupendous, a word directly related to stupidity.

Redux is about being amazed and uncool, a fucking ontological cheerleader, but not in the tawdry sense of positive thinking. Rather, one is cheering on decay as well as health. One is saying yes to the maw of the ugly as well as the beautiful. Paint on boards, and if there are nails in the boards, leave them in. Invite the asymmetrical, not as a binary to the symmetrical, but as a possibility of releasing vital energies.

Redux believes above all in pont-consciousness, the leaping between disparate things, ideas, sensory moments so that new arcs and dynamics of relationship (and disrelationship) may form.

Above all, Redux encourages art dynamics that “almost” cohere–close to unity, but not exactly, a craftiness that just resists craft, a knowing that dissipates.

I grew up in a neighborhood where most of the parents worked in factories or trades. The closest anyone came to a professional occupation was Ann Boyle next door who worked as an executive secretary for Bell telephone and, through the great benefits of that monopoly, was able to retire at age 55. Anne never married, but she had companions and an ample glass of scotch at the ready on the front porch. She lived with her mother and brother, did not have to pay rent, and became rich through stocks. She was my first “student” in so far as I helped her write papers when she decided to return to school and procure a college degree. I can still remember getting slowly sloshed on scotch while helping her structure a ten page paper on Martin Luther King.

Anyway, professionalism which I see as a way of life, almost a religion, never laid a glove on me. Neighborhood aesthetics, especially in that industrial/post-industrial world, were very different. Springsteen, writing of Jungle land, sang: “and the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all/they just stand back and let it all be.” This ain’t exactly true. It is true they don’t write it down, but the poets in “jungle land” are like signifying monkey, or the Irish barroom philosopher, or the folk story teller. They talk shit. They keep things lively on the corner. They are known for being “characters.” They often survived the factories and , earlier, the chain gangs, by being the tricksters–the comics, and poets, and, occasionally, the scapegoats, of the neighborhood. I was one of these people. I was the guy who told whacky stories on the front porches, or on car hoods, or in back yards on my block. I was known for being crazy. I was known for being smart. One of my many knick names was “Wild man Weil.” Another was “Mr. Encyclopedia” A third, due to my always mildly disheveled appearance, was “Scurvy Joe.” I was known as someone who could talk shit. I also played songs and wrote my own. When I was 18, on my birthday cake they wrote: “future songwriter.” This is how art is expressed where I came from:

1. You are one among others, and you assume the role of poet only by their general proclamation–not by awards, not by standards, not by credentials, but by popular acclamation from the people around you.
2. This does not give you special privileges. You serve a valuable role, but, sometimes, you are the big mouth who gets clobbered, or the nut job who is singled out and mocked. This is the double face of the trickster–half god, half animal, and very rarely allowed to be fully human. You are coyote, signifying monkey, the prophets who says the truth, even at the wrong time, the one who does not “fit” perfectly.

You are rewarded in the following ways:

1. People will keep you around even when you are not very good at your job, or very strong, or even when you are a bit of a scoundrel. They will keep you around because you provide a cathartic safety valve to blow off the steam for their frustrations, their sufferings, and their sense of drudgery. You make life a little more than it is in opposition to those forces which make life far less than what it should be.
2. You are holy. You are marked with a sign. You are holy in the sense that you are ground set apart–again, not by “achievements” (the way of the professional and the middle class) but by your role in the life of your community. The hero leaves the village to bring back fire. Unlike the hero, the neighborhood poet never leaves. You are the trespass that stays behind, that affirms but also confronts the community by being an “affront,” a difference within it, an aporia within it. To an industrial and post-industrial rust belt city, this character is on every loading dock, in every barroom, on the street corner. He or she keeps things lively and also keeps things real, and this bears absolutely no relationship to the tenets of professional art or poetry–and that includes slam. Slam will never take the place of the trickster because it has already become too coded, too fixed, and too much a part of the professional commodity machine. It is as immured in the slick and the packaged as academic work. It will never speak for those who have no real voice. It will never be the barbaric yawp. It has destroyed spoken word which had such promise, but all that has promise is constantly destroyed that it might be born again.

And so, my final, and truest distinction between the aesthetics of neighborhood and those of the professional: the professional is incapable of sacrifice in the sense of dying and rising from the dead. He does not share in mythos. His sense of success is not about glory after death; it is also not about being “present” to his community. It is about prosperity and achievement now. All is meant to be measured towards a sort of prosperity. The “Event” of death, and, more so, the event of resurrection are to be avoided at all costs. These are tacky to the professional. The professional is post-mythos, post-seasonal. It can never die and it can never be re-born. It is established. It has a process. That process recognizes “excellence” and achievement in an utterly different way. There are gatekeepers and they decide who is and who is not “good enough.” They act as a priesthood. They are the intermediaries between the professional poet and his
professional audience–most of whom, if not all of whom are fellow practitioners. There is no life here, but there is process. Occasionally, this process takes on the intimacy of the neighborhood and a certain true communitas is possible. This is rare. It is even frowned upon. To “profess” in the ancient sense was to be one who was paid for his rhetoric–his professing. He evolved from the neighborhood poet and rhetorician, but, with the rise of printing, rhetoric and form were downplayed and speechifying became frowned upon.

I am a speechifying, rhetorical, neighborhood poet. I am not a professional. Professionalism seems morally wrong to me–spiritually sinful, not because I think professionals are wrong, or sinful, but because I believe I was called to bear witness to something other than professionalism. This witness may now be only to some extinct community of factory workers and the children of factory workers, but I don’t think so. I believe I served this function for my students. I also served it for my factory workers. I cannot serve this function in the realm of professional poetry because it is exactly this function they detest. Professionalism is based on a standard, on a decorum, on a series of measures. It is based on “Schools” and patterns of networking and schmoozing. It is Ivan Ilyich over and over again. It is making me sick. It is killing my soul. I am very grateful for a job. I am grateful to support myself, but I wish it did not come at the price of being who I am. It is very different than the raucous form of being that made me love poetry. I never confined poetry to poems. Poesis exists in how you talk, how you move, what you say when you teach. My whole being was poesis, but in both the professional academic realm, and the faux- populist realm of slam, I am not allowed to exist. In these realms, the
poets have no season, no earth, no wind, no element. When these things appear, and threaten to make a perhaps event (in the sense Derrida used “perhaps” and “event”) this perhaps and this event are immediately framed in such a way as to convert them to the purpose and use of the very professionalism to which they attempted to act as exception.

Post-industrial poesis, neighborhood aesthetics

Poetry is real value labor. It does not see itself as set apart from the life and work of the community from which it arises. The poet has other jobs, most of which he usually performs indifferently because his or her true job is to express and bear witness to the community in which he or she suffers and lives.

This real value labor does not accept perceived value aesthetics. There are no gate keepers deciding who and who is not worthwhile. The poet of the neighborhood rises from the open reading. If he or she is singled out, he or she is singled out not by experts, but by those among whom they have lived. It is a word of mouth kind of thing.. It is what is sought in the midst of seasons and in the weather and the truly local–not by national presses, or awards, or credentials, but by a local sense of that poet’s inner necessity. That poet was created by his or her community. He or she can only be destroyed by that community, and he or she can only live if he or she remains in contact with the principle of that locality, that membrane of being.. This locality is rooted in purpose–in, as I said, real value labor. As such it is far more malleable, complex, and shifting than the typical definitions of poetry. It may be the right word at the right time in a crisis. It may be the perfectly apt joke, the comeback, the story told at the right time to the right person. Unlike poetry proper, it is far more situational. It fits the occasion of its utterance, but remains pure in a sense by “talking shit”–talking and speechifying, and inventing verbal worlds for the sheer hell of it, beyond the immediate purpose. It is born of purpose, but deviant from purpose in so far as it seeks life, joy, energy beyond the merely functional. It tends to be flamboyant and hyperbolic rather than understated. It tends to be rhetorical and mythic rather than factually informative and understated. It tends toward the ecstatic, the brutal, the ferocious, the beautiful, the sentimental. It is more invested in brio than in nuance. It does not trust the flawless because its chief moral purpose is to expose the falsely perfect.

This is the closest I can come to explaining the world I grew up in. I do not flourish on the professional poetry scene.. I can’t get by on my “talk” because only Irishmen from Ireland are allowed by professionals to get away with that, and even then, the Irish poets they admire are most often somber. What can I say? I feel lost. To exist in the kudos section of the universe is, for me, a construct of hell. There are no street corners, no barber shops, no factories, no true places to bear witness. The professional has triumphed. God fucking help us.

Photo Credit: Marco Muñoz

I have found that all work, including the so called professional and creative work of teaching at a university, boils down to certain false indicators which we must endure. In point of fact, the factory may be a little more accurate: you can’t fake a spec. Doing a plate within two tenths of a thousandth run out over eight feet of stainless steel edge cannot be faked. It’s a spec. It is not wholly accurate but it’s within a range of accuracy far more precise than any sort of academic measure. But even with the finest technology, there is no such thing as zero tolerance. There is ever closer proximity to zero run out, but no complete absence of deviation. All measurement is approximate. As my teacher, the great tool maker, Joe Pilot, told me, “It’s just as easy to say everything is wrong as it is to say nothing is perfect. Error is the only reality we know, and the one thing we are least likely to forgive or admit.”

When universities only brag about their award winning students, they show themselves to be the same sort of collective idiot who preferred the operas of Meyerbeer over Wagner, or Rosini over Mozart. The measure of greatness is awards. By this measure, Pearl Buck was a far greater writer than Eudora Welty, and equal to Faulkner because, hey, she won the Nobel prize. The measurement of greatness is: 1. Awards 2. The word of mouth of one’s peers. 3. Posterity and duration. If one wins big enough awards, one’s peers side whisper that one has have gone down the crapper (awards seem to raise envy and lower estimates of talent). If one wins no awards, one is consigned to career hell. If one is still known after death, so what? You’re dead. I don’t think Mozart enjoyed his fame after death. Wagner was lucky enough to be embraced in his later life, but for a good 20 years, he was in the shadow of Meyerbeer who was considered Europe’s top opera composer. Wagner spent most of his time running from his creditors (literally). In a writing world controlled by academics, only awards matter, because it is the pathology of measurement known since the first grade. After all, these are A student types. I would define an A student as fitting the standard idea of a good mold almost perfectly. Originality, true originality, is not what A students are about. A students uphold the standard. In short, when university people say they want great writers, they are lying. What they want are writers who fit the mean of the highest standard mold.

Greatness is a an error that becomes the new standard. As my teacher, Joe Pilot told me, “you can’t see anything new that comes down the pike because your eyes have no frame of reference for it. You can only see it when it first starts to get turned into a standard mold, when its newness has already begun to wear off. You can only see it when it resembles something you have already seen. A truly original piece has got to resemble something in the past, or people can’t see it. The Greeks accidently invented the steam engine in 400 BC, but had no frame of reference for it, made a couple toys powered by it, and then forgot it. We didn’t see a steam engine again for over a thousand years–when the age of mechanics and Newton made that kind of thing imaginable. All genius, all originality is an error, kid. The world does not progress by excellence or correctness. An error that has an advantage to it is how the world goes forward. An error with an advantage, a fortunate sin, is how we always get to the next base. We move by a series of errors. We call them truth, or perfection after the fact. We are full of shit. It’s like a guy who trips on a stair, but is smart in his error, and turns it into a new dance step.”
I made an argument against award pathology. I brought up students who were not award winners, but who were making a true living in the arts (or almost a living) ten years after they were my students. I brought up those who are doing excellent work, who may not be winning the big prizes. I said a university must not base its reputation on award winners alone. It ought to rest more importantly on building a population of students and alumni who have the ability to see what is not readily visible, and who can create a milieu in which true greatness is likely to transpire–the holy accident which confounds all professional expectation because it is, after all, outside the schema of awards.

Universities should serve the fortunate accident, the judicious error, the mutation. They should do this by teaching students how to achieve the standard without believing it is a true measure. They should instigate and agitate for the “perhaps.” Creativity is founded on the perhaps. Perhaps this pratfall is not a stumbling, but a new form of ballet. Let us see what we can do. It is impossible to explain this to functionaries. For them the proof is always in the pudding. They never think that the pudding was some sort of deviation from the norm that the cook turned into a favorite dish.

In my last post, I modeled a way of holding a conversation with a text. I call this “pont-consciousness.” Pont means bridge in Latin. It is the genesis both of pontiff and pontificate. Used as a verb we make a bridge between disparate texts or things, trusting that the bridge may then be shorn up with the necessary research and attention to the main text. Universities always want you to use the latest research on a topic, just as lawyers site the latest precedents to make a case. If you’re bibliography does not cite anything but old books, old papers or essays, your grade will suffer. This is the myth of “progress” rearing its ugly head. It makes total sense in terms of science and historical research where empirical data builds on incremental discovery and findings, but it is falsely applied to literary theory since, here, the new is not necessarily empirical, but conjectural, and, very often, a creature of fashion rather than of “truth.” To an extent, “truth” is always a slave to the prevailing fashion, and god help you if you study Shakespeare outside the present fashion of gender studies or post-structuralism. All of this “rigor” and insistence on the new is the bias of false scientific positivism. Nothing new in this sense is necessarily “progress,” but rather a recapitulation or new wrinkle in the  basic mechanisms underlying fashion and its dynamic, but you must live in this world. You must comply. You must cite the paper written yesterday and ignore the excellent article from 100 years ago.  Of course, this system senses its own stupidity, and so it concocts canonical critical to go with the canon of literature.

In recent times theory has become a competing canon, with the theory representing a sort of Jazz fake book upon which the critics blow their changes. Often, these “changes” bear little or no reference to the  literary text at hand. Personally, I am not an enemy of this state of affairs. In the hands of a wildly creative critic, we get what amounts to a complimentary music side by side with the cannon. There is much to be said for creative criticism, and we could even make a case that Derrida and other famous literary critics of the last fifty years have composed some of the chief tunes of the age–not novels, not poems, not plays, but their own hybrid of speculative philosophy, of conjectural poetry, with its own rhetoric, style, and characters.

But in this post, I am going to be old fashioned: I am going to apply some of the stuff I gleaned from reading four paragraphs of Hannah Arendt’s Vita Activa to a poem for which what Arendt  is saying proves fruitful: Blake’s  “A Poison Tree.” So first, the poem:

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

The genius of Blake is his playing out the location of private and public human activity to show their psychological truth and depth. Arendt says goodness must be hidden in order to remain goodness. Made public, it loses its force. It may remain useful as good works, but it has entered the realm of the public and takes on the diminished life of mere appearance, of “goodly seeming.”

Some of this is a very close cousin to Plato’s archetypes and sense of the pure. In another great poet, we see this played out as “unheard melodies are sweetest / pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.” The “pure” is not visible or audible, or known to the senses. Made visible, it loses its essence and becomes substantive. Essence can essential substance, and substance may substantiate essence but always at the cost of the pure realm of each. No man may see the face of God and live because the face of God is degraded by being seen, and man is lifted above his mortal life in its presence. Augustine, versed in Neo-Platonism, takes this further, expanding on Paul’s Romans. God sees only God. Insofar as a man is in a state of grace, God does not see his personality, but his soul which is made in the image and likeness of God. The body conformed to the soul, purified of sin also rises, but must be dead to all fleshly desires. It must fall down on the body of the crucified Christ, and rise up with the risen body of the same. It is, as Paul called it, a “spiritualized body.” God does not see sin because sin is naught–the nothing. When Jesus Christ is covered in sin on the cross, God turns his face from him. Christ becomes sin itself. Though Christ never commits a sinful act, he becomes the scene of sin on which the force of salvation through sacrifice and resurrection are played out (read Issiah 53). In order for God’s face to exist it must be “hidden”–implied only through grace and virtue. It is degraded by entering the realm of public or visible activity.

Arbitrary power may be shown publicly in the world only as ceremony, ritual, seeming justice, and seeming mercy. It must never appear arbitrary or it begins to lose its identity. It must remain visible only through signs of “order.” Blake is saying that wrath made public is the overt action of a covert intimacy. Making his wrath known to his friend, the narrator dissipates its force and ends it in the intimacy of renewed friendship. Hiding his wrath from his foe, the wrath becomes generative. It becomes a god, a force around which and from which all else proceeds. In the public sphere, in the world of appearance, this wrath is a beautiful tree and a great apple. The foe, being truly a foe, seeks to usurp this apple, and to make it his own. Falling for the bait of “goodly seeming,” he is poisoned and dies. In secret, the narrator has cultivated this wrath, watered it with his tears and fears, sunned it with his soft and pleasant wiles. He has hidden it under the terministic screen of “goodness.”

We can apply this to how normative systems subsume the energies of counter-normative systems, and “poison” them with their “goodly seeming.” When a system cannot destroy its counter-statements, it seeks to incorporate them, visibly or not. The counter first wears the blatant uniform of its “difference.” In the gay counterculture we find leather, fetish, send-ups and outlandish parodies of the straight culture. At the same time, those still “in the closet” wore the mask of the straight. When gay culture begins to win normative status and becomes “just folks,” it is depicted in movies as wearing Bill Cosby sweaters, attending the PTA, taking on all the concerns of the “straight culture.” At the same time, formerly gay semiotic indicators enter the realm of the straight.

Beyond the counter-normative and the normative, there is the pre-normative and the post-normative. Instability might be the only constant, but beneath it all lies the power of the arbitrary. This is what counter-cultural movements and all political revolutions risk: by over throwing the seeming “power” that oppresses them, are they merely eating from the poisoned tree of goodly seeming? And in relation to the “first,” the initial power of the arbitrary, can any true change be said to have taken place?

A further point: Arendt insists that the goodness must be hidden not only from the world, but from the one who enacts it. Quoting Christ: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” If wrath is one of the activities that must be hidden in order to truly exist in its fullest, most pure sense, then it is even more potent and alive when it is hidden from the wrathful (passive aggression). Much neutral speech, politeness, and decorum hides tremendous violence. One can say that true wrath always needs a goodly seeming apple to be effective. The terministic screen of a passive-aggressive may be martyrdom and victimage (think of the mother in The Sopranos). “Who me? Mad? Of course I’m not mad. Why should I be mad?” But, in this poem, the narrator is aware that he has harbored a grudge and allowed his wrath to grow. He is deliberate, intentional. He lures his foe. In this case, the wrath remains covert, but not to the one who feels it. His outward appearance, his “soft wiles” draw the foe in. This apple is his “seeming” power, and his foe, being a true foe, seeks to steal it, again under the veil of darkness. The narrator and his foe are one. For true intimacy there must be not union but communion. The friend is “other,” but the foe may be seen as a projection of the self. The self, outside true relationship, splits off, and becomes a false “other” to its own tendencies. Thus a system in order to hide its worst tendencies must project them onto an “other.” This is the intimacy of opposition.

At this point I wonder what is hidden from the narrator but not the poet: the foe is the narrator, and the narrator is the foe. They are split off aspects of each other. They are one in their wrath. No relationship is possible, only union, and union is degraded to the dyslogistic register of murder. The union of substance and essence is the death of both substance and essence. The murdered and the murderer share the scene of the crime. They inhabit the same scene. When the murderer leaves the scene of the crime, he leaves a part of himself there in the defining act of his being. Here is the question: how often do we, in seeking the power denied us, the “goodly seeming” denied us, succeed only in eating from its poisoned tree?

Here’s a few creative things you can try to experiment with these ideas.

1. Write your own version of “A Poison Tree,” of feigning friendship for someone you can’t stand. This can either be creative non-fiction, a story, or a poem.

2. Read up on the psychological concept of passive-aggression and transference. Write a poem, story, or creative non-fiction piece in which these concepts are the overall theme, but are not mentioned overtly.

I was sitting on the throne a few minutes ago, reading Hannah Arendt’s Vita Activa, specifically the part called “The Location of Human Activities” and, as I was reading, I realized no one suggests to students how to converse with a book while they are reading it. We “receive” the information, highlight what we think is important (which I suppose is analogous to culling the herd) and re-read what we do not understand. But there is another way to read a book, and that is by allowing other texts we have read to intrude, to interrupt the text at hand, to gather the force of our past readings, and to hold a conversation with the work before us. This is somewhat how Coleridge read, his mind leaping between texts, and thoughts, and contexts–reading as a sort of extroverted comedy of manners.

I have not read Hannah Arendt in years, and I can admit that I am most familiar with what I’ll call her “buzz” concepts: The banality of evil, and the subject of labor and action. So I did what I always do when reading a non-narrative: I opened the book at random, in media res, and trusted in the gods of chance. This is what I first read:

although the distinction between private and public coincides with the opposition of necessity and freedom, of futility and permanence, and, finally, of shame and honor, it is by no means true that only the necessary, the futile, and the shameful have their proper place in the private realm.

So I’m looking that over and I think Kenneth Burke’s scene/act ratio, the “private realm” as a “scene” with certain actions both moral and immoral, or good and evil ,appropriate to it. I write down Google Kenneth Burke’s “Scene/act ratio.” But then another thing strikes me: “necessity and freedom, futility and honor” are not exactly perfect fits where opposites are concerned. Something may be “futile,” yet “permanent.” A better oppositional pairing would be permanence and change (or flux), which is the title of a book by Kenneth Burke. But Burke’s book is not on my mind. I wonder if in the original German (I think Arendt wrote this in German) these terms were in a more standard sense oppositional (binary, dualistic, take your pick). What is the antonym for permanence in German, and what is the antonym for futility? (Look them up, I think.) If she wrote this in English, then perhaps she has a reason for not using perfectly oppositional terms. Still, they seem to be structured for opposition, with freedom, permanence, and honor wearing the white hats, and necessity, futility, and shame wearing the black. We shall see, I think.

Finally, she claims that it is by no means true that only the necessary, the futile and the shameful (those banditos) have their place in the private realm. So I continue to see if she adds something:

The most elementary meaning of the two realms indicates that there are things that need to be hidden and others that need to be displayed publicly of they are to exist at all.” So my mind leaps to the age old adage/question: “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

Somehow this seems relevant to me. But she is saying something different. Because “if they are to exist at all” is tagged onto the end of the sentence, does it refer only to “things that need to be displayed,” or to both things that need to be displayed and to things that need to be hidden? If she includes both, then she is saying something strange and provocative: “Some things must be hidden in order to exist.” I think “latent,” “percipient as possible correlations of things that exist as hidden, but they are not things so much as pure abstractions of things to be, or things not yet come to light.” I think “quintessential”–all that cannot be seen, and exists, not “in spite of” but because of it being hidden. My brain is starting to race, and I leap to Kant who said that moral actions done out of fear of punishment or public censure were not as moral as moral acts done out of the motivation to do good. Of course, we cannot see a person’s “motivation” except through clues, through implications. A man giving a thousand dollars to a beggar and a man giving a dime are not showing their motivation. The one giving a thousand might be doing it to show off, while the one giving a dime might be poor and unable to give more, but he is doing it out of the bottom of his heart (e.g., the widow’s mite; actually Christ never speaks of the widow’s motivation for giving all she had to live on. She may have done it out of fear of looking cheap. She may have done it hoping to purge herself of guilt. Who knows? We only know she gave all she had to live on.)

So I can’t remember where Kant speaks of this, and before I am even done with the first paragraph, I have Burke, the German language, dialectical opposition, an age old adage in the form of a question, the parable of the widow’s mite, and Immanuel Kant all joining me in the bathroom! It’s getting crowded here.

Universities will tell you not to leap like that. It’s unsystematic. It leads to “error.” It’s digression from the task at hand. Stay focused! We are taught to see the text before us as a singular performance, and to watch it accordingly, trying to understand its meaning and actions, and highlighting what we think is “important.” This is not how Midrash or Biblical commentaries work, and it is not how the human mind truly learns. To reduce learning to uber-focus is to go directly against the grain of pontification (building a pont, a bridge between disparate thoughts, feelings and actions). The brain limited to a single focus can become narrow in either the best or worst sense. Best sense: it is sharp and can cut through the text and leave all the most important points on the table while the other material (everything in the universe, including the parts of the text that are not highlighted) on the floor.

For someone who has a methodical type of mind and limited frame of reference, this may prove the best method. It is the best method for scholarship, but not always the best for theory. They are different. Scholars must plod. Theorists must leap. Unfortunately, most schools of higher learning take a dim view of leaping. They may even punish it and say, Kant, Jesus, Burke, old adages, the widows mite are all beside the point. Stick to the point!

But points themselves are abstractions. What is the point of sticking to the point? It is a good thing for a scholar or an accountant not to be creative. The dyslogistic term for creative is nonsense and bullshit. But I am not afraid of looking foolish. After all, I am reading and thinking all this on the toilet. Am I devoid of system? Not at all, but my system of active, leaping reading is against the grain of academic learning. I can do it privately, in the silence of my mind, but God forbid I should post it on Facebook. So, I have not yet gotten through the first paragraph and I have the following list:

– Google Burke’s scene act ration.
– Google German words.
– Consider Kant on morality and motivation.
– Consider the widows mite as an act of public charity whose motivation is hidden, and can only exist if it is hidden.
– Wait for Hannah to say what may be added to necessity, futility and shame in the private realm.

Well, Hannah never tells us what may be added. At least not immediately. She goes right back to mentioning the two realms of private and public. Her main focus is location, not what might be added, but I’m a little pissed off at her. She is teasing me. Get to the point Hannah! What can be added? What can be added? I read on:

If we look at these things, regardless of where we find them in any given civilization, we shall see that each human activity points to its proper location in the world.

That’s not an easy sentence. First off, what are “these things” we are looking at? The realm of private and public? If so, then she is saying that “regardless of where we may find them in civilization” ( no matter where they are), we shall see that each human activity points its proper location in the world. So let’s assume “these things” means private and public realms. I place that where “these things” are:

If we look at the private and public realms, regardless of where we find them in any given civilization, we shall see that each human activity points to its proper location in the world.

Is each human activity to be understood as a subset of public and private realms, as an “Act” in the scene of the public and private? But if it doesn’t matter where they are in a given civilization, then how the hell can their activities point out their proper location in the world? Well, that’s tough. I like to wrestle. I’m sweating on the throne. Wrestling with half-said things that only get expanded on a hundred pages later is half the fun of theory and philosophy. A philosophy that has no loose ends allows no room for further thought. It is, itself, a closed system.

But I am a little angry here. Damn it, Hannah, are you saying that we do not know the realms of private and public except by their activities? Are you saying that only then do we know their proper location? If so, so be it. I don’t know. The jury is out. Now here I am at a loss. She is either saying that, or she has just transformed “realms” (scenes) of public and private into action/activities of public and private. That makes sense. The words scene and act are meant to be confused (look at drama). There are places where action becomes scenic (as in making the scene), and there are actions which embody certain “Scenes.” Of all the odd thoughts that come into my mind at this moment I remember a story by John Updike “A&P” in which two girls walk in from the beach, in bikinis, to buy, if I remember correctly, a can of sardines. On the beach, their wardrobe is “appropriate,” but, in the glaring light of the A&P they create a stir. So what is inappropriate? Their action? Or the scene of their action. Or are they a scene? (Think of the cliché “making a scene”). I file this odd thought away. It is tied in to attitude to a scene/act, and how one perceives a scene and the actions appropriate to it. Bikini on a beach? Appropriate. Bikini under the glaring light of a supermarket in the early sixties? Public lewdness. I think that when I bring Hannah Arndt to one of the groups in my class, I will have them read the Updike story and relate it to “the location of human activities.” So I read on:

This is true for the chief activities of the Vita Activa (Active life), labor, work, and action; but there is one, admittedly extreme, example of this phenomenon, whose advantage for illustration is that it played a considerable role in political theory.

We have reached the end of the first paragraph. Now I am waiting for two things: 1. What is added to necessity, futility, and shame? 2. What is this one example that plays a considerable role in political theory? Well, actually, I am waiting for a third: what are those things which must be hidden in order to exist?

Goodness in an absolute sense is what Hannah leads the next paragraph off with, as distinguished from the “good-for” or the “excellent” in Greek and Roman Antiquity. She says goodness in this sense became known only with the rise of Christianity. Oh my God, my digressions were intuitions. I trusted my meandering and look! I might be on to something! Is goodness the thing added to the private realm in addition to necessity, futility, and shame? I read further, and yes! So Hannah is not merely making oppositional pairs. She goes on to say that the Christian idea of goodness in an absolute sense survived the expected “last days,” the “eschatological expectations” of the coming end times. It survived the Roman empire, and the “other worldliness” on which it is based had another root (beyond waiting for the end times) perhaps more intimately related to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. She writes in the third paragraph:

The one activity taught by Jesus in word and deed is the activity of goodness, and goodness obviously harbors a tendency to hide from being seen or heard.

So necessity, futility, shame, and goodness! These things exist only by being hidden from public view. That seems to be the gist. I have part of my questions answered. She continues:

Christian hostility toward the public realm, the tendency at least of early Christians to lead a life as far removed from the public realm as possible, can also be understood as a self-evident consequence of devotion to good works, independent of all beliefs and expectations. For it is manifest that the moment a good work becomes known and public, it loses its specific character of goodness, of being done for nothing but goodness sake [I think Gratis, grace, for good alone]. When goodness appears openly, it is no longer goodness, though it may still be useful [Kant’s use criteria and distinction between moral and truly moral] as organized charity or an act of solidarity. [Because I have spent my life reading the Gospels I think “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”].

She continues:

Therefore: “take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them.” Goodness can exist only when it is not perceived, not even by its author; whoever sees himself performing a good work is no longer good, but at best a useful member of society or a dutiful member of a church. Therefore: “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand is doeth.”

Bingo! I have let my mind digress to other texts while I read. I have read closely, but I have also read intuitively and through a series of digressions–of Midrash and commentary. This has lead me to anticipate Arendt’s moves before they appear on the page. It looks like magic, but it isn’t.

So here’s my break down:
– Scholarship: incremental and focused learning.
– Theory: Learning how to leap and conjecture, to be creative and risk taking.
– Pont–consciousness, the consciousness that creates bridges between disparate texts, and thereby mitigates the worst dangers of leaping, and circumvents the worst sort of incremental narrowness. It’s a hybrid of scholarship and theory.

Of course, I had read some Kant, and the story “A&P” (which I am sure Hannah will somehow make relevant at some point). I have read Burke extensively. I have not read much Kant, or much Arendt, but enough to make leaps. I have read the Bible all my life, probably the whole of it a hundred times.

But there are still some loose ends here: how can goodness be included with necessity, futility, and shame? Isn’t that odd? Arendt answers that very question in the next paragraph:

It may be this curious negative quality of goodness, the lack of out-ward phenomenal manifestation, that makes Jesus of Nazareth’s appearance in history such a profoundly paradoxical event; it certainly seems to be the reason why he thought and taught no man can be good… the same conviction finds its expression in the Talmudic story of the thirty-six righteous men, for the sake of whom God saves the world and who are also known to nobody, least of all to themselves. We are reminded of Socrates’ great insight that no man can be wise, out of which love for wisdom, or philo-sophy, was born; the whole life story of Jesus seems to testify how love for goodness arises out of the insight that no man can be good.

Before I read these third and fourth paragraphs I was ready to clobber Hannah Arndt for saying “goodness” was at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. I was going to argue that the “love of goodness” and the impossibility of goodness save through God is at the heart of his teaching. Hannah made this unnecessary.

The point of all this is to teach you an alternative way to read texts. You may say: “but Joe, I don’t know the books you do… I lack the reading to do what you do.” But there are the texts of your own life experience, of television shows, of entertainments, from which you can meet the text before you. In point of fact, we all do this. We bring whole, often conflicting worlds to a text. This is my point: trust your intuition. Do not consider your digressions unimportant. Note them, follow them up. I now could take these three paragraphs and make a reading list:

– Kant’s philosophy of morals
– Scene/act ratio in Burke, and its relation to both the story of “A&P” and the narrator’s own hidden motives, and his own hidden good that is not recognized as good, or ceases to be good the moment he becomes righteous about it.
– The relation of goodness to necessity, futility and shame in terms of the saintly practices of mortification, repentance, fasting, and persecution (St. John of the Cross).

Is Arendt right that goodness ceases to be goodness once it is public? If so, is it because its public expression then obscures its hidden motives? What about the public works and charities of churches and universities. By this schema of goodness as a hidden act, must all such public work be perceived as being suspect? What is the “good” in public works? (read The Prince, especially the part on public good works). Arendt continues to say that both wisdom and goodness cancel themselves out the moment they are aware of themselves as wisdom or goodness. What does that say about public institutions of learning or religion? Consider the word “toward” in relation to not being good or wise, but Loving and moving toward the good and wise.

I could go on. Knowing me, I will go on. This is how I read. It is always how I read. It is an alternative to the usual style of study. If I teach this work of Arendt, I will break a group of six into readings of Burke, Kant, the Gospel, the writings of St. John of The Cross, The Prince, and the story “A&P.” They will have Arendt’s work in common, but they will each read one of these separate works and then they will relate them to Arendt’s “the Location of Human Activities.” I will leave it open to them whether or not they wish to read the whole of the Vita Activa. If they do, Emma Goldman, Simone Weil’s ideas of necessity and physical labor can all be brought in. I now have a whole world of possibility out of three paragraphs, rather than reading an entire text and having no possibilities at all.

Possible papers:
– Kenneth Burke’s scene/act ratio in relation to Updike’s story “A&P” (you can throw Kant in there, too).
– Location in Hannah Arndt’s Vita Activa and how it might relate to the old saying in real estate : “Location, location, location.” (make a bridge between the tenets of real estate and its selling tactics and that of philosophy—especially Hannah Arendt).
– A study of A Doll’s House by Ibsen in relation to what Hannah Arendt says about goodness being impossible once it is a public act (the relationship between public “goodness” and keeping up appearances).
– A paper in which a poem is analyzed for its private thread of goodness.

This is one way of reading different than the usual methods. I went to the bathroom and came out with part of my course. I am often accused of lacking structure, but very complex or intuitive structures can appear to be unstructured. Chaos appears to be unstructured and yet chaotic form is only a more complex structure. It is randomness that is unstructured–not chaos. Tell me if you think what I have done here is closer to randomness or to the more complex structures of chaos? I swear that I did not read ahead. Intuition is not magic, but rather quick pattern recognition informed by educated hunches that refer back to other moments, other times. It is the ability we have to somehow know the whole or its possibility through a single piece. Intuition is not a rational function, yet it is at the heart of all scientific as well as literary creativity.

Photo by Marco Muñoz.

I often call myself a Catholic poet. I was raised Irish Catholic working class in a mixed neighborhood where almost everybody was Catholic, including the African American families who came from the Bayou. Henry Rountree was Catholic. The Sampsons were Catholic. I didn’t know anything else except for Jewish people who I liked because, like us, they walked to church. A child gets some strange notions–at least I had some strange notions. I thought the best job you could have was as a garbage man because it gave you muscles and you could sing and throw cans around while you followed a truck. As a little kid I would follow the garbage men and sing with them. They tolerated me. Occasionally, they even let me “help” them throw a can or two into the maw of the truck.

There was still a rag man in those days, a grumpy old guy in a horse drawn buggy who would come down the street crying: “Rags! Rags!” His horse would shit all the way down the street, and the garbage men had their own way of saying “Shit” which I emulated. At six o’clock at night the Angelus bells would ring from all the churches of Elizabeth. I would stop whatever I was doing and listen. Sometimes the bells would ring through my belly. Sometimes, the moon was caught in the branches of the silver maple outside our house. The first star rose. In winter, the starlings would make little fart noises and wolf whistles as they perched in the trees and on the telephone wires. Somehow this all seemed tied to God for me, and I would get strange feelings of ecstasy–as if I were at the center of something swirling around and around in the eye of God. I would spin until I was too dizzy to keep standing–fall under the trees under the telephone wires, under the starlings with their fart noises, my eyes on the moon and my belly full of bells.

Years later, when I read William Carlos Willliams’ “The Catholic Bells” I was impressed that this far from Catholic man had it down pat–the essential brokenness of the world which was holy–not the pontificating, perfect, morality of doctrine, but the holiness of the imperfect yet ever swirling consciousness of God in the parrot jealous of the new baby, and the young lame man going to mass, and the bells calling forth the whole life of the city. This was the risen Lord, and every day in this context was the rising from the dead. But it was not victory, anymore than it was defeat. It was something beyond those two whores–something that cheated them both–a life that could not pinned down to the tawdry forms of the conditional. I never laughed at old ladies who kept funeral cards in their pocket books. I never laughed at their statues of the Virgin or thought them close minded or naive, though they were often close minded and naive. They were many other things. They raised me. They gave me gum. They called out my name in the streets at dusk. They had suffered all sorts of losses they seldom mentioned. Their hands were always doing. When I received the Eucharist I thought of them–all who did not count in the so called “important” scheme of things. I never liked priests. I was not raised to worship priests. I respected them, but kept my distance. Priests were like those rare and odd great aunts who came into your life once in a blue moon and, if you were nice, they gave you a piece of hard candy.

My Catholicism did not center around priesthood. My faith centered around a very pagan concept of seasons and liturgical movements around the year. During Lent, the statues were covered in purple. I wanted the priests to mark me deep with the sign of my mortality–the ashes. I liked Father Furlong because he’d press the ashes deep into your skull. He never let you go out of the Ash Wednesday service without looking like you’d been working in the coal mines. I liked the High Masses because I was vain and had a beautiful boy’s soprano and I sounded wonderful when I’d sing: “Sprinkle me, Oh Lord with your sign, wash me and I shall be purer than snow.”

Catholic to me did not mean priests: it meant the old ladies who went to six o’clock mass every morning to pray for their dead. It meant my brain damaged brother Peter who I was taught was not culpable for any sin and was therefore a saint. I was taught that my brother’s broken body, his paralyzed body, his inability to speak, his brain damage was a sign of holiness. I was taught to value what the world believes is worthless. I still believe that–and not out of any sentimental distance from the broken. I have experienced the kind of poverty and failure many Americans never face. I do not like failure or sadness or suffering. I do my best not to contribute to them, but I also do not feel an aversion to these blights because something in my soul, something in the deepest part of my being is awakened to these things as signs, as more than what the world would call social ills or tragedies, or failures. To me the only true failure, and it is an aesthetic failure more than a moral failure, is to be blind to the beauty that lies embedded in the ferocity, and merciless vitality of life itself–the risen Lord in the daily and lowly and broken sprawl of things.

I am a Catholic poet because I embrace this world of the broken as a series of signs. These signs deconstruct what the world calls “happiness” or the good life. These signs are the folly of joy, a far greater aesthetic–one which will always outlast our utopias and conditional forms of perfection. I believe in Eucharistic reality–in the bread that is broken and from which grace is made possible.

This aesthetic of the Eucharist informs most of my poems. It makes me out of step with much contemporary writing. I use the tropes of post modernism, and even surrealism and dada when I feel I need them for spice, but I see them as being dangerously close to the heartlessness of rich Republicans. From the standpoint of my upbringing, a conservative Republican and new lifestyle leftist looks pretty much about the same. Neither gets the old ladies at six o’clock mass. Neither understands the baffling endurance of the poor. Neither understands the lowliness of things that go beyond the conditions of failure and success. The Republicans manipulate these old ladies (and very nicely) to bad ends, and the Blue State opposition disdains them, and to me, the grandmother–the old lady is the chief sign of God on earth, and I think this is true for millions of poor people. And it is exactly this lowliness which is being forgotten, and to forget this is to become a sociopath, a bum, a person not fit to live. It was the women to which Christ addressed his most human message against how we judge, and it was to these women he first appeared upon rising, and who washed his body when he was taken down from the cross. It was to the lowly and forgotten that my Lord appeared. Their mercy and love in a world without much mercy and even less love is what makes me still go to mass long after there is anyone left alive from my family who would chide me for staying home. We have forgotten the broken of this world–not so much as sociological excuses for charity, but as real signs of God–as the miracle of love for the enemy. Our nation will be destroyed because we have turned away from the truly risen and glorified body of Christ: not one of his wounds is removed. In that risen body, each nail hole, and the crown of thorns, and the spear thrust into the side is still evident–because my Lord Jesus is to be touched, is fully human, does not turn away from the broken, and does not buy into the shame and disgust we too often feel for them.

Life is not to be “solved.” It is not a problem or a solution. It invites us to spin under the trees until we cannot stand. It sings with the garbage men. It cries rags in the streets. It can teach a stupid little boy that his brain damaged brother is a saint before the throne of God. It can hope in the foolishness of the Gospel. It does not arrest homeless women who want their children to attend a better school. It does not build walls at its borders to keep out the “illegal” poor. It does not waste its intelligence on a vapid cult of celebrity. The Lord I know is risen from the tomb and is spinning under the starlings. I believe in him. I have no other God.

One of the hardest things to do is to get students to notice the world beyond feelings and abstractions. Feelings and abstractions seem significant. A dolphin balancing a ball on its nose is novel, but so what? Dolphins are of the moment, and although our annoying culture drones on that we should live in the moment, we are mostly lying.

Many ardent “poets” don’t like the world of details all that much because a.) they think it’s no big deal (they never know how boring it might be to read the 100th my lover is an asshole, but I’m her slave poem), or b.) for all intents and purposes, their neurotic parents have cheated them of what is really of value in this world beyond grades, careers, and belief systems (dry stuff, all that).

We say God is in the details and then we spend most of our time avoiding both details and God. Tonight, after a reading, I was parked at a Hess station and I noticed this bush at its edge. Brown leaves were shivering at its center, and a sparrow, who had no business being visible this late at night, sat hunkered down, away from the wind, not very different than a vagrant with a bottle of Hurricane. He would have been lost in the camouflage of his brown and grey and dirty buff had there not been the rather lurid light of the station reaching casually into his kingdom. The fretwork of dried out stems was intricate, the way it is in certain sketches of by Hans Holbein. But I wasn’t thinking of Hans. I was thinking this was beautiful, and all the more beautiful for coming at me in the middle of a gas stop. Either because I am urban and nature must ambush me or because I am contrary, I have never liked “officially” beautiful scenery. I was bowled over and pointed the scene out to my wife who grew up in a pretty rural town and is accustomed to nature looking well, appropriately scenic–not awing her in the middle of a Hess parking lot. I didn’t belabor the point, knowing through years of experience, that my weird bouts of transport are not truly exportable.

I wondered what the hell the bird was doing there–so late, so visible, and without his flock. Birds huddle together for warmth. Perhaps they were migrating, and this particular sparrow went off course, but I know Eurasian tree sparrows stick it out in winter. Was he an outcast? Was he having a midlife crisis? Was he sick, and wanting the privacy of dying alone? Or best of all, did fate place him there so that, in the middle of my normal doings, I could be reminded of just how amazing the seen world is?

Perhaps I am old and stupid and am not that far removed from a senile nun with the world’s largest collection of Plaid stamps. Perhaps I am too easily delighted by what I consider awe-inspiring. I know only that I was grateful for this vision and went away from the Hess station the way other, more sensible mortals drive out of national parks. If I was in a national park and saw an Elk, I’d be happy, but no more happy than I was to see this out-of-place sparrow hunkering down in the center of a bush beside the green and white Hess station.

I am echoing Williams, who, among other things, is the great poet of sparrows seen in bushes outside gas stations. We do not take him seriously because, being snobs, we want our nature to be appropriately set (as per Mary Oliver). We really don’t care for nature. We care for what it might give us in all the expected ways–but Williams was the wiser poet. In his poem, “January Suite,” he says it’s the strange hours we keep, the sudden joy of noticing a thing on the fly that makes it beautiful. He claims the dome of The Paulist Fathers outside Paterson was as thrilling to him as St. Peter’s Basilica after years of anticipation. I believe him.

Detail, especially the unexpected and perfect detail at the unexpected moment, is the neglected mother of us all, the mother who does all the drudge work and who is never noticed until, perhaps, in the poverty of our lives, we see her crossing the street at dusk, see the brown bag clutched in her hand, and remember she is our mother. No parent says to a child, “I want you to be ready at all times to be stunned out of your intelligence and brought halt and stupefied before the covenant of your own eyes. I want you to notice how traffic lights are so much more vivid before it snows. I want you to remember, for the rest of your life, the sound of my voice in a yard when I called out your name through the dusk. Please. I want you to be truly human. With all my heart. I want your consciousness to win over everything that attempts to murder you.”

These things will not make the child successful. They are, as the utilitarians say, a waste of time. Yet all that we do, all the machinations of our finest plans are so we might “waste” time instead of being wasted by it.

I will give you a little story about a teaching experience I had that pleased me as much as that Hess station Sparrow.

I had a sweet student, in my early years of teaching, who had a great love of books and poetry and hardly any talent. I taught her what a cliché was. I taught, and I admonished. I tried so hard, and so did she, painfully hard, so hard that she reminded me of the tormented student ripping his paper in Joyce, and it broke my heart because I had always wanted to be a great baseball player and I sucked. She was writing lines like:

I know he doesn’t love me. Dying,
pretending not to care, throbbing with hurt fear.
Yet his ashen cruelty takes my breath away.
and I succumb to his worst intentions.

She was not being flip or dadaist. She was being heartbroken, untalented and sixteen.

At first, I forbade her writing about love, and she obeyed me, but it was for naught. Finally, I sat down with her, and spoke of this “cruel” boy. He was a lanky, athletic, inarticulate kid with a pierced ear, and a gloomy countenance, a sure bet to make such a sweet girl an idiot. I asked her to remember one thing he did she thought was cute. She said, when he first courted her, he would hide shyly under cover of his hoody and run his long slender index finger over the bridge of his nose like playing a violin. I said: that’s it! Connect that image to your feelings of being forgotten and bring it to me on Monday. On Monday she came in all excited. She had written:

You no longer draw your finger like a bow
across the hard and freckled bridge of your nose,
no longer play the shyness of your face,
that awkward tune I loved.
Now you look me straight in the eye,
without bow, without fear, without love
and you lie.

Ladies and gentlemen, I danced. If I could have purchased a golden laurel wreath and placed it on her head, I would have done so gladly. She didn’t understand my excitement. She instinctively knew she had written something beyond her usual powers. To see that sort of moment is better than seeing a sparrow or an elk. For me, it was like the first time Helen Keller spelled out the word “water.” I went home and tried to explain this joy to my then lover who said “so what?” My wife never says so what. She is a good poet. She teaches. When someone has done something beyond their powers she comes home and tells me, and I love her all the more because I understand she has just seen her own sparrow at the Hess station.

To be a teacher is to be a midwife. You bring the child to bear. You stay up all night. If things go wrong, you question yourself. You want to have an open sesame for every soul you encounter. You want something to open in them and for them, and when you are at your best, you don’t care if they ever say thank you. This girl continued to be only fair to middling compared to my other gifted students, but years later, she still reads poetry. She has two children and a dog, and she can’t remember why that lanky boy broke her heart, or, if she remembers, she laughs. The gifted students are the elk in the park and I am grateful to them, but I am, perhaps, partial to the sparrows. I don’t know what they are doing there, without a flock, and huddled alone.

We say “show, don’t tell,” but this is a lie. We should say, “All true showing will tell, and all true telling will contain a sparrow, and, in the middle of doing what you need to do, you will waste time, and you will notice what makes you human beyond all the lies we tell.”