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Joe Weil

I figured I’d post these. Many poets employ them without ever knowing their names, and that seems to work, but I like knowing the names of things. There’s something thrilling and wise ass to me about going through the world, saying: “Oh look! A Eurasian tree sparrow!” At age six, I fell in love with a girl because she would say things like “isn’t the planet Venus lovely tonight? Look, Joseph, it is rising over the Chivas Regal billboard sign across the street!” Who wouldn’t love a girl who talked like that? I guess a lot of people might find her a trifle pedantic, but the pedantry of never being allowed to know anything gets on my nerves. It’s as if everyone were being stingy and saving it up for a test or waiting for me to make a mistake so that they could hammer me over the head with my own ignorance. This little girl was generous, and her bestowing of information seemed forthright. She taught me birds, and planets, and little facts about rivers that ran backwards. I loved her. So it is in memory of her, forever lost in the murky waters of my past, that I post rhetorical devices for the next two or three posts, hoping someday, a person reading these might turn to their companion and say: “Oh look James, a stunning example of chiasmus!”

Let’s start with Anadiplosis (and discover others along the way). I love this name. I think of it as “Anna Di Plosis, a stunning old woman from Florence who knows how to hold her scotch (in her herbal tea) Anadiplosis pretty much means to begin the next phrase as you ended the previous. It could be one word, or a couple words. I’ll give you an example:

Wind rousted waves,
waves tousled and torn
torn from all thought and all humor:
Humor me if you will:
Kiss the bright hem of my garment,
garment of silk, and inlaid pearls,
pearls milk white as your foam,
foam that has carried the stars,
and will carry them back,
back where all pearls are born.
kiss the gold sandaled feet of Deirdre,
Deirdre, of the sorrows
this pearl tossed into the sea.

Now even though this poem has no regular meter, it sounds metered. In point of fact, it sounds like something more than meter, and that something more is what I call “invocative pulse.” Whitman has invocative pulse beyond any American poet. Invocative pulse is born from rhetorical devices such as Anaphora, enumeration, apostrophic address, and, in this case, anadiplosis. Invocative pulse functions in both poetry and prose that is meant to give a sense of speechifying– not casual speech, but the speech of orators and bards. When the modernists came along, they purged poetry of more than just regular meter and rhyme. They took away most other rhetorical devices as well. Ginsberg, following along the line of Whitman, made popular again the act of speechifying. To many ears raised on modernist and postmodernist free verse, deeply invocative poetry sounds over blown and tacky, but, to many ears longing to hear something out of ordinary journalistic speech, the free verse written bereft of all rhetorical devices, sounds flat and drab. To those who hunger for sound, a poem stripped of all such devices is neither poetry, nor even well varied prose

No poet escapes rhetoric entirely. I see rhetoric (persuasion by ear) as a sort of ongoing address to the sea, to posterity, even when it’s being used to address a rotary club. Such poems have a sense of ritual. We might call it eloquence. Sounding appeals to us through more than mere information. Using Kenneth Burke’s definition of form, and modifying it somewhat: “The building of and fulfillment of a desire in an audience or reader beyond mere information.”These devices were a vital part of the oral tradition, and one can still hear their echoes in speeches and legal documents. Used in moderation, they don’t have to sound high-falutin. And that is your first mission: write a short prose piece or poem that uses anadiplosis. Example:

Fuck (A blow to The Head)

So, like she clocks her brother Igor upside the head with this enormous cabbage? Cabbages can be lethal, man. Man, the poor dude goes down for the count, I mean he’s out, and starts foaming at the mouth–Mouth, full of drool and blood, no shit, and she’s standing over him like the queen of Sheba… hey, what time is it? It better not be nine dude. Dude, If it’s nine, I’m fucked. Fuck it. I’m fucked.

Certainly not eloquent, but it can help render this idiot’s character just by the way it sounds and, here, the anadiplosis just seems part and parcel of his poverty of speech.

There are other rhetorical devices employed in the first example: personification, apostrophic address (talking to something that does not usually talk back: like the dead, or the sea, or America, or a microwave). Alliteration figures into the poem: wind/ waves, tousled/torn. Anadiplosis could also be considered identical rhyme (rhyming look with look). I want to call rhymes that take place at the end and the beginning of lines Anadiplosic rhyme. Example:

Diving Into The Sea

I dove into the sea,
me, who never swam.
Damn it was cold.
Old men ogled my tits.
Bits of sea weed got caught in my hair.
There is no way I’ll do that again.
Amen.

I guess the point of this beyond giving you some names is to show that there are hundreds of ways to create invocative pulse beyond rhyme and meter. Most of the devices of rhetoric are sonic, rhythmic, and mimetic—usually all three. They originated in a time when words were heard rather than read. Usually, when a poet declares that he writes poems that are meant to be read on the page, and only on the page what he really is telling me is that he hates “sounding.”In a sense, he has been won over to the rhetoric of silence and has a pure streak, but even punctuation “sounds.” It is meant to control and vary the speed at which we read. Even the white space is deeply rhetorical, whether we admit it or not. A period is a call to a full stop. A comma is a lesser pause. All this belongs to rhetoric since it is about pulse, the persuasion of varied or regular pulse.

If you want to escape all rhetoric, you are out of luck. Poets who hate their poems leaving the page often read in as flat and uninteresting a tone as possible. Often, very arrogant haters of poetry read aloud will ignore their own punctuation and just read through the periods, commas, or white space. This is childish and stingy, and is based on no aesthetic merit save meanness and hatred of sounding. Of course, too much rhetorical might can piss anyone off, but violent, “on the page” poets (I love calling them violent) are not being honest. The reader will impose a rhythm as he reads where none exists. Not finding any rhetorical devices, the reader will usually create them. So even if you are poet of the page, and nothing but the page so help me God, it is good for you to know the devices of rhetoric, if only to avoid them.

Assignment: write a poem using apostrophic address, anadiplosis, and alliteration. Then take the poem and strip them of all these devices. Good luck.

When I was ten or so, a large flock of starlings, and assorted brown-headed cowbirds used to come visit a deserted lot near my house every fall. I liked nothing better than to run among them, and listen to the collective soughing swoop of their wings as they lit out for the trees. It was best if the sky was full of brooding cumuli. It was best if the wind was trying to rip the brown leaves from the pin oaks.

I don’t know why this made me feel so happy. When those birds no longer showed up the next year, it was a short but real grief that overcame me, and I would go to the lot in order to feel my grief more keenly. Since the birds were no longer present, my grief over their absence sufficed.

Wildness–to spin, to run amuck, to go shouting into the sea…all this unbridled sense of motion–has something to do with obedience. In the world beyond mere social order, obedience takes the place of conformity. There is a cycle of seasons, a rising and ooze of sap, a motion of tides, a curl of carrot leaf and wave, and all this grand motion obeys. It is not disobedient. Disobedience only exists where the laws have already built the scaffold of conformity from which preachers admonish and on which sinners hang.

A year or two later, I had found an old, slightly water logged copy of King Lear, and I read it with much confusion but with far more delight in its loud cacophony of sounds. I liked saying the words aloud in a very pretentious voice:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!

The birds came back, and instead of running among them, I shouted this speech of mad Lear as loudly as I could. They scattered! The second time I did it, they scattered less. On the third try, they just kept grazing on the seeds and grasses and ignored me. The birds understood the first and second delivery as a threat not much different than running among them. But, by my third performance, they knew it was no real threat–just some crazy kid in a field shouting. Still, I realized the sounds in this language obeyed some real violence–the violence of wind, and storm, and anger. The words were not imitating nature They were not mimicking a large mammal rushing at a flock, but they contained some of the same energy and violence as that force. Rather than holding the mirror up to nature, they were using some of the mechanisms the dynamics of cacophony. If I had delivered them in a whisper, not one bird would have flown away.

As far as the difference between conformity and obedience goes, we can submit that Cordelia obeys, whereas the Regan and Goneril conform. Obedience in the realm of the social construct can cause us to be misunderstood, even censored. To obey the organic truth underlying principles is much more dangerous than conforming to their outward resemblance. Many great writers pay a price, not for being disobedient, but for being obedient to some necessity beyond mere conforming. To be a non-conformist in this sense means to obey the deeper truth and risk being mistaken as a rebel. Nothing is more perverse to the status quo than true obedience. Goodness does not need the status quo. Evil and mediocrity insist upon it.

Some of the worst conformists I know practice a sort of intentional disobedience. They have no more idea of the underlying principles of the laws they break than the conformist who never thinks of going against the status quo. They break laws for the sake of breaking laws. They, too, like the conformists, are incapable of knowing anything but the letter of the law. In their case, they hate the letter, but do not know the spirit. A saint is always a scandal, always a destructive force in relation to the status quo because a saint obeys in such a true sense that he or she is liberated from the status quo. The saint cannot be tamed by law. Law exists because saints are in short supply.

Rather than telling students not to rhyme or have meter, rather than telling students to write free verse, ask them: what do you think are some of the reasons people rhyme and employ meter. If you work hard at this, you might get:

1. Because it’s fun, and like magic–like a spell (spells, nursery rhyme, any manner of conjuring)
2. Because rhyme and meter takes human speech out of its ordinary ruts (ceremony, or the love of pattern)
3. Because it is a great device for remembering (the reason for rhymed adages and proverbs)
4. Because it can order strong emotions and passions so that they are portable and inversal (Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”).

Then you can ask what might be some of the reasons a poem does not rhyme or have a regular meter:

1. Because the poet wishes to explore subjects beyond the mere sonic semblance of rhyme and meter–in their organic movements so to speak from one thought to another, without struggling to shape thought to a regular pattern.
2. Because the poet wishes to explore the very “normality, and strangeness” of regular speech patterns, of people just thinking or speaking. In short, not a lack of pattern, not randomness, but the complexity of irregular rhythm.
3. Because the printing press was invented, and prose became the dominant force, and the mimetic need for rhyme and regular meter was no longer so urgent.
4. Because free verse can step outside prevailing patterns and enter the stream of consciousness in which the writing is seemingly of the moment, without poetic conceits of rhyme and meter.

All these are legitimate reasons why one might choose either to write in rhyme and meter or free verse. You can also mention other mimetic devices beyond rhyme and meter that free verse has maintained, but in lesser volume: alliteration, anaphora, rhythmic listing, enumeration, hyperbole, metaphor, understatement, over statement. Once you parse out why one might choose one over the other, you can eliminate conventions and get at underlying principles.

Both metered/ rhymed verse and free verse must have a sense of rhythm yet an occasional relief from pattern in order to be effective. Variety is intrinsic to free verse. In rhymed and metered verse, variety is the exception to the rule that keeps the rule honest. In free verse, any prolonged pattern is the exception that keeps the free verse honest (or endangers it). But both conventions rely on variety and pattern. It’s a matter of emphasis (one places pattern above variety, the other variety over pattern), but both variety and pattern show up. Bad rhyme sounds sing-songy. Bad free verse seems to have no real pulse or sense of ceremony. It may as well be prose (and not very good prose). This does not rule out the flat as a value. Intentional flatness, maintained as the law of a poem, is a rhythm of sorts. If it is intentional, then you ask: what is the purpose of the flatness? Some poets are masters of flatness–of that which is so seemingly mundane that its whole poetic effect relies on denying the usual “poetic” effects of poetry: haiku, imagism, objectivism, deadpan, all rely on not seeming to try at too hard to be poetic. But this is not a universal law. It is a convention. It as much a convention as rhyme and meter. It is not the spirit; it is the letter of a certain convention.

So a teacher must avoid teaching conventions as universal laws. If not, the student will become as blind as the teacher and adhere to a rule without ever considering why it is a rule. By the same token, a teacher who insists the students experiment and go hog-wild is also in danger of limiting the student to the letter, and not the spirit. Novelty for its own sake does not an original poem make. It might provide temporary relief from convention, but, when it is made a convention in its own right, it ceases to have value as anything more than a convention: “Hello, I am rebel. I do nothing conventional, and I don’t like anyone who does things conventionally. That, my dear, is my convention. Love me!” God, help us.

All conventions must be tested. All diversions must be tested. If I ran after those birds a hundred times, they would have scattered on the next run. Why? Because a large body moving at them with arms waving is certainly a threat. If they ignore me, they will run the risk of ignoring the dog or cat who comes and eats them. But a boy yelling King Lear is absent some of the exact mechanisms of a predator. We must teach our students to reinvent the wheel over and over again, to go back to origins and test them. Most importantly, a teacher must question his or herself. Do I like this poem because it is good, or because it affirms my ideas? Do I dislike this poem because it is bad, or because it is not my kind of good? Ethics in this sense are much more rare than rules of thumb. Rules of thumb were invented for those who have no intrinsic sense of ethics.

I want students to be obedient–fiercely obedient. I don’t want them to conform. When a true Cordelia enters my classroom, I know because, initially, I am annoyed. Such a creature refutes my laziness. When a conformist enters my class room either as a kiss-ass or as a professional nay-sayer I feel sad. How can I teach someone who conforms, but who can never obey? It is like a child who sees a field of birds, and does not run among them or even feel tempted. Someone has taught that child not to be a child. Someone has killed King Lear.

There are many poets who enjoy disliking William Carlos Williams. He wrote poems that seem distinguished only by their adherence to the tossed off. They make no major claims. They seem jotted off.

So why study the man at all? First, it is hard to see Williams because he is everywhere, in all the schools of American poetry. He took the English conversational lyric as invented by Coleridge and developed by Wordsworth and turned it toward American speech patterns: OK, sure–the sense of a self consciously casual utterance, language that was wrought from a busy life and ranged between the phatic, the cranky, the ecstatic, the overt, and the obvious.

But we must pause at the word obvious. Stating the obvious is not easy. Human beings tend to mistake mystification for intelligence. Abstractions appeal to us. We forget that even “chicken” is an abstraction. It is a word for an animal. It is not the animal. So perhaps we only believe things have meaning when they have been twice abstracted: first by word denoting thing, then by word (which is symbol) implying something else in the verbal universe (word as symbol for thing plus word as symbol for abstracted word: chicken (thing) plus word chicken-symbol–plus chicken as truth, justice, and the American way). By this process, every word becomes “and”, a conjunction, that which separates as it joins, joining and separating from the thing it denotes and the moral, emotional, intellectual, and historical meanings it connotes. In short, our language becomes a process of mystifications which have lost their original purpose, or have revealed the hidden agenda of all mystifications: power and exclusion.

All street lingo, scholastic jargon, all supposed “verbal rigor” is meant to appeal to the initiated and to exclude the uninitiated (and this includes the language of those who feel excluded). Williams was not against this nearly airtight law of verbal action. He was practicing a new, or, rather, reconstituted rigor: the rigor of the obvious, contact with words for things as things made out of words–double contact, rather than double abstraction.

Williams wanted to make contact with the thing, and then make contact with the thing made out of words. He was not just interested, as in a Haiku, with rendering a thing’s “thingness,’ but he also wanted to make contact with it as a verbal construct, as a thing in its own right. He was interested in a poem as a thing made out of words–as an object, an actual artifact, something as tangible as a chicken. Williams was interest in type–in the words as they were placed upon the page. He was interested in the spacial orientation of type–the “just so” latent within the act of typing words upon a page.

If we know this about Williams, then we can assume three things that may be important to entering into any Williams poem:

1. Rigorous attention to the obvious.
2. Rigorous attention to The placement of the obvious as a “just so” upon the page.
3. The contact with the thing, and the enactment of the thing made out of words as a thing in its own right–which is a second contact. Double contact as opposed to double abstraction.

In this system, abstraction does not disappear, but is taken as the given. Kafka wrote: “the moment you write she looked out a window, you have already begun to lie.” Kafka is not being profound here. She is doing much more than looking out a window, but the artist has selected that one particular action to render in words. Selection is a lie of omission. Even when we tell a true story, we are omitting details. We call this focusing on the significant, but it is only significant because we say it is.

We have made a judgment. Our judgment is distorted by necessity. We have a story to tell. We are never in life, but always in a narration, a process of selection, placement, and applied meaning which we call consciousness. Williams has two aesthetic tasks: one, to be rigorous about the thing at hand in such a manner that we are temporarily taken out of our narrative, and thrust into a kind of “stupidity” before the object (I use stupidity in its full sense, not as lacking intelligence, but as being stunned out of intelligence for a moment, being stupefied, disengaged from one’s usual systems of applied meanings, narratives, and assumptions); and two, to enact a ritual of placement that does not echo a received truth, but becomes its own construct–that imitates the dynamic, and kinetic force of the organic, of “nature” as opposed to merely holding a mirror up to it.

The natural breath Williams advocated was not actual speech, but the artistic placement of everyday speech rhythms and lingo into a thing called a poem. Rather than the abstract twice abstracted, Williams desired the actual twice actualized–first as something one touched through words, and then as something one made (and unmade) out of words. This double actualization has its aporia, its own deconstruction in that one makes contact with the thing not to know it, but, rather, to use it as a new energy–to “unknow” it in the most vital way possible, and to construct a thing made out of words that will contain the energy of what one has “unknown.” To “unknow” chicken as word, is to make contact again with both the thing and the thing’s essential energy used to construct a new thing made out of words. Not a chicken or a chicken as symbolic truth–but a poem that has all the life and thingness of a chicken, and must be taken as it is–beyond paraphrase, beyond mere analysis of meaning, beyond the usual apparatus of mystification.

So, armed with some knowledge of the artist’s intentions, let’s apply these intentions to an actual William Carlos Williams poem.

Iris

A burst of Iris so that
come down for
breakfast

we searched through the
rooms for
that

sweetest odor and at
first could not
find its

source then a blue as
of the sea
struck

startling us from among
those trumpeting
petals

1. Rigorous attention to the obvious. The title says “Iris.” The first line qualifies a “burst of Iris.” Things burst when their energy cannot be contained. So this is not an inactive iris. It is, in a sense, the ecstatic energy of the Iris–its “bursting.” Williams has made an event out of a flower–something we might notice as “Oh look at that–an iris, how pretty…where’s the orange juice?” Usually, we take decorative flowers for granted, especially upon awakening. He is drawing our attention to something we might take for granted. He is saying: “Look! Look! An Iris! Better yet…a burst of Iris! We have not seen it yet. We apprehend it, through the implication of smell, through its essential energy as a burst of fragrance. Here, selection creates the lie of omission in the best sense: the whole house has become alive to an iris. This is stupidity as I mean it: to be stunned out of rational priority–to make a big thing out of something we might not even notice. To be stunned into the obvious. We are told the “we” of the poem searches through all the rooms of the house. This is a lively contact with a flower indeed! Williams effusiveness over mundane and obvious things infuriates some. I find it delightful.

Next, we get “sweetest odor–”: the Iris dominates as an odor. They have yet to see the Iris, and when they do, it is not the Iris per se, but its blue: then a blue as/of the sea/struck.” So this Iris dominates the house without being seen, and when it is seen, it strikes, startles with its blue among its “trumpeting petals.” Smell becomes color becomes sound–a loud and vital awakening to the obvious!

2. A rigorous attention to the placement of the obvious as a “just so” upon the page. Well, the first line of every tercet is the longest, the second the next longest, and the last the shortest. This does not vary. It is a formal law peculiar to the poem. In addition, there is no real sentence or punctuation in the poem, yet its clarity cannot be questioned. This shape is played off against what is a sentence fragment–no sentence at all. The lack of punctuation is not sloppiness on Williams’ part here, but a vital aesthetic aid to the synasthesia and sense confusion of the poem. Everything, including the grammatical ambiguity of this poem is intentional–especially “that.” If the poem ended at “that” we would think “that” referred to the burst of Iris, but the stanzaic break adds odor at the beginning of the next stanza. Many free verse poets do stanzaic enjambment but it is too often done for neatness and symmetry rather than organic form’s sake. Williams bleeds the sense of the previous stanza into the next, but each stanza is truly its own organic moment within the body of the poem. This is true form.

3. Contact with the thing and the enactment of that contact with a thing as a thing in its own right. The whole of the poem is the contact with Iris, in all its sensual glory, as well as a mixing of the senses in an ecstatic apprehension of the flower. The poem proceeds and becomes its own thing by way of making contact with the Iris–with the artist’s apprehension of Iris. The word Iris functions then as a sort of conjunction between the thing called Iris and the poem called Iris–the thing made out of words.

Williams says what is before us–at this moment, and at this odd hour–is enough to make a vital poem, “by defective means.” And if we surrender ourselves to his intentions, we will discover a poet as deliberate in his art, and as eager to master it as any other great poet of the 20th century.

I don’t make any claims to be an authority on Jazz. This is my personal take from what I’ve been listening to and hearing for my entire life. My definition of Jazz is pretty wide. Any syncopated or swung music that likes brass and uses blue notes as well as sampling from many sources fits this category for me. Jazz is another word for stew–cool or hot.

In all cultures that are oppressed, forced to go underground, made to wear two faces, there is a mythology of night and day–the day world and the night world divided. This division exists as a projection of the divided soul, that which is enslaved, and that which is free. It was true of the early Christians. This was true in Ireland after the British occupation. It is true in all Creole and African diaspora cultures–the soul divided which can find genuine release and a modicum of dignity through a union of music, story, art and folk ways in which the tension between day and night, good and evil, the spirit and the letter is ongoing. This meets commodity when it enters the urban sprawl and is patronized by a ruling elite who have never thrown off two tendencies that both sustain and often distort the folk: the myth of the genuine (what fed the romantics and continues to feed both pop and so called art cultures) and the need for novelty, for slumming, for the “primal.”

We make a mistake if we believe the primal is simple. In terms of form, nothing is more contrived than the primal, more tied to the idea of showing off, strutting chops, because it is a release of power and ferocity, of spirituality and sex/death; true power and ferocity calls for the ecstasy of precision–never sloppiness. Such forms become simplified only when they are turned toward the marketplace: blues, for example, was heavily chromatic, and based on line rather than chord changes. If you listen to early blues, it is not only chromatic, but micro-tonal, falls into the I/IV/V chord patterns only as it is being re-interpreted for mass consumption. It is not inexactitude, or inferior tunings, though the instruments may be home made: it is a sound come from traditions in which communal call and response and the counter-point of that call and response is poly-rhythmic.

At the same time, these musicians pick up sounds on the fly, and they took as much from so called sophisticated (actually simpler) European ideas of melody and structure, especially marching bands, and certain forms of choral singing. No truly musical ear is ever pure. It steals freely and often, and this is where blues, jazz, and, later, rap comes into conflict with middle class ideas of property values. Musicians rip each other off constantly, and their ears are whores. If their ears are not whores, I don’t trust them. Someone truly musical listens and hears whatever moves him or her. Lester Young liked good polka tunes. He loved the sweet, decidedly un-Lester clarinet of Dorsey. He also cried shamelessly when he watched the 1939 movie version of Wuthering Heights. He didn’t sit around saying, “I’m Lester Young; I’m inventing cool as we know it. I can’t listen to polka and I can’t like Puccini.” That’s the bullshit of gatekeepers, snob asses–not musicians.

If you’re going to get into jazz, do some research and listen to marching bands–New Orleans and Sousa. Listen to the cut time of Jazz dance music because it’s a little like syncopated polka. Listen to early black gospel, but also the innovations made on Catholic traditions in New Orleans. Showing off, bragging, gangster styling, spiritual lament and celebration does not begin with rock and roll or rap.

Jelly Roll Morton worked as a bouncer, a gambler, and a pimp. He was also a 15 year old boy who played his first professional gigs in a New Orleans brothel. When his grandmother found out (he told her he was working nights in a warehouse), she threw him out of her house for playing “devil’s music.” The spiritual terrain of the outcast, the slave, the bonded lives on intimate terms with both God and the devil. But one must not begin therel; instead, begin with two different versions of faith–the faith of priest/genteel, and the faith of prophet/outsider. Both are equally important to Jazz and both could be found mixing it up in New Orleans for over a hundred years before Jazz was known. The dynamic between the spirit and the letter, the spiritual release of the night, and the longing for respectable life during the day is an ancient mystery. The two fuel each other as often as they fight. Not only is the divide between good and evil, night and day, but it is also between respectability and the raw dignity of that which must find its fortunes through a gravitas the world cannot bend to normative standards. There is a centuries-long dynamic between the whore house and the church.

IMAGE: Marco Munoz

It is hard to have fun in graduate school or in workshops, but if you were sitting on a dock in Arkansas and watching bass boats speed by and the sun was setting in the west (since it does not usually set anywhere else) and you had a decent knowledge of iambic pentameter–or a few hundred poems memorized–you could have fun. I once spent a whole day speaking in blank verse. It was fun for me. It was not fun for those poor souls around me, but what the hell? On another occasion, I had a conversation with someone else who spoke in blank verse and we drove others crazy. We were in the liquor store:

This rum is coconut, not to my taste
but being broke and vulgar you might try?

Fie thee, mere peasant in the guise of Lord
let’s make the most of what we can afford!

Aye… for a pittance, Mr. Boston here
proffers a fifth of vodka. With some juice
it may not prove too dangerous to drink.
It’s cheaper than the rum. What do you think?

We were more annoying and clever than the fucking exchanges on the Gilmore Girls. Verse and meter made us so. I have often fantasized about a nation that could stop being simple, to the point, and frank, and start beating all around the bush. The more I spoke in iambic pentameter, the more I wanted to walk over to the side of wherever I was and have a few words with the invisible audience. I realized that form makes us insane, not its absence. The neutral, flat free verse of the middle class, in so far as it was given to phatic exchanges that are ritualized and automatic is a form of insanity. The norm is the agreed-upon madness. The abnormal is speech without consensus. Suppose two people had an exchange that went like this:

The leafy eglantine goes down to death. I am, by penguins, love, sorely assuaged.

And I the bitter root must gnaw, my dear. Wax umber. We are all disquieted!

Nay, I am bawdy as a crow and fixed as pox upon the brows of whores!

Then let us, by such fixedness, beguiled, leaf forth this day. Come hence, my comely child!

I sure would love to live in a world that spoke like this, or would I? It might be fun to spend a day inserting words we don’t usually employ into our otherwise drab and information based existence. If someone says “How are you?” You might answer

I plumb what depths there be, ere there be depths
yet hug the shore, for fear of an ill wind.
Thus shallow am I as your feigned concern,
How goes it friend? How sails thee, stem to stern?

Or suppose you answered in what sounded like spy code:

The good duck eats the stale white bread at dawn. The moon laughs at the well hung jury.

Most poetry, before the 20th century was meant to be relational. As such it assumed a listener or reader with a common sensibility and sense of meter. Modernism and post-modernism decided to disconnect from this relational dynamic. The poems are routines made out of words, and you may like the striptease or not–understand it as a thing, a construct, etc, etc. Relational poetry still exists, even that kind which assumes a certain type of reader, but not in Brooklyn (which, as I have been told, runs the world). I don’t know if I want to be a contemporary poet anymore. Maybe I never was. I don’t want to be a formalist as it is defined by Marylin Hacker or any number of folks, though I am often delighted by some of their poems and wish them well. I want to have fun. I think that’s why I have been so depressed lately…Where’s the fun? I must be a madman. I am not speaking the same language as contemporary poetry.

My first and last love are songs. I was all over the place. Late at night, my dad would listen either to country music or the BBC (guess he was all over the place, too). He and my mom would go to sleep with the radio on. I remember lying in bed and hearing the young Dolly Parton sing “Jolene,” and thinking I had never heard a voice or song like that except when someone would sing a snippet of an Irish ballad (not the tin pan alley Irish songs). Even then, to hear Parton without all the hair and make up was to hear a great singer/song writer. I thought she had raven hair down to her butt, and looked like the actress Barbara Hershey, so I was shocked when I first saw her. I heard her long before I saw her, and I would put faces to all the songs. Anyway, here goes.

Allison Krauss does justice by this great song. Mindy Smith ain’t bad either, but you can tell Allison and Dolly have that same high quivering thing goin on that makes for a great country voice.

“All the Things You Are” is a great song, and here it is performed by one of the greatest artists in history–Thelonius Monk. Monk, to me, was vital . I heard “Jolene” at 15, and Monk a little later, but when I heard him, I played him over and over–and he was in my head when I walked to the store. He made me weird in the all the best ways.

I had ADHD real bad as a kid and no one diagnosed it. I was weird and was mocked out a lot for being so. Monk was one of the places I could go where I didn’t have to put up with people’s snide bullshit–one of the best places.

I first saw Arlo Guthrie perform on PBS. I was maybe the only kid in my neighborhood who watched PBS. Glad I did. I didn’t know his father’s work, then I read “Bound For Glory”–amazing book.

The folk songs jived with what I heard from Jesus every Sunday at Mass. I could never be on the side of success after that. It’s a lie that hurts millions and in the name of what?

I love this song. It always chills me to the bone. This is a beautiful version.

Took a long time to find her. Glad I did.

Elizabeth Cotten was in her 90s when she picked like this. Amazing.

It’s not how pretty the voice is, but how real, and how much it wants to help the song be the song it was meant to be. Elizabeth Cotten did this. Her pickin’ was ragtime style. She was born in 1892. This was done in the 70s.

My dad would sing this to me when I was a kid.

He got typed by Hee Haw, but Buck Owens was one of the inventors of the Bakersfield sound– a la Merle Haggard.

Another song I knew well as a little kid.

Image Credit: Marco Muñoz

I learned to read a micrometer a couple days before my first shift at National Tool and manufacturing. The night before, I did my first paid poetry gig at the Franklin township library in New Jersey. I made fifty bucks. This is the early 80s. Pay for poets has actually gone down a wee bit (we’re not talking the 1 percent). Anyway, I read at the Franklin township library, came home, got up that morning at around 5 am, and left for the job–taking two buses.

I had never been inside such a large shit hole. The first thing I smelled was creosote (the floors at that time were creosote blocks to better absorb the oil, grit and coolant). The next thing I smelled was what I suppose you could call “loud.” Certain types of loud are both sound and stink. The machines were loud. They stank of loudness, and they looked like something out of a dark dream, all hoses, and drill heads and dangling modifiers and dangerous fanged and daggered appendages, sort of Charley Chaplin meets Fritz Lang. Men moved around them guiding what I learned were two ton magnets. A two ton magnet lifts 4 thousand pounds of steel. Machinists use these magnets held to a conveyor by chains, swing them into place, lock down the plate (piece) clamp it, measure it, drill, ream, mill, grind it, etc. etc.

These plates often have razor sharp edges, especially if they have not been filed down, and I saw men slice their hands open when guiding them–right through the safety glove. I also witnessed feet crushed, fingers cut off, and various other nasty injuries. As a first aid attendant, I bagged a couple fingers. About four years into the work I had my right index finger put back together. I severed the tendon and “violated” the joint. I cut it on a borzon cup wheel spinning at 4500 rpm. The cut was clean, instant and half way into the bone. At the emergency room I asked to be given local anesthesia so I could watch the surgeon work. She was like a master tool maker. She cauterized some veins so they did not bleed, reattached my severed tendon, tied it up nicely, tended to my violated joint and sewed me back up. I played piano. I was told I would recover maybe fifty percent use of the finger at best and that I should keep it immobile for six weeks. I said: “fuck that.” I figured it was going to do what I wanted it to do or I’d cut the damned thing off. I continued to play piano with it–even while it was in a splint. I thought: “use it or lose it.” I still have almost 100 percent use of my finger. It hurts during cold weather and tightens up even after 25 years, but I was right not to listen. No one can predict recovery or capacity until they test it against their own experience.

So I am a good piano player and I’ve made some money playing, and I was working in a place that took fingers very easily. So what? Americans expect jobs to be fulfilling. They think they have “careers.” They’ve forgotten it’s just a fucking job and its meant to feed and clothe you–that’s it. It can’t kiss you. It can’t go to your father’s wake, and it sure as hell does not define character. Some of the worst scumbags I know are a success. I am Zen in this respect. We are corpses and success means very little if you remember first and last things and sleep soundly in the coffin of the truth. All jobs are good jobs if they keep you from starving to death and they don’t make you a murderer, a crook, or an overseer and contriver of someone else’s suffering and enslavement. Any job that contributes to the misery of the world is against God. It is also, and more importantly, against humanity. I would rather be a peon caught in the need to toil at menial labor than a big shot responsible for the slavery and sadness of countless people. It is better to eat shit all the days of your life than to be the one who shovels shit into another’s mouth. I figure I have a choice in so far as being a worker by choice and will means I keep my freedom of conscience.

Eating shit is what a working person does. The jobs are dangerous, or boring, or made unbearable by some manager type who wants to earn his or her money by being a fucking jerk wad. The best managers are better at your job than you are. They are there to truly supervise–meaning teach. The worst managers think they are there because we all know workers, left to their own devices, will do nothing, get drunk, and have sex. In all the years I worked at National, I only saw the foremen have sex with women in rough and finished inspection–never rank and filers. Foremen are often the most physically impressive guys on the shop floor–not always, but often. They are young, and cocky, and tend to feel entitled. This works for mate selection. We call it power dynamics and sexual harassment, but, in most cases, the women willingly engaged in affairs with the often married foremen. The shop floor tends to bring out atavistic behaviors.

Men court the foremen as well. You don’t need foremen to weed out back sliding because the stupid men rat on each other 90 percent of the time and save the foremen the trouble of looking for wrong doers. Once a guy came up to me and said: “Joe, I think we have a rat in our midst.” I said: “Yep…we sure do; and he’s punching every fuckin’ time card on every fuckin’ shift.”

Workers turning in workers and courting the favor of foremen was my chief trouble as shop steward. The only guys who didn’t turn in other workers were the guys who knew what they were doing–good men, highly skilled. They didn’t have to turn in other workers because they knew their jobs, did them, and with a minimum of bullshit. Such men should have been the foremen, but the kiss ass/rat culture in this nation has superseded ability.

The smart foremen knew enough to prize and respect these guys. The dumb foremen (and we had many) harassed or fired the best workers because they didn’t rat and kiss ass. If that sort of stupid manager proliferates, the quality of work goes way down, and all sorts of excuses and accusations go way up. It ruins the company and destroys business. A workplace without valor, without honor, with only kiss ups, and rats is soon doomed to fail, Punitive treatment and disparagement of workers always leads to such a work place. Bad supervisors encourage it. The first thing I’d do in a shop that seems to be falling apart is hold a meeting with the men, find out who the best foremen are, and fire the rest. Then I’d have a meeting with the remaining foremen and find out who the biggest rats were. I’d either shit can them (if I could) or tell them they were not to complain about another worker unless it was in writing (they never want to put it in writing since, most of the time, it’s fairly malicious).

You want workers who respect each other, who don’t rat, who know how to take care of problems within their own rank and file. You want workers to become the sort of people who could teach and lead others–not abuse them. You want valiant and honorable men more than you want productivity. Productivity, or what we think is productivity, never comes from piece rates, or from cracking the whip. It is usually the result of a few secret, but deeply respected men or women in the shop who hold things together. These men and women are like the jewels in the furnace. Productivity is almost always from within , the outcome of valor and honor. When these few are fired, or quit, or retire, you can watch the whole house of cards fall apart. Because workers are perceived as not much better than Thersites in the Iliad, we accord them no such distinctions, and, after a few years, the productivity of any abusive atmosphere always falls apart. It’s the law of diminishing returns. This is especially true if corrupt managers punish the valiant and honorable and keep their pets and their rats. Nothing destroys productivity more than a bunch of yes men who don’t know what they are doing. If ratting and ass kissing are the secret system of your workforce, then any other system suffers, and you end up with bureaucratic ratting/ass kissing. People no longer even have a reason to rat or kiss ass; they just do. This is a major problem in our professions–much more so now than years ago because so much of what we call work these days is based on social interactions and the verbal construct. So much of it is based on smoke and mirrors.

Envy is the one bad worker who never gets fired. Of all the evils that could do a work place in, envy is the worst. Envy can ruin even the best endeavors. Management seeks to cut envy down to a minimum by encouraging “team efforts” but among workers they often encourage envy, especially during union negotiation time. Envy reduces grown workers to the level of the three year old screaming: “It’s not fair!” “How did HE GET THAT?” Envy is indeed a deadly sin and almost anyone who is honest and has fought against envy knows how hard it is to truly defeat it rather than rationalize it away.

Sociopaths, people with a seeking mechanism devoid of honor, valor, or guilt, are envious of anyone in power, but will bond with the more powerful sociopath in a sort of evil marriage, until they find a way to become that more powerful sociopath, or find a willing slave to do their bidding. Sociopaths tend not to work in factories unless they are management because sociopaths are thrill seekers and there is nothing thrilling about making the same part over and over again and being told by a numb nut foremen that you are an asshole. Sociopaths come in bragging. They have great surface charm. They often run the football pool, get the worst foremen on their side by appealing to their vices, and so on and so forth. In my 20 years as a factory worker I watched sociopaths come in with great energy and verve, and bravado, and then, sooner or later, crash and burn or simply quit. Often they became foremen and, when they did, mediocrity and fear ensued.

Sociopaths are like incompetent gods: they are usually good-looking or charismatic because evolution has given them these traits to survive. They usually have average to above average intelligence. They tend to like action and trouble for the sake of action and trouble, and, no sooner do they rule, than they grow bored and contemptuous and start destroying people. You will only recognize a true sociopath when he or she has been given power. A sociopath given too much power will develop their infantile sense of submission and seek out the “ultimate” sociopath to whom they give homage: some god, or a figure of greatness with whom they identify and from whom they believe they derive their strength. They will also seek the ultimate slave or consort: the right hand man, the good cop to their bad–the perfect minion. You must dip a sociopath in triumph in order to see his true colors. All sociopaths are “family” men–incapable of being alone (serial killers are loners, but I believe they are created by society for the expressed purpose of keeping power arbitrary). All sociopaths lack empathy or remorse, have no guilt and a total sense of entitlement, traits they hide exceedingly well behind a series of extroverted social appearances and schemas of the appropriate. According to self-empowerment tropes, this is merely being self-loving and self-motivated. According to modernist and postmodernist cynics, this is the true and organic way of all people. They are confidence men to the degree that they know how to give other’s confidence, and have an intuitive sense of how each “mark” should be approached. They invariably mess everything up, and nothing of lasting worth comes from them because, at their core, is a sort of dull rage and utter lack of humanity. They are heroes to Ayn Rand and to American followers of that idiot, and we admire them because we have become co-dependent with sociopaths: ass kissing and ratting eventually turns a whole work force (or nation) into a bad version of S and M. We are either having our asses kicked or kicking ass. Only the foot and the ass remain in America. The rest of the body politic is lost.

I learned a lot in the factory–how things really work or fail to work. Ideas are never as important as appearances and narratives. The groove of the story can outlast any series of good ideas, and no idea stands a chance unless it can find a groove. If a bad idea finds a groove, it becomes a system, and then, God help us. Men and women worship tallness, physical prowess, and “normalcy.” The stooped general, the distinguished looking, slightly over serious, rather grave man or woman always has power projected onto him or her–regardless of true ability.

We are far less individual than we pretend and even those valiant, “special” individuals in Ayn Rand who have a riding crop, a fast horse and reason on their side, and who let no sniveling collective stand in their way, are largely horse shit. They don’t exist save as semiotic smoke we blow up each other’s power worshipping asses.

Working in a factory for shit pay in 110 degree heat with some foreman coming out of his air-conditioned office to warn you not to fuck up is exactly what most American’s need to experience: to be without power or respect, to be treated as if you were a moron and to know your only alternative is to go to another place where the same thing is likely to happen…. isn’t this what our wonderful new technologies are encouraging worldwide while reserving dress down Fridays and maternity leave for their chosen few? We think we rid ourselves of the worst traits of the industrial revolution, but we really only did what a child might do if told to clean his room immediately: we swept all our mess under the bed, and hoped no one would notice. There is nothing clean or post-industrial about our new technological, post- mechanical world. We simply put the filthy aspects elsewhere and turn back the clock to a time before unions and pollution laws, and labor reform. Sadly, so sadly, William Blake’s chimney sweeper poem still makes sense:

And have gone off to worship their God and king
who make a heaven of our misery

One of the first readings I ever did was in 1982 at the Baron Art center in Woodbridge. This was a good seven years before I became a host there, and Edie Eustace, one of the best friends poets ever had, booked me as “Poetic whimsy at the piano.” I did my own small version of a vaudeville show–what I had been doing all my life when my family was still alive: some funny songs, some straight free verse poems, a couple of raunchy rhymed poems, and a couple of neo-classical bits on the piano, instrumentals that I’d composed–everything but ballet and a dog show. In between numbers I spoke some anecdotes, talked to the crowd. It was my natural way of performing. This approach considered the presence of the audience and myself as an entertainer as sacred–not the individual poems, not the piano pieces that ranged from classical to blues, to novelty songs–but the experience of being present in a room in which I got to do what I do. I was able to use all the talents I had: storytelling, witness, music, and I did it as a thirty minute act.

It went over well. I had a packed house. Edie was a smart lady. She knew how to use me. I also played guitar and harmonica, and as I recall, I did dance around a bit with my harmonica–a funny sort of caper. I sang a selection from a musical comedy version of Sartre’s “No Exit,” which I pretended to be writing. The song named the situation of the three characters in hell. It was called “I’m in love with the girl who’s in love with the girl who’s in love with me.” It went like this (first couple verses):

I’m in love with the girl who’s in love
with the girl who’s in love with me!
This triangle’s perverse and perhaps even worse
as the sides of it don’t agree!
When we go out on the town and about
we are all three in great despair
for I care for the one who cares for
the one for whom I don’t care.
Menage A Tois! Might be what hits the spot!
But I’m only hot for the one who is hot
for the one who is hot for me
and for whom I am not!

Doing Sartre as a musical comedy was fun. I capered about the stage. I raised my arms in a mock waltz. I did what I was born to do: make a fool of myself. This week in my 380, I had occasion to perform the song again, and almost thirty years after that Baron reading, my students were laughing hard, and applauding when I’d finished. It’s good shtick and a good comic travesty on the existentialists. I love to do things like this as much as I love to write free verse poems. Unfortunately, there is no time or place or venue to do this anymore. First, poets want to be taken seriously–one of the things I hate them for. This includes slammers with their endless issue oriented verse. Ok. Be taken seriously, but it is much more of an art to flow through the different registers of emotion than to be forever stuck on the sharp prongs of one’s self- piety. It is much more refreshing to not always be the hero/ ego of your own fucking “art.”

Over the years, I have had a few chances to do what I really love–very few. I sneak a song in here or there. I once got through to a high school audience by doing Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not Stop for Death” as a slow, grinding blues song. All you need to do is repeat the first line. Sure, there are interdisciplinary art events, but even the name gives me pause and makes me cringe. Couldn’t they call it “mutt art?” That’s what it is! A little of this and a little of that. People call it cross or multi- genre performance. I call it vaudeville. I love vaudeville. I was raised before the death of variety shows, and I have never forgotten how much more alive I feel when I am not trapped in one form of art or another, but get to see how they all blend or clash. Long before the postmodernists declared the death of high and low art, vaudeville had already done so. On the Vaudeville circuit, a celebrity might tell anecdotes, a classical violinist might play a wonderful impromptu, a comic act might do a skit, followed by an aria from Mozart. It was divine madness, and these acts were honed and perfected over many years. This was long before we made academic careers out of analyzing pop culture through the rigorous jargon of critical theory.

This is what I knew about myself: I could write songs, and compose decent melodies. I was not a concert pianist by any stretch of the imagination, but I can put a song or a musical bit over fairly well. I am not a trained comic, or stand up, but I can be human in front of an audience, and I learned from my family how to tell a decent story. I am not an MFA trained poet, but I have read thousands of poems, have taught myself all the forms, have memorized at least a couple hundred poems, have learned the history of poetry, know prosody, and I can hold my own in the different styles. I am not a specialist in any one field of art. God knows I cannot dance, but I can do fairly good travesties of dancing. I have an expressive, though limited singing voice (actually I have a two and a half octave range when I’m not smoking, but I am not a trained singer) It is called being human. We think of hams as conceited, but a man who goes into the world trying to make something come alive is not a ham. A ham is someone who does not notice anyone else’s talent. I have never over read. I have never taken up more than my time on stage. And I have never cared if someone put me first or last.

I am a “mutt,” a cut up, a clown. Clowns are trained to run the emotional registers from funny to sad, from sublime to raunchy. Clowns believe that these mixed registers provide the ontological truth of existing. Clowns are morally adverse to the pure-bred. They are the only thing standing between people and purges, between the human and the human tendency to seek perfection to the point of slaughter. Clowns are the only true challenge to authority–not the revolutionaries, not the anti-this or that who, most of the time, are saying “I want the power,” but to authority. They tweak the nose of power itself, they show it for what it is: pathetic, evil, inhuman, the worst stain on our hearts. Clowns are not comic, but something more frightening and deeper. Clowns are the sacrifice of the high Mass, which is a solemn travesty, which is mutt, which is broken, which is vaudeville show in which very proper people come to watch a God be improperly slaughtered and then eat him (or her if you want me to be politically correct). The best clowns were the first and will be last to expose the lie of high or low art. They come to kill you and then raise you from the dead. To me, the motley is sacred, and it was always grounded in a sacred ritual of being, but it is not truly encouraged or allowed on the poetry scene. There are too many purists in poetry–and not just the academics. I saw it on the slam scene, too. It’s even worse in slam because they are all pretending to be communal and lowly while they take themselves way too seriously. It made me want to punch the mother fuckers out–all that fake love.

I stopped doing my shtick for the most part because I almost always feature with another poet, and some of them felt upstaged. I learned to muzzle my instincts, and stick to the program, but it cost me my joy. I would not sing during a reading because I knew I’d get clobbered for it. I would not joke, or cut up, or do a light verse ditty because, chances are, if it went over with the audience, some smug asshole would give me a left-handed compliment like: “You should do stand up.”

My “Art,” if it exists at all, exists as a belief in presence. Presence differs from entertainment in so far as it does not rule out the possibility of a deeper ontology. Judy Garland was present. Frank Sinatra was present. Lady Gaga has presence. There is something in presence that goes beyond mere entertainment, but also beyond perfection. Blake said “exuberance is beauty.” That’s the best quote I know on what I am trying to get at. You work hard at your act, but that work should not get in the way of presence–ever.

I am 53 years old and live in a time of reality television and Huxley’s Brave New World coming true. Camp and kitsch, and schlock, and self-help have lost their punch because there is no straight or normative culture to vamp or deconstruct anymore. This corporate culture deconstructs itself and, thereby, retains its power. It flies up its own asshole, and comes out the other end the same. When us triumphs over them, then us is them, and it needs to be attacked. Camp, kitsch, and the aesthetics of insignificance are the prevailing cultural norms. They are the norms which mean sincerity and ontology are the counter-statements: a seriousness that challenges the postmodern cliché of everything being leveled. Here, I seem to be contradicting myself since postmodernism prides itself on deconstructing levels, and being mixed register, but it has become authoritarian in its debunkings, in its fundamentalist “uncertainties.” It lacks kindness, and the generosity of true scorn. True scorn feigns disengagement. It uses numbness as a weapon to attack lies. It does not believe its own myth of snide. It does not make non-presence its chief aim. I find that I am bored for the first time in my life–bored with poetry, bored with art, bored with music. There are too many “knowing” people. No one is stupid with awe or pleasure, and any artist worth a damn knows that “stupidity” is as much a virtue as intelligence–as in instinct, as in intuition, as in being willing to fall on one’s ass, as in being unconscious of one’s effects, as in being unaware of one’s self.

I wish I could do what I really do: sing a song, recite a poem, tell a story, recite another poem, break out into dance or silliness, get serious, kill as many people as Hamlet, offer myself up in the high mass of my being–truly enact a ritual of presence, but I am limited by the expected forms. Edie gave me life when she let me be poetic whimsy at the piano. But even then, a couple poet friends of mine who thought they were looking out for my best interests said: “Joe, you’re a talented if raw poet… why make a fool of yourself?” I was in my early twenties. I figured they knew better than me. I was wrong. I should have answered: “I don’t have to make a fool of myself; I’m already a fool!” They could not understand what Edie understood, perhaps because she was older and could remember the golden age of American entertainment when vaudeville was kept alive in night club acts, and Marx brothers movies, and on variety shows. She knew what my real art was: a little of this and a little of that, and always aimed at the folks in Peoria–whatever in the human being truly goes beyond categorical pigeon holing. When I made someone laugh with a song, and then came back at them with a serious elegy, I was enacting their full emotional register as well as my own. It was a ceremony–an act. I should not have been made to feel ashamed of it. In later years, Deborah LaVeglia and Adele Kenny have often let me do my act, and much thanks to them, but it becomes harder because the professional surge in workshops and MFA programs, the continued bias towards the specialized, and the reduction of poetry to the either/or of performance or page has made vaudeville and presence a dubious value. I often dreamed of doing a sort of one or two hour act in which I would invite others up to do a bit, and run the full registers. But there is little market for this–and no memory of how enjoyable it could be. I would love to do something with Sweet Sue Terry, but I don’t have the money or the backing. I’d love to have a really good Jazz solo, and then combine a poem with a dance, and then tell some stories in between the acts, and truly create a ritual of being, but I’m getting old and there are people in power who don’t want to be shown up, or who have very lofty ideas of taste (taste can be a real drag). Non-feeing is the prevailing norm, and emotions are seen as questionable. Meaning is questionable. Fellow feeling is questionable. I’m not a sociopath. German decadence and French ennui, and American hipsters always bored me–for the most part. Their fascination with cruelty seemed redundant. Life is cruel enough without having to stylize it (though I understand the artistic need to stylize). I’m not into intellectual or aesthetic styles of S &M. It makes me sleepy. I mean I liked German decadence if it came with good legs, and French ennui had nice cheek bones, and knew how to smoke a cigarette, and American hipsters perfected the cues of be-bop and culturally savvy stand ups who assured us we were the knowing ones, and the culture was stupid, but, after a while, I grow weary of Bogart and pine for Cagney–the song and dance man. I don’t feel interested enough in poetry anymore to write it. I was never interested in poetry proper anyway. I was interested in poetry improper. As for songs, I can lose myself in song for hours in my living room, play to my ghosts, do Beethoven and follow it with Carole King, and I don’t need to enter the indie world of artistic blah. I was born in the wrong era. I spend my free time these days Googling dolphins, or old fast food franchises, or baseball, or songs. I am doing time. It is hard to believe in something that doesn’t believe in you.

Yesterday, I did a high school festival for the Dodge. Dodge is great in that it doesn’t force you to do the usual workshops. I talked to the students. We laughed and joked, and some people told me I had moved them but I couldn’t even remember what I had said because I was in the moment. I got paid 350 bucks, and spent two hundred of that in gas and hotels, but it was worth it. I didn’t read one poem in the classes. When the time came to read, I did two poems, and sat down. I feel exhausted by possibilities that will never come to fruition. I never wanted to read from a book and sit down. Whatever I thought I could do was often hemmed in and limited by gate keepers. All I ever wanted was to be devoured in some sense–to offer myself up on some imagined altar of being “in the moment.” Perhaps when the grid collapses, I’ll get my chance. I just hope they let me play the piano first.

So what is possibility? It is certainly no whore of failure or success. It is a feeling that you may be on to something–in the midst of something whose worth you cannot exactly measure and whose results you cannot predict. This was poetry for me, and music, and ballet, and art. I never cared that El Greco was a success. I cared about how he used blue and how it excited me, and how I wanted to join that blue.

This is what I find missing from my life to the point of wanting my life to end. Failure means not eating, and success means feeling empty even when you eat well, but that blue–Oh my fucking God! That means failure or success do not matter, and trusting you can live on the couch of a friend, and wake up with the blue still inside you. Without that, I would rather die.

In my worst moments, I roamed aimlessly through Manhattan hearing the insane voices of vagrants, and yet I never thought they were failures–for all their suffering. I thought they were prophets–and not because of some romantic myth, but because they were speaking beyond all failure, all success. I saw their spiritual reality and that made me write my poem, “Morning at the Elizabeth Arch.” It was this transcendence of the binaries. All art was always post-modern in this respect. The binaries will never be enough for an artist.

Once, after having my heart broken, I rode the bus back to Binghamton and a young woman sat down next to me. She was insane, but, like many of the insane, gentle and kind. She asked if I would hold her hand. I was so broken, I said OK, and I held her hand all the way from Manhattan to Binghamton (She was going to Cleveland). She said angels told her I would hold her hand without trying to hit on her. She was black, very beautiful, and lesbian. She was also right (at that time, I had no desire except to die) and I think angels did tell her.

In the course of those three hours, she told me angels spoke to her all the time. She said she was a singer, and ran away from home because the songs grew so intense inside her that she could not stay in Cleveland anymore. When she told me this, I wept, and I said: “your mother loves you, and many bad people will take advantage of you. Go back to Cleveland and sing your heart out, but rest in your family. They are not perfect. No one is perfect, but they love you because no one can be as nice as you are, if they were never loved.”

She played me a tape she’d made. She had a beautiful voice, I mean truly beautiful, and this made me even more sad because I thought about insane artists who God had touched with the power of grace, and I was scared for her. She told me: “You are angry for all of God’s children, and you need to stop the anger, not because it is bad, but because people can’t hear you when you are so angry.” We hugged, and exchanged numbers, and she went on to Cleveland. She called me a couple times, and she said: “God knows your anger. God will forgive you, because it is not against God. It is against yourself, and God will not forgive your anger against yourself because God loves you more than you could ever realize. God does not punish us for our sins against God. God correct us when we do not enter our full glory.” Then she thanked me for holding her hand from Manhattan to Binghamton, and I never saw or heard from her again.

This is a strange story. It is liable to get me laughed at, but it is exactly what I was raised with when I heard Christ’s words. We do not know what has value. We do not know where grace will visit us. We must have faith that there is value and grace and it will come–from a fresh spring we did not even consider drinking from. I expect to be wrong in what I value, and, out of grace, I expect God to correct me. Sometimes, we can only feel possibility when we are dragged down into our worst moments. I wish it could be different. I never cared about failure or success as much as I did about encountering grace. I believe in it. Maybe I am a moron. I don’t know.

In part one, I tried to enforce the idea that folk art is not necessarily superior to commodified art, and most art that we know and is brought to public consciousness, and endures is a combination, a dance so to speak between the genuine and the packaged, You have to cut the hog up to transport it, and a cut up hog can never be a free ranging pig, but it can give you the full flavor of what people in those parts love and have grown up on concerning the pig that ranged. You need to package the genuine in order to carry it to a new audience. One could make a case that the entire folk music scene from which Dylan, country rock, and long, often self indulgent singer-song writer songs emerged was far more in the category of commodity than folk–even as sacred a character as Woody Guthrie. A true folk artist wouldn’t worry about the purity of what he was doing, and if he can make good money for the people back home, and not be broke, he or she is going to let them cut up the hog–but only so far, and he is going to lament, sooner or later that, in cutting up the hog, they forgot the beauty and intelligence of the pig, and he may even be horrified at what they’ve done to his hog. This is why we have counter movements, and nothing is ever fully agreed upon.

Now the word academic can be taken in many ways. We could look at the glorious work Alan Lomax did, his scholarship in recording field hollers, convict songs, Appalachian music as well as Delta Blues. Instead of cutting up the hog, he did what a good scholar does: attempted to transport it whole, and preserve it so that it might be seen in its fullness and purity. This is scholarship. This is the good thing about Academic: it is work heavy, arduous, develops methods of qualification and research that tries to keep the hog in its full glory. Such scholarship is often brave, even fearless. often, no one understands or sees the value in some Northern Yankee running around the fields, and through the chain gangs in search of a song. No one understands why a scholar might spend thirty years codifying all the variants in the different versions of a single folk song sung mainly by half senile old ladies on their porches. The scholar, in this sense, is no less heroic than Beowulf.. He or she is going up against the dragon of half truths, and full out lies, and rumor, and finding the gem of what is complicated, and incremental and pain staking. This has none of the romance of the philosopher or theorist, none of the sweep. It is a daily, small, relentless contact with what can be recorded, verified, and put towards a body of research. All that said, the scholar works from the myth of purity, so that, for all his or her brave work, the best he or she can produce is a more accurate, far more exacting, far more useful falsehood–a falsehood that is then qualified, and corrected by equally brave and painstaking scholars, all of whom fine tune, and take a tooth brush to a thousand mile desert and start brushing.

God Bless them. For me, there is little as exciting in this life as a conversation with someone who has spent a life time knowing one small thing so well that it has become a world unto itself. Only trouble is, most scholars are terrified to expound and generalize since this is the work of theorists. I would rather talk to a good scholar who was willing to talk, than to a theorist who never fucking shuts up, but good scholars are often bad talkers, and they can be concrete at such a microscopic level that only another scholar knows what the hell they are talking about. I once spent three hours with an expert on 18 century prosody. It was heaven because I knew just enough to understand what he was discoursing on, but this is all too rare. Most of the time a good scholar is a bad theorist–not always, but often, and most theorists, rely on scholars because they aren’t exactly drudge workers. The worst nightmare for both theorists and scholars goes something like this: the scholar has spend 2o years studying the anatomy of a single kind of dinosaur. His research makes a big stir in the community of scholars. It is published in the best journal. It comes out on Yahoo or in the papers as:
“Scientists discover: Dinosaurs had lips!”

This same nightmare haunts theorists who have their whole complex spiel reduced to a single sound byte, and the sound byte is what people remember This is the academic version of: “look what they’ve done to my hog!”

The culprit here is purity on both ends. Purity in terms of the full hog, the free ranging pig, and purity in terms of how the hog is cut up and packaged. I will note four kinds of purity, all of which get us into trouble:

1. The purity of what something “really is.”
2. The purity of essentializing beyond substance.
3. The purity of subtantializing to such a degree that the essential is lost (the part of the elephant that is mistaken for “elephant.”).
4. The purity of correctives (reform, qualification, exceptions).

These four kinds of purity get mixed, and very often reduced to either/or: for example, either slam or academic, either oral or written, either uttered or read, and on and on. Folk art as I define it is not very interested–ever–in purity–until it gets packaged and firmly packaged in the myth of “what it really is.” Then nothing is more purist or snobby. Now let me try to list some of the traits of what I perceive as academic poetry, but I will list them in their laudatory, neutral, and dyslogistic registers:

A. Laudatory: It is poetry which is complex, multi-faceted, employing Empson’s types of ambiguity, more prone to showing than telling, and above all adverse to simplistic “issues.” it is what Barthes called “writerly.” It is highly mannered whether it is going for the decorative or the Zen form of simplicity. It is deliberate and careful not to say anything in an overt or obvious way. When it does say something overt or obvious it is always toward the ironic or the Dadaist.
B. Neutral: it is nuanced, understated, and covert.
C. Dyslogistic: It says nothing in perfectly wrought and well crafted lines,, is interesting only to its fellow adherents, is too often a code language for the MFA program the poet attended, and is snobbish, boring, and not at all interested in any audience other than the major small press magazines. It hates the idea of being entertaining, or of engaging a general audience, and it deals with nothing important. It is apolitical, amoral, and purposely read in as boring and dead pan a way as possible.

I am giving the three registers to get at different attitudes in terms of what people mean by academic poetry. Because “academic” has somehow become a pejorative, Those whose attitude is laudatory or neutral will just consider this sort of page poetry not to be academic, but to be true poetry, and all else is suspect and false. Those whose attitude is in the dyslogistic register, will see all nuanced and complex poetry as false and bogus (I know academics who see it that way!)Sadly, these folks are just as snobbish in their way as the supposed “academic” poetry they attack. Nuff said at the moment.

Other useful and informed falsehoods:
A. The academic purposely reads his or her poetry in a neutral, fully reading voice so as never to be confused with performing the poem.
B. The academic plays it safe, never curses, never uses mixed registers of speech, seldom pulls his nomenclature and word choice from different sources. if he or she does use the language of the volk, it is always in a measured and consistent way. Academic poets never mix registers because then they lose their academic sound. They always place semiotics above the work.
C. Academic poetry is fed, promoted, and preserved by art funding and university support and, left to fend on an open market, it could never survive. It is on permanent life support.

I think I have noted some of the basic ideas of what constitutes academic poetry. If put into bi-polar relationship with slam, it is defined by what slam ain’t. My purpose here is to skip all this usual stuff, and re-define academic poetry as commodity art. as such, it can produce works of lasting merit, great poems–but within the limits of its packaging. Whenever that package is challenged and loosened, this usually indicates that some force outside the package has been working on it, and making it looser. it is being infected by the impurity of what I define as folk art, but by what might better be called the force of the vital and the necessary. Systems are not destroyed so much by being challenged (since usually, the challenge is internecine–a fight between those on the inside). Systems are destroyed by radical obedience. A system is a form of desire. Desire dies when it is fulfilled. A system that becomes too completely what it is, becomes fulfilled and dies the natural death of fruition. All systems, just as all life rises from decay, and death. The rank stink of fertilizer is upon every systematic root. This is true of academic poetry and it is true of slam. All evolves toward fulfillment (or reduction), and the system that becomes aware of itself as a form seeks not to die. In order not to die it must have an opposition, an enemy against by which its absolute fulfillment is thwarted and by which it defines itself. As long as we have a tug of war, neither end can die, but if that tug creates the intimacy of opposition (Holderin’s beautiful phrase) than each system can be perpetuated, usually under new names. Commodity art is all about names and semiotics. It must look, smell, taste, sound, and feel like academic poetry in order to be academic poetry–the slavery of the packaged.

Same for slam. When a new element is introduced, people force it into the mold. By doing so they can change the mold without suffering the crisis of difference. Before this happens, the one who introduces a new element will not be perceived as doing so. They will usually be disparaged or ignored by both ends of the tug of war–seen as an anomaly, neither fish nor fowl, just wrong. Those who consciously challenge a system will be understood within the terms of challenge. This is not true folk. Folk does not challenge. it obeys some inner necessity and, by doing so, remains vital, invisible. No sooner is it seen as this or that than it stops being vital and becomes packaged. We can only be willfully “open.” We are never so open except in theory. Human beings package things and put them into categories no matter how post-modernist they pretend to be. We seek the portable. Packaging makes a thing portable. So commodity is not always evil–just limiting by its very definition. I define both slam and academic poetry as commodity art. They are limiting. Neither can ever be the vital force because the vital goes unseen and unknown through the veins of the scene. It moves as the blood through all things that would not impede its flow. Spoken word was motley and large enough, and undefined enough to allow the force of the vital. Academia does not allow for a good, rhetorical, overt rabble rousing poem and this is regrettable. at the same time, I knew people on the spoken word scene who wrote poems like Creeley or Oppen, and read them as such. I knew people who did shtick. It was wide open. Being an old man I know nothing is allowed to remain wide open. it will bleed out and be butchered. Slam does not allow for Oppen or Creeley and this is unfortunate, Academic and slam poetry are not friends of the vital. The vital will come to these camps only by cross breeding, or by the restrictions being so perfectly adhered to that they die as a result of being fulfilled. Obedience, which unlike conformity, is ferocious and dynamic ,will always destroy what it obeys by fulfilling the law. The absolute perfect slam poem or academic poem belongs neither to slam or academic poetry: it belongs to the spoken or written word and allows both systems to die into freedom from the law. My qualms with both academic and slam are situational. Before such great and unseen moments of perfect obedience, both slam and academic poetry restrict and limit the life of the vital.

As a teacher, my job is to inform my students of as many schools as possible , both their virtues and limtations, so that, choosing what they must obey, they destroy all schools and allow the vital to flow. My motto was always: learn from all schools, be faithful to none. One is not faithful to the law. This is conformity. One fulfills the law. This is necessity or obedience. The inner necessity of art is never a system, cannot be confined to a system, for it is longing and desire itself. My definition of academic is that which would commodify, reduce, and package, and make its laws of letter superior to the laws of the spirit. Under this definition, slam is not the true opposition of the academic, but another form of the academic. Good work can come of it, but only when it is escapes its commodity, or fulfills it to the point of making change not only neccessary, but inevitable. Slam has changed in the 25 years since it grew as an off shoot of spoken word. Because of its exposure on television, it became more about a look, a set of semiotics. This is horse shit. This is what art comes to destroy.

Slam comes out of spoken word, hip-hop, bar poetry, speechifying, the mongrel mix of the jazz cutting contest and the old gong show (as it has become more a commodity of the universities it has lost the gong show aspect and is beginning to effect a gravitas that disrespects its own origins and plays to the same snobbery as academic poetry). Slam replaced spoken word. Spoken word was never a commodity. It was a true alternative to academic poetry–albeit, with no possibility of making cash or meeting the target market for media (ages 18 to 34, and then you don’t exist). it was done for the sheer hell of doing something different, good, bad, or otherwise, and had a true communal meaning. Slam mimics that communal meaning while being largely pro-clique and power driven. This is the difference between folk art, any kind of true grass roots art and what I’ll call commodity.

Because folk art never strays far from the pub, the fire place, the kitchen, the porch, its forms evolve organically: the packaging is loose at best and allows all sorts of influences to enter and exit in a more natural unpremeditated way. It is based not on expertise, but on a daily life line to the experiences of its locality. Where group expertise is involved (little children exposed to polytonal and microtonal harmonies and rhythms will very easily assimilate them) amazing and complex musical and literary structures can grow from very humble and poor soil. Where individual genius is forged in this same environment, the local legend, the great fiddle player or story teller or bard (or black top hoops player) remains within the community and speaks for it, not above it. Such performers are often packaged by outside forces based on commodity and then we have a merge point between folk art and commodity art. The natural, the root, the raw artists rising from the “primal” is always an artist spoken of in the language of commodity art. He or she is being packaged, limited to a sellable category–a niche. In this respect, the “genuine” is always false. If an artist is truly genuine, no one has to say it, and, if someone says it, commodity is always the background of this utterance. Gatekeepers decide what is “genuine.” They decide that folk music can only be played on acoustic instruments, or it can only use a certain number of chords, or it must deal with certain themes and in certain language. They do this to “identify” and sell. This is never the way of folk. If I had to define true folk instruments it would be: Anything that makes a sound, electric or acoustic, that gives expression, pleasure, and duration to the dirt you stand on, and that you can warp to the needs of the moment.

This definition, then includes the original record player scratchings, and boom boxes as well as beat makings of rap and hip hop culture. Folk is, by necessity, always impure. it steals whatever it needs to steal, and leaves the package loose. If you could still go to a back mountain somewhere, and you brought some classical records with you, the resident musician would be all ears. His eyes would light up. he’d say: that sure is pretty, and, if he could, he’d take something from it–whatever riff was available under his limits, wherever riffs made contact with his dirt. This is how jazz and folk and all music evolved–someone took a little something from wherever they could find it and made it his or her own–with no apologies. Only scholars and businessmen believe in purity and property. Land is not the same as property. Property can be owned from a distance; land has to be worked and stood on.

Spoken word was a folk culture. If you read in a bar and were a cut better than most, you got recognized by your fellow readers–no scores necessary. The feature at a bar was based almost always on local reputation. I consider myself a spoken word poet–not by the definitions of commodity art which would dress spoken word in the drag of its obnoxious gatekeepers (who always get it wrong on purpose) but by how I did my poems: I went to open readings. I waited my turn. I read in the open–one or two poems. People liked it. They asked me to feature. My pay was either a pat on the back or, sometimes, a collection from the hat, or, on rare occasions, 50 bucks. Being a folk artist, I didn’t think it unnecessary to read Wallace Stevens or Neruda or Whitman or any of those guys. No folk artist has to try to be a folk artist by keeping his influences pure. In point of fact, I read such poets almost exclusively, and skipped Bukowski and the so called recognized “heroes” of the spoken word–not because I was a snob, but because that was the ground I stood on. You don’t read what you’re standing on (you’ll bump your head into a tree staring at your shoes). You look toward the horizon. I didn’t think of these poets as sacred cows. They were making pretty music, and where I could, I copped some of their chord changes.

My poems were often stories–sad and funny, very different from what I read, but I’d flavor them up with what I’d seen on the horizon. I was listening to the poets at the bars, too, and learning from them. I had no “standards” except pleasure, and transport, and the motley accident of being curious and an avid reader (with no given assignments). I read Williams the same way I read vampire comics: for pleasure and for the purposes of theft. This is the folk art way, and it survives commodity art even when it is packaged and sold–if it knows what’s good for it. Artists who become “pure” become gatekeepers and jailors, and shit asses. You don’t steal what you have; you steal what you don’t have. I stole the Spanish surrealists, and the modernists, and the contemporary academic poets I liked because I didn’t have those boys and girls. People in bars would try to compliment me by telling me I was like Bukowski (Meaning I was narrative. I have no other relation to Bukowski) or that I was raw (meaning I cursed, but everyone curses in Elizabeth–it’s an art) or meaning I was self taught ( everyone, for your information is self taught. Otherwise, you’re just brain washed).

So this is why I say Spoken word is folk art, and why I say academic and slam poetry is commodity art. Now before you go off thinking I’m saying one is better than the other, let me explain myself: great commodity art is made. It’s whole point is to be good, or, at least, competent, and it often succeeds (though the definitions of what is good or bad are often inaccurate). Great folk art is made, and if it is great, it is bound to be commodified or, at least, commemorated in the minds and hearts and memories of those who knew the local legend–the great man or woman who stood on their dirt and sang for it, but the purpose of folk art is not necessarily to be good. Folk art does not truck much in standards. It is more about doing the thing, and learning it so you can enter. The purpose of folk art is to express what is necessary, and true and particular to that locality and time, and to infect that locality with something different when it needs something different. No one gate keeps there–at least not as official critics or keepers of value. In the folk way, you do what you do, and good or bad, you keep doing it, and no one stops you because no one owns the porch, the kitchen, the field, or the bar except those you’ve known and lived among all your life.

When greatness rises from a place where the point is not to be good, but to do what you do, it is recognized in a different way:

1. Everyone sees that great player or story teller as reflecting their own experience–not as a special commodity to be envied, but as an extension of who they are, and they take pride in him or her, and allow them to get away with less labor or certain eccentricities because they know talent needs some leisure and time to waste.

2. No one cares if that person is on a national stage. This is not star fucking time. It’s like inner city basketball: a local street legend gets talked about as much as an NBA all star in his or her own neighborhood.

Commodity art’s first action then is to define what is “good” and standardize it. It’s chief activity is to narrow by defining and packaging the product. When slam first started out, any kind of spoken word artist could win–short poem, long poem, comedy routine disguised as poem–it didn’t matter. There were rules, but these were basic, and evolved from the typical open: three minutes, don’t hog anyone’s time. Hal Sirowitz could not win a single slam today, but he could win major slams in 1992. Patricia Smith has been so copied and ripped off, and by young slammers who don’t know their history, and don’t even know who Patricia Smith is, and, while they know 100 slammers, they often don’t know a single fucking poet except what they were forced to read in high school. Patricia would still place well, but she wouldn’t win, not because she isn’t great but because she’s not in the mix–the gatekeepers box. She helped make the box, but she ain’t in it.

Slam is a reduction, a commodification of spoken word–a limiting of it for the purpose of commodity. Gone are the hecklers and the different kinds of styles. It has dumped many of the traits of spoken word poets, including the fact that most spoken word poets I knew were very well read, and didn’t just know each other’s work. Like me, they were reading all kinds of literature and using it in their poems. Some were L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets (Boni Joi), others performance artists (Dave Lancet), still others lyrical types, or nature poets, or heavily political (Elliot Katz). It didn’t come down to a formula. Spoken word is a folk art that slam refined, defined, commodified, and killed. There are no bar readings the way there once were–regular readings you can count on every month where the feature and the open readers are in the same ball park, and no official contest is taking place. Features are important. I don’t agree with opens only. That’s soccer mom, everybody is equal falsehood. Poets that put their time in ought to get some propers once in awhile–especially from their local scene. Pretending everyone is on the same level is a lie, but, in folk tradition, the poet rises by public and invisible assent. In true folk tradition, those who excelled were honored–not forced to be just part of the background. They weren’t idolized, but they were loved and given ample room for expressing the best their community had to offer.

Now Slam pays lip service to these traits, but doesn’t really honor them. A slam voice, even a slam body, a def jam mentality now owns this sector that once belonged to spoken word, and there is money and even tenure to be had in slam. For this very reason it must be defined, packaged, and sold as a product.

The universities know slam puts seats in their colleges, and slam is the new academia–the commodified ghost of a folk culture. Great poems come out of slam, but only under the defined limits. You know something is commodified when it is not allowed to flourish outside its own boundaries. Slam is the new academic poetry. it has workshops, coaches, and experts. It confers power and withholds it beyond the secret engines of the folk. This makes me sad. I never became an academic even though I was given a lectureship at a major university. I don’t know how to be an academic. I am not a folk artist by definition, but by accident. Academics refuse to hear any pretty music that isn’t defined by them, and the slammers are fucking just like them. I have no place for any group that refuses to hear music other than their own. They kill art and make it far less dynamic than it could be.

Signs of slams commodity: the agist demographic of 18 to 34 (just like most media) and the emphasis on a look, a style. When this is recognized, there will be senior slam leagues, and everyone will have their fucking niche after they are forced to retire from the 18 to 34 demographic. The money made is not in slamming so much as in touring, and giving workshops–just like academia. There will be slam courses and professors at universities. Spare me the horse shit of slam not being academic. I never had any problem with its unfair judging, or its competition. This was honest dishonesty, and I accept that. What isn’t honest is its pretending to be an alternative to academia. Rigidity and forms of right way and wrong way to slam ARE academic. That’s the very soul of the academic: rules of thumb and theory. That is the very definition of academic.

I think much slam is more competent than the spoken word scene I knew–but it is also more limited and limiting, and the greatness that rises from it won’t stand up because the whole point of commodity art is to make sure only the “standards” stand out. Anyone who does something truly different in slam will get low scores until they can somehow “same” their changes and make the gatekeepers think it was their idea all along. With all this said: I am going to write a full primer for my classes on slam. And it will be a good primer because me and the spoken word artists I knew are the origins of this shit.

In his inimitable fashion, Joe Weil treats the pains of life as joy and the joys of life as pain. This diverse collection ranges from Weil’s classics (“Poem with Lamb and Potatoes”, “Cricket Hour”) to a series of haikus dedicated to a dead groundhog (“Dead Groundhog Lust Haiku”). A short run was made available through the short-lived Press Electrrrric! and is now available online.

Click on the book cover for a preview and free download.

 

 

Around ten years ago, at a small dinner party thrown by my friend and mentor, Edie Eustace, I had the pleasure of meeting Sweet Sue Terry, a composer and Jazz saxophonist, who does a rather remarkable thing with poems: she sets them word for word, actually, often syllable for syllable to note values. The word “value” is important here. Sue has both a composer’s sense of structure, and a jazz improviser’s sense of immediate invention, so we are getting a professional composer with major league chops doing a close reading of a poem. In this case, it was “Hurt Hawks” by Robinson Jeffers (A poem you ought to know, and if you don’t shame on you). Sue Terry also reads poetry, writes it occasionally, and came at the poem in a fresh way, unsullied by pretensions as to its purity. She had made copies of Hurt Hawks and handed them out (this was after dinner as we all sat in Edie’s very comfortable living room) Since I had memorized the poem many years ago, I only had to glance here or there at what was now “the score.”

I am a decent pianist–not great. I taught myself to play by ear, and spent most of my youth composing songs, fake Bach pieces, mock Chopin. I have some talent for composition, and for making out of tune pianos sound good. At one point, I made a very precarious living playing piano in a couple bars, one of which was run by a coke fiend who had a driver pick me up for the gig three times a week. The driver turned out to be a rapist.

So I know a good musician when I hear one–not just a chops specialist, not just a technician, but someone who can bring out whatever serves the music, whose improvisations add to it, whose sense of creativity is not just a form of showing off runs. Sweet Sue Terry was on this order. She was not just playing a musical tribute to a poem she loved; she was reading, literally reading the score of that poem as her audience read along with her–word for word, syllable for syllable, and unlike many collaborations between music and poetry that was written with no music in mind, this worked. It did more than worked. For a good month after the dinner party, I would take out Robinson Jeffers’ great poem, and sit, recalling whatever I could of Terry’s lines. Her musical setting, or rather her musical Reading” of the poem had a profound and lasting effect on what I knew could be done with music and poetry.

Let me be blunt: most collaborations between music and poetry hurt both the poem and the music. There are several reasons for this:

1. Poets, unlike band members are rather timid about being thought “entertaining.” They don’t perform. Ah… but Sweet Sue was not performing that day, either–she was living in intimate relationship to the poem. She was reading it. So let’s go a little deeper: most poets do not truly read their poems–not closely. They stand up there rehashing them, failing to enter their own text. “reading” out loud is a hybrid art between the public barbaric yawp and the secret utterance. This means a poet must find a ceremony somewhere between being alone in his or her consciousness, and projecting that consciousness outward–like a prayer. It does not have anything to do with being introverted or extroverted, friendly, or taciturn. It is all about destroying those distinctions so that the compound of intimate consciousness and public performance becomes “presence.” Now, many people who fancy themselves experts on reading or playing and cannot apprehend true presence, but, most people, who are not arrogant about their expertise, know when they encounter it. I watched a group of bored teenagers at the last Dodge festival be transformed in an old Baptist church by the “presence” of Marie Ponsot. It was not long after her stroke. Her voice was clear, but weak. She had to pluck her words slowly from the tree of consciousness. She was everything you might think would be a nightmare to young students committed to being bored, but she created a presence. It did not patronize. It did not play to the cheap seats. It blew, and the spirit of its breath gave something greater than entertainment: it gave welcome, on its own terms, without stooping. This is the reason most poets stink at performing with musicians. It does not matter if they are as extroverted as Al Jolson (think Bly on a bad day) or introverted: they are not present. This is more egregious than failing to perform. Billy Holiday did not perform. Lester Young did not perform. When they did perform, it was to serve the presence–not to replace it. Without presence, you can walk the bar all you want, and the vulgar will mistake this for true worth, but you will hurt both the music and the poem.

2. Poets who read to music, often don’t know music well enough to interact with it. We all think we know music, and it’s true–but knowing it, and interacting with it are very different. I once asked a musician friend of mine why he was so in love with Count Basie’s piano playing. He conceded that Art Tatum had far greater skills, but his fantasy was to be alone in a bar and have the ghost of Basie come and play. He said: “Art Tatum could play more notes, faster, and better than anyone with the possible exception of Jesus of Nazareth, but the Count sat out. He knew how to sit out. He knew what not and when not to play, and if you could hear his sitting outs, you’d realize they were the equal of Tatum’s sitting ins.”

Poets, if they are going to perform with bands, need to work more on sitting out than anything else. How do I allow the music to enter, and when do I blow? What’s the ratio? If I’m reading to a blue’s piece, how can I give propers to the 12 bar blues with my free verse structures? How do I go in and out of the beat, vary my speeds, enter in such a way that people are not just hearing my poem over the music, but are hearing my poem within the music? How do I sit out? A poet bad at this is like a lounge singer. Sometimes, the musicians just play the changes and pretend he or she is not there. It’s important, if you are going to read poems to music, to learn when to shut up. You need to know where the words and the music could come in together without either being diminished. This takes practice, as much practice as it takes to learn the writing of poetry or the playing of an instrument..

3. Poets are often both snobs in the wrong way (My poems are too perfect to be done with music) and egalitarian in the wrong way (I want to be a frggin’ rock star). An audience does not like a snob (unless it is full of snobs). An audience also dislikes slavishness. I thought spoken word was much better when the slam artists didn’t memorize their texts. I liked the tension between reading it yet performing it. Now I see a bunch of actors up there, doing what actors do–especially bad actors. I can’t go to a slam without getting angry, and I have a terrible Irish temper. I sit there thinking : “If you touch your thorax, then put your arms out one more time to show me how sincere you are, I’m going to slit your throat with the sharp edge of a judge’s card.” I am not a page poet, but I believe in the page. A body that is trained to not be itself is not a body. Good performers use their flaws–not just some template of a body work shop.

I believe poets can benefit from reading to music, even if they won’t do so in public, just to find a presence in their voices–something beyond either the idiocy of academics who want to down play all performance, and the idiocy of slammers who don’t understand the difference between presence and performance. What’s the difference? Listen to Count Basie or Billy Holiday or Lester Young. The difference is the whole of the sky.

From what I’ve seen of student work, many are fascinated with fantasy/science fiction and what one of students called nerd consciousness–anything but emotional nuance and or engagement with day to day reality. Since few have an adequate template for poetry on fairies, ghosts, and the like, they tend not to write fantasy poems. This leaves love and slam. Slam poetry seems highly invested in the personal as the political: gender and sexuality, cutting, fat acceptance, suicide, drugs, family dysfunction, all tied together by more and more polyglot metaphors and an overly sold voice that makes “pass the salt” sound far more dramatic than it has any right to be. There is a slam voice that goes up in the register (this is usually done by white boy slammers) and sounds almost like a strangled or thwarted gobble. Usually this is reserved for an apostrophic address to some absent but all pervasive victimizer: America, racism, mom and/or dad, or some ex lover who is almost always brutal and has destroyed our hero/poet so that he might make metaphors between black holes, intergalactic space, and their destructive love. I do not hate spoken word. I hate ham acting. I would describe the current slam scene as anti-nuance. A low key slam poem is virtually impossible. Most slam might be defined as political correctness meets Oprah share session meets William Shatner doing the lyrics to Barry Manilow’s “Weekend in New England” meets dysfunction meets metaphor as defined by the current writing initiative guidelines on effective personal essays. Slam is enormously popular and is now in the process of being co-opted by the Universities. Soon there will be fully tenured slam professors. Universities like money. They can speak about ethics all they want, but cash cows win. End of story.

And so I do not outlaw slam. If slam becomes the new orthodoxy, then highly talented, highly gifted young poets will be forced to fit the mold and, being, forced, will subvert slam and change it from within. At least, I hope so. At any rate, my qualms against slam:

1. It does not allow for the short, short poem (very rarely), and it does not allow for the long poem (very rarely) and is creating a fixed monologue poem (or group poem dynamic) that lasts from two minutes to three minutes ten seconds–an actor’s audition length of time. Slam, when it first appeared, had no set form except the time, but short poems could score high–poems of less than a minute, and acting chops were not required (especially ham acting and over selling). Enforced intensity and energy are as obnoxious as the purposely dead pan and flat free verse of academic poetry They’re the same thing: a fucking lie. When people stopped clapping at academic readings I think they did so in order to distinguish themselves from entertainment. Poetry readings have become more and more boring as a result. It’s like going to church without even having an interesting statue of some tortured saint to look at. I am hoping that academics will learn to respond again, and I am hoping that slam cuts out their fucking pep rally, and allows the real energy of the poem and audience to flourish. I doubt it on both counts.

2. The stakes for wining have become so high that no one takes chances, further creating a uniform and tyrannical sameness. Those who score high, eventually tour and teach and this makes money. Slam is as much about acting chops as poetry. Actually, slam comes as much out of Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior, and the anti-joke, social commentary tradition of post-fifties stand up as it does out of poetry. This is true of spken word as a whole, but slam in particular is about winning over an audience through identification. Everyone is preaching to the converted–a hipster’s pep rally. It’s pisses me off. I almost would prefer a monster truck show.

3. Slam is corporate, fitting the agist demographic of media: the 18 to 34 year old target market. This is in direct contradiction to its foreparent: spoken word. Those who defy this demographic inhabit the back waters of slam obscurity. Spoken word had an understated, but true sense of community. Many of the poets I met on the spoken word scene when I was in my early 20s, were 20 years older than me. I did not grow up in the suburbs and so did not have the same demographic sense of age ghettos, and boundaries. I became close to many of these poets. On the slam scene, community is pushed as an agenda and has all the artificiality of a talk show kiss on the cheek. Phatic closeness scares the shit out of me.

4. Slam abandons a true embracing of difference for a largely virtual advocation of multi-culturalism. Yes, it is multi-race, but each race seems condemned to its semiotic indicators. This is the tyranny of semiotics–identification rather than diversity. This is also a problem in academia, in the whole of American consciousness: identity is insisted upon through semiotics because of brand recognition.

Putting these qualms aside, slam has some potentials I advocate:

1. The return of rhythmic and cadenced speech and rhetoric to an at least equal priority with the image. This includes the re-emergence of extended and Homeric metaphor, anaphora, apostrophic address, hyperbole, decorative speech, and the idea of poetry being an utterance distinct from neutral registers of language. Good poets never abandoned these devices, but mediocre poets could, by the triumph of modified forms of imagism, get away with having tin ears, flat voices, and no sense of rhythm and cadence whatsoever. In short, overly simple prose with line breaks.
2. A return of the body and physical presense to poetry.
3. Energy and intensity as values which are not discouraged.
4. Appeal to an actual audience.

Of course, some of these potentials are tied in with the worst aspects of slam as well, and, truly, spoken word (which is much larger and less limited than slam) was already reviving these aspects of poetry. Slam has merely added commodity and a movement toward uniformity to the proceedings.

UPDATE: Here are some YouTube videos that clarify what I’m talking about above.

Here, the extention of metaphor in this poem and the formula hperbolic slam voice. The next poem is identification slam 101.

This is one of the more famous slam poems. Note Anis does not play the usual slam formula, but there is still a cadence that many slam poets mimic. Listen to how he says the word alone. Shake the dust, the tag line is a quote from the bible.

Note the tremolo in Sierra’s voice. She is doing a persona poem as Dahmer’s mother–a steal from Particia Smith’s persona poems (like Skin Head, from which it derives), and also Cornelius Eady, but note how she over sells the poem. You can find Patrica Smith and Hal Sirowitz on youtube. I’d compare them to what Anne Carson is doing, also Sharon Olds. All available on YouTube.

We can simplify imagery by saying it is that aspect of writing which appeals to the five senses; but that would be incorrect without the qualifier “sensual.” If we want to be more expansive, but not make the term entirely meaningless (and definitions that insist imagery is anything evoked by words are meaningless) we can use the following qualifiers:

1. Sensual imagery: any evocation of the senses–tactile, auditory, visual, aural, and olfactory in their strict sense as descriptive
2. Intuitive imagery: images that seem scattered and incongruous, non-linear, and perhaps surreal that travel somewhere between concrete detail and abstractions or fantastical combinations of things, places, concepts, things
3. Kinetic imagery: any word or group of words evoking action
4. Abstract or conceptual imagery: forms of synecdoche, metonymy, figurative speech, sensual imagery used to evoke ideas to which one of the five senses or kinesis still clings in ghostly form
5. Conceptual imagery: mere abstraction
6. Evocative/feeling imagery: where any of the preceding forms of imagery are put toward creating a feeling or emotional atmosphere

Poems before the Modernist era tend not to stress “show/don’t tell.” This was a revolutionary concept, partly wrought as a reaction against romanticism, influenced by the simplicity of realism and journalism, and the influence of Japanese and Chinese modes of poetry (misunderstood, of course). Modernist imagist work is also heavily indebted to the dominance of prose. Before Modernism, most poetry told, with showing as merely a form of decoration. Either that, or poetry sought a synthesis between showing and telling where the showing told and the telling showed. When Shakespeare writes, “Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” he is using a form of conceptual or abstract imagery known as synecdoche in which a part stands for the whole: true minds stands for the whole.

Or later: “No. it is an ever fixed mark!” Here, Shakespeare is using imagery in a figurative, not literal way. He is not describing. Instead, he is suggesting a sort of analogy between steadfastness in love and a star that remains fixed in its position. This is very different than a haiku:

Along the river’s edge
ice. And a dead bee deep
in the brown hydrangea.

Here the images need not be taken as implying anything, but one may read winter into them, or the approach of winter. One could see this as both sensual and feeling imagery. Sensually, not one line is without a concrete visual image. In terms of feeling, it may evoke a mood of sadness (though this may not be the case depending on whether you’re the type open to suggestions of feeling states, or somewhat literalist and immune to feeling atmosphere). Someone, especially people that need poetry to have a theme or idea might say: “dead bees… so what?”

Evocation is a risky game, but, for the past 100 years, poets have been told not to preach, or tell, or pontificate, but to show, suggest, and evoke. So evocation and suggestion have been the “ideal” and have become standard. When you look at each poems, you should be aware of what sort of imagery is being employed and whether or not this is the most effective type for the writer’s purposes.

Here’s a writing exercise:
Consider the forms of imagery in the following poems: Hardy’s “To A Darkling Thrush,” Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” Stephen Dunn’s “Happiness,” Paul Eluard’s “Blazon,” Moore’s “The Fish,” Lucille Clifton’s “Hips.” Note what sort of imagery each poet favors. How does their choice of images effect style and tone? Imitate two of the styles. If Clifton, do a poem extolling (or condemning) a body part; if Dunn, take an abstraction like sadness or boredom, and visualize it. Good luck.

Maybe my mom was right.

I have an older brain damaged brother, Peter. In 1953, a small pox vaccination failed to localize and shot up to his brain. Encephalitus (swelling of the brain tissue) and a high fever ensued. They were not able to get the swelling or the fever down in time to prevent extensive brain damage. The convulsions Peter went through afterwards were damaging his brain further so, in 1955 , Peter underwent a hemispheral removal of most of the left side of his brain. This was done in an attempt to stop the convulsions and with the hope that his right brain would assume and compensate for his left. He was one of the first people to undergo this operation. For a time it was successful, but then the convulsions returned, each convulsion wreaking havoc, and, in the 1970′s, Peter suffered encephalitis again. This time, he went into a three year light coma. When he woke from the coma, he could no longer sing our family.

Sing our family? Yes. Peter, could only say a few words: “What” was his name for my mother (because she was always calling out to him : “what, Peter?”). Water was close to “what” but distinct enough. After that, he did not speak accept through songs. Peter loved bright lights, loud sounds, and most of all, music. He loved when my parents yelled, and unlike us, would laugh and sing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” My mother played records to calm him, and he could sing the words. More importantly, he could modify words.

We all kow the parts of the brain that sing and those that speak aloud are not the same. There are hundreds of stories about stammers and stutterers with the voice of angels. But Peter took this difference one step further. He changed the lyrics slightly to identify me, showing some sort of brain function that could recognize syllable counts and accents. He had a different song for everyone in the family.

“Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, How you can love,” for my brother John.

“All day, all night Mary Ann,” for my sister Mary .

He had a song for different behaviors: “Why do fools fall in Love?” for when my parents fought.

“It’s another be good to mommy day”, for when he threw dinner plates, or ripped down curtains (he was hyperactive).

But perhaps the most interesting song was the one he modified for me: “Daisy, Daisy.” The song lyrics:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do.
I’m half crazy over the love of you.

He changed Daisy to Joseph. This meant his brain was capable of substitution, even of improvisation (they say he has the mind of a six month old). He would sing this on occasion, belting it from the hopsital bed we had set up for him in the bedroom. He sang these songs through out the day. it was his way of station identification. It was his family. For the dog he sang “How much is that doggy in the window.” Our dog, Peppy, was wonderful with Peter, always understanding, even when Peter would be rough with him. Peppy saved my brother’s life by waking my mother up while Peter was in the midst of a terrible convulsion.

So my mom thought about all this, and until the day she died, she believed that certain great abilities, even certain forms of genius, might be the result of a re-routing of the brain from an accident/disability.In short, she thought all genius was a form of brain damage. She thought genius and creativity were compensatory or re-routed adjustments of a broken self. She said: “your brother is a marvel. You should remember that at the same time you remember he is brain damaged. You should remember how amazing he is.”

Here is an excerpt from an article in a Harvard Medical Journal on how many great artists might have suffered from an ocular disability of depth perception often known as lazy or wandering eye causing “stereo blindness”, and how the lack of one form of depth perception might have been an advantage to their use of other forms of persepective, shading, and three dimentionality. I just think this stuff is interesting. We want to fix everyone and reform everything–especially if it works in a way we don’t approve. We say we love mystery, but we persecute and taunt those who come to greater truths by defective means. This article ought to make us at least consider that what we disparage, may hide a remakable gift. The stones the builders reject might become the cornerstone:

Sleight of Sight

It seems logical that artists, like baseball players, would find any visual defect detrimental to their work. Yet, when we looked at photographic portraits and compared the position of the light reflex in the eyes of 53 famous artists, we found a surprising proportion—28 percent—with misaligned eyes, which would suggest stereoblindness. The artists with ocular misalignment included Marc Chagall, Edward Hopper, Gustav Klimt, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Man Ray, Chuck Close, Thomas Moran, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder, Robert Rauschenberg, N. C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, and perhaps even Pablo Picasso.