≡ Menu

Joe Weil

Certain sections of broca’s area of the brain are involved both in how words are given syntactical order and how gestures, physical movements are interpreted as flow, as arc, as coherent actions. We know that broca lights up like a pin ball machine when shadow puppets are introduced before the eye. My theory of narrative is that it is arc, gesture, syntactical force the most common of which is what we call a story, but not exclusive to story. We have difficulty seeing narrative as lyrical because it seems more “rule” bound than what we consider lyrical–thus, my students tendency to resist turning their gerunds and participles into active verbs, as if adding “ing” to the verb kept the language safe from being overdetermined and definite. This use of gerunds and participles creates a lot of syntactic ambiguity and I think the brain recognizes this as somehow more “lyrical” because it does not activate the broca region to the degree that a syntactically definite sentence (or concrete sequential gesture/action) would. I have often been called a n intensely narrative poet. Truth is, hardly any of my poems use story as their main agent. There are antidotes or gestures toward action in my poems, but very little plot or tale. If I think of four of my most well-known poems, only “Elegy for Sue Repeezi” is a true narrative. “Ode to Elizabeth,” while using antidotes, is truly an ode–a poem of praise and its narratives (I never have one narrative in any of my poems) are illustrative of a panoramic attitude toward a place rather than telling the story of that place. My poem “Fists” is also without a plot. There are actions and memories, but nothing happens that could be construed as a plot. “Morning at the Elizabeth Arch” is not at all a strict narrative.

So if this is true, why do I have a reputation for narrative rather than lyrical poetry? First, with the exception of Whitman, I loath floating or ambiguous syntax. I find blunt sentences, strong verbs, and concrete gestures to be far more aesthetically appealing than ambiguity. Floating is not a desire of mine. Words with no definite position are active principle tend to be inert and uninteresting to me. I also am not a big fan of conventional plot, or linear progression. I like quick bursts of energy, the voice strong and moving between different registers of speech. this does not fit the groove of what we currently recognize as lyrical poetry. It also is outside the groove of what we call narrative poetry proper (which I often find pedestrian and boring). I am far more interested and turned on by affective–narrative, poetry that excites with many gestures and strong movements. My poems are too cognitive for many contemporary poetic tastes, yet, among the narrative poets, or those more conventionally anchored to narrative, I am considered too lacking in progression and the nuance of progression. What many contemporary poets admire I often find inert and faux-lyrical. I also have no love or particular patience with neutral registers of speech and much of what passes for lyrical shares this very middle brow way of uttering–a sort of ongoing equivocation and mincing around nuances that may or may not exist. No thanks.

So if narrative poetry is not story, or linear progression, or antidote, what is it? It seems to be that form of poetry that engages the syntax of gesture,of action, that lights up the part of the brain that wishes to create an arc, to make sense of an action or series of actions. I write poetry in this manner because, while prose can relay information or story well enough, it can not come close to poetry and line in terms of creating the vital tension and speed of gestures, and it cannot isolate single lines, or rhythmic gestures as well as free verse. Prose, except in its more experimental forms, insists as an ordering agent that is closer to logical progression and priority of information, and its stories then are never pure modes of action. They are set up by exposition. Poetry allows me to dump exposition and cut to the chase. Poetry allows me to move between the ordering of the Broca region (syntax and gestures) and the isolate, monolithic qualities of single words as words–language as a form of pure sound and vocality without locality. Poetry for me is the realm of affective action. line moves, line itself is narrative. It makes sense that much language and experimental poetry, getting rid of coherent meaning or story, would start skewing and playing the line in a far more dramatic way. Why? Because the line is a gesture! The line itself then becomes the story or story arc.And gestures also stimulate the formal, narrative impulses. Narrative does not go away, it simply is transformed into the actions of the lines. As for prose poems like those of James Tate, much of Tate’s work is hyper narrative, a series of gestures that may add up to something very different than a coherent story, but which activates the sense of kinesis, and verbal action I think we need to stop seeing narrative as antithetical to poetry. Lyricism in its manifestation of divine possession and afflatus and ecstasy (thus closer to speech as the gift of tongues, and steeped in mystification) made an unholy marriage with prose a while back. Most of what we now call lyrical poetry is merely neutral middle class equivocation complete with line breaks, and the absence of any strongly gestural speech. In short, little of our current poetry talks with its hands. I believe both the greatest narrative and lyrical poetry is gestural, in infinite process of gesture and flux. My poetry is not so much anchored in the understandable as making a dance out of the understandable and the obvious. I like to set the overt dancing. And the most rhapsodic, non-cognitive poetry which we tend to think is lyrical does the same–only from a covert position that must be careful it is not simply a species of class identification. True lyrical poetry moves. It has its being in movement. Both the genuinely narrative and the genuinely lyrical speak with their hands. Poetry speaks with its hands.

In the beginning of “Ode To A Nightingale,” Keats writes “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk, or emptied some dull opiate to the drains/One minute past and Lethe-wards had sunk.” Some ninety years later, Eliot begins the “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock: “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.”

Eliot begins with the imperative: “Let us go.” Yet “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, is the antithesis of the imperative. Eliot’s mock epic tone is further compounded by the speaker’s knowledge of his inconsequence. He is so inconsequential that he can not even fully rise to the occasion of a clown. Keats, for all the passivity of the speaker (he lies in drowsy numbness, listening to the immortal bird) is about the mystical oxymoron of passivity as pure action—to die into eternal life, to sleep in the immortal song. A lot changed in those 90 years between these two wonderful poems.

Hemlock is a poison, the one Socrates drank. Ether, in 1909, was the anesthesia used to prepare patients for surgery. The romantics were fascinated with states of torpor, the irrationality of dream states, with trance, altered consciousness, the whole itinerary of being out of one’s rational mind–all reason suspended for the sake of the sublime. The modernists do not escape this fascination, but, for them, torpor is expressed in the anti-mystical tropes of keeping busy at inconsequence. Man is not asleep in order to receive divinity. Rather, divinity has become etherized, and man lives under the scenic terms of this enervation.

Keats is willing to die in order to enter into communion with the nightingale. In point of fact, he makes no secret that he must die in order to be born into the world of night–the poesis of the Nightingale’s voice. He must drink the dull o[iate “to the drains.” This nightingale is timeless, the same bird Ruth listened to over two thousand years before “amid the alien corn.”To journey into the underworld “lethe-wards,” to hold covenant with the immortal, one must “die.” Abraham, when he receives the covenant from Yahweh, is put into a trance state, and the power of Yahweh moves through the severed animal parts, and ignites the holocaust. Abraham takes no active part.

This is standard operating procedure in matters of the transcendent, and the sublime. Something happens—some aspect of the supernatural or immortal visits and is “received”
Passively–in a state of trance, of “drowsy numbness.” (think the limp hand of Adam receiving the divine spark of God the father in Michelangelo’s painting of the creation). One becomes inanimate, dead in the mortal sense, for the purpose of being reanimated as it were into the sublime. As Kenneth Burke pointed out, heaven and the eternal can be viewed as laudatory terms for death—a state of stasis, an end to history and movement. Using the Benthamite tri-partite registers we can express it as such:

Laudatory: Heaven, eternity, the immortal, the sublime, all breathing human passion far above
Neutral: death, stasis, suspension
Dislogistic: decadence, listlessness, decay, rot, uselessness, super fluidity, seediness

In the presence of the sublime, one mimics the death-like quality of the eternal. One becomes a fitting scene for the entrance of the gods. Prufrock, on the other hand, is anything if not busy. The roles are reversed. God (the pervasive presence of evening) is asleep, and Prufrock is loathe to wake him. After all, that would be impolite, wouldn’t it? The poem is full of frenetic activities that have almost a Marx Brothers mania to them: the women come and go, there are countless visions and revisions, possible seductions that do not take place, self conscious concerns with thinning hair, a sort of manic pettiness. Even when Prufrock receives the vision and song of the mermaids, it is the one time he is almost sure of something: “I do not think that they will sing to me”( he has heard them sing to each other–a sort of mythic upgrade of the women coming and going and chatting about Michelangelo, a mythic upgrade that fails to raise the stakes, and, rather, transforms the mermaids into a bunch of self-involved society women) He has eavesdropped on the mermaids and they are no more concerned with him than the women who come and go. When he lingers in the chambers of the sea, he is not awaked by the voice of gods, but by human voices: “Till human voices wake us and we drowned.”

In Prufrock’s universe then, meaningless social acts, the art of keeping busy has taken the place of a truly relational myth–a myth by which the eternal can fully infect the mortal with an aspect of consequence, and the terms of the mortal be raised to the level of eternity. The future is full of possibility which never comes to fruition: “In a minute there is time/for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Eliot alludes to Macbeth’s “There would have been time for words such as these.” He also implies: “all sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but, in this case, fury has become niggling complaint and fretting, in short, the bangless whimper of the superfluous man, a man who knows he is superfluous (I am no Hamlet) and yet is loathe to change.

To be nothing is no barrier to mystical experience. Keats’s speaker is brought to nothing so that eternity may enter. In point of fact, it is necessary in mystical terms to become “nothing.” To be “a little something, but not really that at all” is, in a sense, far worse a fate than nothing: to be the lukewarm, the tepid modern man. In 90 years, a reversal has transpired: one goes to sleep by ceaseless activity, none of which has consequence. For Keats, “sleep” is the true activity of human consciousness. Sleep is the laudatory and transcendent, the pure “act” of man, and in his poem, “Sleep and Poetry,” Keats, by going to sleep, eats his peach:

And choose each pleasure that my fancy sees;
To woo sweet kisses from averted faces–
Play with their fingers, touch their shoulders white
Into a pretty shrinking with a bite.

Both Eliot and Keats play with the mystical oxymoron of sleep as wakefulness, and wakefulness as sleep, but Eliot’s Prufrock wakens only to drown. The speaker in “Ode To A Nightingale” asks: “Do I wake or sleep?” But whereas “Ode To A Nightingale” is a poem in which the mortal tastes of the immortal, and permanence/impermanence share true relation, Love Song” is a poem of very social non-relation. Stuff happens ( or is always on the verge of happening), but it is not even enough to amount to nothing. It is, rather, a little something, but not even exactly that: “That is not it at all.” One thing and then another happens, or almost happens, and none of it is of consequence. The evening which lies inert, enervated, put to sleep, can no more infect the speaker with cosmic import, then ‘talk of Michelangelo can raise the women above the level of social chit chat: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Prufrock is not only an attempt at anti-romanticism, but anti-mysticism as well. Prufrock can not sit still, but he can not move either—except through all the petty tropes of the social construct .Both poems begin with a simulation of death, of a state of numbness. To enter night is to enter a sort of living death, a state of unconsciousness, of altered consciousness. But the speaker in Prufrock remains fully awake to the trivial, and even his fear of being trivial becomes a fashionable fear of inconsequence. No mystical union of the mortal and the eternal takes place. There is no covenant except with distraction and inconsequence. Eliot projects this numbness then onto the cosmos itself. It is the scenic ground zero of all that occurs. If the evening is etherized, it invokes the sense of an impending surgical procedure. Although this procedure would seem to take place upon a living evening, it is, in reality a post mortem—an autopsy. The romanticism of night and death is muted, blasphemed against by turning away from the romantic tropes of night toward a sort of clinical image repertoire. This blaspheming against the romantic via the clinical is furthered during the whole of the poem by the sense that, whatever the operation is, it is most certainly botched.

Keats’s poem is relational: mortal poet and immortal bird, each infecting the other with their own qualities—the bird becoming poetry, and the poet becoming the sublime forlorn. Eliot’s poem, for all its insistence on a “you and I” is non-relational. It is all about the failure to enter into true relationship, to receive a covenant. Worse still, Prufrock clings to his inconsequence since it is the one thing he can be sure of. Forlorn in his case becomes always a dividend and mild sense of disappointment.

Eliot would seek many years later to remedy the impossibility of the modern sublime by returning to a sort of arch-conservative faith, yet, even in his late poems of faith, there is a contingent sense of alienation. One may be social, seedy, indulge in the questions of whether or not to eat a peach, but no true relation is possible. Eliot’s “love song” is all about emotional paralysis—the impossibility of “forcing the moment to its crisis.” Keats’s Nightingale is all about entering fully into the crisis of the mortal creature who can intuit immortality, but who must remain tied to the ephemeral. The mystical oxymoron of the immortal within the transient, and the transient within the immortal is still valid. Lament still has its significance. The great crisis in Eliot’s poem is that there is no crisis, only the awful, soul enervating experience of a trivial and seedy urbanity. The voice of the poem insists “there will be time” (an allusion to Macbeth’s: “There would have been time for words such as these: tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in its petty pace)” This is not a statement of hope, but of ennui.

What draws these poems together is simulation of death-states in relation to the afflatus of night and song—of rising or sinking to the occasion. In Keats’s universe, the sublime is still possible. In Eliot’s, the sublime has become a form of Bovarism. Keats’s speaker can enter the apostrophic absurd. The poet can address an immortal bird. Absurdity maintains its gravitas. By the time of Prufrock, the absurd has been reduced to a sort of radical and self-aware ineffectuality. Eliot’s mastery of pastiche, of irony, of the anti-romantic and anti-mystical left succeeding poets in a bind. Prufrock is a great poem, but Eliot’s great poem is based on the tropes of greatness being dead. Williams saw Eliot as retrograde, a mere rehash of late 19th century agnosticism, and the British stanzas. Hart Crane, a worshipper of Eliot’s technique, rebelled against the loss of the sublime, against the nihilism of Eliot by answering with his long poem, “The Bridge.” In Benthamite terms, Keats raises the absurd to sublimity. If the neutral term is the absurd, Eliot lowers the absurd to the level of the pedestrian and vapid. Lament becomes pathos. This may have been useful as a corrective to bad remakes of “Dover Beach,” but as a fashion, it had no staying power, and for a good thirty years it did become the fashion. Auden was saturated with it. Once you have torn down all the idols, being comfortably inane and sad over your tea and toast makes for a dangerous poetics. In the hands of lesser writers it led to a sort of witty and gimmicky sense of enervation and despair. The seediness of Eliot’s industrial landscape gives way to the hard boiled detective novel and, worse, the “my aren’t we empty? Tennis anyone?” Sort of drawing room comedy. Still A great poem can not be faulted for having a destructive effect. But if Samuel Johnson is right, Keats’s great poem is the greater for its moral force. To attack the tired tropes of transcendence is of great value. To affirm the core truths of existence is greater still. I admire both poems and count them among my favorites, but, if forced to choose, I choose Keats.

I can never hate the Susquehanna, not if it took my last dollar, not if it made me look like a grade z version of some extra who got lost on his lunch break from a remake of The Grapes of Wrath and ended up standing poised against the wrong unforgiving sky. I spent my whole summer fishing, swimming, or mostly just watching the Susquehanna flow by, learned all its browns, and blacks, and greens, and those rare days when it was teal. I took the biggest brown bullhead I’ve ever laid eyes on out of this river, and a blue gill over a pound, and carp over 30. I watched the latterns of John boats pass in the dark and smelled the ghost of my father standing next to me, his old pack of chesterfield kings rolled up in his t shirt, smoke rising from his fresh lit cig, boxer’s muscles flexing as he casted into a long ago river. I cryed out to him through the dark to forgive me for not knowing what it meant to be a father. I told him I failed at everything, and the answer that came back to me on the river was his hand rubbing my red hair for good luck, and his raspy voice saying: “kid, we all fail at everything.”

I have become my father in every way: generous, paranoid, argumentative, quick to get angry, quick to forgive, at ease with children, at war with most of my contemporaries, a story teller, a bull shit artist,in love with the moon and the hours of dusk and dawn, unhappy yet joyous, full of life without ever forgetting or living beyond the sense of death. More hardened by labor, I would look like my dad except his voice box was cut out by my age, and I remember his stoma, and how I had nightmares that someone poured water down his throat and drowned him. When he was younger, and I was a little boy, he had a beautiful voice and he would sing to me Kevin Barry or You’ll Never Walk Alone. He told me stories about snagging suckers at the bottoms of the falls as a kid. it was the dperession and suckers weren’t too bad to eat if you stewed them until their many bones disolved. I guess I think of him whenever I look at a river. The first time he took me fishing, he woke me at 4:30 in the morning. It was also my first full cup of coffee, and we went down to a diner where all the working men ate– steel workers, long shoremen, some guys who worked at GM, my uncle pete from the chem plant. My father was on strike, and it was not his day to picket so he took me fishing. Strikes caused families to go belly up: no money coming in, the men restless and sometimes, if the strike went on too long, listeless, the women rising to take up the slack, my mom suddenly all dressed up to work a department store, or as a secretary. I couldn’t eat my pan cakes and sausage: too excited. First cast I got my line tangled in a big Maple tree, and my dad spent the next half hour untangling the snarl in the reel. I caught a bull head that day–ugly, beautiful slimey fish, its fin cutting me in my thumb and drawing blood. My dad had warned me: “watch his fin kid…he’ll get you good.” My dad rubbed the slime of the fish on my wound, and some cool mud. it took the slight poison out of it and it stopped itching. “The cure for the cat is the cat” he said. Later, he put peroxide and a band aid on the wound, and told me I did good. “You did good, kid.” If my mother had been there, she’d have said: “WELL Rocky, he did well.” And my father would have winked at her and said: ” You did good and well kid.”

All summer I was remembering and forgiving and asking forgiveness of my father. He was on my mind daily. The more I went to the river, the more I thought of him– all those little catfish and carp we caught in the poluted Rahway river of the late 60′s and early 70′s… then the white cats and small stripers on the Hudson river when we visited grandmom Weil, and, finally, after my mother’s death, how my father no longer wanted to go fishing. Fishing made him remember my mother. There was no wife to come home to, to have his grammar and cursing corrected by, no one to admire our fish. I did not know then that mothers are also girlfriends, and lovers, and companions, and my father had been abandoned as a child, raised by his aunt and uncle. My mom was his only real family. When he lost her, we must have reminded him of his loss–how she was gone. Having grown passed my 50 th year, I can forgive him for wanting to die after my mother went into the ground because a part of every one in my family died with my mother. She was what held us together, and although we still loved each other, we stopped being family after the cancer took her.

What can a river take? Everything. Everything will be swept away. The river is an ongoing reclamation and demolition project. It remains by efacing itself every second of every hour. It abraids, erodes, washes, absolves, dooms, drowns, destroys, and gives life to all that surrounds it. it is in us–the memory of our cells. It tells us the loss is in– not of– the loss in things. It is in us, or we are not truly alive. Those who can ignore a river can’t possibly live in the sense I mean. To be truly alive, is to keep one hand on the wheel of death, to see that there is a fall to all to this, a fall we must endure, and before you go over that, you may as well take note of the heron, and the kingfisher, and you ought to love the child wounding his thumb on the bullhead’s fin, and you ought to love the father who takes the cig out of his mouth, and blows one perfect circle of smoke into the night’s air, and says: ” Hey kid, nice fish.”

Why are the best artists not always the most successful? I have a friend, Marco, who I believe is the most visually gifted artist I’ve ever met. His eye, his sense of color, shape, perspective, line, and shading is beyond good; it’s great. His conceptions are often both original and novel (not always the same thing). Yet, he is unknown when many lesser artists, including people Marco and I grew up with, are far more successful. Why? I mean we could say the usual stuff: luck, the ability to schmooz, a benefactor who took a liking, etc, etc, but what might be the common, non toxic explanation?

I believe being recognized is a talent, a capability in its own right. It can arrive at success or fame either from the stand point of optimal normativity ( a word I coined to express a talent for fitting in to standards of excellence intuited among the prevailing norm of a field) or abnormativity (the ability to seem abnormal, or distinct in a manner that pleases the normative’s desire for variety). These are separate gifts from artistic ability, but I believe they are essential to most success in the arts.

True originality is never apprehended until it has been either normified or abnormified–either taken into the norm of what is considered right and well, or taken into the abnorm of what is considered acceptably quirky. In short, true originality does not exist until it is well on its way to no longer being original. The human mind, the eye, the ear, the sense, the intuition follows after it, not seeing it until the mind and ear and eye evolve enough to apprehend. The audience must be invented with the artist. And so I have several theories as to why Marco is not as famous or successful as some of our mutual friends who have not even half his ability. I could put them bluntly as: he is both too normal and abnormal in ways that do not signify success or fame:

1. He has poor skills for knowing who is valuable and who is not, and he does not cull the herd of who and who not to associate with. Alexandro, a mutual childhood friend of ours who is successful, highly successful (art books by Pittsburgh University press, exhibitions globally) knew who and who not to waste time on. He wasted time on us when he was a teenager and we were the only game in town, then departed from associating with us when he caught the eye of a major latin American art power broker. He did not hurt or help Marco. Alexandro simply took off for more promising associations. Alexandro did not waste energy. I don’t believe he did this consciously or out of disdain so much as he had a talent for recognition. He had good target sense and an ability to articulate his aesthetics. It is no surprise to me that his art works, though well received, are not as emphasized as his critical writings on the arts. He is an expert in Latin American art of social protest. He knows Marco is a superior painter. he will never champion his work. He went after what he instinctively knew would help him achieve his goal. His goal was never to be a great artist. Most people in the art scene do not essentially care about that.That’s too sloppy. His goal was to find steady and admired success in the arts, to achieve a homeostasis of well-being as an “artist” in the top circles.. To that end, Alex was good at being both normal and abnormal in all the right ways. He did not waste energy, and his desire was, in a sense , as normative as a law student’s. One brand of this sort of thinking is called professionalism. It is only one variant and it means showing up and presenting one’s normalities and abnormalities, one’s in the boxes and “out of the boxes” in a package that is appealing to the gate keepers.

2. Marco while at the same time he is too available, is also too unavailable: Alex was not available when it would make someone desire his availability. He had the gift for making others slavish, and courtly. They courted his attention. Marco, because of his superior artistic gifts, had great trouble either courting the power brokers who were not equal to his standards, or denying attention and availability to those he considered talented (some of whom were lost souls and would never do him any good). He was also so obsessed with his art he never developed a marketable “Style.” Marco did not imitate Marco. This is also problematical when it comes to achieving success: how does one learn to imitate one’s self without appearing to be stuck in a groove? Most people do not know the difference between true style and voice, and parody of style and voice. You can fool most of the people almost all of the time until some expert says you are a mere imitation of yourself, and then the crowd decides to agree.

Talent means many things: one is recognizable ability, and the other is the mystique of being recognized for that ability. I believe these are very separate talents. Picasso had both in abundance–a genius for norms and abnorms that would serve his fame and success. Some call this luck, or good fortune, or fate. I believe it is a talent whose mechanisms are capable of being studied. This is an opening salvo in that regard.

PHOTO CREDIT: MARCO MUNOZ

It is not language that is arbitrary, but power itself that is arbitrary and this is perhaps the reason post-modernist latched onto the arbitrary sign. Power, in order to remain power, must be arbitrary–and this includes slavishly following rules at times in order not to be a slave to whim. The authority of the whimsical is total and can only be overthrown by an act of violence so great that it exposes itself as too earnest to be truly power. Power is the because I, we, or it said so, the “just because.” It is not only vapid; it is vapidity itself. At the most elemental level it is hidden behind many veils of order–which I call terministic screens. The three great veils are I, we, it, and of these three, the “it” is the most recalcitrant and dangerous in that, being without human accountability, it may be purely evil.

Here we define evil as that which blindly consumes and annihilates without remorse or mercy and, also, without pleasure in that which is. It is null–non-existence. It is abstraction without any ground for being. The bureaucracy of the death camps, the efficiency of drones, the present corporate nexus represent an it of this magnitude. This is why those who benefit from this “it” do their best to conform to the standard of an it–machines, uber-sociopaths, elite minds, perfect team players. Goldman Sachs is filled with elite minds all of whom have formed one collective idiot. This is the final attribute of the “it”: idiocy–the efficiency of one mind without remorse, without culpability, without true intelligence. No matter how efficient a mind bereft of empathy is, it must remain cold and lifeless and hidden at its center and eventually the axon and the dendrites of such a system become so virtual as to lose their elasticity and their ability to create the algorithmic semblance of true human consciousness. Right now, Goldman Sachs is reduced to the power tie, the suit, the expected tropes of family, the reading of information, the spreading of misinformation, the scam, the con, the manipulation of certain drives and desires, the seeking mechanism and all that aids and abets that seeking: positive thinking, mind control, the most advanced forms of personality typing, cult tactics for its employees. The “individualism” that Ayn Rand and her followers (Alan Greenspan among them) pretended to champion in Atlas Shrugged is little more than the silly robot like, perfectly six-foot prussian soldier–a laughable Übermensch. And this leads me to my last attribute of the it:

It is silly.

Silliness, mindlessness, and power are the tropes F. Scott Fitzgerald both envied and so wonderfully delineated in The Great Gatsby. It is not far-fetched to take one of our great novels on the enchantment of power as a sort of primer on the 1 percent. Let’s consider.

Tom Buchannan’s race theories, his rather vapid and smug faith in what were the faux expert opinions of his era. Tom is depicted as a careless man who can not be defeated in the end because he is already dead–dead in the “it” of privilege. He gets away with murder. This is the it as spouter of truisms, and third-rate economic/race theories. If you want to understand the basic mind-set of leading wll street power brokers, look no further than Tom. Unfortunately, Tom is a notch above the it types who now rule. They do not have it (as Fitzgerald never tired of stating); they are the it they have.

Daisy Buchannan’s lighter than egg-shell loveliness and her vapidity: Daisy is loveliness itself–an abstraction, a “sign” no less inhuman and vapid than the signs looming over East Egg. She, like her husband, can not suffer any permanent injury because she is already dead. Her behavior when in the presence of Gatsby’s silk shirts, her weeping over these and her heartlessness in all other respects should tip us off to how arbitrary she and her world is. Silliness and mindlessness is at the core. These people do not have money and power. They “ARE” money and power. Those who have, serve them–often bitterly–but it is only in serving them that the have money and have power folks can justify their worst actions. They bond with their abusers.

So how do you kill the gods?

You quit worshipping them. True power must remain invisible so that, at all times, what we perceive as the face of power is merely a mirage, a screen. Most of our economic history over the last 40 years is the American delusion that their management jobs were anything more than a terministic screen for real power. The college educations, the advanced degrees, the smug disdain for manual labor…all these were terministic screens behind which the true powers could remain invisible. We worship what lies behind the veil. We worship death and call it ultimate life. The most laudatory form of the word death is heaven/paradise. I have often told atheist friends it is more important to dismantle heaven than God because, if you get rid of God, and don’t find a proper fill-in for his chief terministic screens: heaven and ultimate power, something much worse than God will fill that void: power without virtue or even the semblance of virtue, might as right, a heaven of unremitting material display, a paradise grounded in an unremitting choice culture…ah, you got rid of God and replaced him with a CEO! Smart move. Brilliant. Really improves everything. So here’s where we are:

The Most Deadly Oreo

The 99 percent are, at present sandwiched between a reactionary fundamentalist corporate power that believes it is ordained by God to rule and without being questioned (this is actual fundamentalist teaching) and a secular atheist “elite” who believe they rule us by dint of their superior minds (they read Napoleon Hill and Atlas Shrugged, have no conscience, and an idiot savant’s ability for manipulating numbers and patterns and this is superior) and without being questioned (don’t sweat the small stuff is what the 1 percent consider the 99). Here is the truth:

Goldman Sachs is a collective idiot that does not understand limits, and it will keep sucking blood from the world until it and the world blows up. Dead things don’t fear death. Mindless things have no fear of death. Both are already dead. We are letting a corpse drive the bus. Why? Because, like Gatsby, for too long, we have been enchanted by that walking, talking, reality-show-starring corpse. Our college students have a thing for zombies. This is not harmless fun. This is indicative of a love and lust for mindless power among the 99 percent. I could get hundreds of students to participate in zombie games. As for Occupy Binghamton, I couldn’t get ten students.

So my advice? Make the 1 percent truly visible. When the arbitrary power has been truly exposed and made visible it is already no longer the true power. This is shape shifter 101. How do you know when the invisible has been threatened with true exposure:

1. A violent, over the top attack, display, or mockery by the “have” powers on behalf of the “are” powers. Examples from literature: When Odysseus breaks Theriste’s ribs in front of the other rank and file warriors.

2. If violence, display, and mockery don’t work, then an unholy marriage–a mating of the exposers with the have powers and a seeming overthrow of the “are” powers–takes place. This leads to chaos because human beings are hopelessly rank-obsessed. This means the “have powers” show a cosmetic difference. The thugs of the czar become Lenin’s secret police. Saming the changes reduces the stress. Sadly it also means the “are” powers are now hidden once more behind the terministic screens.

3. The actual slaughter of the gods–an act as pathetic and sad as any Kafka story. When we find the actual powers, they are silly, vapid, eccentric, often drug-addicted and don’t seem much worthy of the slaughter. They often appear sweet and even saintly because, let’s face it, being insulated from the brutality of their terminsitic screens, they are, for all intents and purposes, more and more like children. Here is the frightening possibility: the haves already long ago slaughtered the “are” powers and have been “defending” them only to justify their continued existence. This leads me to the “because it says so.” Why? Because. This is the ultimate idiocy of true power–it does not answer to any interrogation.

The people in Goldman Sachs behind the glass windows laughing as the police arrest protesters, are “have” powers–rather minor ones. The true power behind Goldman Sachs is invisible and, probably, dead–just as “God” is dead.

This is what we can expect: if enough force and protest is supplied, then the cosmetics of the have powers will change. Some corpses who seem alive will be sacrificed to the mob to appease them. “Free market capitalism” will have to die as a terministic screen. It will be either modified or re-named under a different order of seeming.

The gods do not die, but grow ever more feeble. And here’s the scary part of this truth: the atrophy of the gods, leads to the hypertrophy of their protectors and defenders. The less true moral character a culture has, the greater in number grow the moral reformers. The less joy, the more comedians. We seek a balance we can never have. As opportunity becomes more feeble, the protectors of opportunity (and this includes both the 99 percent and the enforcer/protectors of the 1 percent) swell. If we were wise we would dismantle opportunity itself–recreate incentive around something less vital than our basic needs, and assure those basic needs are givens rather than carrots dangling at the end of a long hot poker. No one should be working for food and shelter. A system based on starving over half the world is vapid and silly. If a man could toil in the fields all day, and, at the end of that day, simply walk to a grocery and procure the food he needs without paying, wouldn’t that be wonderful? If the prosperous farmer did not prosper so that his son or daughter could become a lawyer, and his daughter a president–if each remained farmer, yet took a vital place in the polis, wouldn’t that be lovely? Problem is, many men and women have overactive seeking systems and must procure more than their fair share. Others have under active seeking systems and will neglect their rights. A balance is aimed at only through a system which has the authority to punish.

And so we are back to square one. Or are we? Suppose we could create a balance of seeking mechanisms? This can not be done when power is invested in an “it.” A machine set on seeking will not stop until the plug is pulled or it has devoured everything and has only itself left to devour–the myth of the juggernaut. The question to pose to Goldman Sachs and to the rest of the global corporate powers is rather simple: “You are not intelligent. You are a plunder machine, who know only how to work off the fallacy of limitless opportunity. Who in your hive is still capable of independent thought and has the power to pull the plug?” The truth is, the plug must be pulled from within. Someone must convince someone within the structure that this pattern and method is counterproductive. But how? How do you explain that to a tie, a suit, a series of numbers, and an advanced degree with 150 IQ that certain types of genius, including the genius of pattern recognition, are forms of stupidity? How do you get these nerd-zombies to pause? What flowers do you explode over their heads? When they have finished eating everyone, who or what will they eat? Themselves?

No doubt they are already doing so. When we pierce to the core of what the police and politicians are defending against all honor and scruple and reason, we may just find a bunch of feeble Ivy league nerdniks feeding on their own arms.

The other night I was sitting in this old decrepit rocker. It belonged to my grandfather, Thomas Joseph Brennan, and it was never distinguished–even new. It was a rocker/ recliner, with a little wooden lever that would allow you to lie back, almost as if on a bed. It was the sort of chair working class people purchased on the way up along with the upright spinet to prove they were no longer poor. It goes with doilies. It goes with old black and white TV commercials speaking about the joys of a mild smoke. It still bears a ring here or there where my grandfather forsook the coaster under his beer.

I never met my grandfather. He died in 1954, four years before I was born. He died of a kidney disease brought on by over 30 years in the Standard Oil gas works. I was told by my mother he was artistic. He built his own coy pond, read poetry aloud to his children, and insisted on hot soup and the rosary everyday of his life. I have a picture of him in my living room, and he brandishes an amused half smile–a triumphant look. Well he should. He went into the gas works at age 9, and most of his family had died by the time he was 18. The man earned his rocker/recliner. Somehow, I ended up with it. When I was little, I would recite poems to his photo. He always seemed pleased.

So I sat there at the end of the day with a copy of Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. Like the rocker/recliner, this edition had gold leaf to prove to a working man that he was no longer poor. Outside the window, a chickadee gave forth with its sad song which I have always interpreted as: “I’m sorry… Please forgive me.” A cardinal said “Pew. pew, pew!” and, considering his beauty, he had every right to feel arrogant. The room was just dark enough to call for a soft light. I read this great poem, which I have read over a hundred times, and perhaps, because I had three broken ribs, a kidney stone, a cyst on my ass the size of Topeka, and had downed a pain killer, I wept. I didn’t just cry judicious, moist at the border of my eyes tears; I cried in big heaving sobs, with tears fat enough to pass for minnows, and I fell out of the rocker onto my knees.

“OH drooping star in the west.” This is the line that got me. If you know the poem, you’ll know Whitman does what the great filmmaker John Ford suggested: have three good scenes and no bad ones. Whitman has three central emblems (Images): The mocking bird, the sprig of Lilac, and the drooping star in the west. From these three, he weaves one of the greatest poems ever written, certainly one of the greatest public elegies (for Lincoln). Think of it in MFA terms. It takes guts just to put stars in a poem, but to have a drooping star? Only the best readers, only readers who have looked closely at Lilacs, would know their clusters are comprised of hundreds of little flowers that are shaped somewhat like stars. Whitman had made a bridge between the pathetic sprig of Lilac he had picked in the poem to offer to Lincoln’s funeral procession, and the one star in the western sky–the Illinois to which his beloved Lincoln was heading. He had united microcosm to macrocosm, and in such a true and unapologetic manner that it made all the workshop comments, and general business of poetic craft beside the point. If I had been conducting a workshop and some smart student had piped up and said: “this image does not make sense,” I would have hit her or him, and kicked them until they had three broken ribs, and said “Shame on you! A poet has just made a bridge between the lilac sprig he holds in his hand and the star in the west, and of course it is drooping because it is about to descend below the horizon, and the beloved is dead: and shut the fuck up!”

The truly great poems move beyond talent and craft and intelligence, and yes, I still believe in greatness–maybe just to piss off knee jerk post-modernists. Such poems go where we are too ashamed and too tasteful to travel. Vulnerable, fifty three, hurting, drugged, I felt I had encountered this poem for the first time. I started to cough, which is not good when you have three broken ribs. My wife came into the room to see if I was OK. I had my Aunt Mary’s afghan wrapped around me. I told my wife: “Emily, I am being an idiot. I was reading a poem by Whitman and had a moment. Don’t worry. Go back to your office and write a poem.”

When I had recovered myself, and re-assumed the chair, I finished this poem. Then I went outside to look at the huge Silver Maple which had lost two major limbs this winter. I looked at the Lilac bush in my yard which, at this time of year, is as ugly as a bald bird. I wished I could have seen a star, but this is Binghamton, and cloud cover is the rule. I felt my ribs move. So be it. I went back into the room and sat down with the afghan over me, and looked at the picture of my grandfather who had died four years before I was born. I thought: “you must have been a good and strange man. You built a coy pond and didn’t get mad at the little children in the neighborhood who would try to fish there when they thought no one was looking. You raised ten children, and you had hot soup every day of your life. My mother said you were artistic, and you painted Christmas scenes on the windows of your house every year by hand. You watched six men gunned down by goons in a strike at Standard Oil. You watched your whole family die. You had a fourth grade education and taught yourself how to read poetry, and you wrote a letter back to Ireland for every immigrant who died and who could not read. I wish I could have known you. I wish I was half the person you were.” And I thought, of all the people on earth, my grandfather would have understood why I fell off that chair and wept. And he would have had a beer with me, and recited a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, the way he recited to my mother when she was a little girl, the way she recited to me. Perhaps we would have wept together–and not out of mere sorrow, but because something in the world is triumphant before us and beyond us, and in spite of us, and it will heal–even if we never do.

de Toucqueville pretty much makes it understandable to me why I have not had my poetry embraced by The Paris Review or the so called gods of literary merit. He writes, conjecturing on a literature created by people of means and leisure (aristocrats):

Moreover, the long and peaceful enjoyment of such wealth will have induced a certain softness of thought and feeling, and, even in their enjoyments, they will avoid anything too unexpected, or too lively. They would rather be amused than deeply moved; they want to be interested, but not carried away.

This passage explains to me why I have often been shunned by grad students, and fellow writers–why my books are reviewed, often positively and as a form of qualified praise, as exalting the ugly and the incongruous. This explains to me why some of my best students, while learning everything they could, never showed the slightest inclination to respect me as a poet. My work is not “amusing.” I don’t like middle and neutral registers of speech for their own sake, do not find them comforting, nor will I embrace fake experimental poems that are “different” in the same way everyone else is different (Projection by field theory, non-linear progression anyone?). Although the middle class sees a huge difference between Fence and Prairie Schooner, I don’t. One publishes polished, within the norm experimental language poetry, and the other publishes polished, within the norm non-experimental poetry, and both do not venture into any nomenclatures, syntax, or diction beyond the usual careful and self-conscious MFA program. I do not consider them refined, but, rather, bland to the point of putting me to sleep. Most of the elite lit mags out there now, no matter what “camp” they belong to, share one thing in common: bland-speak, a fully professional and neutral register of speech that is intelligent, refined, competent, and devoid of poesis. Alexis de Tocqueville was writing in 1848, pre-Whitman, about an American literary scene that could not stop imitating the worst “aristocratic” pretentions of the Europeans, especially the British. He could very well be describing what passes for “excellence” in American poetry at this moment. Sad… Here’s some more excerpts:

It will sometimes happen that men of means, seeing none but themselves, and only writing for themselves, will entirely lose sight of the rest of the world, and that will make their work far fetched and sham. They will impose petty literary rules for their exclusive use, and that will gradually make them lose first common sense, and then contact with nature.

and

…wanting to talk a language different than the vulgar, they will end up with a brand of aristocratic jargon which is hardly less far from pure speech than the language of the people.

de Tocqueville is conjecturing on an aristocratic literature. Academic poetry has always embraced such an ideal, even when supposedly attacking it. Alexis goes on to prohesy that an American literature sprung truly from the soil of democracy would be lively, but unrefined, poor on rules of thumb, sacrificing refinement to vitality. He claims (and I think rightly) that the great moments in literature for any nation come during the transition periods, the brief but dynamic wars–in this case between aristocratic and democratic influenced literature. Just six years later, Leaves of Grass would make its appearance amid a flowering of works by Emerson, Thoureau, the New England Brahmins, and, at the same time, the first great regionalists, and the far more democratic and “vulgar” writters of the west (Mark Twain). de Toucqueville’s analytical abilities border on demonic intuition. I’ll leave you with a final excerpt in which he writes of a literature born of democracy:

By and large the literature of the democratic will never exhibit the order, regularity, skill, and art characteristic of aristocratic literature; formal qualities will be neglected if not despised. The style will often be strange, incorrect, overburdened and loose, and almost always strong and bold. Writers will be more anxious to work quickly than to perfect details. Short works will be commoner than long books, wit than erudition, imagination than depth. There will be a rude and untutored vigor of thought with great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will strive to astonish more than to please, and to stir passions rather than to charm taste.

Alexis could be defining the warring camps of advocates for the cooked and the raw, the formalists or the beats, the academics or the spoken word artists. He had us down to a science before we became us! He also is smart enough to submit these are extreme views of two tendencies, and to present the fact that there will be many gradations between these two poles, and some of the best writers will arise from the dynamic of these tensions rather than from embracing one or the other way.

Reading de Tocqueville is a lesson in astonishment. In a few pages he did much to clarify for me what the problems confronting American poetry, and my own poetry are. In my case, I am neither academic nor Spoken word, meaning both camps both encourage me yet consider me unpolished (or too polished). At any rate, I can’t recommend a book enough–especially if you want a measured, sober,intelligent guide to your own country.

I am going to use combative here in the sense of Jacob wrestling with the angel. All night, he stands locked in with the angel until the dawn approaches. The angel must depart. Jacob refuses to let the angel go until he has received the full blessing of heaven. The blessing is given, the angel breaks Jacob’s hip before departing as a sort of “sign” of both blessing and combat, and, afterwards, nothing is the same. 

This is true combat, true grappling. I tell you the point of any deep reading is contained both in the idea of not letting go until you have received the blessing, and, also, in being marked with the signs of combat–wounded and scarred in the best sense of those words. This is beyond effort. Jacob was naked. He brought no weapons or defensive armor to the match. If he was oiled up, it was only with his own sweat. What do I mean beyond effort? Effort implies forcing yourself, going through the motions, acting as if this was a drag. No man, in a life and death struggle with an angel would consider his combat drudgery: “Oh my Gawd, I have to read this stupid shit, and its wing night at the Happy Pig! Poor me!” I hate students like this. Fuck understanding them or thinking I was young once, too. The young student who thinks this way is already dead–dead to literature, dead to wonder, and alive only to doing the absolute minimum in order to get the A. He knows only what he already understands, already has mastered, whatever his prejudices have tricked him into believing is knowledge. Fuck him with a spoon. I hope he chokes on a fucking mushroom!

But why should a student not think this way when more than half his teachers think the same? Standards? When I worked in a mold making factory, a standard mold meant it could be mass produced. Even high standards (In a mold factory this meant tighter specs) were merely the perfect form of something mediocre. The word standard implies the expected thing in the expected way, with the expected results. Our government calls this excellence. This is not excellence. We do not like excellence. True excellence is wounded, marked with the signs of combat, abnormal. God forbid we should have children who didn’t do mushrooms, and fuck, and wait until the last week to cram in the  North Tower of the library! Perish the thought! Such a kid might even (can we say it?) love reading, engage a poem with all the passion with which he or she eats a hot wing. It would be way beyond hot wings–it would be agon, the birth pain, that agony which is beyond the power of even the gods to understand. Gods have powers that make effort meaningless. We allow our children to act like gods, and the result is boredom, sloth, smugness, arrogance, and hot wings. Fuck them and fuck the teachers–fuck normality. A culture that is not based on agon, on ongoing birth, is no culture at all. It is wing night at the Happy Pig (until the economy crashes, and the good times flow into a day of reckoning, and every one wants to understand, but the muscles for true understanding have already atrophied).

So ends my rant. I am about to model for you a form of close reading that does not need effort so much as stealth, and curiosity, and the willingness to wrestle with angels. It is the way I read when I worked a night shift in a factory, when I read like a prisoner condemned (which is exactly what I was). It does not matter what you do or accomplish in life. In the best case, you are going to die old and probably helpless with no power either to attract or to get yourself to the bathroom. You are a mortal creature, condemned to death. For this reason, only love, in the sense of ardor and passion, can lodge a proper protest against our lousy state of affairs. Achievements, and worldly success are the way of happy pigs. Love and ardor are beyond the effortless and eternal happy pig of the mind. Standing at the grill with your pretty spouse and little brats while the potato salad draws flies is not a dream worthy of being called human. It is not only sub-human, but sub-animal. You may as well have never existed. You wasted too much of the world’s energy, grabbed too big a piece of the pie, and we are better off that you are dead. If this is what the education system wishes to aid and abet, I’d rather see it dismantled. Amen.

Move Over
Charles Olson

Merchants.___of the sea and of finance

(Smash the plate glass window)

The Dead face is the true face
of Washington, New York a misery, but north and east
the carpenter obeyed
topography

As a hand addresses itself to the care of plants,
And a sense of proportion, the house
is put to the earth

Tho peopled with hants, New England

Move over to let the death-blow-in,
the unmanned or the transvest, drest
in beard and will, the capillary

Seven years with the wrong man,
7 yrs of tristus and vibulation.
And I looked up to see a toad. And the boy sd:
“I crushed one, and its blood is green.”

Green, is the color of my true love’s green
despite
New England is
despite her merchants and her morals

Olson’s poetry is considered difficult. He was poet of agon, not hot wings, and we must be careful of the word difficult. It could mean the following: 

1. I didn’t get it on the first read and I’m bored.
2. It sent me to the dictionary.
3. It didn’t do the expected things at the expected times that so comfort, and also bore me because my favorite thing in life is to be superior and bored. Boredom makes my eye lids and mouth look sexy. It’s the look of high fashion models!

This poem is not difficult. It is arduous, rigorous in its intentions and methods, and you don’t need a degree in post-modernist theory or experimental poems to read it. You just fucking enter. This is exactly how I devoured the poem when I was fifteen. Follow my lead.

First, it was hard for me to re-read this poem because I had written all over it, but I remember: I did what I always do with a poem, I read it first without worrying about its meaning–to feel the pulse of its being on the page. If the meaning was obvious, fine. If not, just as good. Then I re-read it to see if anything stood out in a different light. Only after this, did I begin to eat it line by line. Here’s how I ate it (these are from my notes):

“Merchants. ___of the sea and of finance.”

Ok. This Olson guy isolates the word merchants. He treats it like a sentence, with a full period stop. As if that is not enough, he puts a gap of white space between it and the rest of the line: “of the sea and of finance. Why? Is he being cute? Maybe. Is he ignorant of grammar? No. I don’t think so. A writer ignorant of grammar would have a run on sentence, not just one word with a period, so I am going to assume he has a reason for what he does. Maybe he wants us to think about the word: Merchants? What do poets think of merchants? Usually, not much. They depict them as flesh merchants, greed merchants, materialistic, corrupt, less than poets. Poets really give merchants a rough time. Is this Olson guy doing the same? Maybe. He certainly wants me to notice the word. Perhaps, he is doing it like a salutation and the poem is addressed to merchants–like the opening of a speech:
Dear Space aliens:
Friends, Romans, countrymen: 

That sort of thing. I don’t know. If this is the case, he will impart information or a directive: “Lend me your ears!”

Let’s look at the rest of the line: “of the sea and of finance.” 

Ok. “Of” means belonging to, so this is interesting. He obviously knows grammar, is even a little old fashioned because he puts the word of before each qualifier. He could have written: Merchants of the sea and finance. But he didn’t. Of must be important: it means to belong to a place. The Sea is a locale. Finance is an abstraction, a reality that is usually not spacial, but I think this Olson guy wants to consider finance as a sort of location, too, just as the sea. At the same time, he may want the term sea to have its abstract connotations as well. The sea: the vast, the unknown, the unconscious. Finance: the known, the numbered, the all figured out. If so, there is a tension here. The sea is traditionally poetic, and finance is not. So he is yoking a poetic locale to an unpoetic locale. maybe he is setting up a tension. These merchants belong to conflicting things. They are of the sea and of finance. It’s a little redundant to say a merchant is of finance. I mean, what other kind of merchant is there? It’s about buying and selling goods, right? So the best way to understand finance here is to see it as a place of origin, and it is tied to the sea by the word “and,” but the word “and” separates as much as it links: “Lips and lemons, dirt and the knee socks of nuns. Sea and finance.” The obvious meaning is that these merchants owe their livelihood to the sea and finance. The less obvious is that the sea and finance are conflicting origins, and the merchants will be torn on the wrack of failing to reconcile that contradiction. So, now, based on the evidence of whats in the poem (and not any pre-poem), I can make the following provisional assumptions:

1. This poet is not concerned with traditional grammar because he has a purpose in circumventing it.
2. This poet juxtaposes poetic and unpoetic things, and maybe he will use the tensions between them.
3. This poet may be doing a salutation in the first line, like: friends, Romans, countrymen… in which case it will be followed by something like: “lend me your ears.”

So lets move on to the next line: “Merchants.___of the sea and of finance // (smash the plate glass window)”

Ok. That’s a lot like “lend me your ears” in so far as it is an imperative, a sort of order or directive, but it’s put in parenthesis! Odd. Who should smash the plate glass window? The reader? The merchants? The poet? All of the above? A parenthetical can act as a stage whisper, a note to oneself, an aside. Parenthesis are always a paradox because they say the information is not part of the main body, yet they draw attention to the information contained within. And what is “the plate glass window?” It’s not “a plate glass window,” not just any plate glass window: it’s “the”–the true, the one and only ultimate plate glass window, and we don’t know who this is directed at. it’s ambiguous, a slight of hand. Hell, we don’t even know why it would be important to smash it. Who has plate glass windows, big ones, ultimate ones? Stores! Banks! Offices! Places of power and commerce, so I am going to guess that the plate glass window, the separation of the sea, and of finance must be smashed, and it must be known that these two locales impact, and infest each other with their different qualities. Perhaps the poet is saying it is wrong for poets to only understand the sea, without knowing the finance, the shadow, the flip side of the poetic? I don’t know. I know now I was right about the poet at least making some sort of gesture towards salutation and persuasion. So, in a sense, this poem uses the tools of rhetoric, the mechanisms of public address and speech, but towards no end: pure speech, pure rhetoric, a plighting of his poetic troth! Maybe. I don’t know. I like that he would put “smash the plate glass window” in parenthesis, and confuse the issue as to who should smash it, or why.

Let’s move on to the third line: “The dead face is the true face”

Sounds like an aphorism, a maxim, a thesis. How is the dead face the true face? Well, someone dead, can’t fake a smile or assume a look, an expression. Dead is dead, and this can not be false. Of course, he could be saying that, in this day and age, the look of boredom, of indifference is the true face. How does it relate to the other lines? The dead face is the true face of merchants? The dead face is the personification of the smashed plate glass window? All these are possible, and so I have a new hunch about this poet: he likes his meanings to be multiple. We could say unsure, or unclear, but I don’t get that. I get more a sense of violent refusal to say something plainly because that would take all the strength and complexity out of it and what he is driving at is not mere statement. He does not like either/ors. I get the sense that this is a political poem, a poem critical of something. so far it has merchants, and smashed plate glass, and a dead face. not exactly a pastoral.

So onto the next line: “of Washington, New York a misery, but north and east”

Ok. So the dead face is the true face of Washington. New York is a misery, but north and east… But means “yes this is so, but… a difference to the north and east. North of Washington and New York, and east (east of New York is the sea). So something is not dead north and east. What?

Next line: “The carpenter obeyed / topography.”

Who is the carpenter? Sounds like some mythic figure. Topography is the lay of the land. Rather than fighting or contending against the lay of the land, the carpenter, whoever he is, obeyed its contours, its demands, its essential shape and reality. I am going to assume the carpenter is a better alternative to the dead face, and the merchants.

Let’s move on: “The carpenter obeyed / topography // As a hand addresses itself to the care of plants, / And a sense of proportion, the house / is put to the earth // tho peopled with hants, New England”

Woah! What’s “hants?” I get out my big unabridged Webster’s (why not, its weight lifting) and look up hants:

1. Haunts, hauntings. If Olson means this, he means peopled by ghosts, by haunted and haunting inhabitants.
2. Hampshire: Hants is the dialect word for those from Hampshire, a part of England from which many early settlers came. So: peopled with those who came from Hampshire as in New Hampshire. He’s probably speaking of New Englanders.
3. Hant is an old contraction of has not, so peopled with “have nots”.

I decide Olson wants all three connotations since he seems to love multiplicity, and the not too determined. I’m thrilled because I’ve learned a new word and I am beginning to see how tricky and sly this poet is, and how well informed and smart. I like that. It does not displease me.

Let’s move on: “Move over to let the death blow in”

Ok. Another directive, another proposed act of violence. Something must be smashed and dealt a death blow. What? Move over, and let it happen! And why?

“the unmanned and the transvest, drest / in beard and will, the capillary”

Unmanned can mean deserted. it can also mean castrated, and robbed of manhood. Transvest can refer to passing through, or being caught between the sexes, or, rather, being under the appearance of a man (beard and will) without truly being one. The capillary–the blood. So the beard and will and blood of a man who is not truly a man. Let’s see how this plays out:

“seven years with the wrong man, / 7 yrs of Tristus and vibulation.”

Finally a period. All these sentences and statements are confused as to where they begin or end. Parts of statements may belong to one clause or another. It is not clear. There is a name for this. I look it up. Amiphiboly: the intentional, or unintentional confusion and ambiguity of grammar or meaning so that there is more than one possibility. Example: “He looked at the man laughing.” Laughing could refer to he who looked or to the man he looked at–it’s up for grabs. I realize now that Olson is employing amiphiboly as the chief structural device of his poem. Interesting because I have just read some poems by a student of his, Robert Creeley, which also employs a sort of radical amiphiboly. You need to be smart, and to know grammar well in order to do this. It no longer bothers me that I don’t know which part of the sentence belongs to which subject or action. It adds complexity. It is a justified artistic technique–and ancient. It is deliberate. I can see by the evidence how it adds rather than subtracts from the poem.

Now onto this weird passage: Who is seven years with the wrong man? I know Jacob labored seven years for the wrong woman. But who was seven years with the wrong man? Not Helen of Troy. The name tristus tips me off because I see it as an allusion to Tristan and Isolde. But tristus is also sadness or sorrow in Latin. And vibulation could be a play, a pun on tribulation, but it is also a problem with the capillaries of the heart. Oh this Olson dude is a motherfucker! He is going everywhere, and everywhere being sly, and, instead of just masturbating and showing off, he is adding depth and scope. So we finally get a period after all those clauses, and what next?

“And I looked up to see a toad. And the boy sd:”

Because I’d read a lot by age fifteen, I saw this as an allusion, a travesty of the famous moment in St. Augustine’s Confessions, where Augie is all weepy under the tree and begging God to convert him, and an angel in the form of a boy holds a book (the bible) and says read. The “And” tips me off because when ever a sentence begins with “and” it sounds biblical or mock-biblical: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” etc, etc. This is the first and only blatantly narrative moment in the poem. The boy says he crushed a toad, and its blood was green. This is the third act of violence: smash, move over and let the death blow in, and, now, crush the toad to know its blood is green. The sea is green. Money is green. Perhaps the poet is returning through this weird digression to the theme of tension between merchants of the sea and of finance. We see the truth of something only when we are willing to smash through its facade. We see its blood and know its green is truly green and sure enough: “Green is the color of my true love’s green.”

This is a play on a song popular at the time, “black is the color of my true love’s hair.” Green is green once we have smashed through all the bullshit. Perhaps…:

“Despite, New England is.”

You could read this multiple ways. The word despite means nonetheless, nevertheless, in spite of, but it also can mean spiteful, contemptous, without value. I think Olson wanted both meanings. Whenever he can, like Emily Dickinson, he wants all the meanings. It could be read as a sort of “yoda” sentence: In spite of all this, New England is, despite her merchants and her morals. In short, new England is still alive, still viable, unlike New York and Washington. But it could be read very differently as New England is contemptuous, especially in her merchants and her morals.

So I have come to the end of the poem. And I know a lot about the poet’s intentions and techniques without some expert having to tell me. I know he confuses and sabotages grammatical sentence structure against the line for the sake of creating multiple possible meanings. I know he is political, but not in an issue sort of way, more in a prophet sort of way. I know he likes ancient tricks of synecdoche, apostrophic address, and allusion. Most importantly, I know I enjoyed wrestling with his poem, and I could write essays now on ambiguity, the use of amiphiboly in Olson’s poetry, or on violence as a form of purifying and purgation. The poem is not difficult. It is complex–a very different thing. I enjoyed myself. I did battle. I now might look up other poems by Olsen to see if he uses the same tricks. I may read up on him, and find that this ambiguity, and open structure, and his remark on the carpenter obeying the topography are parts of a larger aesthetic/ philosophy. I have crushed the toad, and its blood is green.

This is how I want my students to read–because it is active, and no less thrilling than detective work, and they are going to die someday without ever having made true contact with anything. If they read this way they just might grow tired of what is easy, and obvious. Who knows? I didn’t get a grade for reading Olsen. There is no grade for passion and true engagement. It is the only true way I know to lodge a protest against death. The gods should be so lucky. I defy, thee, gods! I die, but you never fucking live.

 

Photo by Marco Munoz.

I always liked making things up, improvising, using my “imagination.” I do not remember my dreams because I spend the greater part of my day restructuring the past and fitting it into schemas of relationship and disrelationships, and not to any discernible end. In short, I am always in a dream. Perhaps it is the ends of art I hate–the way it is “valued” rather than integrated into the dynamic of being alive. You have to be careful saying art is for everyone because this is a sales pitch from the creativity experts and another way to make money.

Art is not for everyone. Many people are happy never to have a moment with art if they can possibly avoid it. Hell, I am happy to never have a moment with art if I can possibly avoid it. If you define art as a judgement of aesthetic value, then this is the least interesting part of the experience of making things up, improvising, and using your imagination.This is the morning after when you look at the thing you made and say: “What the hell was I thinking?” Almost everything I have ever made–songs, poems, stories, has elicited this response from its creator. I am disappointed in all but perhaps 4 poems, one story, and a couple of music compositions. I have never liked the poem of mine that is most anthologized: “Ode to Elizabeth.” I know it is the perfect “representative poem”–not my best poem, and, honestly, all it truly represents is a moment in 1980 when the chemical fires in Elizabeth, New Jersey were inspiring Time Magazine to refer to my home city as “grimy Elizabeth.” In the poem I never talk about the chemical fires, and I never argue against Elizabeth being grimy. The whole poem is an answer to one question: given that something is grimy, can it still have value–and not the value of feeling sorry for it, or wanting it to be other than it is–but the value of what no one but a consciousness that has been formed by that place can see? The poem praises Elizabeth New Jersey by saying: yes, it is grimy, and unartisitc, and full of people who have lousy taste in furniture, but I saw Amarcord there, and with a bunch of friends who had no idea about the snobby distinctions between movies and cinema, and we had a true experience of the film. We responded to it: “if art moved us at all, it was with real amazement/ we had no frame of reference.”

Art then that does not delight, move, amaze, or engage one’s most active intelligence is what I call aesthetic bureaucracy–the means that have forgotten their original ends and serve only their own process as “value.” Such art needs experts and gatekeepers, and protectors and advocates. It needs prestigious presses, and “award winning authors.” It makes me ill–not because I have been excluded from it (I have been allowed through the back door of this world, and can flash certain badges such as a New York Times articles on my poetry, featured with Allen Ginsberg, Stephen Dunn, etc) but because I never thought I was insignificant to begin with. I consider my mind, flawed as it is, to be in communion with a living God, and know that I never wrote a single poem or song, or story for “publication.”

Everything I did was out of Lordly, Godly, arrogant impulse to waste time–to spend my time making things up, and using my imagination, and scribbling on my tomb so to speak. Death is coming. it will be our only permanent accomplishment. Everything then, beyond this, is a scribbling on the tomb, a sort of ferocious, and desperate, and, yes, holy/sacramental graffiti. Everything, including how your friends remember you, is a version of “Kilroy was here.”

This personal essay then is inspired by something that happened to me recently. One of my best friends, and former students, Adam Fitzgerald, wrote “call me!” on my Facebook. So, being me, I thought something happened to him, and, being an insomniac who had just enjoyed the only two hours of sleep I was going to get, I called him. He was en route. People in Manhattan are always en route. He was with Bianca Stone and going somewhere, but he wanted me to know that Bomb magazine had said something wonderful about the chapbook we published through Monk Books by Mark Strand called Mystery and Solitude in Topeka. Great! I tried to be enthusiastic, but all I really wanted to do was Google “Long Branch, New Jersey” and remember which president died there (James Garfield). I was a little ill, and a little weary, and the book is beautiful, and the fun part was instigating it, and funding it, and watching Bianca and Adam do all the real work, and seeing the result. Affirmation of Mark Strand seemed beside the point. The guy has had his share of affirmation. I was thinking, “what about Bernadette Meyer’s chapbook, or even more importantly, Ben Pease’s chapbook, which contains one of the best and most adventurous long narrative poems I have read in years?” I was being a party pooper, a role I find myself playing with increasing frequency. On paper I should be thrilled: I am the “publisher” of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and the book I helped bring into being is being lauded by Bomb–a well known literary zine. But whatever this is, it didn’t register as deeply with me as my then urgent desire to remember that Long Branch was once the summer resort of presidents and that James Garfield went there to recover from a gun shot wound and, well, he didn’t recuperate. I attempted to imagine Long Branch then–late 19th century swimming, the anciently sudden and suddenly ancient smell of salt marsh and wave spume. It was a rude way to behave towards a friend. As Shakespeare said: “you treat comfort like cold porridge.” I behaved like my Irish relatives who, when informed that you won the Noble Peace Prize, would remind you that your cousin Pete was a state champion spoon player, and much better looking besides.

Wet blanket? Far beyond that. I realized that achievement to one who has lived all his life in loss and failure, and who has experienced more or less constant rejection, is, itself anti-climatic. The joy exists in the possibility of things–in their perhaps. Years ago, I read at an event called the Paterson Poetry Marathon. I did well, and Philip Levine, the headliner, came over to me and shook my hand and said: “I want to thank you both for your humor and your outrage.” I should have been thrilled. Instead I went into the bathroom and cried because my parents were dead and my grandmother was dead, and everyone who could have been happy for me and who I wanted to be happy for me (the people who stand and wave at you while you are going around and around on the kiddie ride) are dead. I felt desolate, destroyed. So-called success seemed to have all the flavor of cardboard. If no one had come up to me, it would have been worse, of course, but I realized the losses and years of being a tool grinder on the night shift had rendered me incapable of being achievement-oriented. I am possibility-oriented, doing-the-deed-oriented. While I am reading or writing, or playing a piano, all is possible. After that, it’s hard to take anything seriously. If I had to think of truly meaningful moments in my life as a so called artist, they’d be some of the following.

The last time Joe Salerno came over my apartment in Elizabeth with a mixed cassette tape of music he had been recently excited by: it was truly mixed–Hadyn, Mozart, and Charles Ives. We drank saki and talked about music for hours. Joe liked trees the way I did, and I took him drunk and a little unsteady up the block to show him a full grown American Elm (rare after the dutch elms disease of the 40s). I didn’t know it, but the city had cut the tree down that morning. There was only the stump. We held our glasses full of saki. We reflected like two grown men standing over a blown engine. “Well,” I said, “there’s the stump!” We laughed. Joe reminded me of the great Chinese poem in which the poets get drunk and go into the garden to admire the flowers and the flowers lament that they have gone to all that trouble of blooming to be admired by a bunch of drunks. He quoted the poem. We laughed some more. Joe was dying of lung cancer, but he had not yet been diagnosed. Six months later he was dead, and I played that mixed tape for years until it felt apart. The possibility of talking music and poetry late into the night with a friend and neither of you are talking about the art business… that has meaning. It is the not graffiti on the grave. It is the eternity hidden in transience–what Keats best expressed.

Back in 1988: Dave Roskos and I are in Manhattan placing our new magazines Big Hammer and Black Swan in a book store. It may have been St. Mark’s books. Anyway, Gregory Corso is in there talking with the manager, and he’s pretending not to be Gregory Corso, and we’re pretending not to know he’s Gregory Corso, and he leafs through our magazines and says: “I don’t know these guys… Wait, I heard of Keith Sheppard.” He reads the poem by Sheppard. “Not bad,” he says. We place the magazines on consignment and split into the hot summer’s afternoon and we are laughing because Keith Sheppard is one of my aliases, and I am new to the poetry scene and have filled one quarter of my first issue with poems I wrote under aliases (including a nun who is an expert on Hopkins and George Herbert). We have good Mexican food, and meet up with my painter friend Elieen Doster who has hair the color of new pennies. Great day–again, nothing to do with achievement, but with possibility.

1985: I’m with my friend Marco Munoz in a long defunct art gallery called Oroe Electric in Hoboken. The clarinetist Perry Robinson is playing with his father, Earl Robinson, winner of an academy award, and a man who played with Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and whose songs were performed by Paul Robeson and Frank Sinatra. Earl is an old radical and union man and calls me brother when he finds out I’m a tool grinder on the night shift. The party after the event hosted by Susan Shafton, includes a lot of wonderful musicians, including Gary Schneider, conductor of the Hoboken Symphony Orchestra. I am young and arrogant and happy and drunk enough to play piano among them, and sing my songs, and Perry joins in, and Gary likes the way I play piano, and Earl shakes my hand and beams. No hierarchy, none of that stupid, God forsaken, spiritually bankrupt pecking order we call “The arts.” We play for hours–folk music, atonal music, hard bop, weird mongrel versions of all of the above. I am dressed in a cool suit and so is Marco who scats happily along. Joy, art. Not “the arts.” I hate “the arts.” It takes all the fun out of things.

1977: The year my mom died. My friend Huey is over my house, and I am playing a song I wrote. I hear blubbering, and I look over and Huey is crying–this big, good looking jock. he says: “that’s beautiful.” I never had a friend say that to me before. where I come from, it takes great courage and a good heart to say such things openly. 34 years later, it means more to me than getting nominated for Pushcarts. You can put Pushcarts on a curriculum vitae, but its not what makes you create. If it is, then you’re pretty fucking pathetic. Nothing is more pathetic than someone who achieves and is not alive except for their achievements. Such a person is a slave to the wrong master. It is terrible when no one appreciates your art or wants to hear or see or recognize it. It is more horrible when that’s all that matters.

1999: my first year as an instructor at arts high. The students don’t want the class to end and I teach a summer program (for free) in a wonderful place called Rutgers gardens. There are kids playing guitars, and writing poems, and hiking through cedar and bamboo forests, and I am not making a dime, and they are not getting a grade, and everyone shows up every Thursday for no other reason than we are making shit up as we go along, and enjoying the energy of making shit up as we go along. The next year, I have forty kids in the woods–Adam Fitzgerald being one of them. My former friend’s son, Danny Salerno comes by to visit and recites Beowulf in the Anglo Saxon and the girls (and probably some of the boys) all swoon because he is good looking. Later, at the pizza joint we repair to after working on being artists, Danny and Adam get into a huge fight over whether Falstaff or Hamlet is the greater character, and they almost come to blows. I am not there since I have to go to my 4 to 12 shift job in the factory, but I hear about it from the other students, and I am delighted. What teacher would not want 17 year old students almost coming to blows over Falstaff and Hamlet?

I am not knocking people who are achievement oriented. I wish I could feel proud of anything I achieve. I can’t. Even if I won awards, and became a “living legend,” I’d still be short and balding, and full of the griefs I experienced, and I’d still be most excited by a chord progression I accidentally stumbled upon. I’d still miss the people who died and who I loved–which is almost everyone I ever loved. The best thing about being famous would be the money. I’d blow most of it on instruments and art projects, and taking my wife out to eat. I’d give money to artists I thought were unrecognized, and I’d be able to shit on the heads of all the so called big shots who snubbed me over the years. Being “snubbed” is part of “the arts.” I hate the fucking arts. I love the possibility of 40 young people in a field fucking around with paints and guitars. Maybe only one of them becomes well known, but it took all forty to create that one well known artist. Desire is never isolated.

Three years after I started teaching the summer program, the school made it official and put it in doors, with air conditioning, and ruined the integration of painting and poetry and music, and put each in its proper hole. They had the best intentions. I hate intentions. I had only one–to waste time. I was teaching my students how to hang out. Who the fuck died and left the experts to decide what is significant or worthwhile? If no one invites you to the party, throw your own and fuck them! This is what I was teaching. I was trying to teach my students the necessary arrogance of art, and its humility. The humility is this: nothing will ever feel as good as actually doing it–not awards, not achievements, not anything that results from doing it–nothing, and if the other things begin to take precedence, you are in danger. I hate “the arts.” Right now, I wish I knew a good cello player, and one who could wing it, and they’d come over and play with me for a couple hours. Sometimes, while I’m playing the piano, I can hear the cellist beside me playing other riffs. I get excited and I start to dream of the possibility. if a real cellist came over they would want to work towards a goal. A truly accomplished cellist would probably snub me, so a half-assed cellist would do just as well. As my grandmother said: If the picture is crooked, and you can’t adjust it, adjust your head.” My standards are low. A 17 year old student so passionate about Shakespeare that he takes on a 22 year old guy who can speak Anglo-Saxon is as exciting to me as Bomb magazine praising a book I was involved with. Whenever that isn’t true, I begin to feel spiritually sick inside. So my apologies to Adam. What really thrills me is that I knew Adam when he chewed key chains incessantly and played Visions of Johanna 20 times a day. I am happy to see him flourish. It’s like being a parent and watching your kid go around and around on a ride and, suddenly, you realize he isn’t a kid, and he’s calling you up when you’re ill and tired and lonely for a world that was not all fucking achievements and kudos and you ought to wave–even if you’re half dead. I feel more than half dead. Possibility is hard to come by, especially when everything is to a purpose. I believe in wasting time. I am trapped in a goal-oriented, sick America of insane positive thinking and achievement psychosis… someone get me a half-assed cellist. Quick! Someone get me a park and 40 young artists wasting time. I love making stuff, writing, composing, fucking around with my garden. I hate “the arts.”

Most of the work I do in the garden is a sort of re-reading. I might stare at a spot for a good ten minutes, then go to another place and stare at that same spot again until either satisfaction, or displeasure, or further bafflement causes me to place a few rocks, or to plant a delphinium or conclude: “there’s too much there already. Let it be.”

I don’t know what I’m doing and that makes it all the more enjoyable and baffling. I have some vegetables in, but not for the purpose of feeding myself. I intend to give them away. To me, holding up a squash towards a stranger and saying: “here… have a squash,” is a god-almighty amazing experience. Me and the rain and the sun and days of weather went into that gourd’s existence. There’s a bit of the child in it: “See what I made, mommy?”

Of course, most people don’t know what to do with a squash. Those that do know what to do with a squash most likely already have squash of their own. My grandmother said: “The true message of all gifts is: I have seen you. You exist upon the earth. See me.” She claimed that once you realized this, any gift you received would be in good grace. ” It’s not the gift; it’s the grace.” She once watched a woman say to her child who had brought her a wilted dandelion: “It’s wilted, Mary. For Christ sake, don’t be an idiot. I have no use for a wilted dandelion.” My grandmother said: “After that, I had no use for that woman… She was a bad reader of the truth. She prided her self on her honesty, but she wouldn’t know the truth if it rose up and bit her on the arse.” My grandmother had a bone to pick even with God in this respect: “Cain gave his offering no less sincerely than his brother Abel, but God wanted to show his whim was boss. He spat on Cain’s heart, and so Cain killed Abel. To spit on another’s heart is to create a murderer. If you could look at the hearts of murders you would see them covered in spit… God let Cain live. God had a plan I suppose, but I don’t see much of a difference between God and that mother with the wilted dandelion. God forgive me, but I think God acted in poor taste… no wonder he let Cain live. Poor Abel… I don’t think he rubbed it in his brother’s face, and he should not have been murdered, but that’s what we do, don’t we? When someone too powerful to hurt, hurts us, we go and slit the throat of the next fellow, and on and on. Envy and the hurt of it makes a terrible mess. The rope coils and we get more and more tangled. don’t we? Ah ‘tis a truth; no use asking why. Y is a crooked letter won’t be made straight.”

I loved my grandmother. She smelled like dirt, and old newspapers, and cough drops. She died when I was 11, my first true death. As a member of a large Irish Catholic family, there were always the wakes of friendly but distant great uncles, but I had seen my grandmother and she saw me. We watched each other. We were vigilant as regards each other’s comings and goings upon the earth. When she died, the song “Bridge Over Troubled water” was a new hit. The lyrics Paul Simon later regretted writing because they seemed mere filler had great private meaning for me: “Sail on silver girl, sail on by. Your time has come to fly. All your dreams are on their way.” I would sit alone in my room with a transistor radio and wait for this song, and when it came, I would wail to my heart’s content. I knew then that loss had given me significance, and, more so, it had given whatever I loved significance. My grandmother had become enormous, even a little terrifying–a presence and a myth rather than an old lady who smelled like dirt and never stopped talking. She was in the landscape all around me, in the moody shifts of the weather. Winter was now her season for she had died in winter. I was almost angry at the spring for arriving.

A garden, like all true relationships, is a pact with loss, with effacement, and when we fear effacement, it already begins to give birth to power and envy and death inside us. This is the grasping that undoes all we might be given. Zen monks expend great care on creating a mandala they then erase. It may take weeks of painstaking skill, and then they just rub it out. Love does not fear effacement. It comes into the world to be erased. It comes with great trouble and care, and much reading and re-reading in order to die. The loss is in–not of–the loss in things. I see this in my garden. Nothing I do succeeds in the way of permanence. It is not change either. I hate change. change is the great whore of the present hour. I have no use for that whore. If truth is passed permanence, then it is also passed change. Permanence and change are both to be discarded. What we lose and what we gain have nothing to do with either. Permanence and change, upon close scrutiny, always yield their falsehoods. They exist to prove each other false. I call this the comedy of revision. By gardening I revise the landscape, and when I die, the earth will revise me. What I edit will become my editor.

Yesterday, I was away from my garden, reading for an anthology “Working Poets” in Paterson. My wife and I had some time to kill, so we wandered into a Barnes and Noble. I looked at all the hundreds of new books, and then I went to the poetry section and picked up Whitman’s Leaves of Grass–a work I have read and re-read many times. I was looking for a certain section, much the way you look for a grave of a relative you have not visited in a while. the cemetery always seems different. You can’t find the grave right away. Someone is always coming out with a new or final version of Whitman and many of these wish to be faithful to Whitman. And you cannot be faithful to Whitman, but, hey, why not? The versions did not have the usual section markers, so I read poems I had no intention of reading, and soon I was crying, and ashamed of myself for I am a big cry baby.

What I was looking for was the sixth part of song of myself. I intended to read it in honor of a woman named Arlene who had worked for Maria Mazziotti Gillan for many years and had once given me 200 bucks to get my car out of a tow yard when I parked illegally to do a school visit. She had died the week before after a six year battle with ovarian cancer. She had gone way beyond the call of duty for me, and, from what I understood, she was always going way beyond the call of duty for someone. I did not know her well. I knew her kindness–her grace, and I wanted to honor it. So after reading perhaps thirty pages and telling my wife to leave me alone (in a loving way) I found the grave I was looking for. For me, poems are graves. While you are there, the dead rise, and they speak to you whatever wisdom they have, and then they return to the earth. You are always both pleased and a little worried when you find the grave of a loved poem. What has happened to you since the last time you visited? Will the flowers you left still be there, albeit, browned and dry? Were you forty the last time? Did you weigh less, hope more? How will you approach–with reverence, or as casually as a child playing among the head stones? Will it still mean something to you, or will your visit be merely obligatory? The new books did not matter for I was on a mission to pay my respects. I found the section (which was not marked as a section). Whitman in this poem claims there is no death, but then he revises this claim and says that death is better than we could ever imagine–and luckier. It is a poem I have read perhaps a hundred times and cannot fail to be awed by. At certain moments of my life, it has seemed the only poem I ever truly read. Here it is. I offer it like a squash. If you know what to do with squash, you have most likely read it yourself, and have your own relation to it. If not, consider the grace of seeing and being seen.

A child said what is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands.
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any
more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the hankerchief of the Lord,
A scented remebrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say whose?

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same,
I recieve them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire form the breasts of young men,
it may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
it may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken
soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I percieve after all so many uttering tongues,
And I percieve they do not come from the roofs of motuhs for
nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere.
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And, if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at
the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
luckier.

So I’m reading, and very much enjoying Ray Hammond’s Poetic Amusement, his masters thesis on the influence of po’biz amid writing programs on American poetry. When I read, I interact with a text, start scribbling my own argument for or against, maybe write a didactic sonnet, or trounce about my house looking for other books that seem pertinent. In chapter 4, Hammond writes about the muse, how the muses have been put on the shelf and replaced by workhop craft. I’m enjoying it because no one speaks about the primal condition of poetry being the ability to “receive” from outside one’s ego, and even one’s consciousness–to be stupid. Stupidity, in its old sense “stupere” means to be stupefied, stunned, left with your mouth agape, and, lo and behold, Hammond quotes Levertov on the original definition of Muse:

To contemplate comes from ‘templum, temple, a place, a space for observation marked by an augur.’ It means not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is ‘to keep the mind in a state of contemplation.’ Its synonym is ‘to muse’ and to muse means ‘to stand with open mouth’–not so comical if we think of inspiration–to breathe in.

Being stunned out of one’s normal thought, to enter a state of ecstasy, to be made “stupid” (stupere–gape mouthed), awed by that which inspirits you is not so uncommon. Watch a child totally absorbed in drawing or coloring, his or her tongue hanging out, oblivious to his surroundings,and you’ll get a more precise sense of the alpha wave state the mind enters upon being truly engaged with any task or action calling for a forgetting of one’s self in a moment of concentration/contemplation. This takes place in “ground set apart”–in privacy, in solitude, in the midst of noise one has learned to tune out. The “god” is present in both the ground set apart (templum) and in the act being performed there. This is what I mean by presence, and so, for me, each genuine poem is a templum, a ground set apart, and we must enter it in a state of unknowing, of “stupidity” in its most ancient sense so that the “muse” may enter us.

All this might sound like spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but it is not outside what scientists have recently come to know, especially in neuroscience. Creativity does not come from our usual cognitive faculties (though our cognitive faculties help shape it as it comes forth). Its initial neural twitch takes place in what Robert Bly called the “lizard” brain, and what neurologists call the “affective brain”–the brain functions we share with other animals, especially primates: playing, seeking, caring, etc. It comes from a much more primal, animal sense of the spirit–a shaman’s flight over the houses, a forgetting of one’s own cleverness and benevolent fascism over the text at hand. We need time to waste, time to be outside our usual heads. Plato, who is still at the center of Western thought, agreed poets “received” their poems from gods (demons). This was exactly why he didn’t want them in the republic: because their thoughts, their compositions, though often more wise and profound than philosophy, had no systematic ground of order. If Plato came back today and saw the workshop, craft obsessed nature of poetics, he’d give his approval, but not for reasons poets might like: Plato would approve because the stupidity of inspiration has been removed from the writing of poems. We do not enter a temple and enter contemplation (mind free mindfulness) in the presence of a god, and, if this should happen, we revise the god out of the poem by work shopping it to death. Revision has its place, but it does not have pride of place. I submit that all poets should strive for bringing forth a presence. Anyway:

I never write from an idea unless the idea has started writing me. This morning, reading Hammond, I decided to write a sonnet playing with the concept of musing, of luring the muse through an act of contemplation. In the sonnet, the narrator of the poem stares into a ditch where a frog is sticking out his tongue to catch a fly. He loses himself in contemplating the ditch, forgets the social order, and makes a didactic plea for “staring” as a form of inspiration–just staring. I chose to write this in sonnet form because I was not trying to write a poem–contemporary or otherwise. I was trying to create a space (the sonnet form is the space) in which to versify everything I just said above. Form for me is a room to muse in–not a prison. I do not consider this a poem, but a piece of didactic verse. I had fun seeing if I could suspend the pay off of the sentence until the volta. What a way to have fun! You know I’m getting old. Anyway, consider it my coloring book while my tongue was hanging out:

Muse (Didactic Sonnet Number One)

To muse for a long hour on this ditch
in which a frog unfurls his froggy tongue
to haul the fly in, and the poor, the rich
the good, the bad, are, by the church bells, rung
(ding-dong! Goodbye!) into sweet disaray
so that you soon forget the social strain,
and press your eye against the pickerel weed
beyond all thought, though sunlight yields to rain:
this be the workshop then, of gods and time.
This be the meter–rhythms slow or quick
that stare and stare, till ditch and stare commune,
until the eye becomes a frog that flicks,
this ancient tongue which lures what it has sought:
the muse–this fly of musing–beyond thought.

Many young poets can not accept that telling a story, or relating some sort of narrative arc is conducive to the highest aims of poetry. Of course this is a confusion between story telling and narrative. They are not the same. Narrative is the pulse and rhythm of being. Whitman is an intensely narrative poet, as is Emily Dickinson. Stories stay in touch with this pulse of being in the most obvious ways. The great triumph of Chekhov is that he muted the obviousness of story, blurred the distinctions between plot and character, and took prose into territories of consciousness previously known only to the most subjective and simple of lyrical poems. Story may be destroyed, but never narrative. If I write

Oy vey! The sun is batting its eye lashes
and I am a tired tree

I am, for all my pretensions to surrealism, still in the arms of narrative. The sun is doing something (batting its eye lashes)i This is the action at the scene. Oy vey is an ejaculation that means, roughly: “Oh brother,” or “For crying out loud,” or “Oh my God” so it implies an attitude. If I say I am a tired tree, then I am implying a state of being, and the reader will connect the dots. The batting of eye lashes is an age old signifier of vanity or flirting. I may not follow this line consciously, but it is there. So lets continue:

Oy vey! The sun is batting its eye lashes
and I am a tired tree.
Strange omens creep forth from Canada.
The sky is dressed in drag.
How shall I desist from wandering the earth
in search of pomegranates?
Death to stars and cardboard!
Death to the wan smile of the lost.
Forgive me my trespasses.
I am a tired tree
half in love with sudden lightning
and the vagrant grin of years.

There is no story told here, but there is narrative arc. The poem might seem nonsensical, especially if you insist on logical exposition or a concrete point (which is journalism and information–not narrative). If you meet the poem on its own terms line for line, you may notice a strange lament. The tree is tired. It is half in love with lightning (death wish) and the vagrant grin of years. The voice is vehement in what it wants to die: stars, cardboard, the wan smile of the lost. This is an arbitrary list, but have you ever listened to a cranky sick person complain:? To quote my Aunt Mary two weeks before she died: “No soup! The hell with soup and styrofoam. Where is my bone china? You’re killing me!”

The problem students have with narrative is its mundanity. It is not the narrative, but the absence of verbal surprise they are missing. Verbal surprise is always overrated by young poets. They mistake confusion and flash for lyricism. Lyricism breaks forth when the narrative arc, the interior laws organic to the poem are compelled, even forced to sing and this singing is so close to insanity or sheer ecstasy as to risk the loss of sense. Take this snippet from Hart Crane that baffles many a sensible soul:

The mustard scansions of the eyes.

It is, indeed, a strange phrase, but let’s consider (beyond Cleanth Brooks) where Hart Crane lived. He lived in the same apartment that had been occupied by the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge. He knew scansions (bridge abutments) like no one else. They could have been painted a mustard brown or yellow–in keeping with hazel eyes. When I first read this line I was in awe of his accuracy, a precision so intense it blighted the sense and construct of the actual thing described. Of course I was reading my own life into the poem. I once loved a girl who stood at dusk under the El, and she had yellow or mustard specks in her eyes, and the scansions were reflected in her irises. When I read this line, I thought Hart Crane had hovered like a ghost over my experience. I was reading into the poem which leads me to another point: even if you provide no story or narrative, the reader will provide one, and if not, then the reader is immured in a construct of non-narrative so pure as to be pissant.

John Ashbery, the darling of many poets opposed to story telling and narrative, is an intensely narrative poet. His narratives shift from line to line, moment to moment, disappearing and dissolving in the current of the poem. He is the master of the story that “Almost” happens. He makes a gesture towards story and betrays it, but he does not betray narrative.

Many poets try to escape narrative by destroying syntax. Lets try it:

Orion of graves
graves of the discontent
watermelons in the breeze
breeze absolving the moon
and the hermit
and the celebrity
and the soul survivor of the war
and the judiciary
and the past-enormous–lopsided tits
Pray! Pray for the thigh I am licking.
Pray for Betty Crocker!
And the and and the and and the and
loose cowboys
suspended adorations.

OK, only a couple of sentences. Why pray for Betty Crocker? Yet the poem obeys its own immutable laws of disconnection. That in itself is a ceremony and a narrative. ask: How do we make narrative beyond mere story telling? I tell you, no good story obeys story telling. It obeys narrative–the arc of being.

I always think that a poem “off the page” becomes an “act” of language rather than a poem, a thing made out of words. As such, its visual appeal (or lack thereof) is lost, but its actions are magnified—how it moves within the act of being uttered. It is no longer a poem, but an act of language. By this way of thinking, even a modernist or post modernist poem—fully constructed for its visual as well verbal appeal, even a poem as a “made thing” becomes an “act of language” when read aloud. Such poems often suffer when translated from the realm of the page to that of the heard text. They were not meant to be heard. They are of the cognitive brain, and their affective, animal body is absent except as a structure of intelligence. This does not mean they become bad poems, but it does mean they are at least, flawed acts of langauge. They have a paucity of repetition, rhetoric, and tone. They have little or no mimetic force. The page poem is not poetry. Rather it is a construct in which poesis may or may not occur. By the same token, neither is the uttered poem poetry. Poetry does not reside in either page or oracular form; poetry resides in something both caused by and beyond its words and this is true even when the poem is fully on the page as words. I call this something presence.

I strive for presence in my work—not for visual or oral appeal, but for a presence beyond the overt trickery of either. I am known for being a good reader of my poetry, but, if you listen to me on tape, you would not find my reading voice to be at all remarkable. I do not use acting or oral chops. I am actually reading with a far from mellifluous voice—but it is always a “Speaking voice.” It is the voice of my consciousness. There are three basic kinds of speaking voice:

1. The voice aware of itself speaking, and, thereby, speechifying. This voice will include various devices of rhetoric such as amplitude, hyperbole, adynaton, apostrophic address, extended metaphor, anaphora, rhyme, alliteration, cadence. Slammers, at least over the last few years, are prone to what I call “shot gun” metaphors—a series of extended metaphors that decorate a basic issue oriented trope—very much like menology, especially monology as it was evolved post Lenny Bruce—humor as recognition and identification rather than as punch line or story. Slammers have also fallen into a definite slam cadence, one which irritates the hell out of me unless it is done with some nuance. But the voice aware of itself speaking pre-dates slam. It is the voice of the orator, the con artist, the preacher, the rhetorician. It is exactly this voice that modernism and postmodernity sought to mute. Now onto a second form of speaking:

2. The voice as conversational lyric—the poet’s consciousness moving, and ruminating, and allowing an audience to overhear. This “voice” has been a dominant entity in poems since Coleridge and Wordsworth. Ginsberg, Stevens, wildly dissimilar poets, employ the conversational lyric. it may be formal, or casual, confessionalist or impersonal and vatic, but it has the one shared quality of being “overheard”—a voice caught in mid-consciousness. Such a voice enables the poet to mix registers of speech.

3. The voice as relaying information—without attitude, simply reading. Somehow this is considered the most honest voice by certain aficionados of poetry (especially those who hate spoken word or slam) but, in its radical rejection of any tone or attitude, it, too, is a literary conceit.

I have used all these forms of “Speaking,” sometimes in the course of a single poem, but I do not “perform” poems. I read them. They exist as scripts for me, and I often change them as I read—much as a musician might decorate a note, or leave out a chord passage depending on the mood of the moment.

So I am not a performative poet, and certainly not a slammer, but I am a reader of poetry—meant to have a speaking voice, a voice that often shifts according to my consciousness. I construct my line on the page as I am writing the poem, not for visual appeal, but as a sort of flow chart that changes and shifts in such a way that, if read out loud, the presence of a speaking voice will be the result.

I bring all this up because yesterday, after I had read at the West Caldwell magazine festival, a very nice woman named Bess came over to compliment and praise me. She did not buy my book because she already had it. She asked me where the poem “Poem for Advent” appeared. She said: “I loved it.” I smiled: “it’s right in the book you already purchased.” She looked surprised. “I read that book cover to cover… I’m sure I would have remembered it…” Then she paused and continued: “of course, it’s the way you read your poems. You’re such a good reader… you should do a recording… whatever you do, it’s not on the page.” I said: “you’re both right and you’re wrong. It’s both on the page and out loud, but it’s really neither. The force does not come from my performing the poem, or reading it with any special talent. My only talent as a reader is that I’m clear, and change speeds as I read… But thank you.”

This troubled me. Was “Poem for Advent” only good when I read it? The poem received a great crowd reception, and yet it was not a poem you would typically read to wow a crowd. It was not that I read it well, but rather that what I had written on the page (and always on the page) had managed to create a presence, a speaker. The speaking voice was not lost even in the page version. I write my poems as I think—they move with my thoughts. Now I want to analyze that poem as if it were not mine to see why it might go over well with a crowd of listeners—most of whom were published poets in their 30′s, 40′s and beyond.

The world takes us at its leisure…

This is the first line, not exactly a thrilling hook, but there are things going on here. First, it’s an opinion, a wager, a statement. Second, it does not yield its meaning immediately. What does it mean for a “World” to take us at its leisure? I am using personification, ascribing to the world a character. Taking is an aggressive act, whether it is sexual or a species of theft. To do so at its leisure implies a certain toying with us. Of course I was not thinking any of this when I wrote that first line. I was probably not thinking at all, but “sounding” my way into thought. I never have an idea I translate into poetry. I have sounding I shape, and within those shapes the thoughts of the poem begin to form. In this case, I had a title first (unusual for me) so I consider any poem that has a title first to be somewhat occasional—to serve the occasion, in this case Advent. If you are a reader of the Gospel, you will know we do not “belong” to this world, but this is my instinctive, rather than premeditated first act. Sound wise, it contains Uh, Er, long A, Uh, aah (the gag vowel), small i, high e, and er again. World and leisure share chiming sounds. IN terms of vowel sounds, it is only missing the long u as in ooh, the long oh as in boat, and the sound, Ah as in Ska. Note the dentals as in d at the end of world, t in takes, at, and its. So, in sonic terms, a lot more is happening than I might think until now. Still, this is not a poem seeking an immediate bang. I think takes is a strong verb. Much poetry on the page is wary of strong verbs. Floaty gerunds have somehow become more “lyrical.” Beats me, but let’s continue:

The world takes us at its leisure
by increments of infamy
or “virtue.”

Now the listener can’t see the quotes around virtue, but increments of infamy is a distant cousin of “weapons of mass destruction” or jack boot of the state. It uses the common sound of “in” as Joyce did with agin bite of inwit. In point of fact, Joyce is secretly hidden in my ear along with Stevens and Williams because I spent years reading them (and not out loud, though, sometimes). The ur sound serves as a rhyming function (world, leisure, virtue), but, as with hip hop, it is never in a predictable position. It’s sneaky rhyme, so sneaky I have no idea I am doing it. This helps create a speaking voice because people are often rhyming without knowing it. Still, no metaphors, no meter, and nothing that sounds like common speech exists here. The first two lines are 8 syllables, but not metered.

In short, there is nothing in this poem so far that makes it spoken word friendly. There are several unusual phrases that get developed later, there is a play with the idea of conning, and evangelizing, and the poem moves into the darkness of advent, into a sort of freely improvised meditation on what is genuine and holy and what is false in terms of the spirit, but nothing in this poem is overtly oratorical. If I had to think what makes audiences like this poem, it is probably the presence of a consciousness moving from thing to thing, yet never forgetting to circle an intention which is to meditate upon the false and the genuine, and more so, upon the merge points between them. At its close, it becomes a plea to God: Maranatha. It employs the mystical oxymoron of “despairing more deeply into joy. Somehow, I am able to convey my sense of struggle with faith and conscience. I also compare the “lascivious” grin of an old Chrysler to Burt Lancaster’s smile in Elmer Gantry, and that is a good simile, a very good simile, and visually accurate in an odd way. There are moments of anaphora, and alliteration, especially toward the end when the poem reaches its climax, but neither is used as a chief shaping agent. So why would my voice, a voice that is reading, not performing, win over an audience. I don’t think the answer lies on either the page or in the performance. I think it lies in presence. Presence is of a body—a form. I become my poem or my poem becomes me, and this thing of the body transcends either entertainment in performance or the sight of the poem on the page. This is the magic of the conversational lyric. Hell, beats me. I know I did not think the poem up. I wrote it one line and word at a time, not knowing ever exactly where I was going: the same way I talk. Maybe people were just being nice.

The best art school I ever attended was my childhood friend, Marco Munoz’ studio above a Florist shop on Elizabeth Avenue, Elizabeth, New Jersey, circa 1977 to 1980. We were kids, the sons of factory workers, and immigrants/exiles from Cuba and Peru and, by all the usual expectations and social indicators, we were not supposed to exist. I was the token white American Irish Catholic guy. Marco had known me from grade school at St. Mary’s, but had left to attend what was then Jefferson High school. I didn’t see him from 8th grade until the end of my senior year. By then, he had taken classes with a charismatic high school art teacher called “Tags” (an Italian name shortened with affection). Tags hipped his students into Jazz as well as Jasper Johns, Pollack, Mondrian, Braque, etc. So Marco had this crew of artsy kids who smoked pipes, talked poetry, music, and painting non-stop, and occasionally wore fedoras. The main hang was Fernando Gonzalez, Arthur George, and this guy from Cuba, Alejandro Anreus, a self proclaimed Catholic leftist and hypochondriac. Marco told them about me, so they walked down Dewey Place one June evening, with the intention of ringing my door bell. At the same time they were coming down my street to meet me, I was being carried by a group of friends from a party at which I had downed a bottle of Vodka, a bottle of Gin, and a pint of Jack Daniels. They had me on their shoulders–more or less comatose. This was only a few months after my mother died, and I was in love with a girl named Mary Ientile, and I drank in order to obliterate all boundaries standing between me and my grief which was epic, extroverted, and a great trial to my friends.

According to Marco, they reached my front stoop just as I was being deposited there by my pall bearers. Marco turned to Alejandro and Fernando and Arthur and said: “that’s Joe Weil.” Somehow, I woke from my stupor and replied: “yes it is.”

So began my tenure in the greatest art school I ever attended. What happened there? We hung out. This is the one thing art schools do not teach. It is not constructive. It wastes a lot of time. Inappropriate behavior is likely to transpire. This is how a typical hang would go: we’d get into Marco’s black pick up truck, and drive around Elizabeth, playing Charlie Parker and Dizzy, and Monk, or Wagner–at top volume, the way street kids play hip-hop now-a-days. We’d buy a whole bunch of cheap cigars and put them in the mouths of stone lions–any stone lion we saw. We once covered fifty miles, looking for stone lions. We’d go back to Marco’s studio which had been given to him by a florist shop owner named Ted, who also taught art, and we’d scat, argue about Nietzsche, and Alejandro would complain about both his various stomach ailments, and the latest existential crisis with his girlfriend. Mostly, we’d scat and look at Mondrian, Johns, Pollack, Braque. I had never heard of these guys in school. I learned quick and faked what I didn’t know. The studio was full of stolen or discarded art books and reproductions of great paintings as well as the group’s paintings which were flung everywhere. We used the head of Socrates as an ash tray (we drilled a hole in his skull). The conversations, and scatting would go on for hours, accompanied by cheap wine–gallons of Gallo. We’d paint and my new friends would laugh at my paintings, but I could scat way better than them so I got even. We were pretentious, and arrogant, and naive, and that’s good because, before you are significant, you must be stupid enough to believe you are already significant. I am treating this lightly, but some of the conversations on art were the best, most extensive symposiums I ever attended. Alejandro is now the chair of the art department at William Paterson University. Marco continues to exhibit his work. Aurthur George actually makes a living in commercial art. Fernando married the beautiful daughter of a Spanish general and has a steady gig as a history professor at some college in the Berkshires. I went to work in a factory for twenty years, but I came out a lecturer at Binghamton University somehow. Go figure. This is all miraculous because Elizabeth is not an artsy town. The mayor at the time tried to ban Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” from local cable TV. He said no one could speak Spanish at city hall in a city that was already 40 percent Hispanic. He was an old machine Democrat. He’d say something dumb like that to please his bigoted cronies, then wink at the leaders of the Cuban community and get their kids jobs. Mayor Dunn had heeded the call to take in Cuban exiles after the Bay of Pigs invasion and had received major money from the government for doing so. He was also no doubt heeding the request of DeCalvacante family members (their head quarters were in Elizabeth, and they are the rather loose model for The Sopranos). A lot of former chums of the mob down in Cuba were given refuge, and with them, a lot of Cuban intellectuals who had fallen foul of the system (I met Herberto Padilla later and he published my first poem–in Linden Lane magazine).

It was through Fernando that I became familiar with philosophy. Alejandro introduced me to the Spanish poets, Hernandez, Machado, Paz, Otero, Neruda, and Vallejo. Marco was the one with the great collection of Jazz. So I learned far more than I bargained for. I had to drop out of college because of my family disasters. I lost my parents, the house I grew up in, all within a couple years, then spent 20 years in a mold making plant, but I survived just as these Cuban exiles and immigrants survived: because I had the rope memory of something greater, and this made all those years in the factory not only bearable, but useful. I was an emotional train wreck, and these guys gave me some sense of sanity and a political/philosophical context for what I suffered–albeit in a way any “normal” American consumer would consider crazy. They gave me the notion that it didn’t matter if you were in college, or worked in a factory–that all this culture belonged to me as well as the elite, and without me having to betray my neighborhood and become a snob. If I had gone to grad school, I would have had to abandon my own mixed registers of speech. I would have had to embrace “professionalism”–that merciless neighborhood in which, all too often and all too sadly, only the semiotics of excellence seem to matter–not excellence itself.

I guess this brings me to my point: my pedagogical approach to creative writing is digress, digress, follow the nose of your longing. Be 100 percent present to all possibility. Learn to hang out and waste time with anyone of like mind or of unlike mind who intrigues. Don’t be too picky. Read lots of books, see lots of pictures, listen to music, and be suspicious of all “official” channels of knowledge. More is learned by being among artists than by attending their craft talks. I hate well-structured craft talks. I didn’t attend a single work shop until I was near forty. I now see there is some merit in it. It seems to me the best thing about work shops is the opportunity to be among other writers, which leads me to this idea:

A young artist needs to hang out and be a little arrogant and cocky, and re-invent the wheel. Most of my best students know they will learn far more from me by hanging out than by official structures. When I taught at arts high, I brought Arthur and Fernando, and Marco, and Alejandro with me. I took the energy of that brief three year period and incited its return among my own students. I worry about an art world given over to seminars, and work shops, and official lessons from the “masters,” but I don’t worry too much because I am smart enough to know that most of the valuable stuff students learn has nothing to do with me. A good teacher does what Tags did: he or she exposes and points out, incites and shares his or her passion, and then gets out of the way. As much as possible, the teacher plants the explosives in just the right place, then watches things blow up. Professionalism is a lie. I am often taking some former students with me on a Dodge gig. I don’t need to, but I want to. We will be going to Newark, and we’ll be winging most of what we do. They will learn more about the art scene and about poetry by actually performing with me than they ever will through my classes. These are former undergrads. Grad students are too busy and they are forced to be professionals. They are underpaid, and they have been taught not to show too much enthusiasm because, I guess, enthusiasm might be deemed the way of the bumpkin, and no one wants to be seen as an bumpkin.They probably think me a fool. They’re absolutely right, but I like being a bumpkin.

When I go to Newark, I will keep the late night scats, and joy of hanging out in mind, and I will try to present some small sense of that–of communion. An artist must show up and be present in every sense of the word. All else is secondary. A teacher must know that what he or she thinks he or she is teaching may not be the real lesson at all. I have no idea what my real lesson is. I am in the back of a black pickup truck, with tears in my eyes because I’ve just heard Beethoven’s Last Quartets for the first time, or I am laughing and scatting to Salt Peanuts. This is my being. It would be nice if I could convey some of that to my students–if a little of me could travel with them in years to come. That might suffice. The rest is official lesson plans. Those things scare the shit out of me.

Photo by Marco Munoz

The poet who saved my life never existed for me in his native language. He died fifteen years before I was born. His name is Miguel Hernandez, and he will never be as well known in English as Lorca, Jimenez, or Machado, but he is my poet, the one I would take with me into exile.

When I first met one of his poems I was a senior in high school and my mother had just died. She did not die prettily. I remember the good Catholic liberals in my school showed a film on how a good Catholic family should behave during a terminal illness. I sat in the class growing more and more enraged. I shouted at the teacher: “There’s no right way to behave fuck face,” and stormed out of the class. They wanted to suspend me. My father told them to go see my mother. I was let back into the school the next day, and I was not made to watch any more films on a “beautiful” death. The mouth cancer had eaten away half her face. She had a tumor in the middle of her forehead, and her lips, what was left of them, were swollen so that she could barely speak. She was not yet fifty one.

I did not know how to grieve. My aunts and uncles, who had grown up in a large Irish family, understood all the mechanics of grief. You made tea. You made funeral arrangements. You grew ever more tidy.You smoked and joked, and changed the curtains. On the first night of my mother’s wake, I refused to stay with the family at Aunt Elizabeth’s. I threw myself down on my parent’s bed, when no one was there, and wept the way you might if everything in your life has been dismantled. Sounds came out of me I did not know could exist. I buried my head in my mother’s pillow. I could smell her cancer everywhere in the house. It had become the incense of my life. I was about to turn 18.

Life is not merciful. It does not forgive a weakness in any structure, including that in the human soul, and it will tear, and peck, and hammer against this weakness until it is destroyed. I sometimes think African American “cool” and Irish humor developed out of an awareness of this truth. One must fool life into believing the structure is sound. One must put up a front against the hornets and rats who would build a nest in the flawed structure of the soul, but this “front” becomes a tomb, and I now realize most of the people who raised me, who looked after me, who hovered over my first sleep, were already buried under ten tons of well constructed shite. This is the experiential, non-verbal equivalent of form. All the formalities of our lives are meant to distance us from the merciless beak that seeks out the vulnerable, the visibly damaged. Life sends its chickens to peck the bleeding chicken to death. In a sense, literature, word, is the chief shaping ancient of what can not be shaped. And so on to Hernandez:

I was not allowed to grieve, except in private, and a part of me continued doing teen anger things: I drank, I smoked. Being a nerd, and not very good looking, I pined for a girl who had no interest in me at all. If a loss is big enough, all the little losses come through the hole, and they widen it, and in comes more big losses–an avalanche. My father developed throat cancer. He became a drunk. We lost our house and lived over a record store in Garwood, New Jersey. My family went from solidly working class and Catholic to dysfunctional mess. It was during this time, this time when I realized my Catholic faith had nothing to give me but Hallmark greeting card sentiments, when all the people we had known started to “unknow” us that I came upon the poems of Miguel Hernandez.

I still believed in the sacraments, and in Christ, but I no longer believed in his followers. They made me want to puke. Christ spoke the truth about life hating any structural weakness when he said: “To those who have, more will be given, and to those who do not have, the little they have will be taken away.” I told a priest about this, how this statement comforted me because I knew, by my experience, that it was true. The priest, being a snob ass, told me Jesus was speaking about faith. I said: “bullshit. He told us you only need the faith of a mustard seed. He was talking about the law of life. Strength seeks strength. The healthy seeks the healthy, and the week are ransacked for what ever material is left. He didn’t say it was good or bad. He just said it was true.” Nothing in my experience has changed my mind on this. In life, poetry has been the one mercy I know–poetry and music. Everything else has been a bust.

So I purchased the Hernandez book because it was bright orange on the cover, and I liked that. I didn’t know a damned thing about Spanish poetry, or most poetry for that matter. I wrote songs then, very good melodies, and terrible lyrics. As is my habit, I opened the book to a random page. It had been two months since my mother’s death. There were more deaths and losses to come and I knew it because I am intuitive, and can grasp the basic structure of things with the smallest bit of information. I am not extra sensory. Forget that. I have a brain wired to leap. This is intuition–an ability to jump to conclusions that are often absolutely true (And sometimes utterly false). I opened the book to his poem “Me Sobra El Corazon”:

Today I am. I don’t know how,
today all I am ready for is suffering,
today I have no friends,
today the only things I have is the desire
to rip out my heart by the roots
and stick it underneath a shoe.

I had found one voice that did not seem to be lying to me, and I had a meltdown in the middle of that book store, a used book store half English, half Spanish. I was fifty cents short, and when the person at the desk would not trust my promise to return with the fifty cents, I broke down in tears, and begged. An old Cuban lady gave me the fifty cents, and I bolted from the store, and sat in the park. I did not read any of the other poems for about a week. I clung to this poem because this voice was not lying to me. It was giving me back what I knew. It was not making tea, or hanging curtains, or saying “shut up.” It was telling me my wanting to die, my sadness was now my wealth, that everything else could be taken away from me, would be taken from me, but this suffering was mine:

The more I look inward the more I mourn!
Cut off this pain?–who has the scissors?

I eventually read the book, and read it a hundred times. This Spanish poet, this shepherd, this Hernandez tossed into a prison, freed, and stupid enough (wonderful enough) to go back to where he would surely be re-captured out of compassion for his family, this man who died in filth, in one of Franco’s many prisons, had spoken to me in a way only Christ had: “to those who have, more will be given, and to those who do not have, the little they have will be taken away.” Christ also said: “Anyone who is brought to nothing for my sake will discover who he is.”

My grief was not merely private. The cancer of my mother and father, the loss of our house, the descent of my family went along with what happened to the working class culture I grew up in: good factory jobs went belly up. Skilled men and women were told they were worthless. Unions were destroyed. America went from a country that actually made something to a land of “professionals.” Vague, silly people who, like all vague silly people, create great destruction from their privilege, and are, themselves, eventually, destroyed. Before they are destroyed, they will swell like supernovas, embrace health foods, and spirituality, and a cult of professionalism (they will affirm the very thing that destroys them) and they will turn mean and blame the weak. They are soft spoken, politically correct, and the deadliest people who ever walked the face of this earth, and as a poet, I look forward to their destruction because they have no equipment for suffering (which is the same as living) and, therefore, no true compassion.

A country can not sustain an entire population of Daisy and Tom Buchanans, but that’s what we’ve been doing for the last thirty years. Hernandez shaped my suffering. He also taught me that it exists on a scale beyond me, or anyone I love–that this loss is in, not of, a loss in things. In a time of great suffering, a human being might have only the consolation of his or her sentences. So be it. This is why it is important for poetry to exist: because it is beside the point, and, being beside the point, it cannot be impaled. It shapes what can never be shaped, carries what can not be carried, speaks to the dead, gives courage to those who have little else to go on. The “professionals” rule poetry militant. Jobs are gained and lost. Someone like me who has never been outside the coil of suffering will, no doubt, get clobbered. So what? I have known the impersonal machinery of management as a factory worker. I know the decorum of professionalism for what it is: a brand of benign contempt for life, and an ongoing death wish. Poetry, this scribbling, this jotting down, is no remedy, but it may shape the sickness just enough to make it portable.

I think of all the human emotions that call for the gravitas of form, loss, grief, and outrage need it most. In the case of Paul Celan, the complete break down of syntax and logical priority in his poetry was, chiefly, a formal necessity rooted in the murder of his people. He was writing in the language of the murderer, and, like the conquered Irish, and the enslaved African, this formal necessity compelled him toward re-inventing German, “mangling” it as it were, in order to achieve a true poetics of witness. What cannot be born must ever more carefully be shaped.

The handling of such overwhelming material is first and last, a question of form. Grief, loss, outrage, must be made portable. They must have their ceremony: embodiment, purgation, and, if possible, catharsis, and it is important to instill in a young poet the sense that precision, finding the right ceremony of utterance for what can not be truly expressed is paramount: the harder, the more impossible it is to render the fulll scope of loss, or grief, or outrage, the more vital form becomes. Here, I mean form as an artificiality which allows for truth. The only weapon at my disposal in the wake of all my losses and humiliations is artifice. Only the “insincerity” of form can speak for my heart. The great polyglot, Fernando Pessoa writes in his Book of Disquiet:

The most abject of all needs is to confide, to confess. It’s the soul’s need to externalize.

Go ahead and confess, but confess what you don’t feel. Go ahead and tell your secrets to get their weight off your soul, but let the secrets you tell be secrets you’ve never had.

Lie to yourself before you tell that truth. Expressing yourself is always a mistake. Be resolutely conscious: let expression, for you, be synonymous with lying.

All poets must play not with the difference between truth and lie, but with their intimacy, the way one draws forth the other. As an experiment, I have been putting all my most immediate and sincere thoughts in Facebook status updates. These have made “positive” thinkers of the most depressed poet/friends, all of whom dread my declarations that a life without the beloved is meaningless, and, yet, if I were to put the lie of form, of decoration, of verbal ceremony to these “expressions” I might do more than merely get away with them; I might be applauded. It is never the “truth” that gives a poem its value, but the ceremony of that truth, and all ceremonies are, by definition, artificial.

So let me give a young poet a couple ways “in.” The first is that most conceited of poetic conceits: apostrophic (elegiac) address. Apostrophic address is the poet speaking directly to that missing person, place, or thing, which, of course, can not speak back. It has the power of immediacy, of ancient rites of grief and drama, and yes, of madness. In many classical elegies, it does not occur until the poem reaches its climax. Suddenly, the poet, in the throes of grief or grandeur, turns toward the dead,or the absent, and speaks to him or her directly. I will use the opening four stanzas of one of my favorite Spanish poets, Miguel Hernandez’ poem, “Lullaby of The Onion.” It was inspired by his hearing while dying in one of Franco’s prisons that his wife and son had nothing to live on but bread and onions:

An onion is frost
shut in and poor.
Frost of your days
and of my nights.
Hunger and onion,
black ice and frost
huge and round.

My son is lying now
in the cradle of hunger.
The blood of an onion
is what he lives on.
But it is your blood,
with sugar on it like frost,
onion and hunger.

A dark woman
turned into moonlight
pours herself down thread
by thread over your cradle.
My son, laugh,
because you can swallow the moon
when you want to.

Lark of my house,
laugh often.
Your laugh is in your eyes
the light of the world.
Laugh so much
that my soul, hearing you,
will beat wildly in space.

Hernandez is lying to his son, to himself, but the important truth– this great poet, this loving father, locked away to die in a prison, who is helpless in every way except for his love, comes out. What a bad poem it would be if he wrote:

My son and wife have nothing but bread and onions to eat,
and I am helpless in all ways except my love.

This is what I mean by the necessity of form–whether in rhyme, or meter, or free verse. Pessoa says at a different point in his book that the personal is not the human. Always, a poem is a translation from the personal to the human that almost succeeds. The residue of its best failures is beauty. One must speak for more than just one’s self, even when the self is all one knows, or one does not speak at all. And so on to another trick:

Another way to create gravitas is distancing from the emotion either by sticking to surface details or by an indirect rumination, in order to free the ontology of the poem (its essential being) from the fetters of the merely personal (see Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”). O’Hara uses the form of causal this and that. He goes here, he goes there, Billy Holiday has died. His strategy is an indirectness so accute it makes the loss part of the daily doings and landscape of his life and ours. Elizabeth Bishop uses irony and a sort of stoic rumination on loss done in one of the most strict forms: the Villanelle. This distancing does not have the passion of Hernandez, but it gives the loss and grief a certain elan and dignity.

Here’s an exercise: read all three of these poems, consider a grief, a loss, an outrage in your life, and write on it in all three styles. Use a conceit such as apostrophic address or giving the one you love a name like “Lark of my house” (or, as in Roethke’s great Elegy, “skittery pigeon”). First practice speaking directly to the absent person, place or thing, then write all around it without mentioning it explicitly. Good luck.