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To help get my mind around what Synetic Theater was trying to do with their adaptation of Bulgakov’s oppression-defying, faith-affirming romp The Master and Margarita, I turned to Linda Hutcheon’s helpful study of postmodern adaptations, her 2006 book A Theory of Adaptation.  For too long, she asserts, we have evaluated adaptations as products, in terms of accuracy, verisimilitude, and the like.  But, in true Hutcheon fashion, we should be focusing on the process as well as the product of an adaptation.  We can best do that by examining not so much the form of the piece (novel-to-screen, novel-to-stage, etc.), but what she calls “modes of engagement.”  There are three types, which are all, as she says, “immersive”:

Some media and genres are used to tell stories (for example, novels, short stories); others show them (for instance, all performance media); and still others allow us to interact physically and kinesthetically with them (as in videogames or theme park rides).  These three different modes of engagement provide the structure of analysis for this attempt to theorize what might be called the what, who, why, how, when and where of adaptation.  Think of this as a structure learned from Journalism 101: answering the basic questions is always a good place to start.

This seems simple, but it is quite obviously very useful in an age of hyper-interactivity and myriad Hollywood adaptations.  Hutcheon studies opera extensively, so it would be interesting to see what she would have to say about The Master and Margarita.  In short, it is an exemplar of this theory, in that it is a dynamic hybrid of the latter two modes. In the program distributed by the Landsburgh Theatre (the host venue, in DC’s Chinatown), we learn a little about Synetic Theater. Their slogan reads as follows:

Synthesis: the coming together of distinct elements to form a whole

Kinetic: pertaining to, or imparting motion, active…dynamic…

Synetic Theater: a dynamic synthesis of the arts

In other words, before the opening curtain, a clear idea of what you are about to experience–or engage with–is murky.  Not shortly afterward, however, are confusions assuaged (and expectations met).

We sat in the front row, a few seats away from a friend and colleague who is a dancer and has many more intelligent things to say about that side of things. But from our vantage point, it fully seemed that this troupe, in the words of P90X’s Tony Horton, flat out “brought it.”  Or, to quote The Washington Post’s Nelson Presley,

The Performers of Synetic Theater seem to have made up their minds about what they are: rock stars…As performers, [director Paata Tsikurishvili, who also played Master, and choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili, who played Margarita]…are mesmerizing, melding intensity and craft…But no matter how striking the staging and effects, which include creative decapitations and even a zombie scene, the story is consistently clear and forward-moving.

More on the story in a minute.  But to finish about the execution–the sheer physicality of the entire ninety minutes left us breathless and exhilarated.  In addition to the Tsikurishvilis’ performances, Alex Mills’ contorting Azazello and Philip Fletcher’s Behemoth dazzled. And Armand Sindoni’s Voland was hilarious in an appropriately demonic way.  I can’t drift too far out of my territory to comment on sets and choreography, but when you’re coming away from a night at the theater muttering, and pardon the pun, “damn, damn,” something must have gone pretty well.

But I did have an agenda.  The third part of my Bakhtin-Dostoevsky-Bulgakov Masters thesis analyzed the novel within the novel, the source of the Master’s troubles, “Pontius Pilate,” a subversive re-telling of Jesus’ condemnation and crucifixion.  It is a prototype for what would come to be known in the postmodern era as “historiographic metafictions” (Hutcheon again), the underpinnings of which are encapsulated by Voland in the early going, when he asserts, “Of course Jesus was real…But you should know that nothing in the gospels actually happened!”

“Pontius Pilate,” therefore, attempts a re-conceptualizing of Jesus’ conversation with the title character.  And the final chapter of my thesis dealt with just that.  As opposed to the Jesus of the gospels, the Yeshua of the Master’s imagining converses at length with Pilate, eventually converting him–not to Christianity as we know it, but to the simple idea that everyone is inherently good, just unhappy sometimes–only too late.  The rest of the novel depicts Pilate’s regret in the form of a hallucinated dialogue in perpetuam with Yeshua, as they walk up a moonbeam into space. Very Bakhtinian, no?  Long story short, I was most interested in how Synetic was going to stage this encounter.

The first few scenes from “Pontius Pilate,” staged as the Master’s memories of his now-burned manuscript, are consistent with Synetic’s set pieces, substituting verbal exposition with interpretive dance, music, and sound effects.  They are effective, emotionally, but I was wondering when the conversation, the intellectual centerpiece of this encounter, would begin (we never even see Yeshua’s face in multiple flashback scenes).  But just as some discontent began to brew, Synetic put its most creative stamp on their project.  Toward the end, the Master and his cell mate in the insane asylum, the poet Bezdomny (Ryan Sellers is formidable in this role as well), are bound to chairs, seated back-to-back, and interrogated.  Bezdomny by a Soviet officer, the Master by Pilate himself.  Here we get a decent amount of the dialogue between Yeshua and Pilate, envisioned, perhaps, as Bulgakov intended.  The parallel between the Roman authority of the first century and that of the Soviets is made explicit as Bezdomny and the Master alternate lines from Yeshua’s conversation, asserting the goodness of humanity and the trouble with totalitarianism.  While much of the actual conversation is still left out, we are given the force behind it, and the force behind The Master and Margarita–that is, even if we, as the Soviets wanted to do, strip the story of Jesus of its mystery and miracle, we are nonetheless left with the very simple message of love in the face of authority, a miracle in itself.  That Synetic chose to stage it this way emphasizes the dialogic nature of our relationship with history. And it no doubt effectively fits their own mode of engagement. They deliver.

Was I nitpicking?  Perhaps.  You need not do that here, nor will you really have time to, in this frenetic and ecstatic adaptation.

Piety: We will be using this term in its extra-religious sense as first defined (in that sense) by George Santayana, and greatly expanded upon by Kenneth Burke in his work Permanence and Change. I strongly suggest you read Burke’s chapter on piety since it is an astounding critical work. At any rate, you can get the whole of Permanence and Change on PDF by Googling it. Do so.

For now, let us give Santayana’s definition of piety: “loyalty to the sources of one’s being.” Now this is not confined to physical being, but to one’s cultural, sexual, political, professional, and symbolic being, also one’s semiotic being (for example, brand names and fashion). A person may contain conflicting pieties. This is why a “noble” person who does the grand gesture of forgiving a criminal and is gladly arrested while protesting his execution might, a week later, fly into a fury and rage and think evil towards someone who has messed with the order of the pencil’s on her desk. In rational terms, they are just pencils. What’s the big deal? In symbolic terms, they may represent her sense of control, her sense of private space. Once we see this as a loyalty to the sources of her being, but realize that those sources are complex and varied, and might even be in conflict, we get an idea of why human behavior is so complicated. A theory in current evolutionary psychology might offer insight.

David Buller, in his wonderful work, Adapting Minds, both takes to task, and explores a belief common in 1980′s and 90′s in evolutionary biology known as the modularity thesis:

Evolutionary psychologists claim that human psychological adaptations take the form of modules, special purpose “minicomputers”, each of which is dedicated to solving problems related to a particular aspect of survival or reproduction in the human environment of evolutionary adaptness (EEA). Summarizing this view, Steven Pinker says, “the mind is organized into modules or mental organs, each with a specialized design that makes it an expert in one arena of interaction with the world. The modules’ basic logic is specified by our genetic program. Their operation was shaped by natural selection to solve the problems of the hunting and gathering life led by our ancestors in most of our evolutionary history.” Given that evolutionary psychologists claim that there are hundreds or thousands of modules comprising the human mind, this view of the mind has been called the “massive modularity thesis.”

Such division of labor, such independence and non-coherence of modules might well explain why a person dead set against the death penalty might fly into a rage over a shifting of her pencils. Of course, if the module of her anti-death penalty belief, if one of the mini-computers in a set of mini-computers, and her reading, political mind set, and awareness of semiotic piety is in full force, then she might not rage, even if she feels infuriated. After all, someone might think it odd that a person against the death penalty is “freaking out” over her pencils. She might keep her voice at a “peace activist” level. She might patiently and gently express to the sinner that she likes her pencils just so. She may even make a little self-deprecating joke about her own “OCD.” It depends on the level of stress. Still, if this person continues to fool around with her pencils, our activist might find a way to exile her from her life. She will keep the murderers close, and exile the pencil terrorists! After all, a murderer might kill a family in cold blood, but he never fucks with your pencils. To put it in an adage: “men may forgive murder, but they will never forgive a mooch who never has his own money or cigarettes.” This is the loyalty to the sources of one’s being in a nut shell. But notice the conflicting piety. Perhaps we can see piety in the following manner (cheap but effective):

Macro-piety: Those core loyalties to one’s being concerning how you and others should live, how the world should be, and how it really is (idealism/criticism/ realism)
Micro-piety: Those little habits, those beneath which nots, your sense of space, choice of music, quirks, tendencies of personality that define you moment by moment.
Pietistic integration: The attempt to make macro piety and micro-piety accountable to each other, and to live as a seamless whole.
Pietistic conflict: Those conflicts between pieties that cause us to be unique, complex, contradictory, and weird or misunderstood.

With this knowledge we could have no trouble doing a typical romantic comedy eco-disaster movie: in romantic comedy, boy and girl or girl and girl, or boy and boy meet, dislike, are thrust into a situation with each other, compromise, fall in love, have one more major falling out, then reunite: lights outs. Now for the movie:

Wendy, a crusading, passionate ecology doctoral student is hired to work with the world renowned Peter Thorndike, the leading authority on studying glaciers for evidence of global warming. She has heard that he is called the “monster.” But she has read and admired all his work. Like Katherine Hepburn in the days of yore, she is undaunted and believes she can work with the monster. In point of fact, she is looking forward to the challenge. She is 100% eco: hemp, her whole being expressing a life of hiking, veganism, chanting, political activism, etc, etc.

Enter Peter Thorndike, the monster. Peter, about six years older than Wendy and a thousand galaxies removed semiotically: never saw a cheese burger he didn’t like. Listens to death metal. Wears shirts given to him by his aunts at Easter from Wal-Mart. Smokes, and not hand rolls, or American Spirits, but Pall Malls. Drives a gas guzzling pick up. Gets along with the locals, talks hunting, and has no patience with tree huggers, though he is, at heart, a profound lover of the woods and of nature. He is grouchy, prone to getting ranch dressing on his reports, a person who any tree hugger might hate if he wasn’t so brilliant and dedicated to his work.

Wendy’s perfect boyfriend (there are always these perfect boyfriends in such movies, a man with a perfect integration of macro/micro pieties, all except for one thing: he’s too perfect. No one likes too perfect. they are the kind of romantic character we despise). He’s hot, plays bluegrass bass & fiddle in a eco-cowboy punk band, and always says the right thing to Wendy at the right moment except they are too comfortable with each other: no tension, no real passion. He’s wonderful in bed, but when she tells him she’s going to work with Peter Thorndike in some back water town in Alaska, he barely misses a beat and has no problem with it. His fatal flaw is he doesn’t care enough to stop “caring” in all the expected ways.

The first scene would be the meeting of Wendy and Peter under the rules of antipathy common to romantic comedies. She might enter his office while he is finishing a bacon double cheeseburger, polishing it off with Orange cream soda, and dancing around his charts and stats to a speed metal band. They conflict, but their common thread is the work. One night they get stranded on a mountain, and of course, this is where the bonding takes place (like the drunk scene in Jaws). They become friendly in spite of all their difference. We first know she might be falling for him when she Googles speed metal. We might know he is falling for her when he brings his bottle of hot sauce to the dinner she has made him of Tempe, and goes to pour it on the food, and then desists, looks at her, takes a bite, and actually likes it. We can see the romantic comedy in terms of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. We can go all Hegel on this. But the active literary interest and drama/comedy will be created by a creative between conflicting pieties, and over all growing affinity.

Piety then is what we value, or that loyalty to the sources of our being, but it is more than value. In the full complexity of human constructs it is the rhetoric of conflicting and supposedly coherent values. We will now look at a famous poem, and see it in the terms of this piety (loyalty to the sources of one’s being). The poem is by William Carlos Williams. He is considered an arch-modernist and an enemy of the sentimental tradition of Edwardian and romantic literature. Some claimed his poems are “anti-poems.” Nicanor Parra, a South American poet heavily influenced by Williams, had the temerity to call his Williams-influenced poems “Anti-poems.” At the same time, Stevens charged his friend Williams with the sin of sentimentality (a terrible charge against a self proclaimed champion of the new). Both Parra and Stevens are right, for, in Williams, as in many dynamic and important poets, we find what I will call pietistic conflict. On the one hand, Williams was all for throwing out flowery speech and the overly rhetorical convolutions of the European (read English) tradition. On the other, he was raised in a world of flowers and color; his mother was a gifted painter, and Williams had a blind spot in his otherwise clear headed doctor way of thinking—or rather than a blind spot, let us call it a conflicting piety. Also Williams, in his earliest years, was completely enthralled by the poems of John Keats. In his poem “The Act” he makes two characters, but I believe they could be seen as a dramatization of his own inner aesthetic conflicts, his conflicting pieties. At any rate the poem:

The Act

There were the roses, in the rain.
Don’t cut them, I pleaded. They won’t last, she said.
But they’re so beautiful where they are.
Agh, we were all beautiful once, she said,
and cut them and gave them to me in my hand.

In this poem, Williams plays the aesthete to the woman’s practical and unsentimental notions. He is defending the source of his being in beauty. To cut the roses in the rain would be a sin against the source of beauty. That is the speaker’s piety. She is enforcing a piety or an impiety of utility, of “brutal” realism. This explains the dynamic energy of the poem. It is an essay on conflicting realms of piety. Burke, in the beginning of his chapter on piety, speaks of a man felling a great tree. He needs it for firewood. After felling it with his axe, he feels strangely at odds with himself. He may associate the tree with the father, with the sacred strength of the father. There may be a symbolic parricide in this act, one a poet might perceive more readily (of course, in the Mother earth realm of present day ecology, the great tree might as well be a mother). In ancient cultures such “sins” could be purged by a ritual act of cleansing. In a sense, the modern man’s act of cleansing is to fall upon the rampart and “piety” of the utilitarian. “nonsense!” The man says. “I need the wood. It’s just a tree. There are plenty more where that came from.”

We may not be aware of many of our pieties until they are trespassed against. As Burke points out in another book, The Rhetoric of Religion, the words Quoseth (Hebrew), Hagios (Greek) and Sacre (Latin) are traditionally translated as holy or sacred ground, but they are not that limited. A truly more literal translation is “ground set apart”—in which case, that ground can be sacred or accursed depending on the piety or impiety of the situation. Piety, in a sense is ground set a part, isolated from its semiotic indicators and its symbols, until those indicators and symbols are threatened or made unstable, or come into conflict with others. Let us look then at another poem grounded in piety as we are discussing it here: Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.”

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

There are several conflicting pieties here. The section where Oliver goes on about penitents seems to be an implicit slap upside the head of standard, “guilt ridden religion.” The New Agers cheer! Yes! I don’t have to be good; all I have to do is let my body love what it loves. The overt piety of this poem is nature as a form of salvation, but the covert piety of this poem is the natural (as in organic), self-love, choice culture of spiritual consumerism. This choice culture only has to love what it loves. It doesn’t have to be good. It has to be a shopper. In point of fact, nature, in the later part of the poem “offers.” Now that’s a word dear to every consumer’s heart. I don’t know if Oliver intended this piety to be there, but it’s there in spades.

Also, it harks back to an earlier Protestant piety: the rejection of good works in order to emphasize faith and grace—election. We are “elected” if only we let our bodies love what they love. So, in going against the piety of guilt and repentance, she embraces the theological concept of election. She goes on to say (I am paraphrasing here): “Tell me your troubles, I’ll tell you mine.” This sounds like a good deal, except she immediately cancels troubles by implying they are negative in comparison to the majesty of the world as ongoing and healing process, all of which is at our disposal. How dare we waste time looking at our troubles? That is the lesser choice, the “bad” choice. So, to amend her opening gambit: you do not have to be good, but you can’t focus on despair because that is bad. You do not have to be good. You have to be positive. Could a new age consumer be more thrilled? I have seen otherwise sensible poets go into ecstasy over this well made, very good, but not great poem.

Unwittingly, it is touching and massaging every button of our choice culture, (the knee jerk I am spiritual, not religious) and the piety of choice, middle class privilege, consumer satisfaction, and positive thinking, plus “green think.” The geese are personified. They are angels, the angels of the new order which is an order of post-Wordsworthian salvation through communion with all sentient being. OK, fine. But this poem contains even more conflicting piety than Williams, and it reeks of the chief contradiction of the new age: A conflict between choice, and unlimited vistas, and very real concerns about conservation. In a more sensible argument, these conflicts might be resolved with: “you have choices, and you do not have to be good, but make sure you are organic.” At another point, Mary Oliver would not be so ready to say: “you do not have to be good”—if a group of hunters were out there, plugging away at the geese. God forbid! This would hit her dead center in her conflicting piety. Of course, if they were Native Americans, taking the geese and singing praise over them, that would be a different story.

This is the danger of piety: it shows all our utopias to be greatly compromised by our pietistic contradictions. I think of the squatter I knew when I was homeless, returning to his parent’s Scarsdale mansion on the weekend to do his laundry. I think of the radical feminist who I saw torture a waitress because she wanted her toss salad “just so.” In terms of piety and even in terms of the “modularity” thesis, these are not acts of hypocrisy. Our pieties are hidden, especially the ones that conflict with our core sense of self. They jump out at odd times to bite us on the ass.

But I want you to question your own piety and so, here, so I must figure out why Mary Oliver’s lovely poem enraged me.

It is probably not the poem at all, but the fact that I saw it raved about by affluent well-educated poetasters who were snobbish towards me. After all, I was not a wild goose. I was a working class prol who, somehow, because of my odd predilection and knowledge of poetry, had blundered into having authority over them in a work shop. They were all fans of Mary Oliver, and they hated anything brutal, or violent, or outside their piety of New Age epiphanies. They savaged a woman who had brought in a poem by Philip Larkin. I am not a big fan of Larkin, but I consider him at least the equal of Oliver. They savaged him for being a pessimist. I countered: “yes, but can you extend beyond your dislike of pessimism to look at his craft and skill in being a pessimist?” They could not. They savaged him for rhyming (someone had told them rhymed poetry was always suspect unless it was before the 20th century). One woman spoke up and said: “he’s just a clever dead white male.” I said: “so is Shakespeare… Do you think Mary Oliver is a better poet than Shakespeare?” She paused, thinking it out, then replied: “Shakespeare was good for his time. Mary Oliver is more relevant to ours.” I then launched into my knowledge of all of Shakespeare’s nature poetry, his superior knowledge of animal husbandry, his closer, almost daily encounter with a pre-industrial world. She said: “Well, you don’t like Mary Oliver because she’s a strong woman.” Then, unable to hold back, I said: “No I don’t like Mary Oliver because I think she’s just an upgraded version of self help drivel. I think her love of nature is privileged. I think John Clare far superior to her.  As for strong women, I was raised by five aunts and a strong mother. They got dirty. Bugs didn’t eat sugar from their hands. I think her easy spirituality is horse shit, and I think you can’t love nature in that way unless you come from an income of at least 100,000 a year, and can afford to have such wise sentiments. Every time I see a Mary Oliver poem, I hear the eco-friendly middle class trampling on the graves of working people. You don’t have to like what I say, As Mary tells us, I do not have to be good.”

I went away greatly puzzled by my anger. I felt awful. I actually liked “The Wild Geese,” but they also claimed it was superior to the sixth part of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and that I could not stand. I examined my conscience. I had slipped into demonizing mode. It was not Mary Oliver I disliked. It was her gatekeepers. I went back the next week, apologized for my vehemence, and we entered a new realm. We started talking about received value and piety. I conceded it was a good poem. They conceded Larkin was funny. So it goes. Know your mechanisms before you proceed. More importantly, know that you can never know them fully. That is both to the pain and the glory of the human construct.

In the interest of clarity, we will be using terms I’ve either borrowed or made up as a sort of “jargon” by which to navigate this series of essays. The first of these are the ten forms of “value.’ These are values by which cannons and books enter the world of letters. I name them:

1. Received/institutionalized value
2. True value
3. Illicit value
4. Integrated value
5. Inclusive value
6. Immediate value
7. Historical value
8. Market value
9. Normative value
10. Disruptive value
11. This is the extra value which we will call the court jester of values: dubious value.

A brief explanation of each of these:

Received value consists of works which no one questions the value of: Hamlet, Moby-Dick, etc. Many of these works exist as givens in the culture, and, when they are challenged, it is often done for flourish, to seem daring, or to make from that challenge a power move towards inclusion of a new aesthetic that is, at that moment, considered outside the established order. One is expected by critics, scholars, and authorities to have read, or to, at least, know the names of these works. Many become foundational texts, and one is compelled to read them as early as high school. They are received in so far as they are seldom questioned. They are institutionalized in so far as they are made required reading. They are generative in so far as they are the very works by which, from which, and around which the cultural apparatus is set into motion. They exist as the given structure.

True value is what the auditor simply desires or enjoys, irrespective of imposed or received value. Of course received value may shape his or her tastes towards true value (that is called education) but the auditor genuinely desires both to read these texts and gets pleasure from such reading. An interesting list of must read books made it to face book recently. It was the most hybrid list of these ten values I have yet seen and included the Da Vinci Code among its cannon. We are witnessing not a loss of the cannon, but what I will call a hybrid cannon between books that are considered master pieces and books that are considered part of the cultural meme. Americans do not like neat distinctions and it was not explained why a popular best seller would be a “must read” along with Tolstoy. It would be interesting to study this list for evidence in a shift or blurring of lines in our value systems.

Illicit value: The auditor knows that what he or she is reading has no true value. It is trash, a guilty pleasure, a work which, if exposed to the light of day, would lesson them in the eyes of their friends and peers. With the advent of the campy, a person may indulge in such reading as long as he or she lets you know that he or she knows this is “bad” work. It may even become a semiotic indicator of a sort of cool to indulge in such work. It is like a hipster who suddenly revels in owning ten Wayne Newton Albums. This is a game of irony, and is often played up as being no irony at all—but, rather, a hyper literal sense of embracing garbage in order to show oneself  to be as free of any outside law and as arbitrary—as a god. It is hard to parse this illicit value out from true value. If one willfully indulges in nothing but Wayne Newton albums, one is either Andy Warhol, or an old lady at bingo. And given our society, there is a distinct possibility that every old lady at bingo, heightened by a situational slant of light is, indeed, Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol went to mass daily.

Integrated value: When one is aware of the mechanisms of one’s received values, or as fully aware as possible, is aware, and has refined one’s tastes to the point where an aesthetic argument, a reasonable one, can be made for exceptions, for a certain latitude within and without received and true values, then one may be said to have achieved “integrated value.” This is the position of the discerning critic. Intuition, bred from years of training or study, allows this auditor to make “informed” appraisals, and, more to the point, to step out of his aesthetic limitations to acknowledge work which, not being to his taste, he or she can still call well done. This rare and benevolent beast exists far more as an ideal than as a reality, but it is on this “nose” for exceptions that many careers are made, and by which, many “lost” works are reinstated. This is the aesthete as “hero.” He raises John Clare from the dead. He sees the talent in the raw. He may not be a king maker, but he knows how to whisper in the ears of king-makers. He is steady, and intelligent, and moves through the world with just the right balance of unpredictability and gravitas.

Inclusive value: When we cannot kill, dismiss, or withstand an effective assault of outsiders on the cannon, then, first, the most presentable of the outsiders, then a charismatic maverick or two, and, finally, a general flood are acknowledged as having value. Their presence is considered a token of equity—of power sharing. In some respects, they remain in ghettos defined by gender, race, sexuality, or class. Some of these authors wish to be seen only as poets or novelists, sans their classification. This is the meaning of “post” race, post gender, and so on and so forth. Ina dislogistic sense, it can be viewed as “We have come along enough to be snobs just like the ones who kept us out.” In a neutral sense, it means: “We are now equal or, at least, in the ball park of equal and can be seen for our distinctions rather than for our representation. In the laudatory sense it means, some grand goal of life style leftism has been achieved, and the categories are outmoded. Others embrace being role models, representatives of the formerly excluded. Still others have “representation” thrust upon them. They represent whether they will or not. These ghettos provide a power base, but are also a limitation. This evolves over time until those who seem most out of type, most independent of either the prototype of the literary establishment, or the prototype of the exception, are, themselves, charged with the sin of impiety against the categorical. On the one hand, they do not fit the establishment. On the other, they do not fit the semiotics of the established “anti-establishment.” This is a problem with the categorical we will address as the course continues. Suffice it to say, inclusive “value” is grudgingly acknowledged by all but the most powerful, though, in the safety of private thought, a “black writer,” or a Chicano writer, or a trans-gender, black/Chicano writer might still never be allowed to live without his or her qualifiers. The true  and integrative value with which a good reader approaches their work is the most a credible solution, but it is seldom allowed to go unchallenged. In the last fifty years identity, and multi-cultural attacks on the cannon have caused many an aesthete to become positively noble in their lament for standards (whatever those are). Some of these aesthetes belong to the very groups that were formerly excluded.

Immediate value is the buzz, the names on every graduate student’s lips: Mathew or Michael Dickman! La, la, la… Zapruder! Ala, ala… Alex Lemon! Such writers are well on their way to being crowned. Too much buzz, and they might be in for a fall. A steady buzz and they become a brand name. These are open sesame names that make a literary person look up to the minute. They are easy to drop as “names” that are not yet known by the masses. It keeps the outsiders defined and creates the allusion of knowing—a very powerful allusion.

Historical value: Writers raised from the dead because some group who feels outside the power structure wants in, or because they are needed to surround the crown jewels of a literary movement or time.

Market value: These are writers who have spent most of their lives derided for being pop novelists, but are then, through persistent buzz and sheer time, and their own longing to be taken seriously, taken seriously: Stephen King, and, oddly, the writer of the Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown) are cases in point. Somehow the Da Vinci Code ended up on a list of must read books that also includes acknowledged greats. This can only be explained by a confusion of values, and merge point where popularity, and the duration of popularity shares in some of the indicators of literary greatness. Sometimes it takes the French to crown pulp (The film noir craze that made serious writers out of detective novelists). There has been a general schism between what is wildly popular and what is “high art” since Dickens. Market value, once translated into literary value makes for a “classic.” There are writers considered serious who hit the jackpot (John Irving). But here, I am speaking of writers considered pulp who become “serious” because some critic, or a group of influential critics, mistakes their illicit value for true value. Their books may be filled with cliché, shoddy sentences, stock characters, but some “idea” takes hold of our collective imagination (or lack thereof) and makes them “serious.” This usually happens when actual sales start declining.

Normative value: these are your grant winning, smaller award winning serious poets and novelists. They define the norm of what is considered “good.” They do not reach the heights. They never sink too low. The creds and the respect in which they are held leads to tenure, and a small following of ideal and intelligent readers. They round out most parties, and most often throw them.

Disruptive value: An obscenity trial, an early death, a controversial topic, some strain of madness that intersects with the cultural meme, an energy that is as much extra-literary as literary creates a stir, and this stir leads to the writer having a semiotic significance.

Total obscurity during one’s actual life is another draw here: Whitman, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Joyce, Lawrence, and Ginsberg rose to fame on the broken wings of scandal. John Clare, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins rode on the wings of their former obscurity.  This includes poets and novelists championed because they have been thrown into prison. All this is extra-literary, but so what? If we think only the literature counts when it comes to gate keepers of greatness, then we ought to buy a moon pie, and sit with our gal Lucy under the Brooklyn bridge and say: “gee, Lucy, some day, I’m going to buy this bridge for you.”

Dubious value: all ten of the above.

None of these values exist in isolated, pure form, and all of them bleed into the other, causing a hopeless mess I am attempting, through these ten kinds of value, to note—not define. I note these ten, and there may be more, but these ten are useful to our purpose for when we start looking at the structures operating behind gate keepers.

It must be remembered that none of these values exist in their pure form, and that a constant ongoing “rhetoric” exists between them, a call and response in which the rhetoric itself—the interactions and movements of the bodies, their “trace” is all that is truly visible (much as we know certain particles by their movements, by their trail, we know our values very often when they are embodied by a deed, or challenged by a deed). I will define rhetoric as follows:

Any symbolic act made to bridge or understand the gap between self and other or to widen that gap—to either find common ground or to claim for the ground the same impassable space as exists between “friend” and “foe.” Rhetoric occurs when ever two entities, or an entity speaking to itslef and therefore divided, wish to size up, define, mitigate, affirm, or “reform” or dismantle values which they may share in part, in whole, or by which they are in opposition. Rhetoric, in addition to persuading, also attacks, courts, seduces, and defines the context by which certain events will be perceived and, often, by which they may occur. And here’s another interesting idea: experiments at stanford have shown that languages create thought grooves which, when deep enough, may lead to the sort of trained incapacity Veblen spoke of. English for example ascribes an agen to any act regardless of intention or motive, and is very good at creating a memory for details all around the act, but it tends to be less concerned with motive or intention, and will leave these out of the sentence, if it leaves anything out. Agent and act will always remain, but intention and motive might disappear. this is not true in Spanish.  The test that was given showed that, in Spanish, unless a glass was broken intentionally, the glass broke itself. The act was remembered, but the agent of the act was not considered important  enough to remember unless the person intentionally and willfully broke the glass. It seems Spanish speakers did not remember such details because intention in the Spanish language often determines whether a perpetrator is needed.  Otherwise “The glass broke itself” No mention of a breaker. In English, the language caused people to remember both the one who intentionally broke the glass and the one who unintentionally broke the glass, as “he broke the glass.” What the Spanish language speakers tended to leave out were the agents. What the English language speakers tended to leave out were the motives and intentions of the act. The different languages had taught the people in the experiment to concentrate on and remember different things. This means their cognition, their “thoughts” were differently grooved by the languages they spoke. A time orient, agent/act oriented langauge will create a far different rhetoric. It might be capable of far greater recall of the scene/act, but be far poorer at considering intention. A language in which time is not linear (and there are many) might create a person who sees the world very differently. Time and space, and even the way we view what is politically correct are all much more contingent on our training in rhetoric, and the grooving of one’s brain in certain languages, than on a specifically hard wired mechanism of thought that is “universal” and capable of surmounting the grooves of our trained capacity and incapacity. When a child says in Enlgish to his mommy: “the glass broke mommy,” the mother might reply: “Well, it didn’t just break by itself (enforcing the bias in English for agent/act) What did you do? Did you break the glass?” The child learns “I broke the glass”. or “Jimmy broke the glass.” The child does not learn as strongly that, without a deliberate will to break the glass, it just “broke” IN situations where they wish to defend someone they like, they might say: “by accident.” Not always. This goes a long way in explaining some of our current reliance on intention and motive free neutral speech– speech robbed of any nuance save for the process of who did what and where. This is considered full proof in English. We do not always take the intention into consideration, especially if it is good for our agenda to forget the motivational reason behind an act or statement. Certain “Waht’s” are censored without consdieration to their intent: for example, Mark Twain has his characters use the N word, and bigots use the N word. All that the politically correct focus on his the word– the act, not its intention or context. Reuslt: blanket censorship. This may just be because English, and especially American English tends to ignore motive and intent and focus on act and IN Spanish the act would be remembered, but not necessarily the agent. The glass broke. No one broke it. It broke. This is interesting when we apply it to a situation where someone sees the N word in Huckleberry Finn, and does not make a nuanced distinction between the intention of its use in Huck Finn and its use by a racist boss. Of course many try to make this distinction, but the tendency of English to emphasize Agent/act, and the tendency of Amercan English to simplify everything beyond motive, causes us to censor Huckelberry Finn as “inappropriate.” Someone broke a glass, and that is bad. Someone used the N word and that is bad. Context, motive, and intention are not as important as agent/act. This effects our political rhetoric, and we tend to islate verbal acts outside of context and intention in order to destroy our enemies. Why they did it is beside the point. Very scary when you think about it.

So rhetoric is the verbal mechanism of ritual, consensus, strife, uneasy truces, alliances, and at the core of all value systems, aesthetics, and orders of priority and procedure. One could say that each “surrealist” poem is a rhetorical subset of appeal to surrealism itself. Surrealism may be the title, and the poem may be what proceeds from that title, but both poem and title maintain an ongoing rhetoric with each other and with the audience, thus helping to both define and reconfigure the orientation of each. It is through different modes of appeal that surrealism itself evolves or fails to evolve. Whenever a rhetoric is in place for a profession, an aesthetic, or belief system, or a literary movement, two outcomes are inevitable: the presence of piety (an appeal to the sources of one’s being, in the forms of a jargon, an attitude,and a procedure or praxis that is considered proper) and an initiation towards the pure. We will explore piety as a secular and religious force which, in the strongest moments of enforcement may supersede the effectiveness of its own rhetoric, and even endanger the very values for which the rhetoric is first instituted (for example, when evolutionary biologists try to defend evolution by using the very language that infuriates the opposition, and offends people’s sensibilities).

A maxim: The more stable the rhetoric, the more hypertrophic its piety and its sense of initiation. At a critical level of stability, this hypertrophy of piety creates a bureaucratic state of utterance in which the means justify the means, the system perpetuates itself as pure rhetoric. It is unaware of itself as a rhetoric and believes it is existence itself. So: the lawyer who becomes the perfect embodiment of lawyer may be unable to accept any new developments in his field except as “impieties,” threats, forms of secular blasphemy. They are not the rhetoric of being a lawyer as he knows it, and he might react emotionally to this change. His level of piety sees such change as an affront even when it is pointed out to him that the change is necessary. A literary establishment might be so immured in the process of being a literary establishment that it might see “new” developments only when they fit preconceived notions of the new and proceed in ways the establishment considers non-threatening to its rhetoric. Anything truly new will be subject to resistance. The old orientation will not be able to assimilate it, and will therefore either reject, ignore, or attack it as symptomatic of a “decline” in standards.What speaks outside the grooves of our current language often creates the same hostility as a foreign language. If attacking this new discourse or rhetoric does not work, the old will take on some of the aspects of the new. This is what I call rhetorical mate selection. It is not the ideas of the new, but their rigor and jargon which people so often fear and protest against. How people “See” things is hopelessly related to how they express them. The first cars looked just like horseless carriages. How movement was expressed aestheticly took longer to change than how it was expressed in terms of horse verses horse power. The new will enter, but compromised by the old. A sort of merge point will be affected thus changing the orientation of old to new, and new to old. Another possibility, when a system has achieved extreme bureaucratic purity is that nothing can even be perceived as existing outside that system. All rhetorical, symbolic, and methodological force will be put to the purpose of subsuming this foreign matter into the old understanding of the system. This is what Veblen hinted at in his idea of “trained incapacity.” It is what John Dewey warned of in his concept of “Occupational psychosis.”

Now a parable borrowed from Burke’s expansion on John Dewey’s occupational psychosis and Veblen’s trained incapacity in his great book Permanence and Change:

Chicken are trained to answer a bell in order to eat. They are conditioned to this bell. Bell equals food. Food equals bell.

One day, a chicken answers the bell and is killed. This goes on for quite some time. The chicken’s training, which was perfect, and perfectly obeyed, now leads to his slaughter. Chickens are doing whatever chickens have been trained to do and have always done, and the results are disastrous. The chicken’s training is a groove, a  cognitive rut that prevents him from avoiding disaster under new circumstances. At this point, only those chickens born outside the groove or unconditioned can arrive at the conclusion: bell equals death.

Some chickens, a very few, cease to respond to the bell. If this were a human system, with rhetoric and eastehtics involved, a rhteoric and aesthetics based on a system that is no longer working, that is producing  results opposite to the wished for outcomes, then it might play out this way (Understand that I am complicating chickens here and simplifying human motivations to find a useful merge point):

Something is wrong with the way we answer the bell. That must be it.  Neither the bell nor the system can be wrong—the protocol or ritual is wrong. What happens? Surface reform!

The system is purified. Not only do the chickens answer the bell with greater vehemence (the swelling of systems under threat), but they do so with renewed spirit and built a whole poetics around the truth of the bell. New rituals of bell response are invented, or the old rituals are reinstated in their supposed original purity. The chickens are purifying their system, purging it of corruption (sound familiar?).

Meanwhile, the chickens who willfully refuse to answer the bell are seen as impious, as negative, as renegades, ad rejects. The necessary sacrifice of a demonized opposition is enacted: The rebels are put in chicken prison or pecked to death. Then, still with no food, it is decided that food is not the end all be all of the system. No!Answering the bell must not be for such selfish reasons! Better to implement the system on a “pure” level for system’s sake beyond any reward, for “virtue” is its own reward! It is beautiful  to die for the holiness of answering the bell, because it is right, and chickens must be willing to die for the principle of the bell.  Of course, while agreeing to this in principle, very few chickens take this to its proposed extreme, but those whose power is wrapped up in the old system either do so, or they find a perfect victim (the necessary sacrifice of the perfect and divine victim)—a chicken who can answer the bell perfectly, without fear, with perfect grace, exemplifying all the best that a chicken stands for. He dies! The rest hang back. They have no food. First, they eat the chickens who refused to answer the bell. After all, they are impious. They may even be the cause of why the bell no longer equals food, but, rather, death. Then they “purify” answering the bell rather than answering it in a truly concrete sense. It is an “ideal,” not a reality.

They find a way to still obey the “spirit” of the bell rather than just failing to respond to it. They are now doing what the rebellious chickens did except for all the “right reasons.” Intention here is everything. When agent and act no longer add up, they fall upon intention, but their rhetorical system does not handle intention well, so that there must always be a moral reason why things turned to shit: it is primitive and simplistic, but, in a culture where the rhetoric allows only for obedience to the bell, it has great effectiveness. In this sense the chickens have all become Kantian moralists: true morality is not compliance, but the motivational piety of virtue. A merge point has been made between the chickens who answered the bell and those that refused. The terms of refusal have been converted into the rhetoric of “pure” or “virtual compliance.

Now the chickens no longer answer the bell, but they have built a whole value system around answering the bell, “in spirit.” The impiety of the non-compliant chickens has been subsumed into the new orientation of the older value system. In the old days, their ancestors were legalistic and forgot the spirit of the bell. That’s why they died (yes, that’s it). The ones who refused to answer the bell were right to a point, but they did not conform to the system and needed to be sacrificed. They did not have the right spirit of “pure response.”They were disrespectful in their revolt. The “new” chicken lives by the spirit of the bell. He finds ways to expiate the sin of not answering to it by seeing himself as “answering to it” in spirit. Meanwhile, chickens who are part of the power establishment of the spirit, start eating other chickens. This is rationalized as a necessary and ongoing sacrifice to the spirit of the bell (it is nice that it also allows them a new food source). Cannibalism is rationalized through symbol systems and ritual. The bell means death, but spiritualized, it means heaven (heaven, as the end to history, and the beginning of eternity is a laudatory term for death) The chickens eat each other.  They are now conditioned not to answer the bell. If lucky, some impending victims might transcend conditioning and answer it in order to escape the certain death that awaits them. They would rather die answering the bell than by remaining to be eaten. They answer the bell and are fed instead of slaughtered. If the system triumphs enough, perhaps it survives by breeding some chickens for life and others for food. A few chickens might, out of desperation, answer to the bell and find the food again, but, by this time, they will be looked upon as outcasts. Actually answering the bell is now considered a sin! And so it goes, and goes and goes. One person’s piety is another’s impiety, and piety mingled with purity means holy war. We must be careful of the following words. They are always indicative of a system that is perceived as no longer functioning or that has gained such a level of function that it has created an unwanted sense of inertia. The words are: purity, solution, problem. Reform is another favorite.Wherever you see them you will hear the following arguments:

- The system must be fully implemented. What is wrong with the system is it has become too lax.
- The system has declined and must be restored to its true efficiency by some act of purgation (firing, lay-offs, resignations, rituals)
- The system is not wrong, its leaders are corrupt. Get new ones!
- The System must be overhauled, in point of fact, destroyed. (revolution)
- There never was a system and we were deluding ourselves. (nihilism, a distortion of scientific null positions).

Each one these suppositions has its own rhetoric, a rhetoric that seeks perfection and creates both trained capacities (the ability to negotiate and think inside that rhetoric) and trained incapacity (the inability to see anything except in terms of one’s own limited rhetoric).

In any successful evolution from one trained incapacity or capacity to another, there is a rhetorical and aesthetic merge point: the system stoops to its opposition and the opposition takes on enough coloration of the system it opposes to mate with it. I call this systemic mate selection. I had a student write a good paper on the “Starbucksing” of Dunkin Donuts, and the Dunking Donutsing of Starbucks. Starbucks has become less and less hang friendly, more like a factory for premium coffee. Gone are the poets and musicians. Dunkin donuts has become more “stylish”– offering poor man’s versions of specialty coffees and various up scale landscaping while keeping their garish colors as a semiotic badge of pride against the trademark “green” of the “eco-friendly” new age competitor. Starbucks does not seem to hire old or especially odd looking people, and that’s a nice rhetorical irony given their sustainability, new age aesthetics. This betrays their major target market: Americans who would never step foot in a dunkin donuts or a walmart, and are life style conservatives or leftists.  Both coffee empires play up their images as distinct while merging their actions.IN the same way slam poets and spoken word artists become academics. At the college grand slams, speakers boasted of their academic positions. Slam becomes more and more about a formula hardened by def jam, and related to no greater freedom or innovation than academic poetry.Academics start dressing down, give up their suits for the leisure wear that has status and “looks ” professional (but would have gotten them fired only forty years ago)Most of the time, the opposition is no true opposition but merely an aporia within the system itself (the slam artist comes from the same university background as the academic. It is largely in house, and both want the same thing: for their systems to be in power and for their group to decide who is in and out of the gates). Most human change is neither revolutionary nor evolutionary; it is based on the farce of trained capacity and incapacity. Of course this farce leads up to slaughtering the innocent, deifying the guilty, killing the prophets, and reducing genocide to theory. It also determines which schools of poetry get a share of controlling the prizes and the NEA.It allows for a professionalism in creative writing totally at odds with the Rimbaud, Ginsberg, Joyce, or Plath the professionals champion as great. They tame these creatures and do their best to pretend the life and the art are separate, and one can keep the art and forget the life because nothing makes a poet more acceptable than death.Baraka reads a just ok poem/rant at the 2002 Dodge festival in which he asks the question where were the Israelis when the twin towers went down, and he is stating a typical position of global leftism since the late forties (that Zionism and Jews are not one and the same) and he is vilified, condemned, and the politicians who put him in a position as representative pretend to be shocked as well as appalled. The secret message of such positions are: “you’re famous, Mr. Baraka, and we want to use your glitter to show how forward thinking we are, and how much we love the arts (they probably never read his poetry deeply) now please shut up and don’t say anything controversial.” Why? Because in his position as representative of New Jersey poetry, he is supposed to be uncontroversial or “controversial” in all the acceptable ways, and to say things in the most compromised form possible. Rants are not liked by people who worship Mary Oliver, and I was there and I saw them hating Baraka before he even mentioned the thing that got him “in trouble.” He represented a a maverick in the process of inclusive value. Rita Dove or Lucille Clifton would have been adored, and if they said the same line in a poem, no one would have noticed.  After all they were all so “post color and class,” and Baraka still insists that color, and, even more so class, cheapen and corrupt American discourse. Of course, just 8 years later, he is brought back in glory when the Dodge festival is held in Newark. It’s all high comedy, and any person who would be pure, and above this farce will be killed, slaughtered, ignored, or seen as an idiot (until the chickens in power realize they need his vicarious glamor and claim him as a hero in retrospect). We call rich people who are crazy eccentrics. We call poets who the status quo has decided to recognize “controversial.” By the time someone is called controversial, he or she is often already part of the establishment– that part that listed under acceptable renegades.

Read any argument in the literary world and you will find these ten forms of value, these five attitudes towards a troubled system, and the chicken parable represented. We are going to study the mechanisms of these arguments—their “value” their rhetoric, their piety and rituals of initiation, and expiation and, most importantly, their application to the manufacturing of power in the literary world triumphant, the literary world militant, and the literary world pending. I forgot to mention the most pernicious of values and the true way favors are bestowed: “Studied with.” If you scratch under the service of any grant winning list, you will find four in ten who are totally without connection to the judges. This connection has, at best, two degrees of separation as opposed to the usual six. Why should  we be shocked or appalled? After all, diners in New jersey are almost all owned by Greeks. Why should the literary establishment not be owned by birds of a feather and why should it not consolidate its power among known gate keepers? The problem arises when literary establishments claim it is greatness or quality that determines most awards and posterity. To an extent this is true. Don’t you think your friends are wonderful? We should not be upset by this state of affairs. It is not corrupt. What is corrupt is pretending it does not exist to the extent it does. LEtters of recommendation are only different in kind not purpose from the old hand written letters that allowed a young gentlemen access to the leading circles of society. Poets that rise from “obscurity” have some fully connected patrons: Emily Dickinson: daughter of a congressman, (family had Emerson as a house guest), and Emily had the chief editor of the Atlantic Monthly as a pen pal. John Clare was originally championed by Lords who thought themselves enlightened during a vogue for peasant poets. We could go on. Sans connections or the help of a patron, writers have one alternative: make their own alliances, throw their own party, and hope someone notices.

In the introduction to Unusual Woods (BlazeVOX 2010) you refer to your poems as “ghost sonnets.” Why “ghost sonnets?” And what prompted you to (a) select a definitive form, the sonnet, in which to write the poems and (b) to shave a line off the form?

I call them “ghost sonnets” because they’re missing the 14th line of a proper sonnet. That is, it’s getting later than it’s ever been and the sonnet is nearly over: do you know where your closure is? Writing poetry for me is a memento mori – the Latin for “remember that you must die” – as well as memento vivere – the Latin for “remember that you must live.” Living and dying in our lapsarian condition, we cannot close read our way out of our crisis of form. With regard to our lapsarian condition and the prospect of doing contemporary close reading, we need to ask: fallen from what and closer to what? We cannot, yet again, invent a mythical authority figure and then pretend we did not fashion that figure in our own likeness (like the New Critics, the New Formalists, or the New Sincerity movement in American poetry did). Certainly, I am not suggesting that we need more cynical irony. I think we need more sincere skepticism.

Once the center no longer holds, all readings become contests of meaning. Authority, intentionality, heroism, freedom, nation, progress and the rest of the Grand Narratives become suspect and, at best, conditional once we see the horrors the documents of the past have cataloged under the flags of these abstractions. All Grand Narratives are eschatological.

Heroically or mock-heroically, the un-whole sonnets in Unusual Woods try to face the ghosts of such radical doubts. To echo Leonard Cohen, the missing line in these ghost sonnets is the crack where the suspicious and conditioned light comes in. An innovative poetry, as Walt Whitman suggested, needs an innovative readership. These poems will possess the reader who finds a way to stand witness to their demands. The word is mightier than.

Why are British lords always hearing chains in the cellar? O, that’s right, the sun never sets on the British Empire. As the ubiquitous chain-rattling ghost haunts Victorian literature, so too form haunts content in contemporary American poetry. Form dreams of containing the message, the saying, or the idiomatic haggling over the transaction of meaning. Form dreams of mattering as a kind of play between aesthetical and ethical imperatives. However, sometimes form has a nightmare called a didactic political poem. Berrr! The truth lies hyphenated somewhere between aesthetical form-ethical content. Have you ever been hyphenated? Most uncomfortable!

To put it as pompously as a I can: I intervened in the rich multicultural sonnet tradition by inventing the 13-line sonnet form because I needed a practical way to determine when a poem was done without relying on the Romantic standby of intuition or epiphany or other gestures of closure. The limited lines offered a grid that freed me to attend to other aspects of the poem construction process such as how sound relates to sense within an aleatory composition. Finding the 13-line grid was certainly an example of limitations proffering freedom.

Foregoing, then, all “mythical authority figures” in which to ground the operations of form, ought we to construct new forms and/or salvage forms from the vestiges of tradition? Or, are we for the foreseeable future trapped in “ghost” forms?

I’d like to pose it as a question: can we forego all “mythical authority figures” or not? Briefly, since this is obviously a huge topic, I would just like to add that I do believe poetry would become little more than unreadable formal exercises without a basis in faith or without a reaching out to name the essence of a person, place, or thing. Can we even imagine or can our language even connote without a metaphysical arc? Why does language fail to communicate without the metaphysical sponsorship of human agency?

As a reader of the old forms of the European avant-gardes and American modernisms, I’ve learned the importance of being weary of prognosticators. Growing up in Romania under the last communist dictatorship in Europe, I developed a strong distaste for utopian programs. Every 5 year plan is a sacrifice of someone’s present. Indeed, the word “we” might be the most vicious utopia of all. I think readers read in order to gain the ghostly traces of the past through the wickets of language and image. Without the practice of freedom, the new is mere fashion, right?

“Howl” by Gene Tanta

In your introductory essay, you say that “[a]s a critic, [you are] faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content.” In my review, I took “object with aesthetic form” to mean that the “objectivity” and structure of your poems lend them a universal quality, in spite of their specificity and dependence on “cultural biography.” Your statement also suggests that you want your poems to be approached as aesthetic objects. Is this right, and, if so, how ought we to understand the relationship of these two aspects–universal and aesthetic?

For whatever my current understanding of my own intention is worth to the reader encountering my poems, I do want my poems to be read as aesthetic and formally considered objects. At the same time, I also want my poems to be read as political provocations that ask the reader to reflect on her ethical position in the narrative we make of the past. Some of the most interesting language I know lives in the hyphens connecting, while also separating, words like poet-artist, aesthete-propagandist, Romanian-American. Between is the new both!

I think your question about the prospect of a universal beauty goes to the heart of one of the most challenging aspects of writing as an experimental poet in the twenty first century: how does one use language? Since language operates as a denotative instrument in the service of function as well as a connotative artifact in the plot of illusion, how one uses language is not a simple matter of practicing sincere criticism or of practicing coy pun-work. Language lives between function and figuration trying to break up the street fight while also egging on the street fight.

Regarding the possibility of objectivity, allow me to quote Heinz von Foerster: “Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.” My love of language (language is the medium of wisdom after all) is born of my interest in the simple but not the simplistic, the fundamental but not the fundamentalist, the elemental but not the elementary. I think an ethics exists when one acknowledges the other. Once the subject relates to the object, I think we can begin the process of defining what is good and what is bad for individuals and for society. The problem, of course, persists into everyday living: how do we go about the practice of acknowledging the other and how do we meet the task of defining our categories?

On the prospect of a universal beauty, I’d just like to offer a few questions. How can beauty (however innovative its form, however good its self-perceived intention, however tripartite its ideology) be universal across races, classes, genders, times, temperaments, languages, grammars, habits, religions, and so on? The universe itself is a huge and mainly dark room (or stanza, the Italian word for room). What does it mean to make an adjective of such a little-known and mainly empty and cold room? Maybe the universe is missing its 14th line. What would a Mayan make of Candide?

To answer your question, certainly there is no universal beauty if this requires that all readers across time and space must agree on what is beautiful. On the other hand, to ask your readers, whom I believe you assume to be culturally diverse, to approach your poems aesthetically, assumes that reading aesthetically is possible. Certainly responses of readers will vary widely based on a variety of factors, but one could argue that the differences are finite and provisional. In other words, to say beauty is always personal and relative is not to say it is totally subjective. Wouldn’t the Mayan be able (mostly) to understand Candide if she took a class from a Voltaire scholar who catered to international students?

Right, cultural relativism is at the heart of this important debate. Certainly, our multicultural differences are “finite and provisional” but whom should we ask to tell us where these differences end and on what they depend? If beauty is “always personal and relative,” how do we approach the prospect of coming to a universal consensus on the meaning of beauty? Catering is such an interesting word. It reminds me of the multicultural phrase “underserved community” which, for me anyway, brings up concerns of the master-slave relationship with respect to how capital nurtures and even propagates the classist ideal of necessary difference, the boom and bust cycle of universal beauty.

I think your essay successfully sets up the dichotomy of reading aesthetically versus politically–a dichotomy that your poems show to be false. But in your essay you argue that culture influences aesthetics. Undoubtedly, we also consult aesthetic objects when we establish or alter cultural traditions. Why, then, don’t we simply collapse these categories? If the dialectic between aesthetics and culture is extremely fluid, is it necessary to uphold a distinction? Shouldn’t we just concede that all artistic objects are sites for “contests of meaning” (to borrow your phrase from earlier)? To put it another way, is there anything about the aesthetic that is outside of or impervious to power struggle?

As I suggest above, the biographical circumstances of my childhood in Romania have left me suspicious of centralized government. Romania transitioned pretty swiftly from a socialist dream in 1965 to a despotic regime in 1972. Since I only caught the despotic end of utopia, I tend to see public plans of commitment such as the various 5 year plans in the former USSR, Romania, China, India and so on as instruments poised to organize the public around that famously shared, and even more famously necessary, delusion: hope. We need hope as long as we conceive of time as a linear procession of good and bad luck.

That said, according to my 5 year plan, the fluid dialectic between the aesthetical and the political does not end. The motion between making special (art) and making clear (propaganda) flows in time because the human experiment flows in time. Whether that motion moves in a straight line from left to right or in a circle depends on whether you prefer Pepsi or Coke. My point is that we cannot choose without ideology rearing up its pretty head. Ideology is in the details.

I’ll be better able to answer your question after the apocalypse has brought history to its end. Only after human strife and pleasure is over, on the floodlit stage of the afterlife, can we determine whether we should collapse the categories of aesthetics and politics. However, since this is turning out to be the warmest decade in history, the end of days may be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the global warming trend continues, the human rights and social justice issue of the twenty first century may be our final 5 year plan.

“Figure on Yellow” by Gene Tanta

What were you thinking when you wrote “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh”? This poem stands out both in its line length and its (seemingly) overt autobiographical undertones. So I was struck by its uniqueness. On the other hand, I anticipate that method by which your “cultural biography” shaped this poem might be representative of a similar method in the other poems.

Like Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, Vasko Popa, Frank O’Hara, Kent Johnson, Patricia Smith, I certainly use the autobiographical register but I profess no one-to-one ratio between the speakers in my poems and my life experiences. “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh,” like most poems in Unusual Woods, (“My father did not invent fire” is a notable exception) have been pared down and built upon again and again. Whether expository or creative, writing is very much a process for me.

As a writer interested in the marginalia and redux of consciousness, I know I cannot know my own intentions. That said, some of the material in the “Back in Romania…” poem does borrow, stress, and tweak my own life experiences as a boy growing up in Romania. The formal rule of 13-line stanzas explains the longer line length: the story had to fit within the 13-line capsule.

Yes, you’re right! The process of tapping my cultural biography (or the unconscious authority of the force of memory) flows as a theme throughout these otherwise highly divergent morsel-sized poetic stanzas, rooms, universes. Where’s the fire? The urgency is in the old paradox: we die while we live. There’s the fire. Now run, sentence, run.

André Breton claimed surrealism puts life in the service of art. Surrealism asks artists and poets to make it realer than real, hyper real, or extra real. Such an understanding of the unconscious haunts these odd 13-line universes. These poems listen to how you read them; they listen with the cut and paste of idiom and image. It is the hurry up of scissors’ work. It is the hush and clang of bodiless souls associating with their kinfolk of understanding.

Or as Charles Simic puts it: “I’m a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs. Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves. Not many people seem to notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.”

Recently, there have been several articles on THEthe Poetry Blog on surrealism in poetry, and I am dissertating on this topic. Is it simply the cut-and-glue process that makes your poetry surreal, or are there other elements at work? Simic’s comment would suggest not process, but mimesis is the primary function.

Certainly, I seek to create uncanny effects with my poems: effects that both ring the doorbell of childhood but also ring the jilted note of the unfamiliar. I seek to create new and memorable effects of the new and memorable real. Like any writer, I do this partly through craft elements such as imagery, setting, character, and partly through my capability to live with not knowing. Mimesis is a process of mishearing in a productive way. Was it Tristan Tzara or Eminem who said “thought is made in the mouth”? Anyway, I like to listen with my imagination.

When writing and revising, do you strive for the surreal, or is it only an afterthought?

Surreal effects are the afterthoughts of language, more like it. Walter Benjamin has a theory that all words in all languages are onomatopoetic, readers only have to do the work of figuring out how sound relates (or used to relate) to signification in light of the value system of each language. To borrow the syntax of a bumper sticker: “chance operations happen.” The task, if you like, of poets and readers is to notice the odd rubbing going on between sound and sense. I like to watch words. Not many people notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.

The Surrealists often spoke of the marvelous (which might be considered a version of the sublime) as the end of their methods. Do you concur that something marvelous or sublime happens when certain conditions are met in the text? Does this relate in any way to how you understand the aesthetic aspect of your poetry?

Dada interests me more than Surrealism. However, within Surrealism, its anarchic tendencies seem more interesting to me than its fetishistic tendencies (which American marketing has employed with such gusto). For instance, Breton had another concept called “convulsive beauty” which transgresses the boundaries of formal logic as well as the canonical categories of Beauty. Convulsive beauty, by retooling the pathology of hysteria, queers aesthetic and political norms. Like Dada, hysteria (applied by the Surrealists not as a pathological diagnosis but as an instrument to destabilize categories) is that “which escapes definition.” With my creative work, I seek to make the possible more possible. This is the only kind of new I know.

“Flowers” by Gene Tanta

I am excited about the prospect of teaching a course in which students will be given an opportunity to dismantle certain suppositions, while at the same time studying the mechanisms of dismantling which we call literary movements, and literary greatness. First, what is a gatekeeper? What gate does he keep? And what is the literary greatness he upholds? What verbal strategies and “values” are employed to maintain a standard or rebel against a standard? Is there any real difference between the strategies of obeying a structure or dismantling it? If there is no standard, and anything is great if you say it is, then why do certain works persist? Does this mean they are truly great, or that the argument for their greatness, the strategies and rigor of those arguments, or the simple fact that one feels compelled to continue the argument make them so? What are the advantages of upholding a tradition and the advantages of dismantling it, if any, beyond power? And, if power is the only constant of both those who would reform and those who resist being reformed, then is there any movement at all–or just new and seemingly competing terminologies for the same basic thing?

We will be examining through both a historical and theoretical approach, a couple of simple adages and quotes, the simplest of which is: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” We will add to this adage, a couple of insane variants:

The more things same, the more they same the change.

Things change by staying the same.

Things stay the same by changing.

If change equals sameness and Sameness equals change, where in this process of the constancy of change, and the inconstancy of sameness do terminologies emphasize their rigorous nomenclatures of change or their equally rigorous nomenclatures of sameness? How does the atrophy of one lead to the hypertrophy of the other? What are the common mechanisms and verbal strategies of sameness and change in any verbal aesthetic? In what sense is the break down of any system A.) Breakthrough? B.) Proof that the system exists? C.) Prove that it never existed? D.) Proof that it may or may not exist and is to be considered only in so far as it exists as a series of assertions and all terminologies in the verbal construct gather around it to prove or disprove its “validity?”

What do we mean by cultural evolution? If we can come up with a definition for evolution, does the definition cease to be challenged effectively? And if it ceases to evolve, does it, itself, contradict cultural evolution? And if it contradicts cultural evolution, doesn’t that prove evolution by way of evolving beyond it? Can we ever escape the mechanisms and strategies by which we assert that we are beyond the mechanisms and strategies of assertion? Why do we put flesh on the mechanisms of the bones and organs. What is the value not only of methodology, but of hiding one’s methodologies behind a terministic screen? How do literary terms resemble the veil over the covenant. And when we hide anything by a vocabulary of jargon, exclusion, or discourse, do the gatekeepers mistake mastery of the jargon for the value? Do people ever really value truth, or do they value the power that comes from mastering certain mechanisms of truth? To that end:

“Every discourse, even a poetic or oracular sentence, carries with it a system of rules for producing analogous things and thus an outline of methodology.”
~Jacques Derrida

All selections from reality/life are distortions of reality/life. They imply a rhetoric (method) of inclusion and exclusion implicit in the choosing of one thing or way over another. Thus Kafka’s statement: “the minute you write she opened a window, you have already begun to lie.” What can we say about correctness then, the right or perfect way to do something save that it is obeys to the furthest rigor and skill the rhetoric of its own distortions, and, when it disobeys the rhetoric of those particular distortions, it does so with equal or greater rigor? Error exists not in whether something is true or false but in whether one has obeyed its rhetoric (methodology) or disobeyed without full rigor. There can be no errors in perception if all perception is misperception,only errors in methodology. If one attempt to obey and fails, this is sin/error, or incompetence. If one disobeys and succeeds with full rigor, this is a new system. If all this be so, then there is no difference between postmodernism’s obsessions with deconstruction (the process of instability) and the bureaucracy from which it came into being and in which it thrives. To quote Derrida again:

“It is the rigor and conviction of my views and methods that seem threatening– not what I say, but the rigor, conviction, and competence by which I say it.”

What is the outline of methodology in Ashery’s poems? (we will look at three of them). IN Larry Levis (again three poems). In Keats’ “Odes?” in Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of ORder at KEy West,” “Large Red Man Reading” and in Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s family and identity poems? How do these methodologies contradict or exclude the possibility of the other?

Besides this old adage, we will be considering the following:

To what extent is art for art’s sake, in its purest most absolute expression, merely a morality and didacticism made conspicuous by its absence? (We will compare the verbal strategy of Oscar Wilde’s essays on art for art’s sake, with some famous sermons and their verbal strategies)). How does an aesthete resemble a strict moralist? What are the verbal strategies of disdain an aesthete employs for the meaningful and the ontological, and how do they resemble the “outrage” of moralists? How does the “cool” and indifference, and practiced inconsequence of an aesthete betray the same underlying violence and zeal as the heat and fanaticism of a moralist? What are the particular strategies of violence in a system that must maintain it is above and beyond “for and against” and is for unending nuance?More importantly, how does an insistence upon ontology (meaning) falsify substance. How does an insistence on substance falsify meaning.

What are the advantages of “who cares” and “so what” in the history of power (the strategies of inviting and not inviting) and how do they figure in the development of post modernism? For this we will be looking at some of the journal entries of Andy Warhol, and some of the party scenes in Proust. We will examine the supposition: power is the right to be arbitrary and contemptuous of all subjects that do not reflect the right to be arbitrary. Power is the lawless generative force of laws, traditions, and beliefs to which it need not adhere. Power never participates in the consistency which it engenders, in that which upholds it. When power obeys its own laws and gatekeepers, it ceases to be power. If this is true, then there are three ways to dismantle a power structure:

1. To go against it (reformers, new movements,)
2. To obey it so perfectly, with such utter obedience that one becomes a “pure” servility. Hence: the gates and the gatekeepers supplant the very thing they were built for and protect. Substance confers substance upon essence and deconstructs it as an essence. The “power” disappears into that which obeys it. (Kafka)
3. To confuse the issues to the point where they shift.

We will look at disdain for romantics in the work of the arch-romantic Byron. Does he disdain romanticism, or only its leadership in the forms of Wordsworth, etc? This will lead to a study of one of the main mechanisms of power which I call: “renaming the father.”

Byron: Not Wordsworth, but Pope (Don Juan).
The modernists (especially Pound): Not Tennyson, but Browning.
The beats: Not Eliot but Williams. Not west, but east. Not leftist action but leftist life style.
Post modernism: not substance, but semiotics of substances that do not exist save for their semiotics.

We will discuss vicarious power through the claiming of origins. We will study the power dynamics of “Studied with.” “read with” “published in” “sponsored by” and “born from.” All this virtual “proof” as created by German academics ad science.How does a poem imply its “studied with,” “read with” “published in” and “born from?” To that end:

If something doesn’t fit any category, and we call it unique, do we mean we are impressed by its originality or confused as to its origins? When we are confused as to a thing’s origins, two reactions– both from the power structure result:

1.We champion the thing or artist as an exotic, a novelty, a bit of the primitive, and the raw, thus either mythologizing or eroticizing it or
2. We disparage, disdain or reject it as a “mistake” an ineptitude, a lack of craft or skill, proof that the artist is a rank amateur.

(Usually we do both).

For this supposition:
- The “peasant” poetry of John Clare
- “Outsider” artists as championed by the elite.
- “Outsiders” as championed by the star making machine (Dylan, Madonna, Eminem)
- Outsiders made immortal by early death (the second generation romantics for example.
- Obscenity trials as a good career move (Baudelaire, Flaubert, Joyce, Lawrence, Ginsberg): scandal as a success story.

Some other things we will be delving into:

The modernist obsession with process and material as a value in and of itself and its relation to industrial and post industrial consciousness. The poem as a “thing made out of words.” The painting as paint. Movements against the representational toward the abstract. Movements to retain the representational through disconnects, incongruity, distortion, or comic pastiche.

Finally: the power of literary friendships (how cronies work on the golf course and in the academy). Friendship as power.

We’ve all justified seeing a particular movie or following a TV show by saying “It’s terrible, but it’s just entertainment/pop/etc.”–I know I have. There’s that niggling feeling that we should not have enjoyed that film/show as much as we did. But this justification is an easy-out, something that is surprisingly accepted among even the most erudite and critically astute circles. Indeed, it seems acceptable even in modern critical discourse about film. For Armond White, this is an indefensible critical blasphemy. And as difficult as the line is to hold (and exhausting, to be honest), I find I must agree with him.

I’ll get into that in a few paragraphs, but first I want to look at White’s incredible self-published collection of essays on Michael Jackson–Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles–which I hope to will serve as the foundation for a general exploration of White’s idea of criticism and argument for why I think White is an important critic.

While reading through Keep Moving, readers can watch White evolve as a critic. The essays themselves are various pieces that White wrote concerning Michael Jackson from the mid-80s onward. While the insights about Jackson are impressive, what is more interesting to me (for the moment) is how these essays give context and depth to what is too often dismissed as a troll-like, curmudgeonly attitude by critics of the critic. White explains his own evolution:

In reviewing my Jackson pieces [for the book]…I was forced to recall my own relationship to Jackson. It had changed from my customary critical skepticism to sincere awe. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Thriller when it first appeared in 1982; it didn’t fit in with my rockist criteria for album art. But Thriller won the world for its superlatively crafted program of single tracks; it was an album in music culture’s original sense–a collation–while I was infatuated with the cohesive impudence of Prince’s 1999….I was not prepared for the subtle revolution of Thriller.

To read White discuss what makes Michael Jackson significant is an honest pleasure. Moreover, it’s fascinating to watch White navigate the racial and social issues of the day (and today) in his criticism. Armond White’s ability to cut through the bullshit and say something lasting and worthwhile is on display. Take, for example, White’s meditation on Jackson’s line “if…you’re thinking about being my baby / It don’t matter if you’re black or white”:

That phrase, coming from anyone else…would be highly offensive. But the sentiment has to be taken more seriously coming from Jackson, who literally has inscribed that belief in his flesh.

Michael’s physical transformation isn’t a game of truth or dare like the costumes put on and cast off by Madonna or David Bowie. Consider that the one identity Madonna and Bowie never flirted with is as a racial Other. But their “probity” is more shrewd than judicious; they know the identity from which expressive freedom customarily is withheld. Silence is their ultimate taboo. But silence unleashes the part of Jackson that always was suppressed in song. He dances free of the personal, social, racial constraints that are inseparable from Jackson’s Black and human experience in ways that empowered whites may never understand.

It’s important that Black folks understand Jackson’s physical appearance isn’t anything so superficially pathetic as wanting to be white. His greatest desire–which he sang passionately about in “Man in the Mirror”–is to “lift yourself” above the common, petty fetters and divisions that affect most people’s lives.

White’s ability to connect the dots between Jackson’s music and his publicly private life is part of what makes him a great critic (and, perhaps, problematizes our cultural distinctions between “public” and “private”). White is always attempting to outline the shape of the person in his criticism. I believe this is why the auteur film critic Andrew Sarris is so important to White, because he must always be able to trace a piece of art back to its human element. And this ability to find the human is what convinces me that White’s criticism is fundamentally a humanist criticism. It’s what lends weight to White’s ability to “speak truth to power.” I find that so many who are concerned with “speaking truth to power” are really just concerned with their own power and semiotics. But this focus on the human person allows White to cut right to the heart of cultural issues without getting lost or tossed around in the media firestorms that accompany cultural events.

Because of that, White’s primary concern in this book is understanding Michael Jackson through his art. This focus yields amazing insights. See White’s commentary on the perennial (or at least what was perennial) controversy over Jackson’s skin color:

Most artists submit to [the Black performer’s understood contract with the white-controlled world of show business] to some degree. Jackson’s only gone the Jewish entertainer’s nose-job ritual–known as the “Hollywood circumcision”–several organs better.

Almost a hundred years after minstrel shows, Jackson has engineered the ultimate critique/reversal of the blackface tradition. His plastic surgery answers the exploitation and humiliation that have always loomed ambiguously before Black performers who were ready to give the marketplace the hairstyle it demanded….

His new face is just a manifestation of the compromises he’s forced into as a private and public person, as a naive young man in an industry of predatory cunning, as a powerful Black cultural presence skeptically admitted into a largely white hierarchy….

Michael Jackson has become the social and ethnic anomaly he was raised to be….Jackson has fashioned himself into what the Western world has ordained: an androgynous, uniracial creature of presumably limitless appeal.

While the media has focused on how strange Jackson had made himself (and let’s admit it–most of us gawked along with them), White’s insight shifts the burden of guilt where it rightfully belongs: our desire, channeled through the media, to be at once fascinated and disgusted.

There’s much more to say about White’s book on Jackson. In many ways, it’s a beautiful book, and it almost brought me to the verge of tears at points. While reading, I was filled with regret about what Jackson went through as an artist; how I was (and still am) implicated in that. It made me wish that I could go back and appreciate the man more while he was still alive.

But now I want to speak more broadly about White as a critic (I plan on coming back to the Jackson book later). I mentioned White’s humanism. I really do believe that White’s is one of the great practitioners of a critical humanism. You may totally disagree with his analyses of films (which, at points, can be admittedly bizarre); you can find his tone and j’accused sloppiness frustrating, but that a true humanism at the basis of his criticism, I believe, is above reproach. At times, White may fail to live up to his own humanist standard, but who doesn’t? That’s not a glib dismissal of White’s failures as a critic. It’s only to say that White’s failures to live up to a standard don’t negate that standard.

One thing that confirms White’s humanism, in my mind, is his deep and abiding belief in democracy. That White believes in democracy might seem counter intuitive, given some of the statements he’s made about bloggers (which we generally believe to be the ultimate democratic medium):

The Internetters who stepped in to fill print publications’ void seize a technological opportunity and then confuse it with “democratization”—almost fascistically turning discourse into babble. They don’t necessarily bother to learn or think—that’s the privilege of graffito-critique. Their proud non-professionalism presumes that other moviegoers want to—or need to—match opinions with other amateurs….The journalistic buzzword for this water-cooler discourse is “conversation” (as when The Times saluted Ebert’s return to newspaper writing as “a chance to pick up on an interrupted conversation”). But today’s criticism isn’t real conversation; on the Internet it’s too solipsistic and autodidactic to be called a heart-to-heart. (Viral criticism isn’t real; it’s mostly half-baked, overlong term-paper essays by fans who like to think they think.)

And in print, “conversation” is regrettably one-sided. Power-sided. This is where the elitist tendency sours everything. The social fragmentation that fed the 1980s indie movement, decentralizing film production away from Los Angeles, had its correlative in film journalism. Critics everywhere flailed about for a center, for authority, for knowledge; they championed all sorts of unworked-out, poorly made films (The Blair Witch Project, Gummo, Dogville, Southland Tales) proposing an indie-is-better/indie-is-new aesthetic. The sophomoric urge to oppose Hollywood fell into the clutches of Hollywood (i.e., Sundance). Similarly, the decentralized practice of criticism now scoffs at former New York Times potentate Bosley Crowther, while crowning a network of bizarro authorities—pompous critics who replace Crowther’s classical-humanist canon with a hipster/avant-garde pack mentality (from The Village Voice to Time Out New York to IndieWire).

This quote might seem to confirm that White is just a poor, confused man: he attacks centers of power, while at the same time favoring a “canon”? I don’t believe White is confused, however. Let me explain by way of G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton explained what he felt the basic principles of democracy to be–and I think you’d be hard pressed to find any better explanation:

This is the first principle of democracy:  that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately.  And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common….It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on.  For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well.  It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose.  These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.  I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses.  I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them.  In short, the democratic faith is this:  that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves–the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state.  This is democracy….

This definition is so useful because it brings into relief the belief opposite to democracy: that the things that humans hold in common should be ruled by those “who know better.” According to White’s jeremiads, you have an unfortunate convergence of power-interests and a supposedly democratic groundswell of bloggers. Hence the reason why White likes to quote Molly Haskell so much: “The internet is democracy’s revenge on democracy.” White is not a know-nothing populist. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a democrat.

White, like Chesterton, believes genuinely that people should deal with their own business, not be forced to submit or be coerced by the will of corporate interests (every bit of White’s criticism that I’ve read confirms this). But that doesn’t mean that anything goes either, that the “mob” knows best. For White, the critic is there to help the masses. But he does so not as a gatekeeper of “artistic greatness.” The critic may be the defender of a canon but does so as an advocate.

And this is the problem with the “it’s just a movie” defense. When we allow movies (or any art for that matter) to fall into that cheap dichotomy, we actually subject ourselves to the gatekeepers of “greatness.” We cut off our critical legs and have to wait until the right people say it’s OK to take something seriously (note how White is excoriated for taking a film like Norbit seriously). Who else but the elites will determine whether a piece of art is to be considered “actual art” or “just pop”? Pop must be treated with utmost seriousness because otherwise we leave ourselves at the mercy of the same gatekeepers we thought we just escaped. I ask you: who decided we must take Lady Gaga more seriously than Brittany Spears? Beats me, but somewhere along the line it was obviously decided, though both are selling records just fine. Of course, White says it best (and more pithily):

To discuss movies as if they were irrelevant to individual experience—just bread-and-circus rabble-rousers—breeds indifference. And that’s only one of the two worst tendencies of contemporary criticism. The other is elitism.

White believes desperately in the role of the critic as a guard against both an anti-human indifference and the elitism that capitalizes (literally) on indifference to enslave us.

This brings me full-circle to White’s book about Jackson and White’s deep-seated critical humanism. If Chesterton is right, then the democratic ideal comes from a fundamentally humanist impulse, one that should guarantee the dignity (and equality) of individual persons. Now, compare Chesterton’s explanation of democracy to White’s final denunciation of the power structures that are incapable (or unwilling) to recognize the actual greatness of Jackson:

When the current President of the United States grudgingly admitted to “have all his stuff on my iPod,” it seemed either disrespectful or just further submission to the will of the media elite. What POTUS didn’t say was that even a relative “ditty” like the imperishable “P.Y.T.” was more than “stuff.” Listen to the way Jackson took R&B’s romantic entreaty and sang it as more than booty-begging or nut-busting but as the epitome of goodness. It is the kind of manifold richness that many people underestimate in Black pop (even when made apparent by a white postmodern brainiac like Green Gartside who deconstructed Jackson’s aesthetic into Scritti Politti). MJ’s “Wooooo’s” and “repeat after me” were sensual and rhetorical confirmations of personal and communal loving. He solicited call-and-response from the world–and got it. “P.Y.T.” makes the joy of life and art into one–it’s just an added blessing that you can also dance to it. If that doesn’t justify our democracy, then trade MJ’s Civil Rights moonwalk for a goosestep.

“Civil Rights moonwalk” (aside from being a brilliant turn of phrase) is the perfect example of how deadly serious White is about pop art. Pop isn’t “just pop.” The very principles of democracy can be at stake in a song. And while MJ is certainly an “elite” in a sense, White spends most of his book on Jackson explaining how the real core of Jackson’s songs are, in fact, personal expressions of the democratic ideals (see, especially, the essays “The Gloved One Is Not A Chump” and “Screaming To Be Heard, Book I”).

What is most important to White, however, what confirms MJ’s greatness is the fact that, despite all the media “kicking dirt in [MJ’s] eye,” despite Jackson’s confused and troubled response to the perverse demands of fame (which the media creates then capitalizes on later), despite the attempts of cultural gatekeepers to keep Jackson relegated within preordained modes of entertainment, Jackson’s art cannot be “reduced to pop,” because it speaks on a deep, visceral level. The level on which Jackson was operating is demonstrated by the outpouring of grief for Jackson by the “victorious plebiscite” (which AOL explained was a “seminal moment in internet history. We’ve never seen anything like it in scope or depth.”), whose “resistance to media fiat” White says “is proof of democratic goodwill in action.”


While I hope this post stands independently as a commentary on White and his book, it’s also a bit of a continuation of some of my thoughts on the relationship between art and democracy, which I hope to continue with later in order to answer some of the excellent questions that were asked in my original post.

The week before last, Salman Rushdie visited the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue to read from and talk about his new novel Luka and the Fire of Life.  It is a sequel to the popular Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written, as its predecessor was for his first son, at the request of his second son.  Its hero is Haroun’s younger brother Luka, the second son of the famous storyteller Rashid Khalifa, who must endeavor a similar journey into the Magic World to once again help his father. These books walk and talk like children’s stories, but we should believe Rushdie when he asserts that “we are all children,” and that the appeal of these books, he hopes, is broad.

He carried himself with his usual joviality: he congratulated one overzealous fan for her question, telling her that she should publish it; on another occasion, when asked about his process, he replied, already laughing as if he couldn’t help himself, “I write left-to-right, all the way across the page, and then all the way down the page until I’m finished”; when I asked him at the signing if he could convince Thomas Pynchon to visit the Synagogue, he replied, and this was after 200-odd signatures, “You know, if I only had his phone number.” But his explanations of this book were insightful.  “It looks like it was easy,” but he assures us that “re-writing one of the oldest stories ever told–the story of man gaining fire from the gods” is arduous.

This intention is a good place to begin, analysis-wise.  Haroun appealed to young audiences because of its protagonist’s fanciful and action-packed adventure to save the Sea of Stories from pollution, in turn restoring his father’s lost yarning mojo.  It appealed to me because it was essentially a metafictionalist’s manifesto.  Nearly all the tricks were on display (to recount them would taint them; they are best encountered in their surprising and entertaining form).  Storytelling itself thus becomes the central theme of Haroun, a defense of its imaginative and restorative power.  Young audiences will similarly delight in Luka’s adventure into the Magic World to steal the Fire of Life and help the ailing Rashid.  But while the theme of Haroun was storytelling, here we deal with philosophy.  Life and death (or, as it is overtly put here, Being and un-Being) as well as issues of time (characters who literally represent the past, present and future play prominent roles in Luka’s journey) are central throughout the narrative. Again, to say more would spoil its richness.

Each book’s themes figure at times heavily and delicately, but narratively they are each driven by a paradigmatic plot structure. In each case, the young hero finds that the Magic World somehow resembles his own imagination, and the solutions to many of the problems he faces arise from his memory of these imaginings.  So, for example, Haroun becomes a character in a princess-rescue, employing tools from the stories his father had told him.   But it is the narrative paradigm that drives Luka I find extremely interesting.

We learn early on that Luka

lived in an age in which an almost infinite number of parallel realities had begun to be sold as toys. Like everyone he knew, he had grown up destroying fleets of invading rocket ships and been a little plumber on a journey through many bouncing, burning, twisted bubbling levels to rescue a prissy princess from a monster’s castle, and metamorphosed into a zooming hedgehog, and a streetfighter and a rockstar, and stood his ground undaunted in a hooded cloak while a demonic figure with stubby horns and a red-and-black face leapt around him slashing a double-ended lightsaber at his head.

Just as Haroun’s adventure is driven by his memories of Rashid’s stories, Luka’s journey resembles his beloved video games, replete with save points, bosses, accumulated lives, and increasingly vexing levels (not to mention the fantastic nature of the Magic World to begin with).  This fits the philosophical themes of time and death very nicely.  Many times Luka debates whether he actually controls the outcome of his adventure, or if it’s all been pre-programmed. Toward the end he accuses his nemesis of treating this ordeal like a game, only to be refuted with “No. It is a matter of life and death.”

Kudos to Rushdie for not shying away from video game imagery; I agree with the L.A. Times’ Jon Fasman when asserts, “Rushdie, almost alone among modern fiction writers, gives these games their narrative due.”  It’s extremely risky, but if you’re going to talk about such things as parallel universes, multiple lives, determinism and free will–in stories, let alone in life–is not the video game a reputable analog?  So, in many ways, Luka and the Fire of Life is in fact about storytelling after all.  Is it a case for the value of video games as a storytelling device for children and adolescents?  Probably not, but the video game motif–something I have not come across, at least to this extent, in fiction–nonetheless works here both as a model for plot and as a meta-commentary on the tension between determined structures and the always present freedom of an author to create the incredible.  Rushdie manages both quite nicely here.

There should be a warning on the cover of Moby-Dick. Beware, it should say, reading this will require blood.

Fair warning would only be fair. As it is, the word of caution comes too late. Melville only mentions this cost, this culpability, when one is already hundreds of pages in. It’s only mentioned after we know to call him Ishmael, after we’ve followed, fascinated, behind Queequeg the face-tattooed harpooner who carries his god in his pocket, after we’ve sat through a scary sermon, heard a beggars warning, met the crazy Quaker shipping company owners and boarded the Pequod with Ishmael. It only happens after we’ve watched the waters for whales, watched while the water’s impossibly calm, and after we’ve learned the customs and social structures of whaling ships, after we’ve met everyone and after we’ve seen the one-legged captain with his thumping and his obsession.

Then we’re told we’re doomed.

The structure of this moment — this too-late announcement that one is irrevocably involved — is, of course, the same for the reader as it is for the characters in Moby-Dick. This is what happens in the novel and what happens, at the same time, to the reader of the novel. It’s a metafictional moment revealing one’s ethical responsibility, revealing it not as a choice, but as a sentence.

This metafictional moment comes in a metafiction chapter of the novel, the chapter where Ishmael, the narrator, uses this genre to directly address the reader, directly address the nature of the narrative, the bookness of the book, and the question of the truth of the story. It comes in Chapter 45, “The Affidavit,” which starts out, “So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book…” The function of the chapter is the function of an affidavit, that is, to swear to the truth of something, and Ishmael does this by epistemological appeal to his own eye witness testimony, to the stories commonly known among those who know these things, and news accounts and written documents, where “A fact thus set down in substantial history cannot easily be gainsaid.” He swears and declares that what he says is the truth. He has, he says, “no more idea of being facetious than Moses when he wrote the history of the plagues of Egypt.”

To make this direct appeal on behalf of the truth of the narrative, the narrator has to step a step away, into metafiction, and in doing that directly addresses the reader. He warns that “they,” by which he means “landsmen,” by which he means us, “might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.”

Ostensibly this misinterpretation — which is, maybe, the most common interpretation seen in readings of Melville’s magnum opus — horrifies the narrator because it’s wrong, and because it remakes the horribly real into a nice little morality tale. It seems, though, that, in truth, the fear here is also that the readers, in making the whale into an allegory, in making the story a fable with a learnable lesson attached at the end, might exempt themselves from any moral responsibility. Swearing to the truth of what he has to say, by means of metafictional address, the narrator also in this moment manages to point out that the reader is always already ethically involved.

“Do you suppose,” the narrator says,

that that poor fellow there, who this moment perhaps caught by the whale-line off the coast of New Guinea, is being carried down to the bottom of the sea by the sounding leviathan — do you suppose that that poor fellow’s name will appear in the newspaper obituary you will read tomorrow at your breakfast? No: because the mails are very irregular between here and New Guinea. In fact, did you ever hear what might be called regular news direct or indirect from New Guinea? Yet I tell you that upon one particular voyage which I made to the Pacific, among many others, we spoke thirty different ships, every one of which had had a death by a whale, some of them more than one, and three that had each lost a boat’s crew. For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! Not a gallon you burn, but at least on drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.

This is a sort of shocking moment, for you are sitting there or I am sitting here, reading, quietly reading, for all intents and purposes innocent of the world’s blood and bother, its violence and tumult, and Ishmael comes right out of the page and accuses us of blood. Whether by not reading about our involvement, when we read the paper in the morning, or by reading about it here, we are not separate, he says. We are, in our actions and inactions, culpable.

Moby-Dick is, in one basic sense, an economics story. It’s about the kind of capitalistic colonialism America has always been involved in. Like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the story suggests that this system, this kind of colonialism, whereby we scour the world for resources to take, just assuming they’re ours for the taking, is pretty normal, pretty acceptable. The problem with the system, these novels propose, is that sometimes a crazy person, a Kurtz or an Ahab, takes the enterprise crashing over the edge into excess and insanity. It is, in this sense, a warning about a limit. Melville shows us, though, that it’s not just the crazy people, those who betray the fiducial interests of the mission, who are the problem. It’s also those who acquiesce.

When Ahab announces his insane mission, “And this is what ye have shipped for men …”, the harpooners all shout out “Aye, aye!” Starbuck alone resists, saying he’s there to do business, not vengeance, to make money, not mad revenge. Starbuck wants to focus on this normal business of capitalism, rather than waging war on the ontological, attempting to “strike through the mask!” of visible things through to the “inscrutable malice,” the “inscrutable thing” behind reality. Starbuck resists, but only for a second, and then he falls silent. He cannot separate himself from this, cannot opt out. In his silence, Starbuck acquiesces. “Aye, aye!,” Ahab says, “thy silence, then, that voices thee.”

We, the readers, in the same way, slip past the limit we are supposed to be aware of. If we are not reading, the narrator says, we have, in that, tacitly accepted the situation, and are involved. And if we are reading, well, look at the light we’re reading by: its oil we’re burning, oil that can only be got with this system, that always requires blood.

The metafictional moment acts as an ethical trap, and, more than 200 pages into the text, it’s sprung, a surprise, and we’re caught.

It’s a surprise, I think, because we think of reading as safe. Library posters and summer reading programs teach us that.

There is even a strain of thought that understands reading to be a kind of act of ethical resistance, as a way to ethically opt out, ala Slovoj Žižek’s promotion of politics of Bartleby, with Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener’s radical repeated refusal to participate. Reading, the idea is, is an act of passivity that exempts you from the hubbub of capitalism, the structural violence of our modern world. Reading is a moment wherein one is not a part of the machine. Reading, where one is so intensely turned inward, is a place where one is not acquiescing, by act of mere modern existence, to the system.

It’s a tempting thought precisely because reading feels so safe. It has, at least for me, been an existential refuge. As we become increasingly aware that our lives are entangled in structures and systems we didn’t choose, structures of race and class and economics, structures of global power, of ideologies invisible to us, of what the old Calvinists called sin and sin nature and our fallen state, and are always entangled in ways which can be to our benefit but also our damnation, of course we have wanted to find a safe place. And reading feels like a safe place. When I, by contrast, am standing in a grocery store, looking at the kinds of coffee on sale, I am caught up in the colonialism that made this possible, the environmental problems that this entails, the Cold War politics and third world policies of US, and the choice I have is not whether to participate or not, but how. When I interact with other races or don’t interact with other races, when I interact with other genders or don’t interact with other genders, when I step out my door with an American passport in my pocket, an American passport with its patriotically-themed pages printed in pale blue, I’m all ready involved. I don’t get to choose in the way I think I want to choose. In the way I was taught that ethical action is a kind of choosing. I’m just stuck with the responsibility and the question of how. Against this, though, reading has felt like it was safe.

Then Melville says: This costs blood.

There are a number of problems, of course, with conceiving of reading as an act where one isn’t ethically involved. As “ethical resistance.” What does that even mean? Another, the big one, for me, is that it is always this move of self-exemption that enables unethical behavior. We always, always, always find ways of making other people the bad people, and ourselves safe from moral responsibility. We disown our own responsibility and culpability with never-ending displacements that would rival a nursery rhyme, the cow takes the dog, the dog takes the cat, the cat a rat, the rat the cheese, and no one just stands alone with it. The search for the guilty party is always the search for other people. It’s displacement. Trying to find a way out of our ethical problems seems to always involve saying we never had them, they weren’t ours, we resisted, and this exactly repeats the structure of the problem. Actual ethical moments, it seems to me, can only come as this kind of shock that collapses the distance we place between ourselves and culpability.

Melville does this in this moment of metafiction. It’s one of the brilliant things metafiction can do, though it doesn’t always. The knock against metafiction is that it’s narcissistic, self absorbed, smart kids showing off. This can, in fact, be the case, but metafiction also offers us or can offer a real chance to see ourselves for what we are, to acknowledge our own responsibility.

Consider a work that is by no means a classic of the metafiction genre: Jud Süß, Oskar Roehler’s 2010 film about the 1940 Nazi film of the same name. Roehler’s film shows the original film, even integrating clips from Joseph Goebbels’ original into the story about a story. In one scene, Roehler shows Nazi soldiers watching the vicious, anti-Semitic film, zooming in on their awful, leering faces, and then he cuts, and shows the scene from the back of the theater, and we see their heads and shoulders as silhouettes, watching the movie. We see them, in that moment, in the same way we see the people in front of us, and the shot collapses the distance we might normally place between ourselves and those evil other people. We are watching them watching, and that visual stutter serves to point to the fact that we are sitting there as they are sitting there, leering at them leering, and we are not separate and distance from them. It isn’t, I don’t think, an act of moral equivalence, but simply serves to focus us on a question: How do we distinguish ourselves? How do we separate ourselves? How is that we’re different?

There is, in metafiction, a possibility for ethical realization. Moby-Dick isn’t metafictional, by and large, but a brilliantly shaggy, multi-genre work. When it is metafictional, though, in this chapter, “The Affidavit,” it manages to surprise, and to collapse the distance we so often put between ourselves any sense of culpability.

Hey you, he says. You. You’re involved in this.

Drawing courtesy of Matt Kirsh, who is drawing a picture for every page of Moby-Dick.

Why did I – why do weget into this profession? It’s hard to remember. Maybe they want us to forget.  But how could I?  Late nights with Dostoevsky, The Tempest at the Globe, Gravity’s Rainbow pre-dawn on the Metro.  In a word, love. Or perhaps another, vocation.

A few weeks ago I was asked by a professor in the English department to participate in a roundtable with undergraduates to discuss graduate school. How to apply?  What’s it like? After discussions of the logistical details, the professor asked if any of the panelists had any last words of wisdom. Her husband, also a tenure-track professor in English, replied simply, “Don’t go.”  That is, “Don’t go – unless you must.”  This sums up my experience with the all too maddening - and now sadly disillusioning - English PhD program.

“Don’t go.”  The job market is toast. I actually took a class titled Introduction to the Profession of Letters this semester.  I think it should have been called The Way It Used to Be.  We learned about publishing books, peer reviewing, academic freedom, politicization.  Important issues, no doubt. But you can see where I’m going with this – they don’t want us to know that we aren’t going to get the glitzy job that we dreamed of getting when we signed up for this.  No – adjuncting, living year-to-year, teaching four classes a semester for peanuts – this is our real future. Had we known, would we have come?  It looks bleak.

“Dont go.”  I love literature, but to say that I still do might surprise a lot of people in my position.  This gig seems to want more than anything to suck any romantic notions out of reading.  This is a profession, after all, that requires the utmost in objectivity, discipline, and taste.  Of course however they don’t mention an aptitude for backstabbing, brown-nosing, elitism and downright mean-spiritedness, tricks of the trade for the “successful.”   I’ve seen departmental politics hault the progress of a graduate student firsthand.  It looks bleak.

“Unless you must.”  Thankfully, a silver lining.  Namely, the spirit that guided me into this program in the first place. Sure, jobs are scarce, and life in an academic department is not too dissimilar from a corporate office, and the pressure to say something “smart” so that our papers will get published and we can lord our intelligence over friends, students, and, of course, interviewers, remains.  But it will break me only if I allow it.  My spiritual food still nourishes me. I still read the books that I like, and not because I think I should like them.  I can’t leave home without something to read.  I write sentences in my head, walking to work, riding my bike.  Less than a week removed from the final gauntlet of papers, I am recovering this spirit. And with a year to go before my comprehensive exam, I have no obligation but to take in as much American lit as I can.  I promise to do so on my terms, and politics, pressure, elitism, resumes, jobs, titles, and whatever other inferiority complexes that grad school wants to provide as a requisite, can go to the devil.

Listen to Joe Weil’s album of original poetry and music, recorded with the help of Vic Ruggiero.

If James Franco’s first name had been Ben, it would take very little to convince me that he is, in fact, the 24-hour multimedia reincarnation of the original King of Enterprise and Toil, Benjamin Franklin, whose parades through Philadelphia at the dawn bell with a wheelbarrow full of already-completed paperwork resemble Franco’s continuous and uncanny stream of films, art exhibitions, grad lit classes, short stories, and appearances on soap operas.  Sam Anderson rode the wave briefly over the summer, and wrote a telling profile for New York Magazine, concluding,

Plenty of actors dabble in side projects – rock bands, horse racing, college, veganism – but none of them, and maybe no one else in the history of anything, anywhere, seems to approach extracurricular activities with the ferocity of Franco.

Except for, well, Franklin. Anderson continues,

This fall, at 32…he’ll be starting at Yale, for a Ph.D. in English, and also at the Rhode Island School of Design. After which, obviously, he will become president of the United Nations, train a flock of African gray parrots to perform free colonoscopies in the developing world, and launch himself into space in order to explain the human heart to aliens living at the pulsing core of interstellar quasars.

Anderson’s quippy exaggerations nonetheless point up the outrageous nature of Franco’s juggling act.  But it begs the appropriate question: is this seeming jack of all artistic trades still a master of none?  Anderson smartly points out the lack of virtuosity in much of Franco’s work, particularly his fiction. He doesn’t, however, attribute it to being thinly spread, but to a more organic transitional period that besets every artist’s life. Ultimately, “He’s an excellent writer, for an actor. He’s brilliant, for a heartthrob. But he has yet to produce art that’s good enough to break the huge gravitational pull of his fame and fly off on its own merits.” Regardless of the quality of his work, his unabashedly zealous desire to work inspires me.  Would that we could all be so tireless.

While many, including Anderson, may consider Franco’s entire professional life (this might be redundant—he doesn’t seem to have any other kind of life) to be a piece of performance art, I want to talk about two actual such pieces.  In Franco’s fashion, two films—Howl and 127 Hours—are currently playing that have cast him as the lead, and each has the potential to establish Franco among the upper echelon of screen actors.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s take on the inception, production, and delivery of Allen Ginsberg’s euphoric masterpiece exists across a series of evenly paced set pieces.  The film begins as a seemingly reticent Ginsberg stands before an eager crowd at the now legendary Gallery Six in San Francisco, preparing to read for the first time those famous and often parodied opening lines. We return to this scene periodically as the entirety of the poem is eventually read across the film.  The rest of it alternates between the obscenity trial (with a Hamm-like performance from Jon Hamm and well placed cameos from Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels), which ultimately serves an interpretive function, an interview with Ginsberg circa 1957 in which we glean most of our biographical information, flashbacks to his life pre-”Howl,” and an hallucinogenic rendering of the poem itself from animator Eric Drooker.  This is by far the biggest risk of the film, but I don’t agree with the Times‘ A.O. Scott that it was “nearly disastrous, the one serious misstep in a film that otherwise does nearly everything right.”

I’m going to disagree with not only the first part of that claim, but also the latter part.  There is one grating thing that, for me, Howl misses. The film does well to emphasize that much of Ginsberg’s poetic energy sprung from his (questionably) unrequited love for Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.  But each of these figures is presented as a stiff, Don Draper type, rather than as the real madmen that they were.  For a movement so devoted to the lovely power of the human voice, these characters have a combined total of—get this—zero lines.  Not only does this serve to render Ginsberg’s love unrealistic, it does a disservice to the Beat generation and what it stood for. Both Kerouac and Cassady come off as leering fraternity brothers, in a malicious way. The real Beats were assholes—just not that kind of asshole. Ginsberg himself claims in the interview portion (granted, the entirety of the dialogue is drawn from historical record, but this was still a directorial choice), “There is no Beat Generation. It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get published.” I don’t think anyone, including Ginsberg, believed that in 1957. Regardless, Franco’s performance across these set pieces is every bit as “impressive [and] beguilingly sensitive” as Ann Hornaday claims in her Washington Post review.  The film is worth seeing for that alone.  What is more, with the sudden recuperation of the perpetually “in production” adaptation of On the Road, we may see a great Beat Generation film sooner rather than later.

*                                  *                                  *

Whatever hype I had encountered about 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire, spoke to the climax, what David Denby of The New Yorker has dubbed “The Scene,” namely the re-creation of Aron Ralston’s brutal extrication from a dire encounter with a rock.  If you’re like me, then perhaps the most excruciating element of this experience is the anticipation.  When is he going to get trapped?  Is now the time when he will begin cutting?  Are these screams going to be even more blood-curdling when he hits the nerve? But Danny Boyle spends this time of nervous anticipation artfully juxtaposing crowds and solitude, noise and silence in a way that prepares the stage for Ralston’s spiritual crisis (in all, Boyle stylistically airs it out on a premise that could have come off as, well, boring). Regardless, you will throughout the film sit with your hands (for which you are suddenly very grateful) at the ready to cover your eyes, pull at your hair, or just wring for minutes at a time.

Generically, 127 Hours can be compared to Sean Penn’s adaptation of Into the Wild, but while Emile Hirsch’s Chris McCandless treks to Alaska out of a rejection of society (not to mention everyone who loves him), Franco’s Ralston is passionate about the wilderness.  He’s not escaping; Canyonlands is his “home away from home.”  But his love and positive enthusiasm (when his co-worker tells him to have a good one, he replies, “Always do.”) are put to the ultimate test over five days, as his ordeal transforms from a race against time to free himself from the rock without dying of thirst into a spiritual journey through his conscience, memories, and hopes for the future.  He “has nailed himself to his own special cross” (Denby), eventually realizing that “this rock has been waiting for me for thousands of years.”  This is Ralston’s Trial, and it is ultimately a parable about embracing life.

The beauty of Franco’s performance resides in his preservation of Ralston’s quirkiness amid desperation.  This story is so powerful because we know that this is a regular guy who has done something extraordinary.  But Franco and Boyle were brilliant not to locate the human universality of the story in the unfathomable circumstances but in Ralston’s personal experience.  Faced with death, he repents, remembers times of love, and laments unrealized future ones, all via nicely placed flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinations.  But the nuance here is important—Ralston’s not a bad guy.  He loves his parents, misses his ex-girlfriend (whom he apparently did slight), and laments his vainglorious subconscious wish not to have anyone know where he is.  His life wasn’t in shambles, hence his happy-go-lucky attitude that pervades the first part of the film.

His transformation, however, is no less remarkable.  His family knows he loves them, so he doesn’t need to ask forgiveness for wrongdoing; rather, he, and we all can identify with this, apologizes into his camcorder (which, for much of his ordeal, serves as a Bakhtinian superaddressee, a God-figure) “for not acknowledging you in my heart as much as I could.”  This was powerful, and had me weeping, childlike.  The acknowledgement of a higher power becomes more palpable the deeper into crisis he becomes. As he agonizes, his bellows of “Please!”—to the rock, to the camcorder, to God—resonate with our similar moments of angst.  But his utterances after he gains freedom (which, thankfully, only took about five minutes, contrary to rumor) are most revealing.  Standing there, suddenly unbound, bleeding, he almost immediately mutters, “Thank you.”  He says nothing as he staggers his way out of the cave and—incredibly—rappels down a canyon wall.  Soon after, he sees, murkily, a group of hikers, and, desperately, but at this point triumphantly, begins screaming for help.  Of course, he needs medical assistance. But in this moment he is also affirming that he needs help in the same way that we all need help.  The subsequent dénouement is exuberant, an exaltation over the letting go of material life—our literal attachments to our bodies—for the sake of a new, spiritual life. Which, for Ralston, is as enthusiastic as the one he already led, only with added consciousness.  One comes away from 127 Hours not necessarily thankful for being spared a similar ordeal, but jealous of Ralston’s trial and awakening.  But true to the humanness of this story, it reminds us that every day we are faced with the possibility of death, and should act and think accordingly.

I could say a lot more about this film, especially about Boyle’s work, but I will stay on task about Franco.  Truth be told, I wrote the first half of this article before I saw 127 Hours, and a large part of me wants to take back that jack-of-all-trades bit.  What if Franco wins an Oscar for this performance?  Will he continue with his Alexandrian feats of intellectual conquest?  Or will he focus on fulfilling his vast potential as an actor?  Regardless, I propose Franco begin his speech as follows, in keeping with the mysterious and ironic fashion of his persona: “I’ll make this brief – I’ve got somewhere to be.”

“Content dictates form.” “Less is more.” “God is in the details.”  These three statements sum up Stephen Sondheim’s artistic credo according to Finishing the Hat, whose title seems to establish a quizzical connection between writing lyrics and millinery. The first two criteria are the standard guidelines for modernist architecture of the twentieth century, so maybe the millinery metaphor is encapsulated in the third. Still, reading this book, I have trouble understanding Sondheim as the musical equivalent to either Mies van der Rohe or Elsa Schiaparelli. Perhaps it will all eventually become clear. Of two scheduled volumes dealing with his work in musical theater, this is the first, tracking his career from an early piece titled Saturday Night (1954) up to Merrily We Roll Along (1981). Highlights include Bernstein’s West Side Story, for which Sondheim supplied the lyrics only, as well as his best-known musicals (Gypsy, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd), which feature both his lyrics and his own musical score. We’re not given the complete book for each of the musicals, only their lyrics, prefaced by a summary of the dramatic context, and a brief narrative recounting the circumstances that led to the creation of the work under discussion. Sondheim has written a preface for the volume, plus a brief essay on rhyming as it is used for song-writing; and he makes dozens of insertions in the body of the text, commenting on the success or failure of particular songs.

He also adds a series of reflections on other lyricists of musical theater, restricting himself, however, to those no longer living. It’s a prudent choice, given that Sondheim isn’t a man to cloud the expression of his judgments with considerations like politeness or collegial complicity. Were his rivals still alive, they might want to take out a contract on him. Solely on the basis of the irony and satire characteristic of his musicals, you could have guessed that he wouldn’t fall all over himself to be kind. But the fact is he’s just as hard on himself, knocking single lines or entire songs of his own if they’ve come to seem pretentious or gawky to him.  A reviewer would have to work hard to give a worse account of Sondheim’s lyrics than their author does. By the same token, we wouldn’t expect any scholar of musical theater to make as many unflattering comments about it as you’ll find in Sondheim’s text.  In an era when “going negative” about any person, place, animal, or inanimate object is regarded as a career no-no, Sondheim’s approach strikes me as fresh and honest, a tactic well worth adopting.  It’s the tone of twentieth century New York, witty, sardonic, deflationary, and only seldom cornered into praising anything that actually exists.

The opening sentences of Sondheim’s preface establishes that he doesn’t consider himself a poet in the usual sense:

This book is a contradiction in terms. Theater lyrics are not written to be read but to be sung, and to be sung as parts of a larger structure: musical comedy, musical play, revue—“musical” will suffice. Furthermore, almost all of the lyrics in these pages were written not just to be sung but to be sung in particular musicals by individual characters in specific situations. A printed collection of them, bereft of their dramatic circumstances and the music which gives them life, is a dubious proposition. Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems. Poems are written to be read, silently or aloud, not sung. Some lyrics, awash with florid imagery, present themselves as poetry, but music only underscores (yes) the self-consciousness of the effort. In theatrical fact, it is usually the plainer and flatter lyric that soars poetically when infused with music.

Sondheim’s insistence that his lyrics don’t have enormous interest or point separated from the dramatic context for which he wrote them is fair. On the other hand, how useful are the plot summaries and descriptions of the individual scenes provided in this volume?  The problem with this format is that dramatic plot and its sequence of scenes come to effective life only when performed. The summaries offered are tedious to read and don’t do a lot to animate the lyrics they attempt to contextualize.  That part of the audience already familiar with Sondheim’s musicals won’t need the summaries, of course, and it’s safe to say that the most enthusiastic readers of this book will be his existing fans (myself included), who will welcome the chance to linger over lyrics they’ve heard but not memorized. Precisely because of Sondheim’s preference for song-writing that is rooted in character, and a literary practice that prefers flatness and plainness to what is “poetic,” I doubt this collection by itself will win new converts.  To appreciate Sondheim the lyricist, you have to see (and hear) the musicals themselves, and you can begin get your feet wet by searching for him on YouTube.

Sondheim’s mind is more ad hoc and emotional than analytical and scholarly.  He doesn’t discuss the difference between meter in music and meter in poetry.  He doesn’t tell us that English-language poems after Chaucer were traditionally written in accentual-syllabic meter, whereas song lyrics manage with accentual meter alone, not restricting themselves to a regular syllable count.  How so? Well, because the note value in a given bar of music can divide itself into smaller units to accommodate extra syllables while maintaining the governing beat.  To add or subtract syllables in a metrical line of poetry, however, risks derailing the meter. It’s true that many hymns and songs are quite strictly accentual-syllabic, but popular song usually loosens the syllable count; and lyrics for musicals go still further in that direction.

Making his distinction between poems and lyrics, Sondheim oversimplifies the more general question of the relationship between words and music. A full discussion would require, first, some reflections on the fact that all classical Greek lyrics were sung to musical accompaniment (it’s the Greek lyre that gives us the word “lyric”), as well as Anglo-Saxon poems like Deor and Beowulf. If Sappho’s poems were sung, that should be sufficient refutation of the claim that musical lyrics can’t have all the qualities we expect in poems as such. There are also the wonderful sung poems in Shakespeare’s plays, such as “Fear no more the heat o’the sun” and “Full fathom five thy father lies,” not to mention a number of subtle lyrics in Dryden’s dramatic works.  Bach’s Passions are interspersed with poetic arias of some verbal complexity; and if the King James Bible qualifies as poetry, then Handel’s arias and choruses in Messiah amount to great poetry set to music.  A few opera librettists composed arias worth reading without musical accompaniment: Lorenzo da Ponte (The Marriage of Figaro), Arrigo Boïto (Otello and Falstaff), and Hugo von Hoffmanstal (Der Rosenkavalier).  Even Sondheim acknowledges the high quality of the arias in Auden’s and Kallman’s The Rake’s Progress. He also has unqualified praise for the lyrics Richard Wilbur wrote for Candide, and in fact Wilbur has collected some of those in his books.  (Digression: why have producers of new Broadway musicals mounted since Candide never again asked a professional poet to provide lyrics for them?)

The problem intensifies when we stop to consider that many poets, Auden among them, have used the title “Song” for some of their poems, even though no tune is provided.  What does it mean to call a poem without musical scoring a “song”?  Short answer: a “song” without musical accompaniment is a poem whose sound qualities hold more interest than the poem’s paraphrasable content.  I don’t know of any poem designated as a “song,” that is composed without meter and rhyme. For that matter, about 99% of all pop music rhymes, the rhyming skillful in varying degrees, with country music lyrics generally the best.  Meanwhile, Sondheim insists that lyrics in musical theater must rhyme, and that the rhymes must be perfect rhymes, not near or slant equivalents.  He doesn’t provide a justification of this requirement, and we assume the stricture is based on nothing more or less substantial than audience expectations and the conventions of the musical genre.  Somehow Sondheim’s not bothered by the contradiction between his insistence that, on one hand, lyrics must reflect the linguistic earmarks of the character singing them and, on the other, the fact that no one speaks in rhyme.  If you aren’t bothered by the non-naturalistic aspect of rhymes in solos, dialogue, and choruses, it’s odd to become incensed as Sondheim does when a character’s lyrics use long words and elaborate metaphors, features that he dismisses as falsely “poetic” and unsuitable for the actual dramatis personae of the work.

The truth is, rhyming belongs to the “entertainment” component in musical theater.  Rhymes entertain even when they don’t perform an important semantic or structural function.  They take us back to the childhood world of “Hickory, dickory dock” and “Row, row, row your boat,” of  “Jabberwocky” and Dr. Seuss.  Let’s acknowledge it in so many words: we like musical theater because it’s entertaining, not because it is profound. Sondheim comes close to saying as much when he comments that Othello is a richer play than Verdi’s Otello and that Shaw’s Pygmalion has more real content than My Fair Lady.  If richness and profundity are your primary goal, then you don’t devote your talents to musicals.  They have their moments of sadness and disappointment, but there is no tragic musical.  All right, but do musical comedies at least have some serious content? As with most artistic phenomena, it’s a question of degree.  Sondheim refers to theater historians who single out Showboat and Oklahoma! as first efforts to move the lightweight, unambitious form of musical theater current in the 1920s and 1930s toward an art with more content, one that could present and fill out characters of complexity and depth. He inscribes himself in this movement and insists that it is the source of his own practice, which should be understood as more serious than what the general run of authors of musicals offer. We can acknowledge the favorable comparison, but that doesn’t establish a magisterial degree of seriousness.  Sondheim is the greatest living auteur in musical theater, and his works certainly have more content than the bits of fluff that kept Broadway box offices busy in 1925. But they don’t have the complexity and depth that we discover in the best of his contemporaries who write for legitimate theater. That isn’t to say that his work is valueless.  No one wants to live seven days a week in the mode of the sublime or of tragic grandeur.  Popular art forms give us a break from tedium and spiritual pinnacles both, and why not?  We need them, but we should know what it is we need, and why.

To get some perspective, I’d like to extend this discussion and comment on the extremely high value that British critic Christopher Ricks assigns to Bob Dylan, whom he has named “the greatest living American poet.”  It’s a ranking that probably influenced the decision of the Norton Anthology of English Poetry’s editors to include Dylan’s lyrics (without musical scoring) in the fifth edition. This was a misguided choice. When we hear Dylan sing the lyrics he writes in his own sui generis voice, with the musical accompaniment he has worked out for them, our attention is fully engaged, and we may also feel that he is saying something important above and beyond the sonic appeal of the song.  But in print the lyrics don’t function as actual poems do, in fact, they often verge on a silliness hard to swallow when combined with Dylan’s default mode of condescension.  When we read them, we can’t avoid asking ourselves what the-devil they really mean, and the answer, my friend, isn’t blowin’ in the wind.   A gold chain is a fairly boring object when not adorning someone’s neck, and the same goes for pop lyrics outside their musical context.

The music theater rival that Sondheim dislikes the most is Noël Coward, whose lyrics he describes as too clever and brittle to inspire confidence and empathy. But what’s the point of applying standards belonging to late 20th-century America to works conceived for the British public of the 1920s and ’30s.  To appreciate works of art from earlier eras always requires a little archeological spadework. No one could enjoy a play by Racine or an opera by Wagner without a lot of preliminary study.  It’s precisely Coward’s overplus of wit and verbal acrobatics that makes his lyrics fun to read on the page, even though they might be distracting or hard to follow word by word when sung.  Coward was forthright enough to say he had “only a talent to amuse,” as though that talent were nothing at all.  Like one of his models, W.S. Gilbert, (whom Sondheim also dislikes intensely), Coward had considerable skill with meter and rhyme, and that’s another reason his lyrics are interesting when we encounter them through print alone.  Though I’m happy to be in the audience of Sondheim’s musicals, only a few of his lyrics repay a cold examination on the page: “I’m Still Here” (from Follies), “Send in the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music), some of the choruses from The Frogs, and the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” from that work.  These engage us partly because Sondheim sometimes overcomes his resistance to being verbally clever and deploys a Cowardesque wit in the development of the lyrics. As for the other lyrics, though rather drab when shorn of musical accompaniment, they are effective in their dramatic setting, and none ever falls completely flat. They don’t succeed as poems, as Sondheim’s preface states; instead, they have a different ambition and use.

I’ve gone farther than the second mile in the negative direction, but I want to conclude by saying that I found this book compulsive reading.  Sondheim’s commentary on musical theater, as practiced by others and himself, is riveting and often has a relevance that extends to legitimate theater as well.  The narratives of the origin of his concepts for particular works are fascinating, along with the anecdotes he tells about developing them with his collaborators, a roster that includes the most celebrated talents in the musical theater of his time. His discussion of rival lyricists, though unforgiving, even so marks out a very clear artistic profile for each figure, altering in small ways or large our sense of their accomplishment.  The strangest omission in the book is a discussion of his role as composer.  We admire Sondheim not only for his theatrical ideas and his lyrics but also for the music, which is anything but routine or inept.  (He studied composition with Milton Babbit, and is familiar with musical classics of the past two centuries, as well as film scores by the likes of Korngold and Steiner. In fact, one of my favorite film scores is the one he wrote for Stavisky.)  Why doesn’t he discuss the compositional process in its relationship to theater?  How did his work as a lyricist change once he began composing scores for his musicals, and not just the words?  Sondheim never goes into these topics, but that means that he has room to do so in the second volume, which I will certainly want to read if it’s as informative as this one.  He may by then have mustered the courage, too, to weigh in on his living contemporaries, a critique that couldn’t fail to be gripping.  The chance to speak freely about, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s works or Les Misérables would be well worth the price of hiring a bodyguard from Pinkerton and wearing a bullet-proof vest.  Assassination attempts would soon peter out, and Sondheim would be left center stage under a pink spot singing the now-classic standard from Follies, the wisecracking, subacid “I’m Still Here,” which begins, “Good times and bum times,/ I’ve seen them all, and, my dear,/ I’m still here.”

There’s been a bit of back and forth about questions of translatability (here and here), and I thought it was worth some observations.

I have mentioned this before on the blog, but for those who do not know, I teach upper level ESL to students who plan on entering graduate school in North America. It’s basically a college writing class, but the ESL aspect creates interesting dilemmas for me as a teacher. For example, I’m consistently torn between allowing students the comfort of pulling out their electronic dictionaries and forcing them to live in the uncomfortable space between languages. If I allow dictionaries, I will essentially handicap (or allowing them to handicap) their future English skills. They will forever be tying English words to words or phrases in their native language. As a result, they will never be fully fluent in English (at least not in the same way as a native speaker is fluent–which is often what most of my students desire). If, however, I force them to use context, word roots, and experience to understand words, eventually they will understand English words in an English sense. Perhaps an end-run around this dilemma is letting them use an English dictionary, forcing them to associate English definitions with English words. Unfortunately, students often come upon words in the English definition that they don’t understand, so we’re back at the same dilemma again. Spare the rod, spoil the child, anybody?

Typically, by the time students get to a level or two below my class, electronic dictionaries are forbidden in the classroom. It’s much harder, though, to break them of the habit of composing whole sentences in their own language and translating them, an attempt which is doomed from the start. I get lots of grumble and pout when I tell them to start thinking about their papers in English. I feel a bit like a parent coaxing their child to stand up to a bully. And in many ways, a new language is a bully. I always tell my students that learning a new language is not really learning a new way to communicate, but a new way to think. When working in English, you have to know how to work within or manipulate the categories and expectations of English–something we native speakers do without realizing.

Which brings me back to the blog posts I mentioned in the beginning. As Geoffrey K. Pullum points out at Language Log, “untranslatable” doesn’t really mean there is no translation, it just means there is no one-word equivalent in English. This is the difficulty with translating poetry and why it is often such a fruitful angle to approach questions of poetics. What makes the poetics of a particular work tick? By poetics, I don’t just mean poetry, I mean all art forms (I tend to think of “poetics” as an arch-art form). Dziga Vertov, for example, thought that film was a new international language, a sort of visual esperanto. In his avant-garde film, Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov boldly declares in the first title cards:

The film Man with a Movie Camera represents
Of visual phenomena
(a film without intertitles)
(a film without script)
(a film without actors, without sets, etc.)
This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.

Vertov’s ambition is palpable in the film. Each cut is gravid with meaning. Not only would film be the first international language, it would be the language of the revolution (according to Eisenstein). Many of us still think that film is an international language. In many ways, it is true. It certainly speaks across many cultures, but as McLuhan points out in Gutenberg Galaxy, film is the product of a literary mind. The conventions of film (at least as Vertov sees them) are the conventions of visual print culture. That is, we read films much in the same way we read books.

McLuhan describes the experience of aid workers (in the 1960s, I believe) showing hygiene films to people from what McLuhan identifies as aural-tactile culture (that is, lacking the thought structures that are inherited from print culture). It’s a bit too long to quote here (to read the whole section, click here), but the basic gist is this:

“Literacy gives people the power to focus a little way in front of the image so that we are able to take in the picture in a whole glance. Non-literate people have no such acquired habit and do not look at objects in our way.”

Later McLuhan quotes John Wilson:

“Film is, as produced in the West, a highly conventionalized piece of symbolism although it looks very real. For instance, we found that if you were telling a story about two men to an African audience and one had finished his business and he went off the edge of the screen, the audience wanted to know what had happened to him; they didn’t accept that this was just the end of him and that he was of no more interest in the story. They wanted to know what happened to the fellow, and we had to write stories that way, putting in a lot of information that wasn’t necessary to us. We had to follow him along the street until he took a natural turn–he mustn’t walk off the side of the screen, but must walk down the street and make a natural turn….Panning shots were very confusing because the audience didn’t realize what was happening. They thought the items and details inside the picture were literally moving….the convention was not accepted.”

The point of sharing all this (aside from the point that it’s generally fascinating) is to show that even images, which we often consider somewhat universal, often require certain conventions of thought. So even there, the poetics of an art form are mitigated by “translation,” which, quite literally, must translate it from one form of thought to another.

I do believe fruitful translation can and does happen, but we must be aware of the “extra layer(s)” of intent that exists over top a piece. I want to focus more on what we as poets (and poeticists) can learn from and through translation when I review the new translations of Horace’s Odes (edited by J.D. McClatchy), so the rest of this discussion will be postponed until then.

A Review of The Salt Ecstasies by James L. White

What does he write of? The poet searches into his own lonely darkness and parses the secrets buried within it. He gets down, fat and breathless in his small turning, puts his body down in a stale bed, leans into this isolation, closes his eyes and dreams your body there, next to his, and relishes the event of your mutual rest, the transient physicality of your mutual interest, your deliciously losable connections, the time he was with you: he is making you again, not wholly but religiously, snacking on such remembrances, scooping up the fragments of you lingering in the lacunas of your being gone. He builds a reclusive paradise next to the bittersweet ways you have slipped away from him, from life, the way death’s stern promise folds you up in an incomplete absence, and there and thus he almost saves you, unsatisfactorily but earnestly; he mingles his melancholia with your traces, and eats that imaginary paradigm like a meal taken directly after a meal, without guilt (or with a pleasure in guilt), with the indulgence of a body alone to rule his own kingdom of shadows of you. The poet writes through the way of his life, “the ordinary composure of loving, loneliness, and death.” You are not invisible, not totally irretrievable, you are “buried in so many places,” halfway waiting in the unrecognized seduction of the liminal world between the back of the nightstand and its shadow on the wall. His is a poetics of longing, the profundity of desire, and this construction, this tragicomic funhouse populated by what’s indelibly left of the disappeared, is a sorry confirmation that neither you nor he will be, finally, saved. “I’d trade these words on the spot / to see you again.” If this ritual is not really seeing, what then? what does he write of? what is happening?

Maybe the archetypal James L. White poem is a memory of intimacy, the hard-won, precarious sort known by a culture of outsiders, which is uniquely coded, uniquely sentenced to expire, yet still so desired, still utterly precious, if not in its instance than in the recovery of it when the bed is let back to a single body. To capture such intimacy, that which was tinged with unreality and doom even as it happened, is to embrace its fictive capability, to invoke the fantasy of a fantasy, to find the supernatural weight the other’s presence gifted the room, the poem moving around it “the way ships move heavily between moon and sun, not lost / but like a well-piloted dream.” Then, for the real bruise of resonance, to try and carve into the fiction and pull out the emotional injury locked in its marrow. “I pant hard over this poem / wanting to write your body again.” Sometimes this seems like enough, like the verse is really discovering at something that means, but the disappointment of this practice, the masturbatory futility, can also shut down the pleasure and significance of it: “I want more.” In these poems where White performs, reruns, his lovers and friends out of their departure and back into his bed, to a seat next to him at his table, to his touch, sometimes he takes it so far that he breaks the poem, which he candidly acknowledges: “I just have to stop here Jess. / I just have to stop.” Exposition has its limits. In the clutter of angst, though, these poems will suddenly stab directly at something so nakedly honest, it’s impossible to disbelieve White hasn’t reanimated something displaced by circumstance. Through the tenuous panting across the empty space, he captures how it feels to be in love, lines himself inside the feeling. This is how “Skin Movers” concludes:

In this joyous season I know my heart won’t die
as you and the milk pods open their centers
like a first snow in its perfection of light.

Good love is like this.
Even the smell of baked bread won’t make it better,
this being out of myself for a while.

James L. White died before I was born. In an autobiographical fragment, he describes himself thus: “I was a half-rate ballet corps dancer, a soldier, a poet of some small merit, and wanderer of the earth, and a self-hater.” He has never found a position in the canon of gay American poets, most everything besides his final, posthumously published, work The Salt Ecstasies is seemingly totally dismissed, but the importance of his writing is not so rarefied that it has gone completely unacknowledged. He is simply relegated to the quiet niche of the outsider artist, the wonderful secret, poet’s poet or whatever, where this book has somewhat languished, though now brought back to a kind of prominence with its inclusion in the Graywolf Poetry Re/View series, which aims to guide “essential books of contemporary American poetry back into the light of print” under the direction of series editor Mark Doty, who handled the reissue this year (which includes a modest sample of previously uncollected material) and also wrote a marvelous introduction.

For me, the closest points of reference, in considering this book, are Leland Hickman and John Rechy. The similarly obscure, though denser, Hickman wrote poems with thematic overlaps; Rechy, of course, conjures a twilit world populated by lonesome, maladjusted denizens lurching around each other’s bodies under what White called the “tit-pink” neon of a bygone age of lurid cruising. As Mark Doty notes, “memory supplies context for this desire, and lust leads to the memory that wounds.” For anybody, especially a queer body, who read any of these three writers’ work around the time of their publications–one gets the sense he felt exposed to a new kind of writing, a display, an accomplishment, hitherto uncharted: the liberation of a gay male psychology across the page. Writes Doty (re: White), “In 1982, I’d never read a poem like this […] The diction of sex is fraught with peril.” But Doty also describes how a much younger poet once received The Salt Ecstasies: “He hated the book. He objected to the speaker’s seemingly intractable loneliness, to his night-realm of bars and baths and bus station […] He hated the shame that informed the book; White’s poems did not affirm him; they did not offer hope.” That perspective is understandable as it is unfortunate. White’s poems are mired in a period, but not stiffly so: they breathe, they surf along the pulse of memory and desire; while they cannot speak to today’s reader in exactly the same manner as a contemporary of Mr. Doty’s, they speak yet, complicatedly, and settle down into your spine all the same. The political climate has changed (maybe less significantly than we would like to think) and yet the base themes threaded through the verse of this collection, so lovingly stitched, trigger our guts and intelligences despite an anachronistic hopelessness (if White’s poems can even be said to articulate a profound lack of hope instead of, say, a lens of opulent solitude). Doty’s greatest insight, in his introduction, offers us a mature way to read the haunting quality of these poems: “further and further from the closet, we come to an increasingly complex understanding of the power and failure of desire, the ways that liberation isn’t a cure for loneliness or soul-ache or despair. Not that we’d trade this hard-won freedom for anything; it’s simply that we’re as free to be as sexually confused, as bowled over by longing, as uncertain as anyone else is.” We are free to believe that the answer to What does he write of? is you.

To carve a face in wood you must practice. And practice and practice. You must practice eyes, especially, and mouths and noses, though you cannot think of them that way. Think only of the wood and the edge of the knife and of shapes. You must break the face into pieces, in how you think of it, and think not of faces but of pieces and parts, 0f shapes and lines. Practice triangles with your knife. Practice triangles with your gouge. Practice circles and ovals, oblongs and uneven polygons, rectangles and slightly-off squares.

Cut triangles with the tip of your knife for eyes, pairs of triangles on each side of each eye. Connect them with thin, arching lines, cutting a curl of wood away, leaving a circle remaining, a mound, a pupil, inside.

Practice until you have a whole boards of eyes. Practice until there are a million ears clustered in irregular patterns on a totem that could be an icon of a wooden listening god. Put it somewhere where you can see it. Let it sit and look at it, all those wooden ears, all those wooden eyes, all those abstract, crescent-shaped smiles. Then sharpen your knife again. Feel the fine edge on the edge of your thumb.

I started carving when I was 14. I started writing around then too. Both were really bad. I wrote a rhyming poem about a chicken I’d owned. It was pretty much what you would think. The first thing I carved was a sheep. I imagined I would carve a nativity, a whole set, sheep and shepherds, wise men, cow, and Christ, but I didn’t understand my material, and didn’t understand my tools. In the end the sheep had three legs. There was a giant, raggedly hole where the left haunch was supposed to be. The ears and nose were about the same size, giving it the look of a three-headed, three-legged thing. I had no idea how to carve something that looked like wool. It was only a sheep if you squinted and were generous.

The poem was published. I started getting letters, semi-regular, from one of those scam poetry places. They said they could see I had talent. A fresh new voice.

No one ever lied to me about the sheep.

There was a carving club of old men in the town where I lived—retirees. They were grandfathers and WWII vets with shops with band saws and stacks of carving wood. They looked at the sheep I had and showed me how I hadn’t paid attention to the grain, hadn’t understood the wood.

First they asked me what I was using to carve. I showed them my knife, a three-bladed pocket knife I’d found in a cardboard box of tools at an estate sale from where an old man had died.

No, they said. That’s not what you want to use. They showed me knives, better knives, and which tool to use when.

I have read, since then, a lot of books and a lot of articles about how to write. I’ve listened to a lot of advice. I’ve read a lot and listened to a lot about how to carve, too.

The instruction on carving is always better.

For one thing it’s always practical. It’s technical, specific, and helpful.

Most of the advice on writing I’ve read is mostly inspirational. There’s nothing wrong with inspiration, of course, but it doesn’t help a rhyming chicken poem. Most of it ends up being premised, too, on the idea that I am an artist, and we are artists, and special, and spiritual, and its romantic mumbo-jumbo, mostly, that doesn’t tell you how to get better. It doesn’t tell you how to write better, how to write a better line. It works only to preserve your view of yourself.

Most of the rest of was truisms, clichés, and crap.

Woodcarvers, by comparison, never told me to carve what I know. They never said, everyone has a great carving in them. Instead, they said, keep at it. Keep working. Try this. Try again. See how this tool can be used to do this job?

They told me how to get better.

They didn’t think of themselves as artists, the old men. They didn’t encourage me to think of myself that way either, didn’t assume I could just reach into myself, magically or mystically, and come out with a great work. Carving was a craft, to them, something you did because you wanted to do it, because you got joy from doing it and doing it well. It was something you worked at. Something you learned how to do by doing, and doing it, got better. They didn’t assume there was a secret, 10 tricks to learn to become successful. They assumed it was work. They assumed it would take practice.

I took some classes, from some of them. In a class the teacher carves something simple. Then you copy him. He makes a cut; then you make a cut. At the end you have a piece that’s almost just like his, and you know the concepts of how to carve. Then you go practice that, and try to do something better. I’ve never heard of a writing class where you learn to write that way.

With carving, there were workshops, too. In the workshops, you sat there and carved, then someone with more experience would say, “try it this way.” They’d show you what they were working on, and how they did it. If you cut yourself, they’d show you how to stop the cut with superglue. They’d suggest that next time you try something harder than what you did before.

They’d encourage you to keep working. Practicing. No one ever acted like they thought they were a genius, or like what they were doing was too amazing to be understood or appreciated. It was a craft, and we were all very practical.

They’d say, “what kind of wood is that you’re working with?” They’d say, “what you want with wood is something with a real consistent grain.”

They’d say, “let me show you how to sharpen a knife real good.”

Then they’d show you how to feel the fine edge with the edge of your thumb. Then you’d practice, and practice some more.

To carve a face you must know how to pick a piece of wood and how to sharpen a knife and to hold a knife. You have to know how to use it. When to be delicate. When to be bold. Carving is tools and materials and practice. You must know how the knife is going to cut and how the wood is going to be cut, how it will be before you slice. You have to know, and can only know from having done it, and done it repeatedly.

Carve until your hand hurts from holding the knife. Pile up chips in your lap. Pile up chips around your feet until the feathery frays of white wood stick to your socks and get into your shoes. Put a chip in your mouth and taste it. Taste the grain with your tongue. Stretch your hand and massage between the muscles until it feels better.

Cut an isosceles notch with the flat of the knife below what will be the nose. Cut curved lines for what will be the smile lines with the tip of your knife, pulling the blade with a paring motion, curving around, pressure from your pointer knuckle, towards your thumb. Work with the grain of the wood. Curl away from the triangle eyes, up from the eyes, length of the blade, twist of the wrist for the brows.

Put the man you’ve carved up in a window. Look at him with the light. Think about what you’ll do next time.

A week ago I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, at the Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum at the Philips Collection. She was participating in a panel discussion with Michael Dirda about her work at Johns Hopkins and the role the arts can play in shaping foreign policy. Two days later, Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize and became a permanent member of a triumvirate of South American fiction giants (along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolano). Both writers exhibit the type of friendly and meaningful dialogue proposed by the many noteworthy speakers at the Diplomacy Forum. I want to put these two figures into dialogue with each other, by speaking about Nafisi’s Reading Lolita and Vargas Llosa’s lesser-known work, The Storyteller.

My favorite line from Nafisi’s panel came from her anecdote about her arrival at Johns Hopkins. A colleague essentially said “Oh, good, we needed someone to do women’s studies and Muslim literature,” to which Nafisi responded, “Bloody hell, no! I want to study dead white men!” She elaborated, emphasizing the notion that if there is to be true dialogue, we must be able to step outside what we know and engage other forms, other cultures, with empathy.

This is the impetus of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi’s students (and Nafisi herself) deal with their plight as women in a Muslim theocracy by reading, among others, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen – curious, and at best tangentially relevant, seemingly. But this is the point. For these women, these “dead white men” take on utmost significance in their lives. Their novels illuminate the troubles of sexual abuse, notions of the American Dream, and “burden” (Bellow) of individual freedom in ways made relevant and meaningful by Nafisi’s teaching. (The classroom scenes are among the most powerful of the book, ranking along with Frank McCourt’s as some of the best of that genre I’ve read). What these figures have in common, for Nafisi, is their engagement with what she sees as the central issue of reading fiction at all:

Pity is the password, says the poet John Shade in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert and James to Nabokov and Bellow. This, I believe, is how the villain of modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy. The personalized version of good and evil usurps and individualizes the more archetypal concepts, such as courage or heroism, that shaped the epic or romance. A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost.

Nafisi’s novel is filled with accounts of brutality against women in Tehran. She depicts this lack of empathy as the root of male oppression and violence in the “Muslim World” (Nafisi herself puts this term in quotes, attacking it as reductive). Hence the need to read “at almost any cost.”  The many female characters of Reading Lolita in Tehran embody this need with a zeal that can rejuvenate our own love for good fiction.

This type of empathy, as Bakhtin would say a traveling into the other and back again into an enriched notion of one’s own selfhood, is at the heart of Llosa’s The Storyteller. It is the story of an unnamed first-person narrator’s journey to know his friend Saul Zuratas. Known affectionately as “Mascarita,” he is a red-headed Jew with a grotesque birthmark that takes up half his face. His outsidedness from Peruvian normalcy compels him to identify with the Machiguenga tribe of the jungle.

He begins by studying them academically, only to reject the field of ethnology and linguistics as unethical. The rest of the novel after this declaration is a multi-text. Interspersed with the narrator’s account of the end of his relationship with Zuratas is a series of circuitous and labyrinthine tales from Machiguenga mythology. It is clear to the reader that Zuratas himself is telling these stories. He has completely joined the tribe; much more, he has become their bard, their hablador, their storyteller. A mythical figure in his own right, he is kept hidden from the academics and documentarians who come to the jungle. Over time the narrator comes to discover Zuratas’ new life, with profound effects on his own.

The story itself is powerful, but the work is enhanced by the point Vargas Llosa makes through his narrative strategy. The narrator’s story is one of trying to know the Machiguengas through standard Western academic practices. He thinks by studying them at the university, and by filming a sensitive documentary, he is doing the tribe justice to those who would re-educate them and steal their land. But next to the Zuratas chapters – what can be called nothing other than bits of magical realism – they seem insufficient and, yes, unethical. Zuratas, an outsider, has somehow – to the narrator’s bafflement at the end of the novel – been “able to feel and live at the very heart of that culture…having penetrated its essence, reached the marrow of its history and mythology, given body to its taboos, images, ancestral desires, and terrors…being, in the most profound way possible, a rooted Machiguenga.”

For Nafisi and Vargas Llosa, this type of – to use his word – “conversion” is entirely possible. It requires, first, this Bakhtinian idea of travel outside of the self. For both these excellent thinkers, that type of travel is rooted in storytelling, in great novels.