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Michael Montlack’s new poem collection Cool Limbo, for starters, looks really cool before it’s even opened. The collection establishes a definite and intentional first impression: with its sassy cover illustrating a bygone scene (addressed in the title poem): a certain sort of girl, luxuriating in her aloofness, sunning on a deck chair near some backyard pool–face wrapped up in her shades, brow kissed by big hair, lost in her radio songs, Marlboro dangling between painted nails; in the water a curious little boy floats in the pool, buoyed by giant inflated wings, gazing at this girl in his semi-lassitude with what might be the kind of fear, envy, and worship a kid can have for an older sister. Cool Limbo traces the emotional development of an awkward boy, adrift in a suburban childhood, into a gay man and a poet who, perhaps, now bobs reflective in the deep end of memory’s swimming pool. It’s pleasing to report this exercise dodges around the narcissistic, sentimental missteps it’s easy to make with this kind of delicate work–and, rather, hits upon a poetry entirely alive with wit, charm, and an unselfconscious voice; his attention is fastidious and oft focused toward the rendering of a sturdy confessional lens through which our everyday relations are decoded. What’s most obvious about this collection is that it is fun. That’s not an insult–fun poetry isn’t quite oxymoronic, but it’s damn hard to accomplish. There is a road that runs between the borders of silliness and the overwrought, and the humor of Cool Limbo cruises down it, ever onward, like a champ. Next, it also manages to carry a ton of weight–this creeps in unobtrusively but is fully evident by the end. The book is deeply touching in its ingenuous sensitivity, enabling the poet’s heavier verse-tales, along with even some of the funkier experiments, to pry apart the functions of remembrance, shine a light in those spaces. Montlack’s work is beguilingly comprehensive in its steadfast intention present through his diverse approaches. The heart of the book is always beating; we can hear it alike behind the cartoonish, the personal, the resolute and pensive techniques (and on).

At its most superfluous, the book offers us wry musings about what would happen if Hello Kitty had a mouth (“Maybe she’s just meow. / Or maybe …”), a prayer for the Golden Girls, or an apologia for Vanity Smurf; but the lightest pieces keep the whole buoyant and, moreover, prove a tonal gamut that runs from camp all the way to the end of love. The poems are divided into two sections: “GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS” and “BOYS, BOYS, BOYS.” The girl parts are full of dedications and percipient character studies of females famous and quotidian–a gay man’s poetic exegesis of his relationship to women and femininity (what he sees in them and what he sees of himself through them).

Montlack has an aptitude for flushing out an emotional condition through hazy lyrics about place, as in “At Tamika’s”:

In the tight kitchenette, petite like her mother,
whose wide face was heavy with frown lines,
rice and beans simmered but never boiled
on the back burner 24/7–a beacon, the house’s pulse.

And perfect details, like this snippet from “Running with the She-Wolf”:

She powdered her cheeks, suburban gothic:
Fully bedecked just to smoke in her yard.
Was this a duty as the town hot chick?
Her spikey galaxy: I the co-star.

And streams of meaningful but simple anecdotes, which especially fortify the character of a twin sister, Michelle, as in “My Twin Sister the Drag Queen”:

When the neighbor’s Dobermans
snarl through the chain-link
as Kimmie hoop-sifts the garden,
my sister automatically growls back,
silencing them as she did bullies
who were dying to shout faggot
whenever she let me bead necklaces
with her and the other “gals” at recess.

All of which is tempered with a sharp critical voice that drifts in and out to ground a thought, like here in this stanza of “The Break Up”:

But still, how scary it is–to find love
now when we have only ourselves
to blame for annihilating it.

The boy parts continue to develop upon the thematic work of the first section, switching the gender concentration, which introduces a milieu of figures including Peter Berlin, adult friends (straight, dead, aging, remembered), the poet’s father, some denizens of Fire Island, old hooks-up and past boyfriends–of predominant interest is Chris, the subject of several of these poems (generally, reflections in the wake of a rough separation), including “The Break Up” itself, which is atypically joyless. The poem employs a killer angle by ambiguously addressing a recently terminated relationship between two men through an unfamiliarly wide frame of reference. The end of a contemporary love sends the lovers’ narrative hurtling through possible contexts, different social and political climates where the love could have sparked and played out. What would their lives have meant to each other during the early days of the AIDS crisis (maybe they would be “watching each other waste away / faster than civilized countries / could give our disease a name”), or during the Holocaust, or during the worst of it in a dark age that our country is newly crawling painfully and glacially out of, where their love would suffocate under its required, permanent disguise?

In this remarkably enjoyable collection, is the poet really that kid we see bobbing in the pool, staring out at the enormous world–or is it more likely that the beautiful pool is empty and he’s projecting this collage of personal history into a blue container–between the pages of a book–filling up the pool again, feeding the ever-draining cavity of what’s happened to our families, our friends, our lovers, our lives? Cool Limbo concludes with a meditation on turning 40–Montlack, for sure, isn’t as old as those who saw the most of a whole gay century–through the furtive pathologizing and criminalization between wars, the stirrings of liberation and a new movement, the social destruction and death wrought by AIDS, the reemergence of a culture in the form of a mainstream marketing demographic, and onward. Older gay writers like Larry Kramer think the youths now are disassembling the homo subculture, turning their backs on history, in favor of the conformist line of being an individual exactly like everybody else. I can see Montlack’s take on identity and sexuality managing a tricky space between the historical narrative of gay men and the ahistorical post-everything world of queer kids. The backyard pool from childhood is empty, there is no swimming allowed, the beautiful pool is empty and still the poet makes a wonderful effort to remember what he has seen best, and felt most, onto the space of today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Marco Munoz

Dear James,

Everyone here is talking about you—myself included. Most of it is the expected back-and-forth, will-he-won’t-he sort of thing, though, personally, I like to imagine you will, and that (because you are, I assume, exactly like your character on Freaks and Geeks), you’ll be slumped over in the back of Intro to Doctoral Studies carving something like “Disco Sucks” into the faux-wood desk with a penknife. We look over at each other all like “whatever” and after class we get some beers and talk about the Astros or Hart Crane or Anne Hathaway (Coming to visit? Really? That’s awesome! I guess we can all get together and go bowling or something). On the other hand, fantasies of us being best friends aside, I have what feel like legitimate fears of you stealing my girlfriend or having no one ever want to talk to me at parties. Either way, for better or worse, the idea of you coming here seems to imply that if you do everything about being here is going to change.

Why is that? I mean, you seem pretty cool and I like your movies, but you’re really just some dude like everybody else, right? Being in workshop with you isn’t going to make me famous, nor am I going to end up on Judd Apatow’s speed dial, no matter how good the on-screen chemistry between me and Seth Rogan might be… So, again, I ask, why does it feel like you are about to change everything for all of us just by showing up? And why do we all care so much if you do?

The obvious answer, James, is that you will bring each of us a little closer to a world we can’t help but feel simultaneously excluded from, enchanted by, and critical of, that is, the world of celebrity. Like you are going to show up and give each of us a membership card and some dark sunglasses and we’ll all have to start dodging paparazzo on our way to have lunch or to teach comp in a windowless room somewhere on campus. And sure, I think everybody wants this a little bit, that is, to be recognized, but at least in my mind as writers we are inclined to want this a little bit more.

Of course, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think I’m safe in saying that writing is a public endeavor, especially the writing we do here; we write for our friends and our teachers, the members of our workshop, journals and presses, and even when we write for ourselves, we often write with some public image of ourselves in mind. Perhaps more than any particular aesthetic or literary tradition, we are a generation of writers struggling with the legacy of self-mythology, of having to construct—intentionally or unintentionally—a public identity for ourselves as writers in a culture that seems largely uninterested in the construction of our identities as writers. This “tradition” goes back, to my knowledge, at least as far as Whitman, who staged photographs with cardboard butterflies, posed with children, grew a beard, dressed to fit the image of the “everyman,” the version of himself he wanted us—yes, us—to remember. And when we read Leaves of Grass we can’t help but feel like the task was to build a self so deeply into the culture surrounding it that the two became completely inseparable.

Lyn Hejinian has a great essay about this—maybe you’ve read it—called “Who Is Speaking?” In it she reminds us that, “At stake in the public life of a writer are the invention of a writing community; the invention of the writer (as writer and as person) in that community; and the invention of the meanings and meaningfulness of his or her writing.” Here, Hejinian suggests we have an awful lot of responsibility as writers to be the masters of our public selves, which is surely something that’s been on your mind recently, hasn’t it? Maybe more than anyone else I can think of, James, are you confronted with “the relentless necessity of inventing [yourself] anew as a writer every day.” We already “know” you, or at least the “you” that you’ve chosen to share with us; we cried and cringed with you in 127 Hours; we laughed with you when we watched you laugh as you watched episodes of 227 in Pineapple Express; and we made our serious face when you made your serious face at Toby Maguire in Spiderman—“Now let’s see whose behind the mask”—right?

So, to be honest, I don’t know why I’m even telling you any of this; I’m sure when you get here we can have a long conversation about post-confessional writing and the conflation of autobiography and self-mythology or J.D. Salinger and how refusing to participate in the creation of a public image can become a public image in itself. You already know, I’m sure, how we have become so aware of ourselves as potential members of this mythologizing that we are completely helpless to our participation in it. I saw you the other week on The Colbert Report, you said it yourself, we need to be skeptical of celebrity, there’s something seemingly dangerous about it; we might lose sight of ourselves, get lost, or take advantage without ever really intending to do so.

I think the real reason why we all care so much about you is not that we all want to become famous writers, but that we have all been struggling to accept that we won’t, not because we are not good enough, or that we are not deserving, just that it’s improbability is a part of our everyday lives. Even just in terms of this program, there are a ton of super-talented, brilliantly gifted writers here, but are we all going to “make it”? Will each one of us make our mark in literary history? Will any of us? How could we?

America is filling up with post-MFA-ers (I am about to become one myself), small presses, journals, blogs, and people generally convinced that their decades of diary writing qualifies them to be the next Emily Dickinson; which is to say, now, more than ever, is there an abundance of people interested in writing, no matter how (relatively) small the writing world might sometimes seem. The writing community we are responsible for inventing, and inventing ourselves within, seems to be constantly growing and in every direction imaginable.

The response to this is that we have started to accept that our ideas about “making it” will have to change. Success can no longer necessarily mean having your poems or stories in The New Yorker or getting a teaching gig at Iowa; it’s become about finding (or even inventing) a community in which your writing has meaning and is meaningful. So, maybe we’re all so interested in you coming here because we’re worried your presence will remind us of the thing we’ve been struggling with the most; our continual extinction within our abundance; our wanting to “make it”—whatever that means—and knowing we can’t, at least not in the way that we once believed we could, and that you, James Franco, already have.

And I’m not trying to accuse you of anything. It’s pretty normal to get a few MFAs and PhDs, ones that have landed a story in Esquire, poems in Lana Turner, and published a collection of stories on the same press as unknowns like Vonnegut and Hemmingway. We all want to be students forever, James; no one can blame you for that. If anything, the person most implicated in all of this is me; I am writing this hoping that you’ll actually read it, that you will send me an email saying something like, “Hey, I read your letter. Let’s get together sometime and drink beers and talk about the Astros and Hart Crane.” That one day I’m flying out to California on your private jet, book deal in the works, and everybody, and I really mean everybody, will be talking about me.

Sincerely Yours,

Eric Kocher

Carl Jung’s work on introverted and extroverted personality types based on four functions of thinking/feeling (the rational) and intuition/sensation (the irrational) has been modified by various experts in relational dynamics, most especially Meyers Briggs and its various off shoots. Some sort of personality test is now administered by businesses interested in relational dynamics and team productivity” Active listeners, North thinkers, Explorers, negotiators…all these terms used by education and corporate movements are meant to gauge the mechanisms of personality by which we see, move through, and relate to the world. It is nothing new. Shakespeare and other dramatists used the four humors in their construction of characters. Astrology links the personality types to stars, dates, location and time of birth. All these systems of gauging personality types are inexact, what we might call, if we used a machinist’s term, an “eye ball estimate.”  But, as such, they can be useful for entering constructs. Eye ball estimates are dangerous if you are doing close work, but, if you are first entering a structure (and relational dynamics are a structure) it might be a foolish waste of time not to do a quick eye ball estimate of the work at hand. Our mistakes are most egregious when we confuse a useful inaccuracy (an eye ball estimate) for a true measure, but it may be equally dangerous not to use our gut  instincts (sensations) or intuitions when approaching or apprehending a structure.  We must not think of personality types then as a determinate, but as a good eye ball estimate of how a certain type might relate to the world. To use a designation from Meyers Briggs, no two ENFP’s (Intuitive extrovert feeling Perceivers) are alike, though they share many tendencies toward, and certain affinities for how they view and relate to the world.. To wax Machinist again, they are all “specialty molds” under a certain type of mold set–modifications of a type.

For the purpose of studying a poem through the four function, we are going to add to these types, the Bentham’s dislogistic, neutral, and laudatory register of terms. We are also going to look at contemporary literature as favoring those types most often associated with intuition, or introverted sensing (which, as a function seems very much like intuition). If we considered postmodernism as a personality type, we might see its basic personality as intuitive introvert thinking perceiver (INTP) with INTJ ( Intuitive introvert thinking/judge) being a close second. INTP,  types dominate–both in science as well as post modernist literature (this makes sense given the process and system driven dynamics of both) Post structuralism might further be seen as a movement away from the intuitive introverted feeling Perceiver (the idealist introverted feeling type) and the INFJ (feeling judge) which dominated the early aesthetic periods of modernism. INFJ’s, supposedly the rarest personality type in our population, are common in my writing classes, as are INFP’s and ENFP’s. My university still values the lyrical narrative, which relies on the feeling faculty, which allows for the feeling and is not prone to postmodernist detachment, but, of the two students I had accepted into Columbia and the New School (both favoring a sort of New York school/post modernist/experimental aesthetic) both students were thinking types, INTP, and INTJ. Feeling as a rational function has been greatly reduced in post structuralist poetics, while thinking, as the filter for intuition (both extroverted and introverted) has been raised to the chief mechanism through which irrational  functions of sensation and intuition are expressed. Let’s run the registers of post modernity in relation to the feeling function:

Dislogistic:  tending towards sociopathy, dadaism, insanity, nihilism, alienation.
Neutral: tending towards the Non-conformist, free spirited, ironic, agnostic, and favoring uncertainty, unsentimental feeling toward  engagement with form and experiment.
Laudatory: Liberated, self realized, spiritual rather than religious, emotionally complex, but not dependent on the feeling faculty, and oriented toward formal innovation.

This movement towards the domination of the irrational functions existed in romanticism and the decadent/aesthetic movements, but their chief filter as to the irrational functions of intuition and sensing moved from feeling (sensibility) to thinking (realism). First feeling in an ever more complex ambiguity dominated as the chief subsidiary function. Now, thinking as system/process dynamic dominates (Post-modernity). If I had to tie this schema of relational dynamics into one broad look at literary history, I would do so as follows:

Before Modernism: Either the feeling or thinking (rational functions) dominate with sensing and intuition (the irrational functions) acting as the chief filtering mechanisms in terms through which image and metaphorical invention play out the agreed upon tropes of thought/feeling. This made for a literature in which feeling is more or less uniform, and thinking also uniform in terms of the audience and auditor: fellow feeling, fellow thinking. The co-ordinates of thought and feeling were largely “understood.” Sensation and intuition moved through images and rhetorical schemas that  expressed known tropes of feeling/thinking. Their diversity increased as the commonly agreed upon feelings and thoughts become less stable. By the time of the Romantics, the interest in the Gothic (a genre of literature in which sensation and intuition begin to dominate thought and feeling) and the break down of the agrarian life under the terms of urbanization and industrialization lead to a reversal of functions: Sensing and intuition begin to dominate (Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud) and thoughts and feelings turn towards becoming supporting mechanisms, filtering the discoveries and creations of the irrational sensing or intuitive functions into the forms of symbolist, imagist, surrealist, cubist, dadaist, objectivist, and, most recently, language poetry. In any of these schools, either feeling or thought could be the prime secondary function, but with language poetry and its objectivist forebearers, all feeling becomes suspect as a reliable filter, and thought becomes the prime secondary function for intuition and the sensation of process. In terms of intuition, the rise of the subjective, the unconscious, and the surreal. In terms of sensation, the null position of science which claims to have no eye ball estimates, no preconceived thoughts and feelings toward the sensual world, but only the scientific method by which it tests all things under the rule of deductive process. In terms of poetry Oppen called it “A rigorous test of sincerity.”

The opposition of intuition/sensation to thought/feeling

Scientists have little trouble admitting much discovery is made through intuition, but they are loathe to admit that feeling or thinking (in terms of preconceived assumptions and notions) has anything to do with the discoveries of science. Nothing that cannot be proven through scientific and controlled experiment is considered to be valid. The position on thought and feeling is a null position.All must be testable under the laws of method. This may seem the opposite of intuition, and, to a degree, it is, but its antipathy is more towards preconceived thoughts and feelings than toward the irrational function of intuition. We tend to think of science as “rational” but this is an over identification of the word rational with objective thinking which is the populist view of science (which, by the way, is not at all scientific). Intuition also shows more antipathy towards feeling/thought as prime functions than toward sensation. We might describe modernism then as a slow movement away from the dominance of thought/feeling with an agreed upon set of contexts toward the dominance of intuition/sensation, with no agreed upon context.

During the transition period of this shift, fear, neurosis, a sense of doom and emptiness begin to dominate. There is no set context for one’s thoughts, feelings, or actions, and where there is a context, it usually appears in the form of parodying, deconstructing, or dismantling older, once stable beliefs, images, and metaphors. Oddly, God gets jettisoned from the world around the time intuition and sensation begin to dominate. God after all is best understood in societal terms as contextual authority, the context of all authority. The chief expression of God is through the dominating and rational functions of thought/feeling. God in this sense is antithetical both to sensation and intuition. It is not the authority, or power, or even arbitrary power that an intuition/sensation based literature protests in traditional beliefs in God, but, rather the grounding in a context of authority, power, and arbitrary power known as God that can not allow either for verifiable science, or the undogmatic mysteries of intuition. Mystics, to an extent, were always dangerous to God in this contextual sense. The operative word is agreed upon “context.” In a sense we could see modernism as an attempt to wrestle arbitrary power away from the overly contextualized scene, from agreed upon contexts, or ground of “God”, and not only God, but all previously agreed upon contexts–especially as God is expressed through preordained contexts of thought/feeling. Rather than seeing the old literature as believing in God, or proceeding from a context of belief, we could re-phrase it this way: Pre-modernist literature: God equals the context of the given. Modernist: God equals an “away from” or a “toward” the context of the uncertain.  All must be grounded in having no ground. God is either too late or too early, missing over here or there, but never of this moment or of this place. To paraphrase Kafka: the messiah will arrive the day after he is no longer necessary. God is either arriving or receding, and so God cannot be the context of either intuition or sensation. God exists then only in the subsidiary functions of thought/feeling. Yet God’s attributes: power, arbitrary power, not only continue through modernism and post-modernism, but grow in proportion to the fact that there is no longer an agreed upon context or locality. Thus God’s absence in the form of a non-contextual and all pervading power is everywhere (see Kafka, see Panopticon). In a sense, while God disappears, the power, especially the irrational and arbitrary power of God through intuition and sensation is distilled into all places and situations.While thought and feeling may no longer proceed on the given contexts of a dogma, the arbitrary power grows in direct proportion to losing its chief name/context.  In this sense, the atrophy of God’s name and context leads to a hypertrophy of those powers usually associated with God:

Dislogistic: totalitarian forms of regime and the literary movements drawn to them (Futurists, Pound and Eliot, Communist writers).
Neutral: belief in social reforms and systems of redistribution that replace God’s providence, mercy towards the poor, and sense of equality within organized and supposedly non-arbitrary forms of governmental “providence” (social programs, the dole, unemployment, welfare, health care, etc)
Laudatory: Self actualized and evolved human beings (the hipsters and life style leftists) who need no power in heaven to live with compassion and wisdom upon the earth.

Let us look at this in terms of the irrational functions as independent from a rationalized deity/ contextual schema of agreed upon thoughts/feelings:

In Terms of the Intuitive:

1. Spirituality, belief in the supernatural, powers beyond the  so called natural laws but with little or no dogma (though often elaborate methodology) opposed to rational religion. Mechanisms of discovery independent both of dogma and scientific method. To a certain degree,part of the rigor of magic, but without the agreed upon communal contexts of magic. Private and subjective ceremonies rather than social ones.
2. Re-location of the context for such power in the “Self” or in the self’s “communion” with forces in the terms of a visions quest, and self-created self (lifestyle) and expressed through myth (the primal) and futuristic speculations, as well as a sense of the present anchored in certain mechanisms of “mindfulness and “attention”. Many of these mechanisms are borrowed from Eastern forms of Yoga, meditation, and the practice of manipulating energy (most often one’s own energy, or the energy of nature rather than other human beings).
3. Improvisation as a way of trusting seeming chaos as a more complex form or of order.

In terms of sensation:

Positivism in all its variations as progress, as “learning experience” as self-experimenting, as mind/body balance. Nutrition, aerobic perfection, and the belief in sensation for its own sake or as a mind altering experience. The manipulation of matter as a mechanism for well being: drugs, altered states, body-engineering, the mind as neural re-mapping. Any physical sensation made optimal or toward the optimal, and, when in context with a non-physical or metaphysical concept, the transformation of such a concept to the realm of the meta-biological.

We might see recent developments in post structuralism as the extension of “against a contextualized and localized deity” to all power structures–a destabilizing and deconstructing of the language of discourse itself. Feeling and thinking are functions of discourse. They imply rational choice. Sensation and intuition lose their power when they enter too deeply into discourse (having to be filtered through feeling/thought as subsidiary functions) and can best maintain power through mystification, non-cognitive abstraction, or hypertrophic resorts to process (ceremonies, rituals, routines); the medium as message, paint as paint, poem as thing made out of words. This is the question: is this extension against contextualized structures of power, an attack on power itself, or merely a more elaborate terministic screen of order (fractal and chaotic order) with the unconscious purpose of hiding the arbitrary power under the terms of sheer process? In effect, a movement from “I” and “We”  to “it says so.” In the shift of filtering mechanisms from the nuanced feeling states of catharsis, and epiphany (the chief subjective states) to a realm where sincerity and rigor of methodology become disassociated from coherent feeling/thinking states, intuition and sensation become the highest “virtues.” Self consciousness is often, under this dominance of the irrational functions, a playing with tropes of self as mechanism (meta-fictions). The self becomes a fabrication, the other a fabrication, and the relationship between them is seen at a remove from emotion towards the filtering  mechanism of thought. In effect, introverted or extroverted intuition/sensation as dominating functions with thinking as the secondary function and feeling in a tertiary or inferior position. If the intuition is introverted, the thought will be extroverted, seeking, in however difficult a way to make the intuitions of the subconscious articulate through some sense of system, usually a complex system that is fractal in its particulars. This system will not be applied as with an ENTP, but will be more along the lines of an interpretive schema of process and ceremony, “pure system”–more the tendency of the INTP.

I think it important to remind the reader here that this is an eye ball assessment of tendencies, and that giving any literary era a personality is not much different than saying the wind whispers. It’s a personification, an attributing of human motives to inhuman things, but this does not rule out its usefulness. I want to look at what I consider a poem in a transitional phase between late romanticism/realism, and modernism, a poem that emphasizes intuition and sensation, and places thought/feeling in subsidiary positions: “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.” Before I do, I want to make a distinction between emotion and feeling, as well as thought and idea. Emotions and ideas may belong as much to the realm of the irrational and the sensational as intuition and sensation. An emotion  turns up, unbidden, and we may not know we are “feeling it” until we say: “I feel sad (the judging, interpretive, rational function). The judgment may be wrong as when a person attracted to another feels they are terrified (the hormonal relationship between fear and certain forms of attraction are well documented). Feeling and thought then are judgment functions. They rationalize to affirm or refute an emotion or idea, and to express sensations and intuitions.. We decide. We will. Perhaps it would be better then to call intuition/sensation undetermined functions, and feeling/thought acts of will. Knowing this might serve us in entering this great poem.

The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

Eliot first wrote Prufrock in 1909 (though I do not trust Eliot in this respect anymore than I trust Coleridge, and it would suit his purpose to say he wrote the poem in 1909 in order to escape the charge of being in the midst of the modernist revolution. Eliot would much prefer not to be in any midst). As the case may be, it was published in 1917, and is part of the modernist movement that precedes and presages the dadaist/nihilist slant modernism took after world war one. It is a frightening and grotesque poem, but no more so than “The Walrus and The Carpenter” or the opening of Dickens’ Bleak House (I think Elliot’s famous fog owes something to Dickens’ Fog in  Bleak House). Much has been made of his innovations in rhyme and meter, but they are not innovations. The off-meters of Prufrock are taken from many precedents of the time, one being the off-meters of light verse, and nonsense verse, as well as a poet who does not get enough credit for being a goad to Eliot: Vachel Lindsey. Lindsey was also from St. Louis and far more famous at the time than Eliot could ever hope to be. Like Eliot, he believed in the primal, and atavistic rhythms that might be found in metrical experiment. His poem “The Congo” was a performance piece that now seems rather naive and dated (as well as unintentionally racist), Lindsey became famous for performing it. His tendency to perform put him in the camp with Sandburg, and it was the Sandburg’s and Lindsey’s of American poetry that Pound, Eliot, and the modernists replaced. We might see this as two possible roads that diverged in a wood. American poets chose the road less taken called modernism, and it made all the difference. Had they taken the road of Lindsey and Sandburg, American poetry may have ended up linked to music and spken word much sooner. More on that at another time. Like Eliot, Lindsey screwed around with sonic and metrical effects obsessively. Some teachers might stress the irony of this poem, its implied attack on the enervated posturings of the vapid and superfluous modern day “Hamlet.” I am more interested in the absence of feeling and thought in the poem. Sensation seems to be the order of the day here, yet sensation denuded of will, and based partially on paralysis.  terms that might prove useful here: Phatic language (In Eliot’s case, Phatic allusion), neurasthenia (Made popular, and at a fever pitch in the early 20 th century, with sanotariums all over Scotland and England for its treatment. Elliot’s wife was diagnosed as having it). The symptoms fit the tenor of Prufrock’s twitchiness), Bovarysme (neurasthenia and Bovarysme are favorite terms of Eliot–not me) and what I call pathetic troth (The attempt to woo by appealing to another’s sense of pity, either by saying self denigrating things about one’s person, or saying that the world is sad, so let’s get it on. “Carpe diem” is a more vigorous form of pathetic troth).

So let’s put these terms together: Phatic Language (allusion), neurasthenia, bovarysme and pathetic troth.

Phatic language (From the Penguin dictionary of literary terms and Literary theory):

Phatic derives from the Greek phasis, ‘utterance.’ A term in linguistics which derives from the phrase ‘phatic communion invented by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. It was applied to language used for establishing an atmosphere and the communication of feelings rather than of ideas, and of logical and rational thoughts. Phatic words and phrases have been called ‘idiot salutations” and, when, they generate to a form of dialogue, ‘two-stroke conversations.’  It seems that the term may also be applied to the kind of noises that a mother makes to her baby, a lover to his mistress, and a master to his dog.

By phatic allusion, Elliot sets an atmosphere in contrast to Prufrock’s paralysis of action. If this is a love poem, it is a love poem that constantly deconstructs itself and never gets to the point, which makes it a species of “pure courtship” (pure in the sense that it serves no utiliatrian end other than its utterance), Eliot alludes to several poems of courtship, namely Andrew Marvel’s “To A Coy Mistress.”

“To squeeze the universe into a ball, and roll it towards some overwhelming question.”

Marvell’s poem gets to the point by pussy footing all around the point and then zeroing in for the kill: listen, we are going to die, we don’t have much time, let’s get it on (“Carpe Diem”–cease the day). Prufrock says: Indeed, there will be time.” This both deconstructs the “Carpe Diem” idea of time being of the essence, and is a form of phatic appeal: “we can wait, do we really need to draw the moment to its crisis? Come on. We have time. Indeed, we have time for indicisions and revisions until the taking of toast and tea…. Prufrock is, in part, a travesty and deconstruction of the idea of carpe diem, but it uses and misuses the devices of carpe diem in order to show that such pathetic appeal to action has become phatic–an idiot’s game of fellow feeling. This device of phatic allusion is a major part of Elliot’s schtick. His allusions are meant as much to deflate the force of literary history as to bring it to bear. “there will be time” is also an allusion to the Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow speech in Macbeth:

There would have been time for words such as these:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
creeps in its petty pace from day to day…

The communion Eliot would engender here is to contrast his indecisive hero to the “Coy Mistress” of Marvell. Where once the love object was coy, the so called lover is coy, hemming and hawing. His other phatic repetitions:

In the room the women come and go,
Talking of Michelangelo.

Do I dare? (eat a peach, disturb the universe).

The section in the poem where Prufrock imagines others noting his bald spot, his thinning hair, his thinning legs–all a species of phatic chit chat, and the fellow feeling of casual remark. Something on the order of this sort of conversation:

“Meg! Meg Darling! How wonderful to see you! OH look what you’ve done with your hair!”
“Do you like it?”
“Like it? I love it! It’s, it’s amazing how good you look. How is John?”
“John got the promotion.”
“Oh my God! That’s wonderful! I can’t think of any one who deserves it more… and you… are you happy?”
“I can’t complain… I saw Marcy Wentworth yesterday… poor girl… the divorce seems to have sent her into a tailspin.”
“I know… Oh my God, did you see how much weight she’s gained?”
“Anti-depressants… you really need a hundred yoga classes for every pill… I bet that’s it… she looks terrible… poor Marcy, and her hair looks like it’s falling out.”
“It does seem a bit thin… My daughter Lisa lost all the weight she gained during her pregnancy. My God, what I wouldn’t give to be 22 and able to lose weight like that.”
“Isn’t that the truth… listen I have to run… is your number still the same?
“Yes…”
“I’ll give you a call. We have to catch up.”
“Let’s do that.”
“We will I promise… well, good seeing you.”
”You, too.” (air kiss).

Eliot, by juxtaposing his chit chatting, nervous, twittery Prufrock against the allusions to Marvel, to Shakespeare, to the idea of “Carpe Diem,” implies that all of history has been made phatic and, largely beside the point. The social observances and pleasantries that once held society together have become forms of insanity, the inability to say what one really means, the inability to act (do I dare) have denuded feeling and thought of all substance. Michelangelo is a subject of idle chit chat for women in a room. We might do well to see how Elliot juxtaposes allusion against the Phatic and frantic questions Prufrock poses. There is a great deal of frantic questioning, and refelction, but nothing, absolutely nothing happens, as with the Rabbit in Lewis Carol’s work: “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date. No time to waste, hello, goodbye, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late:”

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”

As Molinowski said, this is not language come forth out of logic, or a rational schema of thought, but language meant to create an atmosphere of fellow feeling (or to mock fellow feeling), also of fear, and disassembling, of timidity, and nervous enervation. The train of thought is inward, and in some sense, Prufrock’s conjectures are as stream of consciousness as Molly Bloom’s meanderings. There are repetitions galore, verbal ticks that come and go as randomly as the women in the room talking of Michelangelo. Sensation (there is much made of the fog, of the tea and marmalade, of the city streets)and intuition (in the form of somewhat hysterical conjectures) prevails and the thoughts and feelings  serve the enervated sensation and the intuitions. This is a poem written in transition between agreed upon feelings and thoughts, and their collapse. It is pastiche, but pastiche that laments– that pines for a significance both the narrator and his creator are convinced has been lost. No one can say what they mean, because meaning itself is lost: “that is not what I meant at all.”

As I said, Postmodernist question the validity of all discourse, and here, in Elliot, the deconstruction of relationship and discourse is already prevailing. Instead of making a bridge between the present and the past, Elliot lets them sit side by side, each oddly ridiculous in the light of the other, a cohabitation which shows as much about their disparity as their connection. Eliot is a master of non-sequitor. The use of parataxis (one thing after another, without conjunctions, without priority or relation to order), the use of  something akin to non-sequitor (a phrase or an allusion just thrown in), the deconstruction of formerly poetic images (Evening is a patient etherized upon a table), all of these tricks will become standard fair for modernist and post modernist poets. And we may know the dissenters from this school by their hatred of allusion, and disconnection. Thought in this poem becomes, in the sense of Flaubert, an inventory of received ideas. Feeling becomes “oh dear me what shall become of me?” and enervation as to any decisive action. The most animate forces in the poem, the forces that act at all are inhuman. The fog is far more lively and humanly active than Prufrock: it licks, rubs, lingers, slips and sleeps, as does the smoke. Streets follow. The afternoon sleeps, stretches on the floor, malingers. Personification swells to the size of a supernova while human action is all conjectural. As with introverted sensation the world of the senses is alive and threatening to swamp consciousness. The unconscious life of the natural world is projected on to the subconscious sensations of the introverted. The fog that is so active at the beginning of Prufrock echoes another equally famous, lively and surreal fog in Dickens’ Bleak House, a novel about a generations long law suit that goes nowhere–a suit, a courtship, a troth that sinks into the bureaucracy of its own process and leaves nothing in its wake. So much for both the phatic allusions, and the use of phatic utterance. Let’s move to neurasthenia.

This was one of Elliot’s favorite words to describe his age, and a very popular buzzword at the time. First coined in 1869, it had become as pervasive a diagnosis by the turn of the century as ADHD, OCD, or depression is now. One of the pet names for it was “Americanitus”:

Americans were supposed to be particularly prone to neurasthenia, which resulted in the nickname “Americanitis” (popularized by William James). Today, the condition is still commonly diagnosed in Asia. (Wikepedia)

The symptoms of neurasthenia were exhaustion of the central nervous system’s energy reserves brought on, Beard believed, by modern civilization–particularly the urban industrial experience. It was associated with upper or upper middle class people, especially professionals with sedentary employment. Listlessness, fatigue, nervous exhaustion (a lot of fretting but no action), a lack of will. Freud (I love this guy) thought that it might be attributed to excessive masturbation. It’s chief symptom was fatigue, listlessness. Elliot used it in a more broad metaphorical sense for the lack of significant action or will power in his age. French languor and enui were fairly common literary conceits by the time, and Prufrock owes a debt to this sort of tired, and flatulent sense of superfluous and weary via the Symbolists. All sensation becomes introverted. One receives sensations, dwells in them, but is powerless to act upon them. Neurasthenia would give way to an almost violent despair by the time Elliot wrote The Wasteland.

Bovarysme

Madame Bovary dreams of perfect romantic feeling states, and more so, dwells in an inner realm of hyper sensations which are more and more fantastic and hysterical as she heads towards her ruin. She is close to sociopathic in her quest for higher transports, and, in all situations where real love is called for (her child, her husband) she is cruelly indifferent and even hostile. Bovary wants what is promised in romance novels. Her name becomes associated with people who saw life as a series of scenarios. Here, in Prufrock’s conjectures about the immediate and less immediate future, we find the hero of the poem imagining himself a pair of claws scuttling alone the sea bottom. He projects himself into old age where he will wear his trousers rolled. He imagines what people are thinking of him. He puts himself into several imaginary situations, and then retreats from any real action. Unlike Madame Bovary, he does not act on his fantasies, attempting to make them come true. He is content to let them pass before his mind’s eye:

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen

In modern terms, we have all become voyeurs of the real. We do not participate. We live in our imaginations and fantasies. Real life is too overwhelming. The mermaids cannot drown us, but “human voices wake us, and we drown.”

Pathetic troth

In all courtship, the lover is beneath the beloved in terms of worthiness, in terms of desirability, and, when this is not literally true, it is true in a tongue and cheek way, or the poet feigns subservience. So all courtship poems are, to a certain degree, a pathetic troth, a plighting and a promising of bliss if so and so will just agree to be with the one who loves.. In Prufrock, the ratio of pathetic to troth is totally out of proportion. Supposedly, he is addressing a “you.” At one point she lays beside him on a pillow, or he imagines her doing so. Her’s is the only voice in the poem to be directly quoted and it says: He offers her a sky that is like a patient etherized upon a table. He offers her street that follow like an argument of insidious intent. He offers her loneliness, and urban squalor, and he offers a self he calls balding, and aging, and not at all a Hamlet. The Adynaton (hyperbolic appeal to doing the impossible) is reverse adynaton. Not only is the impossible impossible; but the possible and even the typical is, also, out of the question. Only in his fantasies has he heard mermaids singing each to each. He says he does not think that they will sing for him. He offers the supposed “beloved” a man who claims he should have been a pair of claws. This love song seems anything but, and yet it is a love song in so far as it is a lament, a courting to action, and the lost meanings of courtship.. His “beloved” is that action he is incapable of. I said before that sensation and intuition do not fare well when they enter discourse for they are not determined or willed functions. They may exhibit their wears, or passively watch the introverted movie of the subconscious played out through the magic lantern, but they hold discourse only through the subsidiary functions of feeling and thought, and, here in this poem feeling has become a series of vapid tropes plus nervous exhaustion, and thought has become a series of phatic allusions and received ideas. “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” might be seen in the light of another famous poem, Dover Beach. Anthony Hecht did a wonderful job of pointing out the delay and hemming and hawing of the speaker in this earlier poem by writing a sort of update on it called “A Dover Bitch.” In that poem, the girl says it is lousy to be addressed as “some last cosmic resort.” She is thinking: “fuck me already, and get it over with.” Sensation turned introverted is “pure” sensation. Intuition filtered through nervous exhaustion and received ideas is merely the fear of death, an inconsequence so vast that it leaves the very sky inert like a patient etherized upon a table.

In Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” the narrator can still make a plea for fidelity in a world where belief has retreated. By the time of Prufrock, such a plea is impossible. Yet, one can still lament the loss of will, of “I” or “we” said so. By the time of the mid century there is no grief at all among the most experimental writers for the loss of will, or the impotence of will. Process becomes its own will–a bureaucracy of sensation and intuition in which the discourse of feeling and thought is a series of tropes. that do not always adhere. Feeling is muted to the point of being almost absent. Of all the poets who master this reversal of dominant functions, there is none greater than Wallace Stevens, though, being a vital and creative admirer of George Santyanna, Stevens redeems thought and feeling as a species of sensation and intuition–what he calls the poem of earth. He claims poetry must resist the intelligence–almost. Reality is a necessary angel. In a sense, Stevens treats thoughts and feelings as decors, as scenic events. As scenery they may still hold beauty, but one’s actions must be those of sensation and intuition. That arbitrary power that lies in “because” is handed over to an it–the process of the poem, the poem as an utterance made out of words,  an “order” making machine in which a great disorder is still an order, in which the “rage to order” is detached from all stable thought, all stable feeling, and given over to a dominant sensation and intuition. So this is my eye ball estimate. I find it useful as a gadget to enter a poem, but it is not accurate at close work. At close work, one will find a thousand exceptions to this rule, but this does nothing to negate the rule. As Kafka said: “The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens; doubtless this is so, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for the heavens signify simply: the impossibility of crows.”

 

I received a very important lesson from my father. We were driving around in the part of New Jersey he grew up in–a once rural area called Chester that was now suburban. He was sad because the street he had lived on so many years before was much smaller in reality than in memory and he mistook it for a driveway. We stopped by a field of sunflowers. He was staring at the nodding heads of these enormous flowers, and I was throwing pebbles at a stop sign. Two people joined us. One had a camera. Out of the head of the sunflower, exploding from the head, came a bird that had the same color scheme as the sun flower: bright yellow, with black markings. It made an undulating flight over the road into a thicket of trees. “Sun sparrow.” My dad said. “You mean Eastern gold finch” the lady with the camera interjected. “No lady, I mean sun sparrow. That’s what we called them.” My dad then provided the scientific name for the bird, and said: “Come on kid let’s get out of here. The smell of experts makes me sick.”

I had three names now for a bird I didn’t know. I don’t remember the scientific name, but I remembered sun sparrow, and Eastern Gold finch. I found out it was the state bird of New Jersey. You would think the state bird would be all over the place, but we lived in the urban area of Jersey–what some have called the armpit of the universe: Elizabeth. In Elizabeth, starlings and Eurasian tree sparrows comprise the niche Eastern Gold finches or sun sparrows might otherwise fill.

It was ten years before I saw another–the day after my father died. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be away from my family, so I took a walk along deserted railroad tracks, where there were thickets and weeds. I looked up from my shoes, and there was my dad’s “Sun sparrow” perched on a slender stalk of Queen Anne’s lace. It made me cry. I got down on me knees, and held my stomach. It was as if I had been shot–the arrow of love, of memory, of how this accident could shake me to my core. I said “sun sparrow” out loud, and the bird undulated away from me into a dense tangle of brush. I thought about the smell of experts making him sick. As a teenager I had often thought my father an idiot. I now understood how much of an idiot I was.

Names have power, especially when they are linked to memory and emotion, when they act as a part for some vital whole. They stand in for existence. All names are misnomers. Exactitude is the myth we concoct all too often to exclude, to prove we are experts, to prove we own something that can never truly be owned. Used well, names allow us to enter, to understand, to raise our sense of wonder and awe ever higher. Used badly, they become the stink of experts, the rank odor of snobbery and exclusion.

I tell my students that education can do the work of evil: it can make a bunch of aleatory systems with PHDs think they have a right to be superior to the Rocky Weils of this world. They can make a son misunderstand the wisdom of his own father. They stink of torture and snobbery, they are rank with the odor of exclusion and bias, and we call this “truth” or “Dogma” or “terminology.” If we are not careful, the knowing of names can be substituted for wisdom. They become a false wisdom. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me….” sure. Names kill. Names distance us from the stupidity of our actions. When we can call people collateral damage, we no longer have to confront them as a child with a soccer ball, who like your child, wanted to play, who, unlike your child, stepped on a mine and was blown into a thousand pieces.

As a teacher, I worry about power more than anything else. If I arm a student with names and terms, and so called knowledge, and forget that wisdom is not a slave to any of these tricks, I may be doing great harm. I may be perpetuating the very snobbery that allows professors at cocktail parties to call my father, who I loved, “White trash.” I may be allowing the student to think he or she is better than someone else when the truth is, at ground zero, we are all the bitter comedy of aleatory systems: we eat, we shit, we die. Some of us, because of our names, our use of names, our semiotics can eat and shit and die in the better places. My dad had a saying that summed up our human lust for status very nicely: “If life were nothing but a bowl of shit, there would be a whole group of people feeling superior because they lived in the corn section, and a whole other group doing whatever they could to get to the corn section, and then there’d be a group of people feeling lousy because they lived near the peppers.” It’s disgusting, but true.

The beginning of wisdom is the knowledge of ground zero: What is the ground of my being? If I think it is all aleatory, then it is hard for me to feel better or worse than others. If I think it is God and that I am saved, then I can circumvent the equality of the aleatory, and make distinctions. If I don’t believe in God, this does not save me from distinction because I will believe in things: having certain things, a certain reputation, a certain status will become my God. I will serve it–often bitterly. I will obey my lust to mean, even when, at my core, I feel meaningless. If I feel meaningless, I will find a group who feels the same way, and look with scorn at those who believe they are meaningful.

Equality does not flourish except in theory. In the day to day and the minute to minute, we are reading signs, and being read by signs and making distinctions between signs, unaware that, we, ourselves, are a sign. We are signs reading signs, and almost all of it is inexact–a measure, not a truth. Read a sign wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Be read wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Call an Eastern Gold finch a sun sparrow, and you are likely to get corrected by some lady with a camera. The lady was correct, but she showed little wisdom correcting a father who was sharing a moment and memory with his son. Some forms of incorrectness have greater depth than the correct. Science can use the exact, but poetry, especially great poetry can make of imperfections the kingdom and mercy of heaven. It can also get people killed. To die for an idea, or because you are an idea, or because you get caught in a certain cluster of ideas is the meaning of both war and of a university education. Ideas and names kill. We should never forget this. They also help us to live. We should not forget this, either.

So with this in mind, arm yourself with literary terms. Used well, used in order to enter or understand a text, these terms may provide you with some deeper sense of joy or wonder, or knowledge. Used badly, they might allow you to look smart and superior at some boring party. It’s up to you.

I hate when poets are called brave. Gets on my nerves. Fearless is another term I find dubious. Poets win grants. They are professionals. Most poetry festivals are lamer and more sedate than Star Trek conventions. If I pick up a poetry book and see the words “brave” or “fearless” in any of the blurbs, I think twice about buying it. No one is brave or fearless if they live in the suburbs, have tenure, or inhabit parts of Manhattan that have been made safe by the police force. This is not brave. Being fearless in a poem is along the same lines as being an aggressive grandmother expressing road rage in an old Buick sedan. Spare me. Being “brave” in a poem is like those snide one liners people zing you with from the safety of a Facebook comment.

But, sometimes, poets write poems that aren’t being considered for an award. Sometimes they are writing out of some necessity beyond the latest AWP bullshit. (anyone for the “long poem” or the “poem of place?”) Sometimes poets are good in ways no one gave them permission to be. No one kissed their bums at the work shop, or published them in some glossy university magazine that is full of “brave” poets. They just wrote something that was fully cooked (Hate the term raw) and happened to contain your children. They served it up to you, and you ate it, and asked for second helpings, and, only realized later when you went back to your part of the world where police make it unnecessary for you to be brave, that you ate your own future. They make you complicit in a crime. They made you destroy the evidence. They feed you something you hadn’t counted on, and it goes beyond your usual dietary restrictions. These poets are sneaky, and lethal, and kill you with stealth, and have the skill for abomination. Abomination—true abomination—takes great skill. All true burns are controlled burns. All the knives are sharpened to such perfection that the victims can voice no cry. Such poets don’t need to be brave or fearless because they scare the shit out of you. After reading them, you know your pantoum sequence is a lie, and your ears are made of tin, and it does not matter if you won six grants, and had a blurb from Jesus: you know you’re a liar, and a hack, and you better step up your game. The poet I picked for this week is like that: a skilled assassin, a pro in the way pros ought to be, taking what she thought was useful from American poetry, and leaving the rest with its throat slashed on the floor.

I first read Ai when I was a teenager and didn’t know any better. She didn’t whine, even when she was dumped, or ignored, or had to suffer fools gladly. She got them back. Her poems had sex in them, but not as a recreational activity. They were driven by some inner magic I couldn’t forget, and which stayed with me for days, and it made me rip up two notebooks of poetry. She was intense in a way that made the comedians and the clever keep their mouths shut. They’d never say to her: Ai, where’s your sense of humor? Compared to her, Christopher Walken was a fucking nun playing Lady of Spain on a mandolin. She tossed all the buildings out of the way, sent cars flying, and made me stand alone to face her, and, being street smart, I got the hell out of there.

I would have never wanted to meet Ai. Her poems have a fierce precision that precludes any literary lunches. Ai’s work reminds me that poets don’t need to be brave, or fearless. They need to be good, and, if possible, ferocious. I know she’s dead, but if I was near her grave, I’d walk carefully and I’d take off my hat. You can never be too careful. A friend of mine went to Monk’s memorial service and had the bad taste to ask Miles Davis for an autograph. “Man,” Miles said, “we’re at a funeral.” My friend said: “I’m sorry, Miles.” Miles Davis said: “Don’t be sorry; be careful.” This seems like an Ai poem. She was not brave and fearless. Great birds of prey don’t have to be brave and fearless. They just know what they’re doing, and they eat you.

Salomé

by Ai

I scissor the stem of the red carnation
and set it in a bowl of water.
It floats the way your head would,
if I cut it off.
But what if I tore you apart
for those afternoons
when I was fifteen
and so like a bird of paradise
slaughtered for its feathers.
Even my name suggested wings,
wicker cages, flight.
Come, sit on my lap, you said.
I felt as if I had flown there;
I was weightless.
You were forty and married.
That she was my mother never mattered.
She was a door that opened onto me.
The three of us blended into a kind of somnolence
and musk, the musk of Sundays. Sweat and sweetness.
That dried plum and licorice taste
always back of my tongue
and your tongue against my teeth,
then touching mine. How many times?—
I counted, but could never remember.
And when I thought we’d go on forever,
that nothing could stop us
as we fell endlessly from consciousness,
orders came: War in the north.
Your sword, the gold epaulets,
the uniform so brightly colored,
so unlike war, I thought.
And your horse; how you rode out the gate.
No, how that horse danced beneath you
toward the sound of cannon fire.
I could hear it, so many leagues away.
I could see you fall, your face scarlet,
the horse dancing on without you.
And at the same moment,
Mother sighed and turned clumsily in the hammock,
the Madeira in the thin-stemmed glass
spilled into the grass,
and I felt myself hardening to a brandy-colored wood,
my skin, a thousand strings drawn so taut
that when I walked to the house
I could hear music
tumbling like a waterfall of China silk
behind me.
I took your letter from my bodice.
Salome, I heard your voice,
little bird, fly. But I did not.
I untied the lilac ribbon at my breasts
and lay down on your bed.
After a while, I heard Mother’s footsteps,
watched her walk to the window.
I closed my eyes
and when I opened them
the shadow of a sword passed through my throat
and Mother, dressed like a grenadier,
bent and kissed me on the lips.

Introduction

If we want to call Yahia Lababidi’s work since Trial by Ink fiction, we should do it for lack of a more accurate term. Like Trial, the following, titled “Underground Revisited,” exists between genres. We have an invented speaker and audience, and a steady flow of ideas and verbiage. But we don’t have a manageable Aristotelian plot, or any sort of substantial tension between characters (except for the occasional thrown shoe). This is man v. himself. Sounds more like a long poem.  On the surface, “Underground Revisited” is a hardy homage to Dostoevsky, a stylistic parody, in the Hutcheon-esque postmodern (i.e., aesthetically and theoretically productive) sense of the word, that, as a good parody does, reaches beyond mere play with form, that says something about that form via repetition and imitation. Here, Lababidi continues the aim of his major work, namely, that of answering big questions. As he told me, literature hasn’t changed that much. It’s still people trying to deal with living in their own skin and among others in a society. That’s precisely what’s going on here. Notes from Underground is so timeless because it, as Dostoevsky’s novels so masterfully tend to do, poses fundamental questions about human existence. Lababidi is up to much of the same. His speaker, like Dostoevsky’s, is self-loathing, but attention-starved, deep-thinking, but obsessed with action. He feels trapped between personal codes of being, imploring his (in this case, literal) audience for advice and understanding. Both stuck and unstuck, he struggles to put one intellectual foot in front of the other. This uncertainty cuts to the core of what it means to participate in a discourse, but, more importantly, of what it means to try to get along in one’s own life.

Underground Revisited
by Yahia Lababidi

Abominable Ladies and Gentleman, thank me for coming!

Tonight I empathize with every one of you. I’m overcome by a peculiar affection encompassing all and, almost myself. I do not lie.. now! Just how long I shall continue to experience this curious condition, I do not know. There are no constants and there are no certainties. Yes, there are none, certainly. We are merely figures of fun moved by unseen forces, which have no right to make any claims to knowing ourselves. (Nor can we assume any credit for our actions, only blame). It is important, therefore, that we recognize the notion that we should accept ourselves, fully, for what it truly is: a fallacy. We most certainly should do no such thing. To accept oneself, fully, is to assume responsibility for all that wanders in the wasteland of our heads and, that is a most dangerous thing to do. Instead, one should only judge oneself by their actions, and not for their thoughts. Thought is thwarted action, impotent action, unactualized action; active but not action. The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others, the ones we don’t define us to ourselves. Only partially, of course, for one can never fully know themselves, nor should they want to. The over examined life is even less worth living than the unexamined one, trust me. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, true, but a lot is absolutely fatal … particularly self-knowledge.

It is a wonder then that people are able to identify on any level at all with others -family, friends, or lovers- when they are unable to identify with themselves. How they do it, I shall never know. Which is not to say that I should not care to know but, the truth is, I do not care to know. I care much more for extraordinary personalities than I do for ordinary persons; and I shall continue to be consumed by character until the day I live (which must account for my most shameful self-absorption). But, I do hope you don’t believe every word I’ve said, however, even I don’t. Or, perhaps, especially I don’t. But more likely, affectations aside, I don’t entirely. Believe every word I’ve said, that is. You see, I most certainly do not ‘see the world steadily and whole’. Rather, I see it oscillating wildly and fragmented. But, everything is difficult to see when one will not open their eyes. I know that. I’m aware that I am walking around with one eye firmly shut, and the other half open. Don’t be alarmed. I’m all too aware that I only say half-truths, and that I’ve lived even less than what little I’ve seen, all theory and hardly any practice. With me, there can only be so very little life in my life for it to be livable; any more life and I could not continue; any more light and I would go blind. Yes, I’m all too aware of that. I am aware. I have the suffering of awareness, though, and not merely the awareness of suffering (which is only its offspring). But, please, don’t take me too seriously – it’s enough that I do.

I’m sorry if you do not find the programmed amusing so far -I did not intend to depress you, I only meant to impress you- but the truth is that I don’t either. And, why should I make myself amusing to you when I can’t find myself amusing? Why should you be able to enjoy me, when I can’t enjoy myself? Don’t answer me! An answer would rob me of my uncertainty, and that is all I have left. Without it I am left with nothing. Please, don’t answer me. But, believe me, I wasn’t always this way. I wasn’t always a haunted man. You would not have recognized me then, just as I do not recognize myself, now. You know, the metamorphosis of others from friends to strangers is not so tragic, even if it occurs overnight. To become a stranger to oneself, until one no longer knows who they are … that is. Still, one ought not to be suspicious of change, for it might be the only constant. And if history books are littered with instances of hardened sinners becoming selfless saints, then why can’t a clumsy, careless clown exchange his costume for the cloak and crown of a sad, thoughtful philosopher? Just why not? But, it is not proper to discuss such matters with strangers. I can see you’re already uneasy.  There’s no reason why you should not be able to enjoy yourselves, individually and collectively.

You sir, the one with the divided nature, can enjoy yourself twice, or thrice, or however many times you are unable to identify with yourself. I, on the other hand, shall continue exploiting my selves. Why? Because I am an entertainer, first and foremost, and I am not to forget that ever again, if ever I hope to become a human being, secondly. What does he mean by that you might ask, if I permit. You see, I am not altogether human. Humane, yes. Human, no. But, how can you see? If you could, then it would not be a curse and, I am cursed. Cursed to find differences where there are none, and to ignore the differences that exist. I am the abominable one. Really, it’s a shame. No doubt you came counting on being amused, astounded with witticisms perhaps, and, instead you have been abused by being made to witness a savaging, of one abusing himself. Perhaps I should recite you some sublime passage from one of the unassailables, those immortal untouchables, and charm you with the breadth and width of my learning…

I apologize, again. I’ve merely forgotten my place, that is all. Yes, in deed to forget one’s place is most certainly all. It is the single greatest crime one can commit against oneself and one’s fellows. And, I have done so, repeatedly. But, believe me, when I say that I do so against my will. I am the victim of a virus which deforms and defiles and destroys. No, I am not that. I am the virus itself. So, lest it prove catching, I ask you all not to listen too closely. My origin is unknown, my destination unavoidable. In a void, able. I am. In a void, I am able. Inavoidiamable. There, that is something at least. If nothing else, I have given you a new word: “inavoidiamable”. Now, tell me where you have heard such a thing? Nowhere, I am sure, for I have not heard it before. I’m sorry, that is another fault of mine, that I can not imagine. To assume that you have not heard of a word simply because I have not is arrogant. To not imagine, that is the single greatest crime one can commit against oneself and one’s fellows. The fact of the matter is, I have tried to concentrate on the world within to the exclusion of the world without, for some time now. That is why I cannot imagine. But, I have only tried, and failed. All along I was aware of -no, I impatiently awaited- the world without. And even when my vessel began to sink I only waited aboard, bored, not to learn a lesson in survival but so that I might tell a tale later. Not share, but tell a tale, like the sole survivor of a shipwreck. No, like the soul survivor…

Honorable ladies and gentleman, I have a confession to make: I have no soul! None whatsoever. And it is very likely that, due to disuse, I stand to lose my body soon. For, just as Evolution suggests that we lost a tail for which we had no use, I am to lose a body I cannot use. Already, I have witnessed my soul silently slipping away from my body, disgruntled and disgusted, unable to play another (false) part except the one written for it -whose language I could not, or did not want to decipher. Since then, I have forgotten my place as I’ve said. I have borrowed from other souls, much finer, nobler, than the one I do not possess; and, I continue to do so even now. In exchange, I have loaned myself, only to realize I was over-drawn and artificially propped up on bounced reality checks.  That is why I must stand here, and you must sit over there. I must not allow myself to get any closer to you; it would not be fair to either of us. So, please, do not approach me; do not answer my questions; do not even look my way, lest you pity me. You may however, ask me questions -although I feel obliged to warn you: I have far more questions than answers

Yes, madam, you in the corner without a blouse. What is it you wish to know? No, I do not own clothes, anymore. That does not mean we are the least bit alike. You do not wear a blouse for a reason, no doubt, not because of doubt. You have either forgotten to do so, or you have chosen not to for some ridiculous reason. Or, perhaps you are poor and cannot afford one. In short, you have a reason. I have none. You have conviction. I have none. You have a belief in something or other:  be it a Cause, or your Self. I have none. There are others like you: counterparts, representatives, similar specimens. I am not even like myself.

Yes, sir, in the front row, in the middle. What? How dare you say you are in my position when we do not inhabit the same imaginative universe?  I have accessed regions of my soul you do not possess.  I have traveled landscapes of the mind you cannot fathom. I have had rarified sentiments you are not entitled to. What do you say? You want concrete evidence. With all due respect, sir, I am not a construction worker! I do not deal with the concrete. It is the abstract I traffic in. But, if you must, I will give you clear and irrefutable reason why we are not in the same position. You, sir, are comfortably seated. I am standing, always, and uncomfortably at that. What’s more is that you are in the front row; I need not say where I am, but it most certainly is not there. Finally, you are in the middle, balanced, moderate. I, my good man, am an extremist. I would sooner be beneath that seat in the farthest corner than exchange places with you. I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten my oath, to myself really more than anyone else: to empathize. Believe me, I do not mean what I say; if I did, I wouldn’t feel the slightest need to say it. It is but an act, though I am not an actor, per say. I can only act offstage, before close acquaintances or distant friends. Still, I ought to at least try and act naturally. Really, it is only that I’m in love with my own voice. I am like the bird that, seduced by her song, cannot stop singing throughout the seasons and catches her death of cold in winter, if not of exhaustion beforehand. No, I am not in the least like a bird. The bird is as beautiful as its song. I am as vile as my venom. I apologize; I shall not lapse into such extravagant indulgence again.

Thank you, sir, for throwing your shoe in my face. I don’t deserve it. You are far too kind and considerate to throw only one shoe. Really, you show such restraint. Yes, madam. You, without the arms, in the arms of the furry fellow. Well, what about Love? Yes, by all means, I believe in it. What it does not create in us, it compliments. It is perhaps the last of the miracles. Its chief allure is how unrealistic it is, and yet how senselessly we pursue it. Then, when we think we’ve found it, how senselessly we chase it away. What is that you say? Oh, no! No, my good lady. You have entirely misunderstood me, and I’m sure that is a fault of mine, since those who are consistently misunderstood must be to blame somehow. No, I do not believe in the possibility of love in my situation. I very much feel I am denied this possibility. Unless, of course, I were to find one who were constructed, and then deconstructed, in a similar vein. And, frankly, I don’t think it at all possible since I’m doing all I can to avoid looking for, or being found by, such a non-person. I say: I will never fall in love and, I don’t. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Now, tell me, who says there are no more prophets when there are prophesies? Just as, who says there are no more miracles when there exists even the idea of Love? I tell you, whoever says anything at all has spoken too soon, for they are bound to discover the inverse truth -sometime after- perhaps when it is already too late to benefit from it. That is why it is best to say nothing, or else everything, if one possibly can. Personally, I never mean what I say when I say it. I might mean it tomorrow, or yesterday. But, never today. That is why I feel that the only thing I cannot endure more than being misquoted is being quoted at all. It is simply maddening. You can quote me on that.  Actually, please do. It would do me a great deal of good to have my words echoed by strangers. It might even restore my faith in humanity, and bring me to embrace the person who uttered those dear, dear words. Yes, sir, with the broken spirit. What is it?

0! My God … my goodness! What a startling question. I don’t quite know how to respond, or if I ought to at all. It is important to refuse to answer certain questions, on principle, since one can’t speak lightly about absolutely everything. But wait. I’ve already answered your question indirectly, which is the best way to answer any difficult question, anyhow. Your answer is “my God… my goodness.” The two are interchangeable for me. No, they are not. That is far too simple an answer to such a complex question. Certainly, I believe there is injustice and there is imbalance; there is evil and wrong doing; there is sickness and suffering; poverty of the body and spirit. How then can I, or any intelligent, seeing human being say that God is all good, or even that there is a Heaven and a Hell? He is not all good. Rather, He is all: good and bad.  If we are created in His image, therefore it should follow that He is capable of greater good, and bad, than we are. We are limited, He is limitless.  ‘The greatest leap of man’s mind is to realize its limitations.’

What’s that, sir, you say about heaven and hell? I have not made myself clear on that point? Does that mean I have been clear on all others! Please, see me after this is all over and explain it to me, will you. Yes, heaven and hell, there’s no denying them. Only not in the next world, Heaven and hell are here.  Every Day is judgment day.  If you go unrewarded in your life, then, you must be good; and that, in and of itself, is your reward (and punishment). Yes, it is all absurd and senseless, particularly for the sensitive few who would like to believe otherwise.

Yes, Miss, with the bookcase on your back. One must think everything and do nothing? Are you suggesting then, learned lady, that thinking is not doing? Now, you must be sounding like me to amuse me. But, believe me; I am not amused to hear you repeat such things when I do not fully believe in them myself. I may amuse myself with such folly, you may not. You dishearten me. I did not think it possible to influence persons before and, I do not still. We receive only the stations our antennas attract, which is why we should keep our antennas out at all times in the hopes of picking up all of our stations. Otherwise, I cannot persuade you of what you do not already believe in the dawning of your knowledge. I cannot awaken in you what is not dormant. I cannot plant a seed where there is not fertile soil. And that is why it disheartens me that you should be like me in any way. Not that I feel I have affected you, for if you had not heard my words now, it would have been any incident or accident later that would have stirred you to those words. Yet, I wish it were not my words, and that you had heard them elsewhere. You are far too clever to join the daily increasing ranks of the overfed and undernourished. That is what it means to be overeducated.  But, it is not a fault that cannot be undone (sadly, it takes far longer to ‘unlearn’ than it does to learn, just as it is nearly impossible to ‘unsee’ what one has already seen). It can be achieved, however, and I am living proof of it. Although, perhaps “living” is too strong a word. Still, I am proof of it, nevertheless. You must not quote any more of those journals or ‘important’ authors, however. Or at any rate, if you must, then do so with some feeling. Where is your passion? Without it, you are merely a corpse with a borrowed mouthpiece, an ass carrying a bookcase, that is all. Intellect without sentiment is a cold, concrete structure without either doors or windows. Structurally solid, it is uninhabitable to the occupant, and impenetrable to the passerby.

Yes; the elderly gentleman with the black tears and the soil in his hands. No, sir, I could not possibly make light of your grief. What you hold in your hands is the Body of God. Yes, the Body of God is not invisible, it is Nature. How can we be in awe of one and not the other? It is the land, the sea, the air and the Infinite Universe. In which case, Humanity must occupy God’s nether regions. I apologize, that was careless of me … but not thoughtless. And, I’m not sorry. I do see the stars in space as His upper body, which can only mean…. God is not dead. Nature is independent of us yet, we are dependant on it. It goes about its natural cycles as it did before we came to be and, will continue to do so long after we cease. We have not tamed nature, we have only maimed it:  with electric blades and metal claws that pierce, tear, torture and spoil the air, the earth and its waters. Or what we call:  travel.  And, then monstrous machinery that devastates and contaminates its skin and soul. This we call: the cost of our living. And, next to those weightless clouds, Industry has contributed their own leaden clouds to choke the skies. Yet, we shall pass and It shall remain, majestic and mysterious, mocking us who have named it and so think we have known it. So, sir, I share your grief. For all our private and public worlds -and the monuments built to honor our accomplishments, thought forms and inventions- we are no more than a passing intervention, insignificant in the laughing eyes of Eternal Nature. Yes, Nature is God, and to be natural in thought and deed is divine. I, however, cannot be natural even when I sleep, or view nature except with envious eyes in my waking hours. There is no hope for me. But surely you, young man with the clear glass eyes, can see that it is not too late for you to be saved, provided you do not grow any further.

No, most certainly not! You should not wish to grow like me, mine is a malignant growth. I speak since I am not at peace with my silences. My words are elaborate because my thoughts are unclear. You speak with such simplicity and sincerity. Why you would want to emulate me worries me immeasurably and reminds me of the poisonous charm of words. Please, not another word or I shall expose myself! I must forget all that I am to be happy, you must only remember it. There is no use denying that yours’ is the superior state. Do not think that because you have the knowledge of happiness then, I must have the happiness of knowledge. Happiness and Knowledge are not to be wed in my world. For the feeling person, Ignorance is Happiness; and for the thinking person, Happiness is Ignorance. This I know. Ignorance on the first, simple, and natural level of existence is the prerequisite for Happiness, while on the second, more complex (hyperconscious) level of existence, it is the contrary: Happiness is considered Ignorance. But there exists a third level where Happiness and Knowledge can coexist. The selfless few who arrive at this state are those who ‘see the world steadily and see it whole’. But, I’ve already spoken ad nauseam on where I stand in relation this notion…

All of a sudden, I realize I am weary with fatigue, and I’m sure you feel the same. Thank you for your patient audience. What’s that? One more question? What a terrific trick that is you are performing, sir! Or, is it madam? What do you say? It is not a trick, it is a talent? A gift from God? No, I beg to differ. Look where you are seated, my dear ma… friend. The seats by your side are vacant, though there is a shortage of seats. You are all alone. Lately, I am of the opinion that a talent is not a gift but a curse, or at the very least, a hindrance. Any remarkable ability, as such, which differentiates one from the herd, that is talent, true. But, as a result of it, you will not be viewed with tenderness and understanding; and perhaps as a result of it, too, you will not be able to view others with tenderness and understanding.  You call that a gift? No, I must differ with you. I must be allowed to leave, now. I am too tired to continue this charade any longer. Also, I have already said too much although, to some of you, it might seem like I’ve said nothing at all. Whatever the case … Honorable ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming.

Wait! Don’t go…. I do not wish to be alone, anymore. I have nowhere to go. There, I have said it! And I have said it with neither trembling lip, nor quivering voice. I have said it rather bravely and matter-of-factly; because in fact, I do have enough energy to continue. I have to have enough energy to continue. And, sir, when I am done -when I am truly over and done with, and no longer of any use to anyone- then you may throw your other shoe in my face. In fact, please, do so now, I cannot stand the suspense. Thank you! Now, where was I before I so rudely interrupted my selves? Oh yes, talent is a curse. Yes, I’m sorry I stand by that. Forgive me, but I cannot take any more questions. Why? Because for every question of yours I entertain, I ignore one of my own. So, the format shall continue to be question and answer; only I shall be asking the questions and answering them. And, it shall be better this way for all of us. Believe me. But, please, stay a while longer. I require your presence for inspiration. I’m afraid if you leave, my muse shall, too. Also, if you stay, I promise to be more honest than I have been before, within the confines of the impossibility of honesty, of course.

What then, is the impossibility of honesty? Simply, it is to say that complete honesty with oneself is impossible and, with others improper. What one can do however is to bridge the gulf between what is said and what is done. (Perhaps also between what is thought and what is said). That is the utmost extent of honesty anyone can afford. How very polite of you, sir, to nod so understandingly while I am speaking. Really, manners are everything. Manners and Morals, and all the more so if they are natural (and not the product of some pretentious finishing school). More than anything, manners simultaneously express respect and self-respect; and morals enforce them. Which brings one to ethics. What of ethics? Can ethics exist outside of society? Absolutely! One is ethical for one’s sake. In fact, not only do ethics exist outside society, they exist only outside of society, since the ethics within society are simulated and inauthentic. For God’s sake, ethics exist outside of organized religion, as well, which accounts for the irrefutable goodness and non-judgmental stance of some atheists. All that is well and good is not found without, but within, irrespective of whichever club one is a member of. It is important not to lose sight of that in one’s lifetime, just as it is important never to lose sight of one’s death during one’s life.

What do I mean by that? “Death destroys a man: the idea of death saves him.” To realize the day shall come when one will lie beneath the earth they tread upon, and to realize that day may be tomorrow, is very wise indeed. Such a realization either endows one with a sense of urgency or futility. As always, the answer lies not in the middle, but in the continual excursion to either extreme. Yes, the senselessness of life and the senselessness of death, that is what one should preoccupy oneself with. Nothing else is of the least importance, other than Art, but certainly not Science. What a bore Science is with its relentless insistence on evidence and proof and, how unrealistic that is. There is no proof, and there are no guarantees! Proofs of purchase and guarantees accompany appliances, not us. Which is all the more reason never, ever, never, to lose sight of death or attempt any number of ways of maintaining a firm foothold in the quicksand that is life. Make no mistake, we are sinking, and we shall all soon be submerged. There is no avoiding it. Why the startled look, how could you have thought otherwise? Or had you simply not thought? Still, that’s no reason not to live because you must die. There is life to live for, and Art. What is Art? It depends on whom you ask:  the artist, or the public. To the artist, Art is the act of clearing his/her throat to find a Voice, silencing the voices in their head, and luring from it’s lair all that is secretive or mysterious. It is the act of dressing the invisible, of giving Form to the formless. And, only by becoming a slave to Art can the artist ever hope to master Life. To the general public, Art is a beautiful translation of the transition that is Life, rendering it more possible to endure. But, Art is not reserved to artists alone (and many artists are poor artists at that). Some people live artfully and fill their lives with art, while others artfully live and fill art with their lives. Ultimately, to burn brightly with one’s own Art, that is the purpose of life, if indeed there is one.

What then, is the greatest crime one can commit against oneself and one’s fellows? Desistance. To recognize one’s passion and not pursue it: to realize and refuse. Ignorance is bliss, to ignore is heresy. In which case, I must be damned… But, never mind me. Please, never mind me; I mind me enough as it is. Anxiety-ridden and doubt-driven, I am. I wonder: if one forgets about themselves, will they be forgotten? I don’t know. I know I don’t know. I also know endless self-scrutiny is fruitless. To concern oneself constantly with the endless possibilities of one’s growth, and in which direction is, as sure a way as any, to stunt one’s growth. But what can one do? We are not free … to do anything. We are free, but not Free. We suffer from a restricted freedom. We are free, from within a cage, yet we are also given a key -not to the cage, of course, but to ourselves. This way, we have the possibility of being free, to surprise others and ourselves. But, the true surprise is how hesitant we are to act. And when we do, just how helpless.

Excuse me, may I ask you a question, sir? What is the difference between you and that horse you are riding? There’s no need to take offense, an answer will suffice. No, I mean other than that it is an animal, and that it is mounted, since both of those conditions apply to the human condition. What do you say? There are no differences, then? No, sir, you are mistaken, again. There is one; one difference you have overlooked. The difference between you and your horse is that his blinders are removable. What do I mean by that? Just that his blinders are external and can be discarded; whereas ours are not and cannot. Don’t be so surprised. We all wear blinders which determine what we see and what we don’t, and accordingly, what we respond to and how. Some of us only see what is ahead of us, while others only see what is around them. The rest of us are looking at our noses. I do not see anything since my eyes are not in accord. But, I promised not to discuss myself, further…

How much time and energy we exhaust discussing ourselves, as though we were existing beings when, in truth, we are merely symbols. Collectively, we are a physical manifestation of the complex character of Creation, that is all. For, just as Nature is the Body of God, all of Human Nature is His Soul. That, I believe, is why we are here -to act and interact in such a way as to make manifest to Him the possibilities of His Being. But, this is not a solemn sermon -much as it may sound like one- since I am not in the position either to be solemn, or to present a sermon. Perhaps, I should speak of something else, then. How about aesthetics and insects? Yes, insects and aesthetics, it is. And, 0, what a frightful emphasis in our infinite vanity do we place on aesthetics!

You do not agree? Look at the cockroach. Now, look at how you recoil in horror! Look at your lips, upturned in disgust, and how your eyes long to recede to the back of your skull. Now, look at the ladybug, and look at your delight. Look at the fly, now, look at the butterfly. What is it about appearance that allows us to dismiss creatures so carelessly, and approach others so eagerly? What do we know of the nature of the black beetle that depicts it as any less loveable than the lady bug, or the butterfly? It is not harmful, nor is it lacking in usefulness; it only commits the unpardonable crime of not being pleasing to the eye. Likewise, why am I addressing myself to the attractive members of the audience, the more visually arresting of you? Is it because we assume, somehow, that Beauty is a kind of benediction, while ugliness expresses varying degrees of sin. Or, is it more superficial, but more meaningfully revealing, than that? I don’t know. Whatever the case, it is a temptation that must be avoided. No, that’s wrong. Can you tell me what is wrong with that sentiment? I’ll tell you. Temptation is not to be ‘avoided’, it is to be resisted. To be present and resist, not to distance yourself and avoid, that is noble. But, I have nothing in common with nobility. I tremble before temptation. I must avoid it, since I’m not strong. Okay, sir, you may now throw your other shoe in my face; I am over and done with. You already have? Very well, then, I shall exit unclimactically. At least, it is closer to the Truth that way. Thank you again and, please, remember me in your prayers.

Don Paterson, the leading contemporary Scottish poet, throughout this book cites previous critical studies of the Sonnets (especially those written by Stephen Booth and Helen Vendler), but when he does it’s almost always to differ from them. Did he expect to get applause or even grudging acceptance from literary scholars? I’m not sure. To the task of exegesis and evaluation, Paterson brings neither academic credentials nor a rigorous critical method but instead a sharp mind, some serious homework, emotional engagement with the topic, a willingness to take risks, and the technical experience of a practicing poet.  Apart from having written sonnets himself, he has translated (or “imitated”) Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and is the editor of the Faber anthology 101 Sonnets. Clearly he has a partisan interest in the form itself and for that reason alone might want to comment on one of its greatest practitioners.

Still, if someone had told me a year ago that we were soon going to see a book in which a contemporary poet would read one of the central works of Shakespeare and assign grades to various parts of it, I wouldn’t have believed it.  To remark that it’s too late for our likes and dislikes to have any effect on the reception of canonical literary works like Shakespeare’s raises a more general question, one that can’t be instantly resolved.  To what extent do the classics belong to our actual, lived experience? How can we make use of them? These questions may sound shocking or naïve, but consider the following. Even if the best of Shakespeare’s sonnets were submitted to magazines today as being the work of a living poet, no editor would publish them.  As for the stage, producers wouldn’t get past the opening scene of Hamlet or King Lear before tossing these plays on the reject pile.  Renaissance or Jacobean English is not what we speak, in fact, we’re almost at the point now when Shakespeare, like Chaucer, requires a translation for new readers coming along.  We know that our response to Shakespeare isn’t and can’t be the same as his original audience’s because the weight and connotation of the words he uses has shifted (and sometimes vanished) since he wrote. Apart from that, no historical reconstruction of the staging and performance of Shakespeare could have the same effect on us as it did for Elizabethan audiences unless our minds, too, could be reconstructed in a 16th century mould. It has always struck me as too blithe when critics say, “Yes, of course we read Dante differently from the way his contemporaries did. It’s in the nature of great literature to support many kinds of responses, each valid for its time.”  But then why, if a literary work is just a Rorschach test whose meaning is nothing more than what we attribute to it, are certain figures (Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton) consistently deemed worthwhile occasions for our projected meanings while others (Hesiod, Ennius, Ariosto, Jonson, Marvell) are much less often considered? Besides, if we say that we don’t mind if our way of appreciating Shakespeare differs from his audience’s, we’re implicitly dismissing as irrelevant the actual abilities and targeted efforts of an author who wanted to evoke specific responses.

In fact, it’s the aim of most literary scholarship to reconstruct the mental and verbal compass of classic authors and of their audiences, so that we can measure the success of a given work according to the author’s own aims and, in varying degrees, appreciate that work roughly as its first audience did.  This is the literary equivalent to time travel.  Without the specialist’s literary archeology, we’d have only partial access to any work dating from earlier than the 19th century. Hence Auden’s well-known finger-wagging at Yeats for his poem “The Scholars,” a satire mocking academics who, “Edit and annotate the lines/ That young men, tossing on their beds,/ Rhymed out in love’s despair…”  Auden reminded Yeats’s ghost that without scholars we’d have erroneous texts and mistaken notions about what their authors intended.  Scholars can also inform us about prevailing tastes in the era when a given work was written. For example, dealing with Shakespeare, they can tell us that punning and metaphorical conceits were highly prized during the age of the Virgin Queen. This makes a sharp contrast with our own day, when “the lowest form of humor” is always met with a groan, and audiences experience literary conceits as excruciating artifice, contrary to our demand for seriousness and for discourse that is direct and uncensored.  That same demand would put a low value on the hyperbolic tendencies of the Elizabethan sonnet sequence, which, following Petrarch’s lead, hoists praise of the beloved to a level that contemporary taste would find overblown and dishonest.  (Granted, we’re not under oath when we write love poems or epitaphs, but even Shakespeare is aware of the problem, to judge by his sonnet “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” a stab at anti-Petrarchism that, despite its truth-telling aims, seems less successful than its hyperbolic counterparts.)

Once familiar with the earlier standards, do we then enjoy or at least admire Shakespeare’s double-entendres and those elaborate metaphors extended for a dozen lines, along with his promotion of the beloved to quasi-divine status?  The tutored reader can, I think, admire them at one remove, or at least acknowledge the author’s vast resourcefulness in devising effects he knew his readers would approve.  Yet it’s not easy for us to suppress habits of thinking and feeling like those that led Max Beerbohm to write Savonarola Brown, a wicked parody of a Shakespeare play.  What seems to happen when we read the Sonnets is that we remain in a kind of affective limbo, half believing, half disbelieving in them, yet consistently impressed by Shakespeare’s wordsmithery, his inventive figuration, and sonic finesse.  It doesn’t matter that present-day editors would consider them overdone and their author a show-off meriting only a printed rejection slip: the Sonnets will never go out of print or cease to be included in English Lit courses.  Nor can we rule out the possibility that a later age will place a high value on elaboration, artifice, and hyperbole: in cultural history, shifts in taste have often taken surprising turns.

Don Paterson certainly doesn’t attempt to transform himself into a contemporary of Shakespeare. Though familiar with Elizabethan literary standards, he evaluates individual sonnets according to contemporary taste or else his own.  Apparently not bothered by the fact that his strictures won’t stop them from being read, he’s quite ready to pronounce the first seventeen of the Sonnets (the so-called “procreation sonnets”) as “rubbish,” a judgment based on the artificial and implausible feelings they express. In a speculative vein, he cites and gives some credence to the narrative premise behind A Waste of Shame, William Boyd’s BBC drama of several years ago. In Boyd’s plot, the rising playwright is commissioned by the mother of the young nobleman William Herbert to write the “procreation sonnets.”  The widowed matriarch, distressed at her son’s celibacy and failure to provide continuance for the family line, pays a handsome sum for the bardic propaganda, and eventually arranges a meeting between the two men. At which point Shakespeare really does fall in love and begins writing out of emotional rather than financial motives.  Though it made for an entertaining play, I don’t find this narrative plausible. Moreover, it involves some harum-scarum speculation about the nature of Shakespeare’s sexuality, a topic on which Paterson has no doubts whatsoever:

The question ‘was Shakespeare gay?’ is so stupid as to be barely worth answering; but for the record: of course he was.  Arguably he was a bisexual, of sorts; though for all the wives, mistresses and children I’m not entirely convinced by his heterosexual side.  Mostly, his heart just wasn’t in it; when it was, his expressions of heterosexual love are full of self-disgust.

In that period, though, there were no homosexuals, only homosexual acts, these termed “sodomy” and punishable by death.  The “gay identity” hadn’t yet been formed, so the most we can say is that some people of the time were gay without knowing they should be classified as such.  A man so prominent as James I could marry and produce heirs, while still spending the lion’s share of his hours in bed with a series of young favorites, concluding with George Villiers, eventually made Duke of Buckingham.  As evidence contrary to the assertion that James had sexual relations with men, scholars cite the very harsh legal stance he took towards “sodomy.”  Yet the full account of the struggle for acceptance and civil rights for gay people includes incidents of strong opposition coming from figures who were later revealed to be gay. Opposition was simply throwing dust in the eyes of potential enemies as a clever way of avoiding arraignment and prosecution.  Any person who “protesteth too much” should be aware that those very protests to strike us as a card played in order to evade exposure or at least self-knowledge.

Paterson doesn’t do anything like this, in fact, he is more than sympathetic to the attraction that one man might feel for another. Discussing Boyd’s TV play he says:

Certainly if Herbert [William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke] looked anything like the young actor who played him on the box, I can see WS’s problem. (Although he almost certainly didn’t, if we’re to trust portraitists of the time. Wriothesley [Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, often proposed as the subject of the Sonnets], on the other hand, is clearly gorgeous. Though I admit that playing the game of ‘who’d you rather’ at 400 years distance does not, perhaps, represent the leading edge of scholarly research.)

This is funny enough to inspire in me a response just as unscholarly.  We have no proof that Shakespeare did or did not sleep with the young man described in the Sonnets, or with any man.  My speculation is that Shakespeare was no “gayer” than Paterson is, who, precisely because he isn’t threatened by any imputation of homosexuality, can be so relaxed about the topic.  On the evidence of the Sonnets, Shakespeare could recognize male beauty and form strong bonds of affection with men, bonds that could be described as love (or, nowadays, “bromance”).  But the keen bite of physical desire for men that we discover in Marlowe or Whitman is absent in his writings.  Where we do find it is in the so-called “dark lady” sonnets.  Further, if Shakespeare did in fact have sex with a man, he wouldn’t be so imprudent as to record and publish his desires, thereby risking arrest and a pre-mortem funeral pyre.  On the other hand, there was no law against one man loving another so long as that love never involved sexual expression.  A quasi-biblical text for the European Renaissance was Plato’s Symposium, which concludes by recommending a non-physical love on the part of an older man for a younger, as a means of transcending Nature and attaining knowledge of the realm of Pure Ideas.  In Dante and Petrarch, the gender of the beloved changed to female, but there was still no physical consummation, and the purported result was the same: propulsion (by sublimation, we would say) into the upper atmosphere of divine truth.  Meanwhile, if we’re going to read the sonnets as autobiography, then number 121 “’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed” can easily be understood as a repudiation of slander to the effect that Shakespeare’s feelings for the beloved were ever actualized sexually.  In Sonnet 20, he had already spoken of the physical mismatch (which further demonstrates his total lack of experience concerning male-to-male sexual relations) between himself and the young man:

Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

The pun on “pricked” was active for Shakespeare’s time as for ours.  The sense is clear: “I can’t make use of your genitalia, but we two have a non-physical, Platonic love, and that’s the most essential thing; where sex is concerned, women can handle that for you.”

Paterson represents this conclusion as tragic, but the tragic note is nowhere sounded. The speaker calmly accepts the impossibility and is, if anything, only too content to keep their love on a Platonic plane.  The poem includes a couple of instances of what Paterson describes as Shakespeare’s “knee-jerk misogyny” (found elsewhere in the Sonnets, not to mention the plays) without going so far as to say that it is proof of the poet’s gay orientation.  A good thing, because, as we know, gay men are far less misogynist than straight, indeed, the greatest percentage adore women, beginning with their own mothers. That adoration often takes the form of diva-worship, and some individuals will carry it to the point of simulating their iconic figures, cross-dressing as Judy, Barbra, or Madonna.  Dismissing women as “stupid cows” or “bitches” is more the habit of straight men because of course a woman can grant or withhold what they most desire. Frustration and anger when desire isn’t reciprocated take the form of misogyny, whereas sex with women is for a gay man “one thing to my purpose nothing.”  He’s fully satisfied with women’s company and friendship, which they are much more often willing to offer than sex.  Paterson wants to see the misogyny of the “dark lady” sonnets as the inevitable side-effect of his homosexuality; in fact, it suggests the opposite, to the extent that evidence drawn from these poems can be used to argue anything about his biography.

Putting aside Plato, in what human narrative is it psychologically plausible for a man in love with and lusting after another man to urge the beloved to marry and have children?  That is the burden of the first seventeen Sonnets. On the other hand, if we decide that Boyd (or Paterson) is right about the far-fetched commissioning theory, we have to regard Shakespeare as the most mercenary sort of hack, his palm crossed with enough silver to stimulate the drafting of sentiments passionately expressed and yet never in the least felt.  That hack (to follow the hypothesis) couldn’t automatically rule out the possibility that the young beloved would accept the faked protestations of love as genuine and possibly begin to have feelings for their author in return.  In that eventuality, how would the perpetrator of this literary imposture then behave?  It’s too damning a scenario to conjure up and amounts to a character assassination of Shakespeare.

Even when we decide that the first 126 Sonnets are dealing with a purely Platonic relationship, the sheer number of them and the variety of tacks taken suggest that a “marriage of true minds” needs as much treatment as a full-blown union would. In the real world, would it be salutary (if the author really meant to make use of them) to devise so many literary approaches to self-therapy, some of which seem like pettifogging or avoidance?  Modern readers can’t help wanting to recommend a professional counselor, at least in those moments when they forget that the poems are fictions.  To a degree that we find disturbing, it is literary convention more than autobiography that governs the production of poems in the Elizabethan era. Nothing requires us to believe the Sonnets had more than a casual basis in Shakespeare’s life; it’s even possible that they were written not to win over or reproach any existing beloved but instead simply to produce poems, poems exploring feelings more hypothetical than actual.  We certainly don’t suppose the Shakespeare underwent the experiences of the characters represented in his plays, no matter how intricately and convincingly developed their feelings may be. Many contemporary poets, though presumed to be working within an aesthetic of sincerity and authenticity, are ready to admit that they invent the subjects of their ostensibly autobiographical poems. How much more likely it is that Shakespeare did the same thing. The speculations we make about his motivations reveal more about us than about the author.

That sort of revelation, in fact, is the value-added aspect of this book. It provides us with an indirect portrait of the mind, technical preoccupations, and emotional commitments of Don Paterson.  Because of his first-rate work elsewhere, we’re interested to read this practical account of his own literary standards—well, more specifically than that, the motions of his thinking as he confronts the subjects dealt with in each sonnet and the rhetorical strategies used in their composition. Judging by the diction he uses, you can see (and this is useful information about him) that he wanted to avoid academic pomposity at all costs, the result, that the prose sounds spoken, informal, and American, with lots of slang and some Scottish diction thrown in for flavor. Sentence fragments abound, along with interjections, and the text deploys as many underlinings as Queen Victoria’s diary.  If the zingy style wasn’t sufficiently noticeable in the excerpt quoted above, here’s another example:

Yikes. SB [Stephen Booth] explores the various textual knots and cruces here at some length, and very instructively, but let’s see if we can find a more direct route through the poem, and take it line by line. OK. Suit up, scrub, and on with the gloves. This is going to get messy. At least five lines here present real interpretative problems. Scalpel….

The ensuing analysis is presented through the conceit of a surgical procedure, involving metaphoric use of artery clamps as the poem’s “blood pressure” drops, and a final stitching up.  It’s as though the Sonnets’ persistent use of conceits had overtaken their critic, this time in prose.  The effect of using diction more often heard on talk shows and Facebook is unsettling at first, but the fact is I quickly stopped minding and focused instead on the content being conveyed.  Reading pace through these pages is brisk, and they never have the sleeping-pill effect of most academic prose.  Yet, though Paterson circumvents the dead hand of scholarly style, he never entirely abandons the explicator’s task, even when says, “Sorry, it’s late, and I’ve been drinking.”  If I were teaching the Sonnets to undergraduates, I’d assign this book, knowing in advance that they would sense an ally in the author, one who understood their language and mental universe.  So primed, they would also be able to absorb content in the commentaries apart from what’s based entirely on the author’s personality.

The classroom would allow me the space (as a review doesn’t) the to single out the many brilliant insights Paterson arrives at along the way and to disagree with just as many others. Well, one of each then, beginning with a disagreement.  I don’t find all the “procreation sonnets” worthless, an assertion Paterson tries too hard to prove. Discussing Sonnet 12, for example, he says that its first line, “When I do count the clock that tells the time,” is padded out with the phrase “that tells the time,” since, as he says, all clocks tell the time.  But the etymology of the word “clock” is from “glokken,” which meant “bell.”  The first public clocks were bells, intelligible to a populace unable to decipher a clock face yet still able to count. The association with “passing-bells” rung at funerals is part of the meaning.  Beyond that, a master theme in the Sonnets is the passage (and ravages) of time, so it fits to get the word into the first line of this sonnet. Further, time takes on a numerical aspect in an art that requires counting—counting of metrical feet and lines, and, for that matter, some thought about the numbering of individual sonnets.  Paterson (and here is where I agree with him) thinks that Shakespeare did indeed arrange the Sonnets in the order given to them in the Quarto; and that in the great majority of instances the number assigned to a given poem in the sequence is connected to its meaning.  Numbers have a kabbalistic or magical dimension (think how much has been made of the Trinity); and, while we can’t say that Shakespeare was a mathematician, he was certainly an arithmetician, one whose rhythms and numbers were a key component of the spell being cast.  In Paterson’s keen analyses of the numerical aspect of the Sonnets, he demonstrates his own skills with numerology, plus an awareness of at least one poet’s opinion to the effect that, “Poetry is speech that counts.”   This book has sustained some heavy attacks in the press, so much so, that, to use a Shakespearean conceit, Paterson could be described as “down for the count.”  However, because he is a poet, he’ll be able to use the experience and soon be standing up for the next round. A review is never a permanent impediment to the marriage of true minds, in this instance, between the poet and his reader.

Yahia Lababidi remembers late nights in his dorm room at George Washington University, tossing in bed as the voices of Wilde, Rilke and Kafka reverberated around him.  Words or phrases, even the tiniest snippets of philosophy, would teem, pulse and swirl to a boiling point, until he could no longer resist formulating his own response, entering the conversation. “They were literally bouncing off the walls,” he told me, “I would go to bed with a stack of napkins or receipts, and I would never put my glasses on because if I put my glasses on it would scare the thought away.  The fox would not leave its hole if the hunter was outside.”

But he persisted, and his haphazard notes, over time, became numerous and provocative enough that multiple professors and mentors encouraged him to compile and try to publish them. The result was Signposts to Elsewhere, published in 2008, containing his meditations, in the form of a long list of aphorisms, on what he sees as the central human questions: “We’ve always been wrestling with the same things…It’s still a human being, in a body, trying to deal with other human beings, in a society. It hasn’t changed that much…I’m more interested in those who can distill the matter to its essence.”  Just such a project begins in Signposts, where Lababidi liberates the essence of these ideas from the shackles of cliché, which, he believes, are truths that have “lost the initial shock of revelation.”  The aphorism is “not just an aesthetic thing, but an edifying thing. They are truths with an –s that we stumble across and hopefully try to live up to some of the time.” Not greeting card rhetoric, but, actually, “we think in aphorisms. If we quote the outcome of our thoughts, they are aphorisms.” Consider the following, from Signposts:

The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others,
______the ones we do not, define us to ourselves.
Opposites attract. Similarities last.
Time heals old wounds because there are new wounds to attend to.
With enigmatic clarity, Life gives us a different answer
______each time we ask her the same question.
The primary challenge for creators is surviving themselves.
A good listener is one who helps us overhear ourselves.

Previous iterations of these ideas have probably occurred to us, but the delicacy of Lababidi’s aphorisms resides in the fact that, as James Richardson asserts in his foreword to the book, “Unlike the poet, [the aphorist] doesn’t worry whether we’ve heard his exact words millions of times. Nor does he have the Philosopher’s care for consistency. He doesn’t mind that today he warns ‘Time is money’ and tomorrow contradicts that with ‘Stop and smell the roses.’ He has neither the ambition nor the naïveté of the systematizer, and his truth, though stated generally, is applied locally. When he says ‘Like father like son,’ he doesn’t expect anyone to object, ‘Wait, I know a son who’s not like his father.’ He means that right here, right now, a particular son has behaved just as his father might have.’” This dialogic interplay between the universal and the local provide the aphorism its applicability (and popularity).  It has a special quality of speaking to the particulars of life while remaining unstuck from time and space.

After Signposts to Elsewhere, Lababidi turned to poetry, for which he is now more widely known.  He has published in World Literature Today, Cimarron Review, Agni, Hotel Amerika and many others.  Two poems are currently up for a Pushcart. Recently, however, Lababidi has returned to the figures who originally inspired him. Evoking Azar Nafisi, he asserts, “It was these ‘dead white men’ that really did a number on me. It wasn’t a matter of influence, but of initiation. They are closer to me than my own blood.”  Lovers of literature have had similar moments. Mine was weeping over the end of The Brothers Karamazov, under a dim desk lamp, with my college roommate sleeping nearby. As budding thinkers, we want to let our copious thoughts, despite whoever else may have already had them and articulated them much better, out into the open. In short, to write. Lababidi remembers how his notes in the margin became journal entries, which became essays, which, we now see, became a book.

Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Bellydancing (2010) is the type of book critics want to write. It is an intellectual memoir, a sharing of one’s own personal engagement with those who have had a dramatic impact. In the spirit of Susan Sontag (who receives an entire chapter), Lababidi replaces systematizing and arguing with a Montaignian (whose idea of the essai opens the Preface and serves as inspiration for the title of the book) of figuring things out as we go along. “I’m always in a state of discovery and beginning,” he told me, “what I think I know, I’m trying to communicate. You have to get out of your system whatever is yours, whatever speaks to you.” This, for him, is a refreshing departure from the work of academics, who too often “go to the same well to drink, excluding the regular people who perhaps may be more curious. If you give it to me in a way that is forbidding, I’m not interested.”

Trial by Ink, therefore, strives for the opposite. He stresses as much in the Preface:

This…is a subjective work where I attempt to evaluate what I care for and generally test my responsiveness to literature and culture. In the course of such investigations particular judgments emerge, expressions of taste and values. They are my trials, where I am simultaneously scratching my head and my pen across the paper, to determine what I think about a given subject….In turn, what you have before you is a catalogue of interests, possessions, exorcisms and even passing enthusiasms, derived from what I was thinking, reading, watching, dreaming, and living over a seven-year period.

I envy the intellectual freedom, which Lababidi takes up here, to, say, write about Dostoevsky, without the requisite knowledge of Russian language or history, simply because I love him so much. Lababidi has such a relationship with Nietzsche, Wilde, Rilke, Baudelaire, Kafka and many others. He reminded me, though, that to do this, one must always come from a place of relative authority. “Not to dis the blog,” he says, “but they are not essays.” They don’t partake of the type of “deep and continuous mining” and “literary soul-gazing” that are the rudiments of a trial, of an essay.

I agree with this. The first of three parts of Trial by Ink, titled “Literary Profiles and Reviews,” exhibits his mastery of and, frankly, unique and refreshing insights into his masters. He works most provocatively when he puts figures, who, on the surface, don’t seem to have much to do with each other, into an intricate dialogue with each other. Just this occurs with Nietzsche and Wilde. Chapter 3, “The Great Contrarians,” is a lengthy comparison of the two, on the levels of style, their affinity for and belief in the importance of appearances, and their threshold for pain and suffering, especially since they each met with similar types of struggles, including certain levels of moral degradation, which have had occasionally negative effects on their legacies. One need only, as Lababidi does, compare the content of their aphorisms (they were both virtuosos of the form) to begin suddenly to see uncanny similarities:

What fire does not destroy it hardens – Wilde
What does not kill me makes me stronger – Nietzsche
The simple truth, is that not a double lie? – Nietzsche
The truth is rarely ever pure and never simple – Wilde
Public opinion exists only where there are no ideas – Wilde
To say it again, Public opinions, private laziness – Nietzsche
We possess art lest we perish of the truth – Nietzsche
The telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of art – Wilde
Conscience and cowardice are really the same things – Wilde
Not to perpetrate cowardice against one’s own acts!…
The bite of conscience is indecent – Nietzsche
Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or nation – Wilde
Every great progress must be preceded by a partial weakening – Nietzsche

This type of analysis occurs across the first part of the book. Whereas it might not be critically expedient to place Nietzsche, Wilde, and Susan Sontag into a dialogue, this is nonetheless how they speak to Lababidi. And that’s all he’s worried about. Consequently, “I was told not to write this book, in the sense that it was ‘unpublishable.’ Who didn’t tell me that? Academic publishers thought it was too literary. Literary publishers thought it was too academic. I was stuck.” Perhaps. But, ultimately, Lababidi’s book occupies a space of dialogic freedom in which the personal and the critical mesh with refreshing enjoyment.

The cultural dialogue continues in the second and third parts (“Studies in Pop Culture” and “Middle Eastern Musings,” respectively). While Part II contains interesting ruminations on Michael Jackson, Leonard Cohen, Morrissey, serial killers, and the values of silence, Part III was particularly illuminating. Here Lababidi returns to his Muslim heritage in Egypt and Lebanon (where he spent a good amount of time growing up). His discussion juxtaposes the repugnant effects of draconian sexual repression in Egypt (especially contrasted with ritual belly dancing) with the Lebanese’s zest for life in the face of seemingly constant and imminent death in a way that can enlighten a Western reader to the diversity of the “Muslim World,” a term Dr. Nafisi derided at the Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum, for obvious reasons.

Lababidi was at the forum as well, and was intrigued by Nafisi. When I reached out to him to discuss Trial by Ink, he responded with the type of enthusiasm Nafisi showed me. “Conversation is very close to me,” he asserts, not just the type of conversations he has with the likes of Nietzsche, “who is very much alive,” but with contemporaries and collaborators. He was generous enough to meet with me about his work, and about this type of work in general. At the end of our discussion, I asked him what was next for him. In addition to more poetry, he says, “I am returning to these conversations in a much more direct way.” Namely, he is continuing his conversation about his conversations with Nietzsche, Wilde, Rilke, Baudelaire, Kafka, and others in a strictly dialogic way. Chapter 2 of Trial by Ink consists of a back-and-forth with poet and critic Alex Stein about these figures. Like the college-aged Lababidi who refused to put on his glasses so as not to scare away his thoughts, “I will call Alex in the middle of the night, without turning the lights on, and just speak.” The result is a series of conversations (I hesitate to call them interviews) between the two that digs deeper, that “mines” for answers.

From my time with Yahia and by reading the early stages of these new dialogues, it is apparent that face-to-face conversation, where one can engage another on more dynamic and intimate levels, suits the type of broader cultural and intellectual dialogue he has spent his career trying to foster. He doesn’t mind living like an aphorism, unstuck from time, space and generic classifications, asserting, “I don’t think of myself as an aphorist. I don’t think of myself as a poet. I don’t think of myself as an essayist, which leaves me with nothing to say, so to speak…but I’m clarifying something that I suspect I see. I don’t get why from 18 to 22 I chose aphorisms, or aphorisms chose me. It seemed like the most instinctive way to talk, to communicate…at some point it shifts to poems…words have a life of their own…ideas have a life of their own. They decide how to dress themselves…the form doesn’t matter as much as trying to communicate a territory that on some days I have been privileged to have been shoe-horned into.” This openness has organically led him to the dialogic form as the best (only?) way to convey what he sees as the real essence of all these thinkers, “and this is where I wish that the lights could dim and I could whisper it into your ear so no one can hear. This is about the artist as mystic. If you think it’s mad, it’s mad. If you think it makes sense to you on a personal level, then it does…If it works as literary soul-gazing, take it. If it works as pure fiction, then it does.” The ambition, and the already apparent spiritual depth of this new trial, is titillating, the type of book I want to write. But what happens when the conversation is finished? “Ten years of silence, under a rock somewhere.”

When gaining a foothold among the establishment, it is important the so called “outsiders” or mavericks have a figure fully anchored within the establishment who can be “acceptable” to the degree that he is:

1. Friendly to their cause, or, at the least, suffers their presence gladly.

2. Perceives himself (or herself) as being “forward thinking” (it does not matter if he or she is truly forward thinking as long as he or she considers his or herself as having a nose for future value).

3. Often someone with disposable income or privilege fully willing to dispose of it.

4. A disgruntled, black sheep member or son or daughter of the highest inner circles willing to defect and lend their support and contacts and influence to the “new” order.

In terms of the Black Mountain school let’s fill out that order. William Carlos Williams, especially in his more objectivist, socialist form was perceived as friendly to the cause of poetic innovation, and was enough of an outside/insider to prove acceptable as a substitute for Eliot whose triumphant followers in the form of the post-war formalists, and metaphysical poets had a lock on academic positions and public adoration. As the Agrarians had done twenty years before, the Black mountain school found a camp in the wilderness, but, unlike the agrarians (John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, etc, etc) they did not embrace a local, southern aesthetic, but used the isolated camp in the mountains of North Carolina as a meeting ground for international figures of the “new.” The romance of this camp caught the imagination of one of the most “inside” figures in all of poetry: Robert Lowell. Lowell, bi-polar and supremely gifted, and from one of the most powerful and gloried families in New England, was the chief darling, along with Randal Jarrell of the late thirties and early forties elders. In post-war poetry, he was dominant.

His “conversion” to free verse and to writing from life in mid to late fifties put a stamp of approval upon what had been the outsider’s position. I forgot to mention the idea of the “sacrificial lamb” or “innocent victim” around which the outsiders rally, and thereby seize power. In this case, the most comical, and unlikely lamb in literary history: Ezra Pound. Lowell’s championing of Pound, and the defense of Pound, the fight to get Pound out of jail for treason, brought Williams, Pound’s college buddy, and the Black mountain school, as well as Lowell into alliance, putting the final seal of “greatness” on Williams which had begun with Jarell’s introduction to his selected poems, and the rich James Laughlin’s interest in publishing Williams’ work,  This rallying around Ezra brought certain poets into prominence much as the Vietnam war protests of the sixties brought Bly, Merwin, and the Deep Imagists to the fore. So that’s the other condition for outsiders becoming the insiders: a proper “victim” or martyr they can rally around. (“Free Mumia” t-shirt anyone?)

We will be studying these mechanisms in detail through both the poems and essays in the following movements:

1. First and second generation romantics.
2. The Imagists.
3. The Black Mountain school
4. The Beats/ San Francisco/Confessional schools
5. New York School/L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E/Surrealists
6. Deep Imagists
7. Multicultural (or the cannon warriors)
8. Gender, queer, and green theory

And their various alliances, misalliances, temporary marriages of convenience, hybrids, and finally:

9. Slam and spoken word, and its mixture of multi-cultural, beat, gender/queer identity and post-Lenny Bruce menology (as well as aspects of the self-acceptance movement).

Certain suppositions:

1. With the possible exception of spoken word and multiculturalism, none of these “mavericks” were truly outside the power structure, and all of them depended on converts within the power structure to gain a foot hold.
2. All movements, once gaining a foothold, take on the characteristics of power against which they rebelled, and the re-affirmation of elitist exclusion/inclusion tactics. All end up being part of the academic and publishing establishment, and are distilled beyond their original definitive traits into what I will call “establishment and normative” sea. All rivers run to the sea, and that sea is both the death of a dynamic, and the force of the power in all dynamics.

We will be studying these power games through certain theories of co-operative evolution, and one thing the evolutionists are never interested in and ought to be: the tendency of movements and isms to create abnormative, non-breeding “heroes”– not unlike priests who function in the realm of  what I will call “virtual mate selection” and produce “virtual” progeny. The way this is done bears many common traits with actual mate selection and the bearing/raising of children. So we will study these movements in relation to “courtship.

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.”

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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.

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.