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

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

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

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

The film Man with a Movie Camera represents
AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC TRANSMISSION
Of visual phenomena
WITHOUT THE USE OF INTERTITLES
(a film without intertitles)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCRIPT
(a film without script)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A THEATRE
(a film without actors, without sets, etc.)
This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.

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

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

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

Later McLuhan quotes John Wilson:

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

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

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

A Review of The Salt Ecstasies by James L. White

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

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

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

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

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

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

To celebrate the forthcoming ¿What Where? Chapbook Series from The Corresponding Society, there will be a reading at Unnameable Books featuring Anselm Berrigan, Ryan Doyle May, Christie Ann Reynolds, Ben Fama, and Robert Fitterman. The event will be hosted by Lonely Christopher.

Details: Wednesday, November 17th, 8pm.
600 Vanderbilt Ave (at St. Marks), Brooklyn, NY.

More details/Facebook event.

In my next several posts, I am going to talk about metaphors and the invisible neutrino of “and” that lies beneath them. I will make the following contentions:

1. Metaphors are as much about disassociation as association
2. Metaphors generate subtexts.
3. Consciousness and metaphor are inseparable.
4. To present two unlike objects is to create the implicit arc of metaphor.

5. All language is relational.

In a sense, language is innately metaphorical because no word is the thing or state of being it describes. We can call a person “Big Ben” or “tree” if he is tall, “bean pole” if he is skinny, or we can call an obese person “slim” or “bean pole.” This is ironic, sarcastic, incongruous. An obese person is certainly not “Slim,” but to say to an obese friend, “Hey Slim,” can carry far more meaning than calling him “hey, obese friend.” First, we may be assuming an intimacy that is allowing us to tease him (one must be careful of assuming anything in this post-structural age in which the rigid structure of political correctness has been raised). Depending on the tone, the situation, and our attitude, “Slim” can be endearing, scathing, or merely habitual. For this reason, I will use Bentham’s idea of laudatory, neutral, and dislogistic registers of speech.

We can call a person a “leader (laudatory, unless we are being tongue in cheek). We can call that same person “assertive” (one of the qualities of a leader, and neutral in tone) or we can call him a “tyrant,” bossy, macho, aggressive, a slave driver, or Hitler (dislogistic). Here’s the miracle of language: suppose this person has just made love, and he ravished his lover in a way she approves of, and when they are done, and doing advanced Yoga (for who smokes afterwards in this age of madness?), she turns to him and kisses his assertive shoulder and says: “Aww… my little Hitler.” She has just made Hitler a term of endearment. But does Hitler go away as a possibly dislogistic implication? Not at all! Thus, a dislogistic term, used in an affectionate or laudatory way creates a sort of dialectical energy and charge. At the same time, she is being loving, she is also affirming that this man is assertive, or macho, or, perhaps, even a power junkie, such as Hitler.

This is why comedy often tells us what we have built a piety around. If you want to know the piety of a culture, see what its comics are mocking or tweeking. In the old screw ball comedy, My Man Geoffrey, two rich and spoiled society girls go to a junkyard on a scavenger hunt for charity to find a “lost man.” If they can bring a homeless man back to the mansion, they will win the scavenger hunt. The movie was made during the depression, and this “hunt” immediately established the cluelessness and privilege of the sisters and showed the seriousness of that age by making light of it. It both cushioned the full blow of the plight, and served to define it.

Metaphor then is volatile, and it is always relational. Even when it seeks to detach, it joins, and when it would join, it detaches. It creates disassociation as much as it creates association. Metaphors are properties of fractal and generative consciousness, but they are also distortion. We live in our verbal universe, communicate complex emotions, negotiate the most subtle nuances through a series of distortions. We can fall prey to our metaphors. In point of fact, consciousness could be defined as the willingness to fall prey to one’s metaphors. We can think, reason, learn, even negotiate space and time without metaphors, but we can not be fully human in the sense of nuance, irony, and social parlance without them. Our age, being still caught in the scientific myth of denotative terms, objective reality, empirical truth, has fed this myth to those who would root out injustice, and prejudice, by making sure all speech is neutral–devoid of either its dislogistic or laudatory registers.

Ah, but here’s the rub: A child blows up his sister, and the father calls him into the living room and says: “Now son… blowing up your sister was inappropriate.” That might get a laugh years ago, but, in our present “professional” world, pedophilia, blowing up one’s sister, and eating San Francisco might very well be called “inappropriate actions” and no one laughs. This scares the hell out of me. To use Aspergers as a metaphor, there is something Aspergian about this state of affairs. We can blame scientists. We can blame the cult of neutrality. We can even blame a sort of extreme dadaist literalism. Our neutral speech is as much a semiotic indicator of power and control as our dislogistic and laudatory speech–far more so. Someone living in a dislogistic register will give us the sense of someone ignorant, crude, not in command of his or her emotions. Someone living in a laudatory register will give us the sense of a suck up, a cheerleader, a person courting favor.

Social intelligence calls for both negotiating these registers along situational and contextual lines, and blurring those lines. Neutral speech can be anger and ultimate violence made conspicuous by its absence. To say “we have decided to disregard the civilian casualties in a particular campaign and to pursue our objective with extreme prejudice” is to apply a “professional” gloss to the intentional killing and destruction of thousands. Language allows us to call genocide a “final solution.” Just as a relation means separate as much as together, our language distances us from our deeds as much as it defines them. It allows us to call the death of children in warfare “collateral damage.” As for me, I’d rather have someone call me an asshole than refer to me as “expendable.” To take all the emotion out of a verbal construct in no way lessens the violence of a culture, but may even increase it. When a metaphor allows us to detach, and all metaphors allow us to detach, it becomes dangerous, but, without that danger, no consciousness, and no poetry is possible.

A metaphor then seeks to be misunderstood as well as understood, albeit in a fruitful and generative way. Poets, before scientists, were the first disciplinarians where metaphors are concerned. They did not want them mixed. They did not want them too imprecise. A poet is the lion tamer of metaphor, but, in creating a lion to tame, he also makes a lion who can possibly eat a culture, define it, distort it. “The age of reason” is a metaphor. If we break it down, it is not accurate. We move toward grace by a judicious stumbling. This stumbling is consciousness, and consciousness depends, to a very great extent, on our metaphors–not only their precision, but their power to distort.

“My love is like a red, red rose,” is a simile. My “love is a rose” is a metaphor. The simile can contain a likeness or affinity without being beholden to a full substance. The simile qualifies. It says: my love is like a rose because, like a rose, it is beautiful to me and makes me feel lively the way roses indicate the life of summer has arrived. And it is sweet to the smell, and soft to the touch, but it also has thorns and can hurt. And it is brief and must wither and die. A metaphor says to the simile, “Well, if that’s the case, my love IS a rose!” Metaphors are committed to falsehood and inexactness for the sake of a possibility more vital than precision. They allow us to move more quickly through the world by a series of almost, close to, and close enough.

The great sage of consciousness, Julian Jaynes, broke metaphors down into “metaphrands” (the unseen quality or emotion we are trying to get at), “metaphier” (the thing we use to get at it), “paraphrands” (the subtext of the metaphrand), and “paraphier” (the subtext of the paraphrand). We will confine ourselves to the metaphrand and the metaphier, here:

“My love” is the metaphrand. I want to express its qualities, so I resort to a metaphier of the rose. Now, once this metaphor enters the language, everyone accepts it at face value. When that happens you have a cliche. You can either refuse to use the cliche or you can have fun with it, deconstruct it, or, like a good dadaist, take it absolutely literally. In a Marx brothers movie, Chico might say to Groucho: “Boss, it’s raining cats and dogs.” Groucho might say: “Quick man! Have you no sense? Go out there and put some of that rain on a leash… I could use a good pet.”

This sort of humor comes from taking the figurative literally. Comedy is of the head more than the heart because, in addition to testing and teasing our behavioral pieties, it tests and teases our sacred metaphors. In a Marx Brothers movie, the absurdity of dreams is generated by taking a metaphor with all its metapheirs and exploding it. We “derange” the senses– something Rimbaud advocated at the beginning of modernist poetry. A simple way into modernism and post-modernism is to say that, like pre-modernism, it moves through a universe of metaphors. Unlike pre-modernism, it seeks to emphasize not the associative, but the dis-associative aspects of metaphors, and, by doing so, create a new perspective by incongruity. In this respect, it is essentially comic, though often in a terrifying, nightmarish way. So to re-cap, metaphors connect unlike things, create relationship, and allow us to move through the world while at the same time creating disconnects, confusions, and falsehoods. Post-modernism emphasizes this later power.

In the next post we will look at a poem by Andre Breton that functions in this respect. Some people don’t “get” the Marx Brothers. They are “silly.” Some people don’t get why anyone would feel pleasurably sad watching a sunset. They lack that emotional nuance. In the one case, an overly pious F-factor (feeling) may short circuit the humor. In the other case, an overly emphasized T-factor (thought) might make the person blind to “pleasurable sadness.” Let’s try to be capable of both, but each new poem will cause us to choose, and in a hundred subtle ways.

Last time, we saw that in his critical introduction to Unusual Woods, Gene Tanta wants us to approach his poetry both as immigrant poetry (which means a couple of things) and for its aesthetic value. I postulated that he accomplishes a dialectic between “local” and “universal” through strategies that extend and enrich Deep Image and surrealist poetics. Let’s see how this happens.

First, look at how these thirteen-line “ghost-sonnets,” as he calls them, are built:

The cavalry is always peering down into the ravine
whenever you’re not looking.
Someone is burping.
Someone is shirt-shinning the author’s coffin.
Someone’s nose or finger or toe
is playing in the underwater roots downstream.
Under the lean and starry sky
the fortune-teller
took your money, saying:
You seem far away,
like a cuckoo clock on a sunken ship.
If it consoles you,
you’ll die on an odd breath or an even breath.

Architecturally, this poem comprises fragmented, disjoined images struggling towards coherence. The second person pronouns and the indefinite pronoun “someone” establishes some cohesion of persons. But temporally, there are problems. The three lines beginning with “someone” borrow the surreal technique of the continuous (indefinite) present tense, in which multiple, seemingly disconnected actions are happening simultaneously. “Always” in the first line also suggests a continuous, indistinct present tense—in a sense, it is an eternal present, which is to say, no time at all. If one needs events passing over time to have narrative structure, this poem is putting up a fuss.

Even so, paradoxically, the simultaneity of the events forces a coherent reading. Parataxis aside, normal reading expectations demand that proximity (in the text) implies relationship. But here, at least within the narrative framework of the poem, persons and events are disjoined. Thus, like a collage, these images are simply asserted (placed by the artist) and readers are forced to make what they will of it. Implicitly, these seemingly disconnected things are envisioned as unified, which is the surreal experience of the “marvelous” or the Deep Image experience of the “deep image.”

So Tanta’s poems are built like surrealist collage; in addition, the images themselves are surreal in their catachresis and play. What is the meaning of that cavalry peering into the ravine? And what is to be made of the cuckoo clock on the sunken ship? Throughout Unusual Woods, Tanta freezes the reader with similarly obscure imagery:

Clearly, you are a severed viper head
and not as you claim

and

his eyes flickered (beaten)
in a gold-leaf epic splashed inside his skull

and

Yet another hooligan utopia
awaits its facial hair to grow.

and

My pulsebeat still listens for yours,
a ghost just leafing thru,
the library books of your body.

These images succeed not just because they are surprising and beautiful, but also because they are teasingly suggestive, even while their possible meanings are limited and redirected within the complex structure of the whole. As Tanta says in his essay, structure gives us the means by which we can approach the text aesthetically and thus as something universal (because beauty and structure are universal).

But what of the local? Tanta explores his identity as an immigrant and ESL poet in the courageous (but tasteful) exploitation of puns, idioms and other kinds of word play. In general, ESL poets tend to take things literally, resulting in images that are deeply ironic for readers even though they underscore the speaker’s innocence and naïveté : “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words on his inner thigh….” At times the poet admits to (not insignificant) gaps in comprehension: “It’s so hard to tell few from fewer” (47). Other times deliberate ESL-like misuse of language can create a new, interesting phrase: “A dash sparrows in to sip a little water / from the water-fountain” (85). The poet cannot resist playful manipulation of idioms: “He had an ax to pick / and a bone to grind.” Finally, and most rewardingly, the ESL vantage point exposes metaphoric relationships hidden within the language itself:

At night, lightning flashes its teeth
over the Seine.

Surely, whether consciously or not, the poet discovers the idiom “flashing a smile” to be congruently matched to lightning, which literally “flashes.” Thus, the teeth/lightning relationship was idiomatically implanted in our language without our (or at least my) noticing it; it took the eye of an immigrant to find it.

My final observation is that in spite of the obscure images, anti-narrative structures, and non-transparent language, Tanta’s poems project a clear voice that navigates the reader. While Unusual Woods could be analyzed thematically (there are numerous gypsies, firing squads, and dictators), I found the personality of the speaker to be a more important (perhaps the most important) unifying force in this collection. Whether it concerns love, family or writing, the voice’s sincerity gives the sonnets weight and timbre. Here is one example:

My father did not invent fire and I refuse to vote
the birds in thick alarm.
I am thru with my voice, here it is
like a fire:
About what you cannot sing you weep and sob and cry.
Along these atlases
we alter things all the time with our sexual conduct.
You don’t know me as a broken arrow’s broken diction
but by my desperate Dionysian catapult,
by my Grecian star map,
by my Assyrian aqueduct, by my Brooklyn bridge,
by my Yugoslavian copper, by my Sumerian plow.
Once a termite lived.

Sandwiched between the cryptic first and third sentences is a dazzlingly direct, emotional statement about the writer’s own struggle to speak (as immigrant and as poet). Then there is a catalogue of exotic items by which we will “know” him. Whatever it is these items collectively mean—taking note, meanwhile, that Eastern European and America are represented—their symbolic resonance clearly outweighs the brokenness of self and speech that is the mark of an immigrant (“a broken arrow’s broken diction”). And yet, it is this “broken diction” that is partly to thank for the success of his poems (not that Tanta reads like anything less than a master of the language). And even though the disjunction of the last line deflates the intensity of these personal, direct statements, the sonnet undoubtedly proclaims something vital about the speaker. The core self is at stake.

And this is the coolest thing about Tanta’s work—even though these poems are centered on a persona, the indeterminable and seemingly fragmentary aspects of the world co-exist with the self. That is to say, aspects of the self and aspects of the world are placed in relationship. “Once a termite lived”—in the context of the poem, this statement and what it signifies are appended to the self and become an aspect or extension of it. The self is neither merely “a broken arrow [with] broken diction,” nor even a compilation of architectural structures and tools; rather, and ultimately, these poems are about an introspective, enculturated, embodied soul who must interpret the world in order to make sense of its own existence. It is because the world—whether native or foreign—is such a strange place that one finds oneself looking for meaning within “unusual woods.”

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

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

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

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

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

No one ever lied to me about the sheep.

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

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

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

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

The instruction on carving is always better.

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

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

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

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

They told me how to get better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For beginning writers, rules of thumb are important. My goals are simple:

1. Get them to avoid cliches–not of thought (almost all thoughts are cliche), but of language and image.
2. Get them to play with cliche so that they master them rather than being mastered by them.
3. Teach them to vary sentence length against the line.
4. Teach them to be aware of word choice.
5. Teach them to know the difference between the concrete and the abstract, and all the hues and shades in between (a big mistake we make is teaching them to show, not tell without letting them know that the showing must tell–that an image must work for the poem.
6. Re-orient their sense of the “poetic” to include ordinary experience rendered in an extraordinary way, rather than extraordinary experience rendered in a typical, and hackneyed “poetic” way.

Specifically, let’s take the first two goals here. I noticed that many of my students, when in the throes of an injured heart would have to mention “piercing blue eyes, “cold blue eyes,” etc, etc. Those blue eyed boys were down right evil. I explained that the Russian novelists had exhausted just about every shade of eye in the 19th century, and song writers of pop were just about the only people who could still get away with making a big deal out of eyes. Take blue eyes crying in the rain. Or “I’ll never get over those blue eyes.” Green eyes hardly ever got mentioned. Why were blue eyes so important? I explained that, according to evolutionary biologists, blue eyes made the pupil look dilated, and a dilated pupil is a sign of enthusiasm, interest, and atavistic sexual fitness. Thus, according to biologists, blue eyes, especially when they are looking directly at you, seem to “pierce” you. It’s an optical allusion, but obviously effective. I said the next time you got into heavy eye contact with a set of baby blues, imagine an annoying scientist narrating the moment.

Hook Up Olympics
Carol Schmitt

“Ladies and gentlemen, our subject is now
making significant visual contact
with the highly symmetrical, V shaped
mesomorph with the piercing blue eyes.
Jim, what’s happening here?

Well, Frank, I believe he’s about to perform
the cut off the crowd and shelter her
in the canopy of his well proportioned arms
maneuver that won him the gold at Edinburgh…
No… Look At that Frank! She’s
peering up shyly and rounding her shoulders, while
fully exposing her neck, pushing a
fetchingly wayward strand of hair from her ear,
and bringing her secondary sexual characteristics
together in a subtle, but definitely effective
display of cleavage. Good move!

Will he look, Jim?
Frank, Swen knows his strengths.
He’s keeping his baby blues, his dazzling
azures fixed on her sad and limpid browns.
Alright, here comes the moment of crisis.
He’s not looking. Will she laugh and show her
pearly whites, lick her lips, bend one knee
slightly towards his crotch?
Ah… she’s broken eye contact! The subject is
shyly fingering her necklace.
Swen looks down. He’s got a bead on her
breasts. She looks up again. Here comes the cock
block Frank! Ulga’s one of the best in the business–

a whiny, co-dependent room mate
who knows exactly when to ruin any seduction
with her unbridled neediness.
This is not Swen’s forte. At Sidney, he blew it,
insulted the cock block directly. Not good.
Even a turn here to block the block’s
access will cost him points. He’ll have to hope
his piercing blue eyes have done the trick.

And there it is Frank! The subject has
blocked the cock block, herself. Perfectly legal.
She’s turned her back three quarters and is now
melting in his large yet oddly gentle hands.
In this particular contest, Ulga is not
allowed to puke up her Southern Comfort.
And now she taps the subject’s shoulder.
I think it’s too little, too late. Yes!
No response. We have a winner here Frank.
Swen and his piercing blue eyes have done it again.

The point of this comic exercise is to blaspheme against the cliche, to expose it, to play with it, to come at things from an odd angle. In effect, to be imaginative. But student’s pieties run deep, and they often don’t want their sad and lonely lyrical thoughts on the boy (or girl) with the blue eyes to be trampled upon. I make them work for it. One of my students wrote:

His cold blue eyes melted my heart
until I was frozen by his cruel indifferent gaze.

Well, I asked her how cold could melt, and melt could freeze? I made her read John Donne. I gave her a pep talk on oxymoron. I said: “make an analogy between his cold blue eyes and global warming. She wrote:

The arctic ice melts off the coast of Alaska.
Bears and Walruses drown, lost in a three year thaw,
but I remain frozen, melted
in your cold blue eyes.
For my heart, there is no global warming,
no rising sea in which to drown my pain…

Now this isn’t good, but it’s a big improvement over what she had, and it teaches her to play with an image, to make leaps between disparate things to form a bridge of meaning.

Here’s a prompt (and example) to help beginning writers deal with the first two rules.

PROMPT: take a cliche and exaggerate it to the point of absurdity.

“Majestic mountains”

One day the mountain grew bored
with being majestic,
and tumbled down its slopes to sit at the Lodge’s bar.
It wanted to be convivial. It wanted company.
Most called this avalanche. I tell you
it was boredom–the way things
tumble, the way things fall,
only to be themselves again.

That’s one way to work at the first two goals. There are many other possible ways to being working with the first two rules.

How do you help beginning writers avoid cliches?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nixon went down to the beach and sat in the sand and waited. The waves came in, the waves went out, and he sat there in his suit and waited.

There comes a point, in every election, where there seems like there’s nothing anyone can do. Whatever is going to happen will happen. It has happened already. Sometime during the day, sometime while the votes are cast or after they’re cast but haven’t yet been counted, the candidates can’t do anything anymore except wait. Politicking ends. Maneuvering stops. Everyone waits. They’re as helpless as hitchhikers, at that moment, in that in-between time. As helpless as sinners in that old Calvinist doctrine of waiting for grace.

For the last few years, every election day I’ve gone down to the county headquarters and waited while they count the ballots. In the evening at the end of the day, the poll workers pull up to the bunker, lining up their SUVs and unloading the voting machines by the front door. It was the 911 call center at one point, a concrete building half-built into the ground, radio aerials like squiggly doodles drawn in the sky. They transformed it into a community center, though, and reporters and candidates, party hacks and other observers are shuffled over into a room that is used, most days, for a battered-wives support group. There are chairs there and we wait while they count. On the bulletin boards are brightly colored flyers saying love shouldn’t hurt, help is available, break the cycle of violence. We can see through a window to where they do the actual counting–election officials in a rush, unlocking the machines, sorting and shifting and tallying districts, then uploading the count onto the official site, where, all over the county, all over the state, candidates and journalists, party workers, regular voters, and other observers wait for the numbers to say what is already decided.

That is the weird thing, watching the poll workers come in and unload the machines, watching the counters count and the election watchers watch. You know the decision’s been made. There’s nothing anyone can do anymore. You’re in the interregnum. You’re in that period where you know that soon everything will appear clear and as foreordained as if providence had made it so, everything is complete, and soon this history can be what cultural studies scholars call “presentist,” where everything clearly leads up to what it did the way it did and makes sense retrospectively. But for the moment everything is undetermined. What’s going to be already is and we wait for what’s done, what’s inevitable and, in fact, is already accomplished but only not yet realized.

The future is fluid, to you there, standing there at sunset on election day as the counting counters scurry, and the past is fluid too. The past is done, but unknown; the future done and unknown too. All of it moving. All of it’s as formless as water. But only to you. In another sense, in a real sense or a more real sense, it’s all already solid. The past is decided and the future’s decided and has its shape, its form is fixed, but for you it’s all only liquid.

The tide goes out. The tide comes in. Nixon butt prints in November beach sand.

It’s strange that for a country as political as America, for a country that makes or can make anything political, whose day-to-day drama and national narrative is internally tangled and intertwined with party machinations and affairs of state — our own present history even actually narrated back to us by party hacks and political commentators — that there’s really very little art that directly deals with the political process.

The one work that really stands out is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, which, interestingly, puts a whole narrative in this interregnum state, where history is all fixed and predetermined and fated, and yet, unknown. It starts with driving directions, which also work as metaphor:

To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or it was new, that day we went up it. You look at that highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll reach to try to turn off the ignition just as she starts to dive. But you won’t make it, of course.

The book was written in 1946, Warren’s third novel. It won the Pulitzer in ’47, and seems to somewhat cyclically attract attention without ever making it onto anyone’s “great” list, or gaining a firm place in any cannon. It’s the story of Jack Burden, the narrator, a newspaper writer who goes to work for Willie Stark, a character loosely based on Louisiana’s Huey P. Long, a rising populist, a reformer who grabs power with both hands. It’s a political novel, in that it’s about politics. It might be the best book we have in American literature on politics–it’s the best one I can think of–but it’s also a meditation on destiny. Or what we might call a kind of secular Calvinism.

Burden is, by calling and by training, a historian. He is also an amateur philosopher, who flirts with Idealism, and a nihilistic, materialistic version of Calvinism that pictures history as a great big “twitch,” and he meditates confusedly on questions of destiny and time. He says, “And all times are one time, and all those dead in the past never lived before our definition gives them life, and out of the shadow their eyes implore us. That is what all of us historical researchers believe,” and “go out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time,” and other philosophical, poetic thing. The book is narrated from the future with a feeling of dread. A sense of doom sending its shadow back over the story. Huey P. Long, of course, was assassinated at, perhaps, the height of his power, and we know, even at the start, even if it’s just as a feeling from the sense of style, that that is going to happen and bad things are going to happen before the end of the book. We can see it coming–”coming at you”–down the middle of a highway, flat and straight for miles. Burden narrates with a sense of destiny that might, more rightly, be called inevitability.

Foreordination that’s more like foreboding.

He believes in providence, but in the sort of providence that only shows you the solid form of your fate in the moment after it happens. Everything’s liquid, as he stands there, an ocean that undulates without form, until suddenly he sees, and the past is solid and was what it was, and the future is now what it is and was always going to be.

There’s a sense of doom, in this, and All the King’s Men is Calvinistic too in its sense that everyone’s implicated, intertwined and tangled up inescapably in the horrible human condition. It’s secular, though, in that the human degradation does not and is not meant to emphasize the distant glory of God, but only highlights our helplessness. There is no salvation, in All the King’s Men, but only the waiting. Or, there is a salvation, but it’s only political, it’s only a new road or a new state policy or an inspiring speech, and the characters in the novel are always on the way towards a crash into the limits of the limited scope of that hope.

As Willie Stark says to Jack Burden, “We been in it up to our ears, both of us, you and me, boy.”

Or as somebody says to Stark, when his first run for governor flounders out, “You thought you were the little white lamb of God.”

Everyone’s condemned in this novel — always already condemned — and what’s interesting, reading it, is seeing how you already know how it’s going to end just from the tone, just from the style, and yet it’s riveting anyway. You can’t look away. That secular Calvinistic sense of sin is injected into every part of the narrative, and the characters, even at the beginning, are already framed by their doom. Framed not in the political sense of made-up scandal with planted evidence, but framed by history and fate. As Stark says, trying to explain it,

I never did ask you to frame anybody. And you know why?

No.

Because it ain’t ever necessary. You don’t ever have to frame anybody, because the truth is always enough.

We are, that is, all already framed. Framed by history. We just know how yet.

The narrator regularly signals what’s going to happen, but the character who narrates can only wait, helpless, until it does. Jack Burden is, as a character, as condemned as Oedipus, of the ancient Greeks, who made his fate come true by working against it. He’s doomed and destined, and the facts or events of the novel are fixed, and there’s a way in which Burden doesn’t actually act any more than Nixon did on that Election Day, waiting for someone to come find him and tell him what he’d done. Instead, what changes for Burden is the way he thinks about himself and history and the history that is to come. The whole novel is watching him drive straight into the crash of the realization of his Calvinistic kind of fate.

Then the share-cropping black man, chopping cotton in the very first pages of the novel, can see “the little column of black smoke standing up against the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and [...] say, ‘Lawd God, hit’s a-nudder one done done hit.’”

Of course, we might say the same thing about secularized Calvinism in American literature, about displaced, disenchanted destiny in the American novel: Hit’s a-nudder one done done hit again. It’s a subtext that stretches and a question that comes up from Hawthorne to Pynchon. Nathanial Hawthorne, even in early stories like “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” cross-layers providentalisms against each other, until the characters all get caught in them, destroyed in them (and maybe the story does too). Thomas Pynchon’s Slothrop, the paranoid center of the apparently conspiratorial universe of Gravity’s Rainbow, is, appropriately, the descendent of providentialist Puritans, the son of a whole history of paranoid histories. America is a country, too, that has always confused it’s providentialism and its politics, with its Manifest Destinies and Cities on Hills, which is all foreordination and fixed history, fixed into the future, the “God” little more than the manifestations of the mystery of it was going to happen, its history always one of retrospective and presentist explanations, meta-narratives that put the whole thing in a frame.

What’s interesting about Jack Burden’s secular Calvinism, in all its foreordination and mystery, with history that’s both God-given and unknowable, is this moment: the interregnum. The election day moment. He lives there, right there, the narrative is structured there, where everything’s already been decided and there’s nothing you can do. Sitting on the beach where everything’s liquid, everything’s fluid, it’s all an ocean, and then in a moment you see the shape of it all, a shape you can then never un-see.

In this novel we’re always in this moment where we’re watching the voting machines unloaded and knowing that here the Vox of the populi has already been uttered, but isn’t or hasn’t yet become, hasn’t been transformed into the vox of the Dei, and so can’t yet be heard or understood.

For most of us, most of the time, fate and history are fixed. Or seem fixed. We are meta-narrativists and presentists, by training and by nature, and the past seems to us to be solid, the present predetermined even as what we’re really doing is reading it, interpreting it, socially constructing it from where we sit. There are moments, though, where we’re waiting, where we don’t have what we need to determine the providential shape of the narrative of “now.”  We will, with our tellings, fix it as if it’s the voice of God, as if it’s the only way things are or could have been, but there are moments where that indeterminacy of history, the openness of how we read or could read and how we understand, is, for a moment, if not clear, a feeling we clearly feel as dread in our stomachs as we watch the ocean tide.

Moments of uneasy interregnum.

Moments of waiting, waiting for what has already happened or will seem like it has when the past is appropriately fixed and firmed-up by the future, moments of suspended shock, before everything fits into place.

“When a heavy-caliber slug hits you,” Jack Burden explains, “you may spin around but you don’t feel a thing.”

Moments when, watching the middle line of a flat highway like 58, watching it flicker and shimmer until we pass into a daze while driving, hypnotized by ourselves, and we imagine as if in a trance, a daydream from which we cannot wake, what would happen if we veered off into the dirt shoulder and crashed, what the smoke would look like, what the cotton choppers would say to themselves, a mile away, and we imagine the other alternative too, where we go “whipping on into the dazzle [...] at the horizon where the cotton fields are blurred into the light, the slab will gleam and glitter like water, as though the road were flooded,” and we’ll go “whipping towards it, but it will always be ahead [...] that bright, flooded place, like a mirage.”

It’s a hypnotic moment, where we stare off unfocused, like Nixon looking at the ocean. There, in the in-between when the votes are being counted, the past, present and the future could really all go either way, could take any shape. Until it happen. Then it won’t seem like anything except our story of fate and future-from-past, present-from-past, now as it was always going to be because of secular providence, was possible. After it happens.

For that moment though, everything was liquid.

Musicians, jazz musicians, keep fake books–at least they used to–with all the chord changes as well as written-down alternatives they may want to try. Why don’t poets keep fake books? I know Thomas Lux has his own personal anthology of poems he likes or is interested in. It’s a great idea.

To make a good fake book,
1. Leave plenty of room in the margins to write notes.
2. Leave doodle space.
3. Keep the backs of the paper blank so you can write the poem out in your own hand, or write an answer to it, or a variation on it. When you write someone else’s poem out by hand, you get an entirely different relationship to the language–the line, word choice, etc.

Here’s another strange practice, but one that appeals to me as a sort of loopy scientist: Read a poem once silently. Close the book, take a pen or pencil and jot down the exact lines in your fake book (or what you think are the exact lines you remember). Even if it’s only an image, jot it down. Do this with every poem you encounter. Five months from now, see what it is you remembered: study it by mood, by words, by sound relationships. This is how your neural self stores immediate acts of language. It is a hand print of your own immediate memory. It will also show you how alliteration, repetition, and strong language are all mimetic devices. Look for a pattern to your memory. You will then have some idea what makes language immediately memorable to you, and you can use this knowledge for your work. Keep this in a note book. Don’t revisit the previous memory jottings until the five months are up. Read a poem a day, and do this. See what your mind misremembered or added to the text. I know a girl who remembered a line by Emily Dickinson: “I like a look of agony because I know it’s true.” She mis-remembered it as: “I like a look of agony because I know its you.” I loved it.

Once, in a kingdom called Catholic grammar school, I was made to memorize “The Raven” and The Song of Hiawatha.” I got up there and lost it. This is what I said (I spell Longfellow’s Indian place name wrongly on purpose):

By the shores of gitchee goomy,
Stood the noble Hiawatha
quoting from the other shore:
Only this and nothing more.

I spliced them, diced them, and mangled them. What I remembered flawlessly was the meter which is trochaic tetrameter. I screwed up. The kids laughed. The nun tried not to laugh, and then did. Later, when we were briefly alone, I said:

“Sister… did Poe steal from Longfellow.? They got the same sound.”
“Joseph, I wish your memory and your work ethic were on par with your perception. Poe did indeed imitate some of the effects of trochaic meter found in Longfellow. Mr. Poe could be somewhat of a thief.”

We remember rhythms and sounds because they are the verbal mold sets for imagery and words. Free verse has irregular molds and so it often relies on the imagery for its effects. Modern, written prose uses mimetic devices sparingly, unless it is trying to sell something. You will know when something is being sold because the sisters of repetition, and alliteration, and rhyme, and short sentences, and chiasmus, and rhetorical oration will come into play:

Buy bonds!
Where’s the beef?
If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.
Play it again, Sam!

The last line was never actually said in the movie. The whole culture misremembered it. We do not remember words or even language. We remember effect, usually rhythmic effects. This is why jingles, sound bytes, slogans, and commercials are so memorable (and so dangerous). By keeping a record of what you remember immediately, or misremember, you are keeping an “effect diary.” I like that. I think I am going to do it myself!

Many poets obsessed with the page turn against a poem the moment they are too aware of its effects. They do not recognize this as snobbery, as a prejudice. They don’t get on Gerard Manley Hopkins for it because they have been trained to think he is a great poet and would not dare to accuse him of overdoing the alliteration.

I always wanted a t shirt that said, “Rose, thou art sick!” I can’t imagine a more jolting, a more provocative start to a poem. It would be nice to advertise Blake.

So in class, I’d like to have a slogan-bot. A little machine that would spit out catch phrases, received ideas, slogans, and cliches, on a fairly constant basis, in the voice of that English lady in cars that have a GPS device–only with no priority of order. I would turn it on for five minutes every day and just let the students listen. It would seem comic. It would train the mind of a student to associate the sounds of sound bytes with incongruity and to be suspicious. Eventually, the student would be conditioned to have a sound byte detector, and to test language that nut shelled things. He or she would be trained to know the effects of slogans–not necessarily the slogans. That would be better. That would be training the ear. This would both teach cliche, and train the student to use effective sounds, but without simplistic thoughts.

PHOTO CREDIT: See some more amazing jazz-themed photos.

Adam Fitzgerald has been up to some crazy shit lately. Not only is the man a teaching, (Maggy) magazine editing, (Monk) book publishing maniac, he’s also managed to put together a 100-page, 6-part poem collage in all that spare time he has. It’s called “The Life of Gorgias.”

This is how Adam describes this piece:

“The Gorgias” will have the first of six installments to be posted online. It incorporates poetry, collage, pornography, emails, Gchats, Facebook, and something I’m very excited about — music by STARS OF THE LID (an amazing ambient drone band that I’ve listened to for the past year when writing).
The work is debuting in the newly-minted Fortnight Journal today. Check it out.

Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson briefly discuss Tomas Transtromer’s poems “Street Crossing” and “Face to Face.”

Ingmar Bergman called Tarkovsky, “the greatest.” It’s hard to argue with Bergman. While Tarkovsky is not a well-enough known director, this is probably just as well because virtually anything popular becomes bastardized. Tarkovsky will probably never be “popular” simply because of the interminable length and oppressive mood of his films.

Tarkovsky created most of his films under the watchful eye of the USSR. The Soviets violently edited (and at other times completely censored) every film he made. His works were considered too politically ambiguous, religiously symbolic, and (of all things) too violent for Soviet tastes. Even the anti-Soviet nationalist Alexander Solzhenitsyn did not approve of Tarkovsky’s violent portrayal of Russia’s past. Because of the repression of the Soviets, Tarkovsky’s films are even more shrouded in poetic mystery. The persistent theme of doubt in all his works would make any sincere Soviet anxious.

Andrei Tarkovsky made an important film called Andrei Rublev, about a doubting monk, Russia’s greatest iconographer. While this seems tedious, it is anything but dull.  The film feels very much like Bergman, from whom much of Tarkovsky’s style emerged. Like Bergman’s Seventh Seal, Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is a slow-paced journey with monks, holy idiots, existential discourse, and symbolic animals.

We modern people forget how extraordinary it is for us to have such extravagant colors in our everyday lives. Even a hundred years ago, this was not the case. Common place things like big red barns were not painted that way to exhibit color, but because red paint was the cheapest at the time.

Color in human creations has been rare until recently. Perhaps humans have changed. It is certainly odd that neither Bible nor the Iliad once speak the color of the sky. The Iliad barely speaks of more color than the “purple gore.” But colors obviously have had significant meaning for people. Visionary colors are important, like the coat of many colors worn by Joseph or the majestic stained glass of Christendom. Aldous Huxley wrote in The Perennial Philosophy that this “visionary experience” is the entire point of self-deprivation which the desert fathers inflicted upon themselves. Asceticism was rewarded by psychonautical adventures.

But for a work about Russia’s most important iconographer, there is precious little color. But a film in black and white representing medieval lifestyles is realistic – much more so than a simple photograph or image. Tarkovsky does not create an image of another time, he creates an icon. You enter that time very readily and watch as the slow and brutal tale unfolds.

The most important moment is at the very end, after all the mindless suffering under the Tatars. It happens quite suddenly, but magically. After watching a film in black and white, you forget you’re watching in black and white. That’s when Tarkovsky makes his move. Suddenly, the film bursts into glorious color. The experience is worth the entire film. It reminds me of reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. As you read long, you find words, words, words – and suddenly, when you turn the page, it’s blank with a small sketch of a fly. The jarring experience is nirvana and a radical re-vision of how we normally encounter the world. This same effect is employed (multiple times) in his film Stalker, an excellent and dreary work.

The sort of revelatory encounter presented through all the doubt and angst of Tarkovsky’s films seems almost contradictory, but the essence of Tarkovsky lies in the elusiveness of reality and the religious experience surrounding its ultimate encounter. In his film Stalker he presents the tension between the need to know and the near-impossibility of knowing. The Russian word “stalker” is directly related to the English word “stalker” but without the creepy connotations. I think a better translation might be “follower” — even “disciple.” Stalker begins with sepia-tones and dreariness not unlike Andrei Rublev. After the audience is accustomed to the dull brown tones, suddenly the film bursts into color as the travelers cross a threshold into a dreadful and mysterious territory.

The character named “Stalker” travels with two companions named “Writer” and “Scientist” — one with a poetic sentiment, another with a scientific, and then Stalker himself. The Christic images are evident as he  paradoxically leads by following. Rather than heading up the group, he tells them where to go and then follows them. Stalker has an ugly wife and a mutant child named Monkey. He is timid, meek, and apparently a broken man. This journey of faith is almost explicit and incredibly powerful. Often Stalker makes his companions take illogical routes and circumnavigates perfectly obvious paths. The still tension of the unknowable dangers holds the entire film together. One’s sense of time and space are intentionally distorted (intentionally) as sounds remain unheard when we would normally hear them, and rooms become flooded after only a few moments. The distortion of sound lends to the distortion of space and leaves one with a sort of pure existential tension. The same dread drags us through Andrei Rublev but is majestically “resolved” in the dynamic stillness of Rublev’s icons.

The visionary experience is only possible because of suffering not in spite of it. Without the immanent pains of life, there is no transcendence. A doctrine often overlooked in Buddhism is that samsara (suffering) is nirvana. They are one and the same. Because of samsara there is nirvana, because of immanence there is transcendence. Because of becoming, there is being. Tarkovsky must be watched by any self-respecting soul.

Gene-cov-lg

Gene Tanta begins his first book of poems, Unusual Woods, with a 20-page essay that takes shots at T.S. Eliot, Harold Bloom and others. Why does he do this and what is he trying to say?

Surrealism and one of its American progeny, Deep Image poetry, have never been fully accepted. Their stock has taken a dip in the last few decades. But they are still with us, and they shape our contemporary poetry scene arguably as much as any of the other big guns of modern poetry: Whitman, Imagism, Symbolism.

What Gene Tanta has done in Unusual Woods is take the project of Deep Image poetry, which is to recuperate and shape myths from the images buried in our collective unconscious, and make it local rather than universal. In particular, he is assembling images from various fragments of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. (The collective unconscious is of course a Jungian concept made famous by archetypal criticism and the Deep Image poets. It is the idea that the collective memories of the human race emerge in various forms, such as myths, folklore and the like.)

As I said, Tanta makes poetry out of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. I say it this way because it is different from any of the following: (a) poetry built on the cultural memory particular only to the Romanian and/or Romanian immigrant experience, (b) the rendering of images and myths only for Romanians, or (c) a poetry that has a particularly Romanian (political) subtext. Instead, Tanta realizes that while his personal and Romanian self is reflected in his work, his American immigrant experience (and his generally human experience) is as well. In fact, the images that make up the 13-line demi-sonnets of Unusual Woods are universally human (while being contemporary). And he is creating “myths” that are universal.

So why does Tanta make such a big deal about his heritage and immigrant identity? In effect, Tanta is doing what any Deep Image poet does (or did)—we all make what we can out of the pieces of the collective unconscious that have been lodged in our particular psyches. A Jungian expects no more or less of anyone. The difference between Tanta and the traditional Deep Image approach is that Tanta foregrounds the particularity and individuality of his own memories and experiences. He knows his cultural biography is the lens through which he experiences and makes sense of his American (and generally human) experience.

This is a level of introspection that most of the Deep Image poets cared only somewhat about. (Jerome Rothenberg is an obvious exception, but he is better understood as the arbiter of ethnopoetics.) The others, such as Robert Bly, James Wright, Robert Kelly, are fully invested in the project of finding (somewhat interchangeably) universal and American myths. Also, in as far as they saw themselves as continuing the project of the great modernists, especially the Imagists, these poets were loosely committed to poetry as a universal art form, even if they didn’t take it quite as far as to say a poem exists only as an aesthetic object. These days, our claims about poetry are more modest. We recognize that the role of cultural biography inevitably ties our writing to material, contextual existence.

Recent decades have seen a surge in the “hybrid” poetries of American immigrants. What is particularly interesting about this poetic scene is that Eastern European poets writing as immigrants in English seem, generally, to be keenly aware of the “hybrid” quality of their poetry—they know they have more than one tap root in cultural experience. And yet, they remain ambiguous, or even agnostic, about what the particular components of this hybrid poetics are.

In his essay, however, Tanta offers at least a few concrete explanations. First, he, as an ESL poet, experiences idiomatic language as non-transparent. This shapes his experience of the language, which results in poetry that, like misunderstood idioms, mean different things to different readers: “As a form of linguistic irony, the idiomatic expression itself stands for two things at once, which of these two things the reader comes away with depends on the community with which the reader identifies” (30). This makes our reading of the text contingent and plural.

Another, more significant aspect of Tanta’s cultural biography comes from the mash-up of linguistic elements present within the Romanian tongue—partly Western Latinism, partly mongrelized Turkish and Slavic, Romanian has shaped the way Tanta approaches reality: “My own resistance to binary thinking feels ‘implicit’ and ‘experiential’ . . . and manifests in my practiced refusal to fit into categories of Romanian or American, Poet or Artist, Aesthete or Propagandist” (33). The claim is elemental and common, but it is essential: it’s not simply that different “content” is being inserted into our brains—it’s also that cultural and linguistic features have constructed our consciousness to process the content differently.

Ultimately, though, Tanta wants to have it both ways, and I think he is right. Even though both the form and content of Tanta’s work are particular to his Romanian-immigrant experience, he insists that his poetry is accessible to everyone. His poetry, he says, exists both as aesthetic objects and political propaganda. This is absolutely true about all poetry, not just his own. Inevitably, literary criticism will come to see that literature is always both. Most critics probably know this but have allowed themselves to stray from this obvious fact because the theory wars have created a false dichotomy between cultural and formalist criticism. Tanta brings us back to earth. We all experience texts as both universal and particular—both aesthetic and political:

I will not commit the essentialist error of taking myth of origin . . . only literally or figuratively: both the practical hardships of dislocation and the aesthetic insights that may accompany such cultural shifting go into creating our myths of origin. Cultural identity has multiple and simultaneous histories and motivating factors but this does [not] make it arbitrary. (35)

Later, he writes, “As a poet, I am interested in what the English language can do through how I use it. . . . As a critic, I am faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content” (36).

Tanta’s essay offers a corrective to the rest of the poetry world. Our readings need to focus on and scrutinize the dialectic between cultural biography and aesthetic form. Tanta claims merely that we need to do so if we are to understand his poetry, but it is not hard to see the wider implications of his argument—this goes for all literary texts. My own sense is that literary criticism has been beating around this bush for a while, even though when we are reading in our right minds most of us would probably concede this fact without difficulty. Many of us are probably already on board with this. Still, there is a notable absence of theory that directly targets the relationship between cultural biography and aesthetics. It’s odd and rather shocking.

Next time I will look at the poems of Unusual Woods, which are gorgeous and demonstrate what Tanta is saying in his essay. It is rewarding to read a poet who is willing explain his poetic approach and is knowledgeable enough to understand it without self-delusion.

Break up into groups, something they love to do now-a-days, and assign the following roles among yourselves: Line and space coach, image and word choice coach, rhythm and syntax coach, and meaning/subtext coach. This last coach will look at the poem in terms of its meaning, try to figure out what the poet’s intentions are for this and that, and edit wherever those intentions seem to be going off.

Now I will model how I might look at a poem when I first receive it and give a brief primer for each of my other coaches.

Line and Space Coach

1. Long Line Poems
Usually, these do not leave much white space, and are either narratives, contain catalogues, lists, enumerations, effect a voice of import (or mock import) and sometimes imitate the gravitas of scripture, but not always. C.K. Williams is known for long lines.

Suffice it to say, these are some of the reasons long lined poems are long lined poems. The free verse of long line poems is usually cadenced, rhapsodic, psalm-like, or prosaic-narrative or epic/mock epic. In free verse terms, its ancestor is the blank verse of Milton, or the rhapsodic, sacred text style of Whitman. Ginsberg’s Howl is written in long lines. Long line poems can be either breathless–a cascade of words and rhythms, or stately.

2. Short Line Poems (Skinny Poems)
In metered verse, these will be poems that employ no more than a couple metrical feet per line (see John Skelton), and in free verse, they usually focus on a single image, or incident, or action. Robert Creeley became famous for the skinny poem. Quickness is one of the purposes of short lines. Another is containment, as if the words–even “is” and “was”–were all precious pearls being squeezed out of a tube.

In a short line poem, each word gains an importance it may not have in longer lines. The poem may appear almost over whelmed by the white space. If the poem goes on too long, it may almost disappear into that white space. Imagine Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last By The Door Yard Bloomed” written out as a Creeley poem (Yikes). Short line poems draw more attention to everything: the line, the space around the line, the words, the syntactical strategy, and so forth. Here’s an example by William Carlos Williams. It is not as thin as his “Locust Tree In Flower,” but it will do for now:

To Waken An Old Lady

Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
skimming
bare trees
above a snow glaze.
Gaining and failing
they are buffeted
by a dark wind–
But what?
On harsh weed stalks
the flock has rested,
the snow
is covered with broken
seedhusks
and the wind tempered
by a shrill
piping of plenty.

This poem is little more than an extended metaphor, actually a Homeric metaphor on old age, but it is tricky: why is it called “To Waken an Old lady?” The birds get to function both as an extended metaphor for old age, and as an actual flock whose shrill piping wakes her up. No line is above five syllables. It does most of what skinny line poems do: draws attention to each word, focuses on a single action or incident, or unit of images. It does not go on for too long. This is a perfect use of the short line. The short line poem has its ancestry in epigrams, fragments, epitaphs, ancient forms of graffiti, and proverbs.

3. Medium Line Poems
Medium line poems are not common in early free verse, but gain in frequency once free verse becomes the normative form of writing poems. Why? We tend toward the happy medium in normative structures. The suburbs are neat, and clean, and sensible, and free verse has become neat and clean, and sensible. The language of such medial length free verse is usually measured, understated, nuanced. One of the best poets in this mode is Stephen Dunn. If you study Dunn’s line, you will find, especially in his middle career poems, that he seldom goes over eleven syllables, and that he is a poet of wit, of reason, of a measured and sometimes mildly ironic stance. In his best poems, you get the feeling this is a ruse so as not to ruin the expression of overwhelming feeling by letting it get, well, overwhelming. The medium line poem is saying: “I am measured, I am not flighty, I don’t want to draw the wrong sort of attention to myself.”

The Medium line poem is often a creature of both narrative (long lined) and wisdom (proverbial short line), and its direct ancestor is the sonnet. Dunn does not augment this measured line with false form (putting a poem in tercets, or sextets, or quatrains only because the boxes please someone’s sense of symmetry). You will find this sort of poem proliferating in certain highly thought of literary magazines, but not all.

4. Staggered Line Poems
Those poems that are in Fence or magazines more oriented toward language poetry will use staggered lines, lines that go with Olson’s “Projection By Field” theories. Jorie Graham uses this sort of lineation at times. It tends to announce itself as speculative, experimental, disjointed by desire, Poems that use a varied line–some long, some short, what I will call “undulating” lineation are of two orders: 1. A poet with purpose. 2. A new poet who doesn’t know why his or her lines are long, short, or medium.

So those are the basics. Line coaches, take all this into consideration when you venture towards a class mate’s work.

Image Coach

Imagist poems use image exclusively, or nearly exclusively to either render an object, or to imply a greater meaning (ontology) behind rendering that object, image, etc. You must ask if the poem before you has any images that may not serve the poem. Very often, poets fall in love with an image without considering how it will effect the rest of the poem. If an image sticks out in such a way that the rest of the poem is either dwarfed by it, or out of sync with it note this. We often refuse to kill an image even though it may be killing the poem. Also, be aware of imagery that, if thought about deeply enough, is not really an image:

Black tears of rage pour like rivers
down from her ice blue eyes.

Say these lines ended “To Wake An Old Lady.” It would throw the poem off. It would be out of place. Suddenly this old lady would be a bad actress in a third rate version of media.

Look for cliches. If a personification shows up, ask if it is functional to the poem. If hyperbole rears its head, and the rest of the poem is free of hyperbole, ask if it comes at a critical moment, or is just an alien force within the body of the poem. Word choice is also something to be thought of along these lines. Does the poem suddenly indulge in ten dollar, latinate words when the rest of it uses a simple vocabulary? Is it heavy on adjectives that, rather than modifying and enforcing the power of a noun, are being used as a crutch for nouns that don’t hold up. Think of the sounds of the words.

To that end, here’s a primer on vowel sounds. The highest sound in the English language is the double EE. This is why many depressed writers hate adverbs. Here are the sounds in order of pitch:
- Long E, as in wee
- Long A, as in glade
- Long I as in bide
- Long U as in pew or boo
- Long O as in bone
- Short i as in bit
- short e as in bet
- short A as in bad.

Sounds that are either dipthongs or close:
- oi in boing
- aw as in saw
- ow as in how
- short O as in ah/body
- Om, and short U as in of, butt, luck, mud, muck.

English is not tonal, but it is–just not enough for tones to change meanings (but moods? Definitely!). Here’s a way to see how high and low sounds might function at a primitive level. Baby talk is often more about the sound than the meaning. It is very tonal:

Wee! We say, Wee! yay!
Make fly, sweety pie!
oodles, ooh! my poodle
oh, so soothing!, sit, pet, laugh!
loins burn? Aww!
Ow! How odd!
Uh, Ugly ugums. What muck!

Low u sounds often go with the hardest consonant sounds such as muck. This is not accident. We are tonal creatures. Word coaches, if you see a couple high sounds in a row, or a series of low sounds, or if the uh sound is appearing in places it shouldn’t, or if too many high e sounds are making the poem sound like a ditzy and shallow-pep-rally, note it. If the word choices seem wrong or off, if a simpler word would do, note it.

Note too many passive verbs (is, was, are, were). Note too many verbs made into gerunds. If there is alliteration, is it excessive? If there is an unintentional rhyme, does it hurt the poem?

Syntax and Rhythm Coach

Grammar and syntax control the speed, pacing, and temper of utterance. Grammar, if used with mastery, can create rhythm and timing. So your job is to ask the following: does the poem use complete sentences, and does its punctuation or lack of punctuation add or distract from the poem? If it uses fragments, and run-ons, why? Is the flow confusing? Does the syntax support the rhythm, and is the rhythm organic to the writer’s intentions? If the sentences are paratactic, why? If they are long and go beyond the line, or, if they are full of subsidiary clauses, and added on phrases, does it work, or does it get in the way?

Finally, meaning, and ontology. Here, the coach will determine if the poem is going off its original intentions and why. What is the poet trying to say? This will be the last coach to weigh in, and from this, the discussion of the poem will branch out. I am hoping that the coaches learn something about their own line, word choices, imagery, syntax, rhythm, and meanings while acting as coaches. We shall see. This is division of labor.

Poetry changes when you memorize it. Rather than being a subjective observer viewing an inanimate object, you enter the world of the poem when you memorize. The “departure” from this world and the entrance into an alternative world isn’t science fiction or fantasy. A world is not a physical location, but a way of existing. To indulge in a poem is to taste another world (vocabulary). To memorize a poem is to inhabit another world.

As I have been memorizing Snow’s transcendent translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, I have become impressed — no, the poem itself has pressed itself against me. As Rilke says in the first elegy, “And even if one of them pressed me suddenly to his heart, I’d be consumed in his greater existence [Dasein].” Or as Meister Eckhart says, when two beings meet, the lesser one must surrender its being. As man before an Angel, the reader is before the Poem.

I enter the Poem. My everyday “I” is absolved (or dissolved) by suspending my casual vocabulary. My “I” is circumscribed by my idle talk, a vocabulary which is necessarily suspended when engaging a poem.

Memorization originally meant “to write down” but memory existed before the written word, even if only relatively briefly. History as we know it is only possible through written words, even though words suffer a “death” upon leaving the air and being chained to the page. Even if we don’t agree with the totalitarian metaphysics of Plato, we might still say that discourse is violated when translated into letters. The words on the page are not the same as the words we write down.

Due to the perpetual change of our individual selves (temporally, spatially, physically, psychically…), our words never reference the same thing because our words have mutated the moment we speak them: we never mean the same thing as anyone else by a single word — not even our past selves. Written words are static, rigid, and inflexible… yet we are always changing, so our hermeneutical situation is always different, meaning our interpretation of written words is always different. The life of poems is breathed into the written word when the written word is recited.

Memorization, that interminable and exhausting process, places us in the middle of a ‘dead’ vocabulary to which our definitions give life. Spoken word is (hopefully) spontaneous, fluid, and flexible. As Alfred Corn said in his “Department of Records” post, life is change, but change taken to its extreme is death. I would modify this and say that life is a series of infinitesimal deaths. The only way to remain the same is to change. Old habits bind us to a dead version of ourselves — tired, old, and worn out selves.

Memorization forces a radical break in our habitual mind. We are contained by our casual vocabulary, even imprisoned by it. It is nearly impossible to escape it. Memorization breaks the chains of uncritical routine. The “radical break” of memorization is a severance from thoughtless “interpretations” of poetry.

Average everyday people (in most cases) presume the meaning of poetry as a whole (before engaging it!) as 1. Meaningless, or 2. Common sense. The “meaningless” presupposition is closer to the truth; it at least posits the difficulty inherent in interpeting poetry. The “common sense” approach is banal, even obscene. What people consider to be “common sense” is the interpretation of the They-self which is always at odds with individual self-realization. “Common sense,” by asserting knowledge beforehand, conceals the point of departure for any discourse: being-wrong.

Without presuming the possibility of being-wrong, there is no need for investigation, and certainly no need for writing. It is because we are wrong that we write. We also memorize in order to see more clearly, which is one again grounded in our essential being-wrong. In order to become right, we must realize we are wrong, which no “common sense” approach permits.

Even just reading poetry aloud is better than reading silently — silent reading is a relatively new phenomenon. But memorizing engages reading, writing, speaking, hearing, and memory. Memory is one of our most complex powers and is interconnected with our other senses. Memorizing actually brings a poem to life.

Perhaps more importantly, memorizing poetry brings you to life. You empty yourself of yourself and allow a new world to consume you. You emerge into a new light shed on old words.