NOTE: This is the 2nd part in Joe”s series about poetry workshops. The first part can be found here.
Some days in a writing workshop should be like rainy days with a coloring book. In that case, I might let my students just talk and read, or sketch. At arts high, when I thought a student was tired—really tired—I encouraged them to lay down and take a nap.
If I had my way, every writing work shop would have the following:
1. Some plants the students can take care of. The plants could be taken home each week by a different student and cared for until returned when the next class happened.
2. A fish aquarium (I love fish).
3. A workshop dog or cat if no one was allergic. Dogs and cats relieve stress, especially dogs raised to be around sick people (writing has all the outward signs of being sick: you are not involved in heavy physical activity, and you are confined to a room).
4. Two or three computers on which students could put in head phones and watch videos of poetry and music performance, but no more than two or three.
5. Sketch pads, coloring books, crayons, and some water colors.
6. Sculptor’s clay.
I’d have the following books in my class…
- Bulfinch’s Mythology
- Frazier’s The Golden Bough
- American Indian Myths and Legends (Selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz)
- A standard anthology of world myths
- A Complete Works of Shakespeare
- A King James Bible
- A good thesaurus
- A rhyming dictionary
- A good unabridged Webster or Oxford dictionary
- A book of quotations
Any art books you could get your hands on: Degas, Picasso, Braque, Jasper Johns, etc., etc.
Poetry Anthologies I’d make available:
- An Oxford anthology of English verse
- The Longman Anthology
- The Golden Treasury
- The Voice That Is Great Within Us
- All of Jerome Rothenberg’s Anthologies. They are the most comprehensive collections of folk and alternative/experimental poetry in a general sense that I know.
- Unsettling America (Maria and Jennifer Gillan)
- 100 Chinese Poems and 100 Japanese Poems (Kenneth Rexroth)
- An anthology of 20th century French verse (I gave mine to Metta Sama because I thought she was a wonderful poet.)
- The American Bible of Outlaw Poetry
- Staying Alive (Neil Astley)
- The Rag Bone Shop of The Heart (Bly, Hillman, & Meade)
- Western Wind …part anthology, part text, wonderfully sane work
- A Geography of Poets (both first and second editions)
- An anthology of world poetry, J.D. McClatchy’s comes to mind.
- The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry
- Martin Espada’s anthology of political poetry
I am leaving out some good anthologies, but this will give them a start. Hell, I’m doing this by memory. I don’t believe that new means best. New just means new. It’s better for them to see an anthology from 20 years ago, so that they know how few poets truly remain prominent, and so that they read and enjoy poets who have been unjustly forgotten (and ones who have been more than justly forgotten).
- Ron Padget’s Handbook of Forms is a great readable book on the basic types of set forms in poetry
- The Practice of Poetry, Robin Behn and Chase Twichell: lots of prominent poets waxing wise on teaching poetry.
- Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio have a good one which one of my students stole. Oh well, I’ll re-buy it. I love when kids steal my books.
- Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form: the entry on the English stanza is a masterpiece of lucidity, and the version with a chapter on free verse is priceless.
I would make each of my students compile an anthology of poems from these anthologies. They can scan it, and print it up. They could form the anthology any way they wanted. They could include friend’s poems (poets certainly do). But it would be no less than a hundred pages, and they’d have to write an introduction for it complete with their own manifesto. It would be interesting to see twenty kids compile one hundred page anthologies. That would be 2000 pages of poetry!
This is my ideal class environment, my dream. They stick creative writing classes just about anywhere—usually anti-septic, drab, “professional” rooms which say: “be creative where no one else ever dared.” I taught a creative writing workshop in a school boiler room in Paterson. It was preferable to most college rooms because, at least, it had cool pipes, and an air of underground danger.
I wish I could make it a rule that every student would create his or her own anthology, and put what they thought were their four best poems in the midst of the poetry gods—just to see how they’d swim. These would be amazing keepsakes. I just might do this.
Anyway, there’s no one stopping someone with money or power from creating such environments. They are not that expensive. There should be such a poetry room in every library and school, and there should be a poet there to guide the students. I’d also have the kids write to lit mags, and see if they could get a deal, and then I’d have two or three hundred literary magazines around. Lit mags love to pretend they want their magazines seen and read, but most of them are financed invalids from universities, and they don’t try hard enough to get the work out there.
I believe environment matters. If it’s really awful, you and the students can bond against it. I had some awful rooms at Arts High—and also at the university. I have one now for my 250, without windows, a ghastly room with hardly any space. But I am not high maintenance. I work with what I got.
In terms of Stevens, I was smitten and terrified by the same thing the people seemed smitten and terrified by in regard to Jesus: “He speaks with authority.” That vatic voice, that voice which flows from a mind and aesthetic impersonality so vast that I can no longer care about sincerity, or insincerity—that is what thrilled me, and I no longer cared what he meant. I was enraptured by what the Irish critic, Dennis Donaghue called “the gibberish of the vulgate.”
Years later, I was able to see some of the mechanisms of thought and feeling in Stevens and I said to myself: “Joe, you can now sound out the idol, and make a more judicious appraisal on your hero. You can sit back and see his faults, and still admire him, albeit, without fear and trembling.” I was wrong.
Being wrong, I turned to Lacan. Why not? If you are wrong, it is best to turn to the French. They have been making correctives almost as long as they have been making wine. So I looked at Stevens in an extra poetic way.
Snob A: The one who, through his supreme talent, must find a rage to order, must ignore the rabble, must be an asshole in the service of heaven.
Snob B: The one who called Gwendolyn Brooks a “nigger,” who enjoyed every drab pleasure of old shoe Harvard; the one who could behave like a lesser Tom Buchanan out of The Great Gatsby: a man so larded with his self-regard, with his cigars, with his trips to Florida, with his success, that he made Hemingway a hero (supposedly Hemingway punched him out); the one who had no trouble living in an icy marriage, and resembled a sort of well done beef Wellington: a cliché snob, a snob fit only for graduate students who have pulled a Kafka and transformed the Beef Wellington of the first half of the 20th century into the couscous of this more “enlightened” age.
Snob C: The one who, like all of us, wants to be a rabbit as king of the ghosts, who wants the cat of death to be a mere bug in the grass; the one who is lofty because he knows at the end of the day, that he, too, must end—and never well. No one ends well. We lie. We die. Lord, have mercy on us!
I took all three of these snobs into consideration, tossed them into the blender, and realized that my aesthetic test for music when I was 13 still applied: if I play a song one hundred times in a row, and, on the last playing, it still has an effect, then it is part of my synaptic hit parade and can never be vanquished. It is the love Shakespeare speaks of when he says “No! It is an ever fixed mark!” This “fixed mark” only exists within instability. It is what the eye or ear or heart seeks and finds while everything else is wobbling. It is a lie, but such a beautiful lie that God (like the gods with Theseus) understands that our lie is wanton in the best sense, and “hath a spirit precluding law.” Such a lie allows us to retrieve what has been lost to the underworld. It is the necessary lie of rising from the dead:
just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound:
And thus it is that what I feel,
here in this room, desiring you.
Thinking of your blue -shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna.
Helen Vendler made a whole book showing Wallace Stevens was not heatless. Of course he was heartless—all the better, because that meant his liver, and kidneys, and wonderful eyes, and faithfulness (almost) to the tropes of 19th century poetry (the best 19th century American poetry) brought him to a place where only snobbery A and snobbery C mattered. I hope after all these years, I still love Wallace Stevens.
The other day, I posted a poem of Pablo Medina’s which I published in my second issue of Black Swan back in 1989. I put the magazine out with money from income tax returns. It was an act of love, an act of madness, and four issues went forth into the world before money prohibited my doing anything out of love.
I look back now and realize I published some good poets and fiction writers who later became well-known (or as well known as you might get in literary circles). It represented a wildly eclectic set of poets, fiction writers, and artists. Some of them, including Creeley, are now dead: my best friend, Joe Salerno, Charley Mosler, an unknown jazz poet and pioneer of spoken word, Steward Ross who got angry at me because I cut 14 lines out of one of his poems (it was twenty five lines long), but then used my edited version when he had it published in an anthology, Yictove, who ran the Knitting Factory poetry readings for several years.
One of these friends who is still very much alive is Tom Obrzut. I think Tom is one of the greatest writers of what I call “Wise ass.” “Wise ass” uses the dead pan, absurdism, and just drifting along tone of a comic routine as its chief shaping device. It is post-Lenny Bruce funny, meaning it is not tight and set up like a joke, but wanders over topical terrain, playing with the tropes that run from the silly, and anti-poetic, to the dark humor we might see in certain forms of Eastern European poetry—especially that poetry influenced by dadaism. It is knowing, “hip” in the old style of hip rather than ironic—kind of Steve Martin meets the funnier side of the Beats.
Well, this is an early poem from Obrzut. I think he was only 23 or 24 when he wrote it, and he was a lot prettier than he is now. Some of his newer poetry written by the uglier, older Tom, can be found in Maggy magazine. Tom is so deadpan some people take the poem seriously and don’t laugh, and wonder why this guy would talk about his friend eating four pounds of meat a day. Anyway, the poem:
My friend Anthony used to eat four pounds of meat a day.
Now he doesn’t.
I remember once I was a vegetarian.
Jeff says, “everyone was once a vegetarian.”
So it’s not so special
And besides I never ate four pounds of meat a day
except maybe once and that was kielbasi
Which isn’t exactly the same thing because kielbasi’s different
not like bacon or sausage really.
I like eating meat
Allen Ginsberg tells Pollack boys not to eat meat
And the Dalai Lama doesn’t even kill flies
Because he doesn’t want that responsibility.
And neither do I,
But there’s all these microbes on the seat of my pants and when I
sit down they’re screaming in pain and dying.
(Now, I know I’m sounding sarcastic and that’s not what I want to do)
I’m just trying to say—
We’re all busy killing things even ourselves
Which isn’t so great but it’s the way it is, the way it was, and
the way it’ll always be.
Someday, I’m going to die and never listen to Elvis ever again.
And that’ll be a shame.
Not especially for anyone else, but I won’t like it so much.
Not that that matters because even God don’t care—or the void or
whatever it is that powers this machine universe—don’t care
what happens to my ass.
And it’s only sad for me because it’s my ass and I like it.
Maybe that’s what the cow said before they smashed him in the
skull in that slaughterhouse
or maybe he didn’t have time and all he could do was think:
“Too bad, too fucking bad.”
As the end of the world came smashing through his eyes—
the way it always does.
Begin with an incidental fact that carries a sense of the ridiculous:
He’s a Dentist Now
My friend Mavis breastfed her children until they were 12.
I mean I thought it was a little quirky, but she was a motherly
type—you know—like the time she made me a quilt of all my favorite characters from Dante’s Inferno?
God I miss her. I thought when they arrested Mavis, it was
excessive. She was nice, always a good word for everyone,
and never a bad, just a good heart—you know what I mean?
The kids are fine—good cheek bones. All that sucking.
Jim, her eldest, went a little crazy for awhile, but don’t we all?
He’s a dentist now, and from what I hear, a really good one.
This ransacks the speaking schtick of Tom, and rambles, but it lacks his sense of voice. Voice cannot be ransacked because true voice, unlike tone, may be inconsistent within its range of indicators. The ability to play a modulating voice against a consistent tone is a deep mystery of poetics—especially of what we might call the conversational poem. Tom does not get outlandish (well he does, but not by creating an extreme situation). To get outlandish would ruin the dead pan. Still, he is absurd, and he uses deadpan and rambling in ways that allow the modulations of consciousness to go just about anywhere without seeming out of bounds.
Of course, if he suddenly gets overtly poetic on us, his poem would fall apart. It is hard to make a lyrical moment out of uber-prosaic lines like “my friend Anthony used to eat four pounds of meat per day.” Tom does what a good poet does—enters his own organic structure of language, and plays his consciousness against that loose structure. It is not the words, or images, but his tone, his timing and rambling that makes his poem work. So here’s your assignment: finish the Mavis poem, and then re-write Tom’s poem, adding poetic imagery. See how it affects the tone or voice? See how far you can take this experiment until the humor of the situation vanishes. You could try writing a pro-meat poem in a voice with a deadly serious, and humorless tone unaware of its own stupidity. Give it a shot.
In The New Tourism, Mathews lets the loose cohesion of his poems suggest profundities that seem unlikely coming from often mundane subjects. His poems are cohesive because of formal structure and theme, but it is a deliberately incoherent kind of cohesion. The effect is delicate and oblique, and it is growing on me.
For me the identification of trees has always been a puzzle, one not really made easier by consulting the tree book inside my house, where no trees are. I can certainly remember the caramel color of beech leaves in fall, the cropped silhouettes of plan trees along the highway . . . the purpled boughs of Judas trees where no swallow ever perches.
But do swallows ever perch? It seems that every swallow I’ve seen out of its caked nest is part of an ever-changing, bug-eating swarm—a puzzle too mobile to decipher, tumbling and soaring over the cross of a church in Tuscany or Touraine, with pink evening light inside the bell of the air, an image that saddens me when I return to a highway leading north into the night think and empty as caramel custard.
Gorgeous images without a narrative thread to speak of. The speaker digresses smoothly and almost imperceptibly from trees to birds to cake. It’s pleasant and deceptive.
That is part of a prose poem called “Crème Brûlée,” which is not, despite the title, really about custard. Mathews is only teasing you with references to caramel; he’s also thrown in quite a bit about swallows and wine and modern life and the dark side of the psyche:
There are no demons inside you, just your addiction to any puzzle that will addle your contentment, like salt in caramel. You swallow your last glass of wine and return, not unhappily, to the highway.
All the themes have recurred and been recapitulated, but the poem’s point is elusive. Yet, we can’t very easily write off all these wonderfully suggestive images as meaningless, and there does not seem to be any deliberate (and certainly no malicious) trickery. Something’s going on even in the absence of argument and story.
How do the poems gain their highly suggestive character? It is through a highly developed sensitivity to both the literal sensations of the body and the “sensations” of thought. In The New Tourism, Mathews is a conscientious, intelligent hedonist. He is a wine lover, food connoisseur and lover of picturesque landscapes. (If the ability to write breathtaking description is a sign of a skilled poet, he got skills.)
Mathews the hedonist is especially into gastronomic pleasures. In addition to the wine-centric haiku, Halal lamb, and Genoese lunch, the book’s first section, a single poem called “Butter and Eggs: a didactic poem,” is a rather simple litany of about five different ways of making eggs. My favorite part is the scrambled eggs:
When the fat sizzles and smokes
at maximum heat, the skillet withdrawn from the flame,
the eggs are poured into its center and there with a fork or wooden spatula
immediately stirred and turned so that no part of them
stays long in contact wit the scorching surface but the whole
is uninterruptedly mixed and remixed until, attaining a soft solidity,
it can be folded upon itself and promptly flipped onto a plate.
Mathews is just talking about how to cook eggs. He’s paying really close attention to both the delicate things eggs are the delicate process of cooking them. What for? Because it’s frickin’ awesome. Shut up and enjoy the eggs.
And if you don’t appreciate these simple activities, you’ll never appreciate the highly oblique pleasures of Mathews’ complicated, mid-section poems. Whereas in Part I (“Eggs and Butter”) the subject matter itself provided savory delights, in Part II form and structure are the source of titillation. This is evident in “Waiting for Dusk”:
Whoever in the span of his life is confronted by the word “pomegranate”
will experience a mixture of feelings: a longing to see at least once the face
of a Mediterranean god or nymph or faun; the memory of an old silver mirror
decorated with images of varied fruits; a regret at never having known the spell
of a summer picnic ending with the taste of acrid seeds spat over the bridge
parapet . . .
. . .
. . . But here now is Simon, with his smiling silly face
from which he extracts tough seeds from his teeth with one awkward forefinger, a spell
of not unsympathetic bad manners that, if truth be told, is a mirror
of our own, perhaps more furtive acts. Then he puts on his mask, made of mirror-
like chromed metal, and I think, why, he could face an kill Medusa! Any weather
has its charm, even the green tempest surrounding her writing snakes that spell
death to the unwary traveler, snakes like a wreath of leeks in a Dutch still life where a pomegranate
cut in two glows idly near the table edge.
It’s a sestina. And it wanders. But that’s what sestinas are supposed to do. The form brings you back to an elusive center, which extends and builds the theme even while the strictures of the form almost inevitably lead to incoherence. (In other words, sestinas tend naturally toward cohesion without coherence.) In Mathews’ sestina, we are washed into meditation by the long lines, complicated sentence structures, striking details (like an “unvarnished table,” below) and the nostalgic, pastoral atmosphere. Profound philosophical gestures lurk near the surface and leap out suddenly but dissipate in the contingencies of life:
. . . Remember the pomegranate
sliced on the unvarnished table, I tell myself, that’s something sharp and real! But the spell
of the season and the melancholy hour, sweetened and damped with wine, spell
another revolution of my afternoon regrets, far from Mediterranean . . .
Ultimately, there is a kind of coherence to poems like “Crème Brûlée” and “Waiting for Dusk” that is reached through an almost aesthete-like attentiveness to sensation and thought. And this includes not only literal sensations but human thoughts and discourse. The twists and turns of the mind are like the delicate flavors of breakfast.
Michael Klein’s new book of poetry, then, we were still living, is a metaphysical meditation on identity through time and the search for the real amidst ghosts, memories, and illusory images. As in the artful illusions of theatre and movies, to which Klein alludes frequently, lighting can change everything in these poems—here people darken or there is an overwhelming bomb-blast of sunlight.
Love and loss seem to be the fundamental elements from which these poems originate. Klein leaves little, if anything, out of his depictions of the essential facets of a certain kind of writer’s life, the trials of a childhood filled with shame and pain, its fair share of neglect, and the realization, even if only for one ghastly instant, that your parents wished you were different from what you are. There is endless questioning of reality and identity; there is the friend with whom you committed the requisite mistake of sex; there is more sex with a true lover; there are the departed, the being haunted, and, always, the daily task and practice—writing—”where you turn the thing like art back into a gift / after it almost kills you” (“Day and paper”).
Klein’s poems rarely, if ever, embrace the world with a Romantic’s lyricism. Instead they announce themselves with the consonant staccato of a television’s static, the flatlined cadence that could be attributed to a person touched by post-traumatic stress—the speaker analyzes deeply emotional events without emoting, as in his utterly chronological reportage of his brother’s death in the last couplet of his poem “The twin:” “When he was living, we used to dare each other. / I dare you, he said. I dare you. And then, he died.”
It is also a distinctly post-9/11 psyche that admits the attack on the World Trade Center wasn’t like the movies and it wasn’t real (“2001″). The same psyche is wide-awake to the ongoing economic catastrophe; it intertwines childhood neglect with the enduring and ubiquitous financial strain, “The way [my father] loves me is like the way you remember money—owing / it to someone” (“The ranges”). As much as any conscientious, sensitive person prone to guilt can do, the speaker feels around for someone who we can hold in part responsible for the way we are now; he points to the “governments looking past faces into the fire / of maps on the long table” (“Not light’s version”) and to our fathers littering the ground with “false clues” which they used to confuse us and hide behind (“The ranges”).
The matter-of-fact tone and the all-but-absent-lyricism mark this book as of this time—the post-9/11, recession-beaten, warring, and electronically-oversaturated era. Klein speaks for those of us who are trying to decipher between what is real and what is illusion; these poems depict a speaker who is, like many of us today, trying to stay not only alive, but sentient, all the while bearing witness to the current tides of war, financial collapse, and personal loss.
Klein never separates pain from the love that has “made the air visible” (“The movies”). He envisions scenes of his mother’s tortured life (hung out the window by her heels as a girl, beaten by her husbands, writing a book in her mind), and it’s an act of love. Klein attempts to see his mother rather than impose an image of what he wants to see onto the memory of her. In doing so, he acknowledges the variegation of anyone who is real. Klein’s poems open to full bloom when he engages in this act of love, in seeing another person. The poignancy in the poems “The pact” and “My Brother’s Suitcase” is not sentimental. Klein writes in “My brother’s suitcase,”
The suitcase smells like heat and dust and a little bit of the smell that was left in the room
where he died – that horrifyingly real smell of death and alcohol
and something else – left on this suitcase and on the fancy Cole-Haan wallet
he bought himself one Christmas while he had a cab wait.
He used to tell that story to people because I think it meant he discovered
that his loneliness was also something that generated a sort of kindness.
Even if it was kindness towards himself, he glowed in the back seat of the cab from it.
The matter-of-factness that left earlier poems in the book somewhat brittle, even purposefully inaccessible, becomes a masterfully handled tool of illumination, which Klein uses to look fully at the images of those he loved, those who are now dead. This takes unusual strength and love, as well as a commitment to being a realist. Klein is both a realist about America—we are a country at war and mired in debt—as well as his own reality—he is someone who has suffered and survived the immense losses of his twin brother and his mother. If he is particularly cognizant of the screen images we are all subjected to on a constant basis, it’s because he commits himself to seeing what is real amidst those images: war, loss, and changes brought by time.
This is no movie set: there is the “horrifyingly real smell of death.” And only a son, out of every other being in the world, has the insight to say (in Klein’s level yet devastating voice), “my mother wasn’t finished with her life when she let it go, like a hat in the park” (“The nineties”).
Klein’s poems set in motion a deluge of questions: do we change, individually, year to year, afternoon to afternoon? Does humanity change, learn? The answers are never definitive, always dual.
Klein suggests that we as individuals do change through time, as when he ruminates,
My mother’s been dead for so long, that I don’t think she’d remember
who I was even if she did come back – if death lets memory be like
time – or covers the ground with new tracks.
My life’s been moving on the ground of each year she’s been dead
and is different than it was when she was coming over for dinner. . .
He asks in the fourth part of the book, “Was America ever the world / we grew up with? Didn’t it stop being that somewhere in the fifties…?” But the poem that follows that one is titled “What war?” and begins, “Some people look into the television into Afghanistan / and say they can’t see anything.” His poems that address death and war beg the question of whether, in fact, humanity ever changes. Klein will not neatly answer any questions for us, but pulls us into the whirlwind of questions about our history and our present situations.
Klein questions the reality of the people in his life, referring to them as “the living list of characters in the play about my life as it was being lived” (“You”) and proposes that our world is constantly renewing itself, and that we have no choice but to be changed by the reckless tides of time: “The old fear always follows you into the new life. Who will I be?” (“The movies”).
If the waves of time (which may bring death) settle intermittently, they do so when Klein offers brief interludes of ars poetica. In the poem “You,” Klein delivers a comment about a near death experience that is so modest and unadorned it could be overlooked: “I wondered if it was important / to tell people about it.” But the sentence is an articulation of an experience every writer encounters—questioning if anything written down is important enough to share. Such questioning could, if over-indulged, snuff the entire creative gesture; but it is also a necessary editorial voice to listen to, sparingly. If we did not heed that voice in small doses, we would be left with raw heaps of material, which might satisfy some writers, but not Klein. His poems have been pruned, sheared, shaved, and whittled. He has clearly asked himself the question, is this important to tell? This question becomes more important as he considers the relationship between our present situation and the past.
Identities, in Klein’s book, are amorphous, interchangeable, and at times beguiling—he sees his dead twin brother’s distinct swagger in a reflection of himself. However, despite the shapeshifting and misunderstood identities Klein happens upon, there is a steady, consistent speaker throughout these poems who offers his vantage point of the world and of reels of memories. Readers should cling to this consistent ‘I,’ as anyone would cling to a steady form of consciousness in a world that alters or altogether disappears; like money, people and time are “always falling from our hands” (“The pact”). The ‘I’ is the rope Klein throws to us as we walk hesitatingly, jerkily, through his poems; the ‘I’ becomes an eye that lets us “see in the dark,” buoys us as we float on the “the scotch wave of light” (“A saver”).
The experience of reading these poems is not an easy, nor a rapturous one. We experience at times “the depressive’s only language: a dead language / the depressive’s temporary cure: the shine on a wave.” If, however, there is rapture in these poems, it comes from the difficulty of them. Klein’s poetry is, then, in keeping with Rilke’s advice to a young poet when he observes, “Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it….”
Interviewer: The Paris Review has one quintessential question, which it has asked everybody from William Faulkner to Ernest Hemingway. What is the implement that you write with?
T.C. Boyle: I use my toenails actually—collect them, hammer them down, mold them into shape …
William Styron didn’t write in notebooks. He tried notebooks, but they didn’t work for him. They do work for Paul Auster, though, so he writes in notebooks. He likes the ones with gridded lines, which he calls “quadrille lines — the little squares.” When Auster’s done with the notebooks he types everything up. He has a typewriter he bought in 1974.
What is that supposed to tell us? What does this reveal about Styron? What do we know or understand about Auster that we didn’t before?
The Paris Review has been interviewing writers since 1953, and for more than five decades they’ve been asking this question about implements, about the actual, tactile things writers use to write. The question is, why? What is it we actually want to get at with this “quintessential” question? What are we supposed to know when we know the answer?
Hemingway would sharpen all his pencils — seven No. 2s — before he started writing. This is what he said, anyway. He said this in the Paris Review interview in 1954, which is about half way between his Nobel Prize and his suicide, after he’d stopped publishing books, and in the interview, when he says it, it sounds like it could be a joke, or maybe a self-made myth, a little mystification.
I don’t even have any pencils in my house, much less seven, and the last time I can remember writing with a No. 2 was when I took the SATs and filled in those little bubbles. If I had them, though, I’d take them out now and sharpen them all and lay them out in a row. And then what? What would I know?
It’s possible, I realize, that I’m thinking about this wrong. It’s possible the question isn’t probing at anything deeper. Maybe we really are just earnestly interested in typewriters and notebooks, pens, paper and blank computer screens. Maybe it’s just interesting to know. It’s framed, though, as an important question. The question seems to me to be about more than it’s about. It’s like a fetish. We seem to think there’s a secret here, a revelation to be revealed, a mystical, magical something we want to learn.
I’ve been thinking about this question because I’ve been reading all the times it was asked in those old Paris Review interviews. They’re all online now, as of a few weeks ago, which means they can be more easily looked at as a group. I have often liked particular interviewers and found them interesting and useful. As a whole, though, as a corpus, there’s something disturbing there.
There’s something very canonistic about them. Something … institutional. By which I mean, literature is presented in a weird way; its mystified, presented as if authorized, and made into something sort of magisterial.
Maybe its the problem with the interview as an art form: the condition of the interview is that the subject be worth interviewing, be an institution, be recognized. The author, in the interview form, can only be approached respectfully. The author is given, granted, this assumed position of authority to speak with finality, an authority that’s something like God’s. The author-god gets the final word, gets to answer the question about meaning in final way. That’s the ground of the form, the assumption of it. If the author-god protests against that assumption not least because it diminishes the work itself, marks he work as insufficient to itself, as something that needs this supplemental pronouncement, if the author-god protests as Faulkner does in his interview, saying “The artist is of no importance,” and “If I had not existed, someone else would have written me,” the protest is feeble in the face of the force of the assumption. Even as he says it it’s undermined by the fact he says it as Author. Anything he says is said from this position of having the right to the last say, and of course even if the author refuses to answer, that only heightens the mystery and makes us surer, because we were refused, that the author has the secret, the ultimate answer.
It’s not an accident, I don’t think, that the Paris Review interviewed its first author in 1953, inaugurating its “alternative to criticism” in a series that developed and popularized a form of discourse giving authors ultimate authority to pronounce on (and foreclose) the meanings of their texts. This was the same year and the same place that Roland Barthes published his first book, Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, which looked at the arbitrariness and constructedness of language, beginning a career that developed and popularized the school of thought that pronounced authors dead. It’s literary equivalent of the parting of Abraham and Lot, when Abraham dwelt in Cannon and Lot went down to the cities on the plain. The interview form might well be thought of as the counter movement to the movement that killed the author, though the effort wasn’t one to keep the author alive as much as to enact a kind of deification. But, just as the death works to liberate the work, to open it up to criticism and to thinking, the enshrinment of the author acts to canonize literature, it lock it up in an orthodoxy.
This can be seen in the Great Books movement, which happened in America at the same time: The great works of Western literature were bound in black and peddled from door to door, 54 forbidding volumes of works you were supposed to read.
They were, with this mystification, authorized, and elevated, raised to an aspirational level where they would be safe from reading. Instead of literature as a loud conversation, this was literature as a cathedral. It was conceived of as a class marker, a taste marker, as something genteel the middle classes could work towards and aspire too.
Don’t misunderstand, this isn’t just an attack on the great books. Or even The Great Books capitalized as they so often are. I went to the college I went to so I could read the canon, and I have read and value having read Virgil and Dante and Milton, Chaucer, Cervantes, Whitman and Hawthorne and Melville. But reading, for me, only makes sense as a struggle. Reading is a fighting-with. It isn’t and cannot be an act of reverence, because to read I must engage, and engagement implies a kind of conflict, a struggle. More than one conservative old prof. told me I was doing it wrong, but for me the great books is a big street brawl.
I guess this is what bothers me about the quintessential question they ask at the Paris Review. Writing is mystified with this question. The objects are presented like they’re magic, and they become objects to fetishize.
Joseph Heller wrote stuff down on 3×5 cards he kept in his wallet, which he called a “billfold” in ’74. Gore Vidal writes fiction on yellow legal pads, but essays and plays on a typewriter. John Updike had a typewriter too and Jack Kerouac had two. Gay Talese wrote outlines in different colors of ink on the shirt boards he got when his clothes come back from the dry cleaners.
What if none of this information actually acts to reveal anything? What if what it does is conceal? I think the question could offer a chance to think seriously about the materiality of writing — Don DeLillo does this, a little, with his answer, as does Jonathan Letham — but most of the time the question and these answers act to do the opposite, to cover up the complications and contingencies, to mask writing and make it mystical. It could be a good question. It could be followed up with questions that open it up: What difference does it make that you write the way you write? How does how you write shape your writing? Do the tools you use naturalize the text for you, make it kind of invisible, or does it heighten your awareness of the text as text and make more apparent the texture of the words?
It could, I think, really open some questions about writing up to thinking, but it doesn’t. Instead we end up with pin-up pictures of typewriters.
It’s like seeing a math equation with all the work erased. This is the example Roland Barthes uses, talking about Einstein in popular culture and how a fetish developed about his brain. Culturally, Barthes says, we began to talk about his brain as a machine, but not to actually reveal the thought and explain how the thoughts were thought, but to veil it in the mystery of genius. He says,
“Popular imagery faithfully expresses this: photographs of Einstein show him standing next to a blackboard covered with mathematical signs of obvious complexity, but cartoons of Einstein (the sign that he has become legend) show him chalk still in hand, and having just writing on the empty blackboard, as if without preparation, the magic formula of the world.”
If they asked Einstein, at the Paris Review, “what do you write with? what is the implement you use?” he would have said chalk. He would have said, “I write on a blackboard.”
But the answer to the quintessential question wouldn’t tell us more about his writing, but less. It wouldn’t reveal, but conceal. It would enable us to make a fetish out of his chalk like we make a fetish out of his brain, and we could put his chalk next to Heller’s note cards and Hemingway’s pencils, but we wouldn’t have a better critical understanding of the formula of the world, or how it was different because it was written with chalk then it would have been if it was written in red ink, or in a margin, or on a note card on a rooftop at dawn.
I really think it could be a good question. It could do what Charles Bernstein said he wanted to do in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Vol. 4, when he said he wanted to “establish the material, the stuff, of writing, in order, in turn, to base a discussion of writing on its medium rather than on preconceived literary ideas of subject matter or form,” a way to make the materiality of writing visible instead of repressing it and “making the language as transparent as possible.”
What we end up with, though, is a fetish. Another way to not think about writing. The quintessential question is quintessential as an “alternative to criticism,” which is also, I think, an alternative to thinking, and isn’t just an alternative, but actually a defense against it
I was looking at an old copy of the Black Swan Review, which I founded and published many years ago (1989), and came across a poem by the Cuban American poet/novelist, Pablo Medina. It’s short, written a bit in one of the three types of lyricism that were prevalent back then (call it minimalist deep imagism). In deep imagism, you expect certain tag words such as wind, dark, bones, shadow, stones, sky, etc. This is also true of Spanish surrealism, a form of surrealism as influential on deep imagists (and later, Larry Levis) as French surrealism and dada are on the New York school.
At any rate, in this poem, we have wind, darkness, snow, bones, shadow…pretty much all the basic ingredients for minimalist deep imagism ( or Spanish surreal lyricism) with the exception of angels, ashes, and blood. Let’s have a look-see:
Cadwalader Park, Late Fall
The strollers hunch
against the wind, call to their children
from lengthening the shadows.
The parents turn to each other.
More lines in the face,
more of the tinge of age.
When the man wants a kiss
his eyes open to his mate’s bones,
slow of speech, eyebrows frail as horizons.
The harvest is done.
The year darkens into snow.
It’s sort of a moody haiku on steroids. It uses some of the mechanisms of haiku: reference to the seasons, above all, short, paratactic sentences. It is neatly packaged in a series of tercet, concluded with a couplet. The trajectory of the poem goes from a long shot of strollers in a park, to a close up of lined faces tinged with age, and then some odd tercet in which a man eye’s open to his mate’s bones, and someone (the mate, or the man, or the bones) is “slow of speech, with eyebrows frail as horizons. It is scene painting, and mood painting. Now here’s the sampling game. First, make a poem in which you use Medina’s three tercet and a concluding couplet structure, but mess with his words, and make the sentences a series of directives, with a concluding couplet of questions:
Hunch against the wind.
Call to the shadows
of lengthening children.
See how they grow
tinged with age in the
day’s last light.
Know they are the bones
of a kiss. Open them slowly,
weather them frail.
Are they the horizons of your eye brows?
Are they the year darkening into snow?
This ransacking is far more surreal. Instead of the shadows lengthening, the children lengthen. To call children the “bones of a kiss” is not so inaccurate if you reduce their life to bones, and the sex that leads to their life to a kiss. In point of fact, it’s far more original—kind of resembles Wordsworth’s contention that “the son is father to the man.” The poem is as gloomy as Medina’s, but it does not so much paint a scene as turn Cadwalader park, late fall into a strange sort of surrealist hymn to mortality, to transience, a theme latent in the initial poem. Here, the children become the main focus. The voice of the poem is issuing orders: Hunch, call, see, know.
I have not used a single line of Pablo’s poem. I have used words, images, re-constructed them. I could call the poem, “A Directive.” Medina never said the children were the bones of a kiss. He never said they were the year darkening into snow. We took the structure, and, in a sense, the mood painted by minimalist words. We took the parataxis, and made it more pronounced, but this is a wholly distinct poem. The lineation is far less regular, with the couplets being far longer lines.
Assignment: Find a poem and do the same. Cop its structure, and even some of its key words, but change the type of sentences, and fool with the images. Good luck.
This month Metro Rhythm is proud to present five outstanding poets: Meghan O’Rourke, Eleanor Lerman, Sarah V. Schweig, Zachary Pace and Jay Deshpande. The reading will be held at Blue Angel Wines in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
In a recent blog post, Stanley Fish proclaims that the humanities crisis has officially arrived and takes George Philip, president of SUNY-Albany, to task for axing the French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theater programs. Fish claims
it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.
Fish’s strategy is political: take the debate to the floors of state senates. Yet allow me to tentatively posit that perhaps our Modern Liberal Democracy (MLD for brevity) itself may be to blame. Whether we like it or not, MLD—the American one in particular—has a hard time understanding the value of something apart from its utility, its instrumentality—McLuhan called this “know how” (for a fuller, if occasionally simplistic, explanation of this idea, check out Neil Postman’s Technopoly).
Before continuing, I probably should define “Modern Liberal Democracy.” I’m only a poet who reads political philosophy sometimes, so be nice. I also realize I’m speaking broadly, and perhaps that makes me sloppy. But I hope the general gesture of this essay will out-merit its limits. Briefly, by MLD I mean modern democratic societies which have roots in Enligthenment (particularly “state of nature”) philosophy—liberal in the classical sense.
These democracies generally value individual freedom above all: I don’t disagree with your viewpoint, but I’ll die for your right to have it. Necessarily, whatever common values there are tend to be (problematically) vague and non-threatening: equality, justice, freedom of speech, etc. And even these values are not absolute; they are held in tension with prevailing political demands of the day: torture sometimes mitigates the assumed innocence of the accused; hate crimes legislation allows justice to take off the blinders; freedom of speech covers many things, but not exposing your genitals publicly. You find MLD throughout Europe & North America, primarily, but is being strenuously exported to other continents (along with the market system).
Initially, MLD seems to be the perfect environment for the Liberal Arts: freedom of speech, no midnight raids to arrest thought criminals or moralistic politicians jockeying for votes in a culture war (well…maybe not)—even the name similarities suggest a proper convergence of values. Yet in America and other governmentally similar environments (h/t: Daniel Silliman), the sky has been falling on the liberal arts for years.
But we should note that this is not necessarily a new thing in history. In the last few days I’ve been reading through the history of Argentina. One thing that historian Jonathan Brown points out is that as soon as Argentina transitioned from an oligarchy of political elites to a MLD, the public universities shifted focus from the liberal arts to the sciences. This makes me want to ask, are the humanities an elite interest? Do professors of the humanities work at the indulgence of the privileged? Are the humanities a societal indulgence?
I don’t think the correlation between here is accidental. It might even be causal. Consider that the sciences and related disciplines are easily justified to the public in the type of discourse allowed in a MLD: remember, no absolute claims to ultimate values systems allowed—free speech, freedom of belief/conviction, and all that. But the liberal arts are much more difficult to justify in a MLD. As Fish states, “What can you say to the tax-payer who asks, ‘What good does a program in Byzantine art do me?’” Fish goes on to say
…it won’t do to invoke…pieties…— the humanities enhance our culture; the humanities make our society better — because those pieties have a 19th century air about them and are not even believed in by some who rehearse them.
Interestingly enough, Fish (bleakly) hopes that this very defense will work with politicians who “like to think of themselves as crackerbarrel philosophers and historians.” (Talk about jaded!) And yet we live in an age when state (and probably federal) politicians refuse to use standard accounting practices and keep kicking the can of financial reckoning down the road. Unfortunately for these politicians, there are literally no more pieces of the state to sell off and rent back in order to keep the budget balanced; there are no more pension funds to borrow from. Thus it seems to me that the voters are the very people that must be convinced to sacrifice certain services and pay more taxes in order to keep the humanities—not the politicians. But how do we do that?
This emphasis on a useful education leaves little room for a more or less utilitarian education (though MFA programs flourish, interestingly) and has forced literary studies to become more scientific in their approach; college administrators expect the same kind of research from the local Miltonist (if she or he is not dead yet) as we get from a chair in research science. Robert Pippin sums this shift up well in his recent “Defense of Naïve Reading” from the New York Time’s Philosopher’s Stone series:
Philology, with its central focus on language, was once the master model for all the sciences and it was natural for teachers to try to train students to make good texts, track down sources, learn about conflicting editions and adjudicate such controversies. Then, as a kind of natural extension of these practices, came historical criticism, national language categorization, work on tracing influences and patronage, all contributing to the worry about classifying various schools, movements or periods. Then came biographical criticism and the flood gates were soon open wide: psychoanalytic criticism, new or formal criticism, semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, discourse analysis, reader response criticism or “reception aesthetics,” systems theory, hermeneutics, deconstruction, feminist criticism, cultural studies. And so on.
Similarly, other authors like Patrick Deneen have pinned the decline of the liberal arts on the imitation of the German Research model of education, which divided disciplines “into specialized disciplines and [placed] stress on expertise and the discovery of new knowledge”:
When conservative critics of our universities nowadays lament the decline of liberal education, they usually decry its replacement by a left-leaning politicized agenda. But the deeper truth is that liberal education has been more fundamentally displaced by scientific education buttressed by the demands of global competition.
This certainly helps frame the perennial American media’s anxiety about American students falling behind the Chinese in math & science (seriously: just Google “American students falling behind”). But it is important to note that Deneen defines the “humanities” in a way that is crucial to his argument. Deneen takes the classical understanding of “the humanities,” which stands in direct contradiction to the modern era’s desire to escape “all forms of power and control, [which implies] that the ideal human condition [is] one of complete liberty—even the liberty from what was once understood to be human.” Deneen skewers modern conservatives (read: culture wars), but Deneen’s impulse is itself deeply conservative.
For Deneen, the liberal arts are the study of humanity and is aimed at making students into better people—not better citizens, mind you; there’s a difference: they’re related, but not interchangeably. Such enlightened people respect the limits of what it means to be human. (Side note: This view of human limits dovetails interestingly with Wendell Berry’s 2008 essay in Harper’s “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits.”)
There is something fundamentally conservative (in a way that would baffle most Republicans and Tea Partiers) about Deneen’s (and Berry’s) ideal of limits. But this ideal also baffles modern liberals. This ideal implies that there should be a singular and definite understanding of humans and how they relate to both nature and each other. Somewhere the “Fascist alert” is going off in our heads. It must be said, however, that while nobody (except a fascist) admires Ezra Pound’s dedication to fascism—especially since it was probably motivated by Pound’s racial anxieties—his politics are brought into better focus if we believe that MLD inevitably dismantles the humanities.
None of this is an attempt to justify Pound’s despicable politics. Rather, it should highlight that the humanities and modern liberal democracy may be fundamentally at odds. Thus, we should expect the actions of someone like President Philip when state budgets get tight. And in the coming “age of austerity,” it’s something we should probably get used to.
In fact, if Deneen is right in his genealogy of the humanities—and I suspect he is—then the humanities are conservative in the most radical way. Ironically, it is the modern liberals who take up the cause in the state house. Deneen’s claims rattle all our categories. Perhaps this is why so many professors who recite Fish’s “pieties” don’t actually believe it themselves. The crisis of the humanities is not external, then, it’s internal. Humanities programs aren’t being attacked because the voters are cretinous philistines (though we poets & writers prefer to stroke our own egos in thinking so). The humanities are suffering an identity crisis and are being picked off as the weakest competitors for state funding.
Let’s say, however, that we accept Deneen’s genealogy, that the humanities and our modern liberal democracy are invariably at odds; does that mean that we should return to the classical understanding of humanities? Deneen is obviously suspicious of things that most poets & writers (a diverse & liberal bunch to be sure) would enthusiastically embrace. Deneen notes with palpable disgust that
one is…likely to find [in the modern university] indoctrination in multiculturalism, disability studies, queer studies, postcolonial studies, a host of other victimization studies, and the usual insistence on the centrality of the categories of race, gender, and class.
I personally tend more towards understanding things through the lens of technology (as opposed to race, gender, and class), and I wonder whether Deneen would list this category in his anathema of “victimization studies”? I’m not convinced of Deneen’s charity in this statement, and I think he engages in the very culture wars rhetoric he wants to skewer (plus there are better ways to tackle “diversity” in the modern—particularly elite—university). But I do appreciate Deneen’s skepticism. And even one who vehemently disagrees with Deneen must admit that his characterizations of academia are eerily spot on in disturbing ways.
I suppose it boils down to this question: Is there a robust way to preserve the humanities against modern liberal democracy’s instrumental values system? Certainly in the last 50 or so years there have been valiant attempts to affirm the usefulness of the humanities in our modern political environment. But this effort is clearly failing, and before long we might not have any humanities courses left in which we are able to debate this very question.
And there is another question: are we trying to have it both ways? Both MLD and the liberal arts? Do they jive as well as we have always thought?
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When I first saw the papers concerning the young freshman who killed himself over being exposed kissing another man, I looked at the boy’s picture. I was in my office here at Binghamton, and I could not stop crying. It brought back my own brutal mocking when I was in high school at St. Mary of the Assumption High. I once had 100 students in an assembly sing the “Scruvy Joe” song while I sat, defenseless. No teacher ever told them to stop mocking me. They were told simply to stop making noise. I was not gay. I was clumsy, and depressed, and different than others, and I was an easy target for kids who, under other circumstances, would be considered really nice. We are not much different than chickens. We see a bleeding chicken and peck it to death.
I did not kill myself, but I also did not survive. No one survives the irrational contempt and disdain, and meanness of a mob, whether they persecute you because you are a certain color or sexuality, or simply because they are a bunch of insecure teenage morons who want to have some fun. My classmates never knew the pain they caused me. I went home every day to a mother who was dying of cancer. I never opened my mouth—not even when some of the jocks in the school began literally spitting on me. Not one teacher—not one in that whole Catholic high school—ever said to me: “Are you ok?”
I had no dates. No girl would date the school dork. My former friends from grammar school joined in the taunting, and I never got better. I died: my self esteem, my sense of trust in others, my sense that I had a right to be weird without being tormented—all that was gone. They murdered me. They broke my heart. And, if confronted, not one of them would even realize they’d done anything out of the normal, for it is normal to bully, and look down on others. After all, if you don’t want to be bullied, show some back bone, or bully someone back!
I was tough, physically strong. Even those who mocked me would have admitted I was one of the strongest kids in my grade. I wouldn’t fight because the anger and sadness and despair in me was so deep that I was afraid I might kill someone. Also, I was a neighborhood kid, and the last thing I wanted was for my dad and mom to think I was a loser. I used to spend hours on my knees praying God would kill me. I was not weak. I was depressed, deeply so, because of the illness in my family, and I didn’t know how to defend myself.
I repeat: to take away another person’s dignity, to make anyone feel that what they are is somehow intrinsically inferior—this is an act of spiritual murder. We all know the difference between gentle ribbing, affectionate kidding and hard core ridicule and persecution of others—or do we? I don’t think we have a clue.
I survived because I hid in reading and music. I would have much preferred to be a cop or a plumber than a poet. Honest. I did not want to be different. Poetry was my compensatory act. I could scribble things in a notebook, and no one could destroy that aspect of myself. But I don’t believe in “blessings” in disguise. I don’t believe that all that doesn’t kill me, strengthens me. I believe I was murdered emotionally. I believed that an already severe sadness was aggravated by being taunted relentlessly. This kid who was outed without his permission, who was exposed for the “entertainment” value of the reality TV culture is not merely an instance of gay bashing. He is a test of our failure not to torture. He is a victim of our pro-exposure, lack of empathy, sociopathic contempt for privacy or kindness. I keep his picture on my desk. I look at him every day. No one knows if he would have identified himself as gay or straight or bi. Maybe this kid was just trying to find some love. Maybe he didn’t have a set identity yet. It was his right to identify himself, and this right was taken away from him by a bunch of kids who were no crueler (or kinder) than the one hundred good Catholic boys and girls who sang to the Mickey Mouse club song:
“Who’s the leader of the scurves who’s made for every scum?
S. C. U. R. V.Y., scurvy is his name!
Scurvy joe! Fat head! Scurvy Joe! Brown teeth!”
And on and on. I was spit at, hit on the back of the head. I developed a facial tick. I became broken, and the more broken I was, the more they increased their taunting until, finally, out of boredom, they stopped. By that time, my mother had died. It was senior year of high school. They were stupid teenagers. The teachers were not stupid teenagers. I would have loved if even one teacher took my side, took time to look into my eyes and see the hurt—had done anything more than uphold the diabolical norm. No one, not one of them got involved.
We cannot use law to fix our cowardice or our own lack of compassion. It will take more than trying those morons who outed this kid for hate crimes. It will take people who have some power to be on the side of the bleeding chickens for a change, instead of standing on the sidelines, while the so called “nice” and “normal” and “popular” kids peck them to death. Law is reductionist. The human heart expands when it is allowed to deal with life in its full complexity. Law simplifies by applying specific penalties to specific actions. Law can only provide the punitive. It cannot heal the heart.
In this week of coming out, perhaps we should put ourselves on trial. Perhaps we should search our own tendency to denigrate, to mock, to deride, to disdain. Maybe, instead of using those idiot kids from Rutgers as an example, we should look into our own past. That poor child was a talented violinist. He was probably taunted and teased more often than we’ll ever know. He is on my conscience every day for the rest of my life, and if I ever see a person scorned or mocked—gay or straight—and do nothing, take the side of the persecutors, then I will be a party to his death.
I try to make an example of acceptance in my classrooms, of being open to difference. I often fail. It is not enough to point my finger at those who hate. I have to keep trying harder not to be that way myself. I pray for that boy’s tormentors. They are dead too, in so many ways—spiritually dead. I hope with all my heart they can be brought to truly feel remorse for the pain they caused. I hope I can do the same.
Brooks Lampe reviews Andrew Joron’s Trance Archive
What a desperate trance!—The skyboat resembles a flying vulva; the city, the arc of an abandoned soliloquy.
Andrew Joron represents a small, almost indistinguishable enclave of contemporary poets who know (and appreciate that) they have been influenced by surrealism. Versus the rest of the contemporary poets who do not know they have.
Surrealism has been a controversial topic in recent decades, and there have been few poets or scholars willing (or courageous enough?) to acknowledge their indebtedness to the movement. (But not these poets! Thank God.) The biggest problem, supposedly, is one of identification and definition. Suffice it to say, in broad strokes, surrealist poetry demonstrates:
At its heart, surrealism wages a political and ideological battle through language. By creating impossible images through placing disparate objects side-by-side, poetry dismantles and re-formulates our perceptions and conceptions of reality.
There is a specifically poetic shape to the anxieties visible in Walt Whitman’s poetry. Looking at Whitman’s theory of language and how that theory works out in the poems, the shape of the anxiety becomes apparent.
He had this Transcendentalist idea of language, detailed by Tyler Hoffman in his essay, “Language,”by C. Carroll Hollis in his crucial work, and by Mark Bauerlein in Walt Whiman and the American Idiom. This idea of language is one where “words are emanations of reality and truth,” Hoffman says, and for Whitman “language is not just a system of signs we humans have at hand to express ourselves; rather, it stands as a cultural complex, one that registers our deepest beliefs as a people and a nation.”
Whitman rejected the empiricists’ claims about the arbitrariness of signs, that language is basically a convention that only happens to have the grammatical structure and phonetic sounds it has, and instead, following Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Prussian language theorist Wilhelm von Humbolt, and American philologist William Swinton (who was Whitman’s friend and for whom, it has been extensively argued, Whitman ghost wrote on the subject of language, cf. James Perrin Warren’s “Whitman as Ghostwriter,” Hollis, and Hoffman), embraced the idea that words contain within them the reality of the spirit of the people who use them. As Swinton’s book says, in a chapter possibly ghostwritten by Whitman, “Language is not a cunning conventionalism arbitrarily agreed upon; it is an internal necessity. Language is not a fiction, but a truth,” and, again, “Speech is no more the dead mechanism it used to be conceived. Each language is a living organism.”
Words are not mere signs or symbols for representations, but embodied the spirit of those who use them. As Whitman said, in an essay on American slang:
“The scope of [Language’s] etymologies is the scope not only of man and civilization, but the history of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to date; for all are comprehended in words, and their backgrounds. This is when words become vitaliz’d, and stand for things, as they unerringly and soon come to do, in the mind that enters on their study with fitting spirit, grasp, and appreciation. Language, be it remember’d, is not an abstract construction of the learn’d, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea.”
If his language theory stopped at this point, and was merely a point about the importance of the life and spiritual reality of words, it wouldn’t necessarily feed any anxiety, but Whitman went further. If he had just believed that this is the way words were, then that wouldn’t have necessitated any internal, poetry-focused worry, but he believed words could, depending on the way they were used, lose the spirit they have. They could be more alive, “vitaliz’d,” or they could die, depending on the poet. He believed words and the things they represented could, if words weren’t used well or if their use was too domesticated, too refined, be separated and disunited, and when that happens, then the words would be just inert symbols on a page, abstract and arbitrary and dead. This was the distinction Whitman made between good and bad poetry, but he also thought of it in terms of life and death. He believed the life that words contain and carry could be killed, could be buried, and there was a need to connect word and thing, and a need to reinvigorate the language. Whitman was not being metaphorical when he said that a great poet
“would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, build, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with calvary or infantry, or do anything, that man or women or the natural powers can do.”
This can be and has been taken as mere inspirational blather – the poet’s equivalent of a poster for a library’s children’s summer reading program with castles and flying horses and faraway lands – but Whitman’s theory of language is that this is what actually happens, this manifestation of life, this invigoration, when words are used well.
To use the structuralist terminology of “sign” and “signified,” Whitman wanted the sign and the signified to be the same thing, to come together and, at the moment of poet’s invocation, be one. He wanted to cross the gap between sign and signified by poetic force. He said:
“A perfect user of words uses things—they exude in power and beauty from him—miracles from his hands—miracles from his mouth—lilies, clouds, sunshine, woman, poured copiously—things whirled like chain-shot rocks, defiance, compulsion, horses, iron, locomotives, the oak, the pine, the keen eye, the hairy breast, the Texan ranger, the Boston truckman, the woman that arouses a man, the man that arouses a woman”.
He wanted the sign to be more than a sign, more than arbitrary, to really be alive, to be the thing, be filled with the spirit of the thing signified and the spirit of the people using the sign, but he consistently found that he was trapped in the realm of the sign, unable to bridge over to the reality of things, and that poems are made out of words – the vibrant life he wants to yawp is, on the page, only arbitrary symbols. There is, on his pages, throughout his work, Hoffman says, a pervading “anxiety about the ability to communicate through inert signs and symbols, about the intermediation of the printed page.”
There are moments of panic and places where he is desperate to escape mere words, to sing something untranslatable, something that is not language but just life. Whitman believed his work was worthless unless the words were alive, unless the poem was the same as his body, the same as his life, and he felt himself failing, which might go some way to explaining the constant, life-long revision, and the ongoing innovation, a “pattern of completion and escape” that appears almost compulsive. Whitman’s poetry often takes this form James Perrin Warren calls “constantly reinventing itself and thereby eluding the form it had already taken” and he seems to have this “sense of elusive, pervading ‘something’” that he cannot grasp, cannot achieve. Indeed, his life work might be better characterized by revision of poems than by actually writing them. One need not do a comparative analysis of the various volumes of poetry to find this anxiety, though. It comes across in the poems in their final, “authorized” form.
This anxiety is evident throughout the work: In his talk about singing birds, with their untranslatable songs that simply express life as the model for poetry, Whitman holds his verse to a standard that he fears he cannot meet; in his three-tiered description of poetry in “Song of Myself,” Whitman attempts to establish a taxonomy of poetry, and of the ways of using words, but then it collapses, and he finds his own best version of poetry is always inflicted with the death and artifice of the worst; in his declarations and pronouncements, his illocutionary speech acts, Whitman attempts to push and invoke life, to call it forth and animate the poem (almost, it seems, by force), but the attempts are ridden by their failure, and by an anxiety about poetry.
Because of this theoretical foundation, Whitman’s poetry is full of worries about theory and form, and the yawp so celebrated for its liberating barbarismis an anxious yawp.
We live in the paradox that life is change, but that change taken to the ultimate is death. Early signs of the great alteration shape our expanding or contracting limbs and are inscribed expressly on the face. When the young woman of twenty-five notices faint lines around the mouth or tiny crowsfeet at the corner of her eyes, something even more intimate than vanity makes her stop to reflect. The script for her very own mortality play, written on the finest parchment, has begun to develop, nor does she need any special clairvoyance to divine the final act from the first.
La Rochefoucauld says that neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily. That’s the reason we avoid long or frequent exposure to the black rays of the mirror—unless we have the temperament of those medieval monks who kept brightly polished skulls in their cells as a handy memento mori, large enough not to escape notice but smaller than the coffins that still more ascetic contemplatives used to sleep in each night. Some of the first group, striking a hopeful note, planted a candle on top of death’s head, meaningless to his blind sockets but not to the eyes of the living.
Looking at early photographs of yourself is not exactly a lark. The person represented is recognizable, and you may even discover, among several patronizing attitudes and self-deflating commentaries, something like parental affection for that inexperienced youth being examined. Considering all the roads to take and ways of cutting one’s hair current in that era, perhaps his weren’t the worst, just as maybe Crosby, Stills and Nash aren’t so bad, really. To revive an earlier phase isn’t possible, though, or, more to the point, finally desirable. For, in a sense, the photographed subject is our elder, and the present moment—fresh, breathing, more up to date—“younger” than any from the dim decades of yore.
We’ve changed; and we don’t care to be so passé as the ridiculously dressed person in the picture. Does that also mean we must accept change even when raised to the highest power? Apparently. Preferring the present visual or verbal record implies that I will also prefer to it the next and the next and the next, until, finally, icon and identity plunge beyond the reach of pictures, in fact, beyond time and change altogether. A photograph is, granted, a kind of death-mask, with the difference that it has been molded on a living face. The apple owes part of its sweetness to our knowledge that it gives the pleasure of its taste only when we consume it. In fact, we cannot enjoy anything unless, in the process, time consumes us as well. Mortality, expressed in the first-person, present-perfect tense, is summarized in a mere three words: I have lived.
A poem is also by analogy a photograph of the author. Rereading our first published apprentice work, we will feel many of the same emotions described above re looking at old photographs of ourselves. The self-portrait genre in poetry isn’t as common as in painting, though John Ashbery and Charles Wright have produced admired examples. The point is, even poems not designated as such are self-portraits, of mind rather than of body, and to just that degree, more intimate. We were hardly conscious in those days of all that could be thought or said about us. We know more now than we did then, and what we were is part of what we know. If we can allow ourselves to approach objectivity (if only as a limit, in the mathematical sense), we may also allow that, despite the clumsiness and inexperience, despite the glaring failures of skill and hollow bravado, those early self-portraits have a vitality and authenticity that deserves some sort of acknowledgment. They belong in the Department of Records that each life builds up in its life-span.
You’ve guessed it. I’m preparing a new selected poems.
Whatever people might say in the world about Newark is wrong. Newark, like Queens and Jersey City, is ethnic, race, and class diverse beyond anywhere else I know on the planet, with a wider variety of socio-economic classes freely intermingling, especially among its artists. This latter fact cheers me. As a working class white guy from Elizabeth, I often feel uncomfortable on art scenes. The food is in the not-much-spice, brown rice, wok, pita wrap, veggie, hummus spectrum where I do not flourish. Food is not made important among the white artistic class, no matter how much they insist they know about food. It all tastes too bland to me. I know they are right. I know their food is healthier and allows them to be thin and to have smaller, more shapely asses, but it makes me sad. It makes me think of psychotic men and women milling about with a passable knowledge of Jean Genet, and thinking they are feasting when they are in the middle of a famine. My girlfriend had the brown rice chicken stir fry for lunch—very healthy, but very bland: no real oil, no spice.
I had two truck dogs from a cart: one with mustard and kraut, and the other with red onions in sauce plus a grape soda for five bucks. In Newark, they fit the dog to the roll, and since the roll is steamed, it’s a wonderful press fit, and things do not fall on your shirt. Years ago, back when I was a student at Rutgers Newark, I could get this same lunch for about a dollar and thirty cents (Hot dog cost 50 cents in 1978), but five bucks ain’t bad, and I gladly skipped the free lunch provided to me as a Dodge Poet (they didn’t have grape soda, and I have always believed that truck dogs should be washed down with grape soda. They also didn’t have truck dogs). By the way, Newark is filled with great Spanish and Southern soul food restaurants—if you know where to look. It also has some of the best fish joints—fried hard or any way you like it— this side of the south.
NJPAC eats like a neighborhood. I have never known an art organization that was so generous (to my working class way of thinking) with the grub. At the dinner provided for poets, I had the best catfish I’ve ever ate, with an amazing breading: firm, cooked just right, as well as roast beef, two kinds of chicken, and greens cooked in what I call pot liquor. Pot liquor is the liquid you get with collards, and spinach, and any green when you are trying to make it stretch. It gives greens their glory. It is a beautiful thing, and I have never seen it at any other art venue. And yes, there was the pita, carrot, healthy stuff, too—if you wanted it. My point is generosity and going overboard. There was too much food, and most of it was politically incorrect, and with it, my tears of gratitude overflowed. I was greatly moved by dinner, and I am not easily moved.
So what does any of this have to do with poetry? A lot. People getting nostalgic for Waterloo village where the festival—with one exception—has been held every two years since 1986, are crazy. I wasn’t blasted by overheard and unwanted poetry while I walked around. I wasn’t caked with mud. I wasn’t made to feel that I was lost amid a bunch of poetry addicts and I learned something: Newark, like Manhattan, is a historic lasagna, with this Baptist church (Michael Peddie Baptist) as ornate with its stained glass windows, and as beautiful with its wood carvings and marble altar as any cathedral I have seen it is right near the welfare and YMCA, and this seems right to me. Americans should not be allowed to cloister their goodies away from the poor. I was told the pipe organ cannot be renovated. A shame, since it is a mechanical wonder.
The church doesn’t look like much from outside, but when you enter it, Oh my God! And not one, but two grand pianos in perfect tune! The one I played was a 150 year old Steinway—with an amazingly delicate upper range, perfect bel canto bass, and not much volume. It was an intimate Steinway, made specifically for just such a classy church. Michael Peddie Baptist is a must see if you are in Newark. I was there to introduce the young poet Michael Cirrillo. I got there early and they let me play the Steinway. Michael asked me to play behind his first poem. The students and teachers who had gathered early (it was so jammed, they had to fill the choir loft with kids), appreciated the music, and they loved Michael. Not bad…
But nothing, at least for me, compared to hearing Marie Ponsot talk about poetry in this church. She is old. Due to a recent stroke, she speaks slowly, carefully, with long pauses. She does not try to entertain the kids, or “relate” to them. She does not speak down to anyone. She is what we would call in my old neighborhood a “true dame” (It means dignified. It means intelligent. It means singular, and lofty without malice). I sat in the back in the church, to get away from the crowds (I never consult the events schedule) and was enchanted by her slow, lilting cadence. She made me shy. I know I am in the presence of something good when I am made shy. She was just like the intimate Steinway ten feet away from where she sat. On Friday, in the year of our Lord, 2010, at this huge festival where poets are supposed to “wow” the crowds, Marie Ponsot was an intimate Steinway—a small, reflective Schumann rather than a pounding virtuoso Liszt, and this is what I like best about the Dodge festival— not the big readings (I skip ‘em), not the crowds (makes me feel like Christmas at the friggin’ mall), but this intimacy, this smell of old wood, and the voice of an old woman speaking on what she loves and what she knows. The fact that it was a couple giant steps form the YMCA made it better. Beautiful things seen in their incongruity are magnified. Beautiful things seen where everything is made to look pretty become the lies of snobs.
On the way back to my car, my girlfriend and I ran into Amiri Baraka, walking over, passed Military park, to read in the big event. It was almost dark. It was just him, no entourage. He said: “Where you been? I haven’t seen you around in while.” I told him I was working up at Binghamton, and he handed me an invite to an after-reading reading and jam. Baraka was going to show off the city he loves, and have the kind of poetry reading you can’t get in the official way. The late evening dusk was almost liquid. I took the flyers he gave me: four different bars in Newark, and each with great things happening. I found out Kamiko’s Blues people is no longer going on. He still lives on Clinton Street. It was beautiful night. I was tired, and my girlfriend was tired. If I had the strength to go, I would have—but poetry is not an event for me. I know this part of the earth—this urban dusk. It is where I lived all my life. It was good to see him to see him here, or anywhere on the earth. I went back to my hotel and fell asleep. It’s nice to be asked to parties. Going to them is another matter. Marie Ponsot was still on my mind. I wanted to rest next to that Steinway. I wanted to play it all night.