Today we’re reposting the 3rd episode of Scattered Rhymes: an interview with Josh Bell.
Today we’re reposting the 3rd episode of Scattered Rhymes: an interview with Josh Bell.
In the introduction to Unusual Woods (BlazeVOX 2010) you refer to your poems as “ghost sonnets.” Why “ghost sonnets?” And what prompted you to (a) select a definitive form, the sonnet, in which to write the poems and (b) to shave a line off the form?
I call them “ghost sonnets” because they’re missing the 14th line of a proper sonnet. That is, it’s getting later than it’s ever been and the sonnet is nearly over: do you know where your closure is? Writing poetry for me is a memento mori – the Latin for “remember that you must die” – as well as memento vivere – the Latin for “remember that you must live.” Living and dying in our lapsarian condition, we cannot close read our way out of our crisis of form. With regard to our lapsarian condition and the prospect of doing contemporary close reading, we need to ask: fallen from what and closer to what? We cannot, yet again, invent a mythical authority figure and then pretend we did not fashion that figure in our own likeness (like the New Critics, the New Formalists, or the New Sincerity movement in American poetry did). Certainly, I am not suggesting that we need more cynical irony. I think we need more sincere skepticism.
Once the center no longer holds, all readings become contests of meaning. Authority, intentionality, heroism, freedom, nation, progress and the rest of the Grand Narratives become suspect and, at best, conditional once we see the horrors the documents of the past have cataloged under the flags of these abstractions. All Grand Narratives are eschatological.
Heroically or mock-heroically, the un-whole sonnets in Unusual Woods try to face the ghosts of such radical doubts. To echo Leonard Cohen, the missing line in these ghost sonnets is the crack where the suspicious and conditioned light comes in. An innovative poetry, as Walt Whitman suggested, needs an innovative readership. These poems will possess the reader who finds a way to stand witness to their demands. The word is mightier than.
Why are British lords always hearing chains in the cellar? O, that’s right, the sun never sets on the British Empire. As the ubiquitous chain-rattling ghost haunts Victorian literature, so too form haunts content in contemporary American poetry. Form dreams of containing the message, the saying, or the idiomatic haggling over the transaction of meaning. Form dreams of mattering as a kind of play between aesthetical and ethical imperatives. However, sometimes form has a nightmare called a didactic political poem. Berrr! The truth lies hyphenated somewhere between aesthetical form-ethical content. Have you ever been hyphenated? Most uncomfortable!
To put it as pompously as a I can: I intervened in the rich multicultural sonnet tradition by inventing the 13-line sonnet form because I needed a practical way to determine when a poem was done without relying on the Romantic standby of intuition or epiphany or other gestures of closure. The limited lines offered a grid that freed me to attend to other aspects of the poem construction process such as how sound relates to sense within an aleatory composition. Finding the 13-line grid was certainly an example of limitations proffering freedom.
Foregoing, then, all “mythical authority figures” in which to ground the operations of form, ought we to construct new forms and/or salvage forms from the vestiges of tradition? Or, are we for the foreseeable future trapped in “ghost” forms?
I’d like to pose it as a question: can we forego all “mythical authority figures” or not? Briefly, since this is obviously a huge topic, I would just like to add that I do believe poetry would become little more than unreadable formal exercises without a basis in faith or without a reaching out to name the essence of a person, place, or thing. Can we even imagine or can our language even connote without a metaphysical arc? Why does language fail to communicate without the metaphysical sponsorship of human agency?
As a reader of the old forms of the European avant-gardes and American modernisms, I’ve learned the importance of being weary of prognosticators. Growing up in Romania under the last communist dictatorship in Europe, I developed a strong distaste for utopian programs. Every 5 year plan is a sacrifice of someone’s present. Indeed, the word “we” might be the most vicious utopia of all. I think readers read in order to gain the ghostly traces of the past through the wickets of language and image. Without the practice of freedom, the new is mere fashion, right?
In your introductory essay, you say that “[a]s a critic, [you are] faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content.” In my review, I took “object with aesthetic form” to mean that the “objectivity” and structure of your poems lend them a universal quality, in spite of their specificity and dependence on “cultural biography.” Your statement also suggests that you want your poems to be approached as aesthetic objects. Is this right, and, if so, how ought we to understand the relationship of these two aspects–universal and aesthetic?
For whatever my current understanding of my own intention is worth to the reader encountering my poems, I do want my poems to be read as aesthetic and formally considered objects. At the same time, I also want my poems to be read as political provocations that ask the reader to reflect on her ethical position in the narrative we make of the past. Some of the most interesting language I know lives in the hyphens connecting, while also separating, words like poet-artist, aesthete-propagandist, Romanian-American. Between is the new both!
I think your question about the prospect of a universal beauty goes to the heart of one of the most challenging aspects of writing as an experimental poet in the twenty first century: how does one use language? Since language operates as a denotative instrument in the service of function as well as a connotative artifact in the plot of illusion, how one uses language is not a simple matter of practicing sincere criticism or of practicing coy pun-work. Language lives between function and figuration trying to break up the street fight while also egging on the street fight.
Regarding the possibility of objectivity, allow me to quote Heinz von Foerster: “Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.” My love of language (language is the medium of wisdom after all) is born of my interest in the simple but not the simplistic, the fundamental but not the fundamentalist, the elemental but not the elementary. I think an ethics exists when one acknowledges the other. Once the subject relates to the object, I think we can begin the process of defining what is good and what is bad for individuals and for society. The problem, of course, persists into everyday living: how do we go about the practice of acknowledging the other and how do we meet the task of defining our categories?
On the prospect of a universal beauty, I’d just like to offer a few questions. How can beauty (however innovative its form, however good its self-perceived intention, however tripartite its ideology) be universal across races, classes, genders, times, temperaments, languages, grammars, habits, religions, and so on? The universe itself is a huge and mainly dark room (or stanza, the Italian word for room). What does it mean to make an adjective of such a little-known and mainly empty and cold room? Maybe the universe is missing its 14th line. What would a Mayan make of Candide?
To answer your question, certainly there is no universal beauty if this requires that all readers across time and space must agree on what is beautiful. On the other hand, to ask your readers, whom I believe you assume to be culturally diverse, to approach your poems aesthetically, assumes that reading aesthetically is possible. Certainly responses of readers will vary widely based on a variety of factors, but one could argue that the differences are finite and provisional. In other words, to say beauty is always personal and relative is not to say it is totally subjective. Wouldn’t the Mayan be able (mostly) to understand Candide if she took a class from a Voltaire scholar who catered to international students?
Right, cultural relativism is at the heart of this important debate. Certainly, our multicultural differences are “finite and provisional” but whom should we ask to tell us where these differences end and on what they depend? If beauty is “always personal and relative,” how do we approach the prospect of coming to a universal consensus on the meaning of beauty? Catering is such an interesting word. It reminds me of the multicultural phrase “underserved community” which, for me anyway, brings up concerns of the master-slave relationship with respect to how capital nurtures and even propagates the classist ideal of necessary difference, the boom and bust cycle of universal beauty.
I think your essay successfully sets up the dichotomy of reading aesthetically versus politically–a dichotomy that your poems show to be false. But in your essay you argue that culture influences aesthetics. Undoubtedly, we also consult aesthetic objects when we establish or alter cultural traditions. Why, then, don’t we simply collapse these categories? If the dialectic between aesthetics and culture is extremely fluid, is it necessary to uphold a distinction? Shouldn’t we just concede that all artistic objects are sites for “contests of meaning” (to borrow your phrase from earlier)? To put it another way, is there anything about the aesthetic that is outside of or impervious to power struggle?
As I suggest above, the biographical circumstances of my childhood in Romania have left me suspicious of centralized government. Romania transitioned pretty swiftly from a socialist dream in 1965 to a despotic regime in 1972. Since I only caught the despotic end of utopia, I tend to see public plans of commitment such as the various 5 year plans in the former USSR, Romania, China, India and so on as instruments poised to organize the public around that famously shared, and even more famously necessary, delusion: hope. We need hope as long as we conceive of time as a linear procession of good and bad luck.
That said, according to my 5 year plan, the fluid dialectic between the aesthetical and the political does not end. The motion between making special (art) and making clear (propaganda) flows in time because the human experiment flows in time. Whether that motion moves in a straight line from left to right or in a circle depends on whether you prefer Pepsi or Coke. My point is that we cannot choose without ideology rearing up its pretty head. Ideology is in the details.
I’ll be better able to answer your question after the apocalypse has brought history to its end. Only after human strife and pleasure is over, on the floodlit stage of the afterlife, can we determine whether we should collapse the categories of aesthetics and politics. However, since this is turning out to be the warmest decade in history, the end of days may be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the global warming trend continues, the human rights and social justice issue of the twenty first century may be our final 5 year plan.
What were you thinking when you wrote “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh”? This poem stands out both in its line length and its (seemingly) overt autobiographical undertones. So I was struck by its uniqueness. On the other hand, I anticipate that method by which your “cultural biography” shaped this poem might be representative of a similar method in the other poems.
Like Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, Vasko Popa, Frank O’Hara, Kent Johnson, Patricia Smith, I certainly use the autobiographical register but I profess no one-to-one ratio between the speakers in my poems and my life experiences. “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh,” like most poems in Unusual Woods, (“My father did not invent fire” is a notable exception) have been pared down and built upon again and again. Whether expository or creative, writing is very much a process for me.
As a writer interested in the marginalia and redux of consciousness, I know I cannot know my own intentions. That said, some of the material in the “Back in Romania…” poem does borrow, stress, and tweak my own life experiences as a boy growing up in Romania. The formal rule of 13-line stanzas explains the longer line length: the story had to fit within the 13-line capsule.
Yes, you’re right! The process of tapping my cultural biography (or the unconscious authority of the force of memory) flows as a theme throughout these otherwise highly divergent morsel-sized poetic stanzas, rooms, universes. Where’s the fire? The urgency is in the old paradox: we die while we live. There’s the fire. Now run, sentence, run.
André Breton claimed surrealism puts life in the service of art. Surrealism asks artists and poets to make it realer than real, hyper real, or extra real. Such an understanding of the unconscious haunts these odd 13-line universes. These poems listen to how you read them; they listen with the cut and paste of idiom and image. It is the hurry up of scissors’ work. It is the hush and clang of bodiless souls associating with their kinfolk of understanding.
Or as Charles Simic puts it: “I’m a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs. Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves. Not many people seem to notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.”
Recently, there have been several articles on THEthe Poetry Blog on surrealism in poetry, and I am dissertating on this topic. Is it simply the cut-and-glue process that makes your poetry surreal, or are there other elements at work? Simic’s comment would suggest not process, but mimesis is the primary function.
Certainly, I seek to create uncanny effects with my poems: effects that both ring the doorbell of childhood but also ring the jilted note of the unfamiliar. I seek to create new and memorable effects of the new and memorable real. Like any writer, I do this partly through craft elements such as imagery, setting, character, and partly through my capability to live with not knowing. Mimesis is a process of mishearing in a productive way. Was it Tristan Tzara or Eminem who said “thought is made in the mouth”? Anyway, I like to listen with my imagination.
When writing and revising, do you strive for the surreal, or is it only an afterthought?
Surreal effects are the afterthoughts of language, more like it. Walter Benjamin has a theory that all words in all languages are onomatopoetic, readers only have to do the work of figuring out how sound relates (or used to relate) to signification in light of the value system of each language. To borrow the syntax of a bumper sticker: “chance operations happen.” The task, if you like, of poets and readers is to notice the odd rubbing going on between sound and sense. I like to watch words. Not many people notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.
The Surrealists often spoke of the marvelous (which might be considered a version of the sublime) as the end of their methods. Do you concur that something marvelous or sublime happens when certain conditions are met in the text? Does this relate in any way to how you understand the aesthetic aspect of your poetry?
Dada interests me more than Surrealism. However, within Surrealism, its anarchic tendencies seem more interesting to me than its fetishistic tendencies (which American marketing has employed with such gusto). For instance, Breton had another concept called “convulsive beauty” which transgresses the boundaries of formal logic as well as the canonical categories of Beauty. Convulsive beauty, by retooling the pathology of hysteria, queers aesthetic and political norms. Like Dada, hysteria (applied by the Surrealists not as a pathological diagnosis but as an instrument to destabilize categories) is that “which escapes definition.” With my creative work, I seek to make the possible more possible. This is the only kind of new I know.
Ode to the The
I liked that you were small and thick,
easy to recognize. I think
I thought you were married to and, who was often
somewhere in the sentence, holding things
together, while you would be standing, a tin
soldier, the rifle barrel of your h
sticking up over your shoulder. I felt a little
sorry for you, always announcing,
never the thing itself. When I looked
you up, they said your meaning is “controlled
by the notion ‘previously recognized,
noticed or encountered,’” and your Indo-European
base is *-to-, and *-ta-, each of them
the’d with its asterisk. O the,
I have never thanked you, guardian of the noun,
worker ant, moving things along as if
from underneath–river of the,
wheels of the. Thank you for always
being yourself, never adding
a letter to make a scary face
from within the phrase. All honor to thee,
enduring grammatical gristle, plain
flourish, stalwart bugler–the the of this song.
Sharon Olds is the author of many books including Satan Says, which received the San Francisco Poetry Center Award and The Dead and the Living which was both the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1983 and the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest collection is Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002. Professor Olds holds the Erich Maria Remarque Professorship at NYU.
I am excited about the prospect of teaching a course in which students will be given an opportunity to dismantle certain suppositions, while at the same time studying the mechanisms of dismantling which we call literary movements, and literary greatness. First, what is a gatekeeper? What gate does he keep? And what is the literary greatness he upholds? What verbal strategies and “values” are employed to maintain a standard or rebel against a standard? Is there any real difference between the strategies of obeying a structure or dismantling it? If there is no standard, and anything is great if you say it is, then why do certain works persist? Does this mean they are truly great, or that the argument for their greatness, the strategies and rigor of those arguments, or the simple fact that one feels compelled to continue the argument make them so? What are the advantages of upholding a tradition and the advantages of dismantling it, if any, beyond power? And, if power is the only constant of both those who would reform and those who resist being reformed, then is there any movement at all–or just new and seemingly competing terminologies for the same basic thing?
The more things same, the more they same the change.
Things change by staying the same.
Things stay the same by changing.
If change equals sameness and Sameness equals change, where in this process of the constancy of change, and the inconstancy of sameness do terminologies emphasize their rigorous nomenclatures of change or their equally rigorous nomenclatures of sameness? How does the atrophy of one lead to the hypertrophy of the other? What are the common mechanisms and verbal strategies of sameness and change in any verbal aesthetic? In what sense is the break down of any system A.) Breakthrough? B.) Proof that the system exists? C.) Prove that it never existed? D.) Proof that it may or may not exist and is to be considered only in so far as it exists as a series of assertions and all terminologies in the verbal construct gather around it to prove or disprove its “validity?”
What do we mean by cultural evolution? If we can come up with a definition for evolution, does the definition cease to be challenged effectively? And if it ceases to evolve, does it, itself, contradict cultural evolution? And if it contradicts cultural evolution, doesn’t that prove evolution by way of evolving beyond it? Can we ever escape the mechanisms and strategies by which we assert that we are beyond the mechanisms and strategies of assertion? Why do we put flesh on the mechanisms of the bones and organs. What is the value not only of methodology, but of hiding one’s methodologies behind a terministic screen? How do literary terms resemble the veil over the covenant. And when we hide anything by a vocabulary of jargon, exclusion, or discourse, do the gatekeepers mistake mastery of the jargon for the value? Do people ever really value truth, or do they value the power that comes from mastering certain mechanisms of truth? To that end:
“Every discourse, even a poetic or oracular sentence, carries with it a system of rules for producing analogous things and thus an outline of methodology.”
All selections from reality/life are distortions of reality/life. They imply a rhetoric (method) of inclusion and exclusion implicit in the choosing of one thing or way over another. Thus Kafka’s statement: “the minute you write she opened a window, you have already begun to lie.” What can we say about correctness then, the right or perfect way to do something save that it is obeys to the furthest rigor and skill the rhetoric of its own distortions, and, when it disobeys the rhetoric of those particular distortions, it does so with equal or greater rigor? Error exists not in whether something is true or false but in whether one has obeyed its rhetoric (methodology) or disobeyed without full rigor. There can be no errors in perception if all perception is misperception,only errors in methodology. If one attempt to obey and fails, this is sin/error, or incompetence. If one disobeys and succeeds with full rigor, this is a new system. If all this be so, then there is no difference between postmodernism’s obsessions with deconstruction (the process of instability) and the bureaucracy from which it came into being and in which it thrives. To quote Derrida again:
“It is the rigor and conviction of my views and methods that seem threatening– not what I say, but the rigor, conviction, and competence by which I say it.”
What is the outline of methodology in Ashery’s poems? (we will look at three of them). IN Larry Levis (again three poems). In Keats’ “Odes?” in Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of ORder at KEy West,” “Large Red Man Reading” and in Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s family and identity poems? How do these methodologies contradict or exclude the possibility of the other?
Besides this old adage, we will be considering the following:
To what extent is art for art’s sake, in its purest most absolute expression, merely a morality and didacticism made conspicuous by its absence? (We will compare the verbal strategy of Oscar Wilde’s essays on art for art’s sake, with some famous sermons and their verbal strategies)). How does an aesthete resemble a strict moralist? What are the verbal strategies of disdain an aesthete employs for the meaningful and the ontological, and how do they resemble the “outrage” of moralists? How does the “cool” and indifference, and practiced inconsequence of an aesthete betray the same underlying violence and zeal as the heat and fanaticism of a moralist? What are the particular strategies of violence in a system that must maintain it is above and beyond “for and against” and is for unending nuance?More importantly, how does an insistence upon ontology (meaning) falsify substance. How does an insistence on substance falsify meaning.
What are the advantages of “who cares” and “so what” in the history of power (the strategies of inviting and not inviting) and how do they figure in the development of post modernism? For this we will be looking at some of the journal entries of Andy Warhol, and some of the party scenes in Proust. We will examine the supposition: power is the right to be arbitrary and contemptuous of all subjects that do not reflect the right to be arbitrary. Power is the lawless generative force of laws, traditions, and beliefs to which it need not adhere. Power never participates in the consistency which it engenders, in that which upholds it. When power obeys its own laws and gatekeepers, it ceases to be power. If this is true, then there are three ways to dismantle a power structure:
1. To go against it (reformers, new movements,)
2. To obey it so perfectly, with such utter obedience that one becomes a “pure” servility. Hence: the gates and the gatekeepers supplant the very thing they were built for and protect. Substance confers substance upon essence and deconstructs it as an essence. The “power” disappears into that which obeys it. (Kafka)
3. To confuse the issues to the point where they shift.
Byron: Not Wordsworth, but Pope (Don Juan).
The modernists (especially Pound): Not Tennyson, but Browning.
The beats: Not Eliot but Williams. Not west, but east. Not leftist action but leftist life style.
Post modernism: not substance, but semiotics of substances that do not exist save for their semiotics.
We will discuss vicarious power through the claiming of origins. We will study the power dynamics of “Studied with.” “read with” “published in” “sponsored by” and “born from.” All this virtual “proof” as created by German academics ad science.How does a poem imply its “studied with,” “read with” “published in” and “born from?” To that end:
If something doesn’t fit any category, and we call it unique, do we mean we are impressed by its originality or confused as to its origins? When we are confused as to a thing’s origins, two reactions– both from the power structure result:
1.We champion the thing or artist as an exotic, a novelty, a bit of the primitive, and the raw, thus either mythologizing or eroticizing it or
2. We disparage, disdain or reject it as a “mistake” an ineptitude, a lack of craft or skill, proof that the artist is a rank amateur.
For this supposition:
– The “peasant” poetry of John Clare
– “Outsider” artists as championed by the elite.
– “Outsiders” as championed by the star making machine (Dylan, Madonna, Eminem)
– Outsiders made immortal by early death (the second generation romantics for example.
– Obscenity trials as a good career move (Baudelaire, Flaubert, Joyce, Lawrence, Ginsberg): scandal as a success story.
Some other things we will be delving into:
The modernist obsession with process and material as a value in and of itself and its relation to industrial and post industrial consciousness. The poem as a “thing made out of words.” The painting as paint. Movements against the representational toward the abstract. Movements to retain the representational through disconnects, incongruity, distortion, or comic pastiche.
Finally: the power of literary friendships (how cronies work on the golf course and in the academy). Friendship as power.
This anxiety Walt Whitman has about poetry emerges in the poem “Song of Myself,” as Whitman seeks to establish a taxonomy of poetry, a system classifying what is good poetry, what bad, but the structure he establishes keeps collapsing.
The poem is one Whitman’s fullest explanation of his theory of language and poetry, perhaps even more clear than the few prose pieces on the subject that bear his name, and it serves to show and highlight his theoretical conceptions, but also to show how his work pervaded by a fear, a deep anxiety about poetry that inflicts his poems.
He works out, in the poem, a three-tiered idea of poetry. The lowest tier, the first level, is the poetry of refinement, and death. It is the poetry that actually goes by the name “poetry” in the poem, and reflects Whitman’s ideas about language, and how language can stagnate, separate from life and reality, and be dead. The second tier is the poetry of people using everyday language — “speaking.” In the poem, Whitman praises speaking, which is in accordance with his theory about the American people and the vitality of their everyday talk, reflected, for example, in his love of slang, place names, nicknames and technical terms, but speaking is still not entirely free and safe from the death that inflicts “poetry.” “Speaking” has the life that Whitman wants, but it’s not entirely stable, and it can be buried, it can be silenced, and it can die. This leads him to a third tier of poetic language, the one he calls “singing.” “Singing” is vivified and revitalized language, language that’s not convention and not a system of signifiers, but which truly is alive, is life, is reality. “Singing” is also the elevated from of common speech, the form that raises the life that exists in language as it is actually spoken by Americans to a new level, in a sense beautifying it. It liberates language. It is, then, the opposite of “poetry,” for poetry takes common speech and refines it, strangles it, and kills the life it had. This means, of course, that “speech,” though praised by Whitman, celebrated by him, is also the site of a certain anxiety, as it is fragile and in danger of dying. There’s always the possibility it will be smothered.
Up to this point, of course, the account of poetry presented in “Song of Myself” doesn’t create any problems. It fits quite nicely with the image of Whitman as great emancipator who begins and ends barbarically yawping. No sooner is the system constructed, though, then it begins to fall apart. It collapses, and deconstructs.
The death that marks “poetry” as bad is also, Whitman finds as the poem progresses, as he sets out the ideal of “singing,” a part of “singing.” The best poetry always has a little of what makes the worst poetry the worst. It’s haunted, and always already involved with the death, the dying, the stagnated, merely signifying language that is not vivified. No sooner is the three-part structure of poetry set up in “Song of Myself,” then it disintegrates, and a panic sets in, a desperate worry about the worth of poetry. As he talks about “singing,” the poet becomes paranoid, and fears the whole project has, before his eyes, flatly failed.
Very early in the poem, Whitman moves to attack poetry and also to separate his poem from that which is commonly called poetry. There’s a bit of a sarcastic edge to the lines 30-37 and a kind of dismissal that could even be considered reminiscent of the disses of rap battles: “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?” Whitman asks. “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems … You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres of books” (32, 33, 35).
Whitman, here, is degrading poetry as such, and also setting his poem, his project, up against poetry. Even if one takes this as mere bravado, though, the braggadocio or the posturing of a young man who wants to challenge the establishment to a battle, the terms of his dismissals are important. The problem of “poetry,” as Whitman sees it, is death. Poetry – the poetry he’s rejecting and is opposing himself to – is a thing of ghosts, and sees with the eyes of dead. It is dead because of it’s distance from the reader, from the reader’s own body, life, breath and experience, is that way because it is a thing of reckoning and practice, which is exactly the kind of refinement Whitman thinks has marked the whole tradition of poetry, and which doesn’t befit America. “The whole tendency of poetry,” Whitman said in a newspaper interview in 1876, “has been toward refinement. I have felt that was not worthy of America. Something more vigorous, al fresco, was needed.”
Whitman further pushes this idea of the wrong-headed tendency of refinement in line 49, where he opposes elaboration, which is “no avail,” and opposes it to himself and his life, his soul, and other people’s lives and life in general and their souls too. “While they discuss I am silent,” Whitman writes, “and go and bathe and admire myself” (56).
Of course the contrasts here between death and life, books and experience, debates and one’s own glorious nakedness, fit neatly into the frame of Whitman as a Romantic writer, the frame that’s taught to American high school students and which works to give Whitman the reputation he has with Beat poets and ad agencies alike, but it also fits with his theory of language. The language he opposes is the language which Swinton’s book called “dead mechanism.” The language he wants is the language that is vitalizes, “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” (“Slang in America”). The contrasts and oppositions of Romanticism also have this poetic shape to them, and when Whitman lays out, early in one of his most famous and most recognized poems, his poetic project, he’s using that specific theory of language to set the terms.
Having more or less started with a sign declaring the death of so-called “poetry,” Whitman’s “Song of Myself” then turns to the second level in the tier of language, that of common, everyday speech. Poetry is contrasted with “voice,” with “talking,” which is better and more natural than “poetry,” but is tainting (from the start) with an anxiety:
“Speech” is presented as something that cannot be quite trusted, since it can be silenced, as in line 164, where it is “buried” – as though dead, like poetry – and “restrain’d by decorum” – also like poetry – even though it is, by nature, something that “is always vibrating” and howls. Speech, or voice, is pictured by Whitman to be something that has vitality, this life he wants his poem to have, and yet it is also something that isn’t free from the danger of death. Common people, the one he wants to celebrate, can be oppressed and suppressed, and made to act like they’re dead, even if they’re actually not (145), and the same is true with their language. “Voices” can be made “long dumb” (508), becoming like poetry. Whitman doesn’t want to attack talking, because it is, actually, a force for life that just happens to be dead or to look like it’s dead, unlike poetry with is an agent of death. He does want to distinguish and distance himself from it, though. The poet-author knows that “the talkers were talking” (38) and what they were talking about, but finds it important to point out that he, himself, is not talking.
Whitman will want to celebrate and appreciate speech, both in the ways it’s normally conceived of and as this second tier of his taxonomical account of poetry, but it’s still problematic for him. It isn’t free from the problem of “poetry.”
This can be seen when the poet engages in speech, and then wrestles with it, almost epically battling with “speech” that, personified, tries to trap him, trick him, lock him into this limitation of articulation. “Speech is the twin of my vision” (566), Whitman declares, which might be taken as a commitment to “speech,” but then that line’s immediately followed by an explanation of an adversarial relationship: Whitman isn’t attacking speech, but speech is attacking him. “It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically, / Walt you contain enough, why don’t you let it out then?” (567-568). The poet then resists “speech,” counters it, argues against it, rejects it, and ultimately rises above it. “Come now,” he says, “I will not be tantalized, you conceive too much of articulation/ Do you know O speech how the buds beneath you are folded?” (569).
Mark Baulerlein, in his work, has identified this section as the center of the struggle in Leaves of Grass, as Whitman fights to find “a language adequate to a certain emotional-spiritual import” (55), as he struggles against what Ezra Greenspan calls the “representational limitations of language.” Whitman is fighting against language here, fighting for it to be more than mere system of signs, and as it threatens to trap him in he attempts to resist, He addresses speech, here, almost as God addresses Job from the whirlwind, attempting to take the position of having confounded “speech,” which is too small for him. Speech, like a mere mortal inappropriately attempting to surmount the divine, has tried to reduce Whitman to something containable (just as “poetry” is a reduction of the life force of “speech”), but that reduction would, if Whitman, be a reduction unto death, and he rejects it:
My final merit I refuse you, I refuse putting from me what I really am.
Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you
Writing and talking do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and everything else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic (576 – 581).
Whitman is still placing “speech,” in his taxonomy of poetry, on a level above poetry – he, after all, is enthusiastically committed to everything that even seems democratic, and he will declare that talking is “the sound I love, the sound of the human voice” (585) – but he himself is doing something different. He is not one of the “talkers talking,” and has separated himself from “speech,” risen above to do something more.
What Whitman really wants to do with this second tier is save it. He wants to liberate it and elevate it, empowering the talkers with a new kind of language in the same way he has been liberated and has transcended. He knows a different type of speech, a different poetry than “poetry,” a life-ful language with which Whitman can come and set the talkers free. He knows “the password primeval” (506), the “sign of democracy”; he can “Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” (501, 502); through him, dead voices are resurrected, as he says, “Through me forbidden voices,/Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,/Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d” (516-518).
He can do all this, as presented in Leaves of Grass, because he knows this different kind of poetry, “singing.” This is the third tier, the top tier, of his taxonomy, which is presented, in the poem, as a discovery, a revelation. If the poem is taken as a narrative, Whitman engaged in “speech” and then with “speech,” and then, in rejecting it, in finding it not quite free, not quite liberated from the stagnation and stink of “poetry,” he finds this new thing, this higher plane of language with which he can transfigure and clarify the “voices veil’d” (517), the voices “long dumb” (508), “buried” and “restrain’d by decorum” (164). Right after Whitman rejects “speech” as insufficient, he discovers music. He sits silent and listens and he discovers music, starting with, hearing first, the birds. Returning the reader, perhaps, to the revelation (and the submerged anxiety) of the bird’s he heard as a child on fish-shaped Paumanok, Whitman hears “the bravuras of birds” (584) and that acts to open him up to a long list of sounds, which are, notably, not “voice,” not “talking,” even when and where they might have been taken that way by another, but music, singing and song.
The revelation of hearing the bird – this one and the first one too – is pronounced by Whitman with the sigh, “I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,/Ah this indeed is music – this suits me” (599-600). In the context of the actual poem this is, of course, also literal music, with singing soprano and violoncello and keyed cornet, but as it “shakes mad-sweet pangs through [his] belly and breast” (598), “whirls [him] wider than Uranus files” (604) and “wrenches such ardor from [him] [he] did not know [he] possess’d” (605), he is opened to “feel the puzzle of puzzles,/ And that we call Being” (609 – 610). The bird reveals music to Whitman, and music reveals Being.
Following the revelation of music in Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s lists become longer, more exuberant. For example, poem 33 starts with the exclamation of “Space and Time!” and lasts, in that ecstatic mode, for 160 lines, with the narrator declaring himself liberated, “a free companion” (817) able to sleep with any bride (818) and speak in any voice he wants (819), since he is unencumbered by any law, unrestrained by any guard (801-803). It is as if, the poetry worked out, the justification of the poem itself established, Whitman is free.
He intends to use this freedom, this revelation that leads to liberation, to breathe life into speech. This Whitman, singing Whitman, is Whitman the liberator.
There is, in Leaves of Grass, a whole list of people who do not sing, but use “voice,” for example preachers and scientists, slaves and a sea captain, people whom he does not want to reject, but whom he, with his singing, can elevate to singing by singing them. His poem, his song, which is of himself but also of them, is intended here to be and is expressed here as being a manifestation or a realization of their spirit. “I act as the tongue of you,” he says, “Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d” (1248 – 1249). This music is understood to have a kind of salvific function. “Music rolls,” Whitman says, “but not from an organ” (1061), coming to the aid of the speakers whose struggle for the breath of freedom he has. The prime example of this function of his singing and how he places “voice” in this middle tier of the taxonomy is the dying general who speaks to the narrator at the end of poem 33.
In line 869 and 870, Whitman writes, “Again gurgles the mouth of my dying general, he furiously waves with his hand,/He gasps through the clot Mind not me – mind – the entrenchments.” Here speech is presented as a) difficult, b) involved with death, c) as something the reader and the poet should ignore or transcend, precisely for the sake of the speaker. The general cannot go on, and can barely utter the words he needs to utter, but Whitman can do it for him, with his singing.
This brings us back to the title of the poem, “Song of Myself,” and the most the famous couplet, “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,/I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” (1332 – 1333). This is Whitman’s idea and ideal of poetry. This account, in Leaves of Grass, fits into Whitman’s Transcendentalism and his Romanticism and is how Whitman is typically viewed. Whitman is seen yawping, singing this barbaric, al fresco song, a sort of noble savage of verse. He is free from anxiety and invites his readers to come and romp, howl, dance naked and liberate themselves. Yet, just as “speech” was infected with the illness of “poetry,” so also “singing.” At the moment poetry – the new poetry Whitman has conceived as his project, his life’s work – is supposed to take off and soar, to expand ever out like the universe “wider and wider” “expanding, always expanding” (1185) in unstopped and unstoppable growth, the anxiety of form and theory is there again. It vexes; it depresses; it comes crushing down. The bird, at the moment of the yawp, accuses him of being tame and translatable (1331). He claims this organ-like music rolls forth from his breast, but inside that is this cavity of anxiety that won’t stop worrying him, “Ever the verxer’s hoot! hoot! hoot! (1067).
Scattered throughout the poem are these little lines speaking of doubt. There is this fear, bubbling up, that his song is no more liberated than “speech,” that is, after all, a poem. Not quite congruent with the image of Whitman, the singing savior, the one who’s come to set us free with a song, to make us as free as his uncut beard, there are these moments of despair that speak of a man bothered, a man who would have to rewrite and revise almost until the end of his life: “I know the sea of torment,” the narrator says, “doubt, despair and unbelief.”
He is, despite protestations (1289), alarmed by death. It’s not the death of his body that worries Whitman, though, but the death that seems to seize the words as they grow cold and lifeless on the page. The poem, Whitman’s masterwork, ends with this note of anxiety and fear of failure entirely entangled with declarations of hope. He concludes with the despondent note that “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean” (1341), and counters “But I shall be good health to you nevertheless” (1342), and then counters and counters again, perhaps in a debate with himself, perhaps in an oscillation between hope and despair, “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you” (1344 – 1346).
It’s a failure Whitman feels, too. The anxiety that underlies many of the poems, that seems to bubble up in them, sometimes erupts in his work in full-fledged declarations of failure. The problem of poetry sometimes seems too much to bear, and Whitman, in a poem, disavows poetry, gives up the project of vivifying words and putting life – his life – into a poem. “Conveying a sentiment and invitation, I utter and utter, / I speak not” (25-26), he says in “A Song of the Rolling Earth.” The poem sets out the transcendentalist doctrine of nature, but the poem also denounces itself for its inability to be what the transcendentalist theory would have it be. Whitman wants “A song of the rolling earth, and of words according” (1), but cannot achieve it with the tool of the poem. “Were you thinking that those were the words,” he asks, “those upright lines? those curves, angles, dots? / No, those are not the words” (2 – 3). Whitman uses the poem to commit himself or recommit himself to exactly the romantic, Transcendentalist, the vibrant, plenum of life he spoke of in “A Song of Myself,” but where once Whitman was going to yawp over the rooftops of the world, now he says utterances all have to be abandoned:
I swear I begin to see little or nothing in audible words,
All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth,
Toward him who sings the songs of the body and the truths of the earth,
Toward him who makes the dictionaries of words that print cannot touch.
I swear I see what is better than to tell the best,
It is always to leave the best untold.
When I undertake to tell the best I find I cannot,
My tongue is ineffectual on its pivot,
My breath will not be obedient to its organs,
I become a dumb man (98 – 107).
NOTE: This is the first of a series of posts by Colie Hoffman about her experience while a writer-in-residence at Sangam House, India.
It’s only been two weeks since I arrived in India, but already I feel totally at home here. The tiny village where I’m living—beautiful unto itself, with its stone paths and red mud houses—is surrounded by expansive grasslands, palm trees, and wooded dirt roads. I eat delicious, fresh vegetarian meals twice a day, someone takes care of the cooking and laundry, and I get to enjoy the company of six other writers. And while all this is magical, it’s really just a sideshow to the main attraction: For 10 straight weeks, I have all the free time in the world to write, write, write.
This paradise is Sangam House, a relatively new international writers’ residency program (in its third year) based in South India. The first two sessions took place near Pondicherry, on India’s southeast coast, but this year the location switched to a “dance village” called Nrityagram, about 20 (rough-riding!) miles outside Bangalore in the Indian state of Karnataka.
Nrityagram is very small—10 buildings plus a few in progress. We’re five miles from the nearest post office, bar, convenience store, etc. (basically, anywhere you could buy anything). The jogs I take along local roads are punctuated by stray dogs and passing herds of cows or goats. Nrityagram was created as the home of a small ensemble of classical Indian dancers, the handful of students who study with them, the administrative staff who run the place, and most recently, us—the writers at Sangam House. We’re here for only three months, but the dance community (which has been more than welcoming) lives here year-round.
During my stay I’m trying to complete the manuscript for my first book of poems. I had secretly wondered if all the time and freedom from my usual responsibilities would block me, but so far I’ve been reading, writing, and revising up a storm (knock on wood). There is the occasional off day, when the ideas don’t come or nothing I’ve done quite works—but by and large, my days here have been successful, productive, and inspiring.
About half the writers at Sangam House at any one time are from various states in India, and half are from abroad. When I arrived, my fellow residents were from Kolkata, Lucknow (both in northern India), and Copenhagen. Rajat writes in English and Bengali, Pratibha writes in Hindi, and Louise translates from English to Danish (I am the sad soul who speaks and writes only in English). Since then we have been joined by four other writers. Most people are working on fiction projects while here, but in India the identity chasm between fiction and poetry is not so stark—many writers do both and publish both.
So what’s a day like? my family keeps asking. There’s no exact schedule, but regular things (meals, people waking up and sharing coffee and the paper, people going for walks) happen at regular-ish times. Generally we make our own breakfasts, work, join the dancers for Indian lunch, work, and then have Indian food together in Sangam’s common space for dinner. After dinner we share booze and conversation, sometimes heading back to our rooms early to continue working, other times talking in small groups late into the night.
To give myself some structure, I try to divide time between reading—the work of other writers here (those who write in English), the books I brought with me, or essays or poems I find online—and writing. I always try first to start a new poem, but on the days that doesn’t work, I revise poems in progress or reengineer old ones that never got off the ground. While I’m accustomed to creating in multiple bursts rather than sustained periods, the longer I’m here, the more I’m able to work for long stretches at a time. As a result, my creative process—namely, how deeply I’m able to think about something and how much I’m able to linger in an idea and get to know it—is changing. I suspect I won’t know the real effects of this till much later, but it’s refreshing to feel things moving around in my head in unfamiliar ways.
We’ve all justified seeing a particular movie or following a TV show by saying “It’s terrible, but it’s just entertainment/pop/etc.”–I know I have. There’s that niggling feeling that we should not have enjoyed that film/show as much as we did. But this justification is an easy-out, something that is surprisingly accepted among even the most erudite and critically astute circles. Indeed, it seems acceptable even in modern critical discourse about film. For Armond White, this is an indefensible critical blasphemy. And as difficult as the line is to hold (and exhausting, to be honest), I find I must agree with him.
I’ll get into that in a few paragraphs, but first I want to look at White’s incredible self-published collection of essays on Michael Jackson–Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles–which I hope to will serve as the foundation for a general exploration of White’s idea of criticism and argument for why I think White is an important critic.
While reading through Keep Moving, readers can watch White evolve as a critic. The essays themselves are various pieces that White wrote concerning Michael Jackson from the mid-80s onward. While the insights about Jackson are impressive, what is more interesting to me (for the moment) is how these essays give context and depth to what is too often dismissed as a troll-like, curmudgeonly attitude by critics of the critic. White explains his own evolution:
In reviewing my Jackson pieces [for the book]…I was forced to recall my own relationship to Jackson. It had changed from my customary critical skepticism to sincere awe. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Thriller when it first appeared in 1982; it didn’t fit in with my rockist criteria for album art. But Thriller won the world for its superlatively crafted program of single tracks; it was an album in music culture’s original sense–a collation–while I was infatuated with the cohesive impudence of Prince’s 1999….I was not prepared for the subtle revolution of Thriller.
To read White discuss what makes Michael Jackson significant is an honest pleasure. Moreover, it’s fascinating to watch White navigate the racial and social issues of the day (and today) in his criticism. Armond White’s ability to cut through the bullshit and say something lasting and worthwhile is on display. Take, for example, White’s meditation on Jackson’s line “if…you’re thinking about being my baby / It don’t matter if you’re black or white”:
That phrase, coming from anyone else…would be highly offensive. But the sentiment has to be taken more seriously coming from Jackson, who literally has inscribed that belief in his flesh.
Michael’s physical transformation isn’t a game of truth or dare like the costumes put on and cast off by Madonna or David Bowie. Consider that the one identity Madonna and Bowie never flirted with is as a racial Other. But their “probity” is more shrewd than judicious; they know the identity from which expressive freedom customarily is withheld. Silence is their ultimate taboo. But silence unleashes the part of Jackson that always was suppressed in song. He dances free of the personal, social, racial constraints that are inseparable from Jackson’s Black and human experience in ways that empowered whites may never understand.
It’s important that Black folks understand Jackson’s physical appearance isn’t anything so superficially pathetic as wanting to be white. His greatest desire–which he sang passionately about in “Man in the Mirror”–is to “lift yourself” above the common, petty fetters and divisions that affect most people’s lives.
White’s ability to connect the dots between Jackson’s music and his publicly private life is part of what makes him a great critic (and, perhaps, problematizes our cultural distinctions between “public” and “private”). White is always attempting to outline the shape of the person in his criticism. I believe this is why the auteur film critic Andrew Sarris is so important to White, because he must always be able to trace a piece of art back to its human element. And this ability to find the human is what convinces me that White’s criticism is fundamentally a humanist criticism. It’s what lends weight to White’s ability to “speak truth to power.” I find that so many who are concerned with “speaking truth to power” are really just concerned with their own power and semiotics. But this focus on the human person allows White to cut right to the heart of cultural issues without getting lost or tossed around in the media firestorms that accompany cultural events.
Because of that, White’s primary concern in this book is understanding Michael Jackson through his art. This focus yields amazing insights. See White’s commentary on the perennial (or at least what was perennial) controversy over Jackson’s skin color:
Most artists submit to [the Black performer’s understood contract with the white-controlled world of show business] to some degree. Jackson’s only gone the Jewish entertainer’s nose-job ritual–known as the “Hollywood circumcision”–several organs better.
Almost a hundred years after minstrel shows, Jackson has engineered the ultimate critique/reversal of the blackface tradition. His plastic surgery answers the exploitation and humiliation that have always loomed ambiguously before Black performers who were ready to give the marketplace the hairstyle it demanded….
His new face is just a manifestation of the compromises he’s forced into as a private and public person, as a naive young man in an industry of predatory cunning, as a powerful Black cultural presence skeptically admitted into a largely white hierarchy….
Michael Jackson has become the social and ethnic anomaly he was raised to be….Jackson has fashioned himself into what the Western world has ordained: an androgynous, uniracial creature of presumably limitless appeal.
While the media has focused on how strange Jackson had made himself (and let’s admit it–most of us gawked along with them), White’s insight shifts the burden of guilt where it rightfully belongs: our desire, channeled through the media, to be at once fascinated and disgusted.
There’s much more to say about White’s book on Jackson. In many ways, it’s a beautiful book, and it almost brought me to the verge of tears at points. While reading, I was filled with regret about what Jackson went through as an artist; how I was (and still am) implicated in that. It made me wish that I could go back and appreciate the man more while he was still alive.
But now I want to speak more broadly about White as a critic (I plan on coming back to the Jackson book later). I mentioned White’s humanism. I really do believe that White’s is one of the great practitioners of a critical humanism. You may totally disagree with his analyses of films (which, at points, can be admittedly bizarre); you can find his tone and j’accused sloppiness frustrating, but that a true humanism at the basis of his criticism, I believe, is above reproach. At times, White may fail to live up to his own humanist standard, but who doesn’t? That’s not a glib dismissal of White’s failures as a critic. It’s only to say that White’s failures to live up to a standard don’t negate that standard.
One thing that confirms White’s humanism, in my mind, is his deep and abiding belief in democracy. That White believes in democracy might seem counter intuitive, given some of the statements he’s made about bloggers (which we generally believe to be the ultimate democratic medium):
The Internetters who stepped in to fill print publications’ void seize a technological opportunity and then confuse it with “democratization”—almost fascistically turning discourse into babble. They don’t necessarily bother to learn or think—that’s the privilege of graffito-critique. Their proud non-professionalism presumes that other moviegoers want to—or need to—match opinions with other amateurs….The journalistic buzzword for this water-cooler discourse is “conversation” (as when The Times saluted Ebert’s return to newspaper writing as “a chance to pick up on an interrupted conversation”). But today’s criticism isn’t real conversation; on the Internet it’s too solipsistic and autodidactic to be called a heart-to-heart. (Viral criticism isn’t real; it’s mostly half-baked, overlong term-paper essays by fans who like to think they think.)
And in print, “conversation” is regrettably one-sided. Power-sided. This is where the elitist tendency sours everything. The social fragmentation that fed the 1980s indie movement, decentralizing film production away from Los Angeles, had its correlative in film journalism. Critics everywhere flailed about for a center, for authority, for knowledge; they championed all sorts of unworked-out, poorly made films (The Blair Witch Project, Gummo, Dogville, Southland Tales) proposing an indie-is-better/indie-is-new aesthetic. The sophomoric urge to oppose Hollywood fell into the clutches of Hollywood (i.e., Sundance). Similarly, the decentralized practice of criticism now scoffs at former New York Times potentate Bosley Crowther, while crowning a network of bizarro authorities—pompous critics who replace Crowther’s classical-humanist canon with a hipster/avant-garde pack mentality (from The Village Voice to Time Out New York to IndieWire).
This quote might seem to confirm that White is just a poor, confused man: he attacks centers of power, while at the same time favoring a “canon”? I don’t believe White is confused, however. Let me explain by way of G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton explained what he felt the basic principles of democracy to be–and I think you’d be hard pressed to find any better explanation:
This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common….It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves–the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy….
This definition is so useful because it brings into relief the belief opposite to democracy: that the things that humans hold in common should be ruled by those “who know better.” According to White’s jeremiads, you have an unfortunate convergence of power-interests and a supposedly democratic groundswell of bloggers. Hence the reason why White likes to quote Molly Haskell so much: “The internet is democracy’s revenge on democracy.” White is not a know-nothing populist. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a democrat.
White, like Chesterton, believes genuinely that people should deal with their own business, not be forced to submit or be coerced by the will of corporate interests (every bit of White’s criticism that I’ve read confirms this). But that doesn’t mean that anything goes either, that the “mob” knows best. For White, the critic is there to help the masses. But he does so not as a gatekeeper of “artistic greatness.” The critic may be the defender of a canon but does so as an advocate.
And this is the problem with the “it’s just a movie” defense. When we allow movies (or any art for that matter) to fall into that cheap dichotomy, we actually subject ourselves to the gatekeepers of “greatness.” We cut off our critical legs and have to wait until the right people say it’s OK to take something seriously (note how White is excoriated for taking a film like Norbit seriously). Who else but the elites will determine whether a piece of art is to be considered “actual art” or “just pop”? Pop must be treated with utmost seriousness because otherwise we leave ourselves at the mercy of the same gatekeepers we thought we just escaped. I ask you: who decided we must take Lady Gaga more seriously than Brittany Spears? Beats me, but somewhere along the line it was obviously decided, though both are selling records just fine. Of course, White says it best (and more pithily):
To discuss movies as if they were irrelevant to individual experience—just bread-and-circus rabble-rousers—breeds indifference. And that’s only one of the two worst tendencies of contemporary criticism. The other is elitism.
White believes desperately in the role of the critic as a guard against both an anti-human indifference and the elitism that capitalizes (literally) on indifference to enslave us.
This brings me full-circle to White’s book about Jackson and White’s deep-seated critical humanism. If Chesterton is right, then the democratic ideal comes from a fundamentally humanist impulse, one that should guarantee the dignity (and equality) of individual persons. Now, compare Chesterton’s explanation of democracy to White’s final denunciation of the power structures that are incapable (or unwilling) to recognize the actual greatness of Jackson:
When the current President of the United States grudgingly admitted to “have all his stuff on my iPod,” it seemed either disrespectful or just further submission to the will of the media elite. What POTUS didn’t say was that even a relative “ditty” like the imperishable “P.Y.T.” was more than “stuff.” Listen to the way Jackson took R&B’s romantic entreaty and sang it as more than booty-begging or nut-busting but as the epitome of goodness. It is the kind of manifold richness that many people underestimate in Black pop (even when made apparent by a white postmodern brainiac like Green Gartside who deconstructed Jackson’s aesthetic into Scritti Politti). MJ’s “Wooooo’s” and “repeat after me” were sensual and rhetorical confirmations of personal and communal loving. He solicited call-and-response from the world–and got it. “P.Y.T.” makes the joy of life and art into one–it’s just an added blessing that you can also dance to it. If that doesn’t justify our democracy, then trade MJ’s Civil Rights moonwalk for a goosestep.
“Civil Rights moonwalk” (aside from being a brilliant turn of phrase) is the perfect example of how deadly serious White is about pop art. Pop isn’t “just pop.” The very principles of democracy can be at stake in a song. And while MJ is certainly an “elite” in a sense, White spends most of his book on Jackson explaining how the real core of Jackson’s songs are, in fact, personal expressions of the democratic ideals (see, especially, the essays “The Gloved One Is Not A Chump” and “Screaming To Be Heard, Book I”).
What is most important to White, however, what confirms MJ’s greatness is the fact that, despite all the media “kicking dirt in [MJ’s] eye,” despite Jackson’s confused and troubled response to the perverse demands of fame (which the media creates then capitalizes on later), despite the attempts of cultural gatekeepers to keep Jackson relegated within preordained modes of entertainment, Jackson’s art cannot be “reduced to pop,” because it speaks on a deep, visceral level. The level on which Jackson was operating is demonstrated by the outpouring of grief for Jackson by the “victorious plebiscite” (which AOL explained was a “seminal moment in internet history. We’ve never seen anything like it in scope or depth.”), whose “resistance to media fiat” White says “is proof of democratic goodwill in action.”
While I hope this post stands independently as a commentary on White and his book, it’s also a bit of a continuation of some of my thoughts on the relationship between art and democracy, which I hope to continue with later in order to answer some of the excellent questions that were asked in my original post.
AN AGREEMENT REQUIRES
AN OFFER AND ACCEPTANCE
I came here to get you excited.
We have an accidental stare-down.
No bees, no money. No one says this.
I am so frightening. No one is impressed.
It’s all, a duck’s quack doesn’t echo
and no one knows why. You think
you are whispering when you are not.
We are experts at distributing distorted
information. This is how it might feel,
take hold of something between
your finger and your thumb and twist it
sharply. Make a slight adjustment.
A logical consequence appears
to arrive, a bar, a partition, a stick.
I am hitting rocks with a stick.
What do you believe to be important
points of convergence? Vegetables.
Electricity. The extremely challenging
sky. To show adoration with the eyes.
To say something necessary. I avoid
my eyes. I think I mean it.
Emily Pettit is the author of two chapbooks HOW (Octopus Books) and WHAT HAPPENED TO LIMBO (Pilot Books). She is an editor for notnostrums (notnostrums.com) and Factory Hollow Press, as well as assistant editor at jubilat. Her first full-length book, GOAT IN THE SNOW is forthcoming from Birds LLC.
The week before last, Salman Rushdie visited the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue to read from and talk about his new novel Luka and the Fire of Life. It is a sequel to the popular Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written, as its predecessor was for his first son, at the request of his second son. Its hero is Haroun’s younger brother Luka, the second son of the famous storyteller Rashid Khalifa, who must endeavor a similar journey into the Magic World to once again help his father. These books walk and talk like children’s stories, but we should believe Rushdie when he asserts that “we are all children,” and that the appeal of these books, he hopes, is broad.
He carried himself with his usual joviality: he congratulated one overzealous fan for her question, telling her that she should publish it; on another occasion, when asked about his process, he replied, already laughing as if he couldn’t help himself, “I write left-to-right, all the way across the page, and then all the way down the page until I’m finished”; when I asked him at the signing if he could convince Thomas Pynchon to visit the Synagogue, he replied, and this was after 200-odd signatures, “You know, if I only had his phone number.” But his explanations of this book were insightful. “It looks like it was easy,” but he assures us that “re-writing one of the oldest stories ever told–the story of man gaining fire from the gods” is arduous.
This intention is a good place to begin, analysis-wise. Haroun appealed to young audiences because of its protagonist’s fanciful and action-packed adventure to save the Sea of Stories from pollution, in turn restoring his father’s lost yarning mojo. It appealed to me because it was essentially a metafictionalist’s manifesto. Nearly all the tricks were on display (to recount them would taint them; they are best encountered in their surprising and entertaining form). Storytelling itself thus becomes the central theme of Haroun, a defense of its imaginative and restorative power. Young audiences will similarly delight in Luka’s adventure into the Magic World to steal the Fire of Life and help the ailing Rashid. But while the theme of Haroun was storytelling, here we deal with philosophy. Life and death (or, as it is overtly put here, Being and un-Being) as well as issues of time (characters who literally represent the past, present and future play prominent roles in Luka’s journey) are central throughout the narrative. Again, to say more would spoil its richness.
Each book’s themes figure at times heavily and delicately, but narratively they are each driven by a paradigmatic plot structure. In each case, the young hero finds that the Magic World somehow resembles his own imagination, and the solutions to many of the problems he faces arise from his memory of these imaginings. So, for example, Haroun becomes a character in a princess-rescue, employing tools from the stories his father had told him. But it is the narrative paradigm that drives Luka I find extremely interesting.
We learn early on that Luka
lived in an age in which an almost infinite number of parallel realities had begun to be sold as toys. Like everyone he knew, he had grown up destroying fleets of invading rocket ships and been a little plumber on a journey through many bouncing, burning, twisted bubbling levels to rescue a prissy princess from a monster’s castle, and metamorphosed into a zooming hedgehog, and a streetfighter and a rockstar, and stood his ground undaunted in a hooded cloak while a demonic figure with stubby horns and a red-and-black face leapt around him slashing a double-ended lightsaber at his head.
Just as Haroun’s adventure is driven by his memories of Rashid’s stories, Luka’s journey resembles his beloved video games, replete with save points, bosses, accumulated lives, and increasingly vexing levels (not to mention the fantastic nature of the Magic World to begin with). This fits the philosophical themes of time and death very nicely. Many times Luka debates whether he actually controls the outcome of his adventure, or if it’s all been pre-programmed. Toward the end he accuses his nemesis of treating this ordeal like a game, only to be refuted with “No. It is a matter of life and death.”
Kudos to Rushdie for not shying away from video game imagery; I agree with the L.A. Times’ Jon Fasman when asserts, “Rushdie, almost alone among modern fiction writers, gives these games their narrative due.” It’s extremely risky, but if you’re going to talk about such things as parallel universes, multiple lives, determinism and free will–in stories, let alone in life–is not the video game a reputable analog? So, in many ways, Luka and the Fire of Life is in fact about storytelling after all. Is it a case for the value of video games as a storytelling device for children and adolescents? Probably not, but the video game motif–something I have not come across, at least to this extent, in fiction–nonetheless works here both as a model for plot and as a meta-commentary on the tension between determined structures and the always present freedom of an author to create the incredible. Rushdie manages both quite nicely here.
There should be a warning on the cover of Moby-Dick. Beware, it should say, reading this will require blood.
Fair warning would only be fair. As it is, the word of caution comes too late. Melville only mentions this cost, this culpability, when one is already hundreds of pages in. It’s only mentioned after we know to call him Ishmael, after we’ve followed, fascinated, behind Queequeg the face-tattooed harpooner who carries his god in his pocket, after we’ve sat through a scary sermon, heard a beggars warning, met the crazy Quaker shipping company owners and boarded the Pequod with Ishmael. It only happens after we’ve watched the waters for whales, watched while the water’s impossibly calm, and after we’ve learned the customs and social structures of whaling ships, after we’ve met everyone and after we’ve seen the one-legged captain with his thumping and his obsession.
Then we’re told we’re doomed.
The structure of this moment — this too-late announcement that one is irrevocably involved — is, of course, the same for the reader as it is for the characters in Moby-Dick. This is what happens in the novel and what happens, at the same time, to the reader of the novel. It’s a metafictional moment revealing one’s ethical responsibility, revealing it not as a choice, but as a sentence.
This metafictional moment comes in a metafiction chapter of the novel, the chapter where Ishmael, the narrator, uses this genre to directly address the reader, directly address the nature of the narrative, the bookness of the book, and the question of the truth of the story. It comes in Chapter 45, “The Affidavit,” which starts out, “So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book…” The function of the chapter is the function of an affidavit, that is, to swear to the truth of something, and Ishmael does this by epistemological appeal to his own eye witness testimony, to the stories commonly known among those who know these things, and news accounts and written documents, where “A fact thus set down in substantial history cannot easily be gainsaid.” He swears and declares that what he says is the truth. He has, he says, “no more idea of being facetious than Moses when he wrote the history of the plagues of Egypt.”
To make this direct appeal on behalf of the truth of the narrative, the narrator has to step a step away, into metafiction, and in doing that directly addresses the reader. He warns that “they,” by which he means “landsmen,” by which he means us, “might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.”
Ostensibly this misinterpretation — which is, maybe, the most common interpretation seen in readings of Melville’s magnum opus — horrifies the narrator because it’s wrong, and because it remakes the horribly real into a nice little morality tale. It seems, though, that, in truth, the fear here is also that the readers, in making the whale into an allegory, in making the story a fable with a learnable lesson attached at the end, might exempt themselves from any moral responsibility. Swearing to the truth of what he has to say, by means of metafictional address, the narrator also in this moment manages to point out that the reader is always already ethically involved.
“Do you suppose,” the narrator says,
that that poor fellow there, who this moment perhaps caught by the whale-line off the coast of New Guinea, is being carried down to the bottom of the sea by the sounding leviathan — do you suppose that that poor fellow’s name will appear in the newspaper obituary you will read tomorrow at your breakfast? No: because the mails are very irregular between here and New Guinea. In fact, did you ever hear what might be called regular news direct or indirect from New Guinea? Yet I tell you that upon one particular voyage which I made to the Pacific, among many others, we spoke thirty different ships, every one of which had had a death by a whale, some of them more than one, and three that had each lost a boat’s crew. For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! Not a gallon you burn, but at least on drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.
This is a sort of shocking moment, for you are sitting there or I am sitting here, reading, quietly reading, for all intents and purposes innocent of the world’s blood and bother, its violence and tumult, and Ishmael comes right out of the page and accuses us of blood. Whether by not reading about our involvement, when we read the paper in the morning, or by reading about it here, we are not separate, he says. We are, in our actions and inactions, culpable.
Moby-Dick is, in one basic sense, an economics story. It’s about the kind of capitalistic colonialism America has always been involved in. Like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the story suggests that this system, this kind of colonialism, whereby we scour the world for resources to take, just assuming they’re ours for the taking, is pretty normal, pretty acceptable. The problem with the system, these novels propose, is that sometimes a crazy person, a Kurtz or an Ahab, takes the enterprise crashing over the edge into excess and insanity. It is, in this sense, a warning about a limit. Melville shows us, though, that it’s not just the crazy people, those who betray the fiducial interests of the mission, who are the problem. It’s also those who acquiesce.
When Ahab announces his insane mission, “And this is what ye have shipped for men …”, the harpooners all shout out “Aye, aye!” Starbuck alone resists, saying he’s there to do business, not vengeance, to make money, not mad revenge. Starbuck wants to focus on this normal business of capitalism, rather than waging war on the ontological, attempting to “strike through the mask!” of visible things through to the “inscrutable malice,” the “inscrutable thing” behind reality. Starbuck resists, but only for a second, and then he falls silent. He cannot separate himself from this, cannot opt out. In his silence, Starbuck acquiesces. “Aye, aye!,” Ahab says, “thy silence, then, that voices thee.”
We, the readers, in the same way, slip past the limit we are supposed to be aware of. If we are not reading, the narrator says, we have, in that, tacitly accepted the situation, and are involved. And if we are reading, well, look at the light we’re reading by: its oil we’re burning, oil that can only be got with this system, that always requires blood.
The metafictional moment acts as an ethical trap, and, more than 200 pages into the text, it’s sprung, a surprise, and we’re caught.
It’s a surprise, I think, because we think of reading as safe. Library posters and summer reading programs teach us that.
There is even a strain of thought that understands reading to be a kind of act of ethical resistance, as a way to ethically opt out, ala Slovoj Žižek’s promotion of politics of Bartleby, with Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener’s radical repeated refusal to participate. Reading, the idea is, is an act of passivity that exempts you from the hubbub of capitalism, the structural violence of our modern world. Reading is a moment wherein one is not a part of the machine. Reading, where one is so intensely turned inward, is a place where one is not acquiescing, by act of mere modern existence, to the system.
It’s a tempting thought precisely because reading feels so safe. It has, at least for me, been an existential refuge. As we become increasingly aware that our lives are entangled in structures and systems we didn’t choose, structures of race and class and economics, structures of global power, of ideologies invisible to us, of what the old Calvinists called sin and sin nature and our fallen state, and are always entangled in ways which can be to our benefit but also our damnation, of course we have wanted to find a safe place. And reading feels like a safe place. When I, by contrast, am standing in a grocery store, looking at the kinds of coffee on sale, I am caught up in the colonialism that made this possible, the environmental problems that this entails, the Cold War politics and third world policies of US, and the choice I have is not whether to participate or not, but how. When I interact with other races or don’t interact with other races, when I interact with other genders or don’t interact with other genders, when I step out my door with an American passport in my pocket, an American passport with its patriotically-themed pages printed in pale blue, I’m all ready involved. I don’t get to choose in the way I think I want to choose. In the way I was taught that ethical action is a kind of choosing. I’m just stuck with the responsibility and the question of how. Against this, though, reading has felt like it was safe.
Then Melville says: This costs blood.
There are a number of problems, of course, with conceiving of reading as an act where one isn’t ethically involved. As “ethical resistance.” What does that even mean? Another, the big one, for me, is that it is always this move of self-exemption that enables unethical behavior. We always, always, always find ways of making other people the bad people, and ourselves safe from moral responsibility. We disown our own responsibility and culpability with never-ending displacements that would rival a nursery rhyme, the cow takes the dog, the dog takes the cat, the cat a rat, the rat the cheese, and no one just stands alone with it. The search for the guilty party is always the search for other people. It’s displacement. Trying to find a way out of our ethical problems seems to always involve saying we never had them, they weren’t ours, we resisted, and this exactly repeats the structure of the problem. Actual ethical moments, it seems to me, can only come as this kind of shock that collapses the distance we place between ourselves and culpability.
Melville does this in this moment of metafiction. It’s one of the brilliant things metafiction can do, though it doesn’t always. The knock against metafiction is that it’s narcissistic, self absorbed, smart kids showing off. This can, in fact, be the case, but metafiction also offers us or can offer a real chance to see ourselves for what we are, to acknowledge our own responsibility.
Consider a work that is by no means a classic of the metafiction genre: Jud Süß, Oskar Roehler’s 2010 film about the 1940 Nazi film of the same name. Roehler’s film shows the original film, even integrating clips from Joseph Goebbels’ original into the story about a story. In one scene, Roehler shows Nazi soldiers watching the vicious, anti-Semitic film, zooming in on their awful, leering faces, and then he cuts, and shows the scene from the back of the theater, and we see their heads and shoulders as silhouettes, watching the movie. We see them, in that moment, in the same way we see the people in front of us, and the shot collapses the distance we might normally place between ourselves and those evil other people. We are watching them watching, and that visual stutter serves to point to the fact that we are sitting there as they are sitting there, leering at them leering, and we are not separate and distance from them. It isn’t, I don’t think, an act of moral equivalence, but simply serves to focus us on a question: How do we distinguish ourselves? How do we separate ourselves? How is that we’re different?
There is, in metafiction, a possibility for ethical realization. Moby-Dick isn’t metafictional, by and large, but a brilliantly shaggy, multi-genre work. When it is metafictional, though, in this chapter, “The Affidavit,” it manages to surprise, and to collapse the distance we so often put between ourselves any sense of culpability.
Hey you, he says. You. You’re involved in this.
Drawing courtesy of Matt Kirsh, who is drawing a picture for every page of Moby-Dick.
I am reading Rosanna Warren’s book, Departures, and liking it a great deal, and, since I find her poems especially keen on using the entire spectrum of poetic concreteness between representational abstraction and non-representational abstraction. I’ll use her “Portrait: Marriage” as a grounding for what I am trying to get at here as we continue our discussion on concrete and abstract.
Prior to the modernist “revolution” (it was more of an evolution with certain revolutionary slants) poets used a rich and heavily Greek/Latin-influenced sense of occasion and rhetoric to formulate their poems. There were the small lyrics, and the very free madrigals and airs but even these were homages to the small lyrical poems of the Greeks and Romans. Here are some of the more common rhetorical devices.
1. Apostrophic address: speaking directly to the dead, to roses, to nation states, to states of feeling–more or less orating to that which was not likely to orate back.
Go lovely rose! (Waller)
Oh rose, thou art sick!” (Blake)
Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour (Wordsworth)
Death, be not proud… (Donne)
2. Pagan allusions, and often apostrophic address to various pagan deities, nymphs, dryads, etc, etc. This was a “conceit”–not a true worship of these gods (at least we are told so). Even devout Christians such as Milton freely wallowed in such allusions. In a sense, it gave the poet and the reader a short hand idea of what he or she should be feeling as well as mirroring the glory of Greek and Roman poetry and taking some of its reflected light.
3. Set forms such as Carpe Diem (seize the day), “when I am dead”poems, poems forbidding mourning, poems that pose the transience of human life against the “immortality”of the poet’s verse, the pastoral poetry in which sheep and herders, and flowers are all having a fine time, the blazon which itemizes the lover’s virtues, the anti-blazon that itemizes the lover’s faults, etc, etc. In addition to this there were the Odes, The Elegies, all modeled on Odes and elegies by Horace and Virigil, and so on and so forth.
Most of these poems used set themes (the brevity of youth, the inevitability of death) and then played splendid variations on the usual tropes. Two forms of poem used by the first generation Romantics gave us an evolution away from public sentiment–or public sensibility played out as private anguish–and introduced what might be deemed “real” anguish: the meditative lyric as devised by Coleridge in such poems as “Frost At Midnight” and Wordsworth’s Odes, and the small introspective lyrics (or anecdotal narrative) as exemplified by Wordsworth’s “Lucy Poems.” Coleridge grew bored with the meditative lyric and started writing his more fantastical poems which, via Poe’s love of the abnormal and the macabre, influenced French poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, the symbolists, and, then, of course, the first generation modernists who were reacting against another branch of Romanticism as exemplified by Tennyson and his followers.
In a sense the modernist got their own tradition brought back to them via the French, and the fantastical elements of this tradition–the love of the primal, the violent, the abnormal–is, in its mode as a derangement of the senses, part of the later surrealist, dadaist, cubust branch of modern poetics: heavy on odd and disjointed images, devoid of rhetoric, and forever searching for some sense of language that appeals through the intuition and the senses rather than through rational thought and feeling. If we take the exotic elements out of this equation, and replace them with camp, pop art, and comic routines, we arrive at much of what I call that poetry which leans towards the non-representational abstract: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, New York school, and all their various offshoots.
If we follow the Wordsworthian path of simplicity, conversational sincerity, and candor, and yoke it to the heavy influence of Japanese and Chinese poems on the imagists (they loved such poems because they seemed cleansed of rhetoric) we get the sort of lucid, feeling based, thought based, ontology driven representational abstraction that one finds in the poems of normative free verse writers–those who build a poem by allowing the sensual details, and incidents to imply a greater meaning or ontology.
There are few “pure strains” of these branches. Poets often take a little from each, and, poem for poem, might lead their concrete details toward the representational or non-representational ends of abstraction. Some poets disguised as surrealists are highly emotive (Neruda, Vallejo). Others who wouldn’t spit on an image even approachig surrealism, are highly detached. What I am saying here is that the concreteness of contemporary poetry relies far more on subjective, supposedly “original” form and imagery, and far less on agreed upon themes and tropes. The rhetorical devices still exist and show up in contemporary poems, but they are more about an inner process removed from a public voice, and tend to brood, to meditate, to narrate an event, the lesson or meaning of which is implied rather than overtly stated. So let’s see what Rosanna Warren does here in Portrait: Marriage:
Through the dark feathering of Spruce boughs and crosshatch
of naked lower branches, through
splatters of beechlight and beyond the shuddered patch
of sky trapped in the pond’s net of depth and shade,
you flicker into view then subside,
into mingled inks and umbers, like the paper birch
reflected: shaft of brilliance probing
the pond’s amnesia: whole: fractured at a touch:
that’s how I’ve seen you over the years,
light robing, and disrobing,
an image upon shaken waters:
That’s how I’ve held you, as one embraces and loses
the muscled slide of water in mid-
stroke, cold, hauling forward to new darkness as
That’s all one compound, complex sentence, held together by colons, and semi colons. The voice of the poem seems to be claiming that even though this is her spouse, he remains, in some vital way, elusive, in and out–like the flickering, and filigree, and dapple and light of the garden, and of the pond. Warren is considered somewhat of neo-formalist, and the chore she has set for herself here is to get a great deal of supporting concrete images into two remarkably constructed sentences. The next sentence begins an evolution away from the first, as would happen at the volta (turn ) of a sonnet. I think she owes something to Williams’ “Spring and All.” The ending of the first sentence reflects a ghost of that older and more famous poem with its use of the word “cold” (but I digress). Suffice it to say, in this poem, Warren exemplifies the strategy of the contemporary concrete toward representational abstraction; she uses images to imply a meaning: even a spouse, bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh, remains a mystery, and contingent, and provisional–an only now of leaf loam, a contingent and provisional reality within the abstract “fixed” form of marriage.
We might abstract her poem as “Even a husband of many years, even the most intimate of relationships, is a provisional reality, and depends on moment by moment attention to detail.”
We might try poetic abstraction and get clever and put it all into a neat couplet:
Like holding water is my hold on you:
my husband, ever changing, ever true.
Or we might go for a haiku sort of thing:
Through the branches of a garden,
suddenly, my husband of thirty years:
this utterly strange creature, of light of shade.
So I think we have a ball park idea of the complex spectrum of concrete imagery towards either representational or non-representational abstraction. We are always towards an abstraction, one way or the other, but the use of detail, how we emphasize or mute, or play with an image is at the heart of contemporary poetics. A beginner must learn that contemporary poetry–no matter what the school–does not directly state its maxims, and when it does, it does so with a great deal more supporting evidence since nothing can be agreed upon. We do not share the same frames of reference, and we have spent a hundred years raising subjective consciousness to a sort of God. At the same time, we have the cult of science with its own rhetoric of empirical and “objective” fact pitted against the old rhetoric of proverbial and idiomatic thought and feeling. Both our sense of the objective and subjective have changed, and the borders between them are as elusive, as provisional as Rosanna Warren’s spouse.
In a word, Jason Schneiderman is a poet of the helix. In his new book, Striking Surface, he turns and returns a fine Merino wool finer. By refrains; bits of anaphora; tonally and topically, he returns to his concerns in cycle after cycle, rending or revising earlier understandings, and leading new ones up new twists. Scattered throughout the book’s three sections are cycles that include “The Children’s Crusade,” “Stalinism,” “Ars Poetica,” “Physics,” “Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha,” and “Hyacinthus.”
The middle section of the book is entirely a cycle: an unforgettable family of elegies that address his mother’s death with tenderness and probity, in a casual voice talking through grief without flinching and without sentimentality. From “Elegy I (Work)”: “Whatever dead is, you are, and how you must hate that, / busy fixer of problems, busy stitcher of crafts.” Soon we learn the role crafts played before death—how they were a kind of tacit conversation between father, mother, and son—and the roles they assume, still unfinished, in the afterdeath. Here, in “Elegy IV (Tallis)”:
I don’t tell Dad that you never finished cross-stitching
the tallis piece because you were punishing him.
You wouldn’t tell him, so why should I? I finished
the curtains you were planning, though I didn’t line them.
Picking up the thread, in the next elegy:
I wish I could see the dead as completed instead
of stopped, that some monument in my head
would be erected to you, instead of these scraps
of uncatalogued memory.
And again, in “Elegy VI (Metaphors for Grief)”:
why finish this if Mom won’t see it, or why
go to work if my mother is dead? She had never
been the axis my world turned on, but suddenly
everything seemed to revolve around her. No.
Not an axis. A skewer. A spit.
Throughout the book, we encounter a philosophical version of transubstantiation that an object or subject undergoes when it has been taken from us or is otherwise no longer in reach. In “Elegy V (The Community of Mourners),” Schneiderman calls it “a trap”: “Mourning’s a trap, / isn’t it? A way to pretend that what you lost / was better than what you had,” a delicious riddle that obviates our thinking those two things (people) are the same, with the bereft feeling that they are not. It’s a trap revisited in the last section of “Susan Kohner (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life),” which begins, “Death tricks you twice. First about yourself, / and then about others,” and ends:
Does Sarah Jane owe her dead mother
more than she owed her live mother?
Of course not—but she can’t deny her dead
mother what she denied her live one.
Having gathered impressions of her sense of humor, her quietly persistent love, and her humiliating, de facto last rites before the surgery that would be her death, we feel we know this woman—this arch, in its stone and filigree—just in time for the keystone eighth elegy, which—in its omnivorousness (including a nod to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who returns from being buried in an earlier elegy); in its valences and ambivalence through which an earnest love reflects—seems to accomplish something of Shakespearian ambition (“That in black ink my love may still shine bright”), even as a stand-alone poem:
Elegy VIII (Missing You)
I thought I’d find you here, that I’d finish these poems
and you would stand out as clear as the day. As bright
as the moon. I hate those poets who tell you that
they love, but never make clear whom they love.
My mother’s eyes are nothing like the sun. How do I
miss my mother? Let me count the ways. So where
are you? I couldn’t believe you let yourself
be filmed for the video they showed at your tribute,
and I wanted to tell everyone, That’s only her voice
when she’s nervous. That’s only her face when she
has to be on display and she doesn’t like it. But at least
you were there. Everyone knows you can’t write
your way out of grief. Everyone knows that grief
never turns into anything but grief, and OK, I can grieve
you forever. But I wanted you here, in the middle
of my book. Not a complaint about what I lost
or what it feels like to lose it. But you. Your smile.
Your denim dress.
Schneiderman addresses another, closer-to-literal kind of transubstantiation in “Adorable Wounds.” An epigraph from Hopkins invites us to “approach Christ in a new way” and cast ourselves “into His sacred broken Heart and his five adorable Wounds” (a fitting bit of pronoun play between a man and his apotheosis). Longinus of Caesarea already having stuck his spear into the body of the crucified Christ, pre-poem, the poem’s speaker asks:
Is it blasphemy
to be the nail,
the spear? To want
to be the nail,
These fives lines—in their deceptively simple revision and reiteration of that deceptively simple question—ask as much of us as any nineteen syllables I know. “A simple truth miscall’d simplicity,” as Shakespeare might have said and did, in Sonnet 66. Substituting “question” for “truth,” we have a working description of Schneiderman’s quest to understand.
In all three sections of Striking Surface, understanding is key and a key to the poems. From “Ars Poetica II”:
I’m trying to say:
Forgiving is the end of love.
The end of hate.
The end of strong emotion.
A poem should be
But not the end of love or hate.
The poem comes to doubt itself directly (“Maybe this / isn’t a poem”), before ending up at a new understanding:
was the wrong thing,
for the wrong thing.
It was what I wanted
when I asked.
Besides the candor of these lines, what makes them feel natural and accessible is their role in a dialogue into which the poem is structured. The poem’s speaker addresses the world-as-poem and world-as-parted-intimate simultaneously, a parted intimate who responds:
Look at all the sense you keep
trying to make.
You should know better.
That’s why I did what you think
I need to be forgiven for.
Another theme these poems thread and rethread is the nature of identity—in theology and philosophy, called the problem of haecceity (essential “thisness”). Schneiderman pinpoints the requisite subtleties with a weaver’s needle. In his death-by-flower poems (“Hyacinthus I” and “II”), he turns a wry eye upon the notion that Apollo had preserved anything of Hyacinthus in his eponymous flower, ending the first poem with, “Who are we fooling? // I’m just plain dead,” and the second with:
to be a flower?
Better that weeds
should mark my grave
than the stars
should hold my face.
This frames the issue in a smart(ing?) little star-rimmed face. In “Echo (Narcissus)”—a sort of third wheel or three-way for the “death by flower” pair—the Narcissus myth is restored to its context of male-male love, and (as always in these poems, with a twist) it speaks for an Echo who learns to say “No.”
In “Probability,” the problem of haecceity comes more clearly into relief:
________The statistical probability of being a dinosaur
at the moment that the meteor hit is impossible to calculate,
because you would have to know whether any given dinosaur
was as likely to be any other given dinosaur, or whether
any living thing is as likely to be any other living thing—
but no matter what, the chance was tiny. No matter how you do
the math, every single dinosaur was statistically safe from
meteors. But then again, here we are, you and me, as human
and furless as we might have hoped, tiny teeth, opposable
thumbs, and all the birds locked out of our safe, insured
Here we see another large-looming theme, really a component of the problem of haecceity. If something is essentially ‘this’—an exact and unique something—then it can’t be exchanged for something very much similar, or even something identical in all its properties (Leibniz argued: if two things are identical in all their properties, those two things are really one thing). But look!—Schneiderman’s poems ask between (and within) the lines—at how exchangeable and reversible we and our circumstances are. By a fluke, we’re the ones insured, for the moment. The oscine dinosaur descendents are in the garden singing… for the moment.
In “Sailor at Nostrand and Bedford,” the non-uniqueness of exchangeable things is again brushed against. Here, from the poem’s second section:
There was a sailor, once.
What we wanted
was the same,
and each other
was the last place
And in “The Book of the Boy,” the issue is fully foregrounded, pleading loudly:
____________“Why was I made?”
and the answer comes: “Because we
wanted you,” which puzzles the boy.
“But there was no me to want,” the boy
protests, and the answer comes: “Well,
we wanted something like you.” And the boy asks
“Would any small person have done?”
and the answer comes: “Any small person
we made. It was critical that we be the ones
who made it.” The boy hesitates.
The answers are getting angry. At last:
“So I was interchangeable? Then?
Before I was made?”
The poem ends exasperated and without resolution. Hiding in dreams, “maybe / by morning, he’ll be someone / specific and loved and necessary.”
Near the end of the book, in the four-part poem, “Notes on Detention” (in effect the title poem: in the second part we learn that there are six striking surfaces on the human hand, and the strongest striking surface is the elbow, according to the latest interrogation manual), we once again snag this braided issue of identity. We encounter a mine-detonating robot that has done its work so dutifully that it’s lost all but one of its legs, and is continuing to scrape along on its last before an army colonel “declared the test inhumane and stopped it. / The robot’s inventor was surprised, as this / is what the robot had been designed to do.” Then comes the crux:
________Perhaps the robot stepped
through the same door into humanity
that every victim steps out of. Perhaps
we should find that door.
In the next, the book’s penultimate poem, “The person you cannot love,” we’ve reached the end of probing the issue until, in the final poem, we’re asked to bury it in a bed of flowers that Schneiderman’s husband tends. “I Love You and All You Have Made,” wraps up the triple helix of identity—transubstantiation, exchangeability, haecceity—into a convincing and moving three-line finale: “Some days, I flatter myself to think / that I’m one of your flowers. Some days, / I flatter myself to think I’m not.”
Viewing this book through one (or three related) of its themes, much that recommends it has been passed over: its several senses of humor; its pop-culturings sprinkled handsomely throughout; its rabbinical backstories; its children’s crusades; and its wise and wide-eyed meditation on war—“Billboard Reading: War Is Over / Billboard Reading: (If You Want It)”—that puts Prometheus in dialogue with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, the Aztecs, and the 1952 film, High Noon, to name a few. Nor have I mentioned my favorite poem in the book, “The Numbers Wait with God for Humans to Invent Them,” which involves Two’s being kissed, Four’s hair being tussled, imaginary numbers “who screamed at night / the things they knew,” and—almost free of charge, almost subliminally—a parable about the freedom that is division.
Fearless and affectionate, Striking Surface is a book of lyric poems that neither emphasize narrative nor shy away from it. The story, when it comes to a poem, seems to come across a music already being played; an understanding already being groped; an Ariadne’s thread already followed halfway back. Schneiderman’s are exuberances on dark topics, trimmed to their essentials, and plangent (rung up and down turns of thought and feeling) in what remains.
Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson discuss Heather McHugh’s poem “I Knew I’d Sing.”
Last week we made the exciting announcement that Ben Pease’s Scattered Rhymes podcast was making itself a home at THEthe. In anticipation of the coming podcast, we are reposting the old episodes from the Scattered Rhymes website.
Today we’re reposting the 2nd episode from Scattered Rhymes, which features an interview with Joseph Spece.
Joseph Spece, Part 1
Joseph Spece, Part 2
Note: The interview takes place at JC’s apt., so here and there you may hear mention of a picture of the Winged Victory in the living room or various trinkets on a counter in his bedroom.
Today we’re featuring two poets who I have an incredible amount of admiration and who I am very excited to share with you today.
I did want to write a brief observation about what I believe both these poems–different as they are–share in common: both are built around a relational core of emotions; both poems climax with the impossibility of speech. Both poems, however, do it in very different ways: Colie through image, Maya through syntax. My observations follow the poems (and below that are author bios).
The Paper One
By Colie Hoffman
It helps to understand there were two realities
and words were in the paper one.
The other was made of clouds
and sometimes whatever animals
or feelings clouds made with their shapes.
The cloud world had giant one-way windows.
You couldn’t see inside and it was very, very dark out.
Your own face sent
out a search party for you.
The limitations of our brains and other body parts
kept rapping on the glass as we danced.
I could never tell which was you
and which was me
and if that simple touch
was some girl’s thighs
or the wings of a moth.
The paper world had words available
but none were the right ones. Later at the bonfire
people threw all the words in
and soon the entire world burned down.
Afterward we kept
talking but one of us kept glancing
at something over
the other person’s head.
You said it was to watch
for predators. I said what’s “predators.”
You made a cloud with your index finger
in the shape of a person whose language had words
for every complicated feeling.
I made the shape of that person’s insides
and internal organs
and started an electrical storm
that would never stop.
By Maya Funaro
Now I’ve heard for the last time.
It doesn’t snow today but October has laid its hands upon my shoulders.
We’re swaying now side to side as if we’re waiting something out.
But I have heard and we are no longer waiting.
It is October and you are gone.
In the air there is a long slow sigh.
In the air a surety dances like smoke.
I can be certain you are gone.
Still my knowing you pulls at me and turns a corner.
In October a life tries to fill itself out,
Searching pigment for even the loneliest spaces.
And death seeps in, a persistent stain,
Overflow of time outside of time.
An aberration, death speaks of saturation.
For this reason there is never enough.
For this reason you come to be all light and all shadow.
I’ve caught your laughter like a headcold.
All day and into the next
Grace tracks me down, looks me in the eye
While awkwardness takes my hand like an old friend and looks away.
What I’m trying to name here I can’t say plainly enough or with enough severity.
Colie’s poem enters into emotion through the backdoor. It’s a bit like wandering into an enormous and sparkling ballroom during an elegant affair, but only after having woven through a maze of underground hallways, each stretch full of doors opening to various rooms containing strange sights. Amazingly, Colie never loses control of the poetic “camera.” Somehow, almost suddenly, what has seemed to be a continual shell game of emotional deferral takes us straight to the heart of the matter, and we are amazed at the path we’ve taken (at least I always am), surprised to find that this whole time she’s actually been preparing us (in the strangest way possible) for a moment of open emotion. Colie’s poems are worth going through again and again, not because they “yield something new” every time (though that’s probably true), but because the poem works every time, the way a great guitar solo never gets old.
There are two things about Maya’s poem that I find worth noting. The first is that Maya’s poem, unlike Colie’s, does not defer any emotion. Beginning writers are told, “show, don’t tell.” And this is true to some extent with Maya: she knows how to imply emotion via objects and such. But Maya also tells a lot. Even the lines that “show” seem to tell (the emotion awkwardness, for example, is cleverly personified–it both shows and tells). The very climax of the poem is a direct statement of the theme of the poem: “What I’m trying to name here I can’t say plainly enough or with enough severity.” It takes a certain craft to openly discuss emotion without being labeled maudlin, especially in an age such as ours that has replaced vigilance of mawkishness with a cynicism of emotion in general.
The second thing to notice about Maya is her lines. Many poets “do” long lines, but I often find myself feeling that such lines wear out their welcome. As a poet, I’m inherently lazy and easily frustrated when I am forced to read across a whole page! Not so with Maya’s poem. There’s some metrical dark matter that sustains it far beyond where my poetic instinct tells me lines should go. It’s magic. I find myself continually amazed that Maya’s lines don’t run out of gas before turning the corner. Indeed, I think there’s a relationship between these two things I’ve noted. You may see that there is an almost direct relationship between the length of the line and the “telling” of emotional content. The longest lines are the ones that seem to carry the most emotional weight (some might disagree with me about that, but I think I’m right anyway!). I can’t imagine Maya cutting the last line of the poem up into 3 lines. Somehow, that would be mawkish. Instead it comes out in a great rush, like an arrow that has been shot into us. I do not know if Maya’s long lines work because of the content, or if the content works because of the long lines. The ghosts of form and content haunt each other mutually, I suspect.
Both Colie and Maya have found a way to enter into emotion that are worth learning from. This, among many other reasons, is why I share them with you.
Colie Hoffman is a copyeditor by day and poet by night living in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her poems have appeared in Blood Orange Review, Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora,and elsewhere. Thanks to a grant from the M Literary Residency, she is currently working on her first book at Sangam House in Bangalore, India.
Maya Funaro was born and raised in South Jersey, and currently makes her home in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Her chapbook Setting in Motion was released in 2009 by Fox Point Press. Her poems have appeared in Ekleksographia and Ology.
“Not freed / but caught up in what thinking tries to conceal:” that is what spending time with Timothy Donnelly’s poetry feels like, “where to know / is to feel knowledge dissolving. . .” (“Chapter For Breathing Air Among the Waters”).
Essentially metaphysical, the poems of Donnelly’s second book, The Cloud Corporation, are fueled and refueled by self-critical dueling, a curiosity about being, and a skepticism of being’s significance. The speaker’s craft is self-referential but never heavy-handed. The book is also driven by an inexhaustible love for language; many of these poems are expertly wrought love letters to language itself.
It is particularly refreshing to encounter Donnelly’s poems amid the ongoing financial spiral, with politicians posturing at troubleshooting and the generally frustrating vapidity (not to mention downright falseness) flying around like debris in the wind. Though these poems are not overtly political, there is an undercurrent of social and political commentary. Donnelly observes, “the mind that fear and disenchantment fatten / comes to boss the world around it . . . .” Readers may come to different interpretations of what precisely Donnelly is referring to, but I don’t think Donnelly would oppose connections to the current political and financial quagmires. Unlike most of the ad copy and corporate verbiage, which Donnelly satirically appropriates and alchemizes for reintegration into his own creations, Donnelly’s poetry can be taken to heart. He speaks like a parent who is not afraid to tell a child the hard truths he’s garnered from living: that most things are unstable (especially knowledge), that the significance of our existence is debatable, and that “nothing might feel good for a time” (“The New Hymns”).
These poems shine in the cold light of acknowledgment of things few people openly admit. In the first poem of the collection, “The New Intelligence,” Donnelly acknowledges that practicality does exert an influential hand in what happens, despite our romantic (or naïve) desire for it to be otherwise. The speaker and a loved one
observe an arrangement in rust and gray-green,
a vagueness at the center whose slow, persistent
movements some sentence might explain if we had time
or strength for sentences.
Donnelly acknowledges that if you are involved with living, you are probably weary. But his willingness to admit exhaustion, disenchantment, and uncertainty is coupled with tenderness. He does not merely point out where existence and the world fall short of our expectations; he also exhibits love for other people and the things that make up the world around us. These expressions of love escape preciousness every time because they are unmasked and unabashed. The speaker takes pride in how vulnerable he feels when in the presence of the person he loves:
I love that when I call you on the long drab days practicality
keeps one of us away from the other that I am calling
a person so beautiful to me that she has seen my awkwardness
on the actual sidewalk but she still answers anyway.
Yet for as much as these poems traipse amidst the clouds with an inquisitive and intellectual demeanor, they are also firmly rooted in the adult world, on the ground, anchored there by various responsibilities. I do not think it is an accident that the third poem in a book of forty-nine poems is a cheeky yet serious apostrophe “To His Debt.” Donnelly asks, like an indentured servant out of a Monty Python skit, grimacing through a smile, “What wealth / could ever offer loyalty like yours”? Somehow, perhaps paradoxically, Donnelly manages to depict that endless impediment to freedom with a Stevensian lexicon and aplomb:
My phantom, my crevasse—my emphatically
unfunny hippopotamus, you take my last red cent
and drag it down into the muck of you, my
sassafras, my Timbuktu. . .
Donnelly faces a thing that many people might deny—debt is uncomfortable, it makes it harder to breathe, it prevents us from hamming up our characteristically American idealism. He tells it like it is instead of looking away: “there you are, supernaturally / redoubling over my shoulder like the living / wage I never make, but whose image I will always / cling to. . . .”
Donnelly frequently turns his knack for facing reality on himself. His is a Blake-ian eye that sees outward, and inward too—at times with hyperbolic self-scrutiny, as in “Clair De Lune,” or with poignant projection, as in “To His Own Device.” In the latter poem the speaker addresses a specter, a shadow-self, “an antic of the mind”:
What’s more, I said, you are amiss in this ad hoc quest
for origin and purpose. . . .
—At this, the figure dropped the box from its hands,
turned down a dock I remembered and wept.
I followed it down there, sat beside it and wept.
The speaker acknowledges, while weeping beside a personification of his craft, that “being itself had made things fall apart this way.” Donnelly exhibits a constitution that can stomach such an observation and keep going, despite the fact that our very existence and the course of events mar the world. He sees that “the air nearest earth / …had been ruined by what happens” (“Chapter For Being Transformed Into A Sparrow”).
These poems do not limit themselves to the abstract. Some poems are lush with things—”sea-thistle, pinecones, a crate of tangerines” (“The New Hymns”). Others meditate explicitly on the production of commodities; “The Rumored Existence of Other People” interweaves litanies of things with the poignancy that comes from investing things with meaning:
A silver line, a souvenir, a sieve of relation
meaning to release something lovingly means always
remaining tied to it. . .
. . .The more I gave it thought the more it seemed to me
obvious. Also touching. Whoever built that warehouse
across the way built it thinking someone would one day
look at it in wonder. Also sorrow. To keep an endless
store of that feeling. To make, to provide it. . .
Occasionally, these poems do settle down for the night into a blissful, if brief, quotidian moment—”a present too lived-in to cherish” (“Chivas Regal”). From the speaker’s location in the bathtub, we hear his humble thought said aloud to the steam-filled room: “In this life I’ll almost certainly / not be acquainted with / much luxury. . .” (“His Theogony”). The speaker indulges in these spare pauses as if exhausted by previous sessions (and resting for future ones) battling a kind of Minotaur amid labyrinthine syntax. Though instead of half-man, half-bull, this hybrid monster is half-self, half-metaphysical conundrum; and the speaker’s sword is his mind. See him winding through maze-like syntax, pursuing a grasp on the idea of knowledge, in part four of the excellent “Chapter For Being Transformed Into A Sparrow,”
In the shade of the need to know, to know that what was once
remains, grows the knowledge that what was
was almost certainly not that, not merely,
not once. There is a way through all this—
After the speaker questions everything, including experience itself, he concludes with a reversal of previous perception: “what was / was almost certainly not that.” At times Donnelly plays with reflections of words so successfully (giving off optical and aural illusions) that language seems to unlock just for him. A lesser writer, or a mere dabbler in wordplay might get lost in the maze of language and never find a path to meaning. But Donnelly’s prismatic configurations of words masterfully reveal meaning every time. He writes, “After the first weeks after, I lost myself remembering / the worth of what was lost, the cost of which was nothing.”
The more time I spend with these poems, the greater my impulse is to treat them like impressionist paintings— stepping closer, observing the layered brush strokes, then stepping back and observing the whole, then stepping closer again. . . But, reading these poems aloud and carefully listening to the words seems to reveal even more than just looking. I hear that the words are not illusory, nor is their meaning. The lines, if you listen to them, speak directly to you. Who of us has not swam out farther than we should have, trying to remember “the worth of what was lost”?