Listen to Joe Weil’s album of original poetry and music, recorded with the help of Vic Ruggiero.
I met Joe Salerno in 1987 while featuring at a church in Morristown, New Jersey. As I recall, there was snow that night, and ice and I almost killed a fellow poet, Charlie Mosler when he went to get into my car, and, being a relatively new driver, I took off a little prematurely and turned him into an ugly version of Peggy Fleming. I was featuring with Steward Ross, a veteran of the New Jersey poetry scene. Joe, Stewart, and Charley are all dead now. It does not seem strange. Of the three only Charlie got to live into his sixties. Successful and well lauded poets live as long as borscht belt comedians; having your ass kissed on a fairly constant basis tends to increase life expectancy. However, the rank and files, the grunters, the ones who make it possible for poetry to exist anywhere outside of New York City often seem to enjoy a life expectancy equivalent to the male population of bullet ridden ghettos.
None of them smoked. Steward did like his ganja and his drink and never tired of missing his days as a hippie in San Francisco, but Joe was a vegetarian, and Charley a man who insisted on sleeping ten hours a day, and, as I recall, he lectured me on my fondness for disco fries and double cheeseburgers.
At any rate, they’re dead, and so is the wonderful poet and human being, Enid Dame, and the equally kind and gracious Yictove. These may be poets you’ll know, but I doubt it. They were all a regular or, at least frequent part of my poetry scene. I hung out in diners with them, argued and conversed late into the night. All of them were older than me, Joe by ten years, and Charley by a good 20, but there is no age where a mind is lonely for fellow travelers. We could have all been Trekkie or model airplane enthusiasts. I would like to think poetry is more than a hobby for nut jobs. Still, any hobby that creates years of friendship and the sense of communion with both the living and the dead more than justifies its absurdities.
I have told endless stories about Joe to my students. I have given out at least a hundred copies of his book. I am sick of my stories. I feel they are only the grooves I have worn in the road of my futility, attempting to peal out of my grief. I hate that he is not alive. On the day of my wedding, I wanted him to be there–he and my mother, and I wept like an idiot in the bathroom. He was a friend who could be more happy for your good fortune than you yourself. I remember when I featured with Allen Ginsberg, he showed up with his sons at my house, followed me to Camden. When Ginsberg needed a lift to West Paterson to see his step mother, Joe let his sons take the wheel of his car, and he rode with me, a sleepy Ginsberg, and my friend Deborah LaVeglia. He was much happier about the day than I was. It was May, 1995. Joe already had a slight pain in his back. By November of that year, he was dead of lung cancer– age forty-seven.
I always felt privileged that someone as talented as Joe wanted to be my friend. I couldn’t fathom it, but decided to receive the gift gladly. Besides his talent, I had no idea how accomplished he was. He had won the Hopwood award at Michigan, and his competition was Gregory Orr, and Jane Kenyon. I never knew until he died. Joe did not brag. He did not feel the need to puff himself up. His attention to other poets was beyond the often considerable selfishness of this “Art.” As Donald Hall wrote in the postlude to Joe’s book:
Joe Salerno’s devotion to poetry–to the art, not to himself as a practitioner– set a standard for everybody… if any cynicism or professionalism had stuck to me, Joe rubbed it away by his clear and radiant passion for the art itself.
Tonight I will introduce a poet at the official University reading for faculty members. She is a fine poet and does much for the program here. It will be a pleasure to introduce her, but, afterwards, my wife and I will not be sitting at a diner, chatting it up. Charlie will not be talking in 50s jazz lingo, and scolding me for my bad eating habits. Joe will not be there to remember whole lines of other people’s work. It will be professional, and pleasant (if a little stiff), but the camp fire of what is most human, most vital, most important will be missing. I try to tell my students that professionalism can be murderous. It can not offer what poetry truly has to give. It can succeed at the level of men, but it can not fail at the level of the truly profound and meaningful pact we make with love, beyond, and perhaps, because of our futility. I tell them certain forms of failure are Godly, and never to be mistaken for that poor, rather boring mechanism we call success. This is what Joe pointed out in his great poem “Poetry is the Art of Not Succeeding.”
I will end with a different poem of Joe’s because today the weather is horrible, and I feel gutted and lonely and I miss Joe as well as many others. We were good friends for only eight years. He’s been dead almost twice as long as I knew him. My mother has been dead twice as long as I knew her, but you do not ‘Unknow” those you love. Moving forward is for self-help books and motor boats I have always been on the side of Lot’s wife, and of Orpheus. All things vanish before our eyes, and we have no recourse but to defy that edict of what passes away and to break our gaze against the stones.
The Invention of Immortality
I had just turned
to go , when you called me
back into your room
The lamp a velvety glow
beside the bed.
“I love you,” you said
to me, the words
strangely stark and serious
in their familiar
setting. And leaning
over you, your small face
at four and a half
just blossoming into boyishness,
you reached up and
drew me down with such a
into your pillow, whispering,
“Even when I’m dead
I’ll love you.”
I’m happy to announce that we are rebooting our Poem of the Week feature here at THEthe. Every Thursday, THEthe will post a poem by an author that an editor has solicited. Every month, one of our contributors takes a turn at being the editor. Hopefully this will guarantee a nice diversity of tastes and styles. We hope that you enjoy this feature in the future as much as we think we’ll enjoy posting it.
I (Micah) will take the reins for the remaining Thursdays of November. The inaugural poem of our relaunch is by Rosanne Wasserman. Enjoy!
Ow, why are walls so hard?
Somebody’s mom could walk through them:
Not every dream sequence needs dwarves,
Though I get giants, like that Trevor Winkfieldian
Unfolding himself from a pillow in Louisville,
Half of a scissors-pair, wearing a boot,
Human face inside handle-loop.
We questioned him like an oracle:
“What’s going to happen next?”
But he just stared and said, “There is no future.”
Later I figured, “After all,
He’d just pulled himself out of a pillow,”
Rationalizing, and wondered
If his wings were wet, in folds—
But he was pretty much nothing but
Cold gray steel. What else could
Happen to something like him, anyway?
But the busted hardware drawer
Won’t do for an oracle.
He had a point.
Just one point, yes, but sharp enough,
Even in that Doc Marten’s.
He was right, for the half he spoke for.
He was a knife now, but Atropos used
Whole scissors: past and future
Meet, then there is no present. His other
Half’s no dream. Wake carefully.
Entering a new language is entering a new world. But what does it mean to be “in” a world? The word “in” originally had no spatial connotations. To say that someone was “in” something meant that they existed “in anger” or “in love.” Love and anger are not places, but modes of being. But this means that you can say these statements another way: to be “in anger” is to be angrily and “in love” is to be lovingly. To be “in a world” means to be worldly.
When you enter a new language, you enter a new mode of being. This is true not simply of English, Chinese, Farsi, etc. but also of the language games of technologies, skills, and other modes of thought. As long as there is a new vocabulary, it is a new language game, and anywhere there are new rules is a new world. Entering a new language is not simply acquiring a new means of communication, but, as Micah Towery said, learning a new way of thinking. I would go even further: to enter a new language is to enter a new way of being.
As Okakura Kakuzo said in The Book of Tea, “All translation is treason.” This is very true, but I would modify this: all we have is translation. All we have is treason. Every conversation is predicated on our essential being-guilty. To put it another way, discourse only proceeds when we remain open to the possibility of miscommunicating our ideas. Closedness is the greatest enemy to communication and to healthy relationships. If there is ever such a thing as Original Sin, it is most obvious in language – the mere birth of language brings about contradictory concepts. Language unites and separates. All discourse, though, requires concerted effort. The word “relationship” is overused, and there is nothing inherently good in having a relation to anything – relations can be good or bad, as my wife’s in-laws consistently prove.
Every action (and word) has a limitless number of consequences, most of which cannot be predicted. Because of the unpredictability of spontaneous conversation, the only way to sustain dialogue is forgiving the unintended consequences of the Other’s words (and our own). Forgiveness is therefore the very life of conversation and the heart of discourse. Without a constant flow of forgiveness even disagreement is impossible.
Forgiveness frees the victim and the victimizer from the crime. The victim is freed from the inhibition of the grudge, and the criminal is freed from the bondage of her sin. Engaging a new language is one of trial and error, but also always forgiveness of errors.
So, while we are all guilty of treason and are thus all guilty, we are all also in need of forgiveness. Whatever truth may be, it is always expressed in a historically-bound vocabulary and cannot be abstracted from our historical situation. But what makes up our vocabulary? Whatever conditions affected our species, our countries, our families, and finally ourselves. Since none of these conditions are ever identical, no vocabulary is identical and thus no world is identical. Translation is treason, but treason is our own means of being in the world.
If we believe metaphors can build civilizations, and if we agree that power is the right to decide which metaphors will be beliieved and instituted as truths, which ones will generate class, or race, or who is worthy, and who is debased, then we get at the heart of why Surrealism was, initially, a political movement whose strategy of disassociation and derangement was an attempt to take metaphors away from the power structures of state, of reason, of class, filter them through the subconscious, and re-empower them free of capitalist oppression. The trouble was, surrealism could do the same thing to Stalinism, or communism, and its process of dismantling agreed-upon authority got many a dadaist and surrealist killed. Later, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry would also begin with a political agenda of destroying the concept of property–deconstructing the authority of the speaker and freeing the auditor to invest or not invest in the process of utterance. But, for our purpose, we are going to look at this shift in metaphor as a change in “willful ignorance.”
All metaphors are, eventually, false, inaccurate, distortians of reality. Reality itself is a distortion. Frost–the conservative–said as much. Yet, by giving metaphors their due and refining them, we can create a sense of order, priority, and narrative that helps us negotiate the complexities of life. The problem arises when we impose that order through our political and religious systems. All metaphors when tested, fall apart, and, once we do not accept them at “face” value, all metaphors begin to seem absurd. Surrealism, dadaism, cubism, absurdism, language poetry, and, to an extent, the New York School of poets, and all the gradations in between, are a choice to emphasize the instability, silliness, and shiftiness of metaphor, while hyping its “process.” Thus, the atrophy of agreed upon meanings leads to the hypertrophy of a “process” of meanings.
Of course, my problem with that is, being idiots of system, we then make everything mere process, mere trope, mere parody, mere mark and counter mark, and we become immured in the qualifications and in the glamour of process, and power again rears its head and wears the terrible mask of the sociopathic trickster, the one who is willfully ignorant that his ongoing deconstructions of the linear, the sensical, the emotive, are, in themselves, a rigid construction– no matter how ongoing. All one might succeed in doing is creating flux and process as ultimate oppression. But let’s put that aside. I believe that a person who still believes in co-herence, and “meaning” and emotional truth can use some of the techniques of those who do not believe in any of those values toward good results. I also believe that a post-modernist does not have to abandon agreed upon meanings, or emotion, or tenderness, but can translate them into his process of deconstruction, derangement of the senses, and absurdist metaphor. We can have our cake and eat it, too, just as long as the cake we have and the cake we eat are not the same.
So this brings me to an excerpt from Breton’s poem “Knot of Mirrors.” The title is, well, knotty. How can you have a knot of mirror? It is nonsensical is it not? Oh, but how can you have a “rosy fingered dawn?” Taken out of its agreed upon acceptance as describing both the color and emotion of seeing the dawn, it is just as absurd and false as Breton’s knot of mirrors. But it is not being so willfully false. Let’s proceed:
The lovely open and shut windows
hanging on the lips of day.
Does day have lips? Not any day I have seen. But does a ship’s prow plough the field of the sea? Nope. This is called personification. If day has a face, then it can have lips, and windows can hang from them. Let us proceed:
The lovely shirt clad windows
The lovely windows with fiery hair in the black night.
So the windows are given human qualities. They may even, once personified, stand in for the whole of a person– a sort of strange synecdoche, or metonymy, but the metaphors here are being freely mixed and confused. The window wears a shirt, or it has fiery hair in the black night. Now we can conjecture that perhaps people are standing in the windows, and the windows are standing in for those people who are standing at the windows, and thus the lovely windows hang from the lips of day. It is complicated, yet no less or more absurd than conventional metaphor. It is not “Agreed” upon. It seems to be generated from a personal and private consciousness (or unconscious), which we may observe but not share in. This quality promotes the sense of voyeurism much modern art is comprised of: we are watching a verbal performance we do not wilfully pretend is a mirror held up to nature, and we either enjoy the process of this performance or grow indignant and insist it make sense in the way we are used to things making sense. We are in a dream world and our agreements with it may be only sympathetic rather than actual, but this is true of all verbal constructs. Modernism and Post-modernism do not hide the strings of the puppet show. Sometimes, there are no puppets and only strings. There is a dream world. During the day someone might mention to you that their lover bought a new car, and that night, you might dream a Ferrari rides up to your window, and, somehow, that Ferrari is also your own lover– disguised as a Ferrari. Or it is both a Ferrari and your lover?
Anyway, the point is, once we agree all metaphors break down, that they are distortions that allow us to enter a schema of distortions, we need not be so dismissive of certain surreal images. They are not rational. Old, pre-modernist metaphor is not rational either, but it depends on the agreed upon conceit of rationality upon the metaphor. Phrases that make total sense are truly, when scrutinized in this manner, absurd. If I tell you: “I am facing facts,” you know what I mean and accept, unless you decide not to. If not, you say, where are these “facts” you face? I can see a wall, or a statue, or me, and you can “face” these (again metonymy and synecdoche) but you can not “face” the facts. And “face” is, itself, figurative, a part for the whole.
So our problem with surrealism or language poetry is not one of nonsense, but of nonsense that seems outside the normative boundaries of our usual comparisons, and assumptions.
If James Franco’s first name had been Ben, it would take very little to convince me that he is, in fact, the 24-hour multimedia reincarnation of the original King of Enterprise and Toil, Benjamin Franklin, whose parades through Philadelphia at the dawn bell with a wheelbarrow full of already-completed paperwork resemble Franco’s continuous and uncanny stream of films, art exhibitions, grad lit classes, short stories, and appearances on soap operas. Sam Anderson rode the wave briefly over the summer, and wrote a telling profile for New York Magazine, concluding,
Plenty of actors dabble in side projects – rock bands, horse racing, college, veganism – but none of them, and maybe no one else in the history of anything, anywhere, seems to approach extracurricular activities with the ferocity of Franco.
Except for, well, Franklin. Anderson continues,
This fall, at 32…he’ll be starting at Yale, for a Ph.D. in English, and also at the Rhode Island School of Design. After which, obviously, he will become president of the United Nations, train a flock of African gray parrots to perform free colonoscopies in the developing world, and launch himself into space in order to explain the human heart to aliens living at the pulsing core of interstellar quasars.
Anderson’s quippy exaggerations nonetheless point up the outrageous nature of Franco’s juggling act. But it begs the appropriate question: is this seeming jack of all artistic trades still a master of none? Anderson smartly points out the lack of virtuosity in much of Franco’s work, particularly his fiction. He doesn’t, however, attribute it to being thinly spread, but to a more organic transitional period that besets every artist’s life. Ultimately, “He’s an excellent writer, for an actor. He’s brilliant, for a heartthrob. But he has yet to produce art that’s good enough to break the huge gravitational pull of his fame and fly off on its own merits.” Regardless of the quality of his work, his unabashedly zealous desire to work inspires me. Would that we could all be so tireless.
While many, including Anderson, may consider Franco’s entire professional life (this might be redundant—he doesn’t seem to have any other kind of life) to be a piece of performance art, I want to talk about two actual such pieces. In Franco’s fashion, two films—Howl and 127 Hours—are currently playing that have cast him as the lead, and each has the potential to establish Franco among the upper echelon of screen actors.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s take on the inception, production, and delivery of Allen Ginsberg’s euphoric masterpiece exists across a series of evenly paced set pieces. The film begins as a seemingly reticent Ginsberg stands before an eager crowd at the now legendary Gallery Six in San Francisco, preparing to read for the first time those famous and often parodied opening lines. We return to this scene periodically as the entirety of the poem is eventually read across the film. The rest of it alternates between the obscenity trial (with a Hamm-like performance from Jon Hamm and well placed cameos from Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels), which ultimately serves an interpretive function, an interview with Ginsberg circa 1957 in which we glean most of our biographical information, flashbacks to his life pre-“Howl,” and an hallucinogenic rendering of the poem itself from animator Eric Drooker. This is by far the biggest risk of the film, but I don’t agree with the Times‘ A.O. Scott that it was “nearly disastrous, the one serious misstep in a film that otherwise does nearly everything right.”
I’m going to disagree with not only the first part of that claim, but also the latter part. There is one grating thing that, for me, Howl misses. The film does well to emphasize that much of Ginsberg’s poetic energy sprung from his (questionably) unrequited love for Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. But each of these figures is presented as a stiff, Don Draper type, rather than as the real madmen that they were. For a movement so devoted to the lovely power of the human voice, these characters have a combined total of—get this—zero lines. Not only does this serve to render Ginsberg’s love unrealistic, it does a disservice to the Beat generation and what it stood for. Both Kerouac and Cassady come off as leering fraternity brothers, in a malicious way. The real Beats were assholes—just not that kind of asshole. Ginsberg himself claims in the interview portion (granted, the entirety of the dialogue is drawn from historical record, but this was still a directorial choice), “There is no Beat Generation. It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get published.” I don’t think anyone, including Ginsberg, believed that in 1957. Regardless, Franco’s performance across these set pieces is every bit as “impressive [and] beguilingly sensitive” as Ann Hornaday claims in her Washington Post review. The film is worth seeing for that alone. What is more, with the sudden recuperation of the perpetually “in production” adaptation of On the Road, we may see a great Beat Generation film sooner rather than later.
* * *
Whatever hype I had encountered about 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire, spoke to the climax, what David Denby of The New Yorker has dubbed “The Scene,” namely the re-creation of Aron Ralston’s brutal extrication from a dire encounter with a rock. If you’re like me, then perhaps the most excruciating element of this experience is the anticipation. When is he going to get trapped? Is now the time when he will begin cutting? Are these screams going to be even more blood-curdling when he hits the nerve? But Danny Boyle spends this time of nervous anticipation artfully juxtaposing crowds and solitude, noise and silence in a way that prepares the stage for Ralston’s spiritual crisis (in all, Boyle stylistically airs it out on a premise that could have come off as, well, boring). Regardless, you will throughout the film sit with your hands (for which you are suddenly very grateful) at the ready to cover your eyes, pull at your hair, or just wring for minutes at a time.
Generically, 127 Hours can be compared to Sean Penn’s adaptation of Into the Wild, but while Emile Hirsch’s Chris McCandless treks to Alaska out of a rejection of society (not to mention everyone who loves him), Franco’s Ralston is passionate about the wilderness. He’s not escaping; Canyonlands is his “home away from home.” But his love and positive enthusiasm (when his co-worker tells him to have a good one, he replies, “Always do.”) are put to the ultimate test over five days, as his ordeal transforms from a race against time to free himself from the rock without dying of thirst into a spiritual journey through his conscience, memories, and hopes for the future. He “has nailed himself to his own special cross” (Denby), eventually realizing that “this rock has been waiting for me for thousands of years.” This is Ralston’s Trial, and it is ultimately a parable about embracing life.
The beauty of Franco’s performance resides in his preservation of Ralston’s quirkiness amid desperation. This story is so powerful because we know that this is a regular guy who has done something extraordinary. But Franco and Boyle were brilliant not to locate the human universality of the story in the unfathomable circumstances but in Ralston’s personal experience. Faced with death, he repents, remembers times of love, and laments unrealized future ones, all via nicely placed flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinations. But the nuance here is important—Ralston’s not a bad guy. He loves his parents, misses his ex-girlfriend (whom he apparently did slight), and laments his vainglorious subconscious wish not to have anyone know where he is. His life wasn’t in shambles, hence his happy-go-lucky attitude that pervades the first part of the film.
His transformation, however, is no less remarkable. His family knows he loves them, so he doesn’t need to ask forgiveness for wrongdoing; rather, he, and we all can identify with this, apologizes into his camcorder (which, for much of his ordeal, serves as a Bakhtinian superaddressee, a God-figure) “for not acknowledging you in my heart as much as I could.” This was powerful, and had me weeping, childlike. The acknowledgement of a higher power becomes more palpable the deeper into crisis he becomes. As he agonizes, his bellows of “Please!”—to the rock, to the camcorder, to God—resonate with our similar moments of angst. But his utterances after he gains freedom (which, thankfully, only took about five minutes, contrary to rumor) are most revealing. Standing there, suddenly unbound, bleeding, he almost immediately mutters, “Thank you.” He says nothing as he staggers his way out of the cave and—incredibly—rappels down a canyon wall. Soon after, he sees, murkily, a group of hikers, and, desperately, but at this point triumphantly, begins screaming for help. Of course, he needs medical assistance. But in this moment he is also affirming that he needs help in the same way that we all need help. The subsequent dénouement is exuberant, an exaltation over the letting go of material life—our literal attachments to our bodies—for the sake of a new, spiritual life. Which, for Ralston, is as enthusiastic as the one he already led, only with added consciousness. One comes away from 127 Hours not necessarily thankful for being spared a similar ordeal, but jealous of Ralston’s trial and awakening. But true to the humanness of this story, it reminds us that every day we are faced with the possibility of death, and should act and think accordingly.
I could say a lot more about this film, especially about Boyle’s work, but I will stay on task about Franco. Truth be told, I wrote the first half of this article before I saw 127 Hours, and a large part of me wants to take back that jack-of-all-trades bit. What if Franco wins an Oscar for this performance? Will he continue with his Alexandrian feats of intellectual conquest? Or will he focus on fulfilling his vast potential as an actor? Regardless, I propose Franco begin his speech as follows, in keeping with the mysterious and ironic fashion of his persona: “I’ll make this brief – I’ve got somewhere to be.”
“Content dictates form.” “Less is more.” “God is in the details.” These three statements sum up Stephen Sondheim’s artistic credo according to Finishing the Hat, whose title seems to establish a quizzical connection between writing lyrics and millinery. The first two criteria are the standard guidelines for modernist architecture of the twentieth century, so maybe the millinery metaphor is encapsulated in the third. Still, reading this book, I have trouble understanding Sondheim as the musical equivalent to either Mies van der Rohe or Elsa Schiaparelli. Perhaps it will all eventually become clear. Of two scheduled volumes dealing with his work in musical theater, this is the first, tracking his career from an early piece titled Saturday Night (1954) up to Merrily We Roll Along (1981). Highlights include Bernstein’s West Side Story, for which Sondheim supplied the lyrics only, as well as his best-known musicals (Gypsy, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd), which feature both his lyrics and his own musical score. We’re not given the complete book for each of the musicals, only their lyrics, prefaced by a summary of the dramatic context, and a brief narrative recounting the circumstances that led to the creation of the work under discussion. Sondheim has written a preface for the volume, plus a brief essay on rhyming as it is used for song-writing; and he makes dozens of insertions in the body of the text, commenting on the success or failure of particular songs.
He also adds a series of reflections on other lyricists of musical theater, restricting himself, however, to those no longer living. It’s a prudent choice, given that Sondheim isn’t a man to cloud the expression of his judgments with considerations like politeness or collegial complicity. Were his rivals still alive, they might want to take out a contract on him. Solely on the basis of the irony and satire characteristic of his musicals, you could have guessed that he wouldn’t fall all over himself to be kind. But the fact is he’s just as hard on himself, knocking single lines or entire songs of his own if they’ve come to seem pretentious or gawky to him. A reviewer would have to work hard to give a worse account of Sondheim’s lyrics than their author does. By the same token, we wouldn’t expect any scholar of musical theater to make as many unflattering comments about it as you’ll find in Sondheim’s text. In an era when “going negative” about any person, place, animal, or inanimate object is regarded as a career no-no, Sondheim’s approach strikes me as fresh and honest, a tactic well worth adopting. It’s the tone of twentieth century New York, witty, sardonic, deflationary, and only seldom cornered into praising anything that actually exists.
The opening sentences of Sondheim’s preface establishes that he doesn’t consider himself a poet in the usual sense:
This book is a contradiction in terms. Theater lyrics are not written to be read but to be sung, and to be sung as parts of a larger structure: musical comedy, musical play, revue—“musical” will suffice. Furthermore, almost all of the lyrics in these pages were written not just to be sung but to be sung in particular musicals by individual characters in specific situations. A printed collection of them, bereft of their dramatic circumstances and the music which gives them life, is a dubious proposition. Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems. Poems are written to be read, silently or aloud, not sung. Some lyrics, awash with florid imagery, present themselves as poetry, but music only underscores (yes) the self-consciousness of the effort. In theatrical fact, it is usually the plainer and flatter lyric that soars poetically when infused with music.
Sondheim’s insistence that his lyrics don’t have enormous interest or point separated from the dramatic context for which he wrote them is fair. On the other hand, how useful are the plot summaries and descriptions of the individual scenes provided in this volume? The problem with this format is that dramatic plot and its sequence of scenes come to effective life only when performed. The summaries offered are tedious to read and don’t do a lot to animate the lyrics they attempt to contextualize. That part of the audience already familiar with Sondheim’s musicals won’t need the summaries, of course, and it’s safe to say that the most enthusiastic readers of this book will be his existing fans (myself included), who will welcome the chance to linger over lyrics they’ve heard but not memorized. Precisely because of Sondheim’s preference for song-writing that is rooted in character, and a literary practice that prefers flatness and plainness to what is “poetic,” I doubt this collection by itself will win new converts. To appreciate Sondheim the lyricist, you have to see (and hear) the musicals themselves, and you can begin get your feet wet by searching for him on YouTube.
Sondheim’s mind is more ad hoc and emotional than analytical and scholarly. He doesn’t discuss the difference between meter in music and meter in poetry. He doesn’t tell us that English-language poems after Chaucer were traditionally written in accentual-syllabic meter, whereas song lyrics manage with accentual meter alone, not restricting themselves to a regular syllable count. How so? Well, because the note value in a given bar of music can divide itself into smaller units to accommodate extra syllables while maintaining the governing beat. To add or subtract syllables in a metrical line of poetry, however, risks derailing the meter. It’s true that many hymns and songs are quite strictly accentual-syllabic, but popular song usually loosens the syllable count; and lyrics for musicals go still further in that direction.
Making his distinction between poems and lyrics, Sondheim oversimplifies the more general question of the relationship between words and music. A full discussion would require, first, some reflections on the fact that all classical Greek lyrics were sung to musical accompaniment (it’s the Greek lyre that gives us the word “lyric”), as well as Anglo-Saxon poems like Deor and Beowulf. If Sappho’s poems were sung, that should be sufficient refutation of the claim that musical lyrics can’t have all the qualities we expect in poems as such. There are also the wonderful sung poems in Shakespeare’s plays, such as “Fear no more the heat o’the sun” and “Full fathom five thy father lies,” not to mention a number of subtle lyrics in Dryden’s dramatic works. Bach’s Passions are interspersed with poetic arias of some verbal complexity; and if the King James Bible qualifies as poetry, then Handel’s arias and choruses in Messiah amount to great poetry set to music. A few opera librettists composed arias worth reading without musical accompaniment: Lorenzo da Ponte (The Marriage of Figaro), Arrigo Boïto (Otello and Falstaff), and Hugo von Hoffmanstal (Der Rosenkavalier). Even Sondheim acknowledges the high quality of the arias in Auden’s and Kallman’s The Rake’s Progress. He also has unqualified praise for the lyrics Richard Wilbur wrote for Candide, and in fact Wilbur has collected some of those in his books. (Digression: why have producers of new Broadway musicals mounted since Candide never again asked a professional poet to provide lyrics for them?)
The problem intensifies when we stop to consider that many poets, Auden among them, have used the title “Song” for some of their poems, even though no tune is provided. What does it mean to call a poem without musical scoring a “song”? Short answer: a “song” without musical accompaniment is a poem whose sound qualities hold more interest than the poem’s paraphrasable content. I don’t know of any poem designated as a “song,” that is composed without meter and rhyme. For that matter, about 99% of all pop music rhymes, the rhyming skillful in varying degrees, with country music lyrics generally the best. Meanwhile, Sondheim insists that lyrics in musical theater must rhyme, and that the rhymes must be perfect rhymes, not near or slant equivalents. He doesn’t provide a justification of this requirement, and we assume the stricture is based on nothing more or less substantial than audience expectations and the conventions of the musical genre. Somehow Sondheim’s not bothered by the contradiction between his insistence that, on one hand, lyrics must reflect the linguistic earmarks of the character singing them and, on the other, the fact that no one speaks in rhyme. If you aren’t bothered by the non-naturalistic aspect of rhymes in solos, dialogue, and choruses, it’s odd to become incensed as Sondheim does when a character’s lyrics use long words and elaborate metaphors, features that he dismisses as falsely “poetic” and unsuitable for the actual dramatis personae of the work.
The truth is, rhyming belongs to the “entertainment” component in musical theater. Rhymes entertain even when they don’t perform an important semantic or structural function. They take us back to the childhood world of “Hickory, dickory dock” and “Row, row, row your boat,” of “Jabberwocky” and Dr. Seuss. Let’s acknowledge it in so many words: we like musical theater because it’s entertaining, not because it is profound. Sondheim comes close to saying as much when he comments that Othello is a richer play than Verdi’s Otello and that Shaw’s Pygmalion has more real content than My Fair Lady. If richness and profundity are your primary goal, then you don’t devote your talents to musicals. They have their moments of sadness and disappointment, but there is no tragic musical. All right, but do musical comedies at least have some serious content? As with most artistic phenomena, it’s a question of degree. Sondheim refers to theater historians who single out Showboat and Oklahoma! as first efforts to move the lightweight, unambitious form of musical theater current in the 1920s and 1930s toward an art with more content, one that could present and fill out characters of complexity and depth. He inscribes himself in this movement and insists that it is the source of his own practice, which should be understood as more serious than what the general run of authors of musicals offer. We can acknowledge the favorable comparison, but that doesn’t establish a magisterial degree of seriousness. Sondheim is the greatest living auteur in musical theater, and his works certainly have more content than the bits of fluff that kept Broadway box offices busy in 1925. But they don’t have the complexity and depth that we discover in the best of his contemporaries who write for legitimate theater. That isn’t to say that his work is valueless. No one wants to live seven days a week in the mode of the sublime or of tragic grandeur. Popular art forms give us a break from tedium and spiritual pinnacles both, and why not? We need them, but we should know what it is we need, and why.
To get some perspective, I’d like to extend this discussion and comment on the extremely high value that British critic Christopher Ricks assigns to Bob Dylan, whom he has named “the greatest living American poet.” It’s a ranking that probably influenced the decision of the Norton Anthology of English Poetry’s editors to include Dylan’s lyrics (without musical scoring) in the fifth edition. This was a misguided choice. When we hear Dylan sing the lyrics he writes in his own sui generis voice, with the musical accompaniment he has worked out for them, our attention is fully engaged, and we may also feel that he is saying something important above and beyond the sonic appeal of the song. But in print the lyrics don’t function as actual poems do, in fact, they often verge on a silliness hard to swallow when combined with Dylan’s default mode of condescension. When we read them, we can’t avoid asking ourselves what the-devil they really mean, and the answer, my friend, isn’t blowin’ in the wind. A gold chain is a fairly boring object when not adorning someone’s neck, and the same goes for pop lyrics outside their musical context.
The music theater rival that Sondheim dislikes the most is Noël Coward, whose lyrics he describes as too clever and brittle to inspire confidence and empathy. But what’s the point of applying standards belonging to late 20th-century America to works conceived for the British public of the 1920s and ’30s. To appreciate works of art from earlier eras always requires a little archeological spadework. No one could enjoy a play by Racine or an opera by Wagner without a lot of preliminary study. It’s precisely Coward’s overplus of wit and verbal acrobatics that makes his lyrics fun to read on the page, even though they might be distracting or hard to follow word by word when sung. Coward was forthright enough to say he had “only a talent to amuse,” as though that talent were nothing at all. Like one of his models, W.S. Gilbert, (whom Sondheim also dislikes intensely), Coward had considerable skill with meter and rhyme, and that’s another reason his lyrics are interesting when we encounter them through print alone. Though I’m happy to be in the audience of Sondheim’s musicals, only a few of his lyrics repay a cold examination on the page: “I’m Still Here” (from Follies), “Send in the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music), some of the choruses from The Frogs, and the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” from that work. These engage us partly because Sondheim sometimes overcomes his resistance to being verbally clever and deploys a Cowardesque wit in the development of the lyrics. As for the other lyrics, though rather drab when shorn of musical accompaniment, they are effective in their dramatic setting, and none ever falls completely flat. They don’t succeed as poems, as Sondheim’s preface states; instead, they have a different ambition and use.
I’ve gone farther than the second mile in the negative direction, but I want to conclude by saying that I found this book compulsive reading. Sondheim’s commentary on musical theater, as practiced by others and himself, is riveting and often has a relevance that extends to legitimate theater as well. The narratives of the origin of his concepts for particular works are fascinating, along with the anecdotes he tells about developing them with his collaborators, a roster that includes the most celebrated talents in the musical theater of his time. His discussion of rival lyricists, though unforgiving, even so marks out a very clear artistic profile for each figure, altering in small ways or large our sense of their accomplishment. The strangest omission in the book is a discussion of his role as composer. We admire Sondheim not only for his theatrical ideas and his lyrics but also for the music, which is anything but routine or inept. (He studied composition with Milton Babbit, and is familiar with musical classics of the past two centuries, as well as film scores by the likes of Korngold and Steiner. In fact, one of my favorite film scores is the one he wrote for Stavisky.) Why doesn’t he discuss the compositional process in its relationship to theater? How did his work as a lyricist change once he began composing scores for his musicals, and not just the words? Sondheim never goes into these topics, but that means that he has room to do so in the second volume, which I will certainly want to read if it’s as informative as this one. He may by then have mustered the courage, too, to weigh in on his living contemporaries, a critique that couldn’t fail to be gripping. The chance to speak freely about, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s works or Les Misérables would be well worth the price of hiring a bodyguard from Pinkerton and wearing a bullet-proof vest. Assassination attempts would soon peter out, and Sondheim would be left center stage under a pink spot singing the now-classic standard from Follies, the wisecracking, subacid “I’m Still Here,” which begins, “Good times and bum times,/ I’ve seen them all, and, my dear,/ I’m still here.”
I have mentioned this before on the blog, but for those who do not know, I teach upper level ESL to students who plan on entering graduate school in North America. It’s basically a college writing class, but the ESL aspect creates interesting dilemmas for me as a teacher. For example, I’m consistently torn between allowing students the comfort of pulling out their electronic dictionaries and forcing them to live in the uncomfortable space between languages. If I allow dictionaries, I will essentially handicap (or allowing them to handicap) their future English skills. They will forever be tying English words to words or phrases in their native language. As a result, they will never be fully fluent in English (at least not in the same way as a native speaker is fluent–which is often what most of my students desire). If, however, I force them to use context, word roots, and experience to understand words, eventually they will understand English words in an English sense. Perhaps an end-run around this dilemma is letting them use an English dictionary, forcing them to associate English definitions with English words. Unfortunately, students often come upon words in the English definition that they don’t understand, so we’re back at the same dilemma again. Spare the rod, spoil the child, anybody?
Typically, by the time students get to a level or two below my class, electronic dictionaries are forbidden in the classroom. It’s much harder, though, to break them of the habit of composing whole sentences in their own language and translating them, an attempt which is doomed from the start. I get lots of grumble and pout when I tell them to start thinking about their papers in English. I feel a bit like a parent coaxing their child to stand up to a bully. And in many ways, a new language is a bully. I always tell my students that learning a new language is not really learning a new way to communicate, but a new way to think. When working in English, you have to know how to work within or manipulate the categories and expectations of English–something we native speakers do without realizing.
Which brings me back to the blog posts I mentioned in the beginning. As Geoffrey K. Pullum points out at Language Log, “untranslatable” doesn’t really mean there is no translation, it just means there is no one-word equivalent in English. This is the difficulty with translating poetry and why it is often such a fruitful angle to approach questions of poetics. What makes the poetics of a particular work tick? By poetics, I don’t just mean poetry, I mean all art forms (I tend to think of “poetics” as an arch-art form). Dziga Vertov, for example, thought that film was a new international language, a sort of visual esperanto. In his avant-garde film, Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov boldly declares in the first title cards:
The film Man with a Movie Camera represents
AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC TRANSMISSION
Of visual phenomena
WITHOUT THE USE OF INTERTITLES
(a film without intertitles)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCRIPT
(a film without script)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A THEATRE
(a film without actors, without sets, etc.)
This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.
Vertov’s ambition is palpable in the film. Each cut is gravid with meaning. Not only would film be the first international language, it would be the language of the revolution (according to Eisenstein). Many of us still think that film is an international language. In many ways, it is true. It certainly speaks across many cultures, but as McLuhan points out in Gutenberg Galaxy, film is the product of a literary mind. The conventions of film (at least as Vertov sees them) are the conventions of visual print culture. That is, we read films much in the same way we read books.
McLuhan describes the experience of aid workers (in the 1960s, I believe) showing hygiene films to people from what McLuhan identifies as aural-tactile culture (that is, lacking the thought structures that are inherited from print culture). It’s a bit too long to quote here (to read the whole section, click here), but the basic gist is this:
“Literacy gives people the power to focus a little way in front of the image so that we are able to take in the picture in a whole glance. Non-literate people have no such acquired habit and do not look at objects in our way.”
Later McLuhan quotes John Wilson:
“Film is, as produced in the West, a highly conventionalized piece of symbolism although it looks very real. For instance, we found that if you were telling a story about two men to an African audience and one had finished his business and he went off the edge of the screen, the audience wanted to know what had happened to him; they didn’t accept that this was just the end of him and that he was of no more interest in the story. They wanted to know what happened to the fellow, and we had to write stories that way, putting in a lot of information that wasn’t necessary to us. We had to follow him along the street until he took a natural turn–he mustn’t walk off the side of the screen, but must walk down the street and make a natural turn….Panning shots were very confusing because the audience didn’t realize what was happening. They thought the items and details inside the picture were literally moving….the convention was not accepted.”
The point of sharing all this (aside from the point that it’s generally fascinating) is to show that even images, which we often consider somewhat universal, often require certain conventions of thought. So even there, the poetics of an art form are mitigated by “translation,” which, quite literally, must translate it from one form of thought to another.
I do believe fruitful translation can and does happen, but we must be aware of the “extra layer(s)” of intent that exists over top a piece. I want to focus more on what we as poets (and poeticists) can learn from and through translation when I review the new translations of Horace’s Odes (edited by J.D. McClatchy), so the rest of this discussion will be postponed until then.
A Review of The Salt Ecstasies by James L. White
What does he write of? The poet searches into his own lonely darkness and parses the secrets buried within it. He gets down, fat and breathless in his small turning, puts his body down in a stale bed, leans into this isolation, closes his eyes and dreams your body there, next to his, and relishes the event of your mutual rest, the transient physicality of your mutual interest, your deliciously losable connections, the time he was with you: he is making you again, not wholly but religiously, snacking on such remembrances, scooping up the fragments of you lingering in the lacunas of your being gone. He builds a reclusive paradise next to the bittersweet ways you have slipped away from him, from life, the way death’s stern promise folds you up in an incomplete absence, and there and thus he almost saves you, unsatisfactorily but earnestly; he mingles his melancholia with your traces, and eats that imaginary paradigm like a meal taken directly after a meal, without guilt (or with a pleasure in guilt), with the indulgence of a body alone to rule his own kingdom of shadows of you. The poet writes through the way of his life, “the ordinary composure of loving, loneliness, and death.” You are not invisible, not totally irretrievable, you are “buried in so many places,” halfway waiting in the unrecognized seduction of the liminal world between the back of the nightstand and its shadow on the wall. His is a poetics of longing, the profundity of desire, and this construction, this tragicomic funhouse populated by what’s indelibly left of the disappeared, is a sorry confirmation that neither you nor he will be, finally, saved. “I’d trade these words on the spot / to see you again.” If this ritual is not really seeing, what then? what does he write of? what is happening?
Maybe the archetypal James L. White poem is a memory of intimacy, the hard-won, precarious sort known by a culture of outsiders, which is uniquely coded, uniquely sentenced to expire, yet still so desired, still utterly precious, if not in its instance than in the recovery of it when the bed is let back to a single body. To capture such intimacy, that which was tinged with unreality and doom even as it happened, is to embrace its fictive capability, to invoke the fantasy of a fantasy, to find the supernatural weight the other’s presence gifted the room, the poem moving around it “the way ships move heavily between moon and sun, not lost / but like a well-piloted dream.” Then, for the real bruise of resonance, to try and carve into the fiction and pull out the emotional injury locked in its marrow. “I pant hard over this poem / wanting to write your body again.” Sometimes this seems like enough, like the verse is really discovering at something that means, but the disappointment of this practice, the masturbatory futility, can also shut down the pleasure and significance of it: “I want more.” In these poems where White performs, reruns, his lovers and friends out of their departure and back into his bed, to a seat next to him at his table, to his touch, sometimes he takes it so far that he breaks the poem, which he candidly acknowledges: “I just have to stop here Jess. / I just have to stop.” Exposition has its limits. In the clutter of angst, though, these poems will suddenly stab directly at something so nakedly honest, it’s impossible to disbelieve White hasn’t reanimated something displaced by circumstance. Through the tenuous panting across the empty space, he captures how it feels to be in love, lines himself inside the feeling. This is how “Skin Movers” concludes:
In this joyous season I know my heart won’t die
as you and the milk pods open their centers
like a first snow in its perfection of light.
Good love is like this.
Even the smell of baked bread won’t make it better,
this being out of myself for a while.
James L. White died before I was born. In an autobiographical fragment, he describes himself thus: “I was a half-rate ballet corps dancer, a soldier, a poet of some small merit, and wanderer of the earth, and a self-hater.” He has never found a position in the canon of gay American poets, most everything besides his final, posthumously published, work The Salt Ecstasies is seemingly totally dismissed, but the importance of his writing is not so rarefied that it has gone completely unacknowledged. He is simply relegated to the quiet niche of the outsider artist, the wonderful secret, poet’s poet or whatever, where this book has somewhat languished, though now brought back to a kind of prominence with its inclusion in the Graywolf Poetry Re/View series, which aims to guide “essential books of contemporary American poetry back into the light of print” under the direction of series editor Mark Doty, who handled the reissue this year (which includes a modest sample of previously uncollected material) and also wrote a marvelous introduction.
For me, the closest points of reference, in considering this book, are Leland Hickman and John Rechy. The similarly obscure, though denser, Hickman wrote poems with thematic overlaps; Rechy, of course, conjures a twilit world populated by lonesome, maladjusted denizens lurching around each other’s bodies under what White called the “tit-pink” neon of a bygone age of lurid cruising. As Mark Doty notes, “memory supplies context for this desire, and lust leads to the memory that wounds.” For anybody, especially a queer body, who read any of these three writers’ work around the time of their publications–one gets the sense he felt exposed to a new kind of writing, a display, an accomplishment, hitherto uncharted: the liberation of a gay male psychology across the page. Writes Doty (re: White), “In 1982, I’d never read a poem like this […] The diction of sex is fraught with peril.” But Doty also describes how a much younger poet once received The Salt Ecstasies: “He hated the book. He objected to the speaker’s seemingly intractable loneliness, to his night-realm of bars and baths and bus station […] He hated the shame that informed the book; White’s poems did not affirm him; they did not offer hope.” That perspective is understandable as it is unfortunate. White’s poems are mired in a period, but not stiffly so: they breathe, they surf along the pulse of memory and desire; while they cannot speak to today’s reader in exactly the same manner as a contemporary of Mr. Doty’s, they speak yet, complicatedly, and settle down into your spine all the same. The political climate has changed (maybe less significantly than we would like to think) and yet the base themes threaded through the verse of this collection, so lovingly stitched, trigger our guts and intelligences despite an anachronistic hopelessness (if White’s poems can even be said to articulate a profound lack of hope instead of, say, a lens of opulent solitude). Doty’s greatest insight, in his introduction, offers us a mature way to read the haunting quality of these poems: “further and further from the closet, we come to an increasingly complex understanding of the power and failure of desire, the ways that liberation isn’t a cure for loneliness or soul-ache or despair. Not that we’d trade this hard-won freedom for anything; it’s simply that we’re as free to be as sexually confused, as bowled over by longing, as uncertain as anyone else is.” We are free to believe that the answer to What does he write of? is you.
To celebrate the forthcoming ¿What Where? Chapbook Series from The Corresponding Society, there will be a reading at Unnameable Books featuring Anselm Berrigan, Ryan Doyle May, Christie Ann Reynolds, Ben Fama, and Robert Fitterman. The event will be hosted by Lonely Christopher.
Details: Wednesday, November 17th, 8pm.
600 Vanderbilt Ave (at St. Marks), Brooklyn, NY.
In my next several posts, I am going to talk about metaphors and the invisible neutrino of “and” that lies beneath them. I will make the following contentions:
2. Metaphors generate subtexts.
3. Consciousness and metaphor are inseparable.
4. To present two unlike objects is to create the implicit arc of metaphor.
5. All language is relational.
In a sense, language is innately metaphorical because no word is the thing or state of being it describes. We can call a person “Big Ben” or “tree” if he is tall, “bean pole” if he is skinny, or we can call an obese person “slim” or “bean pole.” This is ironic, sarcastic, incongruous. An obese person is certainly not “Slim,” but to say to an obese friend, “Hey Slim,” can carry far more meaning than calling him “hey, obese friend.” First, we may be assuming an intimacy that is allowing us to tease him (one must be careful of assuming anything in this post-structural age in which the rigid structure of political correctness has been raised). Depending on the tone, the situation, and our attitude, “Slim” can be endearing, scathing, or merely habitual. For this reason, I will use Bentham’s idea of laudatory, neutral, and dislogistic registers of speech.
We can call a person a “leader (laudatory, unless we are being tongue in cheek). We can call that same person “assertive” (one of the qualities of a leader, and neutral in tone) or we can call him a “tyrant,” bossy, macho, aggressive, a slave driver, or Hitler (dislogistic). Here’s the miracle of language: suppose this person has just made love, and he ravished his lover in a way she approves of, and when they are done, and doing advanced Yoga (for who smokes afterwards in this age of madness?), she turns to him and kisses his assertive shoulder and says: “Aww… my little Hitler.” She has just made Hitler a term of endearment. But does Hitler go away as a possibly dislogistic implication? Not at all! Thus, a dislogistic term, used in an affectionate or laudatory way creates a sort of dialectical energy and charge. At the same time, she is being loving, she is also affirming that this man is assertive, or macho, or, perhaps, even a power junkie, such as Hitler.
This is why comedy often tells us what we have built a piety around. If you want to know the piety of a culture, see what its comics are mocking or tweeking. In the old screw ball comedy, My Man Geoffrey, two rich and spoiled society girls go to a junkyard on a scavenger hunt for charity to find a “lost man.” If they can bring a homeless man back to the mansion, they will win the scavenger hunt. The movie was made during the depression, and this “hunt” immediately established the cluelessness and privilege of the sisters and showed the seriousness of that age by making light of it. It both cushioned the full blow of the plight, and served to define it.
Metaphor then is volatile, and it is always relational. Even when it seeks to detach, it joins, and when it would join, it detaches. It creates disassociation as much as it creates association. Metaphors are properties of fractal and generative consciousness, but they are also distortion. We live in our verbal universe, communicate complex emotions, negotiate the most subtle nuances through a series of distortions. We can fall prey to our metaphors. In point of fact, consciousness could be defined as the willingness to fall prey to one’s metaphors. We can think, reason, learn, even negotiate space and time without metaphors, but we can not be fully human in the sense of nuance, irony, and social parlance without them. Our age, being still caught in the scientific myth of denotative terms, objective reality, empirical truth, has fed this myth to those who would root out injustice, and prejudice, by making sure all speech is neutral–devoid of either its dislogistic or laudatory registers.
Ah, but here’s the rub: A child blows up his sister, and the father calls him into the living room and says: “Now son… blowing up your sister was inappropriate.” That might get a laugh years ago, but, in our present “professional” world, pedophilia, blowing up one’s sister, and eating San Francisco might very well be called “inappropriate actions” and no one laughs. This scares the hell out of me. To use Aspergers as a metaphor, there is something Aspergian about this state of affairs. We can blame scientists. We can blame the cult of neutrality. We can even blame a sort of extreme dadaist literalism. Our neutral speech is as much a semiotic indicator of power and control as our dislogistic and laudatory speech–far more so. Someone living in a dislogistic register will give us the sense of someone ignorant, crude, not in command of his or her emotions. Someone living in a laudatory register will give us the sense of a suck up, a cheerleader, a person courting favor.
Social intelligence calls for both negotiating these registers along situational and contextual lines, and blurring those lines. Neutral speech can be anger and ultimate violence made conspicuous by its absence. To say “we have decided to disregard the civilian casualties in a particular campaign and to pursue our objective with extreme prejudice” is to apply a “professional” gloss to the intentional killing and destruction of thousands. Language allows us to call genocide a “final solution.” Just as a relation means separate as much as together, our language distances us from our deeds as much as it defines them. It allows us to call the death of children in warfare “collateral damage.” As for me, I’d rather have someone call me an asshole than refer to me as “expendable.” To take all the emotion out of a verbal construct in no way lessens the violence of a culture, but may even increase it. When a metaphor allows us to detach, and all metaphors allow us to detach, it becomes dangerous, but, without that danger, no consciousness, and no poetry is possible.
A metaphor then seeks to be misunderstood as well as understood, albeit in a fruitful and generative way. Poets, before scientists, were the first disciplinarians where metaphors are concerned. They did not want them mixed. They did not want them too imprecise. A poet is the lion tamer of metaphor, but, in creating a lion to tame, he also makes a lion who can possibly eat a culture, define it, distort it. “The age of reason” is a metaphor. If we break it down, it is not accurate. We move toward grace by a judicious stumbling. This stumbling is consciousness, and consciousness depends, to a very great extent, on our metaphors–not only their precision, but their power to distort.
“My love is like a red, red rose,” is a simile. My “love is a rose” is a metaphor. The simile can contain a likeness or affinity without being beholden to a full substance. The simile qualifies. It says: my love is like a rose because, like a rose, it is beautiful to me and makes me feel lively the way roses indicate the life of summer has arrived. And it is sweet to the smell, and soft to the touch, but it also has thorns and can hurt. And it is brief and must wither and die. A metaphor says to the simile, “Well, if that’s the case, my love IS a rose!” Metaphors are committed to falsehood and inexactness for the sake of a possibility more vital than precision. They allow us to move more quickly through the world by a series of almost, close to, and close enough.
The great sage of consciousness, Julian Jaynes, broke metaphors down into “metaphrands” (the unseen quality or emotion we are trying to get at), “metaphier” (the thing we use to get at it), “paraphrands” (the subtext of the metaphrand), and “paraphier” (the subtext of the paraphrand). We will confine ourselves to the metaphrand and the metaphier, here:
“My love” is the metaphrand. I want to express its qualities, so I resort to a metaphier of the rose. Now, once this metaphor enters the language, everyone accepts it at face value. When that happens you have a cliche. You can either refuse to use the cliche or you can have fun with it, deconstruct it, or, like a good dadaist, take it absolutely literally. In a Marx brothers movie, Chico might say to Groucho: “Boss, it’s raining cats and dogs.” Groucho might say: “Quick man! Have you no sense? Go out there and put some of that rain on a leash… I could use a good pet.”
This sort of humor comes from taking the figurative literally. Comedy is of the head more than the heart because, in addition to testing and teasing our behavioral pieties, it tests and teases our sacred metaphors. In a Marx Brothers movie, the absurdity of dreams is generated by taking a metaphor with all its metapheirs and exploding it. We “derange” the senses– something Rimbaud advocated at the beginning of modernist poetry. A simple way into modernism and post-modernism is to say that, like pre-modernism, it moves through a universe of metaphors. Unlike pre-modernism, it seeks to emphasize not the associative, but the dis-associative aspects of metaphors, and, by doing so, create a new perspective by incongruity. In this respect, it is essentially comic, though often in a terrifying, nightmarish way. So to re-cap, metaphors connect unlike things, create relationship, and allow us to move through the world while at the same time creating disconnects, confusions, and falsehoods. Post-modernism emphasizes this later power.
In the next post we will look at a poem by Andre Breton that functions in this respect. Some people don’t “get” the Marx Brothers. They are “silly.” Some people don’t get why anyone would feel pleasurably sad watching a sunset. They lack that emotional nuance. In the one case, an overly pious F-factor (feeling) may short circuit the humor. In the other case, an overly emphasized T-factor (thought) might make the person blind to “pleasurable sadness.” Let’s try to be capable of both, but each new poem will cause us to choose, and in a hundred subtle ways.
Last time, we saw that in his critical introduction to Unusual Woods, Gene Tanta wants us to approach his poetry both as immigrant poetry (which means a couple of things) and for its aesthetic value. I postulated that he accomplishes a dialectic between “local” and “universal” through strategies that extend and enrich Deep Image and surrealist poetics. Let’s see how this happens.
First, look at how these thirteen-line “ghost-sonnets,” as he calls them, are built:
The cavalry is always peering down into the ravine
whenever you’re not looking.
Someone is burping.
Someone is shirt-shinning the author’s coffin.
Someone’s nose or finger or toe
is playing in the underwater roots downstream.
Under the lean and starry sky
took your money, saying:
You seem far away,
like a cuckoo clock on a sunken ship.
If it consoles you,
you’ll die on an odd breath or an even breath.
Architecturally, this poem comprises fragmented, disjoined images struggling towards coherence. The second person pronouns and the indefinite pronoun “someone” establishes some cohesion of persons. But temporally, there are problems. The three lines beginning with “someone” borrow the surreal technique of the continuous (indefinite) present tense, in which multiple, seemingly disconnected actions are happening simultaneously. “Always” in the first line also suggests a continuous, indistinct present tense—in a sense, it is an eternal present, which is to say, no time at all. If one needs events passing over time to have narrative structure, this poem is putting up a fuss.
Even so, paradoxically, the simultaneity of the events forces a coherent reading. Parataxis aside, normal reading expectations demand that proximity (in the text) implies relationship. But here, at least within the narrative framework of the poem, persons and events are disjoined. Thus, like a collage, these images are simply asserted (placed by the artist) and readers are forced to make what they will of it. Implicitly, these seemingly disconnected things are envisioned as unified, which is the surreal experience of the “marvelous” or the Deep Image experience of the “deep image.”
So Tanta’s poems are built like surrealist collage; in addition, the images themselves are surreal in their catachresis and play. What is the meaning of that cavalry peering into the ravine? And what is to be made of the cuckoo clock on the sunken ship? Throughout Unusual Woods, Tanta freezes the reader with similarly obscure imagery:
Clearly, you are a severed viper head
and not as you claim
his eyes flickered (beaten)
in a gold-leaf epic splashed inside his skull
Yet another hooligan utopia
awaits its facial hair to grow.
My pulsebeat still listens for yours,
a ghost just leafing thru,
the library books of your body.
These images succeed not just because they are surprising and beautiful, but also because they are teasingly suggestive, even while their possible meanings are limited and redirected within the complex structure of the whole. As Tanta says in his essay, structure gives us the means by which we can approach the text aesthetically and thus as something universal (because beauty and structure are universal).
But what of the local? Tanta explores his identity as an immigrant and ESL poet in the courageous (but tasteful) exploitation of puns, idioms and other kinds of word play. In general, ESL poets tend to take things literally, resulting in images that are deeply ironic for readers even though they underscore the speaker’s innocence and naïveté : “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words on his inner thigh….” At times the poet admits to (not insignificant) gaps in comprehension: “It’s so hard to tell few from fewer” (47). Other times deliberate ESL-like misuse of language can create a new, interesting phrase: “A dash sparrows in to sip a little water / from the water-fountain” (85). The poet cannot resist playful manipulation of idioms: “He had an ax to pick / and a bone to grind.” Finally, and most rewardingly, the ESL vantage point exposes metaphoric relationships hidden within the language itself:
At night, lightning flashes its teeth
over the Seine.
Surely, whether consciously or not, the poet discovers the idiom “flashing a smile” to be congruently matched to lightning, which literally “flashes.” Thus, the teeth/lightning relationship was idiomatically implanted in our language without our (or at least my) noticing it; it took the eye of an immigrant to find it.
My final observation is that in spite of the obscure images, anti-narrative structures, and non-transparent language, Tanta’s poems project a clear voice that navigates the reader. While Unusual Woods could be analyzed thematically (there are numerous gypsies, firing squads, and dictators), I found the personality of the speaker to be a more important (perhaps the most important) unifying force in this collection. Whether it concerns love, family or writing, the voice’s sincerity gives the sonnets weight and timbre. Here is one example:
My father did not invent fire and I refuse to vote
the birds in thick alarm.
I am thru with my voice, here it is
like a fire:
About what you cannot sing you weep and sob and cry.
Along these atlases
we alter things all the time with our sexual conduct.
You don’t know me as a broken arrow’s broken diction
but by my desperate Dionysian catapult,
by my Grecian star map,
by my Assyrian aqueduct, by my Brooklyn bridge,
by my Yugoslavian copper, by my Sumerian plow.
Once a termite lived.
Sandwiched between the cryptic first and third sentences is a dazzlingly direct, emotional statement about the writer’s own struggle to speak (as immigrant and as poet). Then there is a catalogue of exotic items by which we will “know” him. Whatever it is these items collectively mean—taking note, meanwhile, that Eastern European and America are represented—their symbolic resonance clearly outweighs the brokenness of self and speech that is the mark of an immigrant (“a broken arrow’s broken diction”). And yet, it is this “broken diction” that is partly to thank for the success of his poems (not that Tanta reads like anything less than a master of the language). And even though the disjunction of the last line deflates the intensity of these personal, direct statements, the sonnet undoubtedly proclaims something vital about the speaker. The core self is at stake.
And this is the coolest thing about Tanta’s work—even though these poems are centered on a persona, the indeterminable and seemingly fragmentary aspects of the world co-exist with the self. That is to say, aspects of the self and aspects of the world are placed in relationship. “Once a termite lived”—in the context of the poem, this statement and what it signifies are appended to the self and become an aspect or extension of it. The self is neither merely “a broken arrow [with] broken diction,” nor even a compilation of architectural structures and tools; rather, and ultimately, these poems are about an introspective, enculturated, embodied soul who must interpret the world in order to make sense of its own existence. It is because the world—whether native or foreign—is such a strange place that one finds oneself looking for meaning within “unusual woods.”
To carve a face in wood you must practice. And practice and practice. You must practice eyes, especially, and mouths and noses, though you cannot think of them that way. Think only of the wood and the edge of the knife and of shapes. You must break the face into pieces, in how you think of it, and think not of faces but of pieces and parts, 0f shapes and lines. Practice triangles with your knife. Practice triangles with your gouge. Practice circles and ovals, oblongs and uneven polygons, rectangles and slightly-off squares.
Cut triangles with the tip of your knife for eyes, pairs of triangles on each side of each eye. Connect them with thin, arching lines, cutting a curl of wood away, leaving a circle remaining, a mound, a pupil, inside.
Practice until you have a whole boards of eyes. Practice until there are a million ears clustered in irregular patterns on a totem that could be an icon of a wooden listening god. Put it somewhere where you can see it. Let it sit and look at it, all those wooden ears, all those wooden eyes, all those abstract, crescent-shaped smiles. Then sharpen your knife again. Feel the fine edge on the edge of your thumb.
I started carving when I was 14. I started writing around then too. Both were really bad. I wrote a rhyming poem about a chicken I’d owned. It was pretty much what you would think. The first thing I carved was a sheep. I imagined I would carve a nativity, a whole set, sheep and shepherds, wise men, cow, and Christ, but I didn’t understand my material, and didn’t understand my tools. In the end the sheep had three legs. There was a giant, raggedly hole where the left haunch was supposed to be. The ears and nose were about the same size, giving it the look of a three-headed, three-legged thing. I had no idea how to carve something that looked like wool. It was only a sheep if you squinted and were generous.
The poem was published. I started getting letters, semi-regular, from one of those scam poetry places. They said they could see I had talent. A fresh new voice.
No one ever lied to me about the sheep.
There was a carving club of old men in the town where I lived—retirees. They were grandfathers and WWII vets with shops with band saws and stacks of carving wood. They looked at the sheep I had and showed me how I hadn’t paid attention to the grain, hadn’t understood the wood.
First they asked me what I was using to carve. I showed them my knife, a three-bladed pocket knife I’d found in a cardboard box of tools at an estate sale from where an old man had died.
No, they said. That’s not what you want to use. They showed me knives, better knives, and which tool to use when.
I have read, since then, a lot of books and a lot of articles about how to write. I’ve listened to a lot of advice. I’ve read a lot and listened to a lot about how to carve, too.
The instruction on carving is always better.
For one thing it’s always practical. It’s technical, specific, and helpful.
Most of the advice on writing I’ve read is mostly inspirational. There’s nothing wrong with inspiration, of course, but it doesn’t help a rhyming chicken poem. Most of it ends up being premised, too, on the idea that I am an artist, and we are artists, and special, and spiritual, and its romantic mumbo-jumbo, mostly, that doesn’t tell you how to get better. It doesn’t tell you how to write better, how to write a better line. It works only to preserve your view of yourself.
Most of the rest of was truisms, clichés, and crap.
Woodcarvers, by comparison, never told me to carve what I know. They never said, everyone has a great carving in them. Instead, they said, keep at it. Keep working. Try this. Try again. See how this tool can be used to do this job?
They told me how to get better.
They didn’t think of themselves as artists, the old men. They didn’t encourage me to think of myself that way either, didn’t assume I could just reach into myself, magically or mystically, and come out with a great work. Carving was a craft, to them, something you did because you wanted to do it, because you got joy from doing it and doing it well. It was something you worked at. Something you learned how to do by doing, and doing it, got better. They didn’t assume there was a secret, 10 tricks to learn to become successful. They assumed it was work. They assumed it would take practice.
I took some classes, from some of them. In a class the teacher carves something simple. Then you copy him. He makes a cut; then you make a cut. At the end you have a piece that’s almost just like his, and you know the concepts of how to carve. Then you go practice that, and try to do something better. I’ve never heard of a writing class where you learn to write that way.
With carving, there were workshops, too. In the workshops, you sat there and carved, then someone with more experience would say, “try it this way.” They’d show you what they were working on, and how they did it. If you cut yourself, they’d show you how to stop the cut with superglue. They’d suggest that next time you try something harder than what you did before.
They’d encourage you to keep working. Practicing. No one ever acted like they thought they were a genius, or like what they were doing was too amazing to be understood or appreciated. It was a craft, and we were all very practical.
They’d say, “what kind of wood is that you’re working with?” They’d say, “what you want with wood is something with a real consistent grain.”
They’d say, “let me show you how to sharpen a knife real good.”
Then they’d show you how to feel the fine edge with the edge of your thumb. Then you’d practice, and practice some more.
To carve a face you must know how to pick a piece of wood and how to sharpen a knife and to hold a knife. You have to know how to use it. When to be delicate. When to be bold. Carving is tools and materials and practice. You must know how the knife is going to cut and how the wood is going to be cut, how it will be before you slice. You have to know, and can only know from having done it, and done it repeatedly.
Carve until your hand hurts from holding the knife. Pile up chips in your lap. Pile up chips around your feet until the feathery frays of white wood stick to your socks and get into your shoes. Put a chip in your mouth and taste it. Taste the grain with your tongue. Stretch your hand and massage between the muscles until it feels better.
Cut an isosceles notch with the flat of the knife below what will be the nose. Cut curved lines for what will be the smile lines with the tip of your knife, pulling the blade with a paring motion, curving around, pressure from your pointer knuckle, towards your thumb. Work with the grain of the wood. Curl away from the triangle eyes, up from the eyes, length of the blade, twist of the wrist for the brows.
Put the man you’ve carved up in a window. Look at him with the light. Think about what you’ll do next time.
1. Get them to avoid cliches–not of thought (almost all thoughts are cliche), but of language and image.
2. Get them to play with cliche so that they master them rather than being mastered by them.
3. Teach them to vary sentence length against the line.
4. Teach them to be aware of word choice.
5. Teach them to know the difference between the concrete and the abstract, and all the hues and shades in between (a big mistake we make is teaching them to show, not tell without letting them know that the showing must tell–that an image must work for the poem.
6. Re-orient their sense of the “poetic” to include ordinary experience rendered in an extraordinary way, rather than extraordinary experience rendered in a typical, and hackneyed “poetic” way.
Specifically, let’s take the first two goals here. I noticed that many of my students, when in the throes of an injured heart would have to mention “piercing blue eyes, “cold blue eyes,” etc, etc. Those blue eyed boys were down right evil. I explained that the Russian novelists had exhausted just about every shade of eye in the 19th century, and song writers of pop were just about the only people who could still get away with making a big deal out of eyes. Take blue eyes crying in the rain. Or “I’ll never get over those blue eyes.” Green eyes hardly ever got mentioned. Why were blue eyes so important? I explained that, according to evolutionary biologists, blue eyes made the pupil look dilated, and a dilated pupil is a sign of enthusiasm, interest, and atavistic sexual fitness. Thus, according to biologists, blue eyes, especially when they are looking directly at you, seem to “pierce” you. It’s an optical allusion, but obviously effective. I said the next time you got into heavy eye contact with a set of baby blues, imagine an annoying scientist narrating the moment.
Hook Up Olympics
“Ladies and gentlemen, our subject is now
making significant visual contact
with the highly symmetrical, V shaped
mesomorph with the piercing blue eyes.
Jim, what’s happening here?
Well, Frank, I believe he’s about to perform
the cut off the crowd and shelter her
in the canopy of his well proportioned arms
maneuver that won him the gold at Edinburgh…
No… Look At that Frank! She’s
peering up shyly and rounding her shoulders, while
fully exposing her neck, pushing a
fetchingly wayward strand of hair from her ear,
and bringing her secondary sexual characteristics
together in a subtle, but definitely effective
display of cleavage. Good move!
Will he look, Jim?
Frank, Swen knows his strengths.
He’s keeping his baby blues, his dazzling
azures fixed on her sad and limpid browns.
Alright, here comes the moment of crisis.
He’s not looking. Will she laugh and show her
pearly whites, lick her lips, bend one knee
slightly towards his crotch?
Ah… she’s broken eye contact! The subject is
shyly fingering her necklace.
Swen looks down. He’s got a bead on her
breasts. She looks up again. Here comes the cock
block Frank! Ulga’s one of the best in the business–
a whiny, co-dependent room mate
who knows exactly when to ruin any seduction
with her unbridled neediness.
This is not Swen’s forte. At Sidney, he blew it,
insulted the cock block directly. Not good.
Even a turn here to block the block’s
access will cost him points. He’ll have to hope
his piercing blue eyes have done the trick.
And there it is Frank! The subject has
blocked the cock block, herself. Perfectly legal.
She’s turned her back three quarters and is now
melting in his large yet oddly gentle hands.
In this particular contest, Ulga is not
allowed to puke up her Southern Comfort.
And now she taps the subject’s shoulder.
I think it’s too little, too late. Yes!
No response. We have a winner here Frank.
Swen and his piercing blue eyes have done it again.
His cold blue eyes melted my heart
until I was frozen by his cruel indifferent gaze.
Well, I asked her how cold could melt, and melt could freeze? I made her read John Donne. I gave her a pep talk on oxymoron. I said: “make an analogy between his cold blue eyes and global warming. She wrote:
The arctic ice melts off the coast of Alaska.
Bears and Walruses drown, lost in a three year thaw,
but I remain frozen, melted
in your cold blue eyes.
For my heart, there is no global warming,
no rising sea in which to drown my pain…
Now this isn’t good, but it’s a big improvement over what she had, and it teaches her to play with an image, to make leaps between disparate things to form a bridge of meaning.
Here’s a prompt (and example) to help beginning writers deal with the first two rules.
PROMPT: take a cliche and exaggerate it to the point of absurdity.
One day the mountain grew bored
with being majestic,
and tumbled down its slopes to sit at the Lodge’s bar.
It wanted to be convivial. It wanted company.
Most called this avalanche. I tell you
it was boredom–the way things
tumble, the way things fall,
only to be themselves again.
That’s one way to work at the first two goals. There are many other possible ways to being working with the first two rules.
How do you help beginning writers avoid cliches?
A week ago I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, at the Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum at the Philips Collection. She was participating in a panel discussion with Michael Dirda about her work at Johns Hopkins and the role the arts can play in shaping foreign policy. Two days later, Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize and became a permanent member of a triumvirate of South American fiction giants (along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolano). Both writers exhibit the type of friendly and meaningful dialogue proposed by the many noteworthy speakers at the Diplomacy Forum. I want to put these two figures into dialogue with each other, by speaking about Nafisi’s Reading Lolita and Vargas Llosa’s lesser-known work, The Storyteller.
My favorite line from Nafisi’s panel came from her anecdote about her arrival at Johns Hopkins. A colleague essentially said “Oh, good, we needed someone to do women’s studies and Muslim literature,” to which Nafisi responded, “Bloody hell, no! I want to study dead white men!” She elaborated, emphasizing the notion that if there is to be true dialogue, we must be able to step outside what we know and engage other forms, other cultures, with empathy.
This is the impetus of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi’s students (and Nafisi herself) deal with their plight as women in a Muslim theocracy by reading, among others, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen – curious, and at best tangentially relevant, seemingly. But this is the point. For these women, these “dead white men” take on utmost significance in their lives. Their novels illuminate the troubles of sexual abuse, notions of the American Dream, and “burden” (Bellow) of individual freedom in ways made relevant and meaningful by Nafisi’s teaching. (The classroom scenes are among the most powerful of the book, ranking along with Frank McCourt’s as some of the best of that genre I’ve read). What these figures have in common, for Nafisi, is their engagement with what she sees as the central issue of reading fiction at all:
Pity is the password, says the poet John Shade in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert and James to Nabokov and Bellow. This, I believe, is how the villain of modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy. The personalized version of good and evil usurps and individualizes the more archetypal concepts, such as courage or heroism, that shaped the epic or romance. A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost.
Nafisi’s novel is filled with accounts of brutality against women in Tehran. She depicts this lack of empathy as the root of male oppression and violence in the “Muslim World” (Nafisi herself puts this term in quotes, attacking it as reductive). Hence the need to read “at almost any cost.” The many female characters of Reading Lolita in Tehran embody this need with a zeal that can rejuvenate our own love for good fiction.
This type of empathy, as Bakhtin would say a traveling into the other and back again into an enriched notion of one’s own selfhood, is at the heart of Llosa’s The Storyteller. It is the story of an unnamed first-person narrator’s journey to know his friend Saul Zuratas. Known affectionately as “Mascarita,” he is a red-headed Jew with a grotesque birthmark that takes up half his face. His outsidedness from Peruvian normalcy compels him to identify with the Machiguenga tribe of the jungle.
He begins by studying them academically, only to reject the field of ethnology and linguistics as unethical. The rest of the novel after this declaration is a multi-text. Interspersed with the narrator’s account of the end of his relationship with Zuratas is a series of circuitous and labyrinthine tales from Machiguenga mythology. It is clear to the reader that Zuratas himself is telling these stories. He has completely joined the tribe; much more, he has become their bard, their hablador, their storyteller. A mythical figure in his own right, he is kept hidden from the academics and documentarians who come to the jungle. Over time the narrator comes to discover Zuratas’ new life, with profound effects on his own.
The story itself is powerful, but the work is enhanced by the point Vargas Llosa makes through his narrative strategy. The narrator’s story is one of trying to know the Machiguengas through standard Western academic practices. He thinks by studying them at the university, and by filming a sensitive documentary, he is doing the tribe justice to those who would re-educate them and steal their land. But next to the Zuratas chapters – what can be called nothing other than bits of magical realism – they seem insufficient and, yes, unethical. Zuratas, an outsider, has somehow – to the narrator’s bafflement at the end of the novel – been “able to feel and live at the very heart of that culture…having penetrated its essence, reached the marrow of its history and mythology, given body to its taboos, images, ancestral desires, and terrors…being, in the most profound way possible, a rooted Machiguenga.”
For Nafisi and Vargas Llosa, this type of – to use his word – “conversion” is entirely possible. It requires, first, this Bakhtinian idea of travel outside of the self. For both these excellent thinkers, that type of travel is rooted in storytelling, in great novels.
Nixon went down to the beach and sat in the sand and waited. The waves came in, the waves went out, and he sat there in his suit and waited.
There comes a point, in every election, where there seems like there’s nothing anyone can do. Whatever is going to happen will happen. It has happened already. Sometime during the day, sometime while the votes are cast or after they’re cast but haven’t yet been counted, the candidates can’t do anything anymore except wait. Politicking ends. Maneuvering stops. Everyone waits. They’re as helpless as hitchhikers, at that moment, in that in-between time. As helpless as sinners in that old Calvinist doctrine of waiting for grace.
For the last few years, every election day I’ve gone down to the county headquarters and waited while they count the ballots. In the evening at the end of the day, the poll workers pull up to the bunker, lining up their SUVs and unloading the voting machines by the front door. It was the 911 call center at one point, a concrete building half-built into the ground, radio aerials like squiggly doodles drawn in the sky. They transformed it into a community center, though, and reporters and candidates, party hacks and other observers are shuffled over into a room that is used, most days, for a battered-wives support group. There are chairs there and we wait while they count. On the bulletin boards are brightly colored flyers saying love shouldn’t hurt, help is available, break the cycle of violence. We can see through a window to where they do the actual counting–election officials in a rush, unlocking the machines, sorting and shifting and tallying districts, then uploading the count onto the official site, where, all over the county, all over the state, candidates and journalists, party workers, regular voters, and other observers wait for the numbers to say what is already decided.
That is the weird thing, watching the poll workers come in and unload the machines, watching the counters count and the election watchers watch. You know the decision’s been made. There’s nothing anyone can do anymore. You’re in the interregnum. You’re in that period where you know that soon everything will appear clear and as foreordained as if providence had made it so, everything is complete, and soon this history can be what cultural studies scholars call “presentist,” where everything clearly leads up to what it did the way it did and makes sense retrospectively. But for the moment everything is undetermined. What’s going to be already is and we wait for what’s done, what’s inevitable and, in fact, is already accomplished but only not yet realized.
The future is fluid, to you there, standing there at sunset on election day as the counting counters scurry, and the past is fluid too. The past is done, but unknown; the future done and unknown too. All of it moving. All of it’s as formless as water. But only to you. In another sense, in a real sense or a more real sense, it’s all already solid. The past is decided and the future’s decided and has its shape, its form is fixed, but for you it’s all only liquid.
The tide goes out. The tide comes in. Nixon butt prints in November beach sand.
It’s strange that for a country as political as America, for a country that makes or can make anything political, whose day-to-day drama and national narrative is internally tangled and intertwined with party machinations and affairs of state — our own present history even actually narrated back to us by party hacks and political commentators — that there’s really very little art that directly deals with the political process.
The one work that really stands out is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, which, interestingly, puts a whole narrative in this interregnum state, where history is all fixed and predetermined and fated, and yet, unknown. It starts with driving directions, which also work as metaphor:
To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or it was new, that day we went up it. You look at that highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll reach to try to turn off the ignition just as she starts to dive. But you won’t make it, of course.
The book was written in 1946, Warren’s third novel. It won the Pulitzer in ’47, and seems to somewhat cyclically attract attention without ever making it onto anyone’s “great” list, or gaining a firm place in any cannon. It’s the story of Jack Burden, the narrator, a newspaper writer who goes to work for Willie Stark, a character loosely based on Louisiana’s Huey P. Long, a rising populist, a reformer who grabs power with both hands. It’s a political novel, in that it’s about politics. It might be the best book we have in American literature on politics–it’s the best one I can think of–but it’s also a meditation on destiny. Or what we might call a kind of secular Calvinism.
Burden is, by calling and by training, a historian. He is also an amateur philosopher, who flirts with Idealism, and a nihilistic, materialistic version of Calvinism that pictures history as a great big “twitch,” and he meditates confusedly on questions of destiny and time. He says, “And all times are one time, and all those dead in the past never lived before our definition gives them life, and out of the shadow their eyes implore us. That is what all of us historical researchers believe,” and “go out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time,” and other philosophical, poetic thing. The book is narrated from the future with a feeling of dread. A sense of doom sending its shadow back over the story. Huey P. Long, of course, was assassinated at, perhaps, the height of his power, and we know, even at the start, even if it’s just as a feeling from the sense of style, that that is going to happen and bad things are going to happen before the end of the book. We can see it coming–“coming at you”–down the middle of a highway, flat and straight for miles. Burden narrates with a sense of destiny that might, more rightly, be called inevitability.
Foreordination that’s more like foreboding.
He believes in providence, but in the sort of providence that only shows you the solid form of your fate in the moment after it happens. Everything’s liquid, as he stands there, an ocean that undulates without form, until suddenly he sees, and the past is solid and was what it was, and the future is now what it is and was always going to be.
There’s a sense of doom, in this, and All the King’s Men is Calvinistic too in its sense that everyone’s implicated, intertwined and tangled up inescapably in the horrible human condition. It’s secular, though, in that the human degradation does not and is not meant to emphasize the distant glory of God, but only highlights our helplessness. There is no salvation, in All the King’s Men, but only the waiting. Or, there is a salvation, but it’s only political, it’s only a new road or a new state policy or an inspiring speech, and the characters in the novel are always on the way towards a crash into the limits of the limited scope of that hope.
As Willie Stark says to Jack Burden, “We been in it up to our ears, both of us, you and me, boy.”
Or as somebody says to Stark, when his first run for governor flounders out, “You thought you were the little white lamb of God.”
Everyone’s condemned in this novel — always already condemned — and what’s interesting, reading it, is seeing how you already know how it’s going to end just from the tone, just from the style, and yet it’s riveting anyway. You can’t look away. That secular Calvinistic sense of sin is injected into every part of the narrative, and the characters, even at the beginning, are already framed by their doom. Framed not in the political sense of made-up scandal with planted evidence, but framed by history and fate. As Stark says, trying to explain it,
I never did ask you to frame anybody. And you know why?
Because it ain’t ever necessary. You don’t ever have to frame anybody, because the truth is always enough.
We are, that is, all already framed. Framed by history. We just know how yet.
The narrator regularly signals what’s going to happen, but the character who narrates can only wait, helpless, until it does. Jack Burden is, as a character, as condemned as Oedipus, of the ancient Greeks, who made his fate come true by working against it. He’s doomed and destined, and the facts or events of the novel are fixed, and there’s a way in which Burden doesn’t actually act any more than Nixon did on that Election Day, waiting for someone to come find him and tell him what he’d done. Instead, what changes for Burden is the way he thinks about himself and history and the history that is to come. The whole novel is watching him drive straight into the crash of the realization of his Calvinistic kind of fate.
Then the share-cropping black man, chopping cotton in the very first pages of the novel, can see “the little column of black smoke standing up against the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and […] say, ‘Lawd God, hit’s a-nudder one done done hit.'”
Of course, we might say the same thing about secularized Calvinism in American literature, about displaced, disenchanted destiny in the American novel: Hit’s a-nudder one done done hit again. It’s a subtext that stretches and a question that comes up from Hawthorne to Pynchon. Nathanial Hawthorne, even in early stories like “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” cross-layers providentalisms against each other, until the characters all get caught in them, destroyed in them (and maybe the story does too). Thomas Pynchon’s Slothrop, the paranoid center of the apparently conspiratorial universe of Gravity’s Rainbow, is, appropriately, the descendent of providentialist Puritans, the son of a whole history of paranoid histories. America is a country, too, that has always confused it’s providentialism and its politics, with its Manifest Destinies and Cities on Hills, which is all foreordination and fixed history, fixed into the future, the “God” little more than the manifestations of the mystery of it was going to happen, its history always one of retrospective and presentist explanations, meta-narratives that put the whole thing in a frame.
What’s interesting about Jack Burden’s secular Calvinism, in all its foreordination and mystery, with history that’s both God-given and unknowable, is this moment: the interregnum. The election day moment. He lives there, right there, the narrative is structured there, where everything’s already been decided and there’s nothing you can do. Sitting on the beach where everything’s liquid, everything’s fluid, it’s all an ocean, and then in a moment you see the shape of it all, a shape you can then never un-see.
In this novel we’re always in this moment where we’re watching the voting machines unloaded and knowing that here the Vox of the populi has already been uttered, but isn’t or hasn’t yet become, hasn’t been transformed into the vox of the Dei, and so can’t yet be heard or understood.
For most of us, most of the time, fate and history are fixed. Or seem fixed. We are meta-narrativists and presentists, by training and by nature, and the past seems to us to be solid, the present predetermined even as what we’re really doing is reading it, interpreting it, socially constructing it from where we sit. There are moments, though, where we’re waiting, where we don’t have what we need to determine the providential shape of the narrative of “now.” We will, with our tellings, fix it as if it’s the voice of God, as if it’s the only way things are or could have been, but there are moments where that indeterminacy of history, the openness of how we read or could read and how we understand, is, for a moment, if not clear, a feeling we clearly feel as dread in our stomachs as we watch the ocean tide.
Moments of uneasy interregnum.
Moments of waiting, waiting for what has already happened or will seem like it has when the past is appropriately fixed and firmed-up by the future, moments of suspended shock, before everything fits into place.
“When a heavy-caliber slug hits you,” Jack Burden explains, “you may spin around but you don’t feel a thing.”
Moments when, watching the middle line of a flat highway like 58, watching it flicker and shimmer until we pass into a daze while driving, hypnotized by ourselves, and we imagine as if in a trance, a daydream from which we cannot wake, what would happen if we veered off into the dirt shoulder and crashed, what the smoke would look like, what the cotton choppers would say to themselves, a mile away, and we imagine the other alternative too, where we go “whipping on into the dazzle […] at the horizon where the cotton fields are blurred into the light, the slab will gleam and glitter like water, as though the road were flooded,” and we’ll go “whipping towards it, but it will always be ahead […] that bright, flooded place, like a mirage.”
It’s a hypnotic moment, where we stare off unfocused, like Nixon looking at the ocean. There, in the in-between when the votes are being counted, the past, present and the future could really all go either way, could take any shape. Until it happen. Then it won’t seem like anything except our story of fate and future-from-past, present-from-past, now as it was always going to be because of secular providence, was possible. After it happens.
For that moment though, everything was liquid.