Writers in the scattered nation of good poetry are, in general, perfectionists. Many greats have been known to be tight-lipped about their process and to publish only what they deem categorically best. Bob Hicok, on the other hand, doesn’t seem worried about perfection. He publishes so prodigiously that it’s hard to imagine he spends any time revising his work. I remember standing in a bookstore a couple years ago grazing among the poetry publications and discovering that he had poems in approximately half of the literary journals—good ones, too. I remember feeling a mixture of jealously, skepticism of various stripes, and stunned admiration for Hicok’s unique voice.
I’ve read a fair amount of Hicok’s poetry since then—and had many opportunities, as he remains a prolific poet. The unfair comparison that occurs to me is James Patterson. But Hicok is anything but the James Patterson of contemporary poetry (if you feel like posting your “James Patterson of Contemporary Poetry Nominee” below, however, please do). In fact, Hicok’s method is quite fluid and authentic. In each of his poems I feel I’m reading a self-documented Gestalt therapy session, lineated and titled as if it were, well, a poem. And because he’s witty, loves language and play with language, and he’s fearless about publishing any mode of speech or linguistic item that in isolation would seem incredibly stupid or embarrassing, these poems are riveting and thought-provoking. Take, for example, “Call me a lyre, I dare you” which appeared originally, roughly lyre-shaped, in the Believer’s November, 2009 issue, and appears in Hicok’s latest collection Words for Empty and Words for Full (Pittsburg, 2010):
Call me a lyre, I dare you
Last or some night
light, who cares the when of this,
glittered the tree up at the end
as the wash from a car as moved the planet, I’m not
in touch with personally Saturn, in branched fingers
of eerily, I’d say off-the-shelf language, isn’t it
necessary still how life lit into the moment
to say other than the facts of it, see,
whatever the bits are inside that oscillate
or pinwheel, I was moved to internal whirring
cicadish, even though my epiphanic dog-walkings
mean shit to you in the throes of your
epiphanic askings of the moon, for what, afterall
are we in this, some random sense of, fuck
if I know, belonging
Although I once heard a line in a movie, “Puns are the death of wit,” and I generally agree, the above allusive pun really works. Embedded in its snarky standoffishness, its grimace- or smirk-worthy reference to Apollo, lies an engaging and efficiently stated constellation of ideas. And beyond this title, Hicok renders his images and utterances in a syntactically awkward but consistently surprising language, with barbed apostrophizing and care to record his own (I do not believe this is a persona, exactly) feelings, relying on a kind of uncanny luck (skill?) to have it stick together in a personable and uncontrived way. In a few words, it works. (Sorry for all the parentheses.)
In Words for Empty and Words for Full (one, of course, of Hicok’s many poetry collections), there is no one type of poem one can expect. Subject matter and formal decision-making are, metaphorically speaking, all over the map. Interesting thinking and writing, however, are everywhere to be found. Ruminating on an either real or imaginary high school friendship in a long prosy piece called “Backward,” Hicok writes:
“Because he ate twice as much as I did, you’ll find an entry in my journal about the appetite of silence. Is silence a form of hunger, I wrote, and then answered my own question: yes and no. Reading back on this now, I am disappointed in the wishy-washy quality of my thinking. I would like to go back and erase that answer. Yes, I would write, silence is a hunger for the anatomy of a moment, for the inside of things.”
Who cares if this last statement is actually true. The process of the prose, the leaps in thought, the strangeness, the comic, the humble, human admission of error, is all entertaining. Maybe it’s poetic junk-food, but Hicok’s willingness to write, and to air to us practically anything of his life or thinking, charms this reader. This is not be true of every such writer, of course, but for him, it generally works.
I say generally because these poems aren’t all base hits. Hicok’s commitment to write about any- and everything leads him down the problematic paths of discussing contemporary politics, the war, and the Virginia Tech shooting—he was teaching there at the time of this tragedy and claims (in the poems) to have had the student responsible. While documenting these historical events in poetry may be valuable for posterity’s sake, these poems are far less interesting and cutting edge feeling than the more personal, strange poems of most of the collection. Perhaps one poem about the shooting. Perhaps one poem about the war—if you must, if you must. But in general these subjects trump considerations of form and deployment of language—in short, they overdetermine the way one reads them, which for the most part ruins the magic of what Hicok does in his poetry.
Consider, for example, the beginning bit of a poem called “Whimper,” in the second section of the four:
Don’t know why the kid didn’t come after me,
I nearly failed him, fail means differently now,
or some other English prof, also dead
is not in our mouths as it was in the past,
we’d have said dead about the place,
now that the semester’s over and smiled
that we have a few months of grass and air
to ourselves, do know why we tried…
And the final bumper sticker-esque lines:
…lost if you need to find us
is where we are.
It is important for poets to function as witnesses, but the poems to which I’ll return in this collection are not the poems that mention Air Force pilots or mentally ill students responsible for on-campus atrocities. I’ll return to the poems that surprise, that don’t give a fuck about my own aesthetic sensibilities because the next poem will be different. I’ll return to poems of moments that document the need to change form, syntax, voice, tone, and everything in order to exist in their present. And fortunately, if recent history can tell us anything, there will be many such great Bob Hicok poems to admire in the future.
V. Art Appreciation
Have you heard the Taoist tale of the Taming of the Harp?
Once in the hoary ages in the Ravine of Lungmen stood a Kiri tree, a veritable king of the forest. It reared its head to talk to the stars; its roots struck deep into the earth, mingling their bronzed coils with those of the silver dragon that slept beneath. And it came to pass that a mighty wizard made of this tree a wondrous harp, whose stubborn spirit should be tamed but by the greatest of musicians. For long the instrument was treasured by the Emperor of China, but all in vain were the efforts of those who in turn tried to draw melody from its strings. In response to their utmost strivings there came from the harp but harsh notes of disdain, ill-according with the songs they fain would sing. The harp refused to recognise a master.
At last came Peiwoh, the prince of harpists. With tender hand he caressed the harp as one might seek to soothe an unruly horse, and softly touched the chords. He sang of nature and the seasons, of high mountains and flowing waters, and all the memories of the tree awoke! Once more the sweet breath of spring played amidst its branches. The young cataracts, as they danced down the ravine, laughed to the budding flowers. Anon were heard the dreamy voices of summer with its myriad insects, the gentle pattering of rain, the wail of the cuckoo. Hark! a tiger roars,—the valley answers again. It is autumn; in the desert night, sharp like a sword gleams the moon upon the frosted grass. Now winter reigns, and through the snow-filled air swirl flocks of swans and rattling hailstones beat upon the boughs with fierce delight.
Then Peiwoh changed the key and sang of love. The forest swayed like an ardent swain deep lost in thought. On high, like a haughty maiden, swept a cloud bright and fair; but passing, trailed long shadows on the ground, black like despair. Again the mode was changed; Peiwoh sang of war, of clashing steel and trampling steeds. And in the harp arose the tempest of Lungmen, the dragon rode the lightning, the thundering avalanche crashed through the hills. In ecstasy the Celestial monarch asked Peiwoh wherein lay the secret of his victory. “Sire,” he replied, “others have failed because they sang but of themselves. I left the harp to choose its theme, and knew not truly whether the harp had been Peiwoh or Peiwoh were the harp.”
This story well illustrates the mystery of art appreciation. The masterpiece is a symphony played upon our finest feelings. True art is Peiwoh, and we the harp of Lungmen. At the magic touch of the beautiful the secret chords of our being are awakened, we vibrate and thrill in response to its call. Mind speaks to mind. We listen to the unspoken, we gaze upon the unseen. The master calls forth notes we know not of. Memories long forgotten all come back to us with a new significance. Hopes stifled by fear, yearnings that we dare not recognise, stand forth in new glory. Our mind is the canvas on which the artists lay their colour; their pigments are our emotions; their chiaroscuro the light of joy, the shadow of sadness. The masterpiece is of ourselves, as we are of the masterpiece.
The sympathetic communion of minds necessary for art appreciation must be based on mutual concession. The spectator must cultivate the proper attitude for receiving the message, as the artist must know how to impart it. The tea-master, Kobori-Enshiu, himself a daimyo, has left to us these memorable words: “Approach a great painting as thou wouldst approach a great prince.” In order to understand a masterpiece, you must lay yourself low before it and await with bated breath its least utterance. An eminent Sung critic once made a charming confession. Said he: “In my young days I praised the master whose pictures I liked, but as my judgement matured I praised myself for liking what the masters had chosen to have me like.” It is to be deplored that so few of us really take pains to study the moods of the masters. In our stubborn ignorance we refuse to render them this simple courtesy, and thus often miss the rich repast of beauty spread before our very eyes. A master has always something to offer, while we go hungry solely because of our own lack of appreciation.
To the sympathetic a masterpiece becomes a living reality towards which we feel drawn in bonds of comradeship. The masters are immortal, for their loves and fears live in us over and over again. It is rather the soul than the hand, the man than the technique, which appeals to us,—the more human the call the deeper is our response. It is because of this secret understanding between the master and ourselves that in poetry or romance we suffer and rejoice with the hero and heroine. Chikamatsu, our Japanese Shakespeare, has laid down as one of the first principles of dramatic composition the importance of taking the audience into the confidence of the author. Several of his pupils submitted plays for his approval, but only one of the pieces appealed to him. It was a play somewhat resembling the Comedy of Errors, in which twin brethren suffer through mistaken identity. “This,” said Chikamatsu, “has the proper spirit of the drama, for it takes the audience into consideration. The public is permitted to know more than the actors. It knows where the mistake lies, and pities the poor figures on the board who innocently rush to their fate.”
The great masters both of the East and the West never forgot the value of suggestion as a means for taking the spectator into their confidence. Who can contemplate a masterpiece without being awed by the immense vista of thought presented to our consideration? How familiar and sympathetic are they all; how cold in contrast the modern commonplaces! In the former we feel the warm outpouring of a man’s heart; in the latter only a formal salute. Engrossed in his technique, the modern rarely rises above himself. Like the musicians who vainly invoked the Lungmen harp, he sings only of himself. His works may be nearer science, but are further from humanity. We have an old saying in Japan that a woman cannot love a man who is truly vain, for their is no crevice in his heart for love to enter and fill up. In art vanity is equally fatal to sympathetic feeling, whether on the part of the artist or the public.
Nothing is more hallowing than the union of kindred spirits in art. At the moment of meeting, the art lover transcends himself. At once he is and is not. He catches a glimpse of Infinity, but words cannot voice his delight, for the eye has no tongue. Freed from the fetters of matter, his spirit moves in the rhythm of things. It is thus that art becomes akin to religion and ennobles mankind. It is this which makes a masterpiece something sacred. In the old days the veneration in which the Japanese held the work of the great artist was intense. The tea-masters guarded their treasures with religious secrecy, and it was often necessary to open a whole series of boxes, one within another, before reaching the shrine itself—the silken wrapping within whose soft folds lay the holy of holies. Rarely was the object exposed to view, and then only to the initiated.
At the time when Teaism was in the ascendency the Taiko’s generals would be better satisfied with the present of a rare work of art than a large grant of territory as a reward of victory. Many of our favourite dramas are based on the loss and recovery of a noted masterpiece. For instance, in one play the palace of Lord Hosokawa, in which was preserved the celebrated painting of Dharuma by Sesson, suddenly takes fire through the negligence of the samurai in charge. Resolved at all hazards to rescue the precious painting, he rushes into the burning building and seizes the kakemono, only to find all means of exit cut off by the flames. Thinking only of the picture, he slashes open his body with his sword, wraps his torn sleeve about the Sesson and plunges it into the gaping wound. The fire is at last extinguished. Among the smoking embers is found a half-consumed corpse, within which reposes the treasure uninjured by the fire. Horrible as such tales are, they illustrate the great value that we set upon a masterpiece, as well as the devotion of a trusted samurai.
We must remember, however, that art is of value only to the extent that it speaks to us. It might be a universal language if we ourselves were universal in our sympathies. Our finite nature, the power of tradition and conventionality, as well as our hereditary instincts, restrict the scope of our capacity for artistic enjoyment. Our very individuality establishes in one sense a limit to our understanding; and our aesthetic personality seeks its own affinities in the creations of the past. It is true that with cultivation our sense of art appreciation broadens, and we become able to enjoy many hitherto unrecognised expressions of beauty. But, after all, we see only our own image in the universe,—our particular idiosyncracies dictate the mode of our perceptions. The tea-masters collected only objects which fell strictly within the measure of their individual appreciation.
One is reminded in this connection of a story concerning Kobori-Enshiu. Enshiu was complimented by his disciples on the admirable taste he had displayed in the choice of his collection. Said they, “Each piece is such that no one could help admiring. It shows that you had better taste than had Rikiu, for his collection could only be appreciated by one beholder in a thousand.” Sorrowfully Enshiu replied: “This only proves how commonplace I am. The great Rikiu dared to love only those objects which personally appealed to him, whereas I unconsciously cater to the taste of the majority. Verily, Rikiu was one in a thousand among tea-masters.”
It is much to be regretted that so much of the apparent enthusiasm for art at the present day has no foundation in real feeling. In this democratic age of ours men clamour for what is popularly considered the best, regardless of their feelings. They want the costly, not the refined; the fashionable, not the beautiful. To the masses, contemplation of illustrated periodicals, the worthy product of their own industrialism, would give more digestible food for artistic enjoyment than the early Italians or the Ashikaga masters, whom they pretend to admire. The name of the artist is more important to them than the quality of the work. As a Chinese critic complained many centuries ago, “People criticise a picture by their ear.” It is this lack of genuine appreciation that is responsible for the pseudo-classic horrors that to-day greet us wherever we turn.
Another common mistake is that of confusing art with archaeology. The veneration born of antiquity is one of the best traits in the human character, and fain would we have it cultivated to a greater extent. The old masters are rightly to be honoured for opening the path to future enlightenment. The mere fact that they have passed unscathed through centuries of criticism and come down to us still covered with glory commands our respect. But we should be foolish indeed if we valued their achievement simply on the score of age. Yet we allow our historical sympathy to override our aesthetic discrimination. We offer flowers of approbation when the artist is safely laid in his grave. The nineteenth century, pregnant with the theory of evolution, has moreover created in us the habit of losing sight of the individual in the species. A collector is anxious to acquire specimens to illustrate a period or a school, and forgets that a single masterpiece can teach us more than any number of the mediocre products of a given period or school. We classify too much and enjoy too little. The sacrifice of the aesthetic to the so-called scientific method of exhibition has been the bane of many museums.
The claims of contemporary art cannot be ignored in any vital scheme of life. The art of to-day is that which really belongs to us: it is our own reflection. In condemning it we but condemn ourselves. We say that the present age possesses no art:—who is responsible for this? It is indeed a shame that despite all our rhapsodies about the ancients we pay so little attention to our own possibilities. Struggling artists, weary souls lingering in the shadow of cold disdain! In our self-centered century, what inspiration do we offer them? The past may well look with pity at the poverty of our civilisation; the future will laugh at the barrenness of our art. We are destroying the beautiful in life. Would that some great wizard might from the stem of society shape a mighty harp whose strings would resound to the touch of genius.
I was fortunate enough to have a American Literature professor who blew off the typical survey class BS and just gave us some of the best literature of the 19th century: Hawthorne, Dickinson, Melville, among others… In that class, I read Moby-Dick for the first time. I believe I read most of it over the course of a few days. The rhythms of Melville’s language carried me through.
I’ve felt the old beast calling to me again lately. I found a free audiobook copy online. So far, the reader has been fantastic. Librivox probably has the book ,as well, but their (volunteer) readers can be hit or miss.
I have also been digging through PBS and CBC video archives (soon I’ll hit C-SPAN) to fill my time with whatever goodies are stuck in there. I came across this most recent episode of The American Experience on the American whaling industry. It includes many beautiful and meditative passages from Melville, and also shows how the dependence of America on the whaling industry (and the extremes to which it was driven to meet those demands) prefigured much of the modern era of oil. Perhaps it is ironic then that our most recent oil crisis involves millions of oil being spewed into the deeps of the gulf.
My wife and I visited Melville’s home in Pittsfield (where I grew up) over our honeymoon. Earlier that day, we had climbed Mt. Greylock. While sitting on the porch of Melville’s home (I love Melville, but I am not paying 12 bucks to do a 20 minute tour of his house), we could see Greylock just over the tops of the trees. Apparently, Melville looked to the mountain during the winter (when it was white) as inspiration for his whale.
Comrades in Verse, a few notes for your fine ears on this lovely Day of Matriarchs:
1) To those culminating their MFA coursework and Theses, CONGRATULATIONS! The journey begins now! Our eyes and ears await you eagerly.
2) May is behaving kindly. This is *obviously* karmatic, so everyone be nice, and write nice poems, and pet puppies on the street, and drink lots of mint julepy things.
3) Happenings in New York City this coming week to keep us all merry, together, and listening:
My dear friend, long-time workshop mate and rockstar BRANDON KREITLER, winner of the “Discovery”/Boston Review Prize, is being presented with said honor and reading from his poems at the 92Y.
Our own Adam Fitzerald & Bianca Stone’s LADDER POETRY SERIES with a killer line-up of Ashbery, Zapruder and Landau:
Columbia: A Journal Issue 48 Launch Reading
Featuring Zachary Pace!
PROJECTION Reading Series curated by Zachary Pace with an bad ass all-star headline including Tim Donnelly, Jimin Seo, Natalie Eilbert and Matthea Harvey
EARSHOT Reading Series featuring Matt Rohrer, Karyna McGlynn, Danniel Schoonebeek, Julia Elizabeth Guez, Max Ross
Metro Rhythm! Series Featuring Anwyn Crawford, Ben Pease, Bianca Stone, Ben Mirov and Monica Ferrell
See you out in the world, lovelies!
for David Shapiro
Underneath the garden,
loose stars stapled to ribbed snail shells
in octaves of sky,
the revised mistranslation
of a black pool
what an inveterate tuba suggests:
a broken interflow
inhabiting the honeysuckle–
but diction is unlivable,
a plastic replica
stuck in low tides,
the snow’s psyche nearby,
and the pool, its live-in help,
third-persons the loud night,
its open mouth
an analogy of vowels…
Such fierce quantums
ingest roman à clefs, gondolas
drifting on changed names
below rows of dead windows. Oh,
the globe’s pallor
is so themelessly narrow,
its doors glamorous and blind.
Messy cement, set by geometrics,
cannot fix it,
though music’s lost paragraph
EVERYBODY HATES LOVE…
its pale-colored loops. mental and spiritual,
its woeful exaggerations
primitive as tequila
resonated through salt in vacuums
invented by thieves–
lorry lingo, islets, milkweed–
and, yet, its purple-and-silver drivers
get a groom’s reprieve,
obvious boundaries, and a private life
in the engaged comedies of cutlery and confidence,
are the avalanches.
It is best to place pillows beside this tear,
politely veined as the sun
the anti-grammar of happiness,
then accelerate, burstingly,
for the sun is multiple
like the green certitude of a blank page,
and love, its blue beetle,
engraves the edges.
The kneeling roadside,
its film of oil callowly cooled
by “timbrel dissonance,”
subsists below an imperfect hardhat,
its unanswerable flashlight noli me tangere;
and where the beam’s wandering error
stares seems dark as a motive
that permits no friend
beneath the grillework of an eyelid,
that mournful interior that slides
like a bed across a sun spot
into cross-sections of fate,
wheels rolling as buttons from a mannequin,
elocutions on too many colors.
Oh brother, those throttles of weather,
technically precise, creamed innocence
until rats themselves lay comatose
in the cemetery,
its futuring approach keeling
below hardhats of memory.
ANGER, SEX AND HISTORY
Suburbia’s psychological chrysalis
is truthless and whirls
like the shadow of an ancestor
awake in the West,
an effaced death partly singing
across the aluminum horse show’s loutish goodbyes,
in the contaminated dust
with its Brechtian vacation spots
moteled by Duchamp
under margins of clouds,
their simulations left by deleted sculptors
who once galloped
across these fragrant walls.
You see, Russianly,
all– the other mind’s Alexandrian
like a disarrayed laurel
from that frightening tree,
its manifold precedents
trapped in the bric-a-brac of coherence’s
confusing clichés. Born to combat,
driven and infantile,
the chrysalis’s governance wavers
under this jagged emitting,
tainted and fragmentary,
restless, while you
argue through the fragile kitsch of the spatial
nothing but hope.
These half-seeded gardens,
blurring the poplars’ plaintive mustards.
is thrust across connoisseurs,
a smeared hurrah in “the spray of time,”
like the explication of “z”
with red octagons aswirl in the rigmarole
that punctuates the pleasantries,
but I ramble
from a chair at the bottom of an swimming pool
without a scatterbrained portal
to frame uncloistered predictions,
while the crickets’
adjusts pencil-dots made by Rouault,
and your violin swims
in waters brimming with black lamps,
half-tuned in the vigil
where osmosis is improvised,
like soft petals
brushed against the cymbal’s inner sides.
ALMOST A PARK
The skidding fountains,
their compassionate kilometers
slowed by toy boats,
interrupt “the tiny dead day,”
its lodestone splash
confused by hundreds of muffs
surrounding the word “uh.”
Winter, flightlessly noticeable
like butterflies on a cello,
the cascade’s twists,
dilatory as pity,
but the seasonal paysage
is like Niobe’s entourage: in trouble–
a beagle without eyes.
You said so,
in your spraycan diary
which is why fountains,
their pistol-silver laxity, are still-lifes,
even five dreams away,
and so pretty.
God– a red stain on cardboard,
a recognizable accent, morning embedded–
loosen me among layers of street
in raw materials made white by Utah’s inland sea,
saline-green and collaborative.
Secrets nod to nomads
and the psychotic connection’s pastels
break the glass.
Lend me limits, optics tilted,
and lame ledges, love’s
terrible mania colloquial yet tamed,
by your architectural downtowns,
by the sound of mud,
its ministering sensuality.
Exemptions race by me in ultra-red fog–
taking a ferry across a painting.
Enter my wary brain,
its splitting sunlight,
Jonah’s complex unsharable night.
In a poem called “Life,” which appears in his most recent collection, Words for Empty and Words for Full (Pitt Poetry, 2010), Bob Hicok writes: “The feeling that mysticism / is the only way to be polite…. / While I was masturbating, / more rainforest / disappeared….” These disclosures feel true—and inevitable, given what at least I believe about climate change and humans continuing to be humans. Also, these tragicomic disclosures reminds me of the “Note on Method” at the opening of Aaron Kunin’s just-released, The Sore Throat & Other Poems (Fence, 2010). Kunin opines: “…I really believe that the part of yourself that you’re most ashamed of is interesting and can be used as material for art.” I don’t know if this belief is always true, but I’m willing to read on because I really admire the poet who’s willing to publicize it (for other testimonials of admiration see, for one, the recent Peter Gizzi blurb and sampler of Aaron Kunin’s poems in the Boston Review).
Thus it is with humble joy that I’m simultaneously reading Hicok’s and Kunin’s new collections. The unruly gestalt-like deployments of Hicok’s pieces bounce wildly yet friendlily off Kunin’s careful, methodical compositions. It is with this joy in my life that I’ll offer reviews of each of these collections in the next two weeks. Check back next Sunday for the first of the two, and feel free to remark if you think Kunin poetic bullpucky or Hicok too undisciplined. I may disagree, but will read your comments with polite, continuing joy.
I want to do a bit of a meditation on the nature of voice and how the self is written into a poem.
When I first read Augustine’s Confessions, I felt I had discovered one of the hidden hinges of the modern “voice.” I was familiar with classical writing, and the coldness of the speaking voice in classical authors seemed absolutely foreign to me. Perhaps it was the fact that inflected languages do not always use a singular word to express “I.” The “I” in both Greek and Latin is snuck in by sticking an ending on the word, so grammatically the “I” stands out less.
Yet Augustine was radically different. Classicist, film scholar, and popular historian Thomas Cahill articulates it well:
Augustine is the first human being to say “I”–and to mean what we mean today….Open any collection of Great Thoughts or Great Sayings–especially one that, like Bartlett’s, goes in chronological order–and let your eye pick out the I’s. In the oldest literature their paucity and lack of force will begin to impress you. Of course, characters in Homer refer to themselves occasionally as “I.” Socrates even speaks of his daimon, his inner spirit. But personal revelation, such as we are utterly accustomed to, is nowhere to be found. Even lyric poems tend to be objective by our standards, and the exceptons stand out: a fragment (“The moon has set / and the Pleiades: / it is the middle of the night, / and time passes, yes passes– / and I lie alone.”), attributed to Sappho, and the Psalms, attributed to King David.
When in the classical period we reach the first works to be designated as autobiographies, we can only be confounded by their impersonal tone. Marcus Aurelius, by Gibbon’s standards the most enlightened emporer and the great philosopher of Roman antiquity, speaks to us in epigrams, like Confucius and Ecclesiastes before him: “This being of mine, whatever it really is, consists of a little flesh, a little breath, and the part which governs”–he means his mind. This is as confidential as Marcus gets. Or how about this for a personal revelation? “All that is harmony for you, my Universe, is in harmony with me as well. Nothing that comes at the right time for you is too early or too late for me.” For all their ponderousness, the great emperor’s thoughts are never more personal than a Chinese fortune cookie.
It’s immediately clear why Augustine is often seen as the last classical and first medieval man. He marks the ultimate synthesis of classical rhetoric and sensibilities with the concept of self that marked the Judeo-Christian tradition. As Cahill points out, the Psalms stand out among classical literature, as exceptionally personal. Augustine, says Ronald Heine, was “the undisputed master of using the psalms to lay one’s soul bare before God in the praise and confession of prayer….The psalms permeate everything Augustine wrote.” Rowan Williams points out that the very first sentence of Confessions is a quotation from the psalms. Augustine weaves them throughout such that we hardly know when the words are his and when they are not (a modern citation nightmare).
Consider a few selections from the Greek Anthology:
Earlier poets have left full accounts of these matters.
~Strato of Sardis (trans. Dudley Fitts)
And this poem, which is more personal, but even the personal impulse is mediated:
TO HIS MISTRESS
~Asklepiades (trans. Dudley Fitts)
One of the more consistently “personal” poets I have found in the several (meager) collections of Greek Anthology poems is Meleagros:
~Meleagros (trans. Dudley Fitts)
In addition to Augustine’s unique “I,” I believe that Augustine is relatively unique in his relationship to his audience. His audience is God, the You of Confessions, yet really, we know it’s us. Homer and Virgil invoke the Muse, yet, I don’t get the picture that the Muse is their audience. No, the Muse is there mostly to help them get started. Ultimately, they have some other audience in mind. Augustine, though, intends for us to “overhear” (in the words of John Stuart Mill that Allan Grossman is so fond of citing) his lyrical unbosoming. He wants us to eavesdrop outside the confessional booth.
There is a fascinating double movement going on here. Augustine, himself weaving, imitating, and voicing the psalms, wishes for us to hear, so that we, presumably, can sympathize, but be moved to make our very own confession. Ironically, much of western art has imitated Augustine’s confession. We have a continual chain of imitation that stretches all the way back to one of the Ur-poets of our world: King David (or whoever wrote the psalms).
Yet even the psalms themselves are not single-voiced. Traditionally, it was understood that many voices are encapsulated in the psalms. Early Christians and Jewish interpreters recognized this (though they often disagreed strenuously on who was speaking). Ronald Heine captures the sense that one has while praying through the psalms: “When I read the psalms…alone, sometimes I am instructed or exhorted by the voice of the ancient author as he relates the stories of Israel; sometimes I myself am speaking, addressing God directly in the words of the psalmist; at other times I am directly addressed by God in the words of the psalm. The conversation may move back and forth within a single psalm.” When you add to this the layer of “inspiration,” and all the accompanying debates about it, it becomes clear that any attempt to unthread the twisted ball of connections will be completely futile.
So we have before us what seems like a contradiction, a swirl of voices that somehow manages to lay bare the angst of the single person. Toward the end of my time at Hunter, coming up on what I felt was a dry period in my writing, I decided to try and rewrite various psalms. Psalm 39 was the first. When picking a psalm, one is immediately confronted with the difficulty of various voices. I was used to creating an overall emotional sense in my poems, something that was difficult with multiple voices. Psalm 39, however, was relatively uniform in its voice (or at least it seemed to me at that time).
This is how my poem came out:
Moth (Psalm 39)
Wanting to avoid your violent side, I tried to keep
my mouth shut when I saw the way you
rigged this game to destroy beauty—
and not just beauty, but the gaudy,
fast food smut that I hoard, too—
always savored by the hungry
moth. But you always hated the grudging
“Yes.” You made me broach the issue
of how you snatch away another’s beauty
in gloating silence, leave us bleached,
belly up, whales on the sand’s ecru:
Not even a bone to gnaw at when I’m hungry?
It’s either you or vanity, vanity…
So, you have my yes. True,
this might have been the point: your beauty
is a bitter sponge of lye you lift up daily
to my mouth, while I am consumed
by the blows of your hand, our beauty
—yours, mine—a moth, feeding, still hungry.
As you can see, it’s a villanelle built around two ending words (rather than lines): beauty and hunger. It became clear very quickly, though, that I would not be able to encompass all the ideas in the poem. Like Augustine, I was chopping and using what I could to fit into my own voice. But such decisions are hard to make. The psalms are often so layered with meaning and reference that it feels violent to cut any part while still doing justice to the psalm as a whole. In this case, the form worked as a way that dictated what to include and what to “evict” from Psalm 39: what worked went in.
Later, at Tom Sleigh’s recommendation, I picked up Donal Davie’s To Scorch or Freeze, which, as fortune would have it, also included an adaptation of Psalm 39. Davie, you can see, is considerably less angsty.
The Thirty-ninth Psalm, Adapted
I said to myself: “That’s enough.
Your life-style is no model.
Keep quiet about it, and while
you’re about it, be less overt.”
I held my tongue, I said nothing;
no, not comfortable words.
“Writing block”, it’s called;
Not that I had no feelings.
I was in a feever.
And while I seethed,
abruptly I found myself speaking:
“Lord, let me know my end,
and how long I have to live;
let me be sure
how long I have to live.
One-finger you poured me;
what does it matter to you
to know my age last birthday?
Nobody’s life has purpose.
Something is casting a shadow
on everything we do;
and in that shadow nothing,
nothing at all, comes true.
(We make a million, maybe;
and who, not nobody but
who, gets to enjoy it?)
Now, what’s left to be hoped for?
Hope has to be fixed on you.
Excuse me my comforting words
in a tabloid column for crazies.
I held my tongue, and also
I discontinued my journals.
(They accumulated; who
in any event would read them?)
Now give me a chance. I am
burned up enough at your pleasure.
It is all very well, we deserve it.
But shelved, not even with mothballs?
Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and please to consider my calling:
it commits me to squawking
and running off at the mouth.”
Song of a Man Who Has Come Through
Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the
Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.
What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.
From the letters of John Keats:
“I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination—What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not—for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.”
“I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness—I look not for it if it be not in the present hour—nothing startles me beyond the Moment.”
“The faint conceptions I have of Poems to come brings the blood frequently into my forehead.”
“Man should not dispute or assert but whisper results to his neighbor, and thus by every germ of Spirit sucking the Sap from mould ethereal every human might become great. and Humanity instead of being a wide heath of Fuse and Briars with here and there a remote Oak or Pine, would become a grand democracy of Forest Trees.”
“… what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—”
“I have an idea that a Man might pass a very pleasant life in this manner—let him on any certain day read a certain Page of full Poesy or distilled Prose and let him wander with it, and must upon it, and dream upon it—until it becomes stale—but when will it do so? Never—”
“I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity—it should strike the reader as a working of his own highest thoughts . . . but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it—”
“Ethereal things may at least be thus real, divided under three heads—Things real—things semireal—and no things—Things real—such as existences of Sun Moon and Stars and passages of Shakespeare—Things semireal such as Love, the Clouds &c which require a greeting of the Spirit to make them wholly exist—and Nothings which are made Great and dignified by an ardent pursuit.”
from Welcome to the Future
so it came time and
no day like that is ever
good in the coming
the bleeding like satin
the river flowing down
and heavy and to the east
dark with soot
crossing the night bridge
the river flowing down
and heavy and to the east
there were roads into bitter
heads between knees
the diminishing systems
bleached and diagonal
the river flowing down
down and no sound
all night the breathing
all night the breathing continued
in lieu of
welcome to the future welcome to the new
I have come into the aware
where the gilt edges are
look all the men
and the distance sitting in the roar
with knotted blue glass
we are aware
as if all is tunnel and paper
there are bodies and
bills in these flattened villa
one waves as we pass him
and home isn’t here
and home isn’t there
and randomly we plead with the officers
to get down from their cophorses and help us
worry the river over its banks
the train into flames
worry the black rain into the city
the troops into times square
worry the windows cracked acidblack
and the children feverblistered
worry never another summer
never again to live here gentle
with the other inhabitants
then leave too quickly
leave the pills and band-aids
the bathroom scale the Christmas lights the dog
go walking on our legs
dense and bare and useless
worry our throats and lungs
into taking the air
leave books on the shelves
leave keys dustpan
telephones don’t work where you were
in the chaos
desolate oblivion face me along the bar
nothing will rest tonight in the high empty room
the nothing closes forever
in a shop-window
and forever opens the heads wide again
the streets bob up incessantly
height is felled wire rises
the glass is laced together with tunnels
the fathers are all glass
all air and windows
Drinking with Richard
Richard propped up the bottles
like bowling pins
I had fallen into despair
did this bother him
when Richard left I broke
my throat I bit my tongue
cracked teeth my mouth split my lip
smashed chairs in the bar trashed
poems I was writing
all this breaking was very expensive
there is no Richard but I think it was Richard
who had the idea of pouring libations
because of the stumbling thirst
because our lives are like that
I am writing this to do as right as possible by Richard
think back to the bed look out at the bar
the fragrant medicinal flasks
I don’t care to drink anymore because when I drink
it makes me hopeless
Richard, are you going to come back
to the bar where you belong
or just leave me here
here is a flask
I am tired of being metaphysical
our bar is a winter bar
at night we need the dream
of all the objects lined up in a row
from Dear Someone
my emptiness has a lake in it deep and watery
with several temperaments milk cola beer
at night the selves are made of water
all the openings flooded streaming with rain
my emptiness has an aqueduct in it
selves rushing through channels
dissolving washing away in streaks
my emptiness has a fish in it
a piece of seaweed liferaft a rocky strait
all night the selves are breaking themselves
again and again on the sandbar
you can’t get out from the drowning
nightwatery the blacksparkling pools
my emptiness has a nowhere reef an island
at night the immersion comes deep-running and sudden
it washes us under and sudden
In the interview, I think I am more talking about popular usage turning compound nouns into contractions while Deborah is on the money with elisions which even Catullus liked to use.
Deborah was not far off when she said I probably wasn’t born when PS122 was a new and exciting thing.
The Last Time I Saw RICHARD.
The Last Time I saw Richard SIKEN.
All poems reprinted with permission from the author. You can, however, see more of Welcome to the Future at TINHOUSE and the excerpt from Dear Someone at THE PARIS REVIEW. Also, one of Deborah’s poems at BEST AMERICAN POETRY BLOG and a blurb and excerpted poem at ANHINGA PRESS.
Genevieve Burger-Weiser’s poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Boston Review, Western Humanities Review, Washington Square Review and Juked. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
When I was in my late teens or early 20s, I was at Rich’s Cigar Shop in Portland, Oregon, which had the best magazine selection in the city in those days, and I picked up a copy of a magazine called Adbusters. The magazine had a hole in it, and a card insert with just a black spot on it, both of which were part of that particular issue’s design. I liked it. The subtitle was: “A Journal of the Mental Environment,” or something similarly boldly rhetorically Structuralist. I was surprised. I was excited. The articles were different, advocated for political agency in a way different than any I’d experienced. I felt that naïve vitality that, at 31, seems more and more difficult to kindle.
Today, I find Adbusters kind of stupid. Its lefty academicese smacks of the do-nothing superiority that masquerades as contemporary liberal revolutionary spirit. Honestly, Adbusters and your flock, what revolution has your “culture jamming” actually accomplished, other than inspiring many people to spend their money on your magazine and schwag and to read with a sense that they’re doing enough because they know enough to be in on the dark joke of the present? I enjoyed the snarky Obama-with-a-clown-nose cover, sure, but your magazine is a waste of time.
In any case, I was at Powell’s this week and saw another magazine which transported me back to the original geeky, excited tingle I felt when I saw my first Adbusters. This magazine, The Baffler, is less revolutionary in its rhetoric and sharper in its content than Adbusters. Volume 2: No 01, which I couldn’t help but purchase, contains an essay about what the Internet looks like, a follow-up to No Logo by Naomi Klein, images of “feral houses,” a “motor city elegy” written by a Detroit native, articles on finance, politics, social networking sites—the usual sort of upper middle class political stuff—and poems by Rae Armantrout, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Jack Spicer, and Devin Johnston. Poems!
I leave you with encouragement to check The Baffler out, should you be in need of baffling (or in need reading for the train or plane), and the second section of Armantrout’s fine, “This Is”:
This is a five star trance
To have this vantage
from the cliff’s edge,
to get drunk on indifference,
at a bright succession
raised from nothing